Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien Thing is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted and splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable, and believable, is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects were used during the prequel’s shooting, studio executives later lost their nerve, decided 2011 audiences couldn’t handle an absence of CGI and had the wretched stuff superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.

 

Anyway, today – June 25th – is exactly 40 years since Carpenter’s The Thing was first released in cinemas.  Which, as well as making me feel bloody ancient, makes we want to post something about it on this blog.  But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he, rather than Nyby, shot much of the film.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was well-known for his admiration of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So, when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982.  For although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  I seem to remember, for instance, the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2022, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady (in the film spelt ‘MacReady’), Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero McReady is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played in the film by Kurt Russell.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation, who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley.

 

© Barnes & Noble

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also, where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose conveys the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, thanks to its dire writing, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

Still, the story provides the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  However, while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing, which makes his enactment of the scene much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi.  At times the film is hazy about just what the humans are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, that hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own and everyone else’s safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  We get a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but there’s little explanation why and nothing about his place of incarceration being an equipment storeroom.  I was left with the impression that Blair for some reason had managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes, if that’s the word, of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words.  Comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© Shasta Publishers

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 keeps it in the family

 

© Horla Magazine

 

A new short story of mine, Problem Family, is now available to read online at Horla Magazine.  As it’s a horror story, it’s attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write macabre fiction.

 

The main inspiration for Problem Family was a real-life incident that happened to me in Colombo a couple of years ago, when I was living in a different apartment building from the one I live in today.  An extremely noisy family lived in an apartment on the floor below mine.  For some reason – the building’s acoustics, the way the stairwell was positioned – the noise they generated seemed to flow straight up to my front door.  Indeed, it sometimes seemed like the loud melodramas they were enacting were taking place right on the other side of my door.   One evening, I heard adult male and female voices screaming at each other and became convinced that, if this went on for much longer, the woman was going to be assaulted.  So, reluctantly, I ventured downstairs, ostensibly to tell them to shut up, but really to find out if I needed to report something to the police.  Thankfully, the situation proved to be non-violent – and at my appearance, the pair of them did shut up.

 

© SpectreVision / RLJE Films

 

Also, in part and completely differently, Problem Family was inspired by the famous 1927 sci-fi / horror story The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft.  This is an account what happens after a meteorite strikes a remote area of Massachusetts.  A nearby farming family begin to succumb to what initially seems to be a weird, creeping, expanding poison but is actually a grotesque alien lifeform exuding an indescribable colour – it was ‘only by analogy that they called it a colour at all’.  The Colour Out of Space has been filmed several times, starting with a rather duff version starring Boris Karloff and directed by Daniel Haller in 1965, and most recently in 2019 with a phantasmagorical version courtesy of director Richard Stanley.  The 2019 film is slightly too reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), but benefits from a striking colour palette – it’s difficult to depict unknown alien colours on celluloid, so Stanley settles for making everything a garish purple – and from Nicholas Cage in the lead role, doing the sort of acting things that only Nicholas Cage is capable of doing.

 

You can also hear The Colour Out of Space being read aloud on this video from the BBC’s ‘interactive culture magazine’ Collective.  Brilliantly, the reader is none other than the late, great Mark E. Smith, vocalist with and guiding light of abrasive post-punk / alternative rock band the Fall.  The sound of Smith’s thick Mancunian accent and the Massachusetts accents of Lovecraft’s characters battling for supremacy is something else.  I have to say, though, that the bit at the beginning where Smith sticks out and wiggles his tongue is as terrifying as anything in the story itself.

 

Fittingly for a magazine that takes its name from The Horla, the classic 1887 story by Guy De Maupassant, Horla describes itself as ‘the home of intelligent horror’.  Its main page, which gives access to a bevy of cracking stories, can be reached here.  Meanwhile, Problem Family itself can, for now, be read here.

 

© Librairie Ollendorff

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2021

 

From unsplash.com / © Nicola Gambetti

 

It’s Halloween today and as usual I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by displaying ten of the most interesting pieces of macabre art I’ve come across in the past year.

 

And what better way to start than with this illustration by the Italian-born, American-reared artist Joseph Mugnaini for Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree?  Never having read that novel, I don’t know what the winged, cadaverous, hooked-nosed figure represents, but he makes an elegant and cosmically weird image.

 

© Yearling Books / From monsterbrains.blogspot.com 

 

In these art-themed Halloween posts I usually include something featuring skeletons, as a nod to the festival that comes immediately after Halloween – Mexico’s skeleton-obsessed Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, at the start of November.  This year’s skeletal number is by Vincent Van Gogh, no less.  Known as Skeleton with a Lit Cigarette in its Mouth, it now resides in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.  The museum’s website describes it as “a juvenile joke”, painted by Van Gogh “in early 1886, while studying at the art academy in Antwerp…  Drawing skeletons was a standard exercise at the academy, but painting them was not part of the curriculum.  He must have made this painting at some other time, between or after his lessons.”  I find the painting discombobulating, not just because of the cigarette or, indeed, the revelation that Van Gogh, associated with intensity and misery in most people’s minds, actually had a sense of humour.  No, it’s more that the skeleton is such a complex assemblage, of corners, ridges, crenels, shelves and slats.  It’s almost machine-like – slightly reminiscent of the lethal, metal endoskeleton that pops up at the climax of The Terminator (1982).

 

From vangoghmuseum.nl/en

 

Going further back in time, I have to say I love this depiction of a devil, which occupies the front side of the right-hand panel in the triptych Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation.  It was painted in the 1480s by the German-born, Bruges-based artist Hans Memling and is now on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg.  It’s the merriment with which the little fellow is dancing, on top of those sinners suffering in eternal hellfire, that gets me.  Why, he’s practically riverdancing.

 

From musees.strasbourg.eu

 

Now for a devil from a different culture and different part of the world.  This bloated, pustular apparition is what’s known as a ta-awi, a Philippine ogre / demon.  I happened across it on Cryptid Wiki, which describes the beast as “a large hideous humanoid from Philippine mythology.”  It “raids villages and devours people alive, but doesn’t eat their eyeballs because it can’t digest them for some reason.”  All I can determine about the artist is that his name is Isaiah Paul and he has a page on deviantart.com here.

 

© Isaiah Paul

 

Less in-your-face and more ambiguous – the figure depicted may not even be supernatural, but just an odd person who likes to immerse herself among water lilies – is this painting, which I believe is called Hidden Things and is by modern-day Welsh artist Kim Myatt.  In fact, I’d say it evokes the subtle strangeness of the fiction of Robert Aickman.

 

© Kim Myatt

 

In 1980, when I was both a spotty adolescent and an aspiring writer, the first stories I ever submitted were to a handsome little magazine called Fantasy Tales. (The stories weren’t accepted, but the editors were kind enough to write back and offer me advice like “When you’re typing, try leaving a space after commas and full stops,” or “It’s probably not a good idea to have six single-sentence paragraphs in a row.”)  What made Fantasy Tales so visually appealing was that it featured the artwork of Lancastrian Jim Pitts, whose exquisitely detailed and atmospheric illustrations, often in black-and-white, recalled the great artists of the 1930s and 1940s pulp-fiction magazines such as Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok. Here’s a gothic and vampirical item that Pitts did for issue four of the magazine Dark Horizons.

 

© Jim Pitts

 

Another English illustrator I remember fondly from my youth is Les Edwards, whose work adorned the covers of paperbacks like Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone (1975) and Robert Holdstock’s novelisation of the movie Legend of the Werewolf (1975).  I like Edwards’ work for being unpretentious and upfront – you certainly knew what sort of book you were getting when you saw his art on the cover – but also for its precision and colour.  This piece is called The Shade and achieves a chill despite its graveyard scene being pictured in daylight.  There’s a suggestion of mist creeping ominously in from the distant trees and the stone angel in the foreground adds to the discomfort.

 

© Les Edwards

 

A third illustrator whose work was familiar to me in my teenage years was the American science fiction and fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, who sadly died in February this year.  Morrill blazed a trail as a rare thing in 1970s paperback illustration – a woman.  Her work graced the covers of the first collections of stories by H.P. Lovecraft that I managed to lay my hands on, The Dunwich Horror (1978) and The Colour Out of Space (1978).  Her depictions of Lovecraft’s ‘Elder Gods’ as amalgamations of bits of wildly-different creatures may not be how most people imagine Cthulhu and company nowadays, i.e., with lots of tentacles, but they’re grotesquely and baroquely weird.  Here’s the picture that adorned The Dunwich Horror.

 

© Jove / HBJ Books

 

I’ve seen the Czech artist Jindra Capek described online as a ‘children’s book illustrator’.  Hmm.  I don’t know if the following picture, showing a hungry ghoul-type creature (though one civilised enough to be wearing what looks like a pair of boxer shorts) taking a bite out of a newly-dug-up corpse, is what you’d expect to see in the pages of a children’s book.  Come to think of it, though, my ten-year-old self would have been delighted by it.

 

© Jindra Capek

 

One sort of image I’ve always found unsettling is that of an insect, or general creepy-crawly, sporting the facial features of a human being.  I’m thinking of David Hedison in The Fly (1958), playing a hapless scientist whose experiments with teleportation go astray and end up grafting his head onto the bug of the title; or the scuttling, insectoid, human-faced aliens in The Zanti Misfits, the famous 1963 episode of the TV anthology show The Outer Limits.  Needless to say, I find this item disturbing.  It’s by the Belgian artist Henri Lievens, who in his lifetime created the covers for more than 200 books.  Entitled L’Araignee, its lady-faced spider is icky-looking but also, with those large doe eyes, worryingly fetching.  The lurid blue and black palette heightens its effect.

 

From unquietthings.com

 

And that’s it for another year.  Happy Halloween!

Horror before it got panned

 

© Pan Books

 

One more horror-themed reposting just before Halloween…

 

Michael Gove, well-known cokehead, Aberdonian nightclub boogie-king and England’s Education Minister from 2010 to 2014, would be disappointed in me.  When I was a lad, my usual reading material was not the likes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which in 2013 Gove famously said he wanted to see the nation’s youth reading.

 

Rather, when I was 11, 12 or 13, I commonly had my nose stuck in works by such authors as Sven Hassel, James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, meaning that I didn’t become conversant in the effects of the Great Reform Act of 1832 or in the gradual diminution of the ideals of Dorothea Brooke, which Eliot wrote about in her 1871-1872 masterpiece.  I did, however, end up learning a lot about German Panzer divisions wreaking bloody havoc on the Russian front during World War II, about chemical weapons leaking out of military laboratories in the form of thick swirling fogs and driving all who come in contact with them murderously insane, and about giant mutant crabs going on the rampage and eating people.  Knowing such things prepared me a lot for adult life.

 

I also spent a lot of time reading, in the form of tatty paperbacks that in the school playground and on the school bus were constantly borrowed, read, returned, borrowed again and read again, a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories.  The first of this series had been published in 1959, under the editorship of the strikingly named Herbert Van Thal, a literary agent, publisher and author whom the critic John Agate had once likened to ‘a sleek, well-groomed dormouse’.  The first few volumes of horror stories that Van Thal edited for Pan Books consisted largely of classical stories from well-known horror writers and more ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) writers who’d dabbled in the genre; and their quality was generally held to be high.

 

By the late 1960s, however, Van Thal was filling each new compilation with more and more stories from new writers, many of whom were taking advantage of a more permissive era to see what they could get away with in terms of violence, gore and general unpleasantness.  Serious horror writers and fans became quite sniffy about the books.  Ramsey Campbell, Britain’s most acclaimed living horror writer, has said: “I did like the first one when I was 13 years old, but I thought the series became increasingly illiterate and disgusting and meritless.”

 

When my schoolmates and I started reading them in the 1970s, the latest editions of The Pan Book of Horror Stories were low in literary quality but high in disgusting-ness, which suited our jaded, beastly little minds fine.  I’m still psychologically scarred by Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher in the ninth collection, which was about a psychopath who decides to write a manual for aspiring horror writers, instructing them in what dismemberment, disembowelment and various acts of torture really look and sound like.  To this end, he kidnaps a horror writer and starts dismembering, disembowelling and torturing him whilst recording everything with a camera and tape recorder.  Anyone who thinks that the horror sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’ began with Eli Roth’s movie Hostel in 2005 ought to check out Graham’s grubby epic from a few decades earlier.

 

© Pan Books

 

To be fair, the later Pan collections did feature then-up-and-coming, now-well-regarded writers like Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler and, ahem, Ian McEwan.  However, by the 1980s (and after Van Thal’s death), the series was clearly on its last legs.  It resorted to ransacking Stephen King’s famous anthology Nightshift (1978) and reprinting stories like The Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man.  This was unwise, since anybody inclined to read the Pan horror series had probably read Nightshift already.  The final volume, the thirtieth, had a very limited print run and if you ever lay your hands on a copy, it’s probably worth a lot as a collector’s item.

 

A while ago in a second-hand bookshop I discovered a copy of The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.  This, alas, was unlikely to be sought by book collectors, since the copy looked like something had chewed, swallowed, partly-digested and regurgitated it.  At least it was still readable, so I got a chance to sample the original instalment in this famous, or infamous, series.  I was curious to know if it deserved the praise Ramsey Campbell had given it and also to see how different it was from the more disreputable stuff that came later.

 

My first impression was that the stories in this collection weren’t how I’d have organised them.  I’ve heard writers whose works were printed in the later Pan books grumble about Van Thal’s abilities as an editor, and it’s hard to see why stories as similar as Hester Holland’s The Library and Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door (both about hapless young women who are hired as private secretaries by older, plainly-batty women and who meet gruesome fates), or Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands and George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl (both about exotic, grotesque revenges and tortures inflicted by East Asian people – at least one of them struck me as racist) should end up in the same book.  In fact, Eliot’s story follows immediately after Cook’s, thanks to Van Thal’s strange policy of arranging the stories by the alphabetical order of their authors’ surnames.

 

I also noticed how stories I’d read elsewhere and greatly enjoyed in my youth now, sadly, seem a bit duff.  I loved Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum when I read it as a 13-year-old.  Heald, incidentally, wrote it under the tutelage of H.P. Lovecraft, whose influence is obvious in the ornate prose-style.  However, a modern rereading suggests that Heald (and Lovecraft) could’ve cut the story’s length by about 20 pages without losing any of its plot points.

 

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, another tale I had fond memories of, seems much poorer now thanks to one of its characters being an American tourist called Elias P. Hutchinson.  If Hutchinson was what Stoker believed all Americans sounded like, spewing toe-curling things like ‘I du declare’ and ‘I say, ma’am’ and ‘this ole galloot’ and ‘durned critter’, I can only say that Stoker needed to go out and do some research.  Still, despite some glaringly obvious failings, both The Horror in the Museum and The Squaw benefit from having cracking denouements.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

The Horror in the Museum is one of the few stories in the collection that contains a monster.  (And what a monster it is: “globular torso… bubble-like suggestion of a head… three fishy eyes… foot-long proboscis… bulging gills… monstrous capillation of asp-like suckers… six sinuous limbs with their black paws and crab-like claws…”).  Apart from The Kill by Colonel Peter Fleming, a werewolf story penned by none other than Ian Fleming’s older brother, the rest of the stories are fairly monster-free, depending on psychological terrors for their impact.  Indeed, C.S. Forester’s The Physiology of Fear is a horror story in an unusually literal sense.  It deals with a particularly horrific episode in human history, the Nazi concentration camps.  It also features a German scientist engaged in research, with the Third Reich’s support and with prisoners from the camps as his guinea pigs, into the emotion of horror as it arises in the human psyche.  And the story’s ending isn’t conventionally horrific.  Instead, the scientist is ensnared in an ironic and satisfying twist worthy of Roald Dahl.

 

Also not a horror story in any conventional sense is Muriel Spark’s The Portobello Road.  It qualifies as a ghost story, but most of all it’s a mediation on the nature of friendship as it survives, or doesn’t survive, from childhood into adulthood.  This being Spark – whose most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, was simultaneously a prim middle-class Edinburgh schoolmistress and a fascist – the story has a bitter, vinegary flavour.  None of its characters are particularly pleasant and none seem to deserve long-term friendship.  In fact, the one character who tries to keep those friendships alive is the one who, ultimately, commits the story’s single, shocking act of violence.

 

Meanwhile, I reacted to the sight of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket as if an old friend had suddenly hoven into view.  Not that I’d encountered this particular story before, but it conjured up fond memories of American writers like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell and Charles Beaumont, who in the 1950s seemed to keep their rents paid by pumping out short stories for the likes of Playboy magazine and TV scripts for the likes of The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960-62).  In admirably direct and diamond-hard prose, their tales would detail the world turning suddenly and inexplicably weird for citizens of conformist post-war America, for both dutiful suburban wives in nipped-in-at-the-waist housedresses and office-bound men in grey-flannel suits.

 

From fictionunbound.com

 

Finney, most famous as the author of the sci-fi horror novel The Body Snatchers (1955), which has been filmed four times and shows conformity taken to a nightmarish extreme, starts his story thus: “At the little living room table Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.”  A half-dozen pages later, events have lured Benecke away from his portable typewriter and embroiled him in a vertiginous life-or-death struggle just outside his apartment window.  It calls to mind the Stephen King short story The Ledge, another one that appeared in his collection Nightshift.  I doubt if the similarity between the two stories is a coincidence, King being a big admirer of work from this era of American story-telling.

 

Also deserving mention are Oh Mirror, Mirror, a claustrophobic item penned by the great Nigel Kneale; Raspberry Jam, Angus Wilson’s poisonous take on the snobbery of old people who no longer have anything to be snobbish about; and Serenade for Baboons, a colonial horror by Noel Langley.

 

Inevitably, a couple of clunkers find their way into the book too.  Anthony Vercoe’s Flies wouldn’t be such a bad story if the writer hadn’t swamped his prose with exclamation marks.  I can’t remember encountering so many of the damned things in ten pages of prose before and the result is almost unreadable.  Meanwhile, The House of Horror is one of a series of short stories that American pulp writer Seabury Quinn wrote about a psychic investigator called Jules de Grandin.  De Grandin is French and seemingly meant to be a supernatural version of Hercule Poirot (who, I know, was actually Belgian).  Unfortunately, Quinn gives him a patois that is as cringe-inducing as Elias P. Hutchinson’s Americanisms in The Squaw: “Sang du diable…!  Behold what is there, my friend…  Parbleu, he was caduo – mad as a hatter, this one, or I am much mistaken!”

 

On the whole, though, I found The First Pan Book of Horror Stories a rewarding read.  I now look forward to tracking down the other, earlier instalments in the series – those ones that came out before Herbert Van Thal decided to crank up the levels of nasty, schlocky stuff, in order to satisfy the blood-crazed savages amongst his reading public.

 

Blood-crazed savages such as my twelve-year-old self…

 

© Pan Books

21st century metal

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Such has been the fanfare recently over the return of Swedish 1970s pop darlings Abba, with a new ten-song album and a supposed ‘virtual concert’ where ‘digital avatars’ will perform in the shoes of the band’s now somewhat long-in-the-tooth members, that I’ve wondered if I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t actually like Abba.

 

Okay, ‘doesn’t like’ is a bit strong.  A more accurate verb-phrase would be ‘is totally indifferent to’.

 

There are a couple of Abba songs that get me tapping my foot in a vague, mindless way, like Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! or Money, Money, Money (both 1979) or the song with which they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Waterloo – which, come to think of it, was an appropriation of the breezy, sax-laden sound of Roy Wood’s glam-rock band Wizzard.  But unlike, say, the entire population of Australia, a country that’s given us such Abba-obsessed cultural phenomena as the cover band Bjorn Again and the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding (both 1994), I don’t worship the ground that the shiny, 1970s, high-heeled boots of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Bjorn have walked on.

 

However, while the planet’s airwaves turn into the equivalent of the soundtrack of Mamma Mia! (2008), though thankfully without the pained, raspy sound of Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing, I will seek solace in the one type of music that truly matters… heavy metal.

 

Here’s a quick guide to the heavy metal bands, all of whom have become prominent since the beginning of the new millennium, that I’ve been listening to lately.

 

Al-Namrood

As this 2015 feature in the magazine Vice noted, “Al-Namrood have never played a live show, because it could result in the entire band being executed.”  That’s because the band Al-Namrood (a) play black metal and (b) are Saudi Arabian, two concepts that go together about as harmoniously as serpents and mongooses. According to their guitarist and bassist Mephisto, who, like all the band’s members, has never revealed his real name for his own safety, “Al-Namrood is the Arabic name of the Babylonian king Nimrood, who was a mighty tyrannical king who ruled Babylon with blood and defied the ruler of the universe.”  Yes, those sound like pretty black metal things to do.  It’s a shame that the band has had to operate so far off the grid because the music by them I’ve heard, its growling vocals and relentlessly thunderous guitars and drums laced with delicious Arabic folk stylings, I’ve found irresistible.

 

Behemoth

Polish black metal and death metal band Behemoth are similarly unloved by their country’s political and religious establishment.  And though the repercussions obviously won’t be as serious as those risked by Al-Namrood in Saudi Arabia, Behemoth’s frontman Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski has recently been convicted of blasphemy and could face imprisonment in the increasingly authoritarian Poland of Andrzej Duda. Actually, politically, Nergal has proved to be a bit of a knobhead in the past and once gained notoriety for wearing a ‘black metal against Antifa’ T-shirt, so it’s ironic he’s become a martyr in the struggle against the forces of extreme, right-wing knobhead-dom.

 

Behemoth first caught my attention when I listened to their 2018 album I Loved You at Your Darkest, which begins with a choir of creepy children chanting, “I shall not forgive… Jesus Christ… I forgive thee not…”  Thereafter, the album is a brilliantly Wagnerian parade of tunes with such titles as God = Dog, Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica and If Crucifixion Was Not Enough.  Can’t imagine why those pious Polish politicians don’t like them.

 

© Earache Records

 

Cult of Luna

Proof that, musically, Sweden has considerably more to offer than just Abba, Swedish doom metal band Cult of Luna serve up tunes where big, booming slabs of guitar lumber ominously along, accompanied by hollering and shrieking vocals, creating a sound that suggests a world teetering on the brink of collapse while simultaneously being strangely exhilarating and even uplifting.  The earliest album of theirs I’ve heard is 2003’s The Beyond, the most recent one 2021’s The Raging River.  Though there’s evidence of development and exploration between the two, the basic template is reassuringly the same.

 

Electric Wizard

Hailing from County Dorset, England, the original members of Electric Wizard bonded in the 1990s over a shared love of horror films, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the music of legendary Brummie metal band Black Sabbath.  It was from the titles of two Sabbath songs, Electric Funeral and The Wizard (both 1970), that they devised their band’s name.  For me, they just seem to get better and better – from early albums like Dopethrone (2000) and Let Us Prey (2002) to their most recent opus, Wizard Bloody Wizard (2017), which contains the deliriously catchy track Necromania.

 

In fact, someone has stuck a fan video for Necromania on YouTube, its visuals stitched together from such lovable old horror-movie schlock-fests as The Dunwich Horror (1969), Le Frisson des Vampires (1971), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Baron Blood (1972), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). It captures the essence of Electric Wizard perfectly.

 

© Roadrunner

 

Gojira

Several bands have named themselves after Godzilla, Japan’s favourite, radioactive-breathed, city-destroying kaiju, including Godzilla in the Kitchen and Bongzilla.  In my opinion, the best of the bunch is the one using the giant reptile’s original Japanese moniker, Gojira.  This French death / progressive metal outfit combines shrieking vocals, wailing guitars and thunderous drums – courtesy of drummer Mario Duplantier, whose sound suggests the footfall of the giant lizard itself – with a surprising degree of melody.  Well, the melodiousness is perhaps not so surprising, giving that the bandmembers cite Led Zeppelin as a key influence.  The 2012 album L’Enfant Sauvage made me fall in love with Gojira, although their most recent one, Fortitude (2021), is pretty good too.

 

Melechesh

I first heard of the band Melechesh through the artist John Coulthart, whose blog I read regularly and who’s designed the covers for their albums, including 2015’s album Enki.  Soon afterwards, I saw Enki on sale in a record shop and bought it out of curiosity.  It’s a great album, its storming metallic sound embroidered with such eastern-Mediterranean and Middle Eastern instruments as the sitar, bouzouki, saz and bendir.  Melechesh, it transpires, are the propagators of ‘Mesopotamian metal’ which, according to their Wikipedia entry, aims to “create a type of black metal incorporating extensive Middle Eastern influences mainly based on Assyrian and occult themes.”  They formed in Jerusalem in 1993 but later relocated to Europe.  In the mid-1990s, the city authorities in Jerusalem accused them of ‘dark cult activities’, which probably didn’t encourage them to hang around in Israel.

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Orchid

One afternoon I was in the FOPP record shop on Edinburgh’s Rose Street and the guy behind the counter decided to play a heavy metal album over the store’s PA system.  “What’s this?” I demanded, intoxicated by the album’s old-school sound – although as this was Rose Street, I may have been slightly intoxicated already. “It’s The Mouths of Madness,” he replied, “by Orchid!”  Then he produced another copy of the album, recorded in 2013, which I bought on the spot.  I would have remarked: “ORCHID – obviously stands for OZZY Osbourne / RAINBOW / the CULT / Rob HALFORD / IRON Maiden / Ronnie James DIO!”  But I wasn’t able to think that fast.

 

As I’ve suggested, San Francisco metallers Orchid wear their influences on their sleeves, but especially the influence of Black Sabbath.  Now while Black Sabbath, with their doomy sound and the occult preoccupations of their song-titles and lyrics, have been a huge influence on heavy metal generally, later bands have taken that sound and those preoccupations and made them more extreme and exaggerated. But Orchid are reminiscent of Black Sabbath as they were, in a purer, simpler form. I don’t mean that they copy the original band’s songs. Orchid sound like Black Sabbath in their early 1970s prime, if they ‘d existed in a parallel universe where they’d been able to churn out a few extra albums. Similar riffs, but not the same riffs.

 

© Sinister Figure

 

Reverend Bizarre

As far as I can tell, quaintly-named doom-metal outfit Reverend Bizarre are the only band on this list who no longer exist. They disbanded in 2007, having produced three albums during the noughties.  I own two of those, the excellent In the Rectory of the Reverend Bizarre (2002) and II: Crush the Insects (2005).  Sounding like  a sludgier, more primordial version of Electric Wizard, this Finnish band was notable for, among other things, its vocalist, the also quaintly-named Albert Witchfinder.  He eschewed modish doom-metal growling and shrieking and mainly just crooned forebodingly.

 

Wolves in the Throne Room

Their name may conjure up images of Game of Thrones, but Wolves in the Throne Room come from the relatively un-sword-and-sorcerous environs of Washington State in the northwestern USA.  One of their objectives (to quote Wikipedia again) is “channeling the ‘energies of the Pacific Northwest’s landscape’ into musical form.”  Thus, their song titles contain such words as ‘fields’, ‘fog’, ‘lightning’, ‘rain’, ‘rainbow’, ‘stars’, ‘storm’ and ‘woodland’ and their sound has been described as ‘atmospheric black metal’ or ‘ambient black metal’.  But there’s still enough ‘black metal’ present in Wolves in the Throne Room’s formula to prevent them sounding serene and bucolic.  I have three of their albums – 2006’s Diadem of 12 Stars, 2009’s Black Cascade and 2011’s Celestial Lineage – and think they’re all blisteringly brilliant.

 

Having finished writing this blog-entry, I now feel an urge to listen to the above nine bands’ albums again, at maximum volume.  I’ll probably be deaf afterwards, but at least then there’s no danger of me hearing the new Abba album.

 

© Southern Lord

Rab Foster gets theatrical

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

I’m pleased to announce that my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers has been published in the July 2021 edition of the webzine AphelionThe Theatregoers is a sword-and-sorcery story in, I hope, the tradition of such revered pulp writers as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C.L. Moore and, as usual with my fantasy fiction, I have published it under the pen-name Rab Foster.

 

On this blog I’m not normally presumptuous enough to offer other writers, or aspiring writers, advice on how they should go about creating stories.  On this occasion, though, I’ll suggest two strategies that helped me to put The Theatregoers together.

 

Firstly, when you have an idea for a story, get that idea written down as quickly as you can before it flits from your memory again.  (At my age, things flit from my memory with terrifying speed.)  I have a 17-page-long document on my computer hard drive containing more than 400 ideas I’ve had for stories over the years and I’m constantly adding to it.

 

Admittedly, many of those ideas will probably never see the light of day as stories and, to be honest, looking at some of the ideas I wrote down long ago thinking they were bolts of divine genius, I don’t think the world will be missing anything if they don’t.  I doubt if anyone really wants to read a story about the notoriously bad Dundonian poet William McGonagall building a time machine in order to travel back in time to prevent the Tay Bridge Disaster from happening; or about a Sri Lankan tuk-tuk driver who’s secretly a superhero; or about ‘a fashion show for serial killers’, where the dresses have been fashioned out of…  Well, you can probably guess what they’re made of.

 

The other writing strategy I’d suggest is to keep reviewing your list of ideas and particularly think about how two or more ideas can be incorporated into one story.  In other words, don’t see each idea as a single seed from which a single story is grown.  Many times, I’ve had an idea that’s looked good on paper but that has resolutely refused to develop into a story – until it’s occurred to me to try splicing it together with another, seemingly totally different idea elsewhere on the list.

 

In fact, with The Theatregoers, I ended up throwing no fewer than four disparate ideas from my 17-page list into the creative blender.  I’d always wanted to write: (1) a story set in an abandoned city out in the middle of some inhospitable desert (similar to the setting of the 1921 H.P. Lovecraft story The Nameless City); (2) a story set in a theatre, where the characters would have adventures falling through trapdoors, scrabbling down stage curtains, flying about on wires above the stage, running through storerooms full of assorted props, and so on; (3) a story about vampire-like creatures that don’t drain their victims of blood but of moisture; and (4) a story about a tattooed person whose tattoos aren’t as inanimate as you’d expect, reminiscent of the title character in the classic Ray Bradbury collection The Illustrated Man (1951).  Somehow, I came up with a single, hopefully coherent narrative.

 

© Panther Books

 

For the next few weeks, the main page of the July 2021 edition of Aphelion can be accessed here, while The Theatregoers itself can be accessed here.

Manly stuff

 

© Paizo Inc

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From wikipedia.org / Wonder Stories

The uncanny May Sinclair

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Halloween is just ten days away.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d repost some old entries about my favourite writers of spooky stories.  I’ll begin with the impeccable May Sinclair, about whom I wrote this piece back in 2014.

 

I’ve just spent a few days reading Uncanny Stories, a collection of supernatural short stories by May Sinclair, a writer, poetess, literary critic and feminist who lived from 1863 to 1946.  During her life, Sinclair was also a suffragette, a volunteer with an ambulance corps that helped wounded soldiers in Flanders during World War I and a member of the Society of Psychical Research.  She was also the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when describing the literary device made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Tragically, her literary career ended in the late 1920s, thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.  By the time of her death a decade-and-a-half later she’d been forgotten by the literary lights she’d once fraternised with, who included the poet Ezra Pound.

 

Uncanny Stories was first published in 1923, a time when the most famous writer of ghost stories in British literature, Montague Rhodes James, was still alive.  I’m a fan of M.R. James, but it annoys me when mainstream literary critics applaud James’s ghostly short stories for their ‘subtlety’ and ‘delicacy’ and ‘understatement’.  If, for example, you’ve read James’s story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad, whose climax sees a mysterious, primordial thing taking physical form in the linen of the spare bed in the hero’s hotel room, like a self-assembling mummy, you’ll know it isn’t that subtle, delicate or understated.  The story ends with an image that’s terrifyingly in-your-face.  Much of the time, James doesn’t imply his supernatural terrors, as those critics claim he does.  He shows them.

 

However, if you want proper subtlety, delicacy and understatment in your ghost stories, you should read the examples of the genre that May Sinclair pens in this collection.

 

There are ghosts in many of the tales in Uncanny Stories, but usually those ghosts serve to cast light on the psychology of the tales’ living protagonists.   In The Token, the ghost is of a gentle, devoted woman who manifests herself only for as long as it takes her repressed, uptight husband to admit to something he never admitted while she was alive – that he loved her.  Amusingly, Sinclair blames the husband’s problems on his Scottishness.  He “suffers from being Scottish, so that if he has a feeling, he makes it a point of honour to pretend that he hasn’t it.”

 

A dead wife also figures in The Nature of the Evidence, wherein the widowed husband – “one of those bigoted materialists of the nineteenth-century type who believe that consciousness is a purely physiological function, and that when you’re dead, you’re dead” – remarries, not out of love but because he cold-bloodedly recognises his own sexual needs and resolves to satisfy them: “It’s a physical necessity…  I shan’t marry the sort of woman who’ll expect anything more.”  Needless to say, when the ghost of his first wife inconveniently manifests herself, Marston’s rationalism, and his second marriage, take an unexpected hit.

 

In If the Dead Knew the supernatural and psychological tension revolves around a mother-son relationship rather than a husband-wife one.  Meanwhile, The Victim seems for much of its length to be a more traditional story wherein a servant murders his master and then becomes increasingly tormented by the murdered man’s spectre.  But while the ghost in a conventional story would be out for revenge, the ghost here has more complex motives, as are revealed in the story’s unexpected denouement.

 

The Intercessor is the final and most impressive story in the collection, recounting a haunting by a child’s ghost that, gradually, leads the narrator to understand the emotional circumstances of the child’s still-living parents.  The story’s intensity and the unforgiving wildness of its setting – the parents live beyond a field where “(a) wild plum tree stood half-naked on a hillock and pointed at the house”, and the house itself has “a bald gable-end pitched among the ash trees.  It was black grey, like ash bark drenched with rain” – are worthy of Emily Bronte.

 

Not all these tales are about ghosts.  Where their Fire is not Quenched and The Finding of the Absolute both speculate on what the after-life might be like.  In one story the after-life is an idealistic one and in the other it’s positively hideous.  The Flaw in the Crystal is about a female telepath who quietly uses her powers to cure other people of depression and instability.  She’s horrified to discover that the suicidal madness of one of her ‘patients’ is leaking into her own mind and threatening to infect those other people she’s psychically linked with.  The Flaw in the Crystal is the story I found hardest to get through, mainly because of its length.  It’s 50 pages long but could’ve had the same impact with 20 pages less.  Nonetheless, it contains some excellent writing and the scene where the madness begins to corrupt the heroine’s perceptions of the world around her is worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.  The standard of the prose is considerably higher than Lovecraft’s, though.

 

A sad fact of life – and death – is that when people die, they usually leave unfinished business with those around them.  The supernatural aspects of the stories here allow their protagonists, living and dead, a second chance to resolve their business with one another.  Subtle rather than frightening, and not hell-bent on wreaking revenge, the worst that can be said about May Sinclair’s phantoms is that they’re unnerving in their determination to sort things out.

 

From wikipedia.org