Monday, 12 April 2021

The Cormorant

Wyrd Britain reviews The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory.  Published by Parthian Books.
Stephen Gregory
Parthian

'We had been in the cottage for a week when the cormorant was delivered, that October evening.'
When a young family inherit a remote mountain-side cottage in north Wales, giving them the chance to change the course of their lives and start over, the one condition of the will seems strange but harmless. They are to care for a cormorant until the end of its life.

But the bird is no tame pet, and within its natural state of wildness there is a malevolent intelligence and intent towards sharp, unexpected violence. However, it is the fascination it holds for Harry, the couple’s precious only child, that really threatens their dreams of rural contentment.

First published in 1986, at which point Gregory won a Somerset Maugham award for it, 'The Cormorant' has now been reissued by Welsh publisher Parthian, one of the publishers who kept the works of Arthur Machen in print during the lean years and to whom we shall always be thankful.

It's the story of a young family who inherit from the narrator's Uncle Ian a cottage in North Wales that allows them to quit their teaching jobs and take themselves and their infant son out of the city and into the wilds of Snowdonia.  However, Uncle Ian's will had a codicil requiring them to take care of his rescued, ill-tempered, cormorant and it's the bird's arrival which triggers unexpected emotions of horror and fascination from our un-named narrator's wife (Ann) and son (Harry) respectively.

Even the most cursory online search for this book will bring up many references to a controversial scene and when it arrives it's certainly ickily gratuitous and almost certainly unnecessary but what eighties horror didn't have gratuitous sex and violence so, I kinda looked on it as par for the course.

Beyond the sex and violence Gregory excels at conjouring the lush but unforgiving North Wales landscape and it is in this that the book really comes alive; the wintery mountains and turbulent waters of the Caernarfon coast are at the heart of the narrative reflecting the personalities of the human and avian characters.  

Gregory has populated his story with flawed, often unlikeable characters; the hapless narrator vacilating between love and hate in his relationship with the bird, occasionally losing touch with himself both to reverie and to fury; Ann both oddly submissive and hard-heartedly decisive and, the child, Harry precocious and seemingly in thrall to the bird.  Indeed, so odd was the behaviour of these characters and linked with the narrator's occasional, visual, auditory and olfactory phantasmagorias of his benefactor that I began to wonder if any of them, the narrator included, were actually even real and whether the whole thing was a psychotic break happening within the mind of a not dead but very unwell Uncle Ian.  The ending certainly didn't give me any clear answers either way and I find myself still pondering this several days later.

With a shared DNA with recent publications like Andrew Michael Hurley's 'The Loney', 'Devil's Day' and 'Starve Acre' and Max Porter's 'Lanny' and with it's outermost focus on the interactions between people, nature and the supernatural 'The Cormorant' feels remarkably fresh and very much of the moment.

Buy it here - UK / US.
..........................................................................................

If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Baffled!

Wyrd Britain reviews Baffled! starring Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire.
After leaving the cast of 'Mission ImpossibleLeonard Nimoy spent several years racking up various special guest appearences along with a starring role in this pilot episode for a never made occult detective series from ITC, the home of such shows as The SaintThe Champions, The Prisoner, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsSpace 1999 and many more.

Nimoy plays racing car driver Tom Kovack who starts experiencing visions of death at an English country house.  Teaming up with rare book dealer and amateur occultist Michelle Brent (Susan Hampshire) they head to the clifftop house on the English coast where they find American actress Andrea Glenn (Vera Miles) and her daughter Jennifer (Jewel Blanch) caught up in an elaborate(ish), occult(ish) ,Agatha Christie(ish) scheme.

Wyrd Britain reviews Baffled! starring Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire.
Truthfully it's no surprise it didn't go to series as it's just not great and it has a terrible name.  There's some nice chemistry between the two leads with Hampshire effortlessly affable in her role, Nimoy as cool as ever but he was always better when acting without emotions and there's a solid Wyrd Britain cast around them including Ray Brooks (the voice of 'Mr Benn'), Christopher Benjamin ('Henry Gordon Jago' in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' and various Big Finish spin offs) and Milton Johns ('The Invasion of Time').  It's far too long though and despite obviously having a moderately healthy budget, some fun dialogue and a good bratty performance from Blanch it never really gets going but if - like me - you've a love of an occult detective romp and you've ever wanted to see Spock wrestling an old lady then this is for you.



..........................................................................................

If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.

Monday, 5 April 2021

The Master of the Macabre

Wyrd Britain reviews The Master of the Macabre by Russell Thorndike published by Valancourt Books.
Russell Thorndike
Valancourt Books

Tayler Kent flees London in a blinding snowstorm, hoping to escape the ghosts that haunt his home. Instead, he finds things may have gone from bad to worse when he crashes his car, breaks his ankle, and is forced to take refuge at a medieval monastery now inhabited by the eccentric Charles Hogarth, known as “The Master of the Macabre.” As Kent’s ankle heals, Hogarth entertains him with fine food, brandy, and a series of gruesome stories connected with an odd assortment of old relics on display in a curio cabinet. But the terrors are not confined to Hogarth’s tales: the monastery is haunted by the evil spirit of an apostate monk and besieged by more corporeal foes, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on one of the Master’s treasures. . . .
Best known for his series of novels featuring the smuggler Dr. Syn, Russell Thorndike (1885-1972) in The Master of the Macabre (1947) delivers an irresistible mix of horror, adventure, and black humour that is certain to please fans of classic ghost stories and supernatural fiction. This first-ever republication of the novel includes the original jacket art and a new introduction by Mark Valentine.


Russell Thorndike (1885 - 1972) was an actor and author of the popular 'Dr Syn' books, the tales of the swashbuckling pirate turned vicar turned smuggler, which he started writing before enlisting to serve in WWI where he was severely wounded at Gallipoli.

Written in 1946 'The Master of the Macabre' is Thorndike's entry into the occult detective genre.  All the usual tropes are present; an enigmatic lead relating stories of his escapades to an eager biographer / acolyte which in this case is the result of a series of possibly supernaturally influenced incidents, accidents and illnesses that leave author Tayler Kent collapsed with a broken ankle on the doorstep of Charles Hogarth, collector of macabre mysteries.

There are echoes of occult detectives past and Mark Valentine points out several of these in his introduction but for most of his tales Hogarth is an observer or chronicler rather than active participant.  Outside of these fireside tales (and in the manner to become so beloved of the portmanteau movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s) there's an overarching storyline that weaves itself around the stories which in this case involves ancient ghosts of a diabolical monk and a beautiful young woman and a troupe of murderous Muslim mountain men questing for a religious artefact they believe to be in Hogarth's possession.

Thorndike's writing is entertainingly melodramatic and the stories are enjoyably lurid.  There's a queasy colonialism inherent in the attitudes of the protagonists that makes for occasionally uncomfortable reading but equally often just as laughably absurd.

'The Master of the Macabre' is another in the line of Valancourt reissues of neglected and forgotten gems of supernatural fiction and as with the others I've written about in Wyrd Britain (and some I haven't because they don't fit with the blog's remit like Forrest Reid's fabulous 'The Spring Song' (UK / US)) a very enjoyable one.

Buy it here - UK / US.

..........................................................................................

If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Curse of the Crimson Altar

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Curse of the Crimson Altar' starring Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff & Barbara Steele.
Investigating the disappearance of his brother, Peter, antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) travels to Craxted Lodge in the town of Greymarsh Peter's last known whereabouts and coincidentally the town their family had previously called home back in ye olde days.  Upon arrival he makes the acquaintance of the master of the house Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell) - who has a seeming penchant for throwing bacchanalian parties before dinner has even been served - and learns of their ancestor Lavinia (a body-painted and horned headdress adorned Barbara Steele) who had been burned at the stake as a witch - no prizes for guessing whose family had lit the fire - and local historian Professor John Marsh (Boris Karloff)

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Curse of the Crimson Altar' starring Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff & Barbara Steele.
Lee is as effortlessly suave as ever but is essentially phoning in a part that he could play in his sleep and Eden, who had a long career including several roles in Wyrd Britain friendly TV shows but who is most well remembered in this country for his villainous stint in the soap opera Coronation Street (there's even a real world plaque marking the spot where his character died), just isn't lead material.  Steele has essentially nothing to do beyond wearing that amazing looking costume and a very frail Karloff, just a year on from his late career highlight in Michael Reeves' 'The Sorcerers') and in one of his final roles gives a typically solid performance and there's even a quick, amusing and surprisingly meta joke at his expense.

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Curse of the Crimson Altar' starring Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff & Barbara Steele.
Made by Tigon British Film Productions ('The Blood on Satan's Claw' & 'Witchfinder General'), directed by Vernon Sewell ('The Blood Beast Terror') from a script by Doctor Who alumni Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln ('The Abominable Snowmen', 'The Web of Fear' & 'The Dominators') based loosely on H.P. Lovercraft's 'The Dreams in the Witch House' it's always going to be an enticing prospect but the end result is all a little flat and disjointed and Sewell never quite manages to inject the movie with any zest but it does have its charms.

Buy it here - UK / US.


..........................................................................................

If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Affiliate links are provided for your convenience and to help mitigate running costs.