Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Right Hand of Doom & Other Tales of Solomon Kane

Robert E. Howard
Wordsworth Editions

The sixteenth-century Puritan Solomon Kane has a thirst for justice which surpasses common reason. Sombre of mood, clad in black and grey, he 'never sought to analyse his motives and he never wavered once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings...A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, and avenge all crimes against right and justice'.

I've never really had a hankering to read the Conan books.  The films were OK but I'm not much of a fantasy buff so the stories themselves held little appeal. The Solomon Kane stories on the other hand have always been an intriguing prospect.  The sword wielding puritan adventurer was always an enticing image.  The look of him always seemed correct to me for good, gutsy, godly vengeance type sword and sorcery romps.

The 10 stories and 3 (dreadful) poems that make up the book are - I believe - the entirety of the original Kane stories and tell of a man driven by his desire to serve his god by hunting down and dispatching evil wherever he finds it.  From his native Devon he travels several times to Africa battling murderers, rapists, pirates, vampires, flying creatures, slavers and an entire lost civilisation armed only with a sword, a couple of flintlock pistols and a magic staff given him by an African magician.

The stories are all pretty much the same as each time we join Kane at the culmination of a quest where with a last mighty effort of both iron will and iron limbs he reaches his goal and variously stabs, shoots or bludgeons his nemesis to death.  Howard takes great pains to repeatedly describe Kane's physical attributes giving the whole thing an unintentionally homoerotic quality which sits oddly next to some of the racism inherent in Howard's views of Africans although this certainly wasn't as bad as I was expecting it to be.  

I was hoping for a big silly sword and sorcery romp filled with daring do and that's what I got.  The fact that it was all that I got was a little odd but here, now and in the particular mood I was in at the time it was enough, just.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Great Ghost Stories

Readers Digest

A volume which brings together 46 of the very best ghost stories ever written and includes classic works from masters of intrigue like M. R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Ambrose Bierce, Edith Nesbit and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Readers Digest is one of those things that exists around you without ever really making any noticeable impact on your life.  I see their books occasionally and I remember a Simpsons episode where Homer got hooked on one but apart from that they're just one of those companies that exist somewhere doing something for someone who isn't me.  So, it was a bit of a shock when I stumbled upon this fantastic tome of an anthology.

Elizabeth Jane Howard
Handily presented in alphabetical order the book provides us with a veritable who's who of ghostly fiction with stories from the likes of Robert Aickman, Algernon Blackwood, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, both the James' (M.R. & Henry), Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker most of whom can be pretty much expected to make an appearance alongside less common compatriots such as Lord Dunsany here represented by the lovely 'Autumn Cricket', Cynthia Asquith's tale of redemption in 'The Corner Shop', Walter de la Mare's 'Seaton's Aunt' and the Chinese whispers of Emile Zola's 'Angeline, or the Haunted House'.

There's also a fine selection of stories by writers I was utterly unfamiliar with like Shamus Frazer whose 'Florinda' is a wonderfully macabre tale of an angry and vengeful spirit, Elizabeth Jane Howard who tells in 'Three Miles Up' an intriguing tale of friendship, enigmatic strangers and the perils of journeying into the unknown or Marghanita Laski whose short but terrifying 'The Tower' is a real highlight in a book filled with creepy delights.

Marghanita Laski
This is a book that offers a veritable cornucopia of goodies and achieves an easy balance between the old, the new, the classic and the unknown.  It doesn't let itself get too hidebound by the word 'Ghosts' in the title and includes stories - like 'The Tower', 'Three Miles Up' or 'Ringing the Changes'- that are far from typical of the genre yet are intrinsically part of it's very fabric.

Opening the book and seeing the huge number of authors I knew I was going to enjoy working my way through it.  Just how much I enjoyed it though was a real treat to discover.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Murrain

Screened in 1975 as an episode of the, for the most part forgotten, ITV series 'Against the Crowd' and written by Wyrd Britain legend Nigel Kneale, 'Murrain' (an old term meaning a disease affecting animals) is a TV play exploring that most Kneale of topics the clash of science and the supernatural, the modern and the archaic, the logical and superstitious.

The story tells of a visit by veterinarian Alan Crich (David Simeon) to a tiny, rural village to investigate a mystery illness affecting the pigs belong to Mr. Beeley (played by James Bond's boss, Bernard Lee).  The poorly pigs aren't the only problem in the village with drought, and sickness amongst the villagers adding to their woes.  Spurning the scientific minded approach of the outsider vet the villagers have already decided on the cause of the murrain, local odd bod and suspected witch, Mrs. Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones).

For a show with a runtime of less than an hour it maintains a fairly leisurely pace filled with extended silences as Beeley's bumpkin workforce slowly process even the simplest of tasks and questions. The lack of soundtrack is an unexpected joy that allows ambient sounds to add to the growing air of bucolic menace.  The cast all give a fairly strong account of themselves with Brandon-Jones' lonely, persecuted and unhinged Mrs Clemson being the standout performance and the very downbeat ending leaves a satisfying ambiguity.

In discussions of Kneales' work 'Murrain', if mentioned at all, is often relegated to a footnote, eclipsed by it's more exuberant siblings like 'Quatermass', 'The Stone Tape' or 'Beasts', but sometimes there's gold in a footnote and I think that's the case here.  'Murrain' with the constraints of it's obviously limited budget makes for a tightly controlled and concentrated exploration of Kneale's interests bereft of the more overt science fiction and horror elements of later work such as 'Baby' and 'The Quatermass Conclusion' and is all the better for it.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Werewolf Pack

Mark Valentine (editor)
Wordsworth Editions

The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, while kings, sorcerers and outlaws have been proud to be called by the name of the wolf. It's no wonder, then, that tales of transformation between man and wolf are so powerful and persistent.

On a recent visit to Hay on Wye I scored a big stack of these Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural books (and then three more in Cardiff three days later) so expect a few of them to crop up here over the coming months.  One of the first books in this series that I read was Mark's other Wordsworth Editions anthology, 'The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths', which was about as much fun as a book is capable of being so I jumped at this new discovery even though a fan of monster stories I am not.


Count Stenbock
I've not read many werewolf stories before - there was a short in one of 'The Sandman' volumes and I've vague memories of flipping through an adaptation of one of the 'Howling' movies as a kid and there's a Wyrd Britain regular that I'll come to later - but I've seen a whole host of movies, it is a most filmable creature, but the books have never really interested me.  There are some really interesting moments but I didn't really find this volume as satisfying as the other.  Much of that must be put down to my love of of the occult detective angle and my ambivalence to monsters but also far too many of the stories here had the feel of a folktale which, as regular perusers of my scribblings will know, aren't my favourite things.

There are though several interesting stories lurking here, Saki's 'Gabriel-Ernest' (which I alluded to earlier) is a perennial anthology entrant but I'd not come across his tale of bluster and comeuppance, 'The She-Wolf', before and won't be sorry if I never do again.  'The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains' by Captain Frederick Marryat is a worthy opener with elements of folk tale providing a backbone for a much more interesting story than I assumed from it's first few pages.


R.B. Russell
Count Stenbock's 'The Other Side' is a delicately hallucinatory tale of forbidden flowers and beguiling women and an ambiguously supernatural Sherlock Holmes pastiche called 'The Shadow of the Wolf' by Ron Weighell sticks out dynamic duo on the roof of an old house in the country tracking a savage murderer.  The book closes with R.B. Russell's wonderfully strange 'Loup-Garou' which I'm not even going to try and describe to you as it's something you need to experience yourself.

Around these stories are a host of other tales that are all worthy of your time as they display interesting takes on the mythos but the above were, for me, the standouts. As I said at the beginning, creature stories aren't my favourites but as a toe dipping exercise into the genre this book has much to recommend it.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Infinite Ghost Cage

This is a special Xmas edition of the fabulous BBC Radio 4 series 'The Infinite Monkey Cage' dealing with that most Wyrd Britain of topics, ghosts.  Woooooooooo (sorry, I promise I won't do that again)

Alongside hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox this episode features Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, actor and writer Mark Gatiss, cultural anthropologist Deborah Hyde and Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds. 

It's not the most coherent of discussions - too many people pulling in too many directions - and I'm well aware that many people find Brian Cox to be entirely marmite but it is entertaining.

I don't know how long the link will last and as it's the BBC those of you living beyond these shores may have to use a proxy server to get it to play.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b085tq49

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Woman In Black

Susan Hill
Vintage

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house's sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a pale young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.

I've avoided the Harry Potter version of this like the plague but the Nigel Kneale adaptation was particularly good so I was pretty intrigued to read the book at some point and so when I finally came across a copy I dived in.

As a pastiche of the ghost books of old it is absolutely spot on and Hill has nailed both the voice and the vibe.  There is a little wobble in that at times it's quite difficult to pin down exactly when the various parts of the story are set - at one point Arthur (Kipps, our narrator) makes an allusion to something being like a Victorian melodrama  (or some such, I stupidly forgot to make a note of the page) which is when I thought it was meant to be set so I revised forward to early Edwardian and in the opening sequence to possibly pre-WWII.


But anyway,  it's pastiche credentials notwithstanding the book has to stand on it's own account and it absolutely does.  Hill has created a genuinely creepy and disquieting tale wherein the Black Lady's presence and the spectral goings-on on the marsh are palpably upsetting.  Kipps is a sympathetically human character that we first meet as a gentle if somewhat melancholy character before we get to view the terrible events that turn the ambitious and slightly starchy younger version into the man we meet at the outset.

The supporting cast are, for the most part, fairly sketchily drawn which is unsurprising in a novella but Hill uses a lovely light touch to give them anima such as Tomes the clerk with his constant sniffing.

The books conclusion is both inevitable and horrible and drenched with vindictive and pointless malice leaving the reader drained and as bereft as our protagonist.

Monday, 26 December 2016

A Foot in the Grave

Joan Aiken (author)
Jan Pienkowski (artist)
Puffin Books

There are a few of these collaborations between Aiken and Pienkowski with this one being the second I've managed to track down.  The first was a collection of Eastern European folk and fairy tales with the art interlaced through and framing the words (my review is here).  This time it's a much more straight forward writer / illustrator relationship with Pienkowski providing a series of paintings and Aiken writing stories to accompany them.

It's an engaging collection with a mix of stories seemingly written for adults alongside ones undoubtedly produced with younger people in mind.  It gives rise to occasionally jarring tonal shifts such as from the creepiness of the 'Movable Eyes' of Zia Tisna's dolls to the comedy of the outraged ghosts and their officious saviour in the books title piece.

These jars are few though and Aiken's storytelling flair and peerless imagination sends us into various places both mundane and unusual that are populated by the charming, the pathetic, the doomed and the damnable such as the screaming ghost infant in 'Beelzebub's Baby', an imaginary land populated by two brothers and an Italian graveyard amongst others.

It's a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read with a light hearted touch that belies the sinister aspect of both the stories and the stark expressionist artwork.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Horse of the Invisible

Broadcast in 1971 'The Horse of the Invisible' is so far the only live action adaptation of one of William Hope Hodgson's 'Thomas Carnacki' stories.

Created as an episode of the TV series 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' a series which featured an adaptation of a different Holmes contemporary in each episode such as Guy Boothby's 'Simon Carne' and Emma Orczy's 'Polly Burton'.

In the story Carnacki (played by Donald Pleasence - forever beloved of Wyrd Britain for being the voice of the 'Dark and Lonely Water' public information film) is engaged by Captain Hisgins (Tony Steedman) to save his daughter, Mary (Michele Dotrice, who amassed an impressive Wyrd Britain pedigree in her early career) from the family curse, an invisible horse that begins to terrorise her on the night of her engagement.

Pleasence is, of course, excellent but personally I've always pictured Carnacki as a younger and more dynamic man so Pleasence's portrayal as a rather sedate, distracted and bookish character took a little getting used to.  The screenplay is faithful to the story and the ending looks every bit as daft in reality as I pictured it when I first read the story but you do get to see Carnacki's trademark electric pentacle in action (kind of).

It is a well-mannered and fairly placid example of early 70s TV that was obviously made on a pretty tight budget but the cast all throw themselves into the story and the end result is entirely enjoyable and makes one wonder why no one else has taken the opportunity to bring Carnacki to the screen.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs

Tom Baker
Faber & Faber

This is the story of Robert Caligari - a thoroughly evil 13-year-old who gets his kicks from kicking pigs. After a humiliating episode with a bacon butty, Robert realises just how much he loathes the human race - and his revenge is truly terrible. 

This one has sat on my book shelf for a good long while.  It's sat there for the same reason I didn't buy it for years after it was released.  I didn't want to read it and find out it was a bit shit.  I'm the Tom Baker era type of book geek.  I was 4 when he woke up on the floor of UNIT HQ and 11 when he swan dived off the TV mast.  His is the face I picture when I think of madcap eccentrics and his is the voice I hear when I think of the same.  I really didn't want it to suck. It didn't. Phew!

This fun little novella is entirely Baker.  So entirely him that you hear his voice as you read his words.  His irreverence, his absurdity, his contempt for authority and his anarchic spirit all shine through as he tells the story of the malicious little boy, Robert Caligari, of his misdeeds and his misstep that leads to his grizzly end.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Over Sea, Under Stone

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. This is the first volume of Susan Cooper's brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising.

In the literature of Wyrd Britain a few authors work has come to define the various aspects of the aesthetic, James, Wyndham, Wells, Kneale, Garner and a few other worthies reign supreme but there are other authors whose impact has yet to be fully assessed none more so than Susan Cooper.

'Over Sea, Under Stone' is the first book in Cooper's Arthurian(ish) story collection known collectively as 'The Dark is Rising' (also the title of the second book in the sequence).  It tells of three young children and their enigmatic 'uncle' and their search for the grail.  

Barney, Simon and Jane along with their parents relocate for the summer to the small Cornish seaside town of Trewissick to stay with Great Uncle Merry.  Once there the three kids are drawn into Merry's search for the Arthurian grail and are subjected to all the associated dangers that entails. 

In this first book the storyline is a fairly typical quest story with the 3 kids up against some remarkably ineffective adults and a rather stupid bully of their own age.  The three manage to dodge their way through the peril spouting vague (and not so) period sexist drivel (the book was written in 1965) whilst working out the clues they stumble across along the way. 

It's a fun little romp with one foot firmly in the 'Famous Five', 'Secret Seven', 'Egalitarian Eight' (I may have made that one up) tradition and the other in the more lively and interesting forms of children's fiction being established by contemporaries like Alan Garner.  This duality does leave the book feeling a little uneven as the two halves occasionally make for odd bedfellows but it does give the whole thing a definite period charm.