Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Dark is Rising

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back, three from the circle, three from the track; wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone; five will return, and one go alone.” 
With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavour is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.

Book two of Cooper's series of the same name takes a slightly different tack to the first.  What we see here is a far more developed and cohesive storyworld than in the first. The Blyton-esque overtones are much less obvious and the story has considerably more depth.  

The core idea here seems much the same - there is an eternal battle between good and evil / the Light versus the Dark - and the old fella putting the kids at risk in the first is back recruiting yet another wee fella to the cause.  This particular tiddler though is a bit special as he's the last 'Old One', one of the protectors of the world, heir to their power and magic and the chosen one who will find and unite the six signs that will herald the victory of the light.

Cooper has created a whole mythology for these 'Old Ones' tying them into human events throughout history and incorporating folktales such as 'Wayland Smith' and 'The Wild Hunt' which in many ways means the back story is more well developed than the book story which again is a little too pat.  The 6 signs almost literally fall into young Will's lap and by the halfway point it's apparent that - whilst obviously - he's going to succeed in his endeavours he's also going to do so without any great expenditure of effort.  It's an unfortunate flaw as in all other ways this is a most enjoyable read filled to bursting with invention that left me intrigued to see where she is going to take her story next but also with the knowledge that the story may be a little too pat.

Buy it here -  The Dark Is Rising: Modern Classic

Monday, 6 February 2017

Running Wild

J.G. Ballard
Flamingo

The thirty-two adult members of an exclusive residential community in West London are brutally murdered, and their children are abducted, leaving no trace. Through the forensic diary of Dr. Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser to the London Metropolitan Police, the brutal details of the massacre that has baffled the entire police department unfold.

I've only ever tried to dig into one other Ballard story before, an audiobook of The Drowned World which really didn't grab me.  I'm a creature of fickle whims as far as books are concerned, if the mood's not right it goes back on the shelf and the mood wasn't right.  I recently stumbled on this little novella in a charity shop and the mood was definitely right.


The story tells of the investigation of a mass murder at an ultra modern housing estate and the apparent kidnapping of all the children.  The story unfolds through the report of investigating psychiatrist, Richard Greville, who has been brought in to help think around the problem. Unfortunately it's not a problem that needs a lot of thinking around and you'll have probably worked the problem out within the first couple of pages.  It's then a matter of waiting for him to catch up.

So, with the whodunnit aspect in the toilet, this is a polemic, a castigation of the nanny state, a rebuttal against the eye of Big Brother and a prediction of the lengths people will go to to be free of tyranny and truthfully it's better that way.

Buy it here -  Running Wild

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Burnt Offerings: The Cult of the Wicker Man

It's hard to imagine there are many people reading this who are not, at the very least, familiar with the cinematic glory that is The Wicker Man.  For me it was the film that, thanks to a screening as part of the 'Moviedrome' series, brought the teenage me back to my first love of British horror after having strayed into the hyperactive, technicolour splatters of the US varieties.  It's a film I've watched more times than I care to imagine.  I spent much of the late 80s and well into the nineties evangelising it to anyone who would listen and oh the days of joy when the Directors Cut DVD arrived or when Trunk Records released the soundtrack.

It's been a few years now since I sat down for a rewatch and I think I'd like to wait a little longer yet until the craving becomes too strong to ignore. In the meantime I was hunting out some behind the scenes stuff and came across this Mark Kermode documentary from the 2013 'Final Cut' Blu-ray that features contributions from the key participants many of whom have since left us.  It's an interesting watch and well worth an hour of your time.



If you wish to get your own copy of the film and support both it's creators and Wyrd Britain then we'd love it if you'd buy it using this link - Wicker Man - 3-Disc 40th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Tales of Witchcraft

Richard Dalby (editor)
Michael O'Mara Books

In the figure of the witch, our ancestors summed up their fears of nature, women, and social outsiders. Today, this archetype still possesses the power to disturb and unnerve us--especially in the hands of such masters of the horror genre as Saki, M. R. James, and Stephen King, all of whom are represented in this collection of seventeen tales.

Regular readers of Wyrd Britain will have noticed that I really like these anthologies of ghostly and macabre shenanigans.  This never used to be the case.  My prejudices against short stories were long held and ran deep but a few years ago I discovered the joy of the collection of spook stories and haven't looked back since.  Most of the ones I've read have been a worthwhile experience weighted to the better but a couple of them have shone through as being just a well put together collection - Mark Valentine's occult detective collection 'The Black Veil' and Susan Dickinson's 'Ghostly Experiences' spring immediately to mind - and today this one is added to the list as it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Opening the book is Saki's 'The Peace of Mowsle Barton' a characteristically witty little jape of petty tit for tat spell casting by gnarly old country women which is followed by M.R. James' 'The Fenstanton Witch' in, what was, it's first publication within the pages of a book.  The collection of James stories I own predates this so the story of young clergymen attempting an avaricious exhumation of a suspected witch was a real treat to read even if it's not the most refined of the great man's works.

N. Dennett's 1933 story 'Unburied Bane' tells of a nasty and spiteful hag in a remote, ramshackle cottage but does so with an ever so subtle possibility of just plain old delusional madness.  This is contrasted nicely with the next story, 'The Toad Witch' by Jessica Amanda Salmonson which is a beautifully poignant exploration of childhood imagination and loss.

Next is a writer who I've had the privilege of reading a few times recently, Ron Weighell, who unleashes ancient horrors on a remote convent in the terrific, 'Carven of Onyx' which is followed by A.M. Burrage's fine tale of gypsy revenge in 'Furze Hollow'.
Marjorie Bowen

In 'Miss Cornelius', W.F. Harvey tells a twisted little tale of possible madness or potential witchery.  Neither is really certain and the story is all the better for it.  Marjorie Bowen's 'One Remained Behind' on the other hand suffers from a slightly telegraphed resolution that is redeemed by the panache of it's telling.

One of the more disappointing inclusions is Robert Bloch's 'Catnip' which just tried far too hard to make something out of a terrible pun ending and the low point continues with Shamus Frazer's haunted tree story, 'The Yew Tree' before Stephen King gets everything back on track with his repulsive 'Gramma' and a young boys attempt to deal with the responsibility of caring for her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a descendant of one of those involved in the Salem witch trials presents a short story of regret, betrayal, sin, death and family in the 'The Hollow of the Three Hills' whereas for the narrator of Roger Johnson's 'The Taking' the sin is not his but the impulse to make amends is laid on him by a restless spirit which is a theme echoed by David G Rowlands', 'The Executor'.

E.F. Benson
Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes presents an amusing little story called 'The Day of the Underdog' which goes some way to proving that not every dog has it's day before the book ends with two stories of love being tested at the hands of devious old crones.  E.F. Benson's 'Gavon's Eve' is by far the better of the two and features lost love and the machinations of a necromantic witch.  The last, 'The Witches Cat' by Manly Wade Wellman would have been more at home in an issue of one of EC's horror comics.  It's not a bad little tale but it's a little too whimsical for the company it's keeping here and makes for an odd ending to the book.

So, with a couple of stories that were perhaps less than they could be and maybe seemed more so in light of how enjoyable the rest of the stories were, this collection proved to be a real treat filled with well sourced stories that haven't appeared in hordes of other anthologies.

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.

Buy it here -  The Woman In Black