Jim Mountfield – 35 years late

 

From youtube.com 

 

Many people who have an idea for a story, painting or song find that the process of turning the idea into reality takes a long time.  But I suspect that the process took longer than most with my short story The Malevolent Aged Grin, which was written under my horror-fiction pseudonym Jim Mountfield and has just appeared in a new hard-copy anthology from the mainly online publication The Horror Zine.

 

In fact, the moment when the original idea came to me and the moment when I finally saw the finished item in print were separated by 35 years.  That’s right.  The notion of The Malevolent Aged Grin first entered my head in 1981, when I was a plooky high-school teenager, during an era when the world seemed a very different place from now.  Back then, the bellicose but befuddled Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president and I was seriously worried that he was going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  In 2016, the bellicose and badly-haired Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president and I’m seriously worried that he’s going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  So thank heavens that’s all changed.

 

Come to think of it, I could have begun writing the 4500-word story in 1981, composed it at the rate of 130 words every year and still got it finished in 2016.

 

© The Daily Telegraph

 

I remember the first time I thought of writing The Malevolent Grin.  It was during a school English class, under the tutelage of English teacher Iain Jenkins – who later would enter politics and become our constituency’s first representative in the reconvened-after-nearly-300-years Scottish Parliament.  He’d just read to us the poem Pike by the famous Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes.  As well as containing the phrase ‘the malevolent aged grin’, which I decided there and then to pinch and use as the title of a story, the poem had such unforgettable lines as “…silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror / A hundred feet long in their world” and “Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards / Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds.”

 

Yes, I know the poem reflected the theme of much of Hughes’ nature poetry, about how the natural world – here embodied in the pike, Britain’s most predatory freshwater fish – has its own scale, perspectives and levels of savagery; totally different from how we, as romanticising, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising human beings, view it.  But for me, the poem just seemed wonderfully macabre and suddenly I wanted to write a story about a pike – a big pike.  A monster pike.  I should say that by this time I’d started writing horror stories and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become southern Scotland’s answer to Stephen King.

 

For a long time I envisioned the story as being about a pike that’s the size of a rowing boat, has somehow managed to escape being noticed by the human world and lurks in the depths of a remote river or pool.  Somehow, it’s also managed to keep itself fed, on livestock that wander too close to the water’s edge, without the world noticing either.  I even started writing it in a jotter.  The main character was an author – how very Stephen King – who takes his family and pet cat to live in an old converted mill-house next to a river.  He intends to make the most of his quiet, rural surroundings and start work on a new novel.  Needless to say, the pike soon makes its presence felt, beginning by eating the family cat.  I conceived the story as ending with torrential rain, the river flooding and the big bad pike substantially expanding its feeding grounds.

 

© Hamlyn Publishers

 

However, that version of the story never got beyond its first few pages.  Partly I abandoned it because I realised that, even by the standards of adolescent-penned pulp horror, its premise was absurd; but also because one day I discovered in a bookshop that someone had already written a story about a monster pike terrorising the British countryside.  This was the 160-page novel The Pike (1982) by the late Cliff Twemlow, a colourful character who made a living not only as a horror novelist but as a nightclub bouncer in Manchester, as a movie / TV actor and extra and as a composer – one of his country-and-western compositions ended up, briefly, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).

 

Twemlow had his pike cruising the waters of Lake Windermere in Cumbria and at one point during the 1980s it looked like the novel was going to be made into a film, with Joan Collins as the star.  I have to say that my resentment about Twemlow getting his pike story into print before I did was lessened by the tantalising prospect of seeing a giant hungry pike take a few bites at the diva-esque Ms Collins.  A 12-foot-long robotic pike was actually built for the project and Joan Collins posed with it in some pre-production publicity photos.  (Cue cruel jokes like “The pike is the one on the left”, or “A terrifying monster – and a pike.”)  But ultimately, alas, this cinematic Pike never came to fruition.

 

https://horrorpedia.com/2014/04/08/the-pike-novel-and-unfinished-feature-film/

http://io9.gizmodo.com/joan-collins-nearly-starred-in-this-movie-about-a-kille-1744451146

 

From io9.gizmodo.com 

 

When I was older and more sensible, it dawned on me that the monster pike in the story didn’t have to be a physical entity.  Hughes’ image of a fanged, grinning and primordially hideous face lurking in the mud, rotted leaves and darkness below the surface of a pool could easily be a metaphor for all the horrible things that lurk deep in the human psyche.  So I began to envision The Malevolent Aged Grin as a psychological horror story.  But I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into a plot.

 

Then a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the pike supernatural.  It’s an evil, water-dwelling spirit that takes possession of someone when he falls into a pool during a fishing trip.  But still I had to determine where this evil spirit came from, what it was doing there and what it planned to do once it’d possessed its victim.  Gradually, though, I got inspiration from different sources – for example, a quote by William S. Burroughs about how magicians summon up and use demons like mafia dons hiring hitmen; and a story about two feuding magicians in a collection of Sri Lankan horror tales called Water in my Grave (2013).  And I managed to put together a back-story for the pike, or evil spirit as it was now.

 

After I’d written The Malevolent Aged Grin, submitted it and had it accepted for publication by The Horror Zine’s editor, Jeani Rector, my travails weren’t over yet.  I was asked to make revisions.  In the original version, the pike’s back-story is explained when the main character uses the Internet and visits www.themodernantiquarian.com, a website chronicling sites of ancient, mythological and folkloric interest in the British Isles, which in real life was set up by the rock musician and author Julian Cope.  Jeani suggested that I scrap this and have one of the secondary characters recount the back-story as a supposed local legend.  Changing this helped, in that it gave the secondary character much more of a presence (and a function) than he had in the original.  Probably it was also a good thing that I dropped several references I’d made to the Harry Potter stories.  With hindsight, I was being too ironic for my own good.

 

© Jeani Rector / The Horror Zine

 

The anthology containing The Malevolent Aged Grin, three-and-a-half decades in the making, is available at the link below.  I’d like to conclude with a joke about the story being a big fish in a small pool, but it’s a big anthology with a lot of stories.  And they’re all really good.

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Horror-Zine-Magazine-Fall-2016-ebook/dp/B01JKUM6X4

 

Sri Lankan horror

 

(c) Chandrika Gadiewasam & Nadeesha Paulis 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis – who, by the way, also helps out with a Sri Lankan dog-adoption agency that had, by late 2013, found homes for about 700 stray canines – fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend.  These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses – “If you’re a woman,” notes Paulis, “you’re safe.  But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you…  She just doesn’t like men.”

 

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