About admin

Ian Smith was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, but at the age of 11 he moved with his family to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland. His family still lives there now. Since then, he has spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya and a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very much. At the moment, he is in Tunisia in northern Africa, working as an academic manager. He writes, pseudonymously, short horror, fantasy and Scottish fiction. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from linguistic relativity to amateur-league Scottish football teams, to vampires. This blog will no doubt be as unstructured as everything else about him.

Stan the Man

 

From charlesskaggs.blogspot.com

 

It might be a stretch to describe Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee, who died last week at the very venerable age of 95, as the Walt Disney of the comics world.  But he was surely the Disney of the Silver Age of Comic Books, which ran from the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s.  (The Silver Age came after a period when the medium had been in decline thanks to the rising popularity of television and the stultifying, neutering self-censorship imposed by the comic-book industry in response to crap psychologist Frederic Wertham and his scaremongering 1954 volume Seduction of the Innocent.)

 

The Marvel Comics superheroes Lee co-created with talents like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, such as the Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, are now as deeply embedded in the popular consciousness as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of Disney’s iconic creations.  Mind you, it’s helped that in the last 20 years or so the Marvel characters have transferred with amazing success from the medium of comics to the medium of blockbuster movies.

 

When I was very young, it was difficult in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find American superhero comics.  Only occasionally would I pick up an issue of Superman that’d somehow drifted all the way from the USA and crash-landed in the racks of the newsagent in my local town, Enniskillen – just as the baby Superman himself had drifted all the way from Krypton and crash-landed in Smallville in Kansas.  However, that changed in the early 1970s when Marvel founded a British-based publishing arm called Marvel UK, which led to titles like Spider-Man Weekly, The Avengers and the Mighty World of Marvel (with strips featuring the Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on) suddenly offering brash competition to more traditional British fare like the Beano and Dandy on the kiddies’ shelves of the nation’s newsagents.

 

I’d known that Marvel UK was run for a couple of years by Dez Skinn, whom I’ve written about before in this blog.  But I didn’t know that before Skinn one of its overseers had been none other than Neil Tennant, later to become the witty singer of the Pet Shop Boys.  According to Wikipedia, one of Tennant’s tasks when transferring American-drawn comic strips onto pages destined for British shop-shelves was “indicating where women needed to be redrawn more decently”.

 

I was too young to figure out why, but I soon realised I preferred, say, the awkward, nerdish and accident-prone Spider-Man to the clean-cut, chiselled and scoutmaster-like Superman.  Yes, Stan Lee and his collaborators had hit upon the idea – obvious now, but revolutionary back then – that the most attractive superheroes are the most human ones.  They might be god-like in their strength, athleticism and sensory powers, but to be interesting they have to have the same foibles and insecurities that us ordinary mortals have.

 

But I didn’t like everything that came out of Marvel’s stable of superheroes.  I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Captain America or for the Fantastic Four.  (That said, I’ve always been haunted by a Fantastic Four story, simultaneously phantasmagorical and baffling, where the Thing takes possession of giant bulldog and escorts it along a twisting bridge into a weird, swirling alternative dimension, before they end up in a gothic castle battling android copies of Dracula, the wolfman, the mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.  Stan and the gang must have been on LSD when they dreamt that one up.)  On the other hand, while my partner has always strongly objected to Iron Man on the grounds that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a playboy arms dealer, I felt sorry for him as a kid; because unlike other, more glamorously-attired superheroes in the 1970s he had to wear a dorky-looking tin suit.

 

From bigmouthmag.wordpress.com

 

In fact, the less that the Marvel characters adhered to the conventional superhero format, the more I liked them.  I was fascinated by Doctor Strange because his adventures didn’t take place in a vaguely science-fictional world like most superheroes’ did, but in a world that unashamedly embraced magic, demons and the supernatural.  Also, I loved Ka-Zar, who wasn’t really a superhero but a muscular Tarzan-like character who’d been reared by a sabre-toothed tiger in the Savage Land, a dinosaur-infested lost world underneath the Antarctic.  Ka-Zar had first appeared as a comic-book character in the 1930s, but Lee and Jack Kirby revived and updated him in the mid-1960s.  (Lee happily confessed to never having read the originals.)

 

Perhaps Marvel UK reasoned that British readers were slightly less enthused by superheroes than American ones because a fair number of its comics were actually based on literary franchises – or on cinematic ones, like Planet of the Apes and Star Wars.  One Marvel UK comic called Savage Sword of Conan first introduced me to pulp-writer Robert E. Howard’s brooding sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian; while another had the self-explanatory Dracula Lives and in addition to Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire featured the vampire-hunting Blade, later to be the subject of a not-very-good movie trilogy with Wesley Snipes.

 

And I seem to recall one comic – maybe it was Mighty World of Marvel? – containing a strip called Master of Kung Fu, about a deadly assassin called Shang-Chi whose father is none other than Sax Rohmer’s literary Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu.  (Shang-Chi becomes a reformed character and starts working with Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith.)  Not only did Master of Kung Fu cannily update Rohmer’s novels to cash in on the 1970s’ craze for martial arts, but it also managed to subvert their notorious racism by having a Chinese character as the hero.

 

The more I think about it, the more I understand that Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, through Marvel UK, introduced me to a whole fascinating universe of stuff when I needed it, i.e. when I was a youngster desperate to have his imagination stimulated and empowered.  Now I accept that Lee was no saint.  There were rows and bitterness between him, Kirby and Steve Ditko over character ownership and who got credit for what.  Alan Moore once commented: “I really don’t have a great deal of respect for Stan Lee… when you start in the industry you find out that Jack wasn’t jolly and you find out why; and you find out that Steve wasn’t sturdy and you find out why; and you find out why Stan was smiling.”  Still, as the master showman who kept Marvel on the road, he was a big formative influence on me.

 

Accordingly, whenever I’ve watched a Marvel superhero movie in recent years and spotted the nonagenarian Lee making his customary cameo appearance in it, I’ve reacted almost as if I’ve just bumped into an old friend.  “It’s Stan,” I’ve felt like exclaiming.  “It’s Stan the Man!”

 

From comicvine.gamespot.com

 

If you squeeze my lizard*

 

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for the past fortnight, apart from one item about Remembrance Sunday.  This is not because there hasn’t been anything to blog about.  On the contrary, there’s been a great deal – for example, the recent midterm elections in the USA, where some 46-47% of the electorate saw fit to vote for the party of a racist, misogynist, preening, loud-mouthed pile of sentient manure like Donald Trump; or the manner in which the UK’s epically incompetent Conservative government has continued to let the country career towards the disaster of Brexit like a dysfunctional troop of baboons at the controls of a spaceship while it disappears over the event horizon of a black hole; or indeed, the constitutional crisis that has rocked the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.  But it’s all so bloody depressing that I don’t feel like writing about any of it just now.

 

Often, when people feel down while they’re putting stuff online, they try to cheer themselves up by posting pictures of cute cats.  However, because I’m weird, I thought I would offer a variation on this custom by posting pictures of cute lizards (which, by the way, are a prominent form of wildlife here in Sri Lanka).

 

For starters, here’s a picture of a little fellow I photographed on top of a wall in the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee.  Basking in the Sri Lankan sun, he’s surely the happiest lizard I’ve ever encountered.

 

 

And here’s one that scampered into view one day while I was tramping about the grounds of Avukana Temple in North Central Sri Lanka: a frilled, inquisitive and slightly insolent-looking character.

 

 

Monitor lizards are a well-known type of lizard in Sri Lanka.  They’re slow, ponderous, lugubrious, a bit grumpy, a bit ugly, but they usually get to their objective in the end – so I feel some affinity for them.  This one was snapped in the gardens below Sri Lanka’s famous Sigiriya Rock.

 

 

Finally, my partner and I were staying in the town of Habarana a little while ago, in a hotel-room that had a partly-outdoor bathroom.  The shower end of the bathroom was roofless and there was even a large bush growing out of one of its corners.  This bush was home to two lizards who spent the five days we were there clinging to and crawling along its branches (with the occasional foray out across the wash-basin and in front of the mirror).  One was a skinny creature, not much more than a glorified gecko.

 

 

The other was a bigger specimen with a green stripy body and an impressively long, whiplash-like tail.  He had a strange ability to change the colour of his head.  Sometimes it would be a verdant green, like the rest of him.  At other times it would become alarmingly orange.  Come to think of it, that would be a useful talent for a British government’s Secretary of State to Northern Ireland to have.

 

 

* This is a reference to the 1984 Motörhead song Killed by Death, which begins: “If you squeeze my lizard / I’ll put my snake on you / I’m a romantic adventurer / And a reptile too.”  Lemmy’s lyrics were always poetry.

 

Remembering

 

 

Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right.  Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen.  See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.

 

Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.  Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness.  I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.

 

Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings.  The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.”  But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.

 

I agree.  At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there.  No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary.  But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.

 

When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War.  On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large.  (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.)  Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.

 

I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs.  The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons.  As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.

 

It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories.  For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry.  Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it.  The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.

 

And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars.  The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One.  Both of them survived it.

 

 

In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages.  Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.

 

(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.  Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)

 

Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920.  The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal.  As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement.  Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials.  The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building.  During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland.  So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.

 

My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp.  It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war.  And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2018

 

From craftshub.com

 

Every year on October 31st I like to celebrate the macabre spirit of Halloween by sharing on this blog ten scary, gruesome and / or disturbing paintings and illustrations that I’ve discovered during my recent wanderings on the Internet.  I have to admit, though, that in the putrid sewer of a year that’s been 2018, no deliberately-frightening picture from an artist’s imagination has been as stomach-churningly frightening as the real-life images I’ve seen on the news: accompanying stories about murderous hatred, and fascists taking control of countries, and plain old human ignorance, vileness and cruelty.

 

But anyway, let’s forget the horrors of reality for a few hours and get down to Halloween business.

 

Firstly, an eye-catching – and head-popping – cover illustration from a 1981 Fontana edition of Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death (1938) by American-born, UK-based artist Tom Adams, whose cover-artwork also includes books by John Fowles and Raymond Chandler.  It’s for his Agatha Christie covers that he’s probably best-known; though while Christie’s work was frequently dark, it was never quite as nightmarish as this image of a cranium-dwelling trapdoor spider.

 

© Fontana / Tom Adams

 

Another artist known for illustrating book-covers and book-pages is Angela Barrett, who, I’ve read, learnt her craft at one point from the legendary Quentin Blake.  A 2006 profile of her in the Guardian praised her work for its ‘stillness’ and ‘quiet atmospheric intensity’ and ‘poetic sense of melancholy’: qualities that are all present in this impressively fog-shrouded piece of Victoriana that’s an illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  It comes from a limited (200-copy) edition of Jekyll and Hyde produced by Hand and Eye Editions in 2010.

 

© Hand and Eye Editions / Angela Barrett

 

And so onto another 19th century horror icon.  This year has marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s massively popular and influential Frankenstein.  I’d thought about including here the famous frontispiece of the 1831 edition, which apparently was the first visual representation of the creature.  But actually, I’ll leap forward a century in time to a 1934 edition of Frankenstein that’s graced by the woodcut illustrations of the American artist and engraver Lynd Ward.  His depictions of the creature are memorably paradoxical, combining the majestic and monstrous, the muscular and malformed.  Here’s an example.

 

© New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas

 

Frankenstein has also been a theme for the modern-day Canadian / French illustrator Nicolas Delort, though for this entry I’ve chosen a picture of his based on a different but also influential work of literature.  Horror tales are often described as ‘dark fairy stories’ and so it’s fascinating to see Delort’s intensely gothic take on Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900).  The Wicked Witch of the West has virtually become a Goth priestess while her flying monkeys look indistinguishable from bats.  Meanwhile, the gaudy colours we usually associate with the story are confined to a crystal ball in the foreground.

 

© Nicolas Delort

 

From witches and wizards to devils and demons.  Here is a grotesque but strangely jolly – well, at least the little demon looks like he’s enjoying himself – illustration from Le Livre de la Vigne Nostre Seigneur, a medieval book produced in the mid-to-late 15th century.  Among the Biblical events and places it depicts are the coming of the Antichrist, the Day of Judgement and Hell.  Although French in origin, it resides now in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.  The entirety of the book can be viewed digitally here, while for some larger-sized highlights check out the macabre art website Monster Brains, here.

 

From the Bodleian Libraries

 

Here’s another demon, courtesy of Rosaleen Norton, the remarkable Australian artist, practitioner of the occult and worshipper of Pan who, by the time she died in 1979 at the age of 62, had become known as the Witch of Kings Cross – that’s Kings Cross in Sydney, not Kings Cross in London.  This picture, titled Fohat, pushed the envelope in conservative Australia, where practising witchcraft ceased to be a crime only in 1971; especially with how the goat-headed demon’s phallus is shown metamorphosising into a snake.  The goat-head, according to Ms Norton, symbolised ‘energy and creativity’, whereas the snake lurking lower down symbolised ‘elemental force and eternity’.  So this picture was wholly allegorical and not naughty at all, in other words.

 

From zeroequalstwo.net

 

I don’t know if the Russian artist Nikolai Kalmakoff was an active occultist like Rosaleen Norton, but he was certainly fascinated by the strange and esoteric.  That the next painting, by Kalmakoff, is entitled Death and was painted in 1913 might make you expect something dark, muddy and bloody, prescient of the four years of carnage that were shortly to engulf Europe.  Instead, however, Kalmakoff creates a work of art that’s baroque, Asian in tone and autumnally colourful.  It’s only as you study it and take in its details, like the caterpillar-like sleeping old man and, stalking up on him almost playfully, the black shadow-figure with feathered angel’s wings, that it becomes sinister.  I’m not sure what to make of the Angel of Death’s polka-dotted grey socks, though.

 

From peacocksgarden.blogspot.com

 

And now something else that’s Asian in tone – some ‘J-horror’courtesy of prolific Japanese cartoonist and illustrator Katsuya Terada.  I believe this comes from the cover of the novel Psyche Diver: The Darkness written by Baku Yumemakura.  The picture is a flesh-crawling combination of the sensuous and the hideous.  Indeed, the contrast between the alluring feminine face above water and the fanged maw beneath it puts me in mind of Kuchisake Onna, that celebrated and nightmarish female character from Japanese urban myth.

 

© Bikoo / Katsuya Terada

 

More subtle is this striking picture by Massachusetts artist, print-maker and musician Daniel Danger, whose spindly black trees and dark sumptuous-blue sky evoke the creepy atmospheric phenomenon known as the Brocken Spectre, whereby a combination of clouds’ water droplets and backscatter sunlight turns an observer’s shadow into something gigantic and monstrous.  I’m pretty certain, for example, that the Brocken Spectre phenomenon is responsible for the fearsome stories of the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, said to haunt the highest summit in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.

 

© Daniel Danger

 

Finally, although Halloween is limited to the evening of October 31st, the final day of October is also the starting point for the three-day-long and skeleton-crazy festival that is Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, i.e. Day of the Dead.  So here’s a skeleton-themed picture by the versatile American artist Bill Mayer that neatly ties together the gruesomeness of Halloween with the skeletal exuberance of Day of the Dead.  However, its title, Fragile Planet, suggests that the artist’s intention is really to give an environmental warning – a sadly topical warning, come to think of it, given that Brazil’s new fascist leader Bolsonaro looks set to declare open season on the Amazon.

 

© Bill Mayer

 

But never mind my gloom.  Have a happy Halloween!

 

Jim Mountfield gets on his bike

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

That Which Does Not Kill Us, a short horror story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, has recently been published in issue 74 – the Halloween 2018 edition – of the magazine Blood Moon Rising.  Issue 74 is accessible online here and the story itself here.

 

The story is partly inspired by some cycling trips I made while living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 2000s, when I’d get on my bike and head from there up to the Scottish Borders, where my family lived.  This involved a two-day expedition.  I usually stopped off for the night at the youth hostel in the village of Byrness, in the middle of the Kielder Forest and just below the England-Scotland border – a place I mainly remember for being painfully infested with midges.  However, as the title suggests, the story is also inspired by one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.  Though I’ve heard people often repeat that maxim flippantly in the course of their normal, everyday lives, I wondered if it would actually be any use to you if you found yourself in a truly dire situation.

 

I’ve had a couple of short stories published under the name Jim Mountfield in Blood Moon Rising in the past and it’s interesting that my nastiest, most nihilistic pieces of work seem to end up there.  These include The Balloon, the story of a paedophile who gets his come-uppance from a primordial, flesh-eating blob-monster whilst hunting for children in a South East Asian temple complex…  And The Ecosystem, about a man who ingests some weird hallucinogenic drugs and sees his whole body consumed by and transformed into a weird, alien ecosystem of grotesque flowers, fungi and insects…  Okay, I’ll stop now.  This is starting to sound a bit like Garth Marenghi.

 

© Channel 4

 

The Price is right

 

© American International Pictures

 

Today, October 25th 2018, is an exact quarter-century since the death of Vincent Price – distinguished actor and voice-over artist, gourmet cook and cookbook writer, knowledgeable art collector and art consultant, high-profile liberal and political activist, all-round media personality and legendary star of horror movies.  For that last reason, it seems appropriate that Price expired just a few days short of Halloween, the creepy highpoint of the year.

 

Price was a hero of mine.  He had a remarkable voice, smooth, sonorous and sinister, seeming to come at you through a curtain of glossy black velvet.  And though the movies he appeared in were sometimes less than great, thanks to him they were rarely less than enjoyable.  A good actor will always look and sound good in a good film, obviously.  But it’s the sign of a great actor to feature in a bad film and make it seem much better than it actually is.

 

Price’s acting career began in 1935 when he found work with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre.  He made his film debut three years later and during the 1940s and early 1950s the cinema employed him as a character actor and, frequently, a villain.  Then, having appeared in House of Wax in 1953, The Fly in 1958 and a couple of schlocky late-1950s classics made by the horror-movie mogul and showman William Castle, he became associated with macabre roles.  This was cemented by his appearances in a run of critically-acclaimed films from 1960 to 1964 directed by Roger Corman, produced by American International Pictures and based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The early 1970s saw him at his horror-icon zenith, appearing in stylish and tongue-in-cheek movies like the Dr Phibes ones (1971 and 1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) that seemed tailor-made for him.

 

Price’s film workload lightened thereafter because the gothic horror movies he’d specialised in fell out of fashion.  But still, up until the last few years of his life, he  seemed ubiquitous thanks to his copious appearances on TV, radio, stage and vinyl – he not only rapped at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), but featured in Alice Cooper’s Black Widow (1975) and recorded story and poetry readings.

 

Here are my favourite Vincent Price movies.  And fittingly, with Halloween six days away, they’re all horror ones.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Fly (1958)

Price plays the brother of a doomed scientist (Al Hedison) who builds a teleportation device and unwisely tries it out on himself without checking first that nothing has climbed into the transmitter chamber with him.  Something has, a housefly, and Hedison and the pesky insect re-materialise with mixed-up body parts.  It falls on Price to work out what the hell has happened.

 

I saw The Fly on TV when I was in my twenties and found it hilarious.  Somehow, the fly’s head becomes human-sized when it’s planted on Hedison’s shoulders, while a tiny Hedison-head ends up attached to the fly’s body.  Hedison’s miniaturised head still retains his human brain – he shrieks, “Help me!  Help me!” when he gets trapped in a spider’s web at the movie’s climax – but the giant fly’s head also seems to have Hedison’s brain inside it because the mutant creature is smart enough to hide away and leave written instructions for Hedison’s puzzled wife.  These absurdities were apparent to the cast, including Price, who had a hard time filming a scene with Herbert Marshall (in the role of an investigating policeman).  Their conversation gets interrupted by a little voice squeaking “Help me!” out of a spider’s web – at which point both actors kept exploding with laughter.  It required some 20 takes before the scene was finally in the can.

 

That said, I watched The Fly again recently and reacted to it differently.   The image of the fly with Hedison’s puny head grafted onto it, shrieking in terror while a monstrous spider approaches, strikes me now as piteous, grotesque and disturbing.

 

The Raven (1963)

I loved this Roger Corman-directed movie as a kid.  The tale of a trio of feuding magicians played by Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, it’s more fantasy than horror – but spiced with delightfully ghoulish moments, such as when a torturer checks the temperature of a red-hot poker by pressing it into his own arm, or when Price opens a little casket and is discombobulated to find it full of human eyeballs.  (“I’d rather not say,” he croaks when Lorre asks him what’s inside.)  It’s like a version of Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) for morbid children.

 

Incidentally, Karloff turns Lorre into a raven twice during the film, which allows Corman to tack the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem onto it and have Price recite the poem mellifluously during its opening scene.  And in the role of Lorre’s son, we get a 26-year-old and amusingly wooden Jack Nicholson.

 

© American International Pictures

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman’s majestic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (with a second Poe story, Hop Frog, stitched into the plot for good measure) and beautifully shot by the great Nicolas Roeg, showcases Price at his sumptuously evil best.  He’s Prince Prospero, who’s holed up in his castle with an entourage of loathsome aristocrats while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  Price and friends happily live a life of decadence, fuelled by drink, drugs, sex, partying and diabolism, and refuse to help the neighbourhood’s terrified peasants.  However, when they decide to enliven their social calendar with a fancy-dress masque, the masque is gate-crashed by a mysterious, Ingmar Bergman-esque figure swathed in a red robe.  Guess who that is.

 

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Made the same year as Masque, Corman’s Ligeia has Price in a more sympathetic role, playing a haunted and reclusive man who tries to put his troubles behind him and find happiness with a new wife (Elizabeth Shepherd).  Unfortunately, his former wife, though dead, is still around in spirit form and won’t leave him in peace.  Tomb of Ligeia has a slightly over-the-top ending, but the build-up to it, involving black cats, flag-stoned passageways, cobwebs, candlelight, hypnosis, Egyptology and some imposing monasterial ruins filmed at Castle Acre Priory in the East Anglia region of England, is spookily wonderful.

 

© Tigon British Productions / American International Pictures

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Directed by Michael Reeves (who died soon after at the age of 25), the uncompromising Witchfinder General sees Price back in East Anglia, playing a real-life figure from local history – the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins.  Among the East Anglian locations are Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford and the coastal settlements of Dunwich and Orford, and they form a paradoxically gorgeous backdrop to Hopkins’ ugly, brutal activities.  Orford Castle, which belongs to English Heritage, is the setting for the movie’s climax, which was supposed to feature a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he changed the script and used a less spectacular but more gruelling ending whereby hero Ian Ogilvy seizes an axe and bloodily hacks Price to death.

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of evil, which is now considered one of his best performances.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)

In 1971, Price starred in Robert Fuest’s baroque comedy-horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes.  He played the demented and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, who murders the surgeons he holds responsible for his wife’s death one-by-one whilst using the ten Old Testament plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians as inspiration for each killing.  I find the film a bit too pleased with itself and prefer the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, which was also directed by Fuest.   This has Phibes heading for Egypt to find an ancient temple containing the fabled River of Life, which he believes will resurrect his dead wife.  When he discovers that a rival expedition is also searching for the temple, Phibes lays waste to them using another inventive array of killing methods: hawks, scorpions, a giant screw-press, a sand-blaster, etc.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again is scrappier but funnier than its predecessor and has a great cast – Price, Robert Quarry, John Cater, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, John Thaw, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing.  Cater and Jeffrey are particularly good value as the hapless coppers who pursue Phibes to Egypt and they get the best lines, for example: “I don’t think.  I know!”  “I don’t think you know either, sir.”

 

© United Artists / Harbour Productions Limited / Cineman Productions

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant Theatre of Blood is another comedy-horror movie, this time featuring Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who soon meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  A very distinguished cast of English character actors goes the same way as Morley: Michael Hordern (suffering a demise similar to that of Julius Caesar), Dennis Price (Troilus and Cressida), Arthur Lowe (Cymbeline), Robert Coote (Richard III) and Coral Browne (Henry VI: Part One).  Price even rewrites The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh can be extracted from Harry Andrews.

 

Ian Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who at the movie’s climax is rescued by the police before he gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry’s on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Price’s participation in Edward Scissorhands, written and directed by his then-youthful admirer Tim Burton, was reduced by ill health – he’d die from lung cancer a few years later – but his small role here remains charming.  He plays the kindly, eccentric old inventor who puts together Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) but expires before he can fit his creation with proper hands.  This leaves poor Edward stuck with the temporary hands he’d been given, which are composed of long sharp scissor-blades.  (Price’s character was kindly and eccentric, yes, but not exactly practical.)

 

Price has been dead for 25 years now but it often feels like he never departed.  His films are still shown regularly on TV and people still imitate his velvety tones.  And though I don’t care for the music of Michael Jackson, I like the fact that I’ve been sitting in pubs in different and far-flung parts of the world, in Sri Lanka and Tunisia and Ethiopia, when someone behind the counter has started playing Thriller on the places’ sound-systems; meaning that a few minutes later the pubs have filled with Price’s glorious voice, intoning:

 

Darkness falls across the land / The midnight hour is close at hand / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorise your neighbourhood…

 

And finally, of course, that laugh: “AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Crazy evil

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

Wow.  What a movie Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018) is.  Possibly the most deliriously cinematic film I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), it ticks all the desired boxes: mayhem, violence, histrionics, revenge, weirdness, warped humour, 1980s-style pulp horror, crazed cultists, psychotic bikers, chainsaws, a doomy score by the late Johann Johannsson and…  Nicolas Cage.

 

Director Cosmatos knows exactly what you want from a Nicolas Cage movie.  You want to see the great man performing with his brakes off and hurtling through proceedings at full throttle.  Cosmatos treats you to this sublime spectacle about an hour into the film’s running time, after Cage has seen his home invaded by murderous villains – a pack of religious cultists and their deranged Hells Angels allies – and seen all the things he holds dear destroyed by them.

 

Left crucified and bound up with barbed wire, he manages to free himself and wanders shell-shocked into his living room, where a TV set is showing a commercial for a brand of cheese that features a hideous-looking puppet / company mascot called the Cheddar Goblin.  “Cheddar Goblin,” squeals a little girl in the commercial just before the goblin does his party piece, which involves vomiting cheese all over the place.  “Did you eat all the macaroni and chee-eese?”

 

Staring at this as if it was some apocalyptic portent displayed in the heavens, Cage intones: “Cheddar Goblin!”  Then, bloodied and clad only in a T-shirt, Y-fronts and some unappealingly mud-soiled tennis socks, he shambles into his bathroom, finds a bottle of vodka in a cupboard, swigs from it heavily whilst sitting on the toilet and bellows, “AAAAAAARGH!” a number of times.  Nicolas Cage-ery doesn’t get any better than this.

 

This is followed by a scene where Cage pays a visit to a trailer-living buddy played by Bill Duke – a welcome appearance by the actor best remembered as a member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s commando team in Predator (1987) – in order to gather information and procure some lethal weaponry.  When Duke asks him what’s going on, Cage raves: “Jesus freaks…!  They were weirdo, hippie-types…  Whole bunch of ’em.  And then there was some muscle…  It didn’t make any sense.  There were bikers, and gnarly psychos, and…  CRAZY EVIL!”

 

And the rest of the movie is a revenge mission: Nicolas Cage versus Crazy Evil.

 

But to backtrack a little.  The year is 1983 and Cage is a logger with soon-to-be-useful chainsaw skills who lives in a house in the forest – a part of it he’s not cutting down – with his girlfriend, the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).  Mandy is a kooky, slightly-out-of-it chick who’s a heavy metal fan, a fantasy artist and a reader of sword-and-sorcery novels.  In other words, Cage is living the dream of every 1980s adolescent male.  Their idyll doesn’t last, though.  One day, Mandy attracts the attention of a loopy Charles Manson-esque cult leader called Jeremiah (Linus Roache), who’s passing through the area with the half-dozen adherents that make up his sect, the Children of the New Dawn.  Like Manson did in real life, Jeremiah fancies himself as a musician, singer-songwriter and rock star and he likes to subject potential recruits to his music, which is twiddly, folk-inflected, prog-rock, Jethro Tull-type shite.  Presumably, if you can listen to it without collapsing in fits of laughter, you’re in.  I’m surprised there’s as many as six of them.

 

Jeremiah determines to kidnap Mandy but figures his followers are too wimpy to break into her house and take out her lumberjack boyfriend themselves.  So he calls on the services of the Black Skulls.  These are a fearsome chapter of Hells Angels, maddened by bad LSD, active only at night, clad in monstrous amounts of black leather, spikes and chains and responsible for the murders of truckers and prostitutes on the remoter highways.  The Skulls and the Children of the New Dawn make their move and Cage ends up in the bad place he’s in at the film’s midpoint.

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

To be honest, I think Mandy has a structural problem during its second half when Cage sets out to wreak his vengeance.  Because the Black Skulls are the subsidiary villains and Jeremiah is the Big Bad, he goes after the Skulls first and the Children of the New Dawn second.  However, it’s the Skulls who present the more formidable challenge, whereas the New Dawn members are comparatively easy to take out (a few thrilling minutes of chainsaw-duelling excepted).  As a result, the build-up in the second hour feels back to front because Cage’s confrontation with the Black Skulls should really be the film’s climax.

 

Still, Mandy is a splendid creation.  With its pulpy plot and 1980s setting, it resembles a Quentin Tarantino retro-exploitation epic – some dream sequences done in the style of a Japanese anime are reminiscent of Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) – but Cosmatos makes it distinctive by giving its cinematography, lighting, soundtrack and general staging a stylised, almost arthouse-movie-like look, sound and feel.  Indeed, by the film’s later stages, the landscapes and skies are so surreally shot that the action seems to no longer take place on earth.  Rather, it’s shifted into the weird and wonderful worlds of Mandy’s fantasy paintings and novels.

 

At the same time, the film pays tribute to 1980s popular cinema in a hundred different ways.  Admittedly, the basic plot seems to be lifted from various 1970s grindhouse classics such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Drink Your Blood (1970), but you could argue that for many kids these were part of the 1980s too because it was through the advent of that 1980s institution, the video rental store, that they were introduced to the movies and their unsavoury pleasures.  The blood-soaked, chainsaw-wielding Cage is an even more harassed version of Bruce Campbell’s Ash character in The Evil Dead II (1987), the Cheddar Goblin resembles an inbred member of the title characters in Gremlins (1983) and the Black Skulls are so like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) that I’m surprised Barker hasn’t sued.  There’s even a reference to the most famous joke in Crocodile Dundee (1986), though in the context of chainsaws.

 

Meanwhile, connoisseurs of more highbrow 1980s fare will appreciate a death scene that resembles one in the 1980s’ greatest sci-fi movie, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the glossy sheen of the visuals and music had me thinking at times of certain Michael Mann movies like The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986).  At one point, Mandy even evoked the memory of British cinema’s barmiest visionary, Ken Russell – a hallucinogenic scene where a fire-consumed body, like a post-volcanic-eruption ash statue, slowly breaks apart and blows away in the wind reminded me of similar imagery in Russell’s Altered States (1980).

 

But even if 1980s filmic references aren’t your thing, you’ll surely enjoy Mandy for the barnstorming, no-holds-barred performance of its star.  Yes, strap yourselves in, folks.  This is Nicolas Uncaged.

 

Or as the Cheddar Goblin would say: “It’s gobblin’ good.”

 

© SpectreVision / Umedia / Legion M / XYZ Films / RLJE Films

 

The weird Greene place

 

© Penguin Books

 

Graham Greene famously divided his novels into two categories: those meant to be seen as works of serious literature and those meant to be seen as simple ‘entertainments’.

 

Therefore, when I recently started reading his 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear and the words ‘An entertainment’ greeted me on its title page, I made a few assumptions.  That I was about to read a linear narrative that travelled from A to B and then to C with a minimum of fuss.  That I’d encounter a tale containing action and adventure that didn’t severely stretch my braincells.  That there’d be some reasonable character development and a plot that perhaps sprung the odd surprise, but no major questions would be asked about the nature of life, the universe and everything.  That when I reached the end of it, I wouldn’t feel I’d been massively intellectually stimulated but I would feel I’d been, yes, entertained.

 

Thus, it was a surprise when I began The Ministry of Fear and found how different it was from what I’d expected – certainly during its first section, which accounts for half the book.

 

Set in London during the worst days of the Blitz, it focuses on a man called Arthur Rowe who can best be described as ‘walking wounded’.  This isn’t because of any war-related physical injury, but because of guilt about his dead wife.  When she was terminally ill and racked with pain, he poisoned her to end her suffering.

 

One day, the unhappy Rowe wanders into a fete where “the inevitable clergyman presided over a rather timid game of chance; an old lady in a print dress that came down to her ankles and floppy garden hat hovered officially, but with excitement, over a treasure-hunt…” and “there in a corner… was “a fortune-teller’s booth – unless it was an impromptu outside lavatory.”  Another feature is a mouth-wateringly big cake on offer to the person who can correctly guess its weight.  Meanwhile, all the money being raised by the fete is going to a wartime charity organisation called the Mothers of the Free Nations.

 

Rowe consults the fortune teller, who for some reason provides him with inside information about the cake: “You must give the weight as four pounds eight and a half ounces”.  Rowe duly repeats this outside, wins the cake, carries it away and clings onto it when the fete’s organisers come after him a few minutes later claiming there’s been a mistake.  Then that evening, back at his house, Rowe finds himself entertaining a strange man who’s “dark and dwarfish and twisted in his enormous shoulders with infantile paralysis”.  The hospitable Rowe offers a slice of his cake to this visitor, who crumbles it apart in his fingers whilst eating it.  A little later, he seems to have slipped something into Rowe’s tea – for Rowe recognizes the scent of the poison that he once administered to his wife.  Before anything else happens, a bomb drops out of the sky, demolishes Rowe’s house and brings the scene to an abrupt end.

 

Things become even stranger the next day.  Rowe has escaped the bombing without serious injury and, convinced that he’s entangled in a plot where the cake he unfairly won was being used to smuggle something, he pays a visit to the offices of the Mothers of the Free Nations.  There, he gets the address of Madame Bellairs, the supposed fortune-teller.  He arrives at her house and finds himself in the company of a group of eccentrics who are about to sit down for a séance.  Rowe takes part in the séance and believes he hears the voice of his dead wife.  This too comes to an abrupt end when one of the party is found murdered – with Rowe’s pocket-knife.

 

Now on the run for a murder he thinks he didn’t commit, Rowe meets – apparently accidentally – an elderly bookseller whose “teeth were in a shocking condition, black stumps like the remains of something destroyed by fire.”  The bookseller persuades Rowe to run an errand for him, which involves delivering a heavy case of books to a client who’s staying in a London hotel.  Rowe finds the hotel-room empty but, increasingly paranoid, believes that he’s been trapped there by unknown and unseen adversaries who’re lurking in the corridor.  And at this point the opening section of The Ministry of Fear reaches its climax.

 

All this is entertaining enough, but it doesn’t feel like the easy-on-the-brain entertainment promised by the title page.  There’s an odd, unsettling blend of humdrum, down-at-heels English melancholia, which calls to mind George Orwell’s 1930s novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); and, as the plot veers from one weird situation to the next with Rowe in ever-less control of things, the positively Kafkaesque.  I haven’t seen the film adaptation of the book directed by Fritz Lang a year after its publication, but visualising the bizarre scene between Rowe and the deformed man in Rowe’s soon-to-be-bombed house, with Greene’s oblique dialogue (“What do you want?”  “Peace.”  “Exactly.  So do we.”  “I don’t suppose I mean your kind of peace.”  “We can give you peace.  We are working for peace.”  “Who are we?”  “My friends and I…”), I ended up with something akin to a scene in a David Lynch movie.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Heightening the uneasy mood is the book’s London-Blitz setting.  The story takes place in a blasted, cratered, dusty city with a traumatised and weary populace.  It’s certainly not the noble and romanticised place evoked nowadays by British patriots when they hark back to their country’s ‘finest hour’.

 

And then…  The book drastically shifts gears.  The action jumps to a clinic in the English countryside housing patients with psychiatric disorders.  One of them is a man called Digby, suffering from amnesia and trying to figure out who he is and what events brought him there.  I don’t want to give away much more of the plot but even the dimmest reader will soon cotton on that Rowe and Digby are the same person.  While Digby begins to retrieve his memory – and the reader begins to piece together the jigsaw about what’d happened before and what’s happening now – the book becomes much more the straightforward thriller that’d been promised originally.  Some suspiciously familiar-looking characters start to appear among the clinic’s staff and it transpires that Rowe / Digby has indeed stumbled across a nefarious wartime plot and the clinic is a means of keeping him out of the way.

 

Even so, The Ministry of Fear never quite becomes conventional.  As Digby devotes himself to unravelling the mystery of his situation, the reader is painfully aware that there’s much of his memory that he shouldn’t want to have back.  Indeed, while in his Rowe incarnation he was an emotional cripple, the Digby version of him is braver, bolder and more efficient precisely because he isn’t carrying the traumatising baggage of the past.  And, reading the book’s later pages, I found myself increasingly apprehensive of the moment when he would remember – or when one of the villains would remind him of – his wife’s mercy killing.

 

The Ministry of Fear is entertaining, then.  But it’s considerably more than the humble ‘entertainment’ that Graham Greene would have you believe.

 

The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com

 

The father of Dredd is dead

 

From Bleeding Cool / © Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela

 

I find myself reading the news less and less these days.  That’s not just because of the apocalyptic way the world seems to be heading, with a loudmouthed Nazi-facilitating nincompoop in the White House and with the UK locked in a Boris Johnson-inspired Brexiting death-spiral.  It’s also because every week, seemingly, I discover that somebody who was a cultural hero to me during my youth has passed away.  Last week it was the turn of comic-book artist Carlos Ezquerra – born in Zaragoza in Spain, although he was latterly a resident of the microstate of Andorra on the French / Spanish border – to shuffle off this mortal coil, the victim of lung cancer.

 

As a kid, I often encountered Ezquerra’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and it had a big impact on me.  After drawing war stories and Westerns in Spain, Ezquerra began to get commissions in Britain’s mainstream comic-book industry, which, though it’s next to non-existent today, was immense at the time.  I first stumbled across his artwork when I read the war comic Battle Picture Weekly, which seemed special because it was leaner and meaner than the multitudinous other war titles that filled the boys’ comics market at the time: Warlord, Victor, Valiant and the pocket-sized Commando Comic (which somehow remains on the go today, although in 2013 it was announced that its printing operations were being moved to – ha-ha! – Germany).

 

Responsible for drawing two of its most popular strips, both set during World War II, Ezquerra helped make Battle stand out.  Rat Pack was a British version of the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen, although the convicts-turned-commandos here numbered less than half-a-dozen: violent simpleton Kabul ‘the Turk’ Hassan, the blade-wielding Matthew Dancer, thuggish Scotsman Ian ‘Scarface’ Rogan and the cowardly and aptly-named Ronald Weasel, plus their commander, Major Taggart, who was a proper, dutiful soldier (and whom they detested).  Major Eazy was about an unconventionally laid-back and laconic soldier who spent his time smoking cigars and getting up his superiors’ noses – I’d always assumed the character was inspired by the type Clint Eastwood had played in countless movies, although I read on Wikipedia recently that the inspiration actually came from James Coburn.

 

© IPC Publications

 

Ezquerra’s artwork was simultaneously grubby and graceful, hungry-looking and intense.  Unlike the solid, square-jawed heroes who populated other British war strips, the characters in it looked like they’d been fighting a long time at the front.  Fittingly, Battle marked its 100th issue with an Ezquerra team-up: it featured a new story wherein Major Eazy becomes the commander of the Rat Pack after Taggart is injured and hospitalised.  (His new charges hate him even more than they hated Taggart.)

 

Battle was founded by comic writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and when they moved on to a new project, 2000 AD – which became the most important and influential British comic of the late 20th century and which, with some justification, proclaimed itself ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ – it was inevitable that Ezquerra would find work there.  With Wagner, he created 2000 AD’s most famous character, the lumbering fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd.  Though he wasn’t the first artist to draw the Judge Dredd strip itself, an honour that belongs to Mike McMahon, he did design the character originally.

 

Imagined by Ezquerra, Dredd’s appearance is epic – and troubling.  The immense, sculpted shoulder pads, the huge, engraved badge and the eagle-shaped, flag-emblazoned belt-buckle recall the baroque and ludicrous ornamentation you’d see on uniforms during a parade in a fascist state.  Meanwhile, Dredd’s other accessories, the helmet, visor, gauntlets, chains, utility belt and boots evoke a less ceremonial side of fascism, i.e. the side that’s regularly breaking protestors’ heads out on the streets.  No doubt Ezquerra drew on his memories of growing up in Franco-era Spain, though it’s said his design was influenced too by Frankenstein, the character played by David Carradine in the Roger Corman sci-fi / exploitation movie Death Race 2000 (1975).

 

It’s just a pity that Ezquerra never got a chance to work on Action, the wildly controversial comic created by Mills during the period between Battle and 2000 AD.  I would have loved to see him take on such key Action strips as Hook Jaw or Hellman of Hammer Force.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd

 

One comic Ezquerra did work on was Starlord, a title that appeared in 1978.  Intended as a sister publication to 2000 AD, it was similarly devoted to science fiction stories.  Starlord had high production costs, which quickly made it unprofitable and it was merged with 2000 AD.  In the British comic world of the time, ‘mergers’ usually meant that the less successful title soon disappeared without trace within the pages of the more successful one.  Gratifyingly, though, Strontium Dog, a Starlord strip Ezquerra created with John Wagner, survived and became a staple of 1980s-era 2000 AD.

 

Strontium Dog is set in a bleak, violent and racist future where radiation from the Great Nuclear War of 2150 has created an underclass of mutants.  Oppressed and mistreated by ‘normal’ humans, the mutants are permitted to do only a few, dangerous jobs, which includes being bounty hunters.  Johnny Alpha – ‘Strontium Dog’ is the racist nickname he has to put up with – is one such bounty hunter, tracking down criminals throughout the galaxy on behalf of the Search / Destroy agency.  Again, Ezquerra’s artwork creates a cast of characters who look wolfish, brooding and lethal and the strip often feels more like a spaghetti western rather than a sci-fi story.  I particularly liked the supporting character Middenface McNulty, a Scottish mutant with a carbuncled cranium from a ghetto called Shytehill, which is presumably a radioactive district of post-apocalypse Edinburgh.

 

Ezquerra is said to have preferred Johnny Alpha to Judge Dredd, no doubt because, mutant though he was, the melancholic, introspective Alpha was more human than the cold-blooded judge-jury-and-executioner that was Dredd.  Accordingly, he was unhappy with 2000 AD’s decision in 1988 to kill off Alpha and he refused to draw what was to be the character’s final story, so that the job of illustrating his demise fell to Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead.  Alpha’s death was a traumatic event for British comic-book fans – no wonder the geekish 1999-2002 TV series Spaced contains a line where the Nick Frost character reminds the Simon Pegg one that he gave him a shoulder to cry on “when Johnny Alpha got killed by that big flying monster in 2000 AD.”  Happily, Ezquerra got to resurrect Strontium Dog in 1999.  Rather than figure out a way of reviving Alpha from the dead, the new strip simply pretended that he hadn’t died in the first place.

 

Over the years, Ezquerra’s other work for 2000 AD included ABC Warriors, which featured another survivor from the Starlord days, the hulking robot Hammerstein; wartime vampire story Fiends of the Western Front; and adaptations of three of Harry Harrison’s satirical Stainless Steel Rat books.  With all this, plus Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, it’s no surprise that 2000 AD tweeted a tribute to Ezquerra the other day describing him as ‘the heart and soul’ of the comic.

 

And for a comic-book artist, to be the heart and soul of the galaxy’s greatest comic…  Well, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd