Tuesday 29 September 2020

Crooked Houses

Crooked Houses Egaeus Press
Mark Beech (editor)
Egaeus Press

Is there a theme in supernatural fiction more prone to cliché and cozy familiarity than the haunted house story?
With this mammoth new anthology, Egaeus Press aims to reclaim that supremely primal tradition, not only from glossy movies, cartoons and television-era ghost hunters, but also from the Victorians, and the great, academic spook story authors of the 20th Century who, by their nature, sought to calibrate, anthropomorphise and provide justification for acts by forces which might hitherto have been considered beyond the scope of human comprehension.
Crooked Houses takes its cue from this earlier age. Though many of the stories presented are set in the modern world, the forces which pervade are primeval, unquantifiable; the stuff of folk-tales, family curses and collective nightmares.
These houses have very deep roots. These houses have teeth.
The book comprises 17 previously unpublished stories.

Over the past few years I've been occasionally dipping into Egaeus Press' publications and each has been a real treat and this anthology of haunted house tales has proved to be no exception.  What we get is a nicely eclectic array of takes on the concept from the Jamesian to the pulpy to the elegantly literary.

The opening tale by Rebecca Kuder is a very Richard Brautigan-esque story of a house burning told in remembrance by a father left to raise his feral son which I liked a lot but it did leave me craving to know more about the son.  The Brautigan echoes continue with Richard Gavin's story about a mother keeping a preternaturally organised and tidy house with the aid of whatever is in the old cabin.  I'm not entirely sure I got what Gavin was doing here but it made for an enjoyably strange read.
Colin Insole's 'The Shepherd's House' is a story of mysterious deaths that haunt, and have always haunted, a small town. It's got an intriguing premise and despite being one of the longest in the book I certainly wouldn't have complained if it had been longer.

The next two kind of lost me a bit as Helen Grant's 'The West Window takes a story of a young man saying goodbye to his family's ancestral home and allows it to gallop off into unnecessary strangeness long after it should have drawn to a close whilst Steve Duffy's 'The Psychomanteum' felt like it was written with a southern gothic tick sheet.  Neither were terrible by any means but they failed to grab me.

Reggie Oliver's 'The Crumblies' where a family takes possession of the home that had been the inspiration for a series of children's books shares a similar premise to Kim Newman's novel 'An English Ghost Story' and makes for an intriguing story.  It's written with Oliver's customary finesse but with its dangling plot threads and hidden ending it does read a bit like a synopsis of a much longer story.

There are echoes of 'Hellraiser' in David Surface's thoroughly creepy 'The Devil Will Be At Your Door' as the mystery of a house where two children, who don't seem to have ever existed, have disappeared draws in fresh victims before the book loses me again with the next two stories which both feel entirely over-written.  John Gale's 'The House of the Mere' which seems to be the story of a thesaurus who moves to the country to escape a naiad whilst Albert Power's 'Fairest of the All' is an icky blend of 'Lolita' and 'Dorian Gray'.

We're back on track with Lynda E. Rucker's 'Miasmata', a fun little tale of a mysterious door that feels like it would have made for a fine 80s horror novel and it features a thinly disguised cameo for Brian Showers of Swan River Press.

I'm always very pleased to read a new Mark Valentine story and 'The Readers of the Sand' is a delicately enigmatic tale of a meeting between four people with an affinity for the stuff in question. Carly Holmes tells a nicely creepy story of loss hidden from prying eyes and expressed in secret in the gracefully poignant 'Doll's House' whilst James Doig's 'At Lothesley, Montgomeryshire, 1910' is an entertaining slice of pastoral gothic horror very much in the vein of M.R. James.

Rebecca Lloyd is another that seems to be channelling 1980s horror with 'In Cromer Road' bringing back all manner of Amityville memories in her story of a house plagued by ghostly winds.  Katherine Hayes' ' House of Sand' is an oddly hallucinogenic tale of a house party slowly dwindling away to nothing and the house along with it whilst for Jane Jakeman the modest terraced house lies at the centre of the entire 'Mythology' of a nation before the book ends with Timothy Granville's 'The Piner House' where a building exerts a narcotic influence on it's tenants and is a fabulously dreamlike way to close the book.

As I've said before in other reviews and will no doubt say again anthologies are a notoriously tricky prospect to review.  What I enjoyed will not necessarily transfer to another reader but when a collection is as strong as this then it does make life a lot easier. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and whilst I know it's out of print now  having sold out almost immediately there is a possibility of another run in January 2021 for which I would heartily recommend contacting the publisher to let them know you're interested.


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Sunday 27 September 2020

Dr Terror's House of Horrors

Dr Terror's House of Horrors
Five passengers board a train from London to (the fictional town of) Bradley.  They all settle into the same compartment where they're joined by an old man by the name of 'Dr Schreck' who proceeds to use a tarot deck, his "house of horrors", to tell their fortunes. Spoiler - they're all doomed!

Made in 1965 by Amicus Productions from a screenplay by Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis 'Dr Terror's House of Horrors' was the first of the studio's portmanteau horror movies followed by 'Torture Garden' (UK / US), 'The House That Dripped Blood' (UK / US), 'Tales from the Crypt' (UK / US), 'Asylum' (UK / US), 'Vault of Horror' (UK / US) and 'From Beyond the Grave' (UK / US).

Dr Terror's House of Horrors
The most striking thing about the movie is the casting; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are quite understandable (not to mention pretty much compulsory) as are the host of reliable familiar faces littering each segment such as Michael Gough and Bernard Lee but the other four men in the compartment make for a strange bunch.  Neil McCallum was a jobbing actor with nothing of note on his resume before this (or after to be honest),  Alan Freeman was a popular BBC radio DJ presenting the long running 'Pick of the Pops' show who had no prior acting experience, Roy Castle was a comedic light entertainer making the shift into movies and who later that same year would again share a bill with Peter Cushing in 'Dr. Who and the Daleks' (UK / US) (also made by Amicus) and, perhaps strangest of all, future Hollywood royalty Donald Sutherland who having studied in the UK had appeared in a movie with Christopher Lee the previous year, the Italian horror 'Castle of the Living Dead ' (UK / US), and would make a movie for Hammer, 'Fanatic', that same year and then episodes of 'The Avengers' and 'The Saint' before Hollywood beckoned.

Dr Terror's House of Horrors
The five stories revolve around several established horror tropes - a werewolf, a killer plant, voodoo, vengeful body parts and vampires - to varying degrees of success and seriousness.  I have a real soft spot for this movie and for me it's Lee versus the disembodied hand that is the standout segment although perhaps the most memorable is Roy Castle's jazz voodoo story - also featuring Kenny Lynch, the Tubby Hayes Quartet and a great tune - but the general goofiness of Castle's performance and some casual racism have always grated on me slightly.  McCallum's werewolf tale is the most Hammeresque of the five tales with it's big old house, ancient curses and hidden crypts whereas Freeman versus the foliage and Sutherland's sanguinary spouse most closely ressemble the Amicus template of movies to come although neither is particularly memorable.

Dr Terror's House of Horrors
It's far from being the best of the Amicus portmanteaus - I'll let you debate which is - but to my mind it's definitely the most fun.  For the most part it's tongue is firmly planted in it's cheek and even when it's being serious director Francis seemingly can't help injecting a hint of silliness - Michael Gough taunting Lee with paper cut-out chimps.  Like I said earlier I have a enduring soft spot for this movie, it's one of several that I turn to when I need a smile putting on my face as it never fails.  Very few of it's constituent parts - one, maybe - would be able to hold their heads high in more rarified company but all together here they complement each other wonderfully.

Buy it here - UKUS - or watch it below.


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Saturday 26 September 2020

Peel Sessions 3

This is the music from week three of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Stereolab (1991)
XTC (1977)
Aphex Twin (1992)
Ivor Cutler (1969)
The Danse Society (1981)
Crass (1979)



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Friday 25 September 2020


Brian Catling
Swan River Press

"There hadn’t been monks at the abbey since 1600. Not living ones, that is."
When the puckish spirit of a monk begins haunting the storied village of Pulborough, known for its ancient abbey, Maud Garner, manager of the Coach and Horses Inn, arranges for the famous ghost hunter, Walter Prince, to come investigate. And from there, things spiral out of control.

I read 'The Vorrh' (UK / US) by Brian Catling about a year or so ago after reading a host of glowing reviews by folk I admire but whilst I could see why they'd like it I personally found it to be a little bit smug and a tad aimless.  It was though very nicely written and so I decided, when I saw that Swan River were releasing a new work by him, to give him another go.

Munky is the story of the arrival of a ghostly monk into the abbey at Pulborough and the impact his arrival has on the congregation and the town.

Right from the off I found myself reminded of Max Porter's excellent 'Lanny', not in plot or style but in the more nebulous realm of 'feel'.  I can't put my finger on why really but they just felt like they shared a reality.

The narrative of 'Munky' is loose to say the least.  We are provided with snapshots of a larger story, glimpses into the reactions and the behaviours and we are left to fill in the blanks ourselves in a way that is simultaneously irritating and satisfying.

It's a super fast read - again like 'Lanny' - what I think of as a single sitter.  It's like watching one of those wonderful little one off supernatural TV plays they were so good at making in the 70s like 'The Stone Tape' or 'Murrain' (to name two by Nigel Kneale) and as much as I enjoyed it I think I'll get even more out of it on repeat readings.

Buy it here UK / US


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Tuesday 22 September 2020

Time, A Falconer: A Study of Sarban

Mark Valentine
Tartarus Press

In this new biographical study Mark Valentine enables us to understand more of John William Wall (1910-1989), the diffident, compassionate, highly intelligent and sensitive man who wrote under the pseudonym Sarban.

Having read and very much enjoyed Sarban's 'Ringstones' a short while ago I was delighted to unexpectedly take delivery of a copy of 'Time, A Falconer' Mark Valentine's short biography of the author and analysis of his published and unpublished work.

I very much enjoy Mark's studies of forgotten and underappreciated authors, his 'A Country Still All Mystery' and 'A Wild Tumultory Library' (both Tartarus Press) are both fantastic reads full of interesting details and intriguing diversions.  Reading each has proved to be enlightening to both mind and wallet and I've learned to always keep a notebook handy when reading one of his studies which again proved useful here as I now have (another) small list of books to track down.

John William Wall published 3 books under the Sarban pseudonym - 'The Sound of His Horn' (1952), 'Ringstones and Other Curious Tales' (1951) and 'The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny' (1953) - whilst working in various parts of the world as a diplomat for the UK government.  Based mostly in the Middle East his stories often reflected life in the Levant whilst also sharing a Machen or Blackwood like love for the wild spaces and the thin places.

Mark's study provides an overview of Sarban's life and the places he served but happily the focus is very much on the literary work he produced in his spare time. He gives his typically thorough examination of the published work providing context and possible inspiration and further to this we are gifted tantalising insights into unpublished works that saw the light for the first time in a Tartarus Press volume published alongside this one.

Obviously as a study of the work of an obscure author this is likely to be of interest only to those already familiar with Sarban's work and to those people I highly commend it.  If however you haven't sampled his writing then I can only recommend that you rectify that situation immediately by tracking down one of the trio of works and then coming back and treating yourself to this fascinating exploration.

Available from the link above.

Below is a short video by Tartarus Press co-publisher R.B. Russell exploring Sarban's books as well as the unfinished works left in the authors archives.


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Sunday 20 September 2020

Crucible of Terror

Crucible of Terror Mary Maude Mike Raven
Made in 1971 by small independent studio Glendale Film Productions Ltd, the studio who would later also make 'The Asphyx' (UK / US),  'Crucible of Terror' is a low budget horror set on the Cornish coast.  It tells of art dealer John Davies (James Bolam) who, along with is wife Millie (Mary Maude) and their bickering friends Jane (Beth Morris) and Michael Raven (Ronald Lacey - The Baby-Eating Bishop of Bath and Wells), heads to Cornwall to try and talk Michael's father Victor, (Mike Raven), into parting with some of his artwork.

Roger Delgado lookalike Victor is a reclusive, womanising, artist who we know from the off has a penchant for covering young women in plaster and then pouring molten bronze into the eye hole.  He lives with his downtrodden wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge), his model / mistress Marcia (Judy Matheson - 'Lust for a Vampire' (UK / US) and 'Twins of Evil' (UK / US)) and his friend Bill Cartwright (John Arnatt) in a house previously owned by a "weird sect".  Victor immediately takes a fancy to both Jane and Millie and its all downhill from there for everyone involved.

Crucible of Terror Mary Maude Mike Raven
Reputedly part funded by Radio Luxembourg DJ turned actor Raven, 'Crucible of Terror' is a cheap and cheerless schlocker with a tinge of the giallo about it.  Raven made 4 movies in his short career, the others being 'Lust for a Vampire' for Hammer, 'I, Monster' (UK) for Amicus and 'Disciple of Death' also co-starring Ronald Lacey, and he really is the most appalling ham but definitely nails the lecherous nature of his character if not particularly the malevolence.  Lacey is his usual creepy self whilst the majority of the rest phone their performances in with the exception of Maude who stands out as the unwilling object of Victor's lust.

Beyond the performances the script is confused, the ending is gibberish and it's riddled with enough casual 70s sexism to make a 'Carry On' writer flinch but I do love a bad movie and this is definitely a bad movie but well worth a watch.

Buy it here - UKUS - or watch it below.


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Saturday 19 September 2020

Peel Sessions 2

This is the music from week two of our celebration of the 37 years worth of Peel Sessions.

This week...
Fairport Convention (1968)
Motorhead (1978)
Cocteau Twins (1983)
ISAN (1999)
Electrelane (2004)
Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen & Gong (1971)


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Friday 18 September 2020

Peel Sessions 1

Most mornings over the last few turbulent months I tried to remember to post a song over on the Wyrd Britain Facebook page as a way of saying "Good morning" and connecting with folks during this difficult time.  This usually took the form of whatever favourite tune happened to pop into my head each morning and as such could be anything from 'Sebastian' by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel to The Damned's 'Love Song', from Sunforest's sublime 'Magician in the Mountain' to Napalm Death's prog rock epic 'You Suffer'.

Over the last two weeks I've modified this approach slightly and instead have decided to celebrate two deeply missed cultural icons, John Peel and his long running Peel Sessions where for over 30 years he invited a staggeringly diverse assortment of around 2000 bands and solo artists into the BBC studios to record a suite of songs for his show.  

So the other day I sat down and made a list of some of my favourite sessions by bands that I like and that I thought would be of interest to readers of this blog. So each morning (Monday to Saturday) for the next little while I'm going to be posting a Peel Session for your listening pleasure and in the spirit of the man it's going to be as eclectic as I can possibly make it.  To fit with the ethos of the blog it's only going to feature British artists which means lots of very wonderful sessions won't feature (they're probably on YouTube though so go look them up) but I think you'll find lots to enjoy nonetheless.

It occurred to me earlier though that many readers don't follow the Facebook page so each Saturday evening I'm going to collate them in a blog post to share here.  It's already been running a week so here's the first batch with week two tomorrow.
Hope you enjoy.


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Tuesday 15 September 2020

Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen

Michael Moorcock

A fable satirizing Spenser's "The Fairie Queen" and reflecting the real life of Elizabeth I, tells of a woman who ascends to the throne upon the death of her debauched and corrupted father, King Hern. Gloriana's reign brings the Empire of Albion into a Golden Age, but her oppressive responsibilities choke her, prohibiting any form of sexual satisfaction, no matter what fetish she tries. Her problem is in fact symbolic of the hypocrisy of her entire court. While her life is meant to mirror that of her nation - an image of purity, virtue, enlightenment and prosperity - the truth is that her peaceful empire is kept secure by her wicked chancellor Monfallcon and his corrupt network of spies and murderers, the most sinister of whom is Captain Quire, who is commissioned to seduce Gloriana and thus bring down Albion and the entire empire.

With a noted debt to both Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' and Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene', 'Gloriana' is Moorcock's reinvention of the reign of Elizabeth I relocated a hundred or so years later.

The setting of the novel is in the massive palace, the seat of governance for Albion's globe spanning empire.  Within its confines Gloriana rules by day and seeks relief from her sexual frustration by night.  The land is at peace and the Queen is beloved by the populace following depredations of the despotic reign of her father.  Working to keep this newly peaceful empire safe is her loyal chancellor Montfallcon and through him his most talented agent, the sociopathic Captain Quire.  It is when, at a moment of pique, Quire takes a new master and from his nest literally within the walls of the palace plots the ruin of Albion's peace. 

Many of the cast of the novel have their origin in real life personages such as John Dee but beyond a few references to interdimensional travel - which aren't taken seriously by most of the cast - and the Queen's best friend the 'Countess Una of Scaith' sharing her name with Moorcock's recurring character, the temporal adventurer Una Persson - and they may in fact be one and the same - there's little obvious connection between this story and his wider multiverse.

Following a bit of a sluggish slog of a start I came to thoroughly enjoy this.  As much fun as the shorter fantastical tales of Elric and the like are, for me, Moorcock comes into his own when he allows himself a larger canvas (and page count). The scope of his story here is global even whilst it remains almost entirely within the confines of the palace and the intricacies of Quire's 'art' are slowly revealed.  The ending to the scheme when it arrives is sudden and jarring although in the older edition that I read the final scene between Quire and Gloriana is horrendously unpleasant and I'm intensely pleased that it was excised and rewritten for subsequent editions as it really did marr what had been up to then a glorious romp of a book.

Buy it here -  UK / US


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Sunday 13 September 2020

Blood of the Vampire

Blood of the Vampire (1958)
In 1958 with a couple of successful films under his belt legendary Hammer scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster was hired by Tempean Films (later to be the home of 'The Saint' TV series) to work his magic for them.

Over at Hammer where Sangster was to write some 22 films (and work on many more) he was responsible for many of the studio's classics starting with 'X the Unknown' (UKUS) in 1956 before breathing life into both of the studios greatest monsters in 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (UK / US) in 1957 and 'Dracula' (UK / US) in 1958.  For Tempean he was to reuse much of the gothic trappings that had served him so well on his previous two films but with an added twist of a slightly more modern take on the vampire myth that again took inspiration from both the movies he'd written immediately prior.

Blood of the Vampire (1958) Barbara Shelley
Carlstadt, 1880, disgraced doctor John Pierre (Vincent Ball) is convicted of murder and sent to a prison for the criminally insane run by Dr Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) and aided by his deformed assistant Carl (Victor Maddern) where he is quickly co-opted into helping with his captor's sanguinary experiments.  Meanwhile, on the outside, Pierre's fiancĂ©e Madeleine (Barbara Shelley - 'Quatermass and the Pit' (UK / US), 'Village of the Damned' (UK / US)) is determined to prove his innocence.

Kudos must be given to Sangster for trying something a little different here but the movie isn't a great success.  It's a pretty sluggish watch and director Henry Cass struggles to inject much life into the proceedings.  Neither of the two leads have the charisma to carry the plot and the always reliable Shelley isn't given anywhere near enough to do.  The stand out here is Maddern labouring under heavy make-up his performance is subtle, menacing and ultimately sympathetic all without ever uttering a single word.

Buy it here - UK / US - or watch it below.


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