My 2021 writing round-up

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

On this blog one year ago, I remember writing a post that bid an unfond adieu to the outgoing hellhole plague-year of 2020.  However, the post also welcomed 2021 with some expressions of mild optimism.  After all, vaccines were being developed against Covid-19, the main reason for 2020’s hideousness.  And that man-slug of evil, Donald Trump, had just been defeated in the US presidential election.

 

Well, I’m not making that mistake again.  I’m not expressing even faint optimism about 2022, seeing as 2021 was nearly as dire as its predecessor.

 

While the vaccines arrived – and having been double-jabbed and boosted courtesy of Sri Lanka’s healthcare system, I’m feeling a lot safer personally – it’s depressing that much of the world’s population remains unvaccinated.  Economics and politics have denied many people access to vaccines in the Global South.  Gordon Brown isn’t someone I normally agree with, but he’s absolutely right when he argues that the estimated 23.4 billion dollars it’d cost to roll out vaccines to everyone would be a wise investment for the world’s rich countries.  (It’s also a fraction of what’s been spent on certain recent wars.)   Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers continue to boggle the mind with their stupidity.  It takes unfathomable levels of dumbness to believe that getting a vaccine means having Bill Gates seed your body with micro-transmitters.  As a result, for years to come, unvaccinated humans will provide a giant petri dish for new Covid variants to mutate and develop.

 

As for the USA, it looks increasingly likely that the Republican Party, with Trump quite possibly at its head again, will be back in control of the White House in 2024.  They won’t win the popular vote, but the voter suppression, voting-law changes and replacement of election officials they’re currently enacting by stealth in the crucial ‘swing’ states will get them over the line.  At which point, the world’s most powerful nation will become a totalitarian state.

 

Anyway, enough of the gloom.  For me, 2021 wasn’t a disappointment in one respect, at least.  During the year I got a fair number of stories published, under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (used for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (used for my fantasy fiction).  There follows a round-up of those stories, with information about where you can find them.

 

© DBND Publishing

 

As Jim Mountfield:

  • In January 2021, my story Where the Little Boy Drowned was published in Horrified Magazine. A ghost story (with a smidgeon of J-Horror), it was about a flooded river, a forgotten childhood tragedy and – appropriately for January – a New Year resolution that goes wrong. It can be read here.
  • February saw The Stables – another ghost story, this time about three girls on holiday in the countryside who enter a seemingly deserted farmstead searching for a riding school – appear in Volume 16, Issue 13 of Schlock! Webzine. Kindle and paperback versions of the issue are available here.
  • Later in February, When the Land Gets Hold of You, another story set on a farm, was featured in an anthology from DBND Publishing called The Cryptid Chronicles. As its title suggests, the stories in this collection concerned cryptids, that pseudoscientific category of animals that some people claim to exist but nobody has ever conclusively proven to exist, such as Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil and Nessie.  The cryptids in my story were based on redcaps, the malevolent fairies that legends say inhabit the peel towers of Scotland’s Borders region.  The Cryptid Chronicles can be bought here.
  • Shotgun Honey, a webzine devoted to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’, published my story Karaoke in March 2021. The story is about – surprise! – karaoke and it can be read here.
  • In July, I was pleased to have my story Ballyshannon Junction included in the collection Railroad Tales, from Midnight Street Press. The stories in Railroad Tales involved both ‘railroads, trains, stations, junctions and crossings’ and the ‘horrific, supernatural or extraordinary’.  Ballyshannon Junction met this brief by being set in an abandoned railway station in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and featuring a main character who’s plagued by possibly supernatural visions.  It also allowed me to use as inspiration the real-life Bundoran Junction station-house and grounds in County Tyrone, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid.  Railroad Tales can be purchased from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.
  • A story inspired by a very different period in my life – when I worked in Libya – appeared in Volume 16, Issue 21 of Schlock! Webzine in October. The story was called The Encroaching Sand and the issue is available in kindle and paperback forms here.
  • Also in October, my story Bottled Up was included in the anthology Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 2): Folk Horror, published by Horrified Magazine. Folk horror is defined by Wikipedia as “a subgenre of horror… which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience.  Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.”  Accordingly, Bottled Up was set in that rural and folkloric part of England, East Anglia, and featured the remnants of a cult that worship a pagan sea deity.  The anthology can be purchased here.
  • Finally, my story Problem Family – about, unsurprisingly, a problem family, but also with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft – appeared in Horla in December. Currently, it can be read here.

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

As Rab Foster:

  • In May, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn was published in Volume 16, Issue 16 of Schlock! Webzine. This tale attempted to subvert the more macho, musclebound, boneheaded conventions of that sweaty sub-genre of fantasy fiction, the sword-and-sorcery story.  For one thing, it was told from multiple viewpoints and, for another, it was written in the present tense.  Conan the Barbarian would not have approved.  Kindle and paperback versions of the issue can be obtained here.
  • In July, my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers appeared in the Long Fiction section of Aphelion. It can be accessed here.
  • October saw The Orchestra of Syrak, a story inspired by the phantasmagorical (if overly verbose) work of pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith, appear in the 116th issue of Swords and Sorcery Magazine.  You can read it here.
  • And in November, Parallel Universe Publications unveiled a collection entitled Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3, which included my story The Foliage.  An extremely handsome volume (thanks to its illustrations by the talented artist Jim Pitts), kindle and paperback copies of it can be ordered from Amazon UK here and amazon.com here.

 

© Aphelion

 

And that’s that – proof that 2021 wasn’t so bad for me writing-wise, even though it sucked on most other levels.

 

I shan’t tempt fate by making any optimistic predictions about 2022, but let’s just hope it turns out to be better than its two predecessors.  And yes – I’m touching a large wooden surface as I write this – a Happy New Year, everyone!

Jim Mountfield’s folky fortieth

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

My horror-writing alter-ego Jim Mountfield has just had a short story published in the new anthology Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 2): Folk Horror.

 

‘Horrified’ refers to Horrified Magazine, a webzine devoted to British films, television and literature in the horror genre.  The magazine’s current literary editor William J. Brown, its former literary editor John Clewarth and its editor-in-chief Jae Prowse have put this collection together.  Meanwhile ‘Folk Horror’ refers – quoting its entry in Wikipedia – to “a subgenre of horror… which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience.  Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.”  Or as Jae Prowse puts it more poetically in his introduction to the collection, it’s macabre storytelling with evocations “of briar and bramble, of the quiet eeriness of rurality, of secrets buried in the earth, and of the fiend in the furrows.”

 

According to my calculations, my story in Folk Horror is the 40th one I’ve had published under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield.  Entitled Bottled Up, it’s set in East Anglia, a place where I lived in 1998, again in 2002, and then again in 2008-2009, and a place that ranks as perhaps my favourite part of England.  While a lot of examples of folk horror have strange rural communities welcoming hapless outsiders into their ranks, for nefarious reasons – see Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) or Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) – Bottled Up is about an ancient sect that’s just fearful of outsiders and exists to keep them at bay, something that might resonate in the 2021 Britain of Brexit and Covid-19.

 

Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 2): Folk Horror is now available at the Horrified Magazine shop and can be ordered here.  Incidentally, the magazine’s previous collection, Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas is still available, contains another Jim Mountfield story called First Footers, and might be a timely purchase as Christmas 2021 approaches.

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2020

 

© Alex Barnard / From twitter.com

 

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

 

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

 

© Menton J. Matthews III

 

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

 

© Brentano’s

 

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

 

© Artem Demura

 

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

 

From Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

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

 

From the Kimbell Art Museum

 

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

 

From the Art Institute of Chicago

 

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

 

© Graham Humphreys

 

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

 

© Electric Lemon

 

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

 

© Ian MacCulloch

 

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

 

From the Wellcome Collection

 

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