Friday 29 January 2016

The House on the Brink

John Gordon
Puffin Books

When a teenager follows a strange trail in the marsh, he finds himself haunted by the legend of King John's lost treasure and increasingly aware of mysterious undercurrents in the town where he lives.

Dating from 1970 this Fenland tale has a distinct M.R. James aura to it.  The story tells of a young man with the implausible name of Dick Dobbs who is deeply at odds with his surroundings.  He's disconnected from his family, painfully shy around strangers, hostile to those he dislikes but forgiving of his friends - which is just as well really.  he also has a profound connection with the water of the Fens; a gift later identified as 'divining'.

Into his life arrives a young girl, Helen, who shares his gift along with a neurotic widow, Mrs Knowles, who believes she is haunted by a sinister log.  Dick is drawn into her neurosis as he himself is trapped into the presence of the log and the trail it's taking on it's journey inland.

It's an odd and quite lovely story that maintains a delicious aura of sinister and mysterious goings on.  It's not without it's faults,  Dick is an unlikeable lead and he is a little too temperamental and changeable to empathise with.  The landscape, and in particular the water, is made much of in dialogue but in the narrative itself it's there merely as a conduit for bicycles which was a real shame.  Also, while we are on the subject of dialogue this became my biggest bugbear with the novel as conversations regularly deform and collapse in a confused muddle as Gordon tries far too hard to convey both the words and Dick's - and Helen's - ever changing, sudden and often perplexing mood swings.

At it's heart though 'The House on the Brink' is a rather lovely little tale of adolescence, emotion, madness, friendship, love and magic.  It has echoes of Jamesian tropes of obsession and horrors from the past best left alone and there are echoes of an Alan Garner like grounding in place and the stories that inhabit it which for me could have been more acutely woven into the narrative and would have raised the book to being something really rather special as opposed to being one that was eminently and entertainingly readable.

Tuesday 26 January 2016


Mary Shelley
Hesperus Press

Surely never such had existed before - a misshapen dwarf, with squinting eyes, distorted features, and a body deformed, till it became a horror to behold.
A macabre, sinister and supernatural tale, Mary Shelley's Transformation is a masterpiece of Gothic writing. It is accompanied by The Mortal Immortal and The Evil Eye. , two further stories of the supernatural, both of which display the perfection of Shelley's literary craft.

Whilst 'Transformation' is the title of this lovely little book it is also the first of the three short stories that make up this slim volume from Hesperus Press.

'Transformation' - the story - is a short redemptive tale that tells the story of Guido, an arrogant and profligate young man who returns to his home in Genoa in penury to claim the hand of the daughter of a rich merchant.  When rejected by the kindly father due to his refusal to calm his reckless ways Guido fights back and is eventually cast out into exile.  Here he meets a deformed dwarf who offers him a bargain that may be heaven sent or then again may be from the other place.

'Transformation' - the story not the collection - is written in a dated and flamboyant style which I think would have been a bit of a chore to wade through had it been longer but at just 23 pages it made for an interesting experience.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Following on from the title piece is a much more straight forward and plainly written tale in the shape of 'The Mortal Immortal'.  This one tells the tale of an alchemists apprentice who inadvertently drinks an elixir of immortality thinking it to be a cure for love. 

I could happily have read an entire novel of this.  It's beautifully written and tightly held so that even at this short length it feels complete whilst also having an open ending that leaves you craving more.

The third story is an exhausting affair called 'The Evil Eye'.  Here in an absolute cascade of locations and various exotic terminology we are told the tale of Dimitri of the Evil Eye and his search for his kidnapped daughter.

The story absolutely hares along and manages to condense a novels worth of plot into a mere 30 pages.  It is, of course, almost completely unsatisfying as at no point do you get to feel anything other than the most fleeting of emotions towards the various characters before they've rushed off and done something else a hundred miles and two weeks away.  About halfway through I had the revelation that it felt like one of Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle' novels condensed into 30 pages.

I must say though that I thoroughly enjoyed these three stories and having never read 'Frankenstein' I was very curious as to how she wrote and what her stories were like.  I was pleasantly surprised and my desire to read more has been piqued.

Friday 22 January 2016

Short Story - 'The Maiden of the Green Forest' (Welsh folktale)

William Elliot Griffis
from 'Welsh Fairy Tales' by William Elliot Griffis


Many a palace lies under the waves that wash Cymric land, for the sea has swallowed up more than one village, and even cities.

When Welsh fairies yield to their mortal lovers and consent to become their wives, it is always on some condition or promise. Sometimes there are several of these, which the fairy ladies compel their mortal lovers to pledge them, before they agree to become wives. In fact, the fairies in Cymric land are among the most exacting of any known.

A prince named Benlli, of the Powys region, found this out to his grief, for he had always supposed that wives could be had simply for the asking. All that a man need say, to the girl to whom he took a fancy, was this: "Come along with me, and be my bride," and then she would say, "Thank you, I'll come," and the two would trot off together. This was the man's notion.

Now Benlli was a wicked old fellow. He was already married, but wrinkles had gathered on his wife's face.

She had a faded, washed-out look, and her hair was thinning out. She would never be young again, and he was tired of her, and wanted a mate with fresh rosy cheeks, and long, thick hair. He was quite ready to fall in love with such a maiden, whenever his eyes should light upon her.

One day, he went out hunting in the Green Forest. While waiting for a wild boar to rush out, there rode past him a young woman whose beauty was dazzling. He instantly fell in love with her.

The next day, while on horseback, at the same opening in the forest, the same maiden reappeared; but it was only for a moment, and then she vanished.

Again, on the third day, the prince rode out to the appointed place, and again the vision of beauty was there.

He rode up to her and begged her to come and live with him at his palace.

"I will come and be your wedded wife on three conditions: You must put away the wife you now have; you must permit me to leave you, one night in every seven, without following after or spying upon me; and you must not ask me where I go or what I do. Swear to me that you will do these three things. Then, if you keep your promises unbroken, my beauty shall never change, no, not until the tall vegetable flag-reeds wave and the long green rushes grow in your hall."

The Prince of Powys was quite ready to swear this oath and he solemnly promised to observe the three conditions. So the Maid of the Green Forest went to live with him.

"But what of his old wife?" one asks.

Ah! he had no trouble from that quarter, for when the newly-wedded couple arrived at the castle, she had already disappeared.

Happy, indeed, were the long bright days, which the prince and his new bride spent together, whether in the castle, or out doors, riding on horseback, or in hunting the deer. Every day, her beauty seemed diviner, and she more lovely. He lavished various gifts upon her, among others that of a diadem of beryl and sapphire. Then he put on her finger a diamond ring worth what was a very great sum—a king's ransom. In the Middle Ages, monarchs as well as nobles were taken prisoners in battle and large amounts of money had to be paid to get them back again. So a king's ransom is what Benlli paid for his wife's diamond ring. He loved her so dearly that he never suspected for a moment that he would ever have any trouble in keeping his three promises.

But without variety, life has no spice, and monotony wearies the soul. After nine years had passed, and his wife absented herself every Friday night, he began to wonder why it could be. His curiosity, to know the reason for her going away, so increased that it so wore on him that he became both miserable in himself and irritable toward others. Everybody in the castle noticed the change in their master, and grieved over it.

One night, he invited a learned monk from the white monastery, not far away, to come and take dinner with him. The table in the great banqueting hall was spread with the most delicious viands, the lights were magnificent, and the music gay.

But Wyland, the monk, was a man of magic and could see through things. He noticed that some secret grief was preying upon the Prince's mind. He discerned that, amidst all this splendor, he, Benlli, the lord of the castle, was the most miserable person within its walls. So Wyland went home, resolved to call again and find out what was the trouble.

When they met, some days later, Wyland's greeting was this:
"Christ save thee, Benlli! What secret sorrow clouds thy brow? Why so gloomy?"

Benlli at once burst out with the story of how he met the Maid of the Green Forest, and how she became his wife on three conditions.

"Think of it," said Benlli, groaning aloud. "When the owls cry and the crickets chirp, my wife leaves my bed, and until the daystar appears, I lie alone, torn with curiosity, to know where she is, and what she is doing. I fall again into heavy sleep, and do not awake until sunrise, when I find her by my side again. It is all such a mystery, that the secret lies heavy on my soul. Despite all my wealth, and my strong castle, with feasting and music by night and hunting by day, I am the most miserable man in Cymric land. No beggar is more wretched than I."

Wyland, the monk, listened and his eyes glittered. There came into his head the idea of enriching the monastery. He saw his chance, and improved it at once. He could make money by solving the secret for a troubled soul.

"Prince Benlli," said he, "if you will bestow upon the monks of the White Minster, one tenth of all the flocks that feed within your domain, and one tenth of all that flows into the vaults of your palace, and hand over the Maiden of the Green Forest to me, I shall warrant that your soul will be at peace and your troubles end."

To all this, Prince Benlli agreed, making solemn promise. Then the monk Wyland took his book, leather bound, and kept shut by means of metal clasps, and hid himself in the cranny of a rock near the Giant's Cave, from which there was entrance down into Fairyland.

He had not long to wait, for soon, with a crown on her head, a lady, royally arrayed, passed by out of the silvery moonlight into the dark cave. It was none other than the Maiden of the Green Forest.

Now came a battle of magic and spells, as between the monk's own and those of the Green Forest Maiden.

He moved forward to the mouth of the cave. Then summoning into his presence the spirits of the air and the cave, he informed them as to Benlli's vow to enrich the monastery, and to deliver the Green Forest Maiden to himself. Then, calling aloud, he said:

"Let her forever be, as she now appears, and never leave my side."

"Bring her, before the break of day, to the cross near the town of the White Minster, and there will I wed her, and swear to make her my own."

Then, by the power of his magic, he made it impossible for any person or power to recall or hinder the operation of these words. Leaving the cave's mouth, in order to be at the cross, before day should dawn, the first thing he met was a hideous ogress, grinning and rolling her bleared red eyes at him. On her head seemed what was more like moss, than hair. She stretched out a long bony finger at him. On it, flashed the splendid diamond, which Benlli had given his bride, the beautiful Maid of the Green Forest.

"Take me to thy bosom, monk Wyland," she shrieked, laughing hideously and showing what looked like green snags in her mouth. "For I am the wife you are sworn to wed. Thirty years ago, I was Benlli's blooming bride. When my beauty left me, his love flew out of the window. Now I am a foul ogress, but magic makes me young again every seventh night. I promised that my beauty should last until the tall flag reeds and the long green rushes grow in his hall."

Amazed at her story, Wyland drew in his breath.

"And this promise, I have kept. It is already fulfilled. Your spell and mine are both completed. Yours brought to him the peace of the dead. Mine made the river floods rush in. Now, waters lap to and fro among the reeds and rushes that grow in the banqueting hall, which is now sunk deep below the earth. With the clash of our spells, no charm can redress our fate.

"Come then and take me as thy bride, for oath and spell have both decreed it as thy reward. As Benlli's promise to you is fulfilled, for the waters flow in the palace vaults, the pike and the dare (fish) feed there."

So, caught in his own dark, sordid plot, the monk, who played conjurer, had become the victim of his own craft.

They say that Wyland's Cross still recalls the monk, while fishermen on the Welsh border, can, on nights with smooth water, see towers and chimneys far below, sunk deep beneath the waves.

Sunday 17 January 2016

John Wyndham

Since my teens if at any point you were to ask me what my favourite book was you'd have got the same answer as you'll get now, John Wyndham's 'The Day of the Triffids'.  For the young me it was a glorious apocalyptic romp with killer plants.  For the older me it's a populist exploration of the fears of an uncontrollable arms race, the excesses of cold war science, gender roles and the difficulties of sustainable survival in a ravaged world that also happens to be a glorious apocalyptic romp with killer plants.

The TV adaptations of 'The Day of the Triffids' and 'Chocky' alongside the Howard Keel travesty and the magnificence of the 'Village of the Damned' movie meant that Wyndham had a huge part in defining my tastes long before I ever got around to reading another of his books.  Indeed it was at least a decade before I read another of his books, 'The Chrysalids', simply I think because I loved 'The Day of the Triffids' so much I didn't want any possible disappointment stemming from another of his books to spoil it for me and yes I know that's a fairly stupid reason to not read a book especially one as good as 'The Chrysalids' turned out to be.

Presented below is a BBC documentary about the man and his work featuring contributions from fans, friends and contemporaries such as Brian Aldiss and Sam Youd (John Christopher).  A very private man who rarely gave interviews and refused to participate in a biography there is little to tease out about his everyday existence but the documentary still makes for interesting viewing about an author who in the pantheon of British science fiction must be placed alongside his erstwhile predecessor, H.G. Wells, as one of the defining voices of the genre although outside of more dedicated circles I suspect he will remain for the most part that bloke who wrote the book about the walking plants.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The World in Winter

John Christopher
Penguin Books

The World in Winter is the terrorising story of what happens when a new Ice Age devastates the Northern Hemisphere, when civilisation disappears into a voiceless polar night, when men and women turn into wolf packs in their agonised struggle for survival.

 A few years ago before I started writing this blog I listened to an audiobook of John Christopher's other, more famous, apocalypse novel, 'The Death of Grass'.  It's a brutal and uncompromising story that showed the ease in which social conventions crumble and morality is cast aside in the pursuit of survival.

'The World in Winter' is a perfect companion piece.  Here it's a new ice age that has wreaked devastation on the UK, along with the rest of Europe and the US, but has left the African nations untouched.  This turn of events results in hordes of refugees making their way south and the balance of power tipping in favour of the former colonial subjects over their disenfranchised former masters.

We view this change of circumstances through the eyes of one Andrew Leedon a film maker evacuated from London to Nigeria.  There he finds himself in drastically reduced circumstances before a simple act of kindness made some years before comes to his aid.

Where 'The Death of Grass' is a story of a group of people finding refuge and a hope for survival within a devastated environment this book tells a different story.  It tells of power, control and revenge but it also tells of ideas of intolerance and racism and at times makes brutally uncomfortable reading in the language it uses and the attitudes expressed.  Sometimes it's hard to differentiate between what is intentional and what is a product of the time the book was written (1962) and a reflection of the concerns of the times as Britain's former colonies break free of it's governance and the sun seems to be finally setting on an empire still not entirely recovered from the deprivations on the second World War.  

It's a novel that is bleak in setting, events, attitude, outlook and execution that I found to be a compulsive but not necessarily enjoyable read that, I think, will haunt me for some time to come.

Buy it here - The World in Winter (Penguin Worlds)

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Best of 2015 - Music to Heal Bones To

So, happy new year to you all.  I hope 2016 brings you good times aplenty.

For much of the last 6 months of 2015 I was fairly immobile due to the whole broken leg fiasco which finally seems to be properly on the mend and I'm able to get around a lot easier although as you can see my tibia now looks like a meccano set.

What this whole palaver did give me though was time to sit and read some of the books that have been piling up and to explore some new music.  I've written about the books on the blog already but have neglected to mention some of the music so it's time to put things right.

So, with the usual disclaimer of them being in no particular order, here are some of the records that I enjoyed over the last 12 (but particularly 6) months.

John Baker - The Vendetta Tapes
Magnificent radiophonic jazz and ruler twanging archive digging from Alan Gubby at Buried Treasure

Keith Seatman - A Rest Before the Walk
Keith mixes folk and electronics to sublime effect to create a natural and human hauntological narrative.

Howlround - Tales from the Black Tangle
Loops as darkly immersive as a dip in the Mariana Trench.

Martin Gore - MG
Depeche Mode's Martin Gore guides his enviable collection of modular synths to create a stunning set of vintage sci-fi ambience.

The Assembled Minds - Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts
A late addition to 2015 or an early one for 2016 as it's not actually out yet.  Matt Saunders' haunted rave is filled with half remembered techno dreams.

The Twelve Hour Foundation - Macaroni Cheese (7")
A hugely enjoyable 2 song set of 1970s style radiophonic pop.

Various - The Delaware Road
A comprehensive and diverse compilation based around a fictional radiophonic narrative.

Peter Zinovieff - Electronic Calendar / The EMS Tapes
Beautifully presented two disc retrospective of the low-key career of a core figure in British electronic music.

Cat's Eyes - The Duke of Burgundy OST
A sumptuous soundtrack to the Peter Strickland film that owes a debt to Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks recordings and that's no bad thing.

Revbjelde - The Weeping Tree
Yet another appearance on this list from the Buried Treasure label this time from head honcho Alan Gubby's own band.  The EP is a bloody lovely collection of electronic folk featuring some fabulous guest vocals from Emma Churchley.