Thursday, 28 April 2022

The Willows

Algernon Blackwood  - The Willows
Originally published in 1907 as part of his collection,  'The Listener and Other Stories',  Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' has long established itself as a masterpiece of supernatural stories.  It tells of a canoe trip down the Danube and two nights spent on a sandy island amidst the oppressive presence of the willows where the two travellers are subjected to a number of inexplicable experiences.

Famously 'The Willows' was a favourite of H.P. Lovecraft writing in 'Supernatural Horror in Literature', "Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note".  

This reading was originally aired on BBC7 between 29th of March and the 1st of April 2005 and is read rather wonderfully by Roger Allam who I'm sure many will recognise from his appearences in 'Endeavour', 'V for Vendetta', 'Game of Thrones' and 'The Thick Of It'.

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Sunday, 24 April 2022

Hawk the Slayer

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Hawk the Slayer'.
Co-written by novice director Terry Marcel and legendary Hammer composer Harry Robertson (The Oblong Box, The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil) and born out of their shared love for sword and sorcery novels, 'Hawk the Slayer' crams every Tolkien and Robert E. Howard trope it can afford - a witch, an elf, a dwarf, a suspiciously ungigantic giant, a magic sword and massed armies of several - into it's £600,000 budget (of which star Jack Palance was reportedly paid a sixth) to create a ridiculously fantastic travesty of a movie that personally I have a bit of a soft spot for.  

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Hawk the Slayer'.
The storyline is essentially a thinly disguised riff on The Magnificent Seven with the six shooters swapped for swords and bows and with the action relocated to a chilly, dry ice drenched park in Buckinghamshire.  Obviously made with an eye to the international market the producers cast two Americans in the leads, the aforementioned Palance and debutant action hero John Terry and they are both, well, they're both pretty terrible.  Of the latter it's perhaps kindest to say that he's ineffectual and wooden and way out of his depth but would mature into roles in 'The Living Daylights', 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'Lost' whilst the former gives a scenery chewing performance of epic awfulness.  Acting around them we have a troupe of reliable Brit supporting actors such as Carry on... staple Bernard Bresslaw (who would return to the fantasy genre again three years later in Krull), One Foot in the Grave's Annette Crosbie, Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Harry Andrews (Theatre of Blood), Patrick Magee (The Skull) and Roy Kinnear (The Bed Sitting Room) all of whom do much of the heavy lifting and keeping admirably straight faces.

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Hawk the Slayer'.
Released at a time when fantasy movies of this sort were extremely thin on the ground and when interest in the fantastical was hitting fever pitch in the wake of Star Wars, Hawk was a box office bomb but one that quickly acquired a devoted fan following and whilst no sequels were ever made (until Garth Ennis' 2022 comic series) it has been credited with triggering the flurry of similar movies that followed in it's wake such as Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster and the aforementioned Krull to name just a few.

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Sunday, 17 April 2022

An Inspector Calls

Wyrd Britain reviews the 2015 BBC adaptation of J.B. Priestley's play  'An Inspector Calls'.
1912 and with the possibility of the first world war looming the Birling's, Arthur (Ken Stott), Sybil (Miranda Richardson) and Eric (Finn Cole) are gathered around the dining table having just finished a celebratory meal to mark the engagement of daughter Sheila (Chloe Pirrie) to Gerald Croft (Kyle Soller), the son of a rival businessman, when the arrival of Inspector Goole (David Thewlis) brings news of the suicide of a young and pregnant working class girl Eva Smith (Sophie Rundle).  As each family member is interegated by Goole it soon transpires that they are all acquainted with the dead woman and have all, in some way, contributed to her demise.

Made for the BBC in 2015 screenwriter Helen Edmundson and director Aisling Walsh's adaptation of J.B. Priestley's play is a masterclass of subtle and sympathetic television that maintains the heart of the play and augments it via judicious use of flashbacks to further expand on the life of the doomed Eva.  It holds true to Priestley's core ideal of social responsibility present in his disdain for the attitudes and beliefs of the middle (the Birling's) and upper (Croft) classes in their treatment of those considered their social inferiors.

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Thursday, 14 April 2022

The Machinery of the Moment

The British Space Group - The Machinery of the Moment
Wyrd Britain is a blog about stories, about the fictions we create around this odd little country some of us call home; stories about thin places and lost places, stone circles and ancient woodlands, about rabbit holes and hills of dreams, time travellers and triffids.  

The Wyrd Britain label expands on this theme by releasing music that also tells stories,  music with a narrative and a sense of the mysterious that would be at home within the occult territories of a stranger Britain.

Following on from 2020's 'The Ley of the Land' 'The Machinery of the Moment' tells a story of an extended moment. Of the point where perception of time - or perhaps even time itself - collapses and we exist in a state of timelessness; a minute in an hour, an hour in a minute, a lifetime lived in the second between the tick and the tock.

'The Machinery of the Moment' is the fifth release from Ian Holloway's current project 'The British Space Group'.  It is a deliberate attempt to merge the music he has created under various guises over the last two decades and released on labels like Quiet World, Fungal and Siren Wire with his love of the strange and supernatural fiction featured on the Wyrd Britain blog. 

'The Machinery of the Moment' is available for download or as a limited edition CDr by clicking on the player below.

 

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Monday, 11 April 2022

The Comforters

Wyrd Britain reviews 'The Comforters' by Muriel Spark.
Muriel Spark
Penguin Books

Caroline Rose is plagued by the tapping of typewriter keys and the strange, detached narration of her every thought and action. Caroline has an unusual problem - she realises she is in a novel. Her fellow characters also seem deluded: Laurence, her former lover, finds diamonds in a loaf of bread - has his elderly grandmother hidden them there? And Baron Stock, her bookseller friend, believes he is on the trail of England's leading Satanist.

I bought this as part of a batch of vintage Penguins to sell in the Wyrd Britain shop but having checked out it's blurb on Goodreads I just had to read it and I'm really rather pleased I did.

Sparks' first novel, originally published in 1957, is the story of the various groups of people that orbit the fantastically devious Louisa Jepp.  These groups include Caroline Rose newly Catholic and hearing the sounds of a typewriter and a voice narrating her every thought and action, Caroline's on / off fiance and Louisa's grandson Laurence who's investigating why his grandmother is hiding diamonds in the bread, Baron Stock, a bookseller with an overpowering interest in the occult and Georgina Hogg an unpleasant, bore of a woman who "suffers from chronic righteousness."

Spark's novel is a charming, witty and idiosyncratic romp with a cast of fairly loveable eccentrics.  It toys with the strange and supernatural throughout mostly in the form of Caroline's narrator and the Baron's quest to unmask England's premier Satanist but it's one true moment is as explicit as it is fleeting and provides a discomforting premonition of a somewwhat dark turn at the novel's end.

I've always been very much a whim reader generally chosing my next read on the spur of the moment and in truth there's nothing about that ^ awful cover art on the edition I read that would entice me but a good blurb was the catalyst for triggering this whim which paid unexpected dividends providing an object lesson in not judging a book by it's cover as it turned out to be ridiculously good fun.

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Friday, 8 April 2022

The City of Dreadful Night

The City of Dreadful Night by James ThomsonAs I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: All was black,
In heaven no single star, on earth no track;
A brooding hush without a stir or note,
The air so thick it clotted in my throat;
And thus for hours; then some enormous things
Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:
      But I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: Eyes of fire
Glared at me throbbing with a starved desire;
The hoarse and heavy and carnivorous breath
Was hot upon me from deep jaws of death;
Sharp claws, swift talons, fleshless fingers cold
Plucked at me from the bushes, tried to hold:
      But I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: Lo you, there,
That hillock burning with a brazen glare;
Those myriad dusky flames with points a-glow
Which writhed and hissed and darted to and fro;
A Sabbath of the Serpents, heaped pell-mell
For Devil's roll-call and some fête of Hell:
      Yet I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: Meteors ran
And crossed their javelins on the black sky-span;
The zenith opened to a gulf of flame,
The dreadful thunderbolts jarred earth's fixed frame:
The ground all heaved in waves of fire that surged
And weltered round me sole there unsubmerged:
      Yet I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: Air once more,
And I was close upon a wild sea-shore;
Enormous cliffs arose on either hand,
The deep tide thundered up a league-broad strand;
White foambelts seethed there, wan spray swept and flew;
The sky broke, moon and stars and clouds and blue:
      And I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

The City of Dreadful Night by Kevin O'Neill from LoEG volume 2 - used because I adore it but with grovelling apologies and a fervent hope that i won't get sued for doing so.
Image by Kevin O'Neill
As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: On the left
The sun arose and crowned a broad crag-cleft;
There stopped and burned out black, except a rim,
A bleeding eyeless socket, red and dim;
Whereon the moon fell suddenly south-west,
And stood above the right-hand cliffs at rest:
      Still I strode on austere;
      No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: From the right
A shape came slowly with a ruddy light;
A woman with a red lamp in her hand,
Bareheaded and barefooted on that strand;
O desolation moving with such grace!
O anguish with such beauty in thy face.
      I fell as on my bier,
      Hope travailed with such fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: I was twain,
Two selves distinct that cannot join again;
One stood apart and knew but could not stir,
And watched the other stark in swoon and her;
And she came on, and never turned aside,
Between such sun and moon and roaring tide:
      And as she came more near
      My soul grew mad with fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: Hell is mild
And piteous matched with that accursèd wild;
A large black sign was on her breast that bowed,
A broad black band ran down her snow-white shroud;
That lamp she held was her own burning heart,
Whose blood-drops trickled step by step apart;
      The mystery was clear;
      Mad rage had swallowed fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: By the sea
She knelt and bent above that senseless me;
Those lamp-drops fell upon my white brow there,
She tried to cleanse them with her tears and hair;
She murmured words of pity, love, and woe,
She heeded not the level rushing flow:
      And mad with rage and fear,
      I stood stonebound so near.

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: When the tide
Swept up to her there kneeling by my side,
She clasped that corpse-like me, and they were borne
Away, and this vile me was left forlorn;
I know the whole sea cannot quench that heart,
Or cleanse that brow, or wash those two apart:
      They love; their doom is drear,
      Yet they nor hope nor fear;
But I, what do I here?

By James Thomson (1834 - 1882)










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Wednesday, 6 April 2022

The Irregular Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

Wyrd Britain reviews Ron Weighell's 'The Irregular Casebook of Sherlock Holmes' from Zagava Books.
Ron Weighell
Zagava

Sherlock Holmes, wrote his friend and chronicler John H. Watson, was an 'unofficial adviser and helper to everybody who is absolutely puzzled', and as such Holmes came into contact with 'all that is strange and bizarre'. Cases such as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES or 'The Sussex Vampire' show the great detective dealing with matters which certainly are strange and bizarre; yet in all the sixty cases in the Sherlockian canon, Holmes proves that the supernatural plays no part in the matter under investigation.
What if, however, those sixty cases did not tell the entire story? In THE IRREGULAR CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, we encounter five cases which test Holmes's powers to the limit; strange and bizarre cases involving forces that are not of this world. Missing manuscripts, strange sects, sudden death, and mysterious encounters all lead Holmes and Watson into a twilight world of mystery, magic, and danger, where nothing is commonplace and people are not what they seem. 

Over the last few years I've had the real pleasure of reading a few of Ron Weighell's stories but this is the first time I've gotten to read his stories 'en-masse' and I'm hugely impressed.

Here Weighell embraces his love of the deerstalker detective and merges him with his love for supernatural fiction.  In Weighell's hands we find Holmes and Watson in the company of M.R. James investigating a mystery linked to Dr John Dee and with Arthur Machen investigating a cult entangled with the Holy Grail.  We also find him clambouring across rooftops in pursuit of a werewolf, in Egypt hunting a sorceror and swashbuckling on the canals of Venice.

I'm no Holmes devotee but I do enjoy the stories and I'm always open to a new one but personally I find the arch rationalist Holmes to be a poor fit with supernatural stories and the ones that I've read such as those in the 'Shadows Over Baker Street' anthology have mostly disappointed but Weighell has a delicate touch and the weird is kept to a subtle distance with enough ambuiguity for Holmes' world view to remain mostly intact and for this to be a very enjoyable collection indeed.

NOTE - due to quality issues Zagava have withdrawn their POD range but I think books as good as the ones they release deserve to be celebrated so I'll be reviewing a few of the ones I have here over the coming weeks. In this instance there is a digital edition available at the link below. 

Buy it here - UK / US.

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Sunday, 3 April 2022

Room for an Inward Light

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Room for an Inward Light' from the BBC2 series 'Leap in the Dark'.
'Leap in the Dark' was a long running BBC2 series that ran from 1973 to 1980 which over it's 4 series morphed from documentaries to dramas all with a supernatural theme.  'Room for an Inward Light' was the penultimate episode of the 4th series from which we've featured several episodes before - Alan Garner's 'To Kill A King', David Rudkin's 'The Living Grave' and Russell Hoban's 'Come and Find Me' - and was written by the playwright / novelist David Pownall.

Here we find struggling novelist Thomas Myers (Brian Blessed) contacts critic Bernard Charlton (Christopher Strauli) for help after reading an article he'd written about how there were great authors working away in anonymity.  Realising that the cranky, eccentric and prolific Myers is exactly the type of undiscovered genius he'd been searching for Charlton takes on the role of agent and begins his quest to find him a publisher.

Wyrd Britain reviews 'Room for an Inward Light' from the BBC2 series 'Leap in the Dark'.
The cast of three - the two men are joined by 'Carry On' actress Carol Hawkins in the third act - are pretty solid with Strauli playing the slightly bemused critic very well and Blessed for whom subtlety is never the most obvious attribute actually displaying some here amidst the characteristic bluster.  Pownall's script is significantly more straightforward than those others mentioned above but certainly surprised when it didn't go in the time-worn direction I was half expecting but I was left with the feeling that the entire script was written in order to crowbar in one particular pun.  The end result though I have to say isn't wonderful but it is certainly watchable.


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Saturday, 2 April 2022

Treacle Walker

Wyrd Britain reviews "Treacle Walker" from Alan Garner and published by Fourth Estate.
Alan Garner
4th Estate

Treacle Walker is a stunning fusion of myth and folklore and an exploration of the fluidity of time, vivid storytelling that brilliantly illuminates an introspective young mind trying to make sense of everything around him.
'Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!'
Joe looked up from his comic and lifted his eye patch. There was a white pony in the yard. It was harnessed to a cart, a flat cart, with a wooden chest on it. A man was sitting at a front corner of the cart, holding the reins. His face was creased. He wore a long coat and a floppy high-crowned hat, with hair straggling beneath, and a leather bag was slung from his shoulder across his hip.
Joe Coppock squints at the world with his lazy eye. He reads his comics, collects birds' eggs and treasures his marbles, particularly his prized dobbers. When Treacle Walker appears off the Cheshire moor one day - a wanderer, a healer - an unlikely friendship is forged and the young boy is introduced to a world he could never have imagined.

I must admit, and I've no idea why I thought this, but I had kind of assumed that Garner had retired from writing but this little 152 page novella shows him to be a writer still right at the top of his idiosyncratic game.

Treacle Walker tells the story of Joseph (Joe) Coppock and the incidents that coincide with the arrival of the rag 'n' bone man of the title.  Told in a delightful, poetic lilt we find Joe trapped in a fairy tale adventure as a folkloric cavalcade of fantastic phenomena both vex and aid him as he tries to quietly reads his comic.

I've never been the biggest of Garner fans having missed the opportunity to read him as a kid I found his books a tad frustrating as an adult but here we have what must surely go down as one of his definitive works.  Despite Garner's predominant reputation as a writer of intelligent fantasies for younger readers this is very much aimed at a mature reader and is in many ways a love letter to Garners own youth of marbles and comics, steam trains, rag 'n' bone men and playing amongst the ghosts and legends of a perpetually haunted country.  It's a darkly funny tale of another world, a mythic world filled with old lore, a world of deep, dark woods and the mischievous creatures that live within them, a world of magic and imagination leaking through into our own that draws from all the tales that transported and terrified us as kids and it's utterly wonderful.

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