Thursday, 22 September 2016

Folk Britannia

BBC Four has a pedigree for producing quality documentaries and it's music ones are amongst the best.  Of those the 'Britannia' series has been notably impressive with mini-series based around punk, metal, jazz, synths, soul, prog and much more.  We might return to some of the others at a later date but first I think we'll head off to a land where the ale is real, the clothes are woolly and the hats, for some reason, have green willow all round them.

The documentary consists of three episodes each focusing on a different era of British folk music.  Episode 1 - 'Ballads and Blues' - explores the revival era, episode 2 - 'Folk Roots, New Routes' - travels through the acid-folk and folk-rock of the 60s and early 70s and episode 3 - 'Between the Wars' - looks at the post punk years.

As with all these documentaries there's something for the novice and the acolyte alike.  Even with music I'm not much of a fan of - and I have to include the vast majority of British folk music in there, hence the facetious comment about willowy hats back there - I do love to watch passionate people talk about their work and their love of the music and there's plenrty of that on offer here.

(The playlist below contains all three episodes)


Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983)

Made in 1983 and based on the novel of the same name by Dorothy Edwards published two years earlier, 'The Witches and the Grinnygog' is a 6 episode supernatural, time-slip story for children made by TVS (the ITV channel for south east England).

The story tells of five very nice kids, Colin and Nan Sogood and Essie and Dave Firkettle (who grew up to be Eastenders' Ian Beale) and their little brother Jimmy who, whilst setting up the local museum (see, I told you they were nice), start to notice strange things happening in their quiet little village all of which seem to be connected the Firkettle's Grandad's (John Barrard) garden ornament, an odd, gargoyle-like statue that quite literally falls off the back of a lorry just missing Mrs. Firkettle's head.

Things get increasingly unusual for the quartet with the arrival of an enigmatic African anthropologist, Twebele Alabaster (Olu Jacobs), three eccentric and seemingly magical old ladies Mrs. Ems (Sheila Grant), Edie Possett (Anna Wing - who later became Ian Beale's great aunt Lou) and Miss Bendybones (Patricia Hayes) and finally a lost and lonely young girl called both Margaret and Daisy (Eva Griffith - who some of you will recognise as the young blind girl who tries to convince Bill Mason to stay and carry on looking after 'his' group of blind people in the brilliant 1981 BBC TV version of 'The Day of the Triffids').

'The Witches and the Grinnygog' is a very well mannered sort of affair lacking the air of disquiet and menace that is palpable in many of the more well known supernatural shows like 'Children of the Stones'.  Unfortunately, there's no actual jeopardy in the plot.  The kids run around trying to solve the secret of the statue and village's unpleasant past even though Miss Bendybones tells them (and others) on several occasions that everything is fine and its all going to work out on the day.  Kudos to the makers for not falling in the trap of 'demonising' any one here, followers of all the religions featured - both orthodox and less so - are portrayed as well intentioned and kind and contributes towards making a show that is in almost every way possible, nice and which probably goes some way to explain why 'The Witches and the Grinnygog' is considerably less well known than many other TV shows of this ilk.

It is though still an intriguing and enjoyable watch.


Monday, 12 September 2016

Short Story - 'August Heat' by W.F. Harvey

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Jack Kirby's 'The Prisoner' comic

Earlier today I stumbled across a fantastic post over on 'Forces of Geek' that I want to share with you all. It features the entirety of the first issue of a never released comic book adaptation of Patrick McGoohan's 'The Prisoner' along with a link to another article explaining the genesis of the project.

The adaptation was written and pencilled by Jack Kirby (co-creator of 'Captain America', 'The Fantastic Four' and much, much more) and has mostly been inked by Mike Royer (a regular Kirby collaborator) although the project was obviously abandoned before he had finished as some of the pages exist in pencil form only.

Personally, I've never been much of a Kirby fan (cue collective gasps of horror from outraged Kirbynistas),  I love his backgrounds but not his figures (faces especially - although he absolutely nails Angelo Muscat as Number 2's butler) and find his writing unreadably pedestrian which is the case here.  That said, this is a fabulous artifact and well worth checking out.


Jack Kirby's 'The Prisoner'

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 one 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.