Sunday 31 December 2017

The Owl Service

Scripted by Alan Garner from his own novel of two years previous The Owl Service is a 8 part television series originally screened in the UK in late 1969 and early 1970.  It is the story of an eternal love triangle played out again and again throughout history with it's roots in the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, a magical woman made of flowers who is turned into an owl for her role in the deaths of two men.

Alison (Gillian Hills), Gwyn (Michael Holden) and Roger (Francis Wallis) are three teenagers thrown together in an isolated Welsh farmhouse when Roger's father Clive (Edwin Richfield) and Alison's mother Margaret (who is never seen) go there for their honeymoon.  The house, formerly owned by Alison's uncle Bertram is home to Gwyn and his housekeeper mother Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and the eccentric gardener Huw (Raymond Llewellyn).

Confined to her bed Alison hears scratching in the attic where she and Gwyn find a set of plates with an unusual pattern that Alison realises can be traced and combined to create an owl.  This is the trigger for a series of events that finds the trio of teens becoming increasingly embroiled in the myth as class and sexual tensions are brought to the surface.

Since it's original screening, and with minimal repeat showings, The Owl Service has deservedly  come to be considered as being amongst the finest pieces of supernatural television. It's beautifully filmed on location in the Welsh countryside around Dinas Mawddwy in North Wales which along with it's use of film and colour makes it a visual feast and the themes it plays with make it an unlikely children's programme and to this day feels more suited to a more mature - even if only YA - audience.

The cast are mixed with both Holden (angry working class Welsh boy) and Wallis (smug middle class English) seemingly out of their depth on several occasions. More successful is Richfield's creepily overattentive Clive, Llewellyn's portrayal of the broken Huw and Hills who at 25 and with a career as a French pop singer (Zou Bisou Bisou) and a memorable role in the previous years 'Blow-Up' behind her was perhaps too old for the part but whose personality dominates the screen.

The pace is glacially slow which allows for the relentless building of tension but at eight episodes feels like it has been stretched to breaking point and I can't help but feel that it's originally intended seven episode run (or possibly even six) would have made for a leaner and more dynamic show.  It is however a unique television experiment that pushed all manner of boundaries for a children's programme in ways that had never been done before and have rarely been done since and which combined the supernatural with the mundane in a subtle and pervasive manner that has very much stood the test of time.

Buy it here - UKUS - or watch it below


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Saturday 30 December 2017

The Children of Men

P.D. James
Penguin Books

The Children of Men is a story of a world with no children and no future. The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.

I've been after reading this book for a good while now.  I'm a sucker for a piece of post-apocalypse cinema and had very much enjoyed the film which I found to be very evocative of the British film and TV dramas of the early 70 that shaped my tastes and when I discovered who had wrote the original text it seemed so out of character that I was more than a little intrigued.  It's taken me a little while to track down a copy but I'm very glad I did.

The basic story is quite different to the movie.  Obviously the baby bit is there but the circumstances of the mother and the events are all different.  Here we have a middle aged university lecturer named Theodore Faron who is essentially an uncaring loner who's closest friend is an uncaring sociopath who runs the country.  Into his life arrives a small group of wannabe revolutionaries determined to bring down what they see as an unjust and uncaring government but with no practical ideas as to how to do so or what to put in it's place (other than themselves).  Theo is increasingly drawn into their incompetent revolution and finds himself on the run with the first pregnant woman in 25 years.

What I liked about the book was it had a real old school Britishness  about it.  The revolution is feeble, the tyranny is measly, the characters are petty and everything is entirely amateurish and slapdash.  The movie version felt a bit more American - I'm going to stress the 'bit' part - and I suppose more up to date but I like the griminess of the book more.  It's got the feel of a Le Carre but one wrapped up in a Survivors or Threads like post apocalypse setting all of which went to making it irresistible to me.

Buy it here - The Children of Men


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Friday 29 December 2017

Short Story - 'The Toll House' by W.W. Jacobs

William Wymark Jacobs (8 September 1863 – 1 September 1943) was an English writer best remembered for his ghost stories of which his most famous is the much anthologised 'The Monkey's Paw'. Here we present another of his ghostly tales

It's all nonsense," said Jack Barnes. "Of course people have died in the house; people die in every house. As for the noises--wind in the chimney and rats in the wainscot are very convincing to a nervous man. Give me another cup of tea, Meagle."

"Lester and White are first," said Meagle, who was presiding at the tea-table of the Three Feathers Inn. "You've had two."

Lester and White finished their cups with irritating slowness, pausing between sips to sniff the aroma, and to discover the sex and dates of arrival of the "strangers" which floated in some numbers in the beverage. Mr. Meagle served them to the brim, and then, turning to the grimly expectant Mr. Barnes, blandly requested him to ring for hot water.

"We'll try and keep your nerves in their present healthy condition," he remarked. "For my part I have a sort of half-and-half belief in the supernatural."

"All sensible people have," said Lester. "An aunt of mine saw a ghost once."

White nodded.

"I had an uncle that saw one," he said.

"It always is somebody else that sees them," said Barnes.

"Well, there is the house," said Meagle, "a large house at an absurdly low rent, and nobody will take it. It has taken toll of at least one life of every family that has lived there--however short the time--and since it has stood empty caretaker after caretaker has died there. The last caretaker died fifteen years ago."

"Exactly," said Barnes. "Long enough ago for legends to accumulate."

"I'll bet you a sovereign you won't spend the night there alone, for all your talk," said White suddenly.

"And I," said Lester.

"No," said Barnes slowly. "I don't believe in ghosts nor in any supernatural things whatever; all the same, I admit that I should not care to pass a night there alone."

"But why not?" inquired White.

"Wind in the chimney," said Meagle, with a grin.

"Rats in the wainscot," chimed in Lester.

"As you like," said Barnes, colouring.

"Suppose we all go?" said Meagle. "Start after supper, and get there about eleven? We have been walking for ten days now without an adventure--except Barnes's discovery that ditch-water smells longest. It will be a novelty, at any rate, and, if we break the spell by all surviving, the grateful owner ought to come down handsome."

"Let's see what the landlord has to say about it first," said Lester. "There is no fun in passing a night in an ordinary empty house. Let us make sure that it is haunted."

He rang the bell, and, sending for the landlord, appealed to him in the name of our common humanity not to let them waste a night watching in a house in which spectres and hobgoblins had no part. The reply was more than reassuring, and the landlord, after describing with considerable art the exact appearance of a head which had been seen hanging out of a window in the moonlight, wound up with a polite but urgent request that they would settle his bill before they went.

"It's all very well for you young gentlemen to have your fun," he said indulgently; "but, supposing as how you are all found dead in the morning, what about me? It ain't called the Toll-House for nothing, you know."

"Who died there last?" inquired Barnes, with an air of polite derision.

"A tramp," was the reply. "He went there for the sake of half-a-crown, and they found him next morning hanging from the balusters, dead."

"Suicide," said Barnes. "Unsound mind."

The landlord nodded. "That's what the jury brought it in," he said slowly; "but his mind was sound enough when he went in there. I'd known him, off and on, for years. I'm a poor man, but I wouldn't spend the night in that house for a hundred pounds."

He repeated this remark as they started on their expedition a few hours later. They left as the inn was closing for the night; bolts shot noisily behind them, and, as the regular customers trudged slowly homewards, they set off at a brisk pace in the direction of the house. Most of the cottages were already in darkness, and lights in others went out as they passed.

"It seems rather hard that we have got to lose a night's rest in order to convince Barnes of the existence of ghosts," said White.

"It's in a good cause," said Meagle. "A most worthy object; and something seems to tell me that we shall succeed. You didn't forget the candles, Lester?"

"I have brought two," was the reply; "all the old man could spare."

There was but little moon, and the night was cloudy. The road between high hedges was dark, and in one place, where it ran through a wood, so black that they twice stumbled in the uneven ground at the side of it.

"Fancy leaving our comfortable beds for this!" said White again. "Let me see; this desirable residential sepulchre lies to the right, doesn't it?"

"Farther on," said Meagle.

They walked on for some time in silence, broken only by White's tribute to the softness, the cleanliness, and the comfort of the bed which was receding farther and farther into the distance. Under Meagle's guidance they turned off at last to the right, and, after a walk of a quarter of a mile, saw the gates of the house before them.

The lodge was almost hidden by over-grown shrubs and the drive was choked with rank growths. Meagle leading, they pushed through it until the dark pile of the house loomed above them.

"There is a window at the back where we can get in, so the landlord says," said Lester, as they stood before the hall door.

"Window?" said Meagle. "Nonsense. Let's do the thing properly. Where's the knocker?"

He felt for it in the darkness and gave a thundering rat-tat-tat at the door.

"Don't play the fool," said Barnes crossly.

"Ghostly servants are all asleep," said Meagle gravely, "but I'll wake them up before I've done with them. It's scandalous keeping us out here in the dark."

He plied the knocker again, and the noise volleyed in the emptiness beyond. Then with a sudden exclamation he put out his hands and stumbled forward.

"Why, it was open all the time," he said, with an odd catch in his voice. "Come on."

"I don't believe it was open," said Lester, hanging back. "Somebody is playing us a trick."

"Nonsense," said Meagle sharply. "Give me a candle. Thanks. Who's got a match?"

Barnes produced a box and struck one, and Meagle, shielding the candle with his hand, led the way forward to the foot of the stairs. "Shut the door, somebody," he said; "there's too much draught."

"It is shut," said White, glancing behind him.

Meagle fingered his chin. "Who shut it?" he inquired, looking from one to the other. "Who came in last?"

"I did," said Lester, "but I don't remember shutting it--perhaps I did, though."

Meagle, about to speak, thought better of it, and, still carefully guarding the flame, began to explore the house, with the others close behind. Shadows danced on the walls and lurked in the corners as they proceeded. At the end of the passage they found a second staircase, and ascending it slowly gained the first floor.

"Careful!" said Meagle, as they gained the landing.

He held the candle forward and showed where the balusters had broken away. Then he peered curiously into the void beneath.

"This is where the tramp hanged himself, I suppose," he said thoughtfully.

"You've got an unwholesome mind," said White, as they walked on. "This place is quite creepy enough without you remembering that. Now let's find a comfortable room and have a little nip of whisky apiece and a pipe. How will this do?"

He opened a door at the end of the passage and revealed a small square room. Meagle led the way with the candle, and, first melting a drop or two of tallow, stuck it on the mantelpiece. The others seated themselves on the floor and watched pleasantly as White drew from his pocket a small bottle of whisky and a tin cup.

"H'm! I've forgotten the water," he exclaimed.

"I'll soon get some," said Meagle.

He tugged violently at the bell-handle, and the rusty jangling of a bell sounded from a distant kitchen. He rang again.

"Don't play the fool," said Barnes roughly.

Meagle laughed. "I only wanted to convince you," he said kindly. "There ought to be, at any rate, one ghost in the servants' hall."

Barnes held up his hand for silence.

"Yes?" said Meagle, with a grin at the other two. "Is anybody coming?"

"Suppose we drop this game and go back," said Barnes suddenly. "I don't believe in spirits, but nerves are outside anybody's command. You may laugh as you like, but it really seemed to me that I heard a door open below and steps on the stairs."

His voice was drowned in a roar of laughter.

"He is coming round," said Meagle, with a smirk. "By the time I have done with him he will be a confirmed believer. Well, who will go and get some water? Will, you, Barnes?"

"No," was the reply.

"If there is any it might not be safe to drink after all these years," said Lester. "We must do without it."

Meagle nodded, and taking a seat on the floor held out his hand for the cup. Pipes were lit, and the clean, wholesome smell of tobacco filled the room. White produced a pack of cards; talk and laughter rang through the room and died away reluctantly in distant corridors.

"Empty rooms always delude me into the belief that I possess a deep voice," said Meagle. "To-morrow I----"

He started up with a smothered exclamation as the light went out suddenly and something struck him on the head. The others sprang to their feet. Then Meagle laughed.

"It's the candle," he exclaimed. "I didn't stick it enough."

Barnes struck a match, and re-lighting the candle, stuck it on the mantelpiece, and sitting down took up his cards again.

"What was I going to say?" said Meagle. "Oh, I know; to-morrow I----"

"Listen!" said White, laying his hand on the other's sleeve. "Upon my word I really thought I heard a laugh."

"Look here!" said Barnes. "What do you say to going back? I've had enough of this. I keep fancying that I hear things too; sounds of something moving about in the passage outside. I know it's only fancy, but it's uncomfortable."

"You go if you want to," said Meagle, "and we will play dummy. Or you might ask the tramp to take your hand for you, as you go downstairs."

Barnes shivered and exclaimed angrily. He got up, and, walking to the half-closed door, listened.

"Go outside," said Meagle, winking at the other two. "I'll dare you to go down to the hall door and back by yourself."

Barnes came back, and, bending forward, lit his pipe at the candle.

"I am nervous, but rational," he said, blowing out a thin cloud of smoke. "My nerves tell me that there is something prowling up and down the long passage outside; my reason tells me that that is all nonsense. Where are my cards?"

He sat down again, and, taking up his hand, looked through it carefully and led.

"Your play, White," he said, after a pause.

White made no sign.

"Why, he is asleep," said Meagle. "Wake up, old man. Wake up and play."

Lester, who was sitting next to him, took the sleeping man by the arm and shook him, gently at first and then with some roughness but White, with his back against the wall and his head bowed, made no sign. Meagle bawled in his ear, and then turned a puzzled face to the others.

"He sleeps like the dead," he said, grimacing. "Well, there are still three of us to keep each other company."

"Yes," said Lester, nodding. "Unless-- Good Lord! suppose----"

He broke off, and eyed them, trembling.

"Suppose what?" inquired Meagle.

"Nothing," stammered Lester. "Let's wake him. Try him again. White! WHITE!"

"It's no good," said Meagle seriously; "there's something wrong about that sleep."

"That's what I meant," said Lester; "and if he goes to sleep like that, why shouldn't----"

Meagle sprang to his feet. "Nonsense," he said roughly. "He's tired out; that's all. Still, let's take him up and clear out. You take his legs and Barnes will lead the way with the candle. Yes? Who's that?"

He looked up quickly towards the door. "Thought I heard somebody tap," he said, with a shamefaced laugh. "Now, Lester, up with him. One, two-- Lester! Lester!"

He sprang forward too late; Lester, with his face buried in his arms, had rolled over on the floor fast asleep, and his utmost efforts failed to awake him.

"He--is--asleep," he stammered. "Asleep!"

Barnes, who had taken the candle from the mantelpiece, stood peering at the sleepers in silence and dropping tallow over the floor.

"We must get out of this," said Meagle. "Quick!"

Barnes hesitated. "We can't leave them here--" he began.

"We must," said Meagle, in strident tones. "If you go to sleep I shall go-- Quick! Come!"

He seized the other by the arm and strove to drag him to the door. Barnes shook him off, and, putting the candle back on the mantelpiece, tried again to arouse the sleepers.

"It's no good," he said at last, and, turning from them, watched Meagle. "Don't you go to sleep," he said anxiously.

Meagle shook his head, and they stood for some time in uneasy silence. "May as well shut the door," said Barnes at last.

He crossed over and closed it gently. Then at a scuffling noise behind him he turned and saw Meagle in a heap on the hearthstone.

With a sharp catch in his breath he stood motionless. Inside the room the candle, fluttering in the draught, showed dimly the grotesque attitudes of the sleepers. Beyond the door there seemed to his overwrought imagination a strange and stealthy unrest. He tried to whistle, but his lips were parched, and in a mechanical fashion he stooped, and began to pick up the cards which littered the floor.

He stopped once or twice and stood with bent head listening. The unrest outside seemed to increase; a loud creaking sounded from the stairs.

"Who is there?" he cried loudly.

The creaking ceased. He crossed to the door, and, flinging it open, strode out into the corridor. As he walked his fears left him suddenly.

"Come on!" he cried, with a low laugh. "All of you! All of you! Show your faces--your infernal ugly faces! Don't skulk!"

He laughed again and walked on; and the heap in the fireplace put out its head tortoise fashion and listened in horror to the retreating footsteps. Not until they had become inaudible in the distance did the listener's features relax.

"Good Lord, Lester, we've driven him mad," he said, in a frightened whisper. "We must go after him."

There was no reply. Meagle sprang to his feet.

"Do you hear?" he cried. "Stop your fooling now; this is serious. White! Lester! Do you hear?"

He bent and surveyed them in angry bewilderment. "All right," he said, in a trembling voice. "You won't frighten me, you know."

He turned away and walked with exaggerated carelessness in the direction of the door. He even went outside and peeped through the crack, but the sleepers did not stir. He glanced into the blackness behind, and then came hastily into the room again.

He stood for a few seconds regarding them. The stillness in the house was horrible; he could not even hear them breathe. With a sudden resolution he snatched the candle from the mantelpiece and held the flame to White's finger. Then as he reeled back stupefied, the footsteps again became audible.

He stood with the candle in his shaking hand, listening. He heard them ascending the farther staircase, but they stopped suddenly as he went to the door. He walked a little way along the passage, and they went scurrying down the stairs and then at a jog-trot along the corridor below. He went back to the main staircase, and they ceased again.

For a time he hung over the balusters, listening and trying to pierce the blackness below; then slowly, step by step, he made his way downstairs, and, holding the candle above his head, peered about him.

"Barnes!" he called. "Where are you?"

Shaking with fright, he made his way along the passage, and summoning up all his courage, pushed open doors and gazed fearfully into empty rooms. Then, quite suddenly, he heard the footsteps in front of him.

He followed slowly for fear of extinguishing the candle, until they led him at last into a vast bare kitchen, with damp walls and a broken floor. In front of him a door leading into an inside room had just closed. He ran towards it and flung it open, and a cold air blew out the candle. He stood aghast.

"Barnes!" he cried again. "Don't be afraid! It is I--Meagle!"

There was no answer. He stood gazing into the darkness, and all the time the idea of something close at hand watching was upon him. Then suddenly the steps broke out overhead again.

He drew back hastily, and passing through the kitchen groped his way along the narrow passages. He could now see better in the darkness, and finding himself at last at the foot of the staircase, began to ascend it noiselessly. He reached the landing just in time to see a figure disappear round the angle of a wall. Still careful to make no noise, he followed the sound of the steps until they led him to the top floor, and he cornered the chase at the end of a short passage.

"Barnes!" he whispered. "Barnes!"

Something stirred in the darkness. A small circular window at the end of the passage just softened the blackness and revealed the dim outlines of a motionless figure. Meagle, in place of advancing, stood almost as still as a sudden horrible doubt took possession of him. With his eyes fixed on the shape in front he fell back slowly, and, as it advanced upon him, burst into a terrible cry.

"Barnes! For God's sake! Is it you?"

The echoes of his voice left the air quivering, but the figure before him paid no heed. For a moment he tried to brace his courage up to endure its approach, then with a smothered cry he turned and fled.

The passages wound like a maze, and he threaded them blindly in a vain search for the stairs. If he could get down and open the hall door----

He caught his breath in a sob; the steps had begun again. At a lumbering trot they clattered up and down the bare passages, in and out, up and down, as though in search of him. He stood appalled, and then as they drew near entered a small room and stood behind the door as they rushed by. He came out and ran swiftly and noiselessly in the other direction, and in a moment the steps were after him. He found the long corridor and raced along it at top speed. The stairs he knew were at the end, and with the steps close behind he descended them in blind haste. The steps gained on him, and he shrank to the side to let them pass, still continuing his headlong flight. Then suddenly he seemed to slip off the earth into space.

Lester awoke in the morning to find the sunshine streaming into the room, and White sitting up and regarding with some perplexity a badly-blistered finger.

"Where are the others?" inquired Lester.

"Gone, I suppose," said White. "We must have been asleep."

Lester arose, and, stretching his stiffened limbs, dusted his clothes with his hands and went out into the corridor. White followed. At the noise of their approach a figure which had been lying asleep at the other end sat up and revealed the face of Barnes. "Why, I've been asleep," he said, in surprise. "I don't remember coming here. How did I get here?"

"Nice place to come for a nap," said Lester severely, as he pointed to the gap in the balusters. "Look there! Another yard and where would you have been?"

He walked carelessly to the edge and looked over. In response to his startled cry the others drew near, and all three stood staring at the dead man below.

The Purple Cloud

M.P. Shiel
Allison & Busby

"If now a swell from the Deep has swept over this planetary ship of earth, and I, who alone chanced to find myself in the furthest stern, as the sole survivor of her crew . . . What then, my God, shall I do?" The Purple Cloud is widely hailed as a masterpiece of science fiction and one of the best "last man" novels ever written. A deadly purple vapor passes over the world and annihilates all living creatures except one man, Adam Jeffson. He embarks on an epic journey across a silent and devastated planet, an apocalyptic Robinson Crusoe putting together the semblance of a normal life from the flotsam and jetsam of his former existence. As he descends into madness over the years, he becomes increasingly aware that his survival was no accident and that his destiny—and the fate of the human race—are part of a profound, cosmological plan.

 So, you wait ages for one Shiel novel and then two come along at once.  I found this copy of his most renowned work about two days after I'd finished 'Prince Zaleski'.  I don't, as a rule, read two books by the same author very close together but I was hankering after some post-apocalypse shenanigans and this looked as good a shout as any other so in I went.

Adam Jeffson is a cowardly, unlikeable and deeply selfish character who finds himself the sole survivor of the first expedition to the North Pole and then subsequently the last survivor on a planet devastated by a murderous purple gas that has swept the world.

Convinced that he is the final pawn in the battle between the 'White' and the 'Black' Jeffson decides to facilitate a final victory by blowing up the remains of the world's cities.  So, for 17 years he travels the world doing just that pausing only to build his house of wine and gold until an unexpected discovery changes everything.

Shiel's writing her is every bit as flowery and grandiose as in the other book.  He's a fairly slow read taking his time to explore, explain and extrapolate every detail or circumstance.  There's also a deeply religious aspect to the work that never seemed fully developed.  The biggest problem though is how deeply unlikeable Jeffson is.  At no point after the first few pages did I feel anything but repulsion by either him or his actions did have me rooting for the cloud.

I'm glad I finally got to read this but I wasn't sorry when I got to the end.

Buy it here - The Purple Cloud (Penguin Classics)


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Wednesday 27 December 2017

Black Sabbath Live 1970

Way back in the mists of time when I was a young fella of 11 or 12 (around about 1982) and just getting into music my Uncle Mike gave me a (blue EMI) cassette tape of two of his favourite bands.  On side one Led Zeppelin (young me thinks, funny sort of name) and on side two Black Sabbath (young me thinks, now that's a cool name).

I tried and tried with Zeppelin but never could quite understand the appeal - even to this day - but Sabbath on the other hand.  It was love at first listen.

I can't tell you what it was that grabbed me, the lyrics, the vocals or the heaviness but I can tell you what has kept me listening all these years later when it is a real rarity for me to put on any sort of rock album and that's the groove.  That rhythm section just kill it every time and if there's one thing guaranteed to put a smile on my face it's watching Bill Ward drum.  So, with that in mind here's a show from Paris (or possibly Brussels) sometime in 1970 with the band, young, keen and on the top of their game roaring through a set that features pretty much all the classics including a version of War Pigs with different lyrics which almost certainly dates this to before the October 1970 release date of the Paranoid album.



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Iain Banks

There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?
Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding from a dirty past.
There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.

I have a slightly problematic relationship with Mr Banks' work.  Many years ago I tried reading 'The Wasp Factory' which failed to grab me at all and which I never finished. The paucity of pages in that particular book will give you some idea of how little I liked it.  Of his M. Banks books I've physically read one, 'Matter', which was OK but I've listened to several as audiobooks and found that to be far more enjoyable an experience.  I'm not, and never have been, a fan of space operas but as a big old thing I can listen to whilst otherwise occupied they worked well.

I'm not sure what caught my eye about this one but it did and a glance at the back got me intrigued.  I do like an alternative worlds / multiverse story and so, as I was done with my previous read and wanted something different I dove in and was reading it before I even left the shop.

Transition tells the stories of several people in particular of Temudjin Oh who works for 'The Concern' as a dimension hopping assassin / operative doing their bidding and nudging each world onto The Concern's preferred path.  The narrative alternates between several core characters but all are destined to become part of Oh's story.

The book is definitely flawed; there are several points that feel underdeveloped and the ending is more than a little unsatisfying as it takes slightly too long to arrive and then is over far too soon.  It is however an enjoyable trip getting there.  Banks can tell a tale that is complex yet accessible and whilst this isn't so to the extent of his Culture novels it certainly has it's moments.

Buy it here -  Transition


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Sunday 24 December 2017

The Blood on Satan's Claw

When Ploughman Ralph (Barry Andrews) uncovers a strangely formed skull with one staring eye in the field he's tilling he sets in motion a series of events that culminates in one of the most revered of 1970s UK cult horrors.

Patrick Wymark plays the local judge who is dismissive of the local yokel's tale even after a young girl staying at the same house (Tamara Ustinov) goes crazy and his host goes missing.  Meanwhile teenage temptress Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) finds a claw (no prizes for guessing who that belongs too) in a field that slowly works it's magic on her and her friends turning them into a coven of furry devil worshippers.

The film was released to little acclaim but over the intervening years has achieved notable cult status and is beloved of fans of the British horror movies of the 1960s and 70s.  Originally planned as a trio of tales a late decision to amalgamate them into one narrative has left things a little cluttered and there are some dubious make up (Hayden's 'evil' eyebrows) and effects (the revealed creature) but writer Robert Wynne-Simmons and director Piers Haggard have crafted a script and a film where you can almost smell the earth, taste the blood and feel the devil's claws scratching on your neck.

Buy it here - The Blood on Satan's Claw - or watch it below.


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Friday 22 December 2017

Arthur Machen: A Biography

Aidan Reynolds & William Charlton
The Richards Press

One of the real joys of the whole Wyrd Britain project I embarked on a few years back has been the discovery of a couple of authors of the wonderful that are ... well ... wonderful.  Algernon Blackwood is one, A.M. Burrage is too and Arthur Machen is most definitely another.

This biography, published in 1963 some 16 years after Machen's death, is a fairly dry affair but then I wasn't expecting an extravaganza of rock 'n' roll excess.

What we have is a fairly steady and affectionate retelling of his working life with a small amount of personal details and a fairly personal (on the author's parts) take on the relative merits of his work but little in the way of analysis.  This was entirely what I was expecting from the book and indeed what I was hoping for as I wanted something that would give me some background info on the man to help me when I came to read his classic novel 'The Hill of Dreams' - which is waiting here on the shelf - and for which I understand he drew heavily on his own life.*

As I said it proved to be a slightly dry and maybe a little pedestrian but ultimately an interesting overview of the life of a very intriguing man.

*I've since read the book (review to follow) and I wasn't misinformed.


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Thursday 21 December 2017

Prince Zaleski

M.P. Shiel
Tartarus Press

Arguably the most decadent of all fictional sleuths, Prince Zaleski relies upon the methods of ratiocination so beloved of Sherlock Holmes. But unlike his deer-stalkered colleague, Zaleski rarely needs even to leave his divan to solve the perplexing mysteries that Shiel brings before him. Rather than give crude chase to the perpetrators of these sophisticated crimes, Zaleski reclines elegantly in his semi-ruined abbey, ‘a bizarrerie of half-weird sheen and gloom,’ smoking hashish and fashioning solutions from his encyclopedic knowledge of the esoteric. Although he is in this respect akin to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin, Zaleski is primarily an up-to-the-minute 1890s aesthete, prompting one critic to suggest that he is based on that tragically extravagant poet of death, Count Eric Stenbock.

 My fascination with psychic / supernatural / occult detectives continues unabated and I've finally got my hands on one I've been coveting for some time.    As it turns out my understanding of it as being of that particular genre is somewhat in error as there are no supernatural elements here although within the world of the character there are a number of spiritual or mystic aspects.

Zaleski is a decadent savant who lives  hermit-like existence removed from society with only his servant, Ham, and his occasional visitor, Shiel, for company - at least in the three canonical stories; the other two and a bit stories introduce another character as a friend and frequent visitor.

In character the Prince seems most to resemble Mycroft Holmes as he is able, in the three stories, to deduce the causes and perpetrators of the conundrums Shiel lays before him, almost, without rising from his daybed or relinquishing his hookah although the third, and most esoteric, case does require subsequent actions that leave him exhausted.  Transplant his secluded home to the Diogenes Club and he'd be the heart of the British intelligence but Zaleski has no interest in the world outside his doors other than as a source of intellectual stimulation.

The final two and a sliver stories are purportedly written by Shiel but reworked by John Gawsworth and they present a very different character.  Written some many years after the initial trio the language and indeed the character are much changed.  Gone are the verbose, flowery monologues and the decadent ennui and in their place is a faster, almost pulpish, style with a Zaleski who is keen to not only abandon his seclusion but engage in physical confrontation which in neither case rings true of the man we've previously become acquainted with.

Aside from my slight disappointment at not encountering any supernatural shenanigans I was most pleasantly enamoured of the initial three stories - less so the others - and once I got into the rhythm of the dialogue I was happily drawn along by the mysteries.

As a side note, one of the things in particular that struck me was the ways in which Shiel's creation has impacted on one of our favourite writers here at Wyrd Britain, Mark Valentine, and his own supernatural sleuth, 'The Connoisseur'; in his manners and particularly by the mystery at the heart of the third story, 'The S.S.' (no, not them) which resonates with the DNA of Valentine's creation and serves to provide and extra smidgen of heritage to the younger creation and ancestral gravitas to the elder.


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Wednesday 20 December 2017

Omnibus: Life, The Universe and Douglas Adams

How many works of fiction can you name that are equally as famous as a book, radio play and TV show although not so much as a movie?  I can name one, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which I've featured here on Wyrd Britain a few times but today I thought it about time we stopped and turned the spotlight on it's creator, Douglas Adams.

Made just a few months after his death in May 2001 this episode of the BBC arts show Omnibus is a celebration of Adams' life and work.  With contributions from a wide variety of his friends and colleagues such as Terry Jones, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and many more it is an affectionate homage to the man and his ideas.


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Tuesday 19 December 2017

The Wine-Dark Sea

Robert Aickman
Faber and Faber

Peter Straub called Robert Aickman 'this century's most profound writer of what we call horror stories'. Aickman's 'strange stories' (his preferred term for them) are a subtle exploration of psychological displacement and paranoia. His characters are ordinary people that are gradually drawn into the darker recesses of their own minds.
First published in the USA in 1988 and in the UK in 1990 The Wine-Dark Sea contains eight stories that will leave the reader unsettled as the protagonists' fears and desires, at once illogical and terrifying, culminate in a disturbing yet enigmatic ending.

Over the last few years I've read a fair few of Aickman's strange tales both in the wild as part of various anthologies and caged inside the first two volumes of this quartet of reissues, 'Dark Entries' and 'Cold Hand in Mine'.  They've been an enjoyable if often slightly frustrating read.  he was a craftsman par excellence, his skill in building a story into an oppressive and bizarre atmosphere is astounding  but I've often been left unsatisfied by the conclusions he fashions for them.  I don't mean this in the same way as say Stephen King who simply cannot write a satisfying ending but more as an observation that the almost perfunctory endings he gives the stories cast both us and his characters out into the cold having been utterly changed by the experience we've just shared.

This third collection contains what felt - I've not checked so I may be factually wrong but it certainly felt - like a set of longer and more deliberate stories.  They were, not to put too fine a point on it, excellent.

From the opening paean to a simpler, spiritual experience in the title piece, via the old fashioned, and a little obvious, horror of 'The Trains' , the growing madness of the slavery of the telephone in 'Your Tiny Hand is Frozen' and the silliness of 'Growing Boys'.  Through the isolation of 'The Fetch' and the neglect suffered in 'The Inner Room' and the acceptance and rejection of 'Never Visit Venice' to the insomniacs rambles 'Into the Wood' this proved to be a most satisfying and immersive read and easily the most enjoyable so far of the quartet.

Buy it here - The Wine-Dark Sea


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Monday 18 December 2017


Penelope Lively
Piccolo Books

A brother and sister discover that nearby woods not only hide the site of a medieval village but also a well-kept and potentially dangerous secret.

 Peter and Mair Jenkins are new to the village of Charlton Underwood but have found a home there roaming the countryside.  In the woods nearby they make friends with an odd young man with his two large dogs and tame hawk who shows them the secret of the dead town of Astercote.

Coming into this book with no knowledge of what to expect I was kind of thinking it was going to be a lost world or time slip sort of thing but what I actually got was something quite different.  Astercote is a story of beliefs.  Belief in the the past, in heritage, in ideas, in selflessness and selfishness, in protecting ones own and in getting ones own way and at the heart of it all in community and friendship.

It makes for an interesting little read and a very enjoyable one.


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Sunday 17 December 2017

The Tractate Middoth

With it's long history of producing M.R. James stories for it's 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' and with horror aficionado Mark Gatiss on the payroll it seems strange that it took the BBC so long to pair the two together but for Christmas Day 2013 they did just that.

The Tractate Middoth is the story of the search for a missing will, disguised and hidden inside a Jewish text, that will deprive villainous John Eldred (John Castle) of a misappropriated inheritance and instead allow it to pass to it's rightful recipient Mary Simpson (played by Wyrd Britain legend Louise Jameson) and her daughter.  Into this is thrown a young librarian, William Garrett (Sacha Dhawan), whose encounter with a terrifying, cobwebby spectre leads him to committing himself to the ladies' cause.

The Tractate Middoth is certainly one of James' more slight tales and as such Gatiss, sitting for the first time in the director' chair, has wisely kept the runtime short.  This does still leave both script and cast a fair amount to fit into 36 minutes but they do so whilst keeping things suitably sedate. The cast are well chosen and produce solid if maybe slightly uninspired performances with Castle's twitchy, restless, haunted Eldred being the standout.  The initial reveal of the spectre is somewhat botched by simply showing too much too soon but later appearances are handled with a far more deft touch.

As a piece it certainly doesn't rival the early adaptations such as 'Lost Hearts' or 'Whistle and I'll Come To You' but as something to while away bit of a quiet and wintery evening it serves it's purpose.


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Friday 15 December 2017

When Churchyards Yawn

Cynthia Asquith (ed)
Arrow Books

Elizabeth Bowen – The Apple Tree
Hugh Walpole – A Little Ghost
L. P. Hartley – The Cotillion
Ann Bridge – The Buick Saloon
Algernon Blackwood – A Threefold Cord …
Arthur Machen – Opening The Door
Shane Leslie – As In A Glass Dimly
W. S. Morrison – The Horns Of The Bull
William Gerhari – The Man Who Came Back
Mrs. Belloc Lowndes – The Unbolted Door
Oliver Onions – “John Gladwin Says”
Philip MacDonald – Our Feathered Friends
Cynthia Asquith – “God Grante That She Lye Stille”

Originally published in 1931 I stumbled across this 1963 reprint in a small, scruffy animal charity shop recently. I obviously recognised the name gracing the cover from her other books that I have here and a glance inside showed a line-up as tantalising as it is obscure.

Elizabeth Bowen
As I've mentioned before these anthologies often overlap.  There are authors that appear regularly and this one has several in the shapes of Algernon Blackwood, Hugh Walpole, Elizabeth Bowen & L.P. Hartley and certain stories which seem to constitute a 'greatest hits' of the supernatural.  Well, refreshingly none of those are present here and indeed there was only two stories that I'd read before and neither of them to excess.

The book begins with Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Apple Tree', a story of grief and remorse made manifest in the form of the titular tree.  It's a moving piece but one that suffers at it's conclusion for an attempt at an enigmatic ending.  Such is not the case with Hugh Walpole's ' A Little Ghost' which is the story here I'm most familiar with and one I like very much indeed as two lonely souls find solace in each others company.

L.P. Hartley
There are a group of stories within the book that feel like they most express the books original publication date and L.P. Hartley's 'The Cotillon' is one of them.  It tells of the belle of the ball and of the man she has, potentially, wronged.  It's witty and charming in an Agatha Christie sort of way and just as macabrely bloodthirsty.

It's followed by the other story that I've previously read, Ann Bridge's 'The Buick Saloon'. With it's story of colonial heat and repressed emotions freed amongst the expats of Peking it's an odd little tale of curiosity and the thrill of the unknown that nevertheless stays much too much in the mundane for my tastes.

Never one for the mundane, globetrotter, author par excellence and bearer of the perfect ghost story author name, Algernon Blackwood provides us with 'A Threefold Cord...' where a bachelor, bewitched by a woman glimpsed at a party in his childhood home becomes drawn into events far beyond his control and fortunately discovers that friendship is more powerful than family.

Arthur Machen
And so we arrive at the reason this book kept sitting so restlessly on the shelf and demanding it's turn in the sun, the chance to read an Arthur Machen story that I hadn't already (there are many I'm pleased to say).  'Opening the Door' is a story with it's feet in his journalistic career that relates the disappearance and reappearance of an elderly, bookish clergyman.  It's a glorious read.  Restrained and mysterious and, as often seems the case with Machen, alive with the promise or perhaps menace of unseen worlds parallel to ours into which one can step as easily as opening a door but which perhaps aren't so easy to leave again.

Shane Leslie's 'As In A Glass Dimly' is a bit of a non entity sharing with Machen's piece a journalistic conceit it is a poor mimic that can only emulate the merest hint of the unease and imagination of its predecessor. W.S. Morrison's 'The Horns of the Bull' with it's folktale trappings feels particularly out of place and William Gerhardi's 'The Man Who Came Back' is a short, witty but essentially see-through read.

Oliver Onions
We're on sentimental ground for the next story, 'The Unbolted Door' by Mrs Belloc Lowndes which shares with it's successor - Oliver Onions' 'John Gladwin Say...', a theme  of loss and grief that has permeated a family in the first instance and a place in the case of the second, although any sense of melancholy is immediately shattered by the cacophony made by 'Out Feathered Friends' in Philip MacDonald's tale.

The book ends with it's longest story by Asquith herself - editors privilege.  'God Grant That She Lye Stille' is the story of a country doctor, his beautiful patient and her malevolent ancestor.  It's an engrossing read that made me desperately need to shout instructions at the ineffective (understandably but frustratingly so) Doctor as his patient slowly slips through his fingers.

I am so very pleased to have found this book.  I very much like these ghostly anthologies but every know and again one appears which just stands out as having been assembled with real care and insight and this is definitely the case here and any effort to track a copy down would be greatly rewarded in the reading.


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Monday 11 December 2017

Books, books and more books

With Xmas rapidly approaching I thought I'd take this quick opportunity to point some of you lovely folks in the direction of the various Wyrd Britain shops in the hope of parting you from your hard earned money helping you find that perfect gift.

Those of you who follow the Wyrd Britain Facebook page will no doubt have noticed the regular additions to the Books for Sale image folder.  These are for sale in our Etsy Shop where you can find an array of vintage and antiquarian books that cover many of the facets of Wyrd Britain and more.

I currently have over 500 books listed from genres such as horror, science fiction, the paranormal, poetry, biographies, classic kids books, literary fiction, novelisations and more.  Clicking the widget below will take you there.

As well as the Etsy page I also have slightly more modern books (and occasionally music, toys and memorabilia) for sale on the wyrdbritain eBay page.

When you buy from either shop your book will be sent gift wrapped and I always try and get it in the post within 24 hours of receiving the order.

I hope you find something fun and tempting.


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Sunday 10 December 2017

The Omen

Although a predominantly American made film the Wyrd Britain credentials of The Omen are impeccable with it boasting a mostly UK setting, a cast consisting of some of Britain's finest character actors and a story with the legacy of the Hammer and Amicus studios right at it's core.

Originally released in the UK, on the 6th day of the 6th month in nineteen seventy 6 which almost manages to be spooky whilst simultaneously failing spectacularly, 'The Omen' went on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year spawning several sequels of decreasing merit and a remake.

The story tells of the birth and childhood of the Antichrist, Damien Thorn, the 'son' of the US ambassador to the UK (Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick) and the various incidents and accidents that plague them.

Directed by Richard Donner (who would go on to make Superman two years later) and with a timeless, Academy Award winning score by Jerry Goldsmith (I'm sure most everyone reading this can sing at least a 'do-be, do-be-do' version of  his 'Ave Satani' piece) the movie also features a stunning ensemble of actors including David Warner as doomed photographer Keith Jennings, Patrick Troughton as doomed priest Father Brennan, Leo McKern as the not quite doomed yet but soon archaeologist Carl Bugenhagen, Holly (daughter of Jack) Palance as Damian's doomed nanny and Billie Whitelaw as her evil - and doomed - replacement.

I suspect in many ways 'The Omen' was intended to ride the coat-tails of 'The Exorcist' which, following it's release at the very end of 1973, had gone on to global success and notoriety but the end result is very much a film which has deservedly become a horror classic in it's own right.

Buy it here - The Omen [DVD] [1976] - or watch it below.


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Tuesday 5 December 2017

The Small Hand

Susan Hill
Profile Books

Returning home from a client visit late one evening, Adam Snow takes a wrong turn and stumbles across the derelict old White House. Compelled by curiosity he decides to enter, only to be repelled when he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small hand creeping onto his own. This is just the beginning of a series of odd experiences.

This is the third of these lovely little pocket books of Hills that I've read and again it's a solid, if uninspiring, read.

Hill has a very easy style, she constructs her stories with a measured and stealthy pace filled with incidentals and asides that coach you along and draw you into the mundane as the extraordinary builds around you. Her menace, here is the impression of a young child's hand holding that of our protagonist, is subtle and both moving and disquieting and the intensity of the experience builds in a claustrophobic swirl until...well...until it all peters out and you're left wondering if that's all there is.

It isn't, quite, there is a coda to the story that attempts to give the whole thing a tragic 'Woman in Black' style ending but by then it's too late as any feelings of trepidation and discomfort have fallen away and you're merely reading to the end.

Buy it here - The Small Hand (The Susan Hill Collection)


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Sunday 3 December 2017

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly

Title screen for Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly
Every now and again a film or a TV show turns up and you wonder how on Earth you've managed to have never even heard of it let alone watched it even though it's got the most eye catching of titles.  Last week when I was writing the blog for 'The Blood Beast Terror' I spotted this curious looking little gem listed on Vanessa Howard's wiki page.  Now, when I see a title like that I've just got to know more which is a habit that's led me down some curious rabbit holes and this is definitely a curious rabbit hole.

Girly (Vanessa Howard), Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood) & Sonny (Howard Trevor)
Mumsy (Ursula Howells - Dr Terror's House of Horror, Torture Garden), Nanny (Pat Heywood - 10 Rillington Place), Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are a happy - if slightly bonkers and a little bit murdery - family living in a large old house where they play 'the game' which involves Sonny and Girly going out into the wider world and luring men back to the house so they can play too or be 'sent to the angels'.  When they choose a male prostitute (Michael Bryant - The Stone Tape) to be their 'New Friend' they've possibly bitten off more than they realise as he soon starts to play the game to his own advantage.

Vanessa Howard & Howard Trevor in Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly
Directed by Freddie Francis, who had made his name as a cinematographer on films such as 'The Innocents' (and later on 'The Elephant Man' and 'Dune') and as a director for Hammer and Amicus studios on films such as 'Dracula Has Risen From the Grave', 'Dr Terror's House of Horror' and Tales From the Crypt' what we have here is a beautiful looking piece of cinema.  A wonderfully odd and unsympathetically bleak comedy made with complete artistic control by a director with an eye for the unusual, the visually striking and the beautiful all of which would explain his later working relationship with David Lynch.

Vanessa Howard shot in the head with an arrow in Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly
With a script based on a play - 'Happy Family' by Maisie Mosco - it is, at times, a faintly static and talky affair - at one point while watching it my partner who was sat across the room asked me if I was watching a play - and the strong cast have all dialled their performances up to the max but this is Howard's movie and she skips, pouts, gurns, giggles, sings, shrieks, flutters and flounces about the screen, dominating it by playing Girly as a lost child, a coquettish nymphet and as the deranged psychopath she obviously is.

Buy it here - Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly - Digitally Remastered [DVD] [1970] - or watch it below.

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