Thursday 25 August 2016

Welsh Tales of Terror

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Fontana Books

Inside what is probably the single most stereotypical portrayal of Welsh cliches ever to adorn a book cover this anthology of stories set in Wales, written by Welsh writers or regarding Welsh folklore turned out to be utterly fantastic.

Let's start by getting the various folktales out of the way.  These, here, take the form of teeny little half page stories relating things like 'The Brown Hobgoblin of Bedd Gelert', 'Dead Man's Candles', 'The Devil's Tree', 'Corpse Candles' and more.  They're fun little hints at the depth of Welsh folklore but little more than that.  For those wishing for a more in depth examination that's catered for with a chapter taken from Marie Trevelyan's early 20th century study 'Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales' that explores the phenomena of the 'Ceffyl-dwr' in 'Water Horses and the Spirits of the Mist'.

Arthur Machen
So, onto the stories.  There are a number of very enjoyable stories here but the book is helped no end by an exemplary opening trio of tales.  First up is Glyn Jones' 'Jordan', a story of an attempted swindle and the grim and unpleasant fate that befalls the perpetrators.  The second story is by one of my favourite authors, John Christopher, and is the first thing of his I've read that was neither science-fiction nor post-apocalyptic.  'A Cry of Children' is a subtle and deeply moving story with a brutal and breathtaking finale.  The golden trio culminates with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' with its folk horror and proto-Lovecraftian rural horrors from beyond.

There's a bit of a dip next with Angus Wilson's 'Animals or Human Beings' which despite being written in a very agreeable and jaunty style has a story that really does nothing interesting which is also the case with the ghost story 'The Man on a Bike' by Hazel F. Looker that follows it.

Regular readers of my write-us will know that I'm a bit of a sucker for a happy story and so in many ways 'The Morgan Trust' by Richard Bridgeman (a pseudonym of sci-fi writer L.P. Davies) ticked lots of my boxes with its story of a man on an obsessive quest finding what he's looking for in two remote Welsh towns.

Caradoc Evans
Obsession is also at the heart of two more tales of Caradoc Evans' 'Be This Her Memorial' takes religious fervour in a small town to its extreme and 'The Lost Gold Mine' by Hazel F. Looker has a more obvious object of fascination.

Dorothy K. Haynes' contribution 'Mrs Jones' is a repurposed folktale of a woman kidnapped and forced to cook for the little folk of Gower.  It's lifted from the doldrums by the matching belligerence of both its victim and her erstwhile rescuer whose dislike of the woman and her domineering ways could be her downfall.

Ronald Seth's 'The Reverend John James and the Ghostly Horseman' is another story that feels like a repurposed folktale but unlike its predecessor has little charm or wit in its telling.

The books second story by Glyn Jones, 'Cadi Hughes', is a bit of a disappointment after the opener.  It has a great opening and a couple of fun moments but is ultimately a bit cruel and vindictive.

Richard Hughes
The final three tales pretty much capture the Wales I grew up in the 1970s dealing as they do with coal mining, religion and folk horror.  Jack Griffith deals with the first of these as he traps a group of men underground in 'Black Goddess' and we're left to decide for ourselves whether the supernatural aspect is more real than the insanity.  'The Stranger' by Richard Hughes drops a small demon into the household of a preacher and his peg-legged wife.  It tries for laughs amidst the temptations and the piety but I thought it all got more than a little jumbled at the end.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
The book closes with editor R. Chetwynd-Hayes' own contribution, 'Lord Dunwilliam and the Cwn Annwn'.  It's the most 1970s thing here by far as it's Regency period setting and wild snowy moorland setting filled with obnoxious aristocrats, cackling peasants, beautiful maidens and ancient powers put me in mind of so many of my favourite Hammer movies.

I know there are lots of other books in this series covering different areas of the country (and indeed parts of the world) compiled by different editors all of which are now on my wants list but truthfully they are all going to have to be something special to live up to this one.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

Kim Newman
Titan Books

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school, Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special, the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the School, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.

The last of Newman's books I read was, for me at least, at little disappointing.  Deapite being a fan of the genre I found his 'An English Ghost Story' a little underwhelming.  I think this was one of the things that contributed to me struggling to get traction with this one.  The other, and probably more likely, thing was all the pain and subsequent morphine that I was in and on at the time after breaking my hip.  So, after putting it aside for a few weeks I returned to it yesterday and read the remaining 300 pages.

Drearcliff Grange is a school for 'unusual' girls.  The daughters of criminals, spies, mad scientists (oh, and the grand-daughter of a certain time travelling alien)  and those who are gifted in some way.  Our lead is one Amy Thomsett, a moth obsessed young lady with a habit of floating up into the air when she stops concentrating on not doing exactly that.

Packed off to the school by her scandalised mother she is roomed with the bombastic 'Frecks', the tempestuous, slightly murdery and gangster obsessed Kali and fellow 'unusual', Lightfingers, with her lightning fast hands.  The four bond immediately as Amy navigates the intricacies of school life and the politics of the house system.  Soon though danger and intrigue is thrown their way and the girls have to reinvent themselves in order to save one of their number before and even bigger calamity unfolds and we get to meet the other unusuals that inhabit the school.

As with his 'Anno Dracula' series Newman has built a world where the rules are slightly off.  Here, rather than vampires, it's the pulp hero style of superheroes of the Doc Savage, Phantom variety of the type that Alan Moore pastiched in his 'Tom Strong' books or the 'Wold-Newton' series by Philip Jose Farmer.  It's linked in also with one of Newman's other book series featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Diogenes Club' which hopefully Titan Books will get around to reprinting sometime soon as the originals are too expensive for my pockets.

'The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School' though is a book that fizzes with energy and is filled with characters with quirks and kinks that make them feel alive beyond their unusualness.  It is, of course, an adventure romp but also it's a story of acceptance of both self and others and about friendship and the forming of bonds.  It is cracking good fun that manages to be both utterly 'jolly hockeysticks' and entirely St Trinian's at the same time as being fully Newman.

Buy it here -  The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

Sunday 14 August 2016

The Third Target Book of Horror

Kurt Singer (editor)
Target Books

I have two books that are emblazoned with a toad on the cover.  The first was 'The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories' which at least had a Nigel Kneale story in it that featured the creatures, this one just wanted the 'Urgh' factor.

It's a bit of a hodgepodge this one.  It opens well with one of Wilkie Collins' non-supernatural stories of duplicitous French gamblers in 'A Terribly Strange Bed' before things take a distinctly downward turn with 'Psychic Alert Saved Film Star' by Frank Stevens.  This 'factual' piece tells of the actress Elke Sommer and how a psychic premonition and a ghostly visitor saved her life on two separate occasions.

The book is right back on track with the muscular macabrery of G.G. Pendarves, 'The Dark Star', which pits an alienist with a penchant for the supernatural and muscularist (I think I might just possibly have made that term up) in a spiritual battle for the soul of the latter's beloved against an ancient ancestor inside a haunted painting.

Richard Middleton
Carl Jacobi's 'Portrait in Moonlight' is a colonialist voodoo tale complete with distasteful language that delivers a well earned comeuppance to it's unpleasant lead.

I rather enjoyed Richard Middleton's whimsical 'The Ghost Ship' with it's courteous and occasionally inebriated ghosts but it's impact is lessened by the subsequent descent into more spiritualism / ghost hunting (apologies if this sort of thing is your bag but it really isn't mine) with various ghost busting memoirs from Horace Leaf in 'I am a Psychic Detective' before the book ends well with Seabury Quinn's, 'The Cloth of Madness', that finds an interior decorator extract revenge via wallpaper.

Like I said at the top, a mixed bag but one that errs on quality and is a quick and, mostly, enjoyable read.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

The Kingdom Under The Sea and Other Stories

Joan Aiken (author)
Jan Pienkowski (illustrator)
Puffin Books

This lovely little Puffin book was the winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1971 for Pienkowski's silhouette illustrations and it's not hard to see why as they run through the various stories perfectly augmenting the words as supplied courtesy of one of Wyrd Britain's favourite authors here retelling a variety of folktales from Eastern Europe in her own eminently readable style.

I'm not familiar with any of the stories but the iconic witch Baba Yaga in her mortar and pestle and with her chicken leg house makes an appearance - 'Baba Yaga's Daughter' - which gave me my first chance to actually read one of her stories first hand.  There's an interesting cross section of pagan and Christian stories with the Sun and various members of his family making several appearances - the title piece, 'The Sun God's Castle', 'The Reed Girl', 'The Sun's Cousin' - variously helping or hindering people in their quests or just out of the pickles they've found themselves in.  Alongside these we find a couple of Christian themed stories such as moralistic fable of 'The Pear Tree' and the devious prankster God presented in 'The Goose Girl' depriving Saint Peter of a party.

Jan Pienkowski

Pienkowski, I assume, has designed the book so that art and words are interlaced. His illustrations intertwined with the words, often holding and framing them; often drawing the reader's eye deeper into the pictures to, quite literally, read the story within. 

As is ever the case with Ms. Aiken the tales are beautifully told in her typically light and dancing style and even though, as often seems to happen with folktales, much of the detail of the story is subsumed in the rush to the moral at the end she is still able to bring her storytelling expertise to bear and draw out the heart of each tale and craft them into a vibrant and delightful collection of stories that cross cultural, historic and geographic divides.

Buy it here -  The Kingdom Under the Sea