Monday 24 October 2016

Passenger to Frankfurt

Agatha Christie
Fontana Books

It was an unusual predicament for Sir Stafford Nye-to awaken in a stupor after being drugged, only to find his passport stolen. There was also no trace of the fascinating woman he encountered in Frankfurt who begged him to help save her life. But Sir Stafford's troubles are only just beginning. The target of two murder attempts, he now seeks the help of the stranger who so urgently sought his. If he can locate her. What he finds is a woman of numerous identities and twice as many secrets, who ushers him into the shadows of an international conspiracy that could well prove to be the death of them.

Well, what a very odd book.

I love the Agatha Christie TV adaptations, the Geraldine McEwan Marples are a particular favourite but the only thing I've ever read by her is a short horror story.  This one is one of her, very, late books published in 1970 to mark the ladies 80th birthday.  The cover art alone, by Tom Adams, was enough to get me to drag it off the shelf but a quick web search for a synopsis meant it jumped to the head of the pile.

What we have is not, as you might have guessed, a detective novel but a spy novel.  Now, I've only ever read one other spy novel in my life, the utterly brilliant 'Death will Have Your Eyes' by James Sallis, but I thought it was perhaps time for another.

At the heart of this book we have a global conspiracy to encourage armed revolt amongst disaffected teenagers by a shadowy cartel of nazi sympathisers and the plucky Brit aristos lined up against them. There are a few flashes of wit and brilliance here, Lady Matilda being a favourite and especially so when she heads off on her little spying trip, but on the whole this is a fairly uncomfortable read that seems much more of a chance for Christie to complain about the various she thinks that are wrong with the 1960s.  What kept popping into my head was how much it reminded me, in particular, of the movie adaptation of Michael Moorcock's 'The Final Programme'  (the first Jerry Cornelius novel) just with a very different mind set and purpose.

The story is sketchy and lacking in flow and the ending arrives unheralded and unexpected dragging itself out of the muddy morass of the rest of the book.  There's an interesting story in there somewhere but one that I think would have needed a few rewrites to tease into shape.

Friday 21 October 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery

Various authors
Puffin Books

"Good evening, and welcome to Alfred Hitchock's Ghostly Gallery..." So begins the introduction to this marvellous book for young readers presented by none other than the master of the macabre himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Following his invitation to "browse through my gallery", readers will find ghoulish ghost stories "designed to frighten and instruct" -- instruct, that is, about the strange existence ghosts must endure! Stories include Miss Emmeline Takes Off by Walter Brooks; The Valley of the Beasts by Algernon Blackwood; The Haunted Trailer by Robert Arthur; The Truth About Pyecraft by H.G. Wells; The Isle of Voices by Robert Louis Stevenson; and more. Parents and kids can't help but chuckle at Hitchcock's comment, "I don't want to appear disloyal to television, but I think reading will be good for you."

Bit of a classic this one.  It's one of those books that loads of folks seem to have owned back in their youth.  I didn't, I wasn't a horror book reader as a kid, films yes, books no.  I was all about the sci-fi books and it's only in the last few years that I've got into exploring these old horror folks which is one of the things that make these 1970s Puffin (and the like) reprints such a draw - the other reason is I'm a sucker for the wonderfully lurid cover art.

A.M. Burrage
So, as you'd probably expect from a book with that title this one is heavy on the big names but also has a pleasing selection of stories that aren't common fodder in anthologies.

After a short and silly introduction by the man with his name on the top the book opens properly with a story I've seen pop up in a few places, A.M. Burrage's 'The Waxwork' where a reporter endeavours to spend the night in a house of horrors.  It's a pretty nondescript little thing that feels old fashioned and a bit weak in it's ending.  This is followed by the first of several humorous stories that are littered throughout the book, 'Miss Emmeline Takes Off' by Walter Brooks (the creator of the 'Mister Ed' stories).  A tale of witchcraft, friendship, social climbing and money.  It's entertaining enough in it's way but not something I have any particularly desire to read a second time.

Algernon Blackwood
The ubiquitous Algernon Blackwood tale follows and it's one of his American adventure stories, 'The Valley of the Beasts', where a belligerent, arrogant and wasteful Englishman meets native American spirituality and both loses and wins which is a fate that also befalls the hapless lead in Robert Arthur's, 'The Haunted Trailer'.  Arthur actually provides three stories to the book which is no surprise as he was the actual compiler of the contents with Hitchcock's name added purely as a selling point.  His other two stories, 'The Wonderful Day' and 'Obstinate Uncle Otis' are both as whimsical and readable as the first but all three come across as very disposable and a little like a comedy back-up tale from an old 'Vault of Horror' comic or some such.

Lord Dunsany
F. Marion Crawford is another of those authors that turns up regularly in these things as does this particular story, 'The Upper Berth' as a ship-board traveller is disturbed by a ghostly presence on an Atlantic crossing.  Following this there's a run of humorous stories topped and tailed by the two Robert Arthur stories I mentioned earlier.  H.G. Wells', 'The Truth About Pyecraft', is a pretty dreadful little tale about one unpleasant little man and one unpleasant bigger one.  Henry Kuttner tells of a mysterious bird cage in 'Housing Problem' and, of most interest to this reader, a chance to finally read something by Lord Dunsany in the form of 'In a Dim Room' an amusing little tale about a tiger.

Closing the book is one of Robert Louis Stevenson's south sea islands stories of greed, magic and cannibalism on 'The Isle of Voices'.  These sort of stories aren't of great appeal to me as my anthropology degree starts yelling in my head and it all gets a little uncomfortable but the story itself is obviously written with a fondness for both people and place.

This is very much a book for those with a marked fondness for amusing, lighter stories or simply a need for an occasional smile.  For me it was a reasonably entertaining way to pass an afternoon.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Silly Verse For Kids

Spike Milligan
Puffin Books

Silly Verse for Kids - a hilarious collection of silly poems by Spike Milligan! A collection of the absurd, ridiculous, sublime and characteristically anarchic verse from the brilliant Spike Milligan. With his very own illustrations, this collection, which includes the famous On the Ning Nang Nong will make you laugh from the bottom of your belly - just like Spike did.

I've been a fan of Spike Milligan as long as I can remember.  Whether it be watching the various Qs as a kid or reading the wartime memoirs as a teenager or getting wrecked and watching 'The Bed-Sitting Room' in my early twenties. I still think one of the funniest pieces of TV I remember seeing was a re-purposed Goon Show skit in one of the 'Q' series that I've always known as the dustbin dance.

For those of you who've not discovered them the various volumes of his wartime memoirs are a brilliantly funny and at times deeply poignant read that are heartily recommended but for a more instantaneous hit of pure Milligan his poems are the place to head to.  I quite like a bit (and I do mean a bit) of poetry but I'm in no way a connoisseur. I've only ever learnt three poems off by heart and they're all by him with one of them appearing here.


There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why rain is thin.

(all copyright to the owner)

These poems were all created to amuse his children and that's the sort of mindset that you should approach them with.  The collection is a cavalcade of the joyous abandon of logic and rules, filled with playful wordplay and inventive stupidity that sees the creation of works of wonder like 'On the Ning Nang Nong', 'Contagion' and 'Failure' and makes this a book that you can pick up again and again.

Oh, and it's almost impossible to read them out loud with finding yourself doing a Spike Milligan impersonation.

Buy it here - Silly Verse for Kids (Puffin Poetry)

Sunday 16 October 2016

Top Ten TV: Sci-Fi

This is something from a few years ago that I just stumbled across and thought I'd post up to make some of you shout at the screen.

It was made in 2001 by Channel 4 here in the UK and is presented by Tom Baker in full scenery chewing mode with commentary by Nick Frost. There's a whole host of talking heads from the various shows along with fans and critics such as Kim Newman and various other sci-fi magazine editors and contributors.

These sort of lists are always contentious (i.e. they're a bit rubbish) but are an opportunity to revisit some old favourites and disagree with other peoples choices.  Personally I can't for the life of me imagine who voted for #9, I was never much of a fan of #1, couldn't stand #4 and think #2 is the greatest thing ever.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Drosten's Curse

A.L. Kennedy
BBC Books

From award-winning author A.L. Kennedy, an original Doctor Who novel featuring the beloved Fourth Doctor, as played by Tom Baker.
“I shall make you the jewel at the heart of the universe.”
Something distinctly odd is going on in Arbroath. It could be to do with golfers being dragged down into the bunkers at the Fetch Brothers’ Golf Spa Hotel, never to be seen again. It might be related to the strange twin grandchildren of the equally strange Mrs Fetch--owner of the hotel and fascinated with octopuses. It could be the fact that people in the surrounding area suddenly know what others are thinking, without anyone saying a word.

After a week of reading about old ghosts I thought it was time to head off into the great elsewhere for a change and so I grabbed this Who book off the shelf and dug in only to discover that it was set on a golf course in Arbroath which isn't quite as 'else' as the 'where' I was looking for but it'll do.

Kennedy here takes a solo 4th Doctor on an adventure filled with psychic shenanigans and running,  lots of running.  In Kennedy's hands 4 is all teeth and ego alternately charming and conceited, entirely certain of his own magnificence but at the same time entirely cognisant of the potentially catastrophic results of his actions.

The story is a fairly straightforward creature feature but the core cast and their interactions are the joy here between 4, Bryony, a bright but bored and underachieving Earth girl and Putta, a clumsy, depressed, love-struck alien.  There are a couple of lovely relationships developed and revealed over the course of the story - such as Bryony bonding with the TARDIS and especially that of the Bah-Sokhar (the problem at the heart of the tale) and the lovely old lady with the octopus obsession, Mrs Fetch - and in the end this is what the story is about, love and kindness being of far more value than hate and violence.

The book is possibly a tad too long and a little careful pruning could have made for a much tighter read as I thought much of the final section to be fairly superfluous, a tacked on action ending that felt out of place with the rest of the story.

On the whole though a really enjoyable read that made me chuckle more than a few times, smile often and generally enjoy being in it's company.  What more could you ask.

Buy it here -  Doctor Who: The Drosten's Curse (Dr Who)

Wednesday 12 October 2016

More Haunted Houses

Aidan Chambers
Piccolo Books

I've not read the first of these but I imagine it's a very similar sort of animal.  Here Chambers takes a variety of hauntings - Raynham Hall, Breckles Hall, The London Museum, The Bank of England, Ashley Hall, Birchen Bower and more and with varying degrees of detail sets out to report each.

I've no particular interest in 'true' ghost stories but Chambers writes engagingly and the stories he tells are lively enough to keep things moving and hold my attention.

The two more interesting chapters here deal firstly with the different perspectives on a haunting experienced by those present at a haunting in 1833 as reported through articles and letters printed in the newspaper, the Norfolk Chronicle, and secondly with a short collection of some of the experiences of Violet Tweedale.

A short and enjoyable little selection wrapped up in a lovely cover.

Monday 10 October 2016

Deadly Nightshade

Peter Haining (editor)
Beaver Books

I'm making a concerted effort at the moment to work my way through as many of these little old anthologies as I can as they're getting buried on the bookshelf.  This latest one to make it's way off the shelf is one of a phenomenal number of these things put together by anthologist extraordinaire Peter Haining.

The main focus of this volume is children and each story features them centrally as either victim or, and far more satisfyingly, as perpetrator.  Most of the stories date from the very early 20th century with a couple from the late mid and features a nice variety of top notch names from both sides of the Atlantic.

So, in a book of kiddie-centric tales of the macabre and the supernatural there's one story that's pretty much guaranteed to feature and here it opens the proceedings, M.R. James' 'Lost Hearts'.  I've read this little tale of black magic and ghostly revenge a few times now and it's ubiquity can make it easy to overlook and it's easy to forget just how fantastic a story it is.

Frances Marion Crawford
In 'The Dolls Ghost', American author Frances Marion Crawford takes his horror from the violent streets of London with a sentimental tale of a broken doll and a lost child before H.R. Wakefield, in 'The Nurse's Tale', runs us out to the country and embroils a young child in an ancient family curse in a ghost wood in a story that has been written with perhaps more effort with regard to humour than atmosphere.

Algernon Blackwood's 'The Attic' is an uncharacteristically sentimental, but rather lovely, tale of cat's, ghosts and loss whilst W.F. Harvey's 'The Dabblers' is maybe a little too M.R. James lite to be as creepy as I think it had the potential to be.

William Tenn
Cat's feature prominently in the next two tales also but in both cases in the transformative.  'The Tortoise-Shell Cat' by Greye La Spina is an uninspiring voodoo tale of metamorphosis and theft but it's followed by the sublime fun of one of Joan Aiken's Armitage Family stories.  In 'The Looking Glass Tree' a new and unpleasant neighbour moves in next door, does something unpleasant to the their cat and generally makes a nuisance of herself whilst the Armitage children, Mark and Harriet, take a step towards helping two characters from previous stories.

A vampire takes the centre stage in William Tenn's toothless but brief 'The Human Angle' before it's usurped by the fabulous 'Gabriel-Ernest', Saki's fairly ubiquitous werewolf tale.

Robert Bloch
Psycho's Robert Bloch tries a twist on the witch story by putting the magic in the hands of an abused child but Mark Van Doren's 'The Witch of Ramroth' is entirely too short and woefully unsatisfying.  And while we're on the subject of woeful neither August Derleth's native American shape shifting ghost of 'Twilight Play' or Anthony Boucher's murderous 'Mr Lupescu' would be worth revisiting.

The book ends with a strong trio of tales.  The first is by Conrad (father of Joan) Aiken whose beautifully odd 'Silent Snow, Secret Snow' relates a young boy's increasing detachment from those around him.  'Midnight Express' by Alfred Noyes which turns up occasionally in these type of anthologies and is maybe a little out of place here as the central character soon attains adulthood at which point a childhood terror is realised and closing the book is Ray Bradbury's horrific Halloween game in 'The October Game'.

In all Haining has here put together a delightful assemblage of the macabre, the ghoulish, the ghostly and the grim.  With only a couple of missteps (my opinion of which I suspect will be disagreed with by many which is part of the fun of these collections) he has compiled a most enjoyable read.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

A small personal (re)collection

A few years ago my partner was working for a homelessness charity. One of the organisations she had contact with was a local recycling initiative that operated out of an old shop just outside the centre of town. On a couple of visits there she'd noticed an older gentleman sitting outside the shop often pouring over a notepad and on one of these visits she had cause to strike up a conversation.

What he was doing was drawing.  He was creating drawing after drawing of small - they're all roughly between 5 and 7 cm wide - science fiction landscapes.  Pen drawings of deserted utopian cityscapes where trees and skyscrapers reach to a sun that's always shining between the fluffy white clouds in a sky occasionally populated by flying saucers.  Coloured in with felt tip pens in bright vibrant colours they offer a wonderful and poignant contrast to the drab, grey, bustling, urban Welsh terraces within which they were created.  

She mentioned during their conversation that I was a sci-fi fan and some weeks later when they next met he presented her with with 7 of his pictures cut out and laminated to give to me and later on two hand drawn cards - a boat for me and a swan for her.

I think they are fantastic and am hugely honoured to have them and have treasured them for the last 9 years.  I was looking at them earlier today and thought I'd like to show them to you.  I never met the gentlemen in question but I know my thanks were passed on and I am still appreciative of them today.