Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Horror Stories

E. Nesbit
Penguin Books

A groom promises to be at the church on time, even if he has to come back from the grave to do it. A man inherits a property where he discovers a portrait of a woman that will change his life forever. Two newlyweds find their dream country cottage, unaware of an ancient curse from the previous owners. A gripping, unsettling and utterly chilling collection of short stories from a best loved storyteller.

For many people Nesbit will forever be tied to her books for children such as 'Five Children and It' and the perennial classic 'The Railway Children'.  I've not read either of them and my experiences with the good lady have entirely revolved around occasional appearances in ghostly anthologies of stories such as 'Man-Size in Marble' and 'John Charrington's Wedding' both of which, unsurprisingly, feature here.

In this instance 'here' is a brand new collection of her supernatural stories from Penguin which is part of an odd set of five books that also features John Christopher's 'The World in Winter', the feminist sci-fi of Joanna Russ' 'We who Are About to...', cyberpunk romp 'True Names' by Vernor Vinge and the urban fantasy of 'War for the Oaks' by Emma Bull.  As I said, an odd assortment and all presented in garish day-glo cover art.


Inside the giant pink skull that adorns the book in hand we find ourselves in very capable hands indeed. Ms Nesbit has an assured touch and her stories are taught and deliciously macabre.  Aside from the wandering statuary and ghostly nuptials she presents us with stories of love lost ('Hurst of Hurstgate' and 'The Ebony Frame'), about the price of revenge ('The Violet Car'), about the madness of guilt ('In the Dark') and the destructive selfishness of pride ('From the Dead').

Scattered amongst these are a couple of standout tales such as the cosmic Jekyll & Hyde of 'The Five Senses' and 'The Three Drugs', the obsessive revenge of 'The Head' and the entertainingly gossipy story of 'The Shadow'.

These sort of collections often offer up a couple of duff tales and this is no exception but it is unfortunate that they constitute the final three in the book which means it all ends on a bit of a downer. 

This is though a pretty enjoyable selection. There's nothing here that you'll lose any sleep over but as a fun excursion into a vivid imagination it's a bit of a treat.

Buy it here - Horror Stories (Penguin Worlds)

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Midwinter Entertainment

Mark Beech (ed)
Egaeus Press

An entertainment consisting of 288 pages; dedicated to short, yellowish days and long nights, to heavy curtains and the cracks and pops of burning logs, to frost-encroached byways and sturdy old inns, to skeletal trees and hungry black birds; and to the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.

Featuring many curious pieces, including several newly written stories (amongst them a brand new Connoisseur tale by Mark Valentine & John Howard), a smattering of rarely collected obscurities, a couple of never before translated artifacts and much more.

The full contents are as follows...

Meet Me at the Frost Fair by Alison Littlewood
The Monkey & Basil Holderness by Vincent O’Sullivan
A Matter of Fact by Marion Fox
The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy (A Tale in Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Snow-Image’) by Sheryl Humphrey
Drebbel, Zander & Zervan by Ron Weighell
Second Master by Mark Valentine
Window Widows by Avalon Brantley
The Secret by Anatole Le Braz (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Longing for Which by Sara Rich
Barefoot Withouten Shoon by Tina Rath
A Winter’s Night by Arthur Symons
How Shall Dead Men Sing? (The Supernatural Affair of Lord Alfred Douglas & Oscar Wilde) by Nina Antonia
Better Than Borley Rectory by Jane Fox
The Harmony of Death (A Pianist's Most Terrible Experience) by Havelock Ettrick
Il va neiger... by Francis Jammes (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Celestial Tobacconist by Mark Valentine & John Howard
Finvarragh by Nora Hopper
From the Mouth of Mad Pratt by Ross Smeltzer
In St. James’s Park by Hubert Crackanthorpe
Aut Diabolus Aut Nihil by X.L.
Somewhere Snow by Jonathan Wood


Mark Valentine
When this was first announced last year I gazed longingly at the mailout, positively salivating over the prospect of a brand new 'Connoisseur' story by Mark Valentine and John Howard.  When it finally appeared though the price tag (and this is in no way a criticism, it's a beautifully presented book) was way out of my newly unemployed pockets.  Happily, post Christmas a copy came to light on a popular auction site for a third less than the asking price and so I decided to take the plunge and I'm very glad I did.

The book offers a mix of tales old and tales new, occasional poetry and a long discussion on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  Of these, poetry isn't my particular bag and whilst there was nothing that made me turn up my nose there was nothing that raised an eyebrow either. Nina Antonia's Oscar Wilde piece was certainly interesting but for someone like me with barely a passing interest in other people's personal lives it was ultimately a distraction from the fictions.

Alison Littlewood
The book opens strongly with Alison Littlewood's elemental tale of all consuming loss, 'Meet Me At The Frost Fair', followed by the body horror of Vincent O'Sullivan's 1895 tale 'The Monkey and Basil Holderness'.  Sheryl Humphrey's 'The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy' had far too much of the folktale about it to fully satisfy but the ever welcome presences of Ron Weighell with his charming tale of books, obsession and alchemical pursuits 'Drebbel, Zander and Zervan' and Mark Valentine with his story of the various holders of the title of 'Master of the Queen's Mysteries' in 'The Second Master', soon get the book back very much on track.

Avalon Brantley's 'Window Widows' is an enjoyable haunted house tale that feels a lot older than it evidently is.  It's followed by a translation of a story called 'The Secret' from 1900 which begins with perhaps the worst opening line I've ever read and doesn't improve from there.

Sara Rich's 'The Longing for Which' reveals itself to be an enjoyable tale of obsession and possession which is followed by Tina Rath's equally readable story of possessions and freedom, 'Barefoot Withouten Shoon'.

With Havelock Ettrick's 'The Harmony of Death' editor Mark Beech finds another intriguing old tale of a pianist subjected to a 'Most Terrible Experience' whilst Jane Fox's 'Better Than Boxley Rectory' is an engagingly written but ultimately disappointing and rather silly story that takes far to long in the telling.

John Howard
And so we arrive at the very welcome return of The Connoisseur in 'The Celestial Tobacconist' as our esteemed aesthete participates in both the finest of tobaccos and a ritual performance to resurrect an ancient pagan sect.  As ever with the duo of Valentine and Howard the tale is beautifully written and enchantingly seductive.

The trio of tales that close out the book begin with the 'Vault of Horror' type twisty demonic shenanigans of Ross Smeltzer's 'From the Mouth of Mad Pratt' whose ending you can see coming from many miles away.  Much more enjoyable is 'Auf Diabolus Auf Nihil' by X.L. and dating from 1895 which despite being written in a style drier than a sand sandwich is alluringly creepy.

The book ends with 'Somewhere Snow' by Jonathan Wood which tells a slightly hallucinatory tale of loneliness and stories that unfolds slowly to give the book the subdued and slightly melancholic close that a book this mesmerically charged deserved.

....................................................................

Note - As I was typing up this review I learned of the recent death of contributing author Avalon Brantley.  Our thoughts go out to her, her family and her friends and we dedicate this review to her memory in the knowledge that her work will be enjoyed for years to come.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Earth Dies Screaming

In 1964 the world ended...again.  This time it did so at the hands of legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher with the help of shiny silver space robots and some zombies.

The film stars husband and wife Willard Parker and Virginia Field as two of a small group of survivors who assemble in a small English country inn following the sudden death of seemingly everyone else.  The motley crew of survivors consists of rugged American pilot, Jeff, Peggy, the plucky English woman in exceedingly unsuitable shoes (Parker and Field), creepy criminal, Taggart (Dennis Price), drunken sot, Otis (Thorley Walters), Violet the panicky housewife (Vanda Godsell), Mel the rebellious young man turned obedient puppy (David Spenser) and his heavily pregnant wife, Lorna (Anna Palk).

The film opens with a series of establishing shots of trains and planes crashing, people dropping dead and of bodies lying in the street. Indeed, eight and a half minutes of the film pass like this before a word is spoken.  These long periods of silence are characteristic of the rest of the film with neither the robots nor the zombies uttering a sound and, of course, the absence of sound reflects the quietude of the newly dead world whilst contrasting heavily with the assertion in the title.

At only slightly over an hour in length it's pretty short and packs a fair bit in while maintaining what feels like a pretty leisurely pace.  The more familiar actors here - Price and Walters - are playing very much within their comfort zones but all the cast are fairly strong even if little (very little) is done with the female characters - Field is essentially a damsel-in-distress here whilst the other two are victim and baby factory.

Probably the films the most effective aspect are the zombies.  We're used to the prosthesis heavy gore laden shambling corpses of the current variety but here they are given blank eyes, an implacable, shuffling gait and an eerie silence and it works an absolute treat.  One can only assume their influence on George Romero when he made Night of the Living Dead four years later.

In this age of the remake with both science fiction and zombies being so hot and especially considering it has probably the greatest name of any movie ever made I am amazed that no-one has had another go at this one.

Buy it here - The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) DVD Reg 2 - or watch it below.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Occult Files of Francis Chard

A.M. Burrage
Burrage Publishing

Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in 1889. His father and uncle were both writers, primarily of boy's fiction, and by age 16 AM Burrage had joined them and quickly became a master of the market publishing his stories regularly across a number of publications. By the start of the Great War Burrage was well established but in 1916 he was conscripted to fight on the Western Front, his experiences becoming the classic book War is War by Ex-Private X. For the remainder of his life Burrage was rarely printed in book form but continued to write and be published on a prodigious scale in magazines and newspapers. His supernatural stories are, by common consent, some of the best ever written. Succinct yet full of character each reveals a twist and a flavour that is unsettling.....sometimes menacing....always disturbing. In this volume we bring you - The Hiding Hole, The Pit In The Garden, The Affair At Penbillo, The Third Visitation, The Woman With Three Eyes, The Soldier, The Tryst, The Bungalow At Shammerton, The Protector & The Girl In Blue.

I've been on a real detective trip of late but I managed to hold off for a fortnight before it was time to indulge myself in some more supernatural sleuthing with a selection from the author of my favourite ghost story, 'Playmates'.  It took me a while to cough up the readies for this slim volume, number 6 in a series of reprints of Burrage's work, which features the escapades of his detective character Francis Chard and his companion Torrance as the pair investigate a series of unearthly, chilling and unpleasant supernatural episodes but in the end desire overcame thrift.

As is ever the case with these sort of things Chard is a veritable font of knowledge regarding all things supernatural whilst Torrance is suitably dim enough to allow us some semblance of a clue as to what's going on as things are explained to him. There's a satisfying humanity to the pair and they seem a comfortable partnership with each coming to the others aid as they often struggle through their adventures occasionally coming a bit of a cropper or finding themselves scared witless.

I've encountered a few of Burrage's stories before (the above mentioned 'Playmates' and 'Smee' are both regular in spooky anthologies) and have always found him to be very readable which proved to be the case here.  The stories are inventive and adventurous with a unexpectedly violent streak and his characters are believable and engaging.

As I said I initially balked at paying the asking price for this tiny little booklet but I have to admit, in the end, I'm glad I paid it.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

'48

James Herbert
HarperCollins

In 1945, Hitler unleashed the Blood Death on Britain as his final act of vengeance.
Those who died at once were the lucky ones. The really unfortunate took years. The survivors - people like me, who had the blood group that kept us safe from the disease - were now targets for those who believed our blood could save them.
I survived for three years. I lived alone, spending my days avoiding the fascist Blackshirts who wanted my blood for their dying leader. Then I met the others - and life got complicated all over again.

I first read this book about a decade ago and was reminded of it recently when I read another Herbert book 'Haunted'.  My over-riding memory of it is that it was an utterly exhausting read that doesn't relax for a second and a quick reread showed that to be pretty much the case. Right from the off the book hares along at breakneck speed and never really lets up.

The setting is a devastated London three years after a defeated Hitler sets off his V3 rockets loaded with a virus that kills everyone except those with AB blood type.  Some die quickly, others slowly.  Among those taking their time about things are a group of 'blackshirts' who decide that draining the blood of the seeming sole survivor in London - an American airman named Hoke - and transfusing it into themselves will save their lives.  So, for 300 and something pages they chase him (and some others) around a desolate city until a final confrontation at two London landmarks brings it to an end.

It is utter nonsense and exhausting but it's also a fun, dumb read.

Buy it here - '48

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Timeslip

On the 28th of September 1970, and for the next 26 weeks, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield) slipped through a hole in the 'Time Barrier' which allowed them to explore both the past and alternate futures.  Along the way they encountered German invaders, megalomaniac scientists, clones and various future versions of themselves.  All of which was fairly typical of life in the UK in the early 70s.

Developed by Ruth Boswell (who would later also develop 'Escape Into Night' and produce 'The Tomorrow People') Timeslip was a deliberate attempt to tap into the Doctor Who audience in a kid friendly manner whilst addressing issues (such as environmentalism and authoritarianism) that were as relevant then as they are now.  It's two leads, the emotional and plucky Liz and the bookish and serious Simon both throw themselves into their roles, each maturing into their respective parts while the rest of the cast, which includes Denis Quilley as Traynor and Gerry Anderson alumni David Graham (the voice of Brains in Thunderbirds) as Simon's future self, Controller 2957, are all very watchable.

Even though it was filmed in colour the original tapes degraded and only the 12th episode (the last part of the second series) remains in colour, the others are all black and white telerecordings.

Amongst its supporters Timeslip is very fondly remembered - some of whom have produced the excellent Timeslip website - but it's a show that seems to have slipped (sorry) off many people's radars and is one that rarely seems to be mentioned anymore which is a shame as it's definitely worth your time (sorry).

Buy it here - Timeslip: The Complete Series [DVD] - or watch it below.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

John Silence

Algernon Blackwood
John Baker Publishers

One of the foremost British writers of supernatural tales in the twentieth century, Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951) wrote stories in which the slow accumulation of telling details produced a foreboding atmosphere of almost unendurable tension. Blackwood's literary renown began in 1908 with the publication of a highly successful collection of stories, John Silence — Physician Extraordinary, featuring a "psychic doctor."
This volume contains all five of the John Silence stories from the 1908 edition. The stories include "A Psychical Invasion," in which Silence is summoned to a house apparently haunted by former tenants. In "Ancient Sorceries," he encounters a man who tells of strange experiences in a small French town; and in "Secret Worship," an ill-starred character is rescued from spiritual and perhaps physical death. "The Nemesis of Fire," and "The Camp of the Dog," conclude this collection of spellbinding tales, which will delight any devotee of "weird" literature.
 


Over the last few years and in various anthologies I've read a few of Blackwood's stories concerning his occult investigator Dr John Silence, and they were a real treat.  I've been been hunting a nice old copy of this collection of most of the Silence stories for a while but as all the modern editions have pretty dreadful cover designs it took a while to find an older edition that I both liked and could afford.

Blackwood only wrote 6 John Silence stories, 5  of which were published together in 1908 (as is the case with this volume) with the 6th - 'A Victim of Higher Space' - not included because Blackwood felt it wasn't up to the mark.  It's actually my personal favourite but I do think it makes for a strange fit with the other 5.

John Silence is a medical doctor of independent wealth who uses his skills, both physical and psychical to help with and investigate interesting problems.  Over the course of the collection we find him in turn investigating a haunted house, listening to and commenting on a story of feline witchery, battling a mummies curse, rescuing an unsuspecting traveller from devil worshippers and match making for a lovesick puppy.

In each case he is both an enigmatic but powerful presence although in the case of  two of the stories he is very much a bit player.  In the other three - particularly the first - we get to see him in action and he is such a steely and knowledgeable character that he would, I think, be a rather tiresome presence to have always centre stage and so Blackwood uses him sparingly even in his own adventures and they are all the better for it.

As I mentioned above, I've been on the look out for a nice old copy for a few years now and this one turned up at just the right time to help sate my psychic detective hankering and even with only the one story that I hadn't previously read it was a welcome and very enjoyable read.

Buy it here -  John Silence: The Complete Adventures

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Incredible Robert Baldick - Never Come Night

Originally screened in 1972 as part of the BBCs Drama Playhouse series 'The Incredible Robert Baldick' marked the return to the BBC of Dalek creator Terry Nation after some 7 years working for the rival ITV network. Drama Playhouse was a series of one off pilots created to test the water for a possible series, it didn't happen here which is a real shame.

Robert Hardy plays the eponymous hero, an occult detective who travels around in a lavish, bulletproof locomotive called 'The Tsar'.  He, along with his assistants Thomas and Caleb (Julian Holloway and a magnificently bewhiskered John Rhys-Davies) is called in by the local bigwigs (James Cossins & Reginald Marsh) to investigate the latest in a series of brutal deaths at a desolate abbey.

John Rhys-Davies and his
magnificent mutton chops
There are definite shades of Nigel Kneale in the story, of ancient horror inhabiting the stones of a place and the gothic glory of Hammer Studios is definitely brought to mind.  Hardy and the rest of the cast are all in fine form and the script is a solid and thoroughly enjoyable slice of gothic sci-fi of the sort that Doctor Who would explore to great effect a few years later under Philip Hinchcliffe's guidance, indeed Hardy's character is called Doctor by his assistants throughout.  As I said, a real shame this never made it to series but it's a great little taste of what might have been.

Enjoy.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Haunted

James Herbert
Pan Books

Three nights of terror in a house called Edbrook. Three nights in which David Ash, there to investigate a haunting, will be the victim of horrifying and maleficent games. Three nights in which he will face the enigma of his own past. Three nights before Edbrook's dreadful secret will be revealed - and the true nightmare will begin.

Another in the avalanche of occult detective stories to come my way lately is this little ditty from Herbert.

To the best of my knowledge I've only ever read one other James Herbert book (although there's a good chance I read some as a teen and have forgotten) and that was the exhausting zombie / nazi book '48' which was without doubt the most hectic read of my life.  Haunted is a little more sedate.


David Ash is an investigator for the 'Psychical Research Institute' and it's most famous sceptic - although through the course of the story we discover he believes in pretty much everything except ghosts - which is a funny sort of sceptic - and he's also psychic.

The investigation he's conducting is of a haunting at an old manor house called Edbrock where the Mariell family of 2 brothers, a sister and an elderly aunt are seeing ghosts.  Over the course of 3 nights Ash is confronted by a host of visions, terrors and inexplicable events before the final revelation that you can see coming from about a third of the way in.

It's not that it's a bad book as such, it's got a nicely creepy atmosphere and the story moves along briskly but it feels superficial.  There's no real depth or texture to the goings on.  It kind of feels like a one off TV special, a pilot for an uncommissioned series.  Apparently there are 2 more Ash stories which I'll grab if I see them on a charity shop shelf but they aren't something I'll be hunting down with eager anticipation.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Thirteen Problems

Agatha Christie
Collins Crime Club

The Tuesday Night Club is a venue where locals challenge Miss Marple to solve recent crimes...One Tuesday evening a group gathers at Miss Marple's house and the conversation turns to unsolved crimes...The case of the disappearing bloodstains; the thief who committed his crime twice over; the message on the death-bed of a poisoned man which read 'heap of fish'; the strange case of the invisible will; a spiritualist who warned that 'Blue Geranium' meant death...Now pit your wits against the powers of deduction of the 'Tuesday Night Club'.

The next in the shelf full of Ms Marple's I have here is actually the first in that it contains the first ever Marple story; 'The Tuesday Night Club'.

The collection consists of 13 short mysteries, the first 12 of which follow a distinct pattern as each person tells of a mysterious happening that the others around the fireside (in the first 6) and the dinner party (in the second 6) have to solve.  It is, of course, the good lady who cuts straight to the heart of the matter as all human life can be related to the goings on in St Mary Mead.

The final story finds her engaging retired police commissioner Sit Henry Clithering - the only other constant in the 13 stories - to investigate a murder by handing him a piece of paper with the murderers name on it and then letting him do the investigating.

I've got to admit I'm enjoying the hell out of these Marple books.  I've always loved the various TV shows (Geraldine McEwan being my particular favourite) but the books are witty and inventive and the characters are fun and idiosyncratic  filled with foibles and all the inconsistencies that make people so much frustrating fun.  I have another 9 of these lined up and 2 more still to find and this makes me very happy indeed.

But it here -  The Thirteen Problems (Miss Marple)