Thursday, 25 August 2016

Welsh Tales of Terror

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Fontana Books

Inside what is probably the single most stereotypical portrayal of Welsh cliches ever to adorn a book cover this anthology of stories set in Wales, written by Welsh writers or regarding Welsh folklore turned out to be utterly fantastic.

Let's start by getting the various folktales out of the way.  These, here, take the form of teeny little half page stories relating things like 'The Brown Hobgoblin of Bedd Gelert', 'Dead Man's Candles', 'The Devil's Tree', 'Corpse Candles' and more.  They're fun little hints at the depth of Welsh folklore but little more than that.  For those wishing for a more in depth examination that's catered for with a chapter taken from Marie Trevelyan's early 20th century study 'Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales' that explores the phenomena of the 'Ceffyl-dwr' in 'Water Horses and the Spirits of the Mist'.

Arthur Machen
So, onto the stories.  There are a number of very enjoyable stories here but the book is helped no end by an exemplary opening trio of tales.  First up is Glyn Jones' 'Jordan', a story of an attempted swindle and the grim and unpleasant fate that befalls the perpetrators.  The second story is by one of my favourite authors, John Christopher, and is the first thing of his I've read that was neither science-fiction nor post-apocalyptic.  'A Cry of Children' is a subtle and deeply moving story with a brutal and breathtaking finale.  The golden trio culminates with Arthur Machen's 'The Shining Pyramid' with its folk horror and proto-Lovecraftian rural horrors from beyond.

There's a bit of a dip next with Angus Wilson's 'Animals or Human Beings' which despite being written in a very agreeable and jaunty style has a story that really does nothing interesting which is also the case with the ghost story 'The Man on a Bike' by Hazel F. Looker that follows it.

Regular readers of my write-us will know that I'm a bit of a sucker for a happy story and so in many ways 'The Morgan Trust' by Richard Bridgeman (a pseudonym of sci-fi writer L.P. Davies) ticked lots of my boxes with its story of a man on an obsessive quest finding what he's looking for in two remote Welsh towns.

Caradoc Evans
Obsession is also at the heart of two more tales of Caradoc Evans' 'Be This Her Memorial' takes religious fervour in a small town to its extreme and 'The Lost Gold Mine' by Hazel F. Looker has a more obvious object of fascination.

Dorothy K. Haynes' contribution 'Mrs Jones' is a repurposed folktale of a woman kidnapped and forced to cook for the little folk of Gower.  It's lifted from the doldrums by the matching belligerence of both its victim and her erstwhile rescuer whose dislike of the woman and her domineering ways could be her downfall.

Ronald Seth's 'The Reverend John James and the Ghostly Horseman' is another story that feels like a repurposed folktale but unlike its predecessor has little charm or wit in its telling.

The books second story by Glyn Jones, 'Cadi Hughes', is a bit of a disappointment after the opener.  It has a great opening and a couple of fun moments but is ultimately a bit cruel and vindictive.

Richard Hughes
The final three tales pretty much capture the Wales I grew up in the 1970s dealing as they do with coal mining, religion and folk horror.  Jack Griffith deals with the first of these as he traps a group of men underground in 'Black Goddess' and we're left to decide for ourselves whether the supernatural aspect is more real than the insanity.  'The Stranger' by Richard Hughes drops a small demon into the household of a preacher and his peg-legged wife.  It tries for laughs amidst the temptations and the piety but I thought it all got more than a little jumbled at the end.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes
The book closes with editor R. Chetwynd-Hayes' own contribution, 'Lord Dunwilliam and the Cwn Annwn'.  It's the most 1970s thing here by far as it's Regency period setting and wild snowy moorland setting filled with obnoxious aristocrats, cackling peasants, beautiful maidens and ancient powers put me in mind of so many of my favourite Hammer movies.

I know there are lots of other books in this series covering different areas of the country (and indeed parts of the world) compiled by different editors all of which are now on my wants list but truthfully they are all going to have to be something special to live up to this one.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School

Kim Newman
Titan Books

A week after Mother found her sleeping on the ceiling, Amy Thomsett is delivered to her new school, Drearcliff Grange in Somerset. Although it looks like a regular boarding school, Amy learns that Drearcliff girls are special, the daughters of criminal masterminds, outlaw scientists and master magicians. Several of the pupils also have special gifts like Amy’s, and when one of the girls in her dormitory is abducted by a mysterious group in black hoods, Amy forms a secret, superpowered society called the Moth Club to rescue their friend. They soon discover that the Hooded Conspiracy runs through the School, and it's up to the Moth Club to get to the heart of it.

The last of Newman's books I read was, for me at least, at little disappointing.  Deapite being a fan of the genre I found his 'An English Ghost Story' a little underwhelming.  I think this was one of the things that contributed to me struggling to get traction with this one.  The other, and probably more likely, thing was all the pain and subsequent morphine that I was in and on at the time after breaking my hip.  So, after putting it aside for a few weeks I returned to it yesterday and read the remaining 300 pages.

Drearcliff Grange is a school for 'unusual' girls.  The daughters of criminals, spies, mad scientists (oh, and the grand-daughter of a certain time travelling alien)  and those who are gifted in some way.  Our lead is one Amy Thomsett, a moth obsessed young lady with a habit of floating up into the air when she stops concentrating on not doing exactly that.

Packed off to the school by her scandalised mother she is roomed with the bombastic 'Frecks', the tempestuous, slightly murdery and gangster obsessed Kali and fellow 'unusual', Lightfingers, with her lightning fast hands.  The four bond immediately as Amy navigates the intricacies of school life and the politics of the house system.  Soon though danger and intrigue is thrown their way and the girls have to reinvent themselves in order to save one of their number before and even bigger calamity unfolds and we get to meet the other unusuals that inhabit the school.

As with his 'Anno Dracula' series Newman has built a world where the rules are slightly off.  Here, rather than vampires, it's the pulp hero style of superheroes of the Doc Savage, Phantom variety of the type that Alan Moore pastiched in his 'Tom Strong' books or the 'Wold-Newton' series by Philip Jose Farmer.  It's linked in also with one of Newman's other book series featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Diogenes Club' which hopefully Titan Books will get around to reprinting sometime soon as the originals are too expensive for my pockets.

'The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School' though is a book that fizzes with energy and is filled with characters with quirks and kinks that make them feel alive beyond their unusualness.  It is, of course, an adventure romp but also it's a story of acceptance of both self and others and about friendship and the forming of bonds.  It is cracking good fun that manages to be both utterly 'jolly hockeysticks' and entirely St Trinian's at the same time as being fully Newman.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Third Target Book of Horror

Kurt Singer (editor)
Target Books

I have two books that are emblazoned with a toad on the cover.  The first was 'The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories' which at least had a Nigel Kneale story in it that featured the creatures, this one just wanted the 'Urgh' factor.

It's a bit of a hodgepodge this one.  It opens well with one of Wilkie Collins' non-supernatural stories of duplicitous French gamblers in 'A Terribly Strange Bed' before things take a distinctly downward turn with 'Psychic Alert Saved Film Star' by Frank Stevens.  This 'factual' piece tells of the actress Elke Sommer and how a psychic premonition and a ghostly visitor saved her life on two separate occasions.

The book is right back on track with the muscular macabrery of G.G. Pendarves, 'The Dark Star', which pits an alienist with a penchant for the supernatural and muscularist (I think I might just possibly have made that term up) in a spiritual battle for the soul of the latter's beloved against an ancient ancestor inside a haunted painting.

Richard Middleton
Carl Jacobi's 'Portrait in Moonlight' is a colonialist voodoo tale complete with distasteful language that delivers a well earned comeuppance to it's unpleasant lead.

I rather enjoyed Richard Middleton's whimsical 'The Ghost Ship' with it's courteous and occasionally inebriated ghosts but it's impact is lessened by the subsequent descent into more spiritualism / ghost hunting (apologies if this sort of thing is your bag but it really isn't mine) with various ghost busting memoirs from Horace Leaf in 'I am a Psychic Detective' before the book ends well with Seabury Quinn's, 'The Cloth of Madness', that finds an interior decorator extract revenge via wallpaper.

Like I said at the top, a mixed bag but one that errs on quality and is a quick and, mostly, enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Kingdom Under The Sea and Other Stories

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

This lovely little Puffin book was the winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1971 for Pienkowski's silhouette illustrations and it's not hard to see why as they run through the various stories perfectly augmenting the words as supplied courtesy of Wyrd Britain's favourite authors here retelling a variety of folktales from Eastern Europe in her own eminently readable style.

I'm not familiar with any of the stories but the iconic witch Baba Yaga in her mortar and pestle and with her chicken leg house makes an appearance - 'Baba Yaga's Daughter' - which gave me my first chance to actually read one of her stories first hand.  There's an interesting cross section of pagan and Christian stories with the Sun and various members of his family making several appearances - the title piece, 'The Sun God's Castle', 'The Reed Girl', 'The Sun's Cousin' - variously helping or hindering people in their quests or just out of the pickles they've found themselves in.  Alongside these we find a couple of Christian themed stories such as moralistic fable of 'The Pear Tree' and the devious prankster God presented in 'The Goose Girl' depriving Saint Peter of a party.

Jan Pienkowski

Pienkowski, I assume, has designed the book so that art and words are interlaced. His illustrations intertwined with the words, often holding and framing them; often drawing the reader's eye deeper into the pictures to, quite literally, read the story within. 

As is ever the case with Ms. Aiken the tales are beautifully told in her typically light and dancing style and even though, as often seems to happen with folktales, much of the detail of the story is subsumed in the rush to the moral at the end she is still able to bring her storytelling expertise to bear and draw out the heart of each tale and craft them into a vibrant and delightful collection of stories that cross cultural, historic and geographic divides.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Giant Under The Snow

John Gordon
Puffin Books

Three children find an ornate Celtic buckle. To them it is treasure, a fantastic find. They have no idea that it has awakened a giant who has lain at rest for centuries. Little do they know that an evil warlord and his Leathermen have also awaited this moment, this chance to wield their deadly power. In a chilling tale full of menace and suspense the final battle between good and evil must be fought. Beautifully written, subtle, and evocative, this story transcends age, transporting the reader into an intensely atmospheric world where the imagination knows no bounds.

I love my collection of Puffin (and similar) books mostly because of the stories that tell of a very different type of Britain where history and legends seep through into the present or a Britain that many authors have happily pulled the trigger on in order to watch it burn but also because of the utterly beautiful cover art of which this is one of my favourites but it's the story we're here to talk about so...

Three kids on a school field trip become embroiled in a battle to thwart the return of an evil warlord after one of the trio - the unusually named Jonquil - discovers an ancient belt buckle in a clump of trees that looks suspiciously like a giant hand.  Along with her two friends - the trusting boyfriend Bill and the sceptical frenemy 'Arf' - she is enlisted by the protector of the place and imbued with magic powers that will allow them to keep the buckle safe and away from those working to bring back the warlord - the grey and abhorrent 'Leathermen' - and whose magic will once again allow the Giant to be raised from the soil where it has lain since the warlords previous defeat.

There's some nicely creepy elements here, the sinewy 'Leathermen' being the standout, but the book does get more than a little silly once the three take to the skies.  As with the previous book I'd read by Gordon - 'The House on the Brink' - you are left with the feeling that he desperately wanted the landscape to feature intrinsically in the story - even to the point of animating it - but just doesn't seem able to imbue it with any real sense of character which is a shame.

What we have though is a fun and frantic romp of a story filled with kids zooming around performing feats of magical daring-do and destroying monsters from the dark past which is what I was hoping for when I plucked it off the shelf.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Cold Hand In Mine

Robert Aickman
Faber & Faber

Cold Hand in Mine was first published in the UK in 1975 and in the US in 1977. The story 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' won the Aickman World Fantasy Award in 1975. It was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1973 before appearing in this collection.
Cold Hand in Mine stands as one of Aickman's best collections and contains eight stories that show off his powers as a 'strange story' writer to the full, being more ambiguous than standard ghost stories. Throughout the stories the reader is introduced to a variety of characters, from a man who spends the night in a Hospice to a German aristocrat and a woman who sees an image of her own soul. There is also a nod to the conventional vampire story ('Pages from a Young Girl's Journal') but all the stories remain unconventional and inconclusive, which perhaps makes them all the more startling and intriguing.

I very much enjoyed the first volume of these Faber reprints of Aickman's collections of short stories.  The stories are decidedly odd and often end with only the vaguest of resolutions which is kind of fun.  This second collection, featuring stories originally published in 1975, is very much more of the same but with the strangeness knob turned way up.

The book opens with 'The Swords' a dark and disturbing story of a young salesman's sexual awakening in the company of an odd young woman from a carnival sideshow.  It's eroticised body horror at it's most disquieting mixing potential metaphor - the men at the sideshow piercing the woman's body with their swords - with the virgin narrators own confused, tumbling, feelings of arousal, confusion and (self)loathing at the situation he finds himself in.

'The Real Road to the Church', 'Niemandswasser', 'Pages From a Young Girl's Journal' and 'The Hospice'  all tell of people out of place.  In the first a young lady relocates herself to a small cottage and has to negotiate the ways of the locals and perhaps losing - or at least putting aside - an aspect of herself.  In the second a self absorbed prince removes himself from the world imposing himself in a part of his world where he previously hadn't belonged and through his arrogance finds himself both literally and metaphorically in the no man's water of the title.  The third is perhaps the story here I found the least satisfying as it tells of a young girl's visit to Europe in the company of her parents and the slow descent into the thrall of a vampire.  Unfortunately she's such a whiney little Anne Rice type that by the end I just didn't care.  The fourth was a much more interesting prospect as another fairly repressed man finds himself stranded for the night at a very unusual hospice where the guests are fed huge quantities of food whilst chained to the table and change their appearance during the night.  It's very much proto-David Lynch and utterly wonderful.

More fun is had with the relatively straight forward weird fiction delights of 'The Same Dog' whose appearance precipitates the death of a young girl  and whose reappearance comes allied with a profound shock.

'Meeting Mr. Millar' is an unusual - and perhaps slightly overlong - ghost story where another of Aickman's characteristically conservative leads is disturbed from his comfortable routine by the comings and goings of the new neighbours downstairs.

The book ends with 'The Clock Watcher', the story of a young wife's obsession with the elaborate clocks of her homeland and of her husband's increasing unease with her and them.  It's a story brimming with potential but unfortunately, for me at least, it never truly found its stride and just didn't achieve any notable level of intrigue or enigma.

I have to admit here that I struggled to find my rhythm with this book but I suspect that was mostly due to the distraction of work pressures.  There are some fun stories here and a few very enjoyable moments but it just didn't hit as immediately as the first volume.  It is however still a very pleasurable trip into a unique imagination.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Time Trap

Nicholas Fisk
Puffin Books

A teenager in the late 21st century discovers he can time-travel using a drug supplied by his "Uncle" Lipton, a man who has already lived over 130 years and likely to live at least 100 more. Together they escape the horrors of their mindless present to experience life in the past. But time travel has its own dangers, and Uncle Lipton isn't totally honest about his motivations.

The day after I read this odd little sci-fi by Fisk it was announced that he's passed away which was a sad coincidence.  I've read two of his books before - 'Grinny' and 'A Rag, A Bone And A Hank of Hair' - ands had mostly enjoyed them and the cover art on this one was so good it pretty much jumped off the shelf into my bag.

'Time Trap' tells the story of a disaffected teen named 'Dano' who lives in a sterile and uneventful future society within a sealed environment called 'Homebody Unit 362'.  He is enlisted by his 'Uncle Lipton' to go time travelling with him using some sort of secret drug called 'Xtend'.  Journeys into the past and the future follow with Dano becoming increasingly controlled by the thrill seeking, hedonistic Lipton.

The book, albeit very short, moves at a slow pace all the way through Dano's first sojourn into the past - the British countryside during WW2 - but after that races along breathlessly into the future even more dystopian than his own time.

When the book ends it does so with a slamming halt that leaves a number of unanswered questions that have arisen including that of his death and of the nature of the pairs travelling.

It has however entertained along the way and provided an unflinching and unappetising future society where individualism and free self expression have been subsumed and life is essentially without either value or meaning both of which Fisk seems to imply reside with the family and experiences particularly with regard to nature.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Haunted Hotel and other stories

Wilkie Collins
Wordsworth Editions

This is a unique collection of strange stories from the cunning pen of Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. The star attraction is the novella The Haunted Hotel, a clever combination of detective and ghost story set in Venice, a city of grim waterways, dark shadows and death. The action takes place in an ancient palazzo converted into a modern hotel that houses a grisly secret. The supernatural horror relentless pace, tight narrative, and a doomed countess characterise and distinguish this powerful tale.
The other stories present equally disturbing scenarios, which include ghosts, corpses that move, family corpses and perhaps the most unusual of all, the Devil's spectacles, which bring a clarity of vision that can lead to madness.
Collins is one of the great storytellers. He excels in presenting narratives that both disturb and engross the reader, as this fine collection demonstrates.

I've read a fair few of Collins' stories over the last couple of years and enjoyed them all.  They are lively, imaginative and written with a real readability, an easy way of phrasing that many of his contemporaries and successors lacked.  That said though, I've little interest in reading any of his longer works - or those of the other writers of the era - as I've, for the most part, come to think of these writers as providing my short story kick.  So, the novella that makes up a large - 149 page - chunk of this book was my longest excursion by far into the realms of the Victorian ghost story.

The story itself tells of a jilted woman, her usurper in her ex's affections and his extended family.  The tale moves between London, Ireland and Venice as a seemingly inevitable and perhaps fated meeting between various parties at the hotel of the title.  For most of the novella it feels like a fairly slight story extended beyond its bounds and supported in it's telling by Collins' readability but when the uncanny and the odd begin to appear it is all the more effective for it and the novella culminates in a most satisfying manner.

Making up the rest of the page count are several shorts of varying quality of which I was only previous acquainted with the first, 'The Dream Woman' which tells of a grooms (the horse variety) unrelenting fear of his ex wife.

A marriage is at the heart of the third tale also, 'Mrs Zant and the Ghost', in which a chance encounter with a lady in a park brings a widower and his young daughter  into her life in time to save her from an unpleasant fate.  I've admitted in these pages before that I am a real sucker for a happy story so this proved to be a real favourite.

'A Terribly Strange Bed' is, along with 'The Dead Hand' & 'Blow Up With The Brig!', one of several stories here with no supernatural content.  All are enjoyable, the latter being the least so, but aren't what I read these books for and so my enjoyment is limited but, as I say, the first two are certainly enjoyable in what they are.

Of the three remaining stories, two deal with apparitions, in one 'Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman' this is in the context of a story told about a murder committed whilst the other 'Nine O'Clock' tells of a premonition of death.  Both stories have a sense of inevitability about them as their denouements are telegraphed from the off but the journeys to the ends is enjoyable enough.

The book closes with the frankly absurd 'The Devil's Spectacles' that begins with a story of cannibalism and ends with madness via mistrust, greed, jealousy and a very ugly pair of glasses.

As ever with these Wordsworth Editions what you get is a collection of unusual tales that are often engrossing, sometimes intriguing and occasionally puzzling but every now and again though these stories are written by a master of the craft and manage to be all three at once.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Lotus Caves

John Christopher
Puffin Books

Fleeing the claustrophobic artificiality of the Moon Bubble, 14-year-olds Marty & Steve illegally reconnoiter-the long-abandoned 1st Station &, following a clue in the journal of "never recovered" Andrew Thurgood, plunge their mechanical crawler into a fragrant, fertile warren of caves. There the enveloping moss & branches, the moving, metamorphosizing leaves & undergrowth are all part of one gigantic sentient Plant which has also provided, for the surviving Thurgood, a lush earth-like orchard & an orchestra tree programmed to play his favorite (now 70-year-old) tunes. The Plant will pamper them until, like the Odyssey's lotus-eaters, they'll relinquish all thoughts of escape. Marty's fight against euphoria, which involves arousing the lethargic, Plant-worshipping Thurgood, is quickly told--more quickly than the Lunarians-at-school episode at the beginning.

I've been bingeing on John Christopher books over the last year or so and I have a few still on the shelf.  Of the ones I've read 'Empty World' remains my favourite of all his YA books ('Death of Grass' of the others in case you were wondering).  This is another of the former type and is by far the weakest of all that I've read.

'The Lotus Caves' is the story of two boys, Marty and Steve, residents of 'The Bubble' a moon colony where life is regimented and unexciting.  Bored to tears due to the punishment for a prank pulled the two jump at an opportunity to go for an illicit jaunt in one of the surface vehicles.  Once out in the wilds of the moon they, through an unlikely sequence of events find themselves trapped in the underground domain of a sentient extra-terrestrial plant.

It's not a great read.  The core concept is weak and there's little to hang onto as the book progresses but the finale when it arrives picks up the pace considerably and the ending of the book is by far the most enjoyable part of the whole thing.

I kind of always knew I was going to struggle getting into this as I do prefer my sci-fi earth bound and preferably within Britain (hence this blog).  This was none of those but it was interesting to read a John Christopher book that took his imagination well beyond it's usual boundaries and that can never be a bad thing even if the end result is a rather mediocre thing.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Annihilation Score

Charles Stross
Orbit Books

In this this science fiction spy thriller by Hugo Award winning writer Charles Stross, the Laundry - the British secret agency that fights supernatural threats - must team up with the police force, with one unfortunate secret agent caught in the middle.
Playing with danger.
Dr. Mo O'Brien is an intelligence agent at the top secret government agency known as 'the Laundry'. When occult powers threaten the realm, they'll be there to clean up the mess - and deal with the witnesses.
But the Laundry is recovering from a devastating attack and when average citizens all over the country start to develop supernatural powers, the police are called in to help. Mo is appointed as official police liaison, but in between dealing with police bureaucracy, superpowered members of the public and disgruntled politicians, Mo discovers to her horror that she can no longer rely on her marriage, nor on the weapon that has been at her side for eight years of undercover work, the possessed violin known as 'Lecter'.
Also, a mysterious figure known as Dr Freudstein has started sending threatening messages to the police, but who is he and what is he planning?

(Wyrd Britain write-ups of the previous books in this series can be found HERE and HERE)

It's always a good day when I notice that a new Laundry book has appeared whilst I wasn't looking and that's exactly what happened here.

The last time out told of Bob's encounter with a group of vampire bankers that ended with a huge attack on the Laundry's headquarters, the deaths of both a number of the cast and, potentially, Bob's marriage.  This time out he steps away from the centre stage and his long term partner Mo takes her turn in the spotlight.

The book begins immediately after the last one ends with Bob leaving their home following their joint realisation that the bone white violin is out to kill him.  This leaves Mo alone for the briefest of moments before she is called into action in a crowded Trafalgar square which is never a good thing if you're an agent for an ultra secret governmental occult agency and then launched into the cauldron of modern policing and politics as the head of the government's new superhero team

The Laundry books have often had little authorial tricks going on in them.  The first few were pastiches of various such as Ian Fleming or a critique of genre conventions as with the last book's (The Rhesus Chart) examination of the logistics of vampirism.  This book is the latter as Stross casts his eye over both the logistics of superhero legality and modern policing.

The story itself is a fairly plodding affair that never really felt like it got going.  Mo comes across as an unsympathetic character, admittedly she's not at her best for most of the book as she's battling the influence of  Lector but she's just not very likable and her constant bitching about Bob quickly becomes quite tiresome.

In the end though the narrative is resolved in a fairly satisfying manner although you can't help but feel that an organisation as necessarily ruthless as the Laundry would need to be would, could and should have acted with a lot more alacrity and decisiveness against the emerging threat of Professor Freudstein than they did.

'The Annihilation Score' is certainly not the stand out book in this fun series and in fact is perhaps the exact opposite but I'm always happy to dip into this world and I did enjoy it on the whole.