Jim Mountfield goes first footing

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

I’m pleased to report that my horror-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has a short story featured in a new collection of spooky tales entitled Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas.  The collection has been published by the online magazine Horrified and, as its title suggests, its contents are not only concerned with the supernatural and macabre, but mostly take during the festive season.  My contribution is actually a New Year story rather than a Christmas one, set on the night of December 31st / January 1st.  It’s called First Footers.

 

I spent much of my early life in Scotland, where celebrating New Year, or Hogmanay as the Scots called it, was a big thing.  (Cue the hoary old joke: “What do you get if you cross a Scotsman with an Iranian?  The Ayatollah Hogmanay!”)  In recent years, Scottish cities, especially Edinburgh, have cashed in on this tradition by holding huge street parties with firework displays and live music on December 31st, although anyone I know who made it to the Edinburgh Street Party usually whinged afterwards that it was largely ‘attended by Aussie and Kiwi backpackers’.

 

Away from the commercialism and razzmatazz, a lot of Scottish people still claim that the customary thing to do on Hogmanay is go first-footing, i.e., trudge around your neighbours’ houses after midnight and toast the New Year in each house with glasses of whisky.  But to be honest, I think this is an extinct tradition.  I don’t know anybody who’s gone first-footing since the 1980s – which was certainly the last time I attempted it.  Perhaps in the past, when Scottish pubs had very limited opening hours and Scottish society as a whole was much more buttoned-up, going on the razzle after midnight on January 1st with a bottle of whisky might have seemed exciting, but it hardly seems so nowadays when you’re at liberty to party and drink yourself stupid 24/7 if you want.  Or at least, you were before Covid-19 arrived…

 

Plus, does anyone in his or her right mind want to tramp from one neighbour’s house to another through the sort of dire, dreich weather you’re likely to get in Scotland, at night, at the very start of the year?  (If there is a Hogmanay custom in modern Scotland, I suspect it’s for folk to make an appearance in a nice, warm pub in the afternoon or early evening of January 1st and have a few celebratory drinks then, which seems far more sensible.)

 

Anyway, I got the idea for First Footers when it struck me that, in rural Scotland at least, going first-footing on a pitch-black night wasn’t just a physically uncomfortable experience, but possibly a creepy, even scary one too.  This inspired me to write a tale about two young guys who decide to revive the old custom of first-footing one New Year’s Eve and get more than they bargained for.

 

Available as a digital ebook, and priced just £3.99, Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas can be purchased here.  Meanwhile, the main page for Horrified magazine can be accessed here.

Cinema Peebles-diso

 

 

I recently noticed a discussion about the Playhouse Cinema on the Facebook page Auld Peebles, which is a site devoted to pictures, information and simple nostalgic reminiscing about past times in Peebles, my hometown in the Scottish Borders.  This inspired me to dig out the following entry, which I’d originally posted on this blog back in 2013.  In it, I indulge in some nostalgic reminiscing of my own about my town’s old Art Deco cinema…

 

The photograph above this entry shows the Art Deco building at number 60 of the High Street in Peebles, my Scottish hometown.  The building opened in 1932 as the Playhouse Cinema.  Its architect was Alister G. MacDonald, a son of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Britain’s first Labour Party prime minister and served in office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1935.  MacDonald Junior designed the cinema with a particularly wide auditorium and with stalls and a balcony that held a total of 802 seats.  The name Playhouse was spelt out in a squiggle of neon along the top of its façade, although the roof behind was less glamorous, being made of corrugated iron.

 

The Playhouse showed films for the next 45 years and for a time, in modest-sized Peebles, it wasn’t even the only cinema.  It had to compete against the Empire Cinema on the Bridgegate and the Burgh Hall, further up the High Street, which also showed films.  By the 1970s, however, with just about every home in Peebles possessing a television set, only the Playhouse was left and it was struggling, to the point where it’d introduced bingo a couple of nights a week as a way of attracting extra custom.

 

I became acquainted with the Playhouse at a very late stage in its life.  In 1977, when I was eleven, my family moved to a new home just beyond the outskirts of Peebles.  The town centre was only 30 minutes’ walk away.  Previously we’d lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and if I wanted to visit a cinema there, I had to talk my parents into driving me several miles to the nearest one and then returning to collect me afterwards.  I was movie-crazy and having a cinema on my doorstep, as it seemed at the time, was a wonderful new luxury.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

I didn’t see any masterpieces in the Playhouse, but every film I did see seems to be engraved on my memory just because I’d seen it there.  For example, there was Earthquake (1974), the big, rumbly disaster movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and George Kennedy.  George Kennedy was a portent of doom in 1970s movies, having already appeared in two of the Airport movies (1970 and 75).  If his craggy face appeared onscreen, you just knew a destructive earth tremor was going to strike the city or a Boeing 747 was going to fall out of the sky.

 

It was also in the Playhouse that I had my most disappointing cinematic experience ever, which was seeing Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong.  I’d really been looking forward to this, as I’d watched the original movie on TV and was desperate to see how they’d update all the fights that King Kong had with the dinosaurs on Skull Island.  To my horror, there weren’t any dinosaurs on the 1976 Skull Island, so Kong didn’t have any fights with them.  The only battle was an altercation between Kong (played by Rick Baker in a gorilla-costume) and a crap-looking rubbery giant snake.  I’d like to think that a young Peter Jackson saw the same movie and shared my feelings of profound disappointment.  For that reason, when he remade King Kong in 2005, he made sure his film was choc-a-bloc with dinosaurs.

 

Sometimes at the Playhouse you got to see a familiar feature of 1970s movie-going, which was a cinematic double bill.  Among the two-for-the-price-of-one marvels I was treated to were Carquake (1976) combined with The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).  Carquake was little more than a montage of car chases and car crashes and I suspect that the filmmakers had cast David Carradine in the lead role only because his surname started with the word ‘car’.  Nonetheless, it seemed like a masterpiece compared with its partner.  In The Giant Spider Invasion, the invading giant spiders were played by real-life tarantulas when they were babies, and played by giant wobbly-legged blobs of paper-maché mounted on top of cars when they were adults.  One scene showed a tarantula clamber unnoticed into a kitchen blender.  Then a character unwittingly blended it with some fruit and took a massive swig from the resulting Vitamin C / pulped-hairy-spider concoction.  That was about the most revolting thing I saw in a film until Hugh Grant started making romantic comedies.

 

© New World Pictures

 

But I had barely seven months to enjoy the Playhouse, for on September 10th, 1977, it went out of business.  It would’ve been fitting if the final end-credits to scroll up the Playhouse’s screen had belonged to a film that was memorable – Star Wars (1977), say, which was breaking box-office records at the time.  However, the last film shown there was another one about cars, an unremarkable horror film simply entitled The Car (1977).  This starred James Brolin and was about a rural American community being terrorised by a deadly, driver-less and demonically possessed automobile.  In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King described it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.

 

Thereafter the Playhouse was derelict for a time.  I seem to remember a report in the local newspaper at one point about it being broken into and vandalised.  Then its foyer was converted into a shopping area and it became another High Street retailer.  For a while, it served as the premises for Visionhire, a TV shop, which meant that films were being shown on its premises again (at least, when one of the televisions on display was switched on and tuned into a channel broadcasting a film).  These days it houses an outlet for the cut-price chemist’s chain, Semi-Chem.  Thanks to Alister MacDonald’s Art Deco design, it’s now a listed building and has been given a Grade C status by Historic Scotland.  Incidentally, I’m only talking about the building’s front part.  As far as I know, most of its back part, containing the 802-seat auditorium, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

 

Losing the Playhouse in 1977 was a blow for Peebles film-lovers because video cassettes and VCRs were still things of the future.  If you didn’t have transport to get to a cinema in another town to see a film on its first release, your only option was to wait a couple of years until it turned up on TV.  However, you still had a chance to see films, old and not so old, on a big screen if you were a pupil at Peebles High School.  In the wake of the Playhouse’s demise, a teacher there, Dr Mike Kellaway, started up a Film Club and showed movies one evening each week with the school’s assembly hall acting as an auditorium.  But Peebles High School’s Film Club is a story for another blog-entry.

 

© Auld Peebles / David Brunton

Seriously Sean – ‘The Hill’

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Social media quickly filled with tributes to Sean Connery when the venerable Scottish superstar died on October 31st.  Much, of course, was made of the fact that he’d been the cinema’s first and best James Bond.  However, I found it interesting that many people also talked about the post-Bond movies that Connery made in the 1980s and 1990s.  These were big budget, escapist and sometimes shonky, though lovable, action or fantasy films like The Time Bandits (1981), Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Rock (1996).

 

Which is all fine and good, but I was disappointed that more attention wasn’t paid to what Connery achieved back in the 1960s and 1970s, in between his assignments as Bond, when he clearly had ambitions to be not just a movie star but a serious actor.  He made several movies back then that were critically acclaimed but generally didn’t make much money.  Perhaps it was disillusionment at their lack of success that made Connery later take the easy route and appear in the simpler, cosier fare that people reminisced about after his death.

 

Anyway, by a coincidence, a few weeks before Connery passed on, I’d felt an urge to check out some of those older, more serious movies of his. A few I hadn’t seen before. Others I’d watched at a young age and failed to appreciate at the time, probably because I’d been perplexed by Connery’s failure to breenge onscreen in a Saville Row suit and introduce himself as ‘a shhhort of lishhhensed trouble-shhhoooter’. So now, as a tribute to him, I thought I’d post my thoughts on the Connery films that I’ve recently watched or re-watched.  I’ll start with 1965’s The Hill.

 

Directed by Sidney Lumet, The Hill is a war movie.  But it’s a very different beast from the previous war movie on Connery’s CV, 1962’s star-spangled blockbuster about the D-Day landings The Longest Day, which featured Connery briefly as a comic Irishman called Private Flannagan.  (It had him sporting the unconvincing – I’m being kind here – Irish accent that he’d already trotted out in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and would trot out again for his Oscar-winning turn as Malone in The Untouchables).

 

The Hill eschews the action, spectacle and heroism of conventional war movies because its setting is a prison for recalcitrant British soldiers – thieves, spivs, drunkards, deserters and those guilty of insubordination – in the Libyan desert during World War II.  Lumet and his cast and crew actually shot the film on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Almeria and Malaga in southern Spain.

 

Connery plays Joe Roberts, one of five new arrivals at the prison, or ‘glasshouse’ as it’s nicknamed.  Also in this batch of new inmates is young, timid George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), spiv Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), gruff northerner Jock McGrath (Jack Watson) and rebellious West Indian Jacko King (Ossie Davis).  The fivesome find themselves in the custody of the hardnosed Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), who effectively runs the place.  Its Commandant is a rarely-seen and weak-willed figure, of whom Wilson says contemptuously: “The Commandant signs bits of paper.  He’d sign his own death warrant if I gave it to him.”

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

The prison staff also include the essentially decent if somewhat effete Staff Sergeant Charlie Harris (Ian Bannon) and the weary but also decent Medical Officer (Michael Redgrave).  Unfortunately, any goodness projected by those two officers is cancelled out by the viciousness of another staff sergeant, Williams (Ian Hendry).  Williams has recently been posted to the prison and sees it as a potential step up the promotional ladder.  He intends to make this ascent by impressing Wilson and treating his charges as brutally as possible.  “Don’t talk back, you different-coloured bastard!” he screams at King.

 

And that’s basically it.  The film is an ensemble piece with nine characters, five prisoners and four staff, stuck in the sweltering confines of the prison.  “We’re all doing time,” Roberts observes of the situation.  “Even the screws.”  We can believe this when we see how Wilson and Williams spend their evening hours, which is by getting as joylessly, pointlessly and paralytically drunk as possible.

 

However, there’s a tenth character too. This is the titular hill, a fearsome, steep-sided mass of sand that’s been assembled in the prison’s yard as a punishment for inmates who chaff against Wilson and Williams’ regime.

 

Williams instinctively homes in on the new arrivals and takes a particular dislike to Roberts, perhaps because of the offence that landed him here – Roberts punched an officer who’d condemned his men to death by ordering them to carry out a suicidal attack.  Stevens’ weak temperament also attracts Williams’ ire.  “One of those shy lads, are you, Stevens…?” he demands.  “One of those cads who can’t make up his mind whether he’s a boy or a girl?”  Predictably, Roberts, Stevens and the others are soon being forced to march up and down the hill, endlessly, in the blistering heat.  This has fatal consequences for one of them, which enrages Roberts and sets him on a collision course with Williams and Wilson.  Towards the end, the film’s suspense hinges on whether or not Harris and the Medical Officer will find the courage to intervene before Roberts receives a fatal punishment as well – by this point he’s already been crippled by a beating from Williams and his goons.

 

A situation rather than a story, The Hill is driven not by plot twists but by its performances, which are excellent.  Among the prisoners, Lynch is worryingly vulnerable as the hapless Stevens, while craggy character actor Jack Watson imbues his character McGrath with a fierce but not intransigent stubbornness.  He spends most of the film wanting to keep his head down and get his incarceration over and done with and he’s unimpressed by Roberts’ attempts to stir things up.  “You’re a clever bag of tricks, you are, Roberts,” he rages. “Not inside glasshouse half an hour and you use your bloody influence to get us a ride on the hill.  Oh I bet there’s one Saturday night booze-up your father’s always regretted.”  Yet later, sickened by what’s happening, McGrath gives Roberts his support.

 

The roly-poly Roy Kinnear, better known as a comic actor, plays the least sympathetic of the inmates, the cowardly and self-serving Bartlett.  But he wins our pity at one moment when he collapses while being made to run a strenuous assault course.  “I’m fat!” he cries pathetically.

 

And Ossie Davis, who was a writer and civil rights activist as well as a distinguished actor, is wonderful as Jacko King, the prisoner most immediately sympathetic to Roberts’ cause.  As a West Indian, a citizen of the British Empire and one of His Majesty’s subjects, he’s supposedly on an equal footing with the other soldiers – but of course, because of his skin colour, he isn’t.  He’s exposed to constant racism from both the screws and the other prisoners, though the quick-witted King gives as good as he gets.  When Bartlett has a go at him (“You’ve got it downstairs, mate, but we’ve got it upstairs.  Live up trees, you blokes do.”), King casually and accurately responds by describing Bartlett as ‘white trash’.

 

Later, when things come to a head, he defies Wilson and Williams by tearing off his uniform, renouncing his British citizenship and declaring that they don’t have the jurisdiction to keep him in the prison.  Actually, watching this in 2020, I was reminded of the Windrush scandal, engineered by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, wherein the British government showed elderly and long-term UK citizens of Caribbean descent what it thought of them by stripping them of their citizenship and deporting them without support to the West Indies.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

 

Among the screws, Ian Bannon and Sir Michael Redgrave give strong performances, but they’re not as memorably forceful as those given by Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews.  Which is as it should be, because what gives The Hill its grimness is the audience’s sense that the bad outweighs the good in the penal system depicted.  Hendry essays an out-and-out bastard whose moral compass was long ago destroyed by his ambition.  It’s a little sad, retrospectively, to note how lean and mean he looks here – for as the 1960s progressed, Hendry’s well-documented alcoholism took its toll and left him increasingly frail and gaunt.  (In 1970, he lost out on the title role of the crime classic Get Carter, which of course went to Michael Caine, because the filmmakers felt he no longer had the physicality for it and cast him as the film’s weaselly villain instead.)

 

But even Hendry is outshone by Harry Andrews as Wilson.  I’ve seen Andrews in countless films playing crusty old buffers or authority figures, but I wasn’t prepared for his performance in this.  Wilson is a ruthlessly hard man, driven by his determination to repair the British Army’s errant and broken soldiers and build them back into fighting men (with tough love obviously), but he’s also intelligent.  He’s aware – as Williams isn’t – that there’s a line that they can’t be seen to cross.  After an inmate dies of exhaustion on the hill and Wilson manages to hush it up, he tells Williams angrily: “We’re not celebrating our glorious victory…  We’re patching up a bloody disaster.”  And when the death triggers a full-scale riot, Wilson defuses it with a masterclass in underhand, calculating diplomacy.  He faces down a whole prison’s worth of inmates with a mixture of threats, bribes, dark charisma and pure bloody-mindedness.

 

As for Connery, it’s impossible not to think of Bond when he first appears.  He had, after all, just played 007 in the previous year’s Goldfinger (1964).  And there’s something Bondian about how he manages to get under his enemies’ skin in The Hill, although this isn’t done with the superspy’s famous insouciance but with Roberts’ righteous perceptiveness.  He senses that Williams, despite his brutal exterior, is a coward and observes that by getting posted to a Libyan prison camp he’s managed to avoid both the front line and the Blitz in London.  Meanwhile, he neatly sums up Wilson when he shouts at him: “Oh, you crazy bastard!  You’d prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!”

 

But any suggestion of Bond’s alpha maleness in Roberts is gone by the final reel, after Williams has had him beaten to a pulp and he’s confined to a bed.  And the film’s final image, of Roberts crawling piteously across the floor and pleading with a couple of his fellow inmates to stop what they’re doing – what they’re doing, in fact, is snatching defeat from the jaws of a hard-won victory – ends the film on a note of chilling, though tonally appropriate, bleakness.

 

The Hill is a stripped-down cinematic experience.  There’s no background music and it’s shot in black and white, which gives the sand an unsettling bone-like gleam.  But its sparseness isn’t a problem because it’s so engrossing, which is due to the excellence of its cast and the unfussy but confident direction by Sidney Lumet.  It was the first, but thankfully not the last collaboration between Lumet and Connery.  Indeed, their third film together, 1972’s The Offence, would be as memorably gruelling as this one.

 

© Seven Arts Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer   

It’s Biden and bye-Don

 

From twitter.com/chrissteinplays

 

Last month, despite what all the opinion polls were forecasting, I predicted gloomily that Donald Trump would probably win a second term in the American presidential election on November 3rd.  My gloom was largely rooted in what I called the ‘shy Trumper’ hypothesis, the notion that many people were lying to the pollsters about their voting intentions because they were too embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a scum-bucket like Trump.

 

I already knew what I would write about on this blog in the likely event, as I saw it, of Trump’s re-election.  I planned to refer to the satirical 1981 novel Hello America by the late, great J.G. Ballard, which is set in 2114 and postulates an ecologically devastated and almost uninhabited United States of America.  An expedition from Europe arrives in the wasteland formerly known as the USA and discovers there, among other things, a madman claiming to be both the American president and Charles Manson.  I suspected another four years of Trump, whose penchant during the Covid-19 pandemic for summoning his adoring, mask-rejecting, non-distancing supporters to mass campaign rallies suggested a deadly cult-leader on a far greater scale than Manson, would send the USA well on its way to becoming the surreal, dystopian badlands that it is in Ballard’s novel.

 

© Granada

 

Well, as it turned out, the polls did severely underestimate Trump’s support.  At the time I write this, he’s accrued more than 70,900,000 votes.  Thankfully, however, Joe Biden received even more than that.  He’s got just over 75,400,00 votes at the moment and has crossed the 270 college-vote threshold necessary for winning the presidency in the USA’s electoral college system.  So Trump seems to be toast.  That said, the Orange Malignancy has spent the past few days tweeting and speechifying that he actually won the election, whereas Biden cheated, and has vowed to overturn the results in the courts.

 

However, that’s unlikely to come to much if the competence displayed so far by Trump’s finest legal minds is anything to go by.  At the weekend, for instance, Trump’s lawyer-in-chief Rudy Giuliani and his team flew into Philadelphia intending to hold a press conference to outline their forthcoming legal challenges.  Through some mind-melting balls-up, they ended up holding the conference not in the city’s Four Seasons Hotel, but in the parking lot of a gardening centre called Four Seasons Total Landscaping in its outskirts.  This was symbolically located between a crematorium and a porno bookstore called Fantasy Island Adult Books.  Watching news footage of the conference, I almost expected the centre’s manager to emerge in the middle of it, reveal himself as Borat and exclaim, “Very nice!”

 

Now while nobody is happier than I am to see Trump ousted from the White House, and I can fully understand why on Saturday when Biden was officially declared president-elect great numbers of people took to the streets of New York, Philadelphia, etc., and started dancing as joyously as the Munchkins did in The Wizard of Oz (1939) after Dorothy’s house landed on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, I’m afraid things are still looking pretty grim for the USA’s future as a democracy. The fact is that nearly half the American electorate, after four years of exposure to the vile, tangerine-skinned creature, were still willing to vote for him.

 

Let that sink in.  Almost half of voters opted for a man who’s presided over the deaths of 237,000-and-counting fellow citizens due to Covid-19 while insisting that it’s just ‘the flu’ and it’ll magically ‘go away’, who’s speculated about how said virus could be neutralised by injecting yourself with disinfectant, who’s contracted the virus himself but still insisted on holding a flurry of superspreading rallies where thousands of his supporters were jammed together in close, virus-friendly proximity.  Who’s displayed a complete ignorance of and disregard for science, who’s trashed his country’s environment, who’s helped trash the environment on a global scale too through his lucre-obsessed climate denialism.

 

Who’s bragged about grabbing women by the ‘pussy’, who’s mocked disabled people, who’s condoned violence against journalists, who’s dismissed whole countries as ‘shitholes’ and whole nationalities as ‘drug dealers, criminals, rapists’.  Who’s applauded the supposed fineness of white supremacists, who’s instructed fascist militias to ‘stand by’, who’s emitted a barrage of racist dog-whistles that in Biden’s words are as loud ‘as a foghorn’.  Who’s happily played along with the insane conspiracy theories of QAnon whenever he thought it might bolster his support among the extreme-right-wing, tinfoil-hat-wearing fruit-loop brigade.

 

Who’s cosied up to authoritarian thugs like Putin, Erdogan, Mohammed Bin Salman and the familicidal Kim Jong-Un whilst insulting leaders of long-term democratic allies and showing a particular misogynistic vehemence for female ones like Angela Merkel.  Who’s sneered at his country’s war-dead and derided former prisoners of war for the failing of getting ‘captured’, whilst using his family’s influence to escape doing military service himself. Who’s managed to wriggle out of paying any net federal income tax at all in 11 recent years, whilst in 2016 and 2017 paying the laughably meagre sum of $750 per annum, considerably less than what a citizen earning the minimum wage would pay.  Who’s continually boasted about his business acumen, whilst according to Forbes magazine in October 2020 owes more than a billion dollars in debt…

 

And so on, and so forth.

 

Although some commentators have claimed that the willingness of millions of Americans to vote for a character like Trump, devoid of anything resembling a shred of moral fibre, shows how badly they’ve been ‘left behind’ in this, the era of globalism, I can’t say I find this argument convincing.  You’d have to be extremely left behind, and in absolutely dire circumstances, to believe that Trump is your friend and saviour – when it’s obvious to anyone with a quarter of a brain that he despises the poor, whatever their political creed, and is intent only on lining his own pockets and the pockets of his hideous family.  I’m afraid that Trump’s massive election turnout is more an indication that a great swathe of the American electorate either has zero moral compass and zero empathy for others or is as dumb as a sack of cement powder.

 

Into that latter category I’d put the Trump supporter who, since the election went Biden’s way, has been tweeting angrily about the anomaly of five million votes being cast in Georgia despite ‘Georgia’ having a population of only 3.7 million.  So far he’s ignored the people who’ve pointed out to him that he’s confusing Georgia the state with Georgia the country.

 

Unfortunately, President-Elect Biden has his work cut out if he intends to heal the nation and somehow get those millions of Trump fans on board with concepts like decency, fairness, science, working for the common good and loving thy neighbour.  Meanwhile, I suspect that the Republican Party, impressed by how Trump’s unrepentant-bastard approach to politics earned him 70 million votes, the second biggest tally by a presidential candidate in US history, will decide to really go for it in 2024 and field as a candidate some 21st century reincarnation of Benito Mussolini.

 

All in all, I’m afraid, there are still plenty of opportunities for the USA to go completely J.G.

 

Anyway, for now at least, I’m relieved it’s over.  I’m truly fed up with having the past few weeks of my life dominated by a 24/7 obsession with American politics.  My partner especially will be relieved that she no longer has to listen to me mansplaining the Byzantine workings of the US electoral college: “…Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, so if Biden can get that, it’ll carry him to the 270 threshold he needs to win, but even if Trump gets Pennsylvania in the end, he can still sneak it by winning Nevada, which has 6 votes, and Georgia, which has 16…”

 

And she’s American.

 

© Ayrshire Daily News

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2020

 

© Alex Barnard / From twitter.com

 

Thanks to Covid-19, Halloween this year is likely to be shorn of its normal traditions, like trick-or-treating, or guising as it’s known in my part of the world.  However, the virus won’t stop me from indulging in my traditional activity on Halloween, which is to post on this blog ten of the most interesting creepy pictures, paintings and illustrations that I’ve come across in the past year.

 

I recently watched the much-admired 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s grim 1983 ghost novel The Woman in Black, directed by Herbert Wise and scripted by Nigel Kneale.  I was put in mind of The Woman in Black when I saw Listen from Salem, a lushly gothic picture by the American painter, illustrator, comic-book artist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Menton J. Matthews III.  In particular, it evokes those disturbing shots of the woman standing distantly but ominously on the flatlands around the haunted Eel Marsh House.  The figure in Listen from Salem is rather more glammed-up than Hill’s spectre, and has a touch of Helena Bonham Carter about her, but it’s still chilling.

 

© Menton J. Matthews III

 

The stories of Edgar Allan Poe have been illustrated by many people over the years, but for my money the most distinguished work was done by Irishman Harry Clarke, who provided pictures for an edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination in 1923.  Here’s Clarke’s depiction of the climax of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, one of Poe’s most transgressive stories.  It has a mesmerist hypnotising a dying man and keeping him ‘alive’ in an ongoing hypnotic state for seven months after the supposed moment of his death.  The experiment ends when the mesmerist finally decides to lift the spell, at which point the patient promptly decays on his deathbed into a ‘nearly liquid mass of loathsome… detestable putridity.’  And presumably leaves a terrible mess on the sheets.

 

© Brentano’s

 

I’ve always been interested in Scottish folklore and particularly in the bestiary of fabulous creatures that populate old Scottish folk and fairy tales: kelpies, selkies, redcaps, bean nighe, the Blue Men of the Minch and so on.  Surely the most hideous of these legendary creatures is the Orcadian sea monster the nuckelavee which, part humanoid and part horse, has something of the appearance of a centaur.  However, it’s a centaur – eek! – without any skin.  According to Wikipedia, its “black blood courses through yellow veins” and “pale sinews and powerful muscles are visible as a pulsating mass.”  Plus, it has “an enormous gaping mouth that exudes a toxic smelly vapour, and a single giant eye like a burning red flame.”  Here’s a depiction of the dreaded nuckelavee by the St Peterburg-based illustrator and digital artist Artem Demura.  Though it dispenses with the cyclopean single eye, Demura’s imagining of the nuckelavee gives its humanoid and equine parts fleshless (as well as skinless) skull-faces and is pretty disturbing.

 

© Artem Demura

 

Still on the subject of Scottish folkloric creatures, here’s the Edward Atkinson Hornel painting The Brownie of Blednoch, inspired by an 1825 poem by William Nicholson.  The Australian-born, Scottish-reared Hornel was part of the Glasgow Boys circle of painters in the late 19th century and was best known for his renditions of flowers, trees and children.  Thus, The Brownie of Blednoch, which hangs in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, is atypical of his work.  However, despite its subject being a frightful thing with mud-brown skin, Spock ears, three-fingered claws and a long tangling beard, it’s actually benevolent.  As a brownie, a type of fairy that does chores for human beings, it’s depicted here performing a public service, which is guarding the local shepherds’ flocks at night-time.

 

From Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

A popular theme in religious art since the Middle Ages has been the Temptation (or Torment) of Saint Anthony.  This supposedly took place while the saint was living as a hermit in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.  At one point, demons came to him disguised as beautiful, amorous young women and tried to corrupt him.  At another point, a squadron of demons ambushed him while he was in mid-air, being borne along by angels.  The scenario has allowed artists over the centuries to let their imaginations run riot in depicting the misshapen and monstrous beings attacking Anthony.  I only found out lately that the earliest known painting by Michelangelo dealt with the demons attacking the saint while he was aloft in the skies.  Painted sometime in 1487-88, Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony is now housed in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

From the Kimbell Art Museum

 

Ivan Albright was an American artist who, in the 1940s, was hired to provide a rendering of what is surely the most famous painting in the horror genre, the one featured in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890).  For the 1945 movie adaptation of this novel, which stars Hurd Hatfield in the title role, two artists were actually commissioned.  Portuguese portraitist Henrique Medina did a normal painting of Hatfield that appears early in the film, while Albright did the utterly repulsive, debased version of it that appears later, after all of Dorian’s sins have manifested themselves on the canvas.  Although the film is mainly in black and white, it switches to colour during close-ups of the portrait.  I saw the movie on TV in the late 1970s as a supposedly hardened teenager – but I leapt out of my skin when the camera suddenly cut to a colour close-up of the hideous, wizened, festering creature that Albright had created.  Incidentally, the painting now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

From the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Still on a cinematic theme, here’s a poster designed by the British artist Graham Humphreys for a film-club screening of Night of the Hunter (1955), the masterly southern gothic horror-thriller starring Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters, directed by Charles Laughton and based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb.  Prominence on the poster, of course, is given to the smirking and definitely not-to-be-trusted Mitchum.  His performance as the serial killer and alleged travelling preacher the Reverend Harry Powell, dressed in black, with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, is possibly the most memorable one of his career.

 

© Graham Humphreys

 

The Australian-American artist Ron Cobb died last month at the age of 83.  He was well known for his work as a designer and concept artist on science fiction and fantasy movies such as Dark Star (1974), Star Wars (1977), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Back to the Future (1985), The Abyss and Total Recall (both 1989), with his most famous cinematic commission being Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).  While the disturbingly organic extra-terrestrial spaceship in Alien, and indeed the alien itself in its various life-stages, were designed by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, Cobb designed the futuristic human hardware in the film, i.e. the exterior and interior of the Nostromo, the spaceship whose crew are unfortunate enough to encounter the movie’s titular, acid-blooded beastie.  Away from the movies, Cobb was also a general artist, cartoonist, designer of ‘speculative technology’ and, once in a blue moon, a painter of album covers.  Here’s his pleasantly schlocky and ghoulish cover for the ultra-obscure record Doctor Druid’s Haunted Séance which, as far as I can find out, was a weirdo compilation of spoken word performances and spooky music released to tie in with Halloween in 1973.

 

© Electric Lemon

 

This gorgeous illustration is by the British artist Ian MacCulloch (not to be confused with Ian McCulloch, the Liverpudlian singer with Echo and the Bunnymen, or indeed Ian McCulloch, the Scottish actor who played the unflappable hero of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979). It isn’t frightening or disturbing as such.  But with its wind-lashed trees, overgrown pastures and swirling flocks of black birds, it is very atmospheric and evokes the folk horror sub-genre that many (often British) horror stories, films and TV shows belong to, emphasising natural landscapes and the dark side of old myths and legends.  Actually, this picture reminds me of the opening sequence of a seminal work in the British folk horror canon, the 1970 film Blood on Satan’s Claw.

 

© Ian MacCulloch

 

Finally, I’ve recently discovered the work of Richard Tennant Cooper.  This English painter was commissioned as a war artist during World War I and also made money designing adverts for the London Underground, painting signs for the Automobile Association and illustrating motoring magazines.  But Cooper had an unusual side-line.  In addition, he created paintings inspired by diseases like leprosy, cholera and syphilis, depicting those diseases as malignant phantoms tormenting or looming over their stricken victims.  Here’s one of tuberculosis that Cooper likely painted in 1912, which I believe is now the property of the Wellcome Collection in London.

 

From the Wellcome Collection

 

And on that pestilent note, appropriate in the year of Covid-19, I shall sign off.  Happy Halloween!

Sri Lankan horror – ‘Water in my Grave’

 

© Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis

 

It’s Halloween tomorrow, so here’s one last re-posting of something I once wrote on this blog about scary fiction.  This item is from 2014 and concerns a collection of creepy tales from the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.

 

A while ago, I picked up a copy of Water in my Grave and other Horror Stories from Sri Lanka in a bookstore in Colombo.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite sure how I’d describe its contents.  The foreword claims that it’s a collection of “stories of the paranormal based on tales gleaned from persons relating their actual experiences”, but the stories feel more assorted than that.  Some appear to be fictional ones, dreamed up and put on paper by the authors.  Other read like creepy folkloric stories that’ve been passed down from generation to generation.  Others again have the ring of being anecdotes told by individuals who believe they’ve experienced the supernatural in real life.  And there’s a few that are reminiscent of those gruesome urban myths so beloved of school playgrounds and Internet forums.

 

Not that it matters, because on the whole I found Water in my Grave, written by the Colombo-based mother-and-daughter team of Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis, an enjoyable and informative read.  The assorted tones of the stories make the book pleasingly varied and they allow you to view the Sri Lankan culture that forms their backdrop from an interesting range of angles.

 

For instance, Tovil for Soma, Let the Dead Live and the fabulously titled The Baby Twisting Nightmare of Modera involve possessions and hauntings.  These aren’t by demons or anonymous evil spirits, but by the souls of deceased family members who have axes to grind with the still-living, which suggests that family fallouts and conflict are as common in Sri Lanka as they are everywhere else.  Called in to deal with the supernatural goings-on in these stories are such Sri Lankan professionals as ‘light readers’ or fortune tellers (anjamankaraya) and ‘demon-priests’, the energetic and expensive local exorcists (kattadiya) who come dressed “usually in a white sarong and red coat type costume… sacrificing chickens, dancing around the fire, breathing fire, talking in local filth to intimidate the entity from leaving the human host.”

 

Meanwhile, Legend of the Devil Dog is a Sri Lankan version of the Black Shuck legends that are found in East Anglia, involving a demon called Mahosona, who “is so fearsome and powerful that his mere presence causes people to faint and then become violently sick immediately.”  On the other hand, Night of the Black Buffalo is impressively inexplicable and weird.  It’s like a script David Lynch would write if he was interested in south-Asian livestock.

 

Other stories show a less folkloric and more modern and cynical Sri Lanka.  How I Bought a Haunted House is narrated by a figure who’s become a scourge of contemporary societies, Western and Eastern – an estate agent.  “(T)he best thing is that in the real-estate sector,” he notes, “properties appreciate with time, whether they are haunted or not.”  Restless Cadaver, set on a campus and dealing with the mistreatment of dead bodies, suggests that medical students in Sri Lanka can be as obnoxious as they can be in the West.  And the major event of recent Sri Lankan history, the Civil War, overshadows both Quiet Soul and A Different Kind of Phantom.  The former is a sedate but sad ghost story, the latter a tale about a lost limb that also draws on Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation for its raison d’être.

 

Elsewhere, Zombie Bus to Purgatory does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s a gleefully schlocky story that calls to mind the American EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, of the 1950s.  The Feud employs a neat little back-story, involving two rival shaman and a demonic assassin, to explain why a particular, desolate plot of land seems to be haunted by “what looked like a decaying body of a small child scuttling about.”  And Hospital Hell manages to be both a gruesome ghost story and an indictment of healthcare in a society where corruption is common, where “the ward sister sells the pharmaceuticals and painkillers she pinches” and “the rations have been cut in half so that the kitchen staff can smuggle out the salmon tins.”

 

The book is a little rough-edged in its English.  In places it could do with tighter punctuation and some of the idiomatic and clichéd phrases could have been pruned out.  The story A Night at River Green is a particular offender with such gems as ‘thank my lucky stars’, ‘what have you’, ‘the girl of my dreams’, ‘Hell hath no fury’ and ‘batten down the hatches’.  Mind you, this roughness could be said to work in the book’s favour because it gives the stories an added feel of authenticity.  By making them less slick, the prose’s occasional awkwardness makes the stories seem more real.

 

At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend.  These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses.  “If you’re a woman,” Paulis notes regarding Kinduri, “you’re safe.  But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you…  She just doesn’t like men.”

 

When you’re in a new culture, a good way to get insight into that culture is to read a selection of traditional ghost and horror stories from the place.  Finding out what makes people scared and finding out how they like to scare others give you some appreciation of their psychology.  Water in my Grave performs that task admirably with Sri Lanka.

Jim Mountfield is horrified

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

There have been many movies that break the fourth wall, i.e. that have characters turn towards the camera and address the audience directly.  However, I’ve always had a fondness for a rarer breed of movie that breaks the fourth wall the other way, that has people from the real world enter a movie.  The most famous examples of this are probably Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), in which a projectionist, played by Keaton, falls asleep and dreams that he’s a character in the crime movie he’s in the middle of showing; and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which Depression-era movie fan Mia Farrow and movie character Jeff Daniels have a romance both in the real 1930s on one side of the screen and in the black-and-white Hollywood fabrication on the other side of it; and John McTiernan’s bold but ill-fated The Last Action Hero (1993), in which an action-movie-loving kid gets sucked into the larger and louder-than-life world of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

 

With advances in technology, especially that of virtual reality, I suspect that sooner or later it will be possible for people to take part in scenes from movies that are simulated around them.  This would be great for bona fide film fans.  Wow, imagine being on that rooftop near the end of Blade Runner (1982), beside Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) when he delivers his heart-breaking ‘tears in rain’ monologue, or being at the airport for the climax of Casablanca (1942), when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says goodbye to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)!  Mind you, Woody Allen (him again) has already created a simulation of that Casablanca scene, sort of, in 1972’s Play It Again, Sam.

 

However, human nature being what it is, such wondrous technology would probably end up being used for trivial, if not downright sordid, purposes.

 

And that idea, that in the near-future an app will allow people to take part in virtual-reality simulations of scenes from certain movies, but then will be exploited by lowlifes, sociopaths and perverts in pursuit of their own, base pleasures, is what drives a new story I’ve had published called Don’t Hook Now.  This is currently accessible in the fiction section of Horrified Magazine, which is an online publication featuring articles, reviews and short stories in ‘celebration of British horror’.

 

Don’t Hook Now is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I often use for macabre fiction, and its subject matter is such that Horrified has decided to give it a trigger warning and recommend it only for ‘mature audiences’.   In my opinion, though, the main reason for recommending it to mature readers is because only people of a certain age will be familiar with the masterly 1970s British horror movie that gives the story its grim turn later on…

 

The home page of Horrified is accessible here and Don’t Hook Now itself can be read here.

Manly stuff

 

© Paizo Inc

 

Ahead of Halloween, here’s another reposting of something I wrote about a writer of spooky stories whom I like a lot.  This time it’s Manly Wade Wellman, author of the ‘Silver John’ stories.  This piece first appeared on this blog in 2016.

 

I’d heard the name of writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.

 

The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains.  Wellman evokes their wilderness areas and remote human settlements as vividly as, say, H.P. Lovecraft evokes the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to his tales, or Ray Bradbury evokes those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in his work.

 

Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants.  Their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue.  His mountain characters trade such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (There isn’t much innocence or good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance, admittedly.)

 

Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and musician.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe (1930) when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal.  This is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.

 

Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files (1993-2018) without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot, or Scooby Doo (1969-present) without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine.  Instead, they’ve got hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry.

 

There’s something supernatural about John himself.  For one thing, whatever song he finds himself performing at the start of each story usually, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”

 

John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  Supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets are the main way to kill a werewolf, for example.  Thus, John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  In the story O Ugly Bird! he even resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.

 

There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the super-strong railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John he laid down his hammer and died…”

 

Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and practices.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which is a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they are destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”

 

Nobody Ever Goes There is an account of a weird, remote town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half.  It’s worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim, which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.

 

Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.

 

From wikipedia.org / Wonder Stories

The unsettling Robert Aickman

 

From the Independent

 

Six days before Halloween, here’s another reposting of an old blog entry about one of my favourite writers of macabre fiction.  This time it’s Robert Aickman, about whom I wrote this piece in 2015.

 

Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books, which usually assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner and can’t be put down.  However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by Robert Aickman that was originally published in 1988 and republished in 2014, is bang on the money.  It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was.  All I know is that he did it beautifully.”

 

That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman.  You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand.  You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it.  Afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was.  Then you mull it over.  And most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!

 

I’ve added ‘most of the time’, though, as a disclaimer to that last sentence.  Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of bollocks!

 

I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980).  Although in those collections they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label.  And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either.  Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is the adjective I’d attach to them too.

 

It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place.  Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes.  He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a connoisseur of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre.  I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, platform heels and loon pants, and cheap, cheerful and massively popular television sitcoms like Man about the House (1973-76) and On the Buses (1969-73), he was not a particularly happy bunny.

 

Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction.  His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.

 

I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it.  However, I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains.  It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors.  Stephen becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors.  Yet the story is no New Age male fantasy.  Aickman steers it in a darker direction.  Nell seems to embody the natural world, but nature soon intrudes on her relationship with Stephen in a more grotesque way.  As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him.  There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too, which I suppose makes the story an example of what would later be known as ‘body horror’.

 

The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories.  Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965.  Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach.  Incidentally, like several of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to infuse his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of the erotic.

 

© Berkley Books

 

My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975).  Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since.  By the way, I wonder if a young Peter Murphy got his goth-y hands on the earlier collection and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, their second single, which they released in 1980.

 

One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he encounters at a seedy carnival sideshow.  Again, this allows Aickman to serve up some disquieting body horror at the story’s close.  Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the titular institution.  Inside the hospice, he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for.  For instance, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is discreetly shackled to the floor.

 

And in the award-winning Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings.  This purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a tour of central Europe.  She becomes excited when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’.  And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party.  His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’.   You can guess where this is heading.

 

Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely.  Often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements.  By the start of the 1980s, this seemed anachronistic.  The British tradition of horror fiction had been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, but it’d experienced a punk-rock moment in the mid-1970s when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975) that were unapologetically in your face with gore and violence.  And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series (1984-85) would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and wildly gruesome.

 

So when I read in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.

 

© Mandarin-Reed Books

 

Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990).  It contained one or two stories that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it.  By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but well-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness.  Admittedly, I sometimes wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends.  And even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure.  But what the hell?  With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.

 

I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust.  He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air.  This illustrates another of Aickman’s abilities, to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish.  So sober is the tone of everything else going on that you readily accept these mad bits as parts of the narrative.

 

Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books in a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.

 

But, happily, I was wrong.  Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014, the centenary of his year of birth, when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust.  His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of the influentially bizarre television show The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 2017); and by Dame Edna Everage herself (or himself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books.  And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.

 

I’ve just finished reading The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet.  I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though.  This being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick.  In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to a supernatural size, and becoming criminal psychopaths.  An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them.  Aickman uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions.  It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.

 

On the other hand, my favourite story here is The Inner Room.  It’s about a haunted doll’s house, which is a staple of many scary stories, most famously one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Dolls House.  Aickman, however, treats the subject with dark humour.  The story’s climax is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird, meanwhile, and reminds me a little of the work of Angela Carter.

 

Elsewhere, both Never Visit Venice and Your Tiny Hand is Frozen suggest Aickman taking two of his modern-day bugbears and transforming his indignation at them into horror stories.  Never Visit Venice lays into mass tourism.  Its hero is so disappointed in how the city of the title has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell.  Your Tiny Hand is Frozen features an unsociable man who becomes addicted to his telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist.  Telephones were becoming increasingly widespread at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort.  It’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today when smartphones have practically taken over the world.

 

Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s even a Facebook page and Twitter account devoted to him.  Robert Aickman with a presence on 21st-century social media?  I’m sure he would have loved that.  Not.

 

© Faber & Faber

Time to learn about Hearn

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

As we approach Halloween, I thought I would re-post some blog entries about my favourite ghost and horror-story writers.  Here’s what I wrote about Lafcadio Hearn in 2014.

 

19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn surely had a confused sense of identity.  Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he had to travel to Japan, considered by westerners at the time to be the ends of the earth, before he found some cultural peace.

 

He was born in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish Protestant father, but was reared in Dublin by a great-aunt who fervently embraced Catholicism.  Later, he was later dumped in an austere boarding school in Durham in northern England.  It was during the unwelcome rough-and-tumble of boarding school that a playground accident cost him the sight of his left eye.  At the age of 19 he arrived in the USA, where he found employment as a journalist.  First he worked in Ohio, where he lost his job with a Cincinnati newspaper for committing the crime of marrying, briefly, a black woman, and then in New Orleans.

 

In 1890, he found his way to Meiji-era Japan where he worked as a school-teacher and university-lecturer whilst doing his best to chronicle the minutiae of life in a traditional and, to him, exotic Japanese culture that was fast vanishing under the wheels of Western-inspired industrialisation and ‘modernisation’.  Nowadays, to the Japanese at least, he is the most accomplished foreign scribe who ever attempted to describe their country in writing.

 

Since Hearn’s death in 1904, the Irish – who are good at doing this – have claimed him as one of their own.  So to me Hearn will always be the oddball wandering Irishman who got, and seized, the opportunity to record for posterity the details of life in old Japan just before it changed forever.  But in fact Hearn finished his life as a Japanese citizen.  He’d married a Japanese woman called Koizumi Setsu, fathered four children and taken on the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.  He strikes a solemnly Japanese-looking pose with his wife in the monochrome family photographs of the time.  His head is always in profile with the right side of his face towards the camera, so that his disfigured left eye is out of view.

 

Nowadays, some historians and cultural commentators chuckle at Hearn and at how he hankered after a disappearing Japan that, as an outsider, had never belonged to him anyway.  Indeed, one wonders how much the old Japan described in his writings was embroidered by his own fanciful yearnings.  There’s also an irony in how the Japanese were happy to adopt Hearn as their foreign champion after they’d modernised themselves and dumped the very culture that Hearn was so preoccupied with.  In a way, Hearn’s writings have become the literary equivalent of a holiday brochure, advertising an ethereal version of Japan that now exists only in the imaginations of tourists.

 

But nonetheless, I admire Hearn’s writings greatly.  The descriptions of late-19th century Japan in his journalism, with their gaudy colour and intricate attention to detail, are startlingly evocative.  In our modern digital world, where you can point your phone at just about anything and instantly preserve its image in pixels, the business of writing detailed descriptive prose no longer seems necessary.  It’s probably become a lost art.  But when it was necessary, Hearn was one of its greatest practitioners.

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

Hearn was instinctively drawn to stories about ghosts and the uncanny, perhaps because of his pedigree.  The supernatural is another thing that the Irish are good at.  Accordingly, his books In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, in which he recorded the weird and creepy folk tales circulating in his adopted country, are among the most famous works in his canon.   What I like about Hearn’s stories, or, more precisely, about Hearn’s retellings, are how commonplace the supernatural elements seem among the human tableau of medieval Japan.  The ghosts, spirits, goblins and demons don’t suddenly and unexpectedly intrude into the world of men and women.  They’re already there.  If they don’t quite exist alongside the Japanese people, they certainly inhabit the forests, mountain gorges, snowy plateaus and crumbling Buddhist cemeteries located at the edges of their existence.

 

Hearn’s tales also make a fascinating bestiary of the creatures of Japanese legends and folklore.  The story Mujina, for example, contains a being called a nopperabo.  In Japanese folklore this is almost perfectly human in its form and dress, apart from its face, which is as smooth and featureless as an egg.  Meanwhile, in the story Rokuro-Kubi, the title creature is a type of goblin with a detachable head.  Once detached, the head can flit about through the air, this way and that, like a giant bumblebee.  (Incidentally, in Japanese folklore, there’s another type of rokurokubi with an elastic neck that can stretch to grotesque and snake-like extremes.)

 

Perhaps the nastiest of Hearn’s supernatural beasties, though, appears in Jikininki, in which a travelling priest called Muso arrives in a village plagued by a hideous monster that materialises whenever there’s a death and a corpse becomes available for it to feed on: “…when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat – beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud.”

 

I lived in Japan for much of the 1990s.  I encountered several foreign residents – gaijin as the Japanese referred to all us foreigners living in their country – who reminded me slightly of Lafcadio Hearn.  Seduced by Japan and its culture, they’d become ardent ‘Japanophiles’.  They’d ended up as a sub-species of gaijin that ordinary gaijin sniggeringly described as “being more Japanese than the Japanese.”  Such foreign types never seemed to me to be particularly happy.  Unfortunately, when you fall completely in love with a place, you become disillusioned when the place then spurns you by daring to change, losing what it had that attracted you first of all.  And at times there seemed no place in the world more capable of bewilderingly rapid and sudden change than Japan.

 

This certainly happened to Hearn.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote wearily that, “I felt as never before how utterly dead Old Japan is and how ugly New Japan is becoming.  I thought, how useless to write about things which have ceased to exist.”  Well, they may have ceased to exist by then, but I for one am glad that poor old Hearn bothered to write about them in the first place.

 

From the Asian Review of Books