Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Lolly Willowes

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Sylvia Townsend Warner
New York Review Books Classics

In Lolly Willowes, an ageing spinster rebels against her role as the universal aunt, at everybodys beck and call. How she escapes all that "—to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others", is the theme of this story.

You know that moment whilst reading a book where you suddenly realise that you are deeply besotted with it.  This happened to me today about 50 pages into 'Lolly Willowes' and stayed with me all the way to the end.

Laura 'Lolly' Willowes is, at the beginning of the book, a young woman living a quiet and introverted life in the family home with her much loved father.  His death sends her to London to live with her brother's family where she slowly loses her identity to the new benign persona of 'Aunt Lolly' finding an expression of herself only in the luxurious flowers with which she decorates her room until in middle age she decides on the spur of the moment to move to the small Chiltern village of Great Mop and become a witch.

Warner's first novel is a fantastic and fantastical exploration of the lot of a young unmarried woman in the early decades of the 20th century.  As the century unfolds we slowly see Laura take increasing control of her life and break free from patriarchal, familial and social restraints as the novel does the same and becomes as much a meditation on religion and the very nature of Satan as it is on the lot of women and it is glorious.

Beautifully written, delicately paced and deliciously insightful. I adored this book.

Buy it here -  Lolly Willowes

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Sunday, 28 October 2018

Child's Play

'Child's Play' was the third episode of the short lived series Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense screened in the UK in late 1984 and jointly made by Hammer Studios and 20th Century Fox Television.  Ann (Mary Crosby), Michael (Nicholas Clay) and their daughter Sarah wake early one morning to discover their house has been completely encased in a solid metal shell.  As the family strive to escape, the temperature rises, tempers fray, memories slip, a mysterious symbol starts appearing around the house and a strange green goo pours down the chimney.

Stereotypical TV gender roles abound with Clay remaining steadfast and plucky and channelling his inner A-Team by making an improvised bomb in his own kitchen whilst Crosby is all brittle emotions and desperation.  Little can salvage the ending when it arrives in the shape of a pretty desperate twist in the tail but director Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2, Space: 1999) imbues the episode with a sweaty claustrophobia that disguises the paucity of the story.

Buy it here - Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense - Vol. 2 [DVD] - or watch it below. 



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Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Three Impostors

The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen

The Three Impostors is an episodic novel by British horror fiction writer Arthur Machen. The novel incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London-retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process-as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".

Over the last few years I've been slowly amassing a small (but perfectly formed) collection of Machen books having become slightly besotted after reading 'The White People'.  I've discovered in that time that I generally prefer his short work to the long but this is often the case for me with writers of the outre.  The long stuff is fine - 'The Hill of Dreams' was a hell of a read but an exhausting one as I felt no love for the central character - but I like the short, sharp, shock of the smaller tales.  With that in mind 'The Three Imposters' offered up the best of both worlds being a novel made up of several interconnected shorts; a portmanteau novel.

The story concerns Dyson and his friend Phillips who find themselves unknowingly at the centre of a scheme after Dyson finds a rare coin.  The coin itself is a bit of a MacGuffin but as the story unfolds the two begin to experience a series of bizarre encounters with strangers who each relate a macabre and twisted tale.

A couple of these tales are ones that even the most casual Machen reader will likely have come across as they are regularly anthologised - 'The Novel of the Black Seal' and 'The Novel of the White Powder' - the first a dark slice of rural horror of the true face of the fair folk of this land and the second a proto-sci-fi tale with distinct echoes of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.

These two tales are by far the stand out moments of the book, of the remaining stories all are, at worst, readable but neither the novel of '...the Dark Valley' or '... the Iron Maid' reach the heights of the other two.  Dyson and Phillips are odd characters and their insular natures make them somewhat nonchalant to the plight of the young man with spectacles but, for the reader at least, his fate is sealed from the off.

'The Three Impostors' was a particularly early work for Machen (published a year after 'The Great God Pan' and predating 'The Hill of Dreams' by some 12 years) and it shows a writer reconciling his own imagination with that of his literary heroes and while there are definite flaws it all adds up to a most enjoyable whole. 

Buy it here - The Three Impostors

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Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Vault of Horror

The Vault of Horror (1973) poster
Directed by the great Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit (1967) The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Monster Club (1981) and numerous episodes of ITV and ITC spy-fi serials including The Avengers, The Saint and The Champions), Vault of Horror was the sixth of the seven portmanteau horror films made by Amicus Productions.  It consists of five stories wrapped in a framing story of five men in an elevator finding themselves trapped in a clean and well lit basement that handily has five chairs and a ready supply of booze.  In the great tradition of these sort of things each man then  tells a story, in this case of a recurring dream.

Glynis Johns in The Vault of Horror (1973)
Unlike other portmanteaus that often featured at least one comedic story in order to lighten the mood, this one's the other way round with 4 of the 5 stories in 'Vault of Horror' being very much played for laughs.  From the lamentable fangs of the bourgeois patrons of the vampire restaurant in 'Midnight Mess' via a fabulous slapstick performance by Glynis Johns as the bullied wife of obsessive neat freak Terry-Thomas in 'The Neat Job' to venerable actor Curt Jurgens wrestling with a rope in 'This Trick’ll Kill You' and Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies riffing on their characters from the hugely successful 'Doctor...' comedies in 'Bargain in Death'.  The final story, 'Drawn and Quartered', featuring a magnificantly hirsute Tom Baker - soon to be de-bearded and be-scarfed in the role we all know him for - is the exception to the frivolity in a voodoo tale of artistic revenge.

Terry-Thomas and Tom Baker in The Vault of Horror (1973)In a slightly odd twist 'Vault of Horror' takes most of it's stories, from the pages of 'Tales from the Crypt' comic book rather than from the one whose name it bears and whilst being eminently watchable and featuring some good performances from some fine actors it is a rather slight and disposable sort of thing which isn't really meant to be an insult.  When I'm in the right sort of mood this is one of my go to movies as for the expenditure of very little effort it provides plenty of smiles.

Buy it here - Vault of Horror - or watch it below.



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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Night of the Marionettes

Supernatural (1977) - Night of the Marionettes
Created and mostly written by Robert Muller the 1977 BBC anthology series 'Supernatural' was an attempt to make a series of - even then - old fashioned gothic horror tales filled with vampires, werewolves and the like.  Each episode revolved around the telling of a scary tale by a prospective member of the 'Club of the Damned' who, if their tale proved sufficiently terrifying would be granted membership, if not then their lives would be forfeited.

'Night of the Marionettes' tells of a writer (Gordon Jackson - 'George Cowley' from 'The Professionals') obsessed by Lord Byron and the two Shelley's - Mary in particular - who, with his wife and daughter in tow,  takes lodging at a deserted Swiss hotel where he becomes convinced that the source of his obsession had lodged before him.  Indeed, it soon becomes clear that the exuberant marionette show performed by the innkeeper (Vladek Sheybal) and his family may have had quite the profound effect on the young Mary.

Supernatural (1977) - Night of the Marionettes
The end result is a flawed attempt at an interesting idea.  Sheybal gives his usual wonderfully alien performance but Jackson and Pauline Moran (most widely known as Poirot's 'Miss Lemon' and who also played the titular character in the Nigel Kneale adaptation of 'The Woman in Black') who plays his daughter - also called Mary - are both hamming it up something terrible and only seem comfortable in their roles when engaging in some incestuous flirting.  The old, wooden hotel is a great setting though and there's a wonderfully Hammer Horror graveyard visible through the window and in more capable hands this could have been a gothic classic rather than just an interesting flawed attempt at revitalising the genre.

Buy it here - Supernatural (2-disc DVD set) - or watch it below.



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Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Unsettled Dust

Robert Aickman - The Unsettled DustRobert Aickman
Faber & Faber

Robert Aickman, the supreme master of the supernatural, brings together eight stories where strange things happen that the reader is unable to predict. His characters are often lonely and middle-aged but all have the same thing in common - they are all brought to the brink of an abyss that shows how terrifyingly fragile our peace of mind actually is.
'The Next Glade', 'Bind Your Hair' and 'The Stains' appeared together in The Wine-Dark Sea in 1988 while 'The Unsettled Dust', 'The House of the Russians', 'No Stronger Than a Flower', 'The Cicerones' and 'Ravissante' first appeared in Sub Rosa in 1968. The stories were published together as The Unsettled Dust in 1990. Aickman received the British Fantasy Award in 1981 for 'The Stains', which had first appeared in the anthology New Terrors (1980), before appearing in the last original posthumous collection of Aickman's short stories, Night Voices (1985).

'The Unsettled Dust' was a posthumous collection released some 9 years after the authors death.  The stories included all bear Aickman's characteristic strangeness which can result  in them being equal parts frustrating and enthralling.
The opening - titular - tale is an almost straightforward (by Aickman's standards) and old fashioned  haunted house tale as a representative of a trust is subjected to the dubious hospitality of two sisters in their dusty old house in a quietly sad tale of family, pride and unreconciled loss, themes that are echoed in 'The Houses of the Russians', an intriguing little tale of an island of abandoned homes and the memories they hold of  their former inhabitants.

'No Stronger Than A Flower' was the first Aickman tale I ever read and this story of a woman's metamorphosis loses none of it's brutal power in a reread several years on and with a wider knowledge of what to expect - that is if one can even remotely 'expect' anything in an Aickman story.

'The Cicerones' is another story I was familiar with, this time through the adaptation made by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson - watch it here.   I'm not particularly enamoured of it but I was struck by how closely the filmed version stuck to the text.

'The Next Glade' is another story that I found somewhat uninspiring.  Unusually for Aickman the strangeness here felt contrived and a little but forced.  I can't put my finger on anything in particular about it but for me it failed to gel and the story was both dull and flat.

Things get very much back on track with 'Ravissante' as we're shown into a world that is both mannered and deeply strange filled with simmering sexual repression and denied release and the folk horror duo of 'Bind Your Hair', another beautifully ambiguous enigma of rural weirdness and the book's award winning closing tale, 'The Stains', a story of love lost, love found, family, responsibility, innocence and lichen which sees about as Aickmanesque an ending to to this write-up as I'm going to come up with.

Buy it here -  The Unsettled Dust

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain
 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Exorcism

Dead of Night The Exorcism
One of the few surviving episodes of the 1970s BBC series Dead of Night, 'The Exorcism' is the story of a dinner party gone very wrong indeed.

Writer / director Don Taylor's story places two bourgeois couples Clive Swift & Sylvia Kay and Edward Petherbridge & Anna Cropper at dinner in the new country cottage home of the latter pair slowly being consumed by the pent up anger of the past that permeates the walls of the house.  The power fails, the lavish food spoils and the wine turns to blood as the house tries to exorcise itself of these unclean spirits and give voice to those that had lived and died there before.

Dead of Night The Exorcism
With his directors hat on Taylor never quite manages to instill any notable sense of trepidation and in his writer's hat his socialist leanings are given voice in a sometimes slightly heavy handed way in a story about poverty, injustice and class warfare rescued by some good performances from a dependable cast, hauntily atmospheric music and an easy, unhurried pace.

We've featured another episode from this series on Wyrd Britain before which you can watch here - A Woman Sobbing.

Buy it here - Dead of Night (DVD) - or watch it below.



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Friday, 5 October 2018

3 Wyrd Things: Mark Valentine

For '3 Wyrd Things' I asked various creative types whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

This month, Mark Valentine

Mark Valentine is an English author, biographer and editor whose stories have been published by a number of small presses and in anthologies since the 1980s.
Valentine has published a biography of Arthur Machen (Seren Press), a study of Sarban, 'Time, A Falconer' (Tartarus Press), several books of essays on lesser known authors, groups and landscapes (also Tartarus Press) - the most recent of which, 'A Country Still All Mystery', has just become available again - a book of poetry, 'Star Kites' and a number of collections of short fictions including his (and John Howard's) wonderful series of occult detective stories, 'The Collected Connoisseur'. He has also written numerous articles for the Book and Magazine Collector magazine, and introductions for various books, including editions of work by Walter de la Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Saki, J. Meade Falkner and others.
Valentine also edits Wormwood (Tartarus Press), a journal dedicated to fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature, and has also edited anthologies, including 'The Werewolf Pack' (Wordsworth, 2008) and 'The Black Veil' (Wordsworth, 2008).

You can read more of Mark's writing at the shared Wormwoodiana blog.

We love Mark's work here at Wyrd Britain and we are hugely honoured to feature his selection for this month's '3 Wyrd Things'.


Book
Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock.
(Buy it here)
There was a Pan paperback with a cover depicting a solemn young cloaked gentleman fingering a skull while ivy wreathed around him. And it contained not only Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (two titles alone enough to allure anyone with an interest in ghost stories and the Gothic) but also The Misfortunes of Elphin, a romance of Welsh folk stories. Peacock’s books from the early 19th century involved assembling a party of eccentrics at some remote country house, where they drink, dine, debate and sing, and in the end are rather perfunctorily married off, or otherwise confirmed in their heart’s desires. In between time they have odd adventures and expound even odder notions. They include Mr Escot, the deteriorationist, who thinks the world is getting worse, and Mr Foster, the perfectibilian, who thinks the reverse. Their lively arguments do not affect their cordiality to each other.

I had been recommended Peacock’s work at age 16 by a highly prescient English teacher, the poet Donald Atkinson, who thought I would like them, even though they weren’t on the syllabus. I was astounded to find that old books could be so enjoyable. “Mr Milestone wielded the poker with a degree of dexterity which induced the rest of the party to leave him in sole possession of a considerable circumference” was one of the choice phrases I at once admired, both for its madcap slapstick and its mock-orotundity. When, some many years later, an astute observer suggested to me that most of my stories were about friendship (something I had simply not noticed), I knew where that must have begun: with these companionable, affable, epicurean and eccentric books.


Music
Titus Groan – Titus Groan LP.
(Buy it here)
At the bottom of Bridge Street, Northampton, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was Memory Lane, a shabby second-hand record shop which always stank of stale tobacco, but had racks and racks of obscure discs, all very cheap. Here I found (for just 25p each) unknown ska singles imported from the Caribbean, with labels of mustard yellow and terracotta red, including the poignant trombone-led instrumental, ‘Lonely Man’ by Ronald Wilson, with its yearning melody and under-stated melancholy. Here too was the peculiar ‘Dance of the Psychedelic Lounge Lizards’ by The Neutrons, who turned out to be mostly the Welsh band Man. A Dawn sampler album introduced me to Comus, with their goatly bleating vocals and wildwood flute: and a similar selection from John Peel’s Dandelion label included Bridget St John’s magical, dreamy track ‘Fly High’. Both of these acts have, rather wonderfully, reappeared in recent times. But, most of all, I could hardly be expected to resist a gatefold sleeve in sombre black and burnt orange depicting a grotesque satyr playing the bagpipes through a head, and entitled Titus Groan. Particularly when there was the promise of a flute and a track over eleven minutes long entitled ‘Hall of Bright Carvings’, with another devoted to Titus Groan’s saturnine sister, Fuschia. Nor was I disappointed when I got it home and listened to the pounding rhythm, wailing flute and solemn vocals. “In the dusty high-vaulted halls / Bright carvings glow, but no-one sees them” – in a glimmer, I was in Castle Gormenghast. And this album is a sort of touchstone for all the obscure things I’ve found in dusty back street shops and have tried to write about in fervent notes.



TV
Arthur of the Britons.
(Buy it here)
The Arthurian mythos and the twilight centuries after the last of Roman Britain have always drawn me, and pervade quite a lot of my writing. It was pursuing this interest that led me to the work of Arthur Machen, Charles Williams, Mary Butts and other favourite authors. But if you look up the indexes of books of Dark Age history now, you will find that often Arthur is pointedly omitted. Most current academics decline to accept there is any real evidence for his existence. Others, while making use of the magic of his name and including it in their titles, mention him only to diminish or dismiss any such figure. This seems to me a swing of the pendulum too far: there is a certain amount of fragmentary evidence that ought to be more thoughtfully considered. And if indeed there was a British warlord and/or a legendary hero, whether from Cumbria, Wales or Cornwall, then he was probably not unlike the character depicted in HTV’s excellent 1972-3 series, starring Oliver Tobias in the title role. There was nothing of the anachronistic knights in armour of the French romances here, but a more authentic and credible figure whose adventures, while rooted in a thoughtful picture of Dark Age culture, were still sufficiently thrilling. This was a subtle and knowledgeable portrayal which stripped away the later courtly accretions while still keeping the glamour and mystery of the myths. It made that misty time live for me, and I remember it with affection and respect. Indeed, at the slightest provocation, I can and do still whistle the theme tune, both stirring and wistful.

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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Raven

Raven by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray
Jeremy Burnham & Trevor Ray
Corgi Carousel

A young tearaway on probation from a young offenders' institution, is sent to stay with a wheelchair-bound archaeologist who is trying to save some ancient underground caves from being used as a nuclear waste dumping ground.. Legend has it that the caves were once occupied by King Arthur, and when Raven joins the archaeologist's campaign, he begins to believe he is the reincarnation of Arthur, and the future of the caves depends on him.

From the guys behind the 'Children of the Stones' TV series and book, 'Raven' was another slice of rural horror drenched in megalithic lore and, in this case, Arthurian legend.

Raven is a young man with a chequered past on release from Borstal and roped into helping the crotchety old Professor Young protect an archaeologically significant cave system from becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

The story is kind of a muddle with the Arthurian elements being particularly underdeveloped and feeling at best a little tacked on in order to make the whole protection of the land angle work. And work it does but it needed more room to introduce and develop the various aspects such as just who the other members of the round table (or in this case stone circle) are and what exactly did happen with the professor and the bird.

As this is the accompanying novel to the TV series (which I've not seen) I'm going to assume many of these issues were carried over from budgetary constraints relating to the filmed version but then surely the novelisation would have provided an opportunity to address and repair but evidently not.

If it sounds like I'm giving this a bit of a pasting then please know that I did enjoy it.  It's an entertaining little thing but a flawed one that has left me quite keen to track down the series so I can compare the two.

Buy it here - Raven

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain