Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Hanging Tree

Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree was the Tyburn gallows which stood where Marble Arch stands today. Oxford Street was the last trip of the condemned. Some things don't change. The place has a bloody and haunted legacy and now blood has returned to the empty Mayfair mansions of the world's super-rich. And blood mixed with magic is a job for Peter Grant.
Peter Grant is back as are Nightingale et al. at the Folly and the various river gods, ghosts and spirits who attach themselves to England's last wizard and the Met's reluctant investigator of all things supernatural.

We are well into the story of Peter Grant, magic copper, and his various colleagues, both mundane and magical, and his friends and family, both ditto and ditto, and I find myself enjoying them more and more with each book.

After the previous book's sojourn into the countryside - and other place - we're back in London and hot on the trail of Lesley and the Faceless Man as Peter is called in by Beverley's elder sister, Tyburn, to get her daughter out of a pickle following a death at a party.  Investigations soon expose another aspect of the magical world and lead Peter and Nightingale in a most interesting direction.

As is ever the case with these 'Rivers of London' books Aaronovitch ladles the police procedures on - just cause Peter can conjure a water balloon doesn't excuse him from report writing and the chain of command or Latin homework for that matter.

Within all this the story is tight and fluid.  There is little time for the chilling out at the Folly we often see which is a shame as I really like those bits.  What takes their place though is a fast, fun and often funny read that had me firmly in it's grasp from the get go and long may this series continue.

Buy it here - The Hanging Tree: The Sixth PC Grant Mystery


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Sunday 26 November 2017

The Blood Beast Terror

The majestically named 'The Blood Beast Terror' was made by Tigon-British Film Productions as a deliberate attempt at Hammer's gothic horror audience.  It tells the story of the hunt for a vampiric were-moth that is killing young men on the moors and draining them of all their blood

The film stars Peter Cushing as Inspector Quennell, Vanessa Howard as his daughter Meg, Robert Flemyng as Dr. Mallinger and Wanda Ventham - now far more well known as the mother of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock - as the slightly mothy Clare Mallinger. 

Few of the actors come out of this experience well, Cushing (obviously), Howard (who only appears in the second half of the film) and British TV regular Glynn Edwards who plays Sgt. Allan being just about the only cast members who don't look like they're hamming it up in an off season end-of-the-pier pantomime.

'The Blood Beast Terror' has not aged particularly well and has been much maligned over the intervening years - Cushing thought it was one of his worst movies - and I'm certainly not going to try and redeem it but the ropey directing, the cack handed editing, the ham acting, the dumb script and the woeful effects all add up to making this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure for me.

Buy it here - The Blood Beast Terror [Blu-ray] [1968] - or watch it in all it's dubious glory below.


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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Silver on the Tree

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

The Dark is rising in its last and greatest bid to control the world. And Will Stanton -- last-born of the immortal Old Ones, dedicated to keeping the world free -- must join forces with this ageless master Merriman and Bran, the Welsh boy whose destiny ties him to the Light. Drawn in with them are the three Drew children, who are mortal, but have their own vital part in the story. These six fight fear and death in the darkly brooding Welsh hills, in a quest through time and space that touches the most ancient myths of the British Isles, and that brings Susan Cooper's masterful sequence of novels to a satisfying close.

And so we come to the end of The Dark is Rising sequence and I'm a little bit sad about it.  Now, if you'd told me a few months ago after I'd read the first in the series that I'd be lamenting their passing I'd probably have raised a disbelieving eyebrow at you but four books later here I am doing that very thing.

The first book in the quintet was a competent enough magicky tale on the tried and trusted Famous Five, Secret Seven, Existential Eight formula and felt a little bit old fashioned.  The second raised the bar significantly with the introduction of young Will and his induction as a 'Old One'.  It was still a bit pat and there was little suspense but Cooper had created a world that looked like it would be fun to visit and peopled it with characters that you wanted to watch. 

By the time she got to the third book she was flying; it blew me away!  I was nervous about the reintroduction of the trio from the first book but her depiction of them was much more nuanced and she slotted them seamlessly into the new, more substantial, universe.  The fourth built on this further and added a new element of Welshness into the story of the fight against The Dark that gave the narrative depth, age and a heritage.  Now, finally we are at the end; The Dark is coming and all those we have met have a part to play.

For 'Silver in the Tree' we are back in Wales roaming the mountains of the west and the lost land even further so.  Cooper weaves Welsh and Arthurian folktales into her narrative as Will, Bran and the three Drews explore the landscape and are also thrown both into the past and travel to lost lands of legend.

Reflecting, perhaps, the time it was written the book touches several times on issues of racial and cultural bigotry; explicitly so in the case of Will's elder brothers confrontation of three racist bullies and it's aftermath and later in passing following Bran's first meeting with the English Drew children.  Obviously, within the story these events are intended to show the power the resurgence of The Dark has in the hearts of people but I'd have liked more to have been made of them as they remain an issue that is depressingly current but perhaps in her handling of the topic as the beliefs of venal men that don't deserve to be lingered over she says far more.

At the book's conclusion we see the promised six in their final attempt to turn back The Dark and a seventh find his true nature in the final counting.  It's an ending that's very much in keeping with what has gone before as  - spoilers - you always know they'll win out and there's never been much jeopardy in these stories as it's regularly and specifically stated that The Dark are not allowed to hurt the Old Ones although there is one moment that is staggering in it's cruelty and which makes the injured party's subsequent actions all the more powerful.

The book ends with a nod to (or a lift from - depending on how you feel) Tolkein and the promise that most of the participants will forget the events which is kind of one step away from '...and then they all woke up' but I'll not belabour that point as the journey getting there was certainly worthwhile and I lament the passing of this series.

Buy it here - Silver On The Tree (The Dark Is Rising)


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Saturday 18 November 2017

Doctor Who: Short Trips: Time Signature

Simon Guerrier (ed)
Big Finish

A city destroyed by time itself. A country torn apart by revolution. The Doctor doesn't just change the lives of those around him—his actions echo through history, as shown in these tales exploring the outer reaches of cause and effect. 

This is the second of these BF Who hardbacks I've managed to score in the last little while.  I've tended to avoid them as they're a little pricey for my pocket but happily I've now come across two at vastly reduced prices so I've had the opportunity to sample them which I really wanted to do as the audios are fab - and I don't mean just their Who ones.

The first book I read was a pretty fun ride with mostly strong stories which is a template that's continued here.  Joff Brown's 'Walking City Blues' was a real highlight with the 6th Doctor in full on detective mode as was Eddie Robson's 2nd Doctor Delia Derbyshire homage, 'The Avant Guardian' and also Matthew Sweet's daft as an infested brush 'The Earwig Archipelago'.

As with the other volume there's a new companion that features in many of the stories and a vague narrative that runs through many of them that's set up by the two Simon Guerrier stories that I suppose were meant to bookend the contents but for some reason is continued, pointlessly and confusingly, in Andrew Cartmel's story which closes the book.

Truthfully, this one wasn't as good as the other and the through story was pretty ham-fisted and just got in the way but that aside as a collection of Who stories that I didn't know it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of afternoons.

Sunday 12 November 2017

The Stone Tape

In 1972 having returned to the BBC after a sojourn as a freelancer with companies such as Hammer Films, Nigel Kneale was offered the chance to write the Xmas play for broadcast on BBC Two.  Following the well trod tradition of a Xmas ghost story Kneale decided to meld his take on the genre with the science fiction with which he made his name.

His story concerns the efforts of a team of researchers attempting to develop a new recording technology in the haunted house in which they have set up shop using the theory that the very stones of the building have become imprinted with a 'recording' of the death of a young woman.

The play stars Michael Bryant and Jane Asher, was produced by former Doctor Who producer Innes Lloyd (the man responsible for the Doctor regenerating) and directed by another former Hammer employee Peter Sasdy (director of Countess Dracula and Taste The Blood of Dracula).  The music and the, desperately unsettling, sounds for the show were created by Desmond Briscoe which marked a rare foray into the studio for the head of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; Briscoe, incidentally, had in 1958 created the special sound for Kneale's original TV version of Quatermass and the Pit in one of the first projects worked on by the then newly established Workshop.

There are many gems in the Kneale catalogue and we've featured a few of them here on Wyrd Britain in the past and this one is right up there with the best of them.  Like 'Murrain' it concerns itself with those most Kneale of topics the clash between the supernatural and the scientific and like 'Quatermass and the Pit' and the late 70s 'Quatermass Conclusion' with the echoes of history imprinted on a location and it does both in the most terrifying manner.

The Stone Tape was recently revived for radio by the BBC in a production overseen by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy) which we'll return to at a later date.  In the meantime though here's the original.

Buy it here - UKUS - or watch it below.


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Saturday 11 November 2017

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie
Harper Collins

It's seven in the morning. The Bantrys awake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing evening dress and heavy make-up. But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl?

When the Colonel and Mrs Bantry are awoken to the news that there's a dead young lady in their library there are two calls to make.  For the Colonel it's to the police, for his wife it's to her friend Miss Jane Marple.  Soon the good lady is quietly puzzling her way through a maze of alibis and potential murderers all the time being quietly certain of who did it but not quite knowing the how or the why.

Again this books proves to be an absolute delight.  The tangle of the plot, the wit and the invention of the dialogue and the masterful invention of the author all tied together with a central character who is perfectly realised.

Buy it here - The Body in the Library (Miss Marple)

Thursday 9 November 2017

The Making of 'The Innocents'

I'm pretty sure there aren't many readers of this blog unfamiliar with the 1961 gothic horror movie 'The Innocents'.  A brooding and, if you'll excuse the pun, haunting ghost story concerning a governess and her young charges.

The film itself is a masterclass of visual storytelling and as such when I spotted this short BFI documentary discussing the making of the film and the people behind it I thought it would be of interest to some of you, personally I found it fascinating.

Hope you enjoy.


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Tuesday 7 November 2017

London Falling

Paul Cornell 
Tor Books

The dark is rising ...Detective Inspector James Quill is about to complete the drugs bust of his career. Then his prize suspect Rob Toshack is murdered in custody. Furious, Quill pursues the investigation, co-opting intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover cops Costain and Sefton. But nothing about Toshack's murder is normal. Toshack had struck a bargain with a vindictive entity, whose occult powers kept Toshack one step ahead of the law -- until his luck ran out. Now, the team must find a 'suspect' who can bend space and time and alter memory itself. And they will kill again.
As the group starts to see London's sinister magic for themselves, they have two choices: panic or use their new abilities. Then they must hunt a terrifying supernatural force the only way they know how: using police methods, equipment and tactics. But they must all learn the rules of this new game - and quickly. More than their lives will depend on it.

I've read a few of Cornell's things over the years, mostly from the library when I've not found anything else which is not intended to be a slight against him but rather an observation that the titles on which he made his name as a comic writer - such as X-Men and Batman - aren't really to my taste. He did have a stretch on Hellblazer too but I was gone from comics by then and stayed gone for about 10 years.

I'm not sure why I'm saying any of this as what we have here isn't a comic but the first in a series of novels about a group of magic coppers. I think I'm probably just admitting to a tiny bias in that I really didn't like the other stuff but it had as much - if not more - to do with my disinterest in people dressed in spandex hitting each other as it did in the writing.

D.I. Quill and his small team of two undercover officers and an intelligence analyst are at the end of a long and complex investigation and about to make the score of their careers when the chief suspect is brutally murdered in custody, in plain sight of Quill and with no visible perpetrator.

Their investigations lead them in the direction of one particular old lady who possibly may have had a hand in a huge number of deaths stretching back further than seems possible. During the raid on her house something inexplicable happens and the team are plunged headlong, unprepared and ill-equipped, into an aspect of London that they'd previously been blissfully unaware of.

I must admit I struggled with this book. For the most part I found it to be a pretty ponderous read peopled by unlikeable characters. I almost gave up on it a few times during the first 100 pages or so but persevered after reading some online reviews that promised that it came to life in the second half, Well, I ploughed on and it did but not much. I found that with the exception of Sefton (one of the undercover coppers) I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them. The story was laborious and resolutely dull with an identity problem about whether it wanted to be Neverwhere or The Sweeney and ended up not really capturing the spirits of either.

Comparisons will also be made to Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London' series and there are similarities but Aaronovitch has a wit and a lightness of touch that is missing here. Cornell's protagonists are all so serious that they must have appalling and permanent jaw ache from all the teeth clenching and the whole thing felt drab and unlovely and perhaps that's the point and I just couldn't see it which would be annoying.  This - the supernatural detective -  is a genre I like very much indeed.  I have a shelf full of this sort of stuff and desperately want to like this book and can see that there's something quite interesting buried in there, especially with their find at the end, but everything is all so down and maudlin it feels like it's pushing me away.

When I picked this book up I grabbed the other two in the series with it - they were on offer - so I may try at least the second one just to find out if there is something here and I'm just missing it.

Buy it here - London Falling (Shadow Police)

Monday 6 November 2017

Supernatural Tales 35

David Longhorn (editor)

I've been planning to pick up a copy of Supernatural Tales for a while now but things kept getting in the way and I'd forget about it.  This time when I got a mailout from Mark Valentine detailing his very intriguing contribution I straight way grabbed myself a copy.  Turns out it was worth every penny and I really should have started buying these sooner.

The magazine consists of 6 and half (possibly) stories and a couple of reviews.  The latter are of a book, a film and a comic, none of which I'm familiar with although the comic is an adaptation of Arthur Machen's superlative 'The White People'.  If you've read Longhorn's blog - - then you'll know his reviewing style is eminently readable and he makes all three sound very enticing.

The first of the stories, 'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson is a hugely intriguing but ultimately frustrating prospect that sets up a mystery only to suddenly bring the whole thing to a crashing halt.  I really wanted this to be much longer to give Wilkinson the opportunity to develop and tease out and fully realise the really interesting premise.  Indeed, I was so taken by Wilkinson's writing that I tracked down a copy of his collection published by Egaeus Press.

Mark Valentine (photo by R.B. Russell)
Mark Valentine's story, 'The Scarlet Door' did everything his mailout promised it would with a story of the unexpected perils of book collecting. Andrew Alford's 'A Russian Nesting Demon' struck me as a very glib story about body dysmorphia and I skipped past Micheal Chislett's, 'The Subliminals' as it was part 1 of a story to be continued in the next issue when, if it concludes there, I'll read both parts together - it's also the reason for that 'possibly' you may have noticed back there.

Matt Joiner's paean to the buildings of our past and the remnants of their existence that inhabits our memories takes literal form in his 'The Utter Dust' which set me to quietly remembering those places that meant much but are now lost in all but memory.

John Howard is an author we've encountered here at Wyrd Britain before on a number of occasions and have always been delighted to do so.  His contribution 'The House at Twilight' also deals with place, memory and loss in a bittersweet tale of love broken, lives parted and the brutality of loneliness.

The beauty and the power of Howard's story does no favours to Helen Grant as her story of Midas' curse and the greed of selfish venal men seems rather empty after it.  A re-read a few days later helped me enjoy it more as a fun tale but I think it needed to be otherwise positioned in the magazine as anything would have struggled in the emotional backwash of Howard's piece.

As I said at that top of this I've long been meaning to dip a toe into S.T. and it seems I chose the most opportune moment as for the most part this was a very fine collection that I heartily recommend.

Buy it here -

Sunday 5 November 2017

The Innocents (1961)

Based on the Henry James novella 'The Turn of the Screw', The Innocents tells the story of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) who becomes governess to two young children, Flora and Miles (played with aplomb by Pamela Franklin and the creepiest kid of the 1960s Martin Stephens) and becomes convinced that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess (Clyte Jessop) and her abusive lover (Peter Wyngarde).

The Innocents is a masterclass of artful and restrained horror, a deliberate move away from the glorious schlock of the Hammer movies.  Scares are kept to a minimum and in their place is a mounting sense of terror realised through it's use of darkness, slow, languorous edits and astonishing, groundbreaking electronic sound from legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Daphne Oram.

Buy it here - UK / US


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Friday 3 November 2017

Dancers at the End of Time

Michael Moorcock
Orion Books

Enter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like 'conscience' and 'morality' are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveller, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time.
The Dancers at the End of Time, containing the novels An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs, is a brilliant homage to the 1890s of Wilde, Beardsley and the fin de si├Ęcle decadents, satire at its sharpest and most colourful.

 I first read this a few decades ago when I was about 19 or 20 and it blew my mind.  I'm not entirely convinced I understood everything but it certainly made an impact.

Here we have a collected edition of the three novels and across them Moorcock tells the story of Jherek Carnelian, a denizen of the utopia that exists on Earth at the end of time.  Into his perfect life is thrown an unwitting time traveller in the shape of a married, Victorian, Englishwoman named Mrs Amelia Underwood.

On a whim, which is how Jherek and his peers do everything, Jherek decides he's going to be in love with Amelia and to that end pursues her through various trials and tribulations from one end of time to the other and beyond.

Jherek is one of the most endearing heroes I've ever come across.  He has no understanding of hate, jealousy, rage or any other negative emotion and when faced by adversity his response is either gentle perplexity or smiling wonderment; he is, in all ways, nice.

Mrs Underwood on the other hand is a woman trapped.  Where Jherek has been raised in an environment of utter anarchy she is the product of the most restrictive societal and familial mores and when confronted by Jherek's purity, born from what she sees as sin, her reaction is to bury herself in her faith and her heritage until his relentless love soon begins to chip away at her resolve.

This is the most wonderful (3) book(s).  It is filled with joyous invention, Moorcock's words dance across the page and his character sparkle.  I am a long time fan of his work and regularly dip into one of his, many, books especially as they tend to be fairly short and fast reads that you can devour in a couple of hours.  I poured over this one and eked it out over a good few days allowing the humour to percolate and the ideas to insinuate and at the end of 665 pages I was still desperately craving more.

Buy it here -  The Dancers at the End of Time: Written by Michael Moorcock, 2013 Edition, Publisher: Gollancz [Paperback]


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