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.

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

 

Colombo International Book Fair 2018

 

 

Last week, the 2018 Colombo International Book Fair was held at the Sri Lankan capital’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, or the BMICH as it’s known for short – an impressively glassy, airy-looking building whose shape has always reminded me of a graduating student’s mortarboard, although the slab of roofing that extends over it is eight-sided rather than four-sided.

 

 

The avenue that leads from nearby Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the steps of the conference building was picturesquely lined with flags advertising the fair, but the event wasn’t held in the building itself.  Instead, visitors were directed towards a hodgepodge of smaller exhibition buildings and pavilions around to the side of and behind the main structure, paying an entrance fee of 20 rupees along the way.  Crammed into these buildings and pavilions were stalls and compartments representing more than 250 bookshops, booksellers, publishers and book-related institutions (ranging from the British Council to the Iran Cultural Centre), plus stationers, arts-and-crafts suppliers and anyone else who thought they had a product they could profitably sell to Sri Lanka’s reading public.

 

 

My partner and I went on the first day of the fair, a Sunday.  Because many Colombo-ites were unable to make it there on a weekday, the event that day was extremely busy.  The spaces outside the buildings were mobbed.  And the interiors were packed – the many narrow, twisting passageways between the stalls, and the even narrower passageways between the tables and shelves inside the stalls, were jammed with bodies.  A couple of times when the congestion became uncomfortable, we wondered what would happen if a fire alarm suddenly went off.  There’d be carnage, surely.  Western notions of Health and Safety seemed not to apply here.

 

 

Still, in an era when the media never seems to stop peddling horror stories about children not reading books anymore and spending all their leisure time online or playing computer games, it was heartening to see how many kids were in the crowds here (most of them, admittedly, being herded along by their beleaguered-looking parents).

 

 

As we explored the fair, we’d find tucked away among the multitudinous stalls an occasional second-hand bookshop trying to sell some of its yellowy wares.  I was especially happy to discover the Dehiwala-based Priyankara Bookshop, which was flogging hundreds of old, battered, liver-spotted paperbacks from yesteryear.  These included fat bestsellers by the likes of once wildly-popular authors like Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Thomas Tryon, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith (well, those last two still are popular, I suppose); more so-called ‘literary’ stuff by such scribblers as Anthony Burgess, J.B. Priestly, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Graham Greene; and sci-fi and fantasy novels by the likes of Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan.  I was delighted to pick up a 1974 paperback edition of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, which has this wonderfully evocative cover by the artist Bruce Pennington.

 

© New English Library / Bruce Pennington

 

Needless to say, I walked away from the Priyankara Bookshop stall with an armful of stuff.

 

Lastly, I saw these three books, written in Sinhala, on display outside a stall.  One book sported a portrait of Kim Jong-Il, another sported one of Vladimir Putin and a third sported one of Donald Trump.  What were these?  Three political biographies or three horror novels – a Trilogy of Terror?

 

 

Ghostly, but could be ghostlier

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

I’ve finally had a chance to watch the movie Ghost Stories, which was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, had a cinematic release in the UK in April this year and went on sale last month on DVD.  I don’t think a new British horror film has been unveiled with such fanfare since The Woman in Black in 2012.  In Ghost Stories’ case, the hype came from the fact that it was based on a very successful stage play, also called Ghost Stories and also written by Dyson and Nyman, which ran in London from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015.   The play earned some breathless reviews from critics who claimed it was terrifying.  (That said, certain people whose opinions I respect, like the novelist Christopher Fowler and the film-writer Ben Bussey, weren’t impressed by it.)

 

I haven’t seen the play, but my expectations for the movie version of Ghost Stories were high because of the talent behind it.  Jeremy Dyson is an accomplished writer as well as a member of black-comedy specialists the League of Gentlemen.  Nyman is both an acclaimed stage magician and an actor who’s appeared in several things I really like: Charlie Brooker’s zombie satire Dead Set (2008) and two films directed by Chris Smith, Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010).

 

I was also interested in seeing Ghost Stories because it continues a long-standing British film tradition, the portmanteau horror movie – one that doesn’t consist of a single long, scary story but of several short, scary ones.  This tradition began in 1945 with Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night, consisting of five tales made by four different directors, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer; and it later flourished in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Amicus Productions, a company that churned out seven horror-anthology films between 1965 and 1974.  The bulk of the 31 tales in those seven Amicus movies were based either on the short fiction of horror writer Robert Bloch or on strips in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, which were published by EC Comics and had generated much notoriety in the 1950s.

 

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of those Amicus anthology movies.  There’s only one that I think is a bona fide classic, 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, and only two others, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt, both made in 1972, that I’d even put in the category of ‘enjoyable hokum’.  Their problem, apart from the fact that the quality of the stories in them varied wildly, was that the filmmakers were rarely able to tie the stories together with a framing device that made them seem believable.  Usually, that framing device brought together four or five strangers in a situation where they’d recount their pasts or have their futures predicted and it’d turn out that they’d fallen foul, or would fall foul, of some supernatural agency (usually as punishment for wrongdoing).  A typical example of this scenario is 1973’s Vault of Horror, where five men trapped in an underground chamber tell each other about recurrent nightmares they’ve had – nightmares that eventually prove to have really happened.  These involve a restaurant full of vampires, a housewife psychotically obsessed with neatness, a premature burial, some dabbling in voodoo and a deadly variation on the Indian rope trick.

 

In a world where people have spent lifetimes searching unsuccessfully for evidence that the supernatural exists, the idea that a group of strangers who’ve all had devastating supernatural experiences could just turn up together at the same time and place was stretching credibility more than a bit.  Even as a kid, when I saw those movies on late-night TV, I wondered to myself: wow, what are the odds?

 

Ghost Stories has as its linking device a person who’s utterly sceptical about the supernatural.  Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator dedicated to exposing frauds who claim to have supernatural powers and prey on gullible people.  Partly, Goodman does this because he was inspired by a debunker called Charles Cameron, whose exposes were shown on TV when he was a boy.  But it’s clear he’s also reacting against the mysticism of religion, which in his boyhood was shoved down his throat by a strict Orthodox Jewish father.  One day Goodman is summoned to meet a now-elderly Cameron, who gives him details of three supposedly supernatural incidents that even he wasn’t able to explain.  He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them.  This leads us into Ghost Stories’ triptych of creepy tales, which are told to Goodman, as flashbacks, by their three unhappy protagonists.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The first case involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who was tormented by the ghost of a girl whilst doing his rounds in a building that was once a woman’s asylum.  The second involves a youth (Alex Lawther) who had a harrowing experience after running down a mysterious something in his car one night in the middle of some woods.  And the third involves a banker (Martin Freeman) who was troubled by a poltergeist while his wife was in childbirth.

 

Now I really liked the framing device here.  Unlike in those hokey old Amicus movies, the stories’ protagonists don’t just congregate by some mad coincidence in one place but Nyman’s character has to go and actively seek them out.  Also, the fact that he’s portrayed as such a hardened disbeliever at the start suggests that the film will try to make the events that follow appear as credible as possible.  But once the three stories get underway, the film begins to sag.  These aren’t self-contained stories with beginnings, middles and endings so much as brief, unexplained anecdotes.  Some weird stuff happens, it’s creepy, and then… that’s it.  I found this rather thin.

 

Worse, once Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman’s narratives are finished, the film still has a fair amount of running time left.  It spends this time trying to tie all the strands together.  Everything we’ve seen, it transpires, relates back to Goodman himself, to his own past experiences and current state of mind.  There’s even a section where the film goes off on a tangent and shows a particularly traumatic episode from Goodman’s childhood.  Thus, you start watching Ghost Stories expecting it to be like a triple-decker sandwich with the three stories providing the fillings in the three decks.  But in fact, they’re more like three currants in a big doughy bun – the dough being all the material about Goodman.  Which wasn’t what I’d really wanted to see.

 

The film closes with a twist that I found unsatisfying too.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it reminded me of the ending of another movie on Jeremy Dyson’s CV, the film version of the League of Gentlemen’s TV show, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005).

 

That said, the film creates a few wonderful frissons.  There’s a sequence where Goodman ascends a dark staircase to meet the Alex Lawther character and glimpses something that leaves the audience wondering, what the hell did we just see?  And a moment where Goodman and Martin Freeman’s character are seen walking along the horizon of a bleak moor, unaware that a spectral figure has loomed into view a little way behind them, calls to mind M.R. James’ chilling story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  But again, the stories are too brief and inconsequential to have much impact.

 

I know Dyson is a fan of and has probably been influenced by the ghost-story writer Robert Aickman, whose fiction was disquieting because it avoided giving explanations or neat denouements – in his writings, uncanny things happened without rhyme and reason and all the characters could do was experience them.  Though I doubt if the prim, conservative Aickman would appreciate the visual treatment that the stories get here, with flashy, modish jump-cuts and nods to contemporary Japanese horror cinema.

 

So I found myself disappointed by Ghost Stories, though that’s not because it’s a bad movie.  It has some memorable moments and it’s been made with considerable thought and skill.  But alas, it feels like a lesser version of the masterly, ultra-frightening horror film that it could have been.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The temple of revenge

 

 

Just offshore from the coastal village of Seenigama in south-western Sri Lanka, you’ll find a temple consisting of two small buildings perched on top of a rocky little island.  The temple is devoted to an imperious-looking deity called Devol, who’s believed to look after the local fishermen and, it’s said, local truck drivers too.  But he’s more famous for being a god of revenge.  If someone has wronged you, you can travel to the island and make an offering to Devol in the hope that he’ll impose retribution on the culprit.

 

To get from the island from Seenigama’s beach, you have to travel in a flimsy-looking blue-brown boat with an outboard motor.  It can take a dozen or more people at a time, some of whom – not all – are given life-jackets.  When I got to the beach, I discovered that most of my fellow passengers were feisty old Sri Lankan ladies who boarded the boat by enthusiastically beetling up over its stern and sides and into its two rows of seats.  A little later, they transferred themselves from the boat to the island itself with a similar, impressive display of agility and sprightliness.  I couldn’t help but wonder if those elderly ladies were heading to the temple to call on Devol to wreak revenge on their enemies.

 

 

The boat-trip only took a minute and the island quickly swelled up out of the sea ahead of us.  At the island’s waterline were black rocks and higher up were grey ones, and then the natural formations gave way to man-made walls of faded yellow with blue-painted arched crests along their tops.  The boat ended up bobbing and swiveling drunkenly in the surf next to some slimy boulders that, further up, transformed into stone steps.  Walking around the island in footwear isn’t allowed and I’d already removed my boots and stashed them in my bag – which was just as well, because to get from the boat and onto the boulders I needed to wade through a swash of seawater.

 

While I ascended to the steps, I felt uncomfortably like Stephen Maturin, the landlubberly and accident-prone ship’s surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, who “at one time or other… had contrived to fall between the boat that was carrying him and almost every class of ship and vessel in the Royal Navy.”  But I managed to negotiate the boulders and steps and get onto the temple grounds above without slipping and falling and drenching myself.

 

 

In addition to the buildings, the temple contains a tiled yard, a clump of palm trees, a well, a shed with a pump inside, a small metal sculpture of a rooster and a tall concrete pole with spotlights attached.  The day I was there, many pigeons were perched on the golden-yellow roofs and for some reason flies were crawling in great profusions about the tiled ground.

 

Inside the smaller temple-building I found a tall statue of Devol with a coppery-red face and a curly moustache.  His image is partially obscured by curtains, supposedly – I’ve read somewhere – to lessen the harmful effects of his wrath as it radiates from him.

 

 

After taking a few photographs in that building, I turned around and stepped out of it again.  The moment my bare feet touched the moonstone at the threshold – which like all the horizontal surfaces here was wet and treacherous – I slipped spectacularly and landed with a great thud on my ‘jacksy’, as they say in Glasgow.  Thankfully, my bag, with my boots inside it, muffled the impact of the fall and possibly saved me from breaking my tail-bone.  It was embarrassing, however.  All the visitors in the yard outside promptly looked my way and enjoyed a quiet chuckle at my haplessness.

 

 

The larger temple building contained an altar on which, if you wish Devol to wreak revenge on someone, you present offerings of chilis, garlic and hot spices that, later, a priest grinds up in a ritual outside.  And that’s how it works here – to place a curse on the person who’s mistreated you, you need to contribute to the making of a chili paste.  Three deities lurk in alcoves behind and to the left and right of the altar.  The central one looks fairly benign, but the other two are more sinister.  The left-hand deity wears a helmet and girdle made out of interlocking cobras while the right-hand one is even more ghoulish, with a rictus grin and fangs protruding downwards from the ends of its long mouth.

 

 

Various travel blogs in which I’ve read about the temple have gone on in detail about how the visiting pilgrims, seemingly intoxicated by the idea of getting revenge on their persecutors, work themselves into states of ecstasy and hysteria.  But I saw none of that.  The crowd who’d come with me in the boat seemed calm, composed and quietly respectful.  (Well, apart from their moment of mirth when I keeled over on that slippery moonstone).  As I’d said earlier, most of them were elderly local ladies.  It occurred to me afterwards that Devol has several roles – he’s a guardian of fishermen and truck-drivers as well as a bringer of revenge – and maybe the ladies had come with a more peaceful purpose.  Maybe they just wanted to pay their respects to Devol and ask him to look after their sons and husbands, who were making their livings out on the waves or on the roads.

 

 

Rachid Taha 1958 – 2018

 

© Wrasse

 

For my musical education, I owe a lot to Rachid Taha, the Algerian singer-songwriter and musician who sadly passed away on September 12th.   He was the person who alerted me to the fact that beyond the parameters of the English-speaking world there are countless types of music, especially types of traditional music, that are well worth listening to.

 

Before hearing Taha’s records, my only exposure to such music – which in some British and American record shops is still patronisingly labelled ‘world’ music, which suggests that (a) the UK and the USA aren’t actually part of the world themselves, and (b) all the hundreds of musical genres from all the countries outside the Anglosphere can be lumped together under one simplistic heading – had been through the dabblings of certain Western rock musicians.  For example, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s 1994 album No Quarter was choc-a-bloc with musicians from Egypt and Morocco.

 

My musical tastes should have been more internationally savvy earlier on, because I’d spent my younger days living in places like Japan and Ethiopia.  But I never really developed an interest in traditional Japanese or Ethiopian music at the time because there was just too much going on around me and too many other things competing for my attention.

 

One day, though, somebody gave me a compilation CD and on it was an exotic but tantalisingly familiar-sounding tune.  It took me a minute to realise I was hearing a version of The Clash’s 1982 classic Rock the Casbah – a Rachid Taha version, renamed Rock El Casbah.  The song’s Arabic references had been cranked up to eleven, so that it was now sung in Arabic and the original’s cascade of piano, bass and drums had been replaced by a barrage of North African strings, percussion and flutes.

 

All in all, it was a brilliant reworking of the song – though if you were to believe Taha, you could understand him having a special affinity for it.  Apparently, he encountered The Clash in Paris in 1981 and presented them with a demo tape of his then band, Carte de Séjour, whose sound was a fusion of punk, funk and Algerian Rai music.  The Clash politely accepted the tape but never got back in touch.  However, when Rock the Casbah was released a year later, Taha had a sneaking suspicion that they’d not only listened to it but they’d maybe pinched a couple of his ideas.  Not that there were any hard feelings.  A couple of times during the 2000s, The Clash’s Mick Jones got up and performed with Taha when he played Rock El Casbah on stage.

 

After hearing that I listened a lot to Taha, as well as generally taking much more interest in music from outside my English-speaking bubble.  Taha’s songs were an irresistible brew of Algerian Rai and Chaabi music, plus rock, funk and techno.  They could be infectiously dance-y, like 1993’s Voilà Voilà or 1997’s Indie.  They could be relentlessly and hypnotically intense, like 1995’s Nokta, 1998’s Bent Sahra or 2000’s Barra Barra – that last song turned up on the soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s 2001 film about cack-handed American military intervention in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, which I can’t imagine Taha being very happy about.  (For TV viewers, it might be more familiar as the music in the adverts for the computer game Far Cry 2).  Occasionally, they just had a toe-tapping, overwhelmingly hummable joie de vivre, such as 1993’s Ya Rayah or 1998’s Ida.

 

The swaggering, raffish Taha passed away at the age of 59, which strikes me as a tragedy.  By rights he should have had a few more decades ahead of him in which to further explore his creativity and make more records.  His musical curiosity and love for experimentation and collaboration were inspiring.  And it has to be said that his politics (“Black and white – the same.  Arabs and Jews – the same.”) meant he was a cultural ambassador whose loss in these paranoid, distrustful times is one we could really have done without.

 

The absolute (Secretary of) State of this

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.

 

For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.

 

Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.

 

Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”

 

The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.

 

Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.

 

From Polldaddy.com

 

Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

 

I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.

 

After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.

 

I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’

 

When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.

 

© BBC

 

The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

 

With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.

 

Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.

 

Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”

 

Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.

 

Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?

 

© The Irish Examiner

 

Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.

 

The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.

 

The last of Sherlock Holmes

 

© Penguin Books

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how I was working my way through an 1800-page volume containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short-story collections about Sherlock Holmes.  Well, I’ve completed the job.  The other day I finished reading the volume’s final instalment, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last 12 Holmes stories Conan Doyle published between 1921 and 1927 and which was itself originally published in 1927.

 

I thought I’d write something here about those dozen stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes because, by the normal standards of Conan Doyle and Holmes, they constitute a strange body of work.  I should add that by the same standards they aren’t a terribly good body of work.  Case-Book has often been dismissed as an end-of-the-road raggle-taggle written by Conan Doyle when he’d run out of both ideas and enthusiasm for his most famous creation.  Indeed, when the writer (and later filmmaker) Nicholas Meyer wrote his celebrated Sherlock Holmes pastiche-novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974, he had his narrator – Dr Watson – denounce four of CaseBook’s stories, The Adventures of the Creeping Man, the Lion’s Mane, the Mazarin Stone and the Three Gables, as forgeries and ‘drivel’.  Meyer evidently regarded the four as being so substandard that they were unworthy of their places in the canon.

 

Conan Doyle himself seemed relieved that Case-Book marked the end of his association with Holmes.  He furnished the collection with an author’s introduction, something that to the best of my knowledge he didn’t do with the earlier books, and in it he makes some revealing comments.  He opines that Holmes, whose first adventure appeared back in 1887, was by the late 1920s well-and-truly past it, “like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”  (No doubt those over-the-hill operatic tenors in the 1920s were the equivalent of the many over-the-hill rock stars still performing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.)  And Conan Doyle voices his impatience with the reading public and their apparent obsession with the character: “decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seemed to expect.”

 

While he concedes that writing the Holmes stories didn’t prevent him from devoting time to the sort of writing and research he was genuinely interested in – “history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama” – he insinuates that the character had prevented him from being taken as seriously as he would have liked: “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have a stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.”

 

The ‘psychic research’ he mentions touches on a fascinating conundrum much discussed by Holmes scholars over the years.  Conan Doyle had always been interested in the paranormal and esoteric and after World War One such things greatly preoccupied him.  He was heavily into spiritualism and contacting the dead, no doubt spurred on by the deaths of his son and brother during the 1918-20 Spanish flu epidemic.  Due to their shared interest in this, he befriended Harry Houdini, though their friendship floundered when an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned Houdini started exposing phony mediums and seances.  And he publicly and embarrassingly believed in the veracity of the ‘photographs’ of the Cottingley Fairies in 1920.  Of course, such fanciful notions went against everything that Sherlock Holmes, the great practitioner of deductive reasoning – thought strictly speaking it was abductive reasoning – stood for.  If Holmes had been flesh-and-blood and in Conan Doyle’s company, you could imagine the romantic-minded Conan Doyle really not liking him or his no-nonsense rationalism.

 

You can sense this tension between the imaginative creator and his hard-headed creation in a passage in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Case-Book’s final story (actually the third-last one written chronologically).  Holmes sends Watson off on a reconnaissance mission and when the doctor returns he attempts to describe an important building to the detective:

 

“’Right in the middle… lies this old house, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichen and topped with moss, the sort of wall – ’

‘Cut out the poetry, Watson,’ said Holmes severely.  ‘I note that it was a high brick wall.’”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Many stories in Case-Book stray from the template of the earlier Holmes adventures.  One is a rarity in the canon in that it’s not narrated in the first person by Dr Watson but is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator.  (The only other story to share this distinction is the title story of the 1917 collection His Last Bow.)  Two other stories here are even more radical – they dispense with the character of Watson altogether and are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself.

 

A couple of Case-Book’s stories involve little or no sleuthing.   Indeed, one takes the form of a deathbed confession, wherein somebody who was a participant in a mysterious case that years earlier Holmes hadn’t been able to solve summons him and explains to him what really happened.

 

And then there is Case-Book’s heavy reliance on the macabre.  Three stories have Holmes tackling cases that appear to involve monsters – one monster from the natural world, one the result of scientific meddling and one a fixture of popular supernatural fiction.  In only one of these cases does the monster turn out to be a hoax.  There’s also a troubling focus on facial disfigurement, with two deformed characters in two stories living in hiding like Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).  A third story culminates with a villain getting disfigured, thanks to a packet of ‘vitriol’ being thrown in his face by a vengeful ex-lover.

 

And the very last Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote sees Holmes and Watson rooting for clues and signs of skulduggery in a crypt, “dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads.”  By now Holmes has stepped out of the pages of detective fiction and into those of gothic fiction.

 

But as I’ve said, this unconventionality doesn’t make Case-Book a particularly good collection.  The pair of stories narrated by Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, feel unsatisfactory because hearing them told in Holmes’s voice strips the character of his mystique – the distance provided by the mostly-admiring, occasionally-exasperated Watson is sorely missed.  “Ah!  Had he been with me,” says Holmes of Watson, “how much he would have made of so wonderful a happening and my eventual triumph against every difficulty!  As it is, however, I must tell my tale in my own plain way…”  And unhappily, the results are plain rather than wonderful.  The Lion’s Mane also makes a quaint read nowadays because the mystery that propels its narrative is one that in 2018 could be solved in 30 seconds with a search on Google.  .

 

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, the story written in the third person, was originally a one-act play called The Crown Diamond, penned by Conan Doyle in 1921.  Because Holmes’s cerebral reasoning was presumably too un-dynamic to portray on a stage, it focuses instead on some shenanigans involving a dummy that are a little more visual.  On the page, though, the result is perfunctory.

 

Elsewhere, a couple of the stories are marred by depictions and sentiments that even by the standards of 1920s Britain are unpleasantly racist.  The Adventures of the Three Gables, which qualifies as one of the collection’s worst stories anyway, is encumbered by a non-funny comedy-relief black character (“Look at that, Masser Holmes!”), while the otherwise reasonable The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place has an in-debt character who, we’re told repeatedly, faces ruin at the hands of ‘the Jews’.

 

Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here.  The conceit behind The Problem of Thor Bridge is quite clever, as is that of the light-hearted The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – even if it’s unlikely that, as happens in the story, a foreign confidence trickster who’s lived in Britain for years would give himself away so readily with a misunderstanding of British English.  And The Adventure of the Creeping Man, about an elderly academic who suddenly starts to behave in a strange, out-of-character, downright frightening manner, conveys a genuine chill.  It’s reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) even if the final denouement has more in common with a hoary old 1940s horror movie starring Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist.

 

Interestingly, one of the weakest stories here – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – and one of the strongest – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – were combined for an episode in the final series of TV adaptations featuring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1994’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  What makes this odd combination even odder is the fact that Holmes hardly appears in the episode – no doubt because Brett was in declining health at the time.  As a result, Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) has to solve the Three Garridebs on his own, while Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by the wonderfully supercilious Charles Gray) is drafted in to sort out the Mazarin Stone.  And still on the subject of Holmes screen adaptations, The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane provides us with a glimpse at Holmes in his post-Baker Street retirement, living near some cliffs on the Sussex coast with only a housekeeper and some hives of bees for company – which forms the setting for Bill Condon’s melancholy 2015 film Mr Holmes starring Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock.

 

© BBC Films / See-Saw Films / FilmNation Entertainment

 

Another kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

From expedia.com

 

Ae Fond Kiss, my short horror story that managed to be inspired both by a love song by Robert Burns and by the marvellous Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is featured in the September issue of the webzine The Horror Zine.  The story first appeared in The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 paperback edition and, as usual with my horror fiction, it bears the pseudonym ‘Jim Mountfield’.  (Unfortunately, ‘Ian Smith’ is about the most boring name ever.)  The story can be read here.

 

The Horror Zine requires its contributors to submit mugshots of themselves, so be warned.  You may find the strained, painful-looking selfie that accompanies Ae Fond Kiss more disturbing than anything in the story itself.

 

Also featured in The Horror Zine’s September edition is a story by the prolific, seemingly indefatigable Edinburgh-born author Graham Masterton.  Among the more-than-100 books written by Masterton is 1978’s horror novel Charnel House, which gave me the creeps when I read it as a kid (and which, coincidentally, was set in San Francisco).  However, he’s probably best known for the 1976 novel The Manitou, which was made into a movie two years later with Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith – the film isn’t a classic, but with its enjoyably dated, disco-y 1970s special effects, it’s still good fun.

 

So all in all, I feel honoured to have my work featured this month in the same fiction section as that of the Father of the Manitou.

 

© Sphere Books