Friday, 22 January 2021

The Mummy

Riccardo Stephens - The Mummy (Valancourt Books)
Riccardo Stephens
Valancourt Books

Dr. Armiston, middle-aged bachelor and general practitioner, has his quiet and routine life interrupted when he is called in to consult on the deaths of two young men. One case seems to be a tragic accident, the other the result of natural causes, but they have one strange thing in common: the presence of the same ancient Egyptian mummy case in both men's homes. When Armiston learns that the sarcophagus is inscribed with a terrible curse promising vengeance on anyone who disturbs the mummy's repose, and as the series of deaths continues, the doctor will risk his own life to unravel the mystery and find out whether the mummy - or something or someone else - is responsible.

I've never had much in the way of an interest for Egyptian history or mythology which goes some way to explaining why this was the last of the four Valancourt books I was kindly gifted that I read.

The blurb on the back made it all sound like an intriguing Hammer style romp with a mummy at it's core but the reality proved to be a more intriguing conundrum, a murder mystery with occult and near sci-fi elements. 

Dr Armiston, a crotchedy, middle-aged batchelor is drawn into a bet between the members of the Plain Speakers Club that has already resulted in the death of a member with a second to follow soon after.  The deaths all seem connected to the lots drawn to take custody of a supposedly cursed sarcophagus for a fortnight.  Armiston throws himself into the centre of the mystery and the lives of the eclectic group of characters that make up the faction of the Plain Speakers.

Armiston is a fairly unlikeable character being a right misery whilst the character I found most interesting doesn't make it far into the book which was a shame.  As a whodunnit it's fairly easy to spot the 'who' and the 'dunnit' isn't entirely relevant.  It's a pretty slow sort of read that I have to admit I struggled to get into for a while.  By the mid point though I'd found it's rhythm, was enjoying it and was intrigued by how it played out.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Warning to the Curious

Originally published in 1925 as part of the collection of stories that bears it's name M.R. James' 'A Warning to the Curious' was the second adaptation made by director and screenwriter Lawrence Gordon Clark for the BBC's anual Ghost Story for Christmas strand.

Updating the story to the depression era 1930s Clark has newly unemployed clerk and  amateur archeologist Paxton (Peter Vaughan) arriving in the town of 'Seaburgh' on the Anglian coast in search of the the last remaining lost crowns of Anglia, buried in ye olde days and reputed to protect the county from invasion.  In the inn there he meets Dr Black (Clive Swift) - who had also appeared in the previous years apatation 'The Stalls of Barchester' - and the typical variety of local yokels that usually populate these sort of things.  He also keeps catching glimpses of a mysterious figure following and watching him from afar.

It's a wonderfully bleak affair with some nicely low key performances particularly from Vaughan and some fantastically intense sound work full of shrill tones and ominous drones along with Clark skillfull direction maintains a perpetual air of menace and certain doom that hangs over Paxton from the moment he arrives.

Buy it here - UK / US - or watch it below.




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Saturday, 16 January 2021

Peel Sessions 19

The music from week nineteen of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
The Jam (1977)
Fairport Convention (1969)
Clock DVA (1983)
The Adverts (1979)
Peter Hammill (1974)
New Model Army (1983)













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Friday, 15 January 2021

Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bedtime Story

Michael Arlen - Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bedtime Story (Valancourt Books)

Michael Arlen
Valancourt Books

A female killer stalks the streets of London, sleeping with young men before slashing their throats and mutilating their bodies. The crimes have baffled the police and enraged Londoners, who demand the murderer's arrest. Mary, Duchess of Dove, a gentle young widow who is beloved by all who know her, seems an unlikely suspect, but the clues all point to her. The police have a variety of theories - perhaps the Duchess has been hypnotized or drugged, maybe she has an evil double, or could it be a Communist plot to discredit the peerage? Inspector Basil Icelin is determined to solve the mystery, but the true explanation is far more shocking and terrifying than anyone could ever imagine.

In 1924 Michael Arlen, a naturalised Brit born Dikran Kouyomdjian in Bulgaria in 1895, published 'The Green Hat' a novel about a "shameless, shameful" woman that launched Arlen to worldwide fame, riches and as a reputation as the foremost British chronicler of the 'lost generation' of the inter-war years.  'Hell! Said the Duchess' written some 10 years later is the story of a series of 'Jane the Ripper' crimes and the woman of impeccable reputation who is suspected of perpetuating them.

Arlen is a delight as a writer and had me laughing aloud on numerous occasions both from his deliciously barbed descriptions and his fabulously caustic asides.  The unfolding of the crime would, I think, drive many a whodunnit buff to despair as would the denoument but for the rest of us it's a delightfully twisted frollic of an investigation leading to a bonkers, bizarre and brilliant conclusion that almost entirely throws the atmosphere of the rest of the book straight out the window.

Wonderful stuff.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Tuesday, 12 January 2021

England's Screaming

England's Screaming - PS Publishing
Sean Hogan
PS Publishing

What connects Duc de Richleau (The Devil Rides Out), Julian Karswell (Night Of The Demon), and Damien Thorn (The Omen)? Carol Ledoux (Repulsion) and Dr. Channard (Hellbound: Hellraiser II)? Jo Gilkes (Beasts) and Angel Blake (Blood On Satan's Claw)? How is Karswell linked to Hugo Fitch (Dead Of Night) and Emily Underwood (From Beyond The Grave)? What connects Dorothy Yates (Frightmare) to the deaths at Russell Square (Death Line)? How and why does Damien Thorn know Julia Cotton (Hellraiser)?
It s a common thread of Film Criticism to note the influences and precursors of one film to another, especially in relation to genre: by definition, genre films are connected by a frame. What then if the characters could see each other? What if they existed not only as fictional characters in our world, but in a single chronology of their own? What if they could talk to each other, know each other, love and hate each other?
Who would align with whom, and what might we discover about how influences breed? What might we then learn about the warp and weft of our beloved genre and the patterns that are woven through it?

It's such a neat idea it's a wonder it hasn't been done before.  Crossovers and shared worlds have obviously been a thing for a long while - Philip Jose Farmer's 'Wold Newton' books, Kim Newman's 'Anno Dracula' & ' Diogenes Club' books and Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' - but this is the first - at least that I've seen - to find a commonality between the various characters of the golden age of British horror movies.

Hogan here, using 'The Omen' series to provide a sort of underlying narrative, creates a timeline that stretches from 'The Night of the Demon's 'Julian Karswell' and Dennis Wheatley's 'The Duc de Richleau' ('The Devil Rides Out') to 'Philip' in the 2018 movie 'Possum' along the way plucking characters from 'Quatermass', 'The Wicker Man', 'Kill List', 'The Dead of Night', 'The Medusa Touch', 'Hellraiser', 'The Shout', 'Ghostwatch' and many, many more.

Now I'm a sucker for these sort of things, 'League...' is one of my very favourite books, and this is undeniably fun but it is desperately in need of a sturdier armature.  Hogan's loose appropriation and re-jig of 'The Omen' timeline just doesn't really have the narrative depth or the cultural weight to truly hold together what is essentially a series of vignettes.  As a fan of most of the movies and TV shows featured I enjoyed revisiting old favourites and seeing often peripheral characters given new or extra life within these pages and for that I am very happy to recommend it but I do think it would have benefitted from a more cohesive and comprehensive story to hang it's fun core conceit on.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Medusa Touch

The Medusa Touch
Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), a French detective on a job swap in London, is called in to investigate the attempted murder of novelist John Morlar (Richard Burton) a man who, according to psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick), had described himself as having "A gift for disaster."

Morlar, it transpires, is a powerful psychokinetic with a pathological hatred of humanity, a great line in wonderfully misanthropic and nihilistic dialogue, 

"And Mother was much like the hotels; a decade past her prime, a lot of paint covering the worst cracks, a pathetic pretence of being better than she was.

and a building desire to destroy the society he hates, 

"I’ve found a way to do God’s dirty work for him. The Royal Chieftain, the parasites, and the whole gang of international rabble rousers, are going to bleat to the Almighty Nothing in his great Temple, to give praise for three million pounds. I promise you, the moment they kneel to pray, I will bring the whole edifice down on their unworthy heads."

Over time 'The Medusa Touch' has been derided for some patchy effects particularly during the climactic set piece but such things are mostly irrelevant to me especially when they are surrounded by a tightly plotted and solid story and strong performances which director Jack Gold (The Naked Civil Servant (UK / US)) teases out of a uniformly excellent cast.

Burton, whose star was in terminal decline by 1977, is almost a peripheral figure in a movie that has his name at the top of the billing and revolves around his character but he still dominates the screen whenever he appears.  Ventura has a lovely light touch and a shabby Columbo like air in what is essentially the starring role, Remick is as rock solid and reliable a presence as ever and the rest of the cast is littered with familiar faces like Gordon Jackson, Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett, Derek Jacobi, Michael Hordern and James Hazeldine

I first saw 'The Medusa Touch' as a young lad and the ending was one of the few things that ever freaked me out and as such it has remained in my head ever since but it wasn't a film I ever had the opportunity to return to so it was a wonderful surprise when writing this to discover that my memory hadn't rose tinted it and I enjoyed it just as much some 40 years later.

Buy it here - UK / US.



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Saturday, 9 January 2021

Peel Sessions 18

The music from week eighteen of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
The Incredible String Band (1973)
Killing Joke (1979)
The Slits (1981)
Cranes (1989)
The Specials (1979)
David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars (1972)













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Thursday, 7 January 2021

Flower Phantoms

Ronald Fraser - Flower Phantoms (Valancourt Books)
Ronald Fraser
Valancourt Books

A fey art-deco girl who works in Kew Gardens finds that her spiritual yearnings lead to a passionate mystic communion with an orchid.

Sir Arthur Ronald Fraser (1888 - 1974) was a diplomat and as author with 27 novels and ownership of a New Age healing and meditation centre to his name and an author photo that makes the last fact all the more improbable sounding but Fraser had a lifelong interest in Buddhism which is eminently apparent in this short novel, the story of a young woman engaged in a passionate and deeply spiritual love affair with an orchid in Kew Gardens.

The story opens tentatively as we are introduced to Judy and her pompous, stuffy and overbearing businessman brother Hubert and Roland, her ardent but ineffectual suitor but as Judy's world becomes subsumed within her growing fever for the plants she tends and the horizons opening up to her it becomes ever more expansive and florid.

With echoes of other early works of female empowerment such as Sylvia Townsend Warner's fabulous 'Lolly Willowes' Fraser weaves a wonderfully strange and psychedelic tale that explores notions of cosmic harmony and interconnectivity alongside more prosaic issues as personal expressions and independence into a story that is as witty as it is poetic and as delicate as it is bold.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Waiting for the End of the World

R.B. Russell - Waiting for the End of the World (PS Publishing)
R.B. Russell
PS Publishing

Elliot Barton is haunted by a tragic mistake. At the time it seemed like the end of his world, but somehow he has managed to rebuild his life, and now lives happily with his partner, Lana, in their house on Sapphire Street. But Elliot’s good fortune threatens to implode when his old school friend, Vincent, reappears. He has become a Christian, and wants to tell the authorities what happened so many years before. Rather than simply following the teachings of Christ, however, Vincent also claims to have met him. Elliot becomes involved with Vincent’s millennialist church, which prophesied that the world would end in the year 2000. But what happens to the Messiah and his church when that prophesy does not come to pass? And can Elliot navigate his way through the chaos of incredible experiences back to his happy existence on Sapphire Street?

Elliot has two things; an almost perfect life and a secret, a secret that he's carried with him like a cross and which is about to come back and burst the bubble of his contentment.

From their home in 1 Sapphire Street, Saltburn Elliot and Lana live a life of comfortable routine, Lana has her ghosts and Elliot has the secret that fills his nights with dreams but by mutual agreement neither pries into the others corners.  At least that is until Elliot's childhood friend, Vince, enters the picture with an announcement that threatens to destroy their idyll.

'Waiting for the End of the World' is a gentle and absorbing book that tells of an accident and a friendship, of beliefs and of love.  To do this Ray tells of a search, several in fact, for meaning, for purpose and for a place to call home in whatever form that takes.  Through its pages we find numerous discussions of religion, of relationships and families and of conflicts.

Elliot is a middle class everyman, a beige coloured personality forged through 18 years of blending into the background as a result of living with the secret.  He's a likeable sort of chap if maybe a little devious although an early scene of him and Lana singing along to Kula Shaker did almost cost them any and all sympathy I had. It's the reappearance of Vince that's the catalyst for strangeness in Elliot's existence as he's introduced to the millenarian cult to which Vince belongs and their reluctant Messiah, Phillip, at which point things take a turn for the weird as the couple are forced to reckon with the secret and unpick the enigma behind Vince's unwelcome intrusion into their lives.

Driving down a similar road to Andrew Michael Hurley although of perhaps a more cosmic and less earthy bent it is, as I said, an absorbing read and one that I devoured over two afternoons.  I have to admit to finding some of the dialogue, particularly between younger Elliot and Vince a little clunky and I would have liked more to have been made of the stranger elements but these are small quibbles amongst the enjoyment I took from reading this rather lovely book.

Buy it here - UK.

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Sunday, 3 January 2021

House of the Long Shadows

House of the Long Shadows
Brash, materialistic American writer Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) accepts a bet from his publisher Sam Allyson (Richard Todd) that he can write a gothic classic of the calibre of Wuthering Heights in 24 hours given the right atmosphere.  Relocating to a supposedly deserted manor house in Wales named, 'Bllyddpaetwr Manor' where in its gloomy corridors he meets the eccentric Grisbane family and learns their terrible secret.

Made seemingly with the sole purpose of finally getting four horror icons Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine onto the big screen together which is an absolute pleasure to see with each playing very much to type - Price in particular letting rip with his customary OTT style - with each making a memorable entrance from the shadows but unfortunately there is little else to recommend here.  

Director Pete Walker ('The Flesh and Blood Show' (UKUS)) and screenwriter Michael Armstrong's 'comedy' horror is a wasted opportunity all round with a paper thin plot and unfunny jokes cobbled together within an adaptation of the novel / play / movies Seven Keys to Baldpate.

Arnaz and Julie Peasgood (as Allyson's secretary Mary) have neither the chops nor the presence to carry the film and the presence of the four greats cannot make up for some very poor acting and the woeful script that inflicts on us an ending that will make you want to kick your TV screen in.  It is though the one time that we got to see Cushing, Price, Lee and Carradine together on screen and for that reason and pretty much only that reason it's worth at least a watch.

Buy it here - UK / US.



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Saturday, 2 January 2021

Peel Sessions 17

This is the music from week seventeen of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Man (1974)
The Human League (1978)
Robert Wyatt (1974)
Cockney Rebel (1974)
Bauhaus (1982)
Swell Maps (1978)













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Friday, 1 January 2021

Powers and Presences

John Howard! Mark Valentine- Powers and Presences (Sarob Press)
John Howard & Mark Valentine
Sarob Press

Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945) wrote seven mystical/supernatural novels between 1930 (War in Heaven) and 1945 (All Hallows’ Eve). He was also a poet and theological writer, and a member of The Inklings, the Oxford-based group of literary titans that included, amongst others, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

In this all new shared volume, John Howard and Mark Valentine pay affectionate tribute to Williams’ writings with a long novella, “The Dance of Gold” by John and two novelettes, “Kraken Tide” and “Seek for the Pomegranate” by Mark. Both authors have also provided illuminating afterwords to their stories.

I've had three of Charles Williams' novels on my shelves for a couple of years now but have yet to find the opportunity or the urge to dip into them so the ways in which John & Mark have reflected his work in this collection is to an extent a mystery to me.  What isn't beyond me though is just how good their stories are.

The collection consists of two prose pieces relating each authors experience of Williams' work, a novella from John and two short stories from Mark.  The prose pieces are interesting and illuminating but not what I came here for so onward ever onward.

John opens the book with 'The Dance of Gold' where a gold coin of rare historic and mythic provenance is found in the donations box of a remote parish church.  Soon mystery and intrigue begins to accumulate around the coin as it's presence and it's absence exerts a very real effect on those around it and the country at large.

I've been a fan of John's writing for a while now (since first reading him in another Sarob publication) and getting to read him in a longer form than is usually the case was a real treat.  The story he weaves is one of delicate poise, a metaphysical thriller wherein the mythic past holds the fate of the country in the balance through the intermediaries of a small rural village.

Mark's two stories proved to be a real surprise as both proved to be far more playful than I've come to expect.  'The Kraken Tide' reads like a John Wyndham romp through a flooded Lincolnshire before taking a sudden shift into Lovecraft or Wheatley territory.  It would have made for a great Hammer movie and was fantastic fun to read.

The second story proved equally so with the introduction of two, or perhaps more accurately three, characters that I really hope Mark returns to for further adventures; the mildly eccentric and magnificently dry Rachel Verulay, her introverted almost paramour Thomas Mulberry or 'Marmoset' as she soon christens him and not forgetting Lepus the straw hare.

With shades of Agatha Christie and Michael Arlen it's an absolute joy that had me chuckling aloud on several occasions before the story is wrapped up far too soon in a mythic finale.

With two of my favourite modern writers of the supernatural I knew I was going to be in for an enjoyable ride here but what I got far surpassed all my hopes.

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