Wednesday 28 March 2018

In A Glass Darkly

J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Wordsworth Editions

This remarkable collection of stories, first published in 1872, includes Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr. Justice Harbottle, The Room in le Dragon Volant, and Carmilla. The five stories are purported to be cases by Dr. Hesselius, a 'metaphysical' doctor, who is willing to consider the ghosts both as real and as hallucinatory obsessions. The reader's doubtful anxiety mimics that of the protagonist, and each story thus creates that atmosphere of mystery which is the supernatural experience. 

This is my first time digging into a book full of Le Fanu's stories and I found it to be a bit of a pick 'n' mix.

The book tells 5 stories from the files of Dr. Hesselius, an occult detective of sorts, although he himself appears only in one of tales with the 5 being presented as being posthumously selected from his archives.

It's the final story here that's undeniably the most renowned and justifiably so.  'Carmilla' is an unsettling tale of vampirism which while lacking in suspense due to the delivery method (it's told by the 'victim') it manages to hold a tantalising level of menace.

At the other end of the scale is 'The Room in Le Dragon Volant' a frankly risible locked room mystery that was a chore to plough through.

The opening two stories, 'Green Tea' and 'The Familiar' are odd little tales of manifestations induced by overindulgence and guilt and neither tale really sparkles although the latter has the edge but it's the fourth story, 'Mr. Justice Harbottle', that was probably the great surprise of the book with it's deliciously macabre tale of a corrupt judge and his unearthly comeuppance.

I have to admit I struggled a little with this book; mostly with Le Fanu's now quite dated prose style - which had never previously been an issue when encountering his stories in various anthologies - but also because I just didn't think all that much of the opening story, 'Green Tea', ground to a halt and put the book down for a while.  When I returned to it more prepared for it's idiosyncrasies I got more out of it and with the exception of that lousy crime story it proved to be an enjoyable read.

Buy it here - In A Glass Darkly (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural) by Sheridan Le Fanu ( 2007 )


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Monday 26 March 2018

The Wish Dog and Other Stories

Penny Thomas & Stephanie Tillotson (eds)

The Wish Dog and Other Stories takes you into the realm of the unknown, the ghostly and the gothic, in a colourful kaleidoscope of half-glimpsed shades.
The title story, The Wish Dog conjures up a fetch – a lifetime companion much wanted; Harvest is a haunting reworking of Babes in the Wood; Sovay, Sovay tells of a Grand Guignol actress who loses her head to a dream of romance and returns with a thousand stories to tell to her bewitched audience; in Broad Beach a man who has had a close encounter with death has dreams that seem larger than life – what he wants most is to run, like the athlete he watches at the tideline each day.
Other tales feature a ghostly mansion in a Merthyr park, a lonely soldier permanently on guard, the angel of death and a would-be suicide, a lonely Inuit asleep on a mountainside, a row of small wet footprints on floorboards…
Open the pages if you dare, but don’t forget to look behind you.

There seems a little confusion over themes in this book.  The introduction opens with the question of 'What makes a good ghost story?' and the cover refers to 'Haunting tales from Welsh women writers' and I wonder if this perhaps explains the variety in the stories here with many going down the path of the supernatural while others offer a story with a wider interpretation of the world 'haunting'.

Of those in the latter camp Nic Herrriot's 'Convention is the Mother of Reality...' is the undeniable stand out with it's delicately poignant tale of ageing and friends both real and ... other and Gillian Drake's 'Seashells' is a quick but satisfying story of both person and place finding each other.

Of the former there are a few which go in too heavy handed or are just a bit too clunky to conjure up any chills but in amongst them is the folk horror of Sian Preece's 'Harvest' and the jealous spirit of the 'Caretakers' in Jo Mazelis story both of which provide engaging diversions.

I like coming across unexpected ghost stories and in the case of this unassuming volume it proved to be mostly for the good as there was very little here that I didn't enjoy, much that I did and a few that really shone through.

Buy it here - The Wish Dog: Haunting tales from Welsh women writers


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Sunday 25 March 2018

Horror Express (1972)

A joint UK / Spanish production Horror Express pairs the Wyrd Britain dream team of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing with Kojak himself, Telly Savalas, on a Trans-Siberian train journey.

Vaguely based on the sci fi classic 'The Thing From Another World' (later remade by John Carpenter without the last three words in the title) it's the story of English anthropologist Professor Sir Alexander Saxton (Lee) returning home with his prize archaeological find, the frozen remains of an early humanoid creature that he believes to be the evolutionary  missing link which defrosts and begins killing the passengers by draining their brains using it's glowing red eye.

Despite it's giallo origins the film has a heart that is pure Hammer  - with those two stars how could it be anything else - but mixed in with a slightly more sci fi storyline than is usually the case with these things that reflects the source material.

Cushing and Lee are, of course, fantastic with a chemistry honed by decades of collaboration and friendship but the cast are generally strong; Savalas bristles with machismo as the Cossack Captain, Silvia Tortosa is effortlessly cool as Countess Irina Petrovski and Alberto de Mendoza is in full on starey, glarey mad monk mode as Father Pujardov.  The end result is a fun and frolicsome horror movie made on a relatively small budget that makes good use of the confines of its setting to build tension and also to ground the movie as it's more outrageous elements are introduced.

Buy it here - Horror Express [DVD] - or watch it below


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Sunday 18 March 2018

The Monkey's Paw (1988)

One of supernatural fictions most well known tales, W.W. Jacobs' 'The Monkey's Paw' has, since its original publication in 1902 in 'The Lady of the Barge', been parodied, pastiched and adapted many times in shows as diverse as The Simpsons, The Twilight Zone, Ripping Yarns, The X-Files, The Monkees and perhaps most recently Inside No. 9.  It's three wishes storyline and theme of being careful what you wish for has obvious and very enticing appeal for storytellers but has rarely been bettered in the telling than in Jacobs' story.

The version presented here is a fairly low key production from 1988 with a cast of little known actors of whom perhaps the most recognisable is Alex McAvoy who played the teacher in Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'.  It's a faithful adaptation with a nicely claustrophobic setting that despite its limited run time isn't afraid to strike a leisurely pace and allow the tension to build to its dread climax although it does perhaps miss the mark slightly in reproducing the horror of that moment in the original.


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Monday 12 March 2018

The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales

Bob Mann
Longmarsh Press

For several years, Totnes writer and Longmarsh Press founder Bob Mann has given to friends and family a short story at Christmas, instead of a card. These are mainly of a supernatural nature and are firmly rooted in his knowledge of the locality and its history and culture. Now he has decided to share some of them with a wider audience.
The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales contains weird visions, disturbing ladies, long-vanished music and mysterious time slips, mainly set in recognisable buildings and terrains.

I found out about this collection of folky / ghosty tales via a post by Mark Valentine on his fantastic Wormwoodiana blog.  His write up made this sound like a very enticing prospect with elements of M.R. James and Arthur Machen.  I'm always on the look out for new, interesting things to read so I nabbed a copy.

It is an intriguing read consisting of stories written mostly in the stead of Xmas cards which for the most part feature Bob himself in an almost occult investigator type role reporting on various ghostly visitations, unearthly phenomena or eerie circumstance in and around the area of Totnes, Devon.

There's not much to most of the stories but there are two in particular that stand out.  The title piece is an intriguing little tale of a ride on a phantasmal steamer and the book's longest story, 'Early Music', which aside from some, let's say, clunky sexual politics is a fun story of love expressed across time and recognition achieved.

Mark is certainly not wrong in drawing parallels with James and Machen as each shows a clear influence but in the end it's all a little well mannered and lacking in bite and what we have is a relatively charming collection that offer an insight into one man's hobby.


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Tuesday 6 March 2018

Injection (vol.3)

Warren Ellis (writer)
Declan Shalvey (artist)
Jordie Bellaire (colours)
Image Comics

An archaeological dig in Cornwall has gone very wrong, very quickly. And Maria Kilbride has her hands full already, as the effects of the Injection begin to dig in. So Brigid Roth, her old comrade from the CCCU, gets hired to go to a stone circle in the middle of a moor, under a granite tor, to find out why a ritual murder might have torn a hole in the world. What is the Cold House?

The first two volumes of this series quickly established themselves as being amongst my favourite books.  Taking it's inspiration from various Wyrd Britain faves such as Quatermass, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Thomas Carnacki and Doctor Who it certainly rings all our bells.

After the Maria Kilbride (Quatermass) and the Viv Headland (Sherlock) stories of the first two volumes for this third one Irish computer type Brigid Roth does her Doctor Who thing and goes visiting a stone circle in Cornwall that has both a dead body and Maria's attention.  Upon her unorthodox arrival Brigid finds the circle to be very interesting indeed and there's a mysterious old professor with two students who seem suspiciously like henchmen hanging around.  When things inevitably go wrong it does so with almost apocalyptic effect.

As ever Warren has crafted a witty, immersive and downright exciting tale this time melding modern and ancient technologies in the manner of the best Nigel Kneale scripts.  There's a little bit of 'The Stone Tape' in there along with some 'Quatermass Conclusion' and a tiny smattering of Kneale's short story 'Minuke'.

The art team are on fire here particularly on the latter parts of the book when things start to kick off - just check out that image to the left there - although I did wonder why a newly unearthed stone circle would be so grassy.

As I said earlier, by the end of book 1 this was already a favourite and the two subsequent volumes have confirmed and strengthened this opinion and I'm only sorry that with only two books left in the series we are now past the halfway mark.

Buy it here - Injection Volume 3


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Sunday 4 March 2018

Three Miles Up

Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote 'Three Miles Up' as one of her three contributions (along with ‘Left Luggage’ and ‘Perfect Love’) to 'We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories' a collaborative book with Robert Aickman published in 1951.  Other than these Howard only ever wrote one other story of the supernatural, 'Mr Wrong', which is a crying shame as her take on the genre is very much in line with her previously mentioned collaborator and we all know how far he developed the genre.

'Three Miles Up' is by far the most famous of her 4 tales turning up in numerous anthologies and it's easy to see why it was chosen for adaptation both in terms of budget constraints as it's all set in the very enclosed environment of a canal barge travelling through a sparse and desolate landscape and in the inscrutable power of the story.

The original tale sets two friends, one recovering from a breakdown, on a canal holiday that they are woefully ill-prepared for and soon fall to bickering before the discovery of a young woman asleep near the canal who agrees to travel with them sets them down a very different path canal.  The TV version made for the short lived mid 90s series 'Ghosts' changes some elements of the story making the two men brothers (played by Douglas Henshall & Dan Mullane, with Jacqueline Leonard playing the mysterious Sara) and adding in a slightly confused and overwrought back story regarding the death of their mother that allows the actors chance to chew some scenery and for the director to bring the story to a more definite close than the more powerful and enigmatic ending of the original.

If, like me, you are a fan of the original story I doubt this version will take it's place in your affections but it's an interesting attempt at updating and filming one of the finest takes on the modern supernatural tale.


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Saturday 3 March 2018

Arthur Machen's 'The White People'

Born 155 years ago today Arthur Machen was a Welsh writer and mystic;  the vicar's son from the former Roman settlement of Caerleon in Monmouthshire who transformed a Celtic pagan sensibility and a love of the bucolic and the arcane mysteries of his rural childhood home into an array of bewitching and beguiling stories.

Never one for anything as simple as a ghost story Machen's fiction tells of places and people outside of the normal, of contact with the ephemeral and of the importance of the mystical.

Of all his works there are perhaps three that stand above all others. His debut novella 'The Great God Pan', his semi-autobiographical novel 'The Hill of Dreams' and the terrifying supernatural masterclass of 'The White People'.

I heartily recommend that you track down and read all of these (especially the last as it's my personal favourite) but in the meantime I thought I would share with you this lovely video by Rosalie Parker and Ray Russell of Tartarus Press who here present an abridged reading of 'The White People' augmented by music from Ray.

'The White People' is included alongside many other core Machen stories in this lovely collection from Penguin Classics - The White People and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)



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