Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

We’re into October now, a month that ends with the scary festival of Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought I would repost on this blog a few old entries that have a macabre, and hence Halloween-y, theme.  I’ll start with this item, which I originally wrote in 2017.  It’s about my favourite volumes of short horror stories: books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks. 

 

These are the ten collections of short horror stories that have had the biggest impact on me.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to collections written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that shows his love for the gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… showcases McGrath’s short fiction and features, among other things, a diseased angel (The Angel), a hand that starts growing out of an unexpected place (The Black Hand of the Raj), a community of anaemic vampires (Blood Disease) and, most surreally, a girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden (The Lost Explorer).  Particularly vivid is The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay told by a fly.  And an even less likely narrator relates the events of The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that manages to be both horrible and funny.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her greatest collection.  It provides adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his six Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such was their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – whilst likening himself to horror’s slightly old-fashioned Elvis Presley.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood a tad pretentious; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the demonic-haunting spoof The Yattering and Jack and the charming supernatural-theatre story Sex, Death and Starshine (no doubt drawing on Barker’s experiences running the Dog Company theatrical troupe in late 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer, gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues, the latter being one of my candidates for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely and frightened people whose everyday fears gradually and nightmarishly take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

I can’t not include Night Shift here.  In my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because the Scottish weather was doing its normal thing and pissing non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, a 1978 volume of Stephen King’s short stories, and to keep boredom at bay, I read that during the three days.  It made a big impression.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since, but the unpleasant things inhabiting the tales in Night Shift have stayed with me for 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous flesh-eating slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle, but it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a thirteen-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was basically God.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such pieces as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-grisly Skeleton, about a paranoid man who becomes convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and takes action to evict it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least.  His name was little-known and his work hard to come by in Britain.  Among many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable is the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who haplessly wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of doing nothing meaningful with your life and frittering it away; and the unsettling title story, about a man who phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself, or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s populated both with the archetypes of traditional gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and with the characters of another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood where decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best story here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  As its title suggests, Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening in the capital city of West Bengal.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her stories, often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, when the Presbyterian Church still had undue influence, are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Perhaps most disturbing is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a strange, unidentified little animal that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Haynes also tackles myth and legend.  Her very Scottish takes on such fabled creatures as banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling) are satisfyingly grim and creepy.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I will just say here that this, for me, is his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents, the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary, modernity-hating conservative.  However, everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room is a phantasmagorical story about a weird doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease about the loss of face-to-face interaction that new communications technology was causing – the story was written in 1953.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1982.  He’d have really hated our era of smartphones and social media.

 

© Faber & Faber

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

Plummer and Plummer

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

One of the least pleasant consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the argument, advanced mainly by right-wingers, that it’d be better for society to steam on without lockdown and its attendant economic damage because most people killed by the virus are elderly and will die soon anyway.  Old folks, in other words, are expendable.  I’m thinking of failed Australian ex-prime minister Tony Abbot, who opined that families should be allowed “to make elderly relatives as comfortable as possible while nature takes its course”; or Daily Telegraph columnist Jeremy Warner, who reflected that “Covid-19 might even provide mildly beneficial in the long run by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.

 

However, the notion that elderly people are merely past-their-sell-by-date sacks of meat, helplessly sitting around with nothing to do but wait for death, in viral or other forms, to arrive at their doors, was surely refuted by the example of the great Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

 

Plummer, who sadly bowed out last week at the age of 91, had been acting since the 1950s and had been on my movie radar since I was a kid in the 1970s.  But it wasn’t until well after he’d qualified for his free bus pass that he got the roles that earned him official recognition as acting royalty.  He received his first Oscar nomination when he was 80 years old, for a supporting role in Michael Hoffman’s 2009 film The Last Station.  Though he didn’t win that award, two years later at the Oscars he netted Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010).  And a half-dozen years afterwards, to prove he wasn’t yet over the hill, Plummer got another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017).

 

Indeed, just last year, I was delighted to see him play a tough but kind-hearted patriarch in Rian Johnson’s entertaining murder mystery Knives Out (2019).  In this, Plummer effortlessly held his own not only among a starry ensemble cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Chris Evans, but also against Daniel Craig’s scenery-shredding Southern accent.

 

So the acclaim heaped on the octogenarian Plummer, and his seeming ubiquity on the screen in the last decade, negate the idea that human beings are fit only for the scrapheap when they reach their allotted three-score-and-ten.  With hindsight, at the age of 70, Plummer’s best years were arguably still ahead of him.

 

That said, it’s for two films he made as a younger man, in the late 1970s, that I’ll particularly remember him.

 

© Carolco Pictures / EMC Film Corporation

 

Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978) is an excellent thriller, though one that’s strangely underrated.  I suspect mainstream critics neglected it because they felt uncomfortable with a couple of scenes of nasty violence in the film, which were included to show what a psychotic, misogynistic scumbag its villain is.  That villain is the criminal Harry Reikle, played by Plummer.  Reikle becomes a formidable opponent for – and, as the film progresses, the title’s sinister ‘silent partner’ to – the film’s hero, Miles Cullen, played by Elliot Gould, a mild-mannered teller working in the bank that Reikle has decided to rob.

 

Despite his violent disposition, Reikle is a criminal with an imagination.  He carries out one crime dressed in drag and another disguised as a shopping-mall Santa Claus.  However, he meets his match in Cullen, who uses Reikle’s botched robbing of his bank as an opportunity to fill his own pockets with supposedly ‘stolen’ money.  Reikle is unsurprisingly displeased at this and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues between them.

 

Besides being a bit nasty, The Silent Partner is suspenseful, twisty, ingenious and, thanks to its droll observations of the inanities, pettiness and officiousness its hero has to endure while working in the bank, very amusing.  You fully understand why the frustrated, put-upon Cullen wants to cheat his workplace out of a fortune and escape from it forever.  Plummer and Gould give the film its yin and yang, its enjoyable balance of tension and humour, shocks and laughs.  (On the laughter side, it’s also helped by the presence in a supporting role of a young John Candy, sporting an alarming 1970s side-parted hairdo.)

 

My other favourite Christopher Plummer performance came the following year when he donned the deerstalker for Bob Clark’s 1979 Sherlock Holmes epic Murder by Decree.  (Plummer had already played Holmes in a 1977 TV film called Silver Blaze).  Inspiring the film, which has Holmes investigating the real-life murder spree of Jack the Ripper, is Stephen Knight’s book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), which postulated that the killings were the result of a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the Royal Family.  The same theory informs Alan Moore’s celebrated graphic novel From Hell (1989-98) and its subsequent 2001 movie adaptation.

 

Murder by Decree is a classy movie with handsome production values and a big-name cast and Plummer essays a correspondingly classy and cultivated Sherlock Holmes.  Also deserving praise is James Mason as Doctor Watson.  Despite the disparity in their ages – Plummer was around 50 at the time, Mason around 70 – the pair make a delightful double-act.  They’re clearly bound by great affection and loyalty for one another, even if there are occasional moments of irritation and sulkiness, and they go about their business like a long-term and mostly loving married couple.  Incidentally, playing Inspector Lestrade in Murder by Decree is actor Frank Finlay, who had already played the same role in another movie where Sherlock Holmes encounters Jack the Ripper, 1965’s A Study in Terror.

 

© Dimension Films / New Art & Logic / Miramax Films

 

Plummer also appeared in a number of bad movies, of course, but like all great actors, he could feature in a godawful piece of guff and make it entertaining nonetheless.  He was, for example, very credible as the vampire hunter Van Helsing in Patrick Lussier’s Dracula 2000 (2000).  The fact that this particular movie has Gerard Butler playing Dracula tells you all you need to know about its quality.

 

Meanwhile, if you look between The Silent Partner and Murder by Decree in Plummer’s filmography, you’ll discover that he was in the less impressive Starcrash (1978).  This was an Italian Star Wars (1977) rip-off, of which the kindest thing that can be said is that the gap between what director-writer Luigi Cozzi imagined would be happening on the screen when he wrote the script, and what he could actually afford to put on the screen with his budget, is painfully obvious.  In Starcrash, Plummer plays the Emperor of the Universe and at one point he sagely tells his son (David Hasselhoff): “You know, my son, I wouldn’t be Emperor of the Universe if I didn’t have some powers at my disposal.”  Plummer later justified his participation in the film by saying it gave him a chance to be in Rome: “Give me Rome any day.  I’ll do porno in Rome, as long as I can get to Rome.”

 

13 years after Starcrash, Plummer had a rather better science-fictional experience playing the Klingon warlord Chang in the 1991 Star Trek movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Plummer gives a deliciously no-holds-barred performance as Chang, who’s so badass that the eyepatch he wears isn’t tied around his head on a piece of string or elastic but is rivetted into his face.  In the final scenes, Chang bellows lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar while he and his forces launch an attack on the Starship Enterprise: “Cry ‘Havoc!’  And let slip the dog of war!”  (Earlier, the Klingons had informed Captain Kirk that “you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”)  I suspect the presence in the film of Plummer’s long-term friend and one-time understudy William Shatner, an actor not known for his subtlety, inspired Plummer to play Chang with his brakes off.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Plummer’s turns in Star Trek VI and The Silent Partner show his excellence as a screen villain.  Further proof of this is found in Taylor Hackford’s 1995 thriller Dolores Claiborne, perhaps the most underrated of all film adaptations of books by Stephen King.  Plummer plays the vindictive Detective John Mackey, who failed to pin a murder rap on the titular heroine (Kathy Bates) after the death of her abusive, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn) in the 1970s.  Two decades later, he believes he can finally nail her when her employer (Judy Parfitt) dies amid much circumstantial evidence suggesting Dolores has killed her.

 

I also associated Plummer with playing famous historical figures.  These included Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals (1968), the Duke of Wellington in Sergei Bondarchuk’s  Waterloo (1970) – the epic Dino De Laurentiis production that proved such a financial flop that it helped scupper Stanley Kubrick’s plans to make a film about the life of Napoleon – and Rudyard Kipling in John Houston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a film that poignantly lost another of its stars, Sean Connery, just a few months ago.

 

He had a profitable relationship too with director Terry Gilliam.  In 1995 he played Brad Pitt’s dad in Gilliam’s masterful 12 Monkeys, while 14 years later he played the title character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Typical of Gilliam’s 21st century film-work, Parnassus is all over the place and sadly indicates that the director has passed his prime – though it didn’t help that the movie’s star Heath Ledger died during filming and his character also had to be played, through a series of unconvincing phantasmagorical transformations, by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.  But the scenes with Plummer and his endearingly ramshackle travelling theatre, the ‘imaginarium’ of the title, are good and recall the director’s glory days.

 

One other movie featuring Plummer that I admire is Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and beguiling 2005 epic The New World.  He plays Captain Newport, leader of an expedition to establish an English colony in Virginia in 1607.  Newport’s party includes Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), destined to fall in love with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of the chief of the local Native Americans.  However, Plummer was not enamoured with Malick’s unstructured and improvisational approach to filmmaking.  He was particularly galled when he saw the final cut of The New World and discovered that an important, emotional speech his character had given was now background noise in a scene with a different dramatic focus: “I could hear myself saying it, this long, wonderful, moving speech that I thought I was so fantastic in… way, miles in the distance while something else is going on in the foreground…”  Plummer subsequently voiced his displeasure to Malick in a letter.  “I gave him shit.  I’ll never work with him again, of course.”

 

Plummer’s willingness to speak his mind and slag off any film in his CV he didn’t enjoy making or watching was, of course, demonstrated by his attitude towards his most famous role, that of Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise’s saccharine The Sound of Music (1965).  Marvellously, he dubbed it ‘The Sound of Mucus’.  As well as just not liking the film, he found acting in it hard work: “To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role.”

 

No wonder that in a Facebook tribute to Christopher Plummer the other day, Terry Gilliam finished by writing: “I already miss him terribly and I hope to God they don’t play Edelweiss at his funeral.  It would kill him.”

 

© First Foot Films / Sarah Green Film / New Line Cinema

Hanging around with Jim Mountfield

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

I’ve just had my first short story published in 2021.  Where the Little Boy Drowned, which is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pen-name I put on my horror fiction, is now featured in the ‘Stories’ section of the online magazine Horrified.

 

The story belongs to a sub-genre that I like to think of as ‘constant jeopardy’.  The main character or characters spend the whole story, or most of it, stuck in a dangerous situation where the odds look stacked against them getting out of it alive.

 

Examples of constant-jeopardy stories include Jack Finney’s Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets (1956) and Stephen King’s The Ledge (1976), both of which have their protagonist trapped on a narrow ledge high up the side of a towering apartment building.  Two other examples are stories I’ve read by the Spanish writer Vincente Blasco Ibáñez and by Winston Churchill (who very occasionally wrote fiction when he wasn’t politicking) that are both called Man Overboard.  As their shared title suggests, these are about someone falling off a fast-moving ship, into the middle of the ocean, without anyone else noticing that they’ve fallen off.

 

However, the most gruelling constant-jeopardy story I’ve come across is The Viaduct, written by Brian Lumley and first published in 1976.  It’s about two boys who, for a dare, decide to cross the titular viaduct not by going along the top of it but going along underneath it – using 160 rungs, which for some reason the structure’s builders have installed there, as monkey-bars. The viaduct straddles a very deep valley and you can predict that this isn’t going to end well.

 

I don’t want to give too much away about Where the Little Boy Drowned, but one of its key plot elements is a length of rope.  There’s also a supernatural element to it, with a faint nod to Japanese horror films – J-Horror – and particularly to Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 chiller Ju-On: The Grudge.

 

Where the Little Boy Drowned can be read here, while this link will take you to Horrified’s main page.

Cinema Peebles-diso

 

 

I recently noticed a discussion about the Playhouse Cinema on the Facebook page Auld Peebles, which is a site devoted to pictures, information and simple nostalgic reminiscing about past times in Peebles, my hometown in the Scottish Borders.  This inspired me to dig out the following entry, which I’d originally posted on this blog back in 2013.  In it, I indulge in some nostalgic reminiscing of my own about my town’s old Art Deco cinema…

 

The photograph above this entry shows the Art Deco building at number 60 of the High Street in Peebles, my Scottish hometown.  The building opened in 1932 as the Playhouse Cinema.  Its architect was Alister G. MacDonald, a son of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Britain’s first Labour Party prime minister and served in office in 1924 and from 1929 to 1935.  MacDonald Junior designed the cinema with a particularly wide auditorium and with stalls and a balcony that held a total of 802 seats.  The name Playhouse was spelt out in a squiggle of neon along the top of its façade, although the roof behind was less glamorous, being made of corrugated iron.

 

The Playhouse showed films for the next 45 years and for a time, in modest-sized Peebles, it wasn’t even the only cinema.  It had to compete against the Empire Cinema on the Bridgegate and the Burgh Hall, further up the High Street, which also showed films.  By the 1970s, however, with just about every home in Peebles possessing a television set, only the Playhouse was left and it was struggling, to the point where it’d introduced bingo a couple of nights a week as a way of attracting extra custom.

 

I became acquainted with the Playhouse at a very late stage in its life.  In 1977, when I was eleven, my family moved to a new home just beyond the outskirts of Peebles.  The town centre was only 30 minutes’ walk away.  Previously we’d lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and if I wanted to visit a cinema there, I had to talk my parents into driving me several miles to the nearest one and then returning to collect me afterwards.  I was movie-crazy and having a cinema on my doorstep, as it seemed at the time, was a wonderful new luxury.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

I didn’t see any masterpieces in the Playhouse, but every film I did see seems to be engraved on my memory just because I’d seen it there.  For example, there was Earthquake (1974), the big, rumbly disaster movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and George Kennedy.  George Kennedy was a portent of doom in 1970s movies, having already appeared in two of the Airport movies (1970 and 75).  If his craggy face appeared onscreen, you just knew a destructive earth tremor was going to strike the city or a Boeing 747 was going to fall out of the sky.

 

It was also in the Playhouse that I had my most disappointing cinematic experience ever, which was seeing Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake of King Kong.  I’d really been looking forward to this, as I’d watched the original movie on TV and was desperate to see how they’d update all the fights that King Kong had with the dinosaurs on Skull Island.  To my horror, there weren’t any dinosaurs on the 1976 Skull Island, so Kong didn’t have any fights with them.  The only battle was an altercation between Kong (played by Rick Baker in a gorilla-costume) and a crap-looking rubbery giant snake.  I’d like to think that a young Peter Jackson saw the same movie and shared my feelings of profound disappointment.  For that reason, when he remade King Kong in 2005, he made sure his film was choc-a-bloc with dinosaurs.

 

Sometimes at the Playhouse you got to see a familiar feature of 1970s movie-going, which was a cinematic double bill.  Among the two-for-the-price-of-one marvels I was treated to were Carquake (1976) combined with The Giant Spider Invasion (1975).  Carquake was little more than a montage of car chases and car crashes and I suspect that the filmmakers had cast David Carradine in the lead role only because his surname started with the word ‘car’.  Nonetheless, it seemed like a masterpiece compared with its partner.  In The Giant Spider Invasion, the invading giant spiders were played by real-life tarantulas when they were babies, and played by giant wobbly-legged blobs of paper-maché mounted on top of cars when they were adults.  One scene showed a tarantula clamber unnoticed into a kitchen blender.  Then a character unwittingly blended it with some fruit and took a massive swig from the resulting Vitamin C / pulped-hairy-spider concoction.  That was about the most revolting thing I saw in a film until Hugh Grant started making romantic comedies.

 

© New World Pictures

 

But I had barely seven months to enjoy the Playhouse, for on September 10th, 1977, it went out of business.  It would’ve been fitting if the final end-credits to scroll up the Playhouse’s screen had belonged to a film that was memorable – Star Wars (1977), say, which was breaking box-office records at the time.  However, the last film shown there was another one about cars, an unremarkable horror film simply entitled The Car (1977).  This starred James Brolin and was about a rural American community being terrorised by a deadly, driver-less and demonically possessed automobile.  In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King described it as “the sort of movie where you can safely go out for a popcorn refill at certain intervals because you know the car isn’t going to strike again for 10 minutes or so”.

 

Thereafter the Playhouse was derelict for a time.  I seem to remember a report in the local newspaper at one point about it being broken into and vandalised.  Then its foyer was converted into a shopping area and it became another High Street retailer.  For a while, it served as the premises for Visionhire, a TV shop, which meant that films were being shown on its premises again (at least, when one of the televisions on display was switched on and tuned into a channel broadcasting a film).  These days it houses an outlet for the cut-price chemist’s chain, Semi-Chem.  Thanks to Alister MacDonald’s Art Deco design, it’s now a listed building and has been given a Grade C status by Historic Scotland.  Incidentally, I’m only talking about the building’s front part.  As far as I know, most of its back part, containing the 802-seat auditorium, was demolished to make way for a housing development.

 

Losing the Playhouse in 1977 was a blow for Peebles film-lovers because video cassettes and VCRs were still things of the future.  If you didn’t have transport to get to a cinema in another town to see a film on its first release, your only option was to wait a couple of years until it turned up on TV.  However, you still had a chance to see films, old and not so old, on a big screen if you were a pupil at Peebles High School.  In the wake of the Playhouse’s demise, a teacher there, Dr Mike Kellaway, started up a Film Club and showed movies one evening each week with the school’s assembly hall acting as an auditorium.  But Peebles High School’s Film Club is a story for another blog-entry.

 

© Auld Peebles / David Brunton

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

They’ve got the biggest balls of them all

 

From twitter.com/acdc

 

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been the calendrical equivalent of a giant reeking pile of horse manure.  However, recently, amid the daily tsunamis of bad news, I saw a headline in the Guardian that performed the now-difficult feat of putting a smile on my face.  The headline was: AC/DC REUNITE, FEATURING THREE FORMER MEMBERS.

 

Yes, AC/DC – the proper AC/DC – are back.

 

After several years of disarray, the band has got back together with as near classic a line-up as is possible in 2020, with that famously cap-wearing and impeccably gravel-voiced Geordie Brian Johnson on vocals, Cliff Williams on bass, Phil Rudd on drums and Angus Young, presumably still in his schoolboy uniform, on lead guitar.  Alas, Angus’s brother Malcolm passed away in 2017 but their nephew Stevie Young has taken his place on lead guitar.  They’ve returned with a new album called Power Up, to be released in November, and a new single, A Shot in the Dark, which is available now and sounds like every song that AC/DC have done in the last half-century.  That’s an assessment that, as any bona fide fan of the band will tell you, is a compliment rather than a criticism.

 

AC/DC and I go back a long time together.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought.  The album starts with the title track and rarely have a set of opening chords sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH!  Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were single-mindedly determined to use their guitars to blow your arse off.  Which was surely what heavy metal, and for that matter, rock and roll itself, were all about.

 

Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse in Peebles, Scotland, one Friday when my parents were away for the evening.  Predictably, most of my guests turned up armed with copious and illegitimately purchased bottles and cans of booze.  They also turned up armed with AC/DC records.  Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening.  No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of dissolute and drunken teenage misbehaviour.

 

Incidentally, during the margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.  They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage.  After the discovery, the building contractor worriedly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.

 

From blabbermouth.net

 

Sadly, though with a horrible-seeming inevitability, AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died from alcohol poisoning related to heavy-duty partying in 1980.  Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for Malcolm  and Angus Young, the band’s driving forces, considered calling it a day at this point.  Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further four decades.

 

It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album, 1980’s Back in Black, was a cracker.  It featured such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like ‘Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”  By now I was in my second-last year at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the upper-school common room.

 

The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events were happening in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time.  I soon tracked down and listened to their back catalogue  Their 1976 album High Voltage had an opening track called It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll, which exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes.  Despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots.  The same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap had a stonking title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls, whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best.”  Yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff.  Meanwhile, their 1978 album Powerage was identified by no less a personage than Keith Richards as one of his favourite records ever.

 

There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press of the time.  Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in the musical world, unlike their two favoured musical genres, punk rock and indie music.  For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.

 

This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who were fans of the likes of the Smiths, the Style Council and Simple Minds.  I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”

 

To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch; 1985’s Fly on the Wall; 1986’s Who Made Who, which was the musical soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive, writer and big AC/DC fan Stephen King’s ill-advised attempt to try his hand at directing a film; and 1988’s Blow Up Your Video.  It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge.  Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck.  The latter track is so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it in their team coach every time they travel to their opponents’ stadium for an away game.

 

From bravewords.com

 

The band’s star was back in the ascendant too because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some overdue praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted.  Their sound is imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Beastie Boys and many more.  It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.

 

Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball.  As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ plays an important role in the AC/DC lexicon.

 

But the same year as the release of Rock or Bust everything seemed to go pear-shaped for the band.  First of all, they lost Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that year, the band parted company with Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after).  Then in 2016, Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, which he claimed was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his indulgence in auto-racing.  And in 2016 too Cliff Williams announced his retirement and played his supposedly final gig with the band.

 

What was left of AC/DC continued performing with Axl Rose, of legendary glam-metal band Guns n’ Roses, doing vocal duties.  Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses.  Indeed, their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) occupy prominent places in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice didn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.  Also, it didn’t help that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair thanks to a broken foot and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove.  This hardly seemed to bode well for the vitality of this weird new incarnation of the band.

 

Anyway, that’s all academic now because, thankfully, the real AC/DC are ready again to strut the world’s stages.  Well, once this pandemic comes to an end, whenever that will be.  Let’s hope that to the list of ghastly things to which AC/DC and their gloriously unchanging sound are impervious – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, Simon Cowell – we can add the coronavirus too.

 

© Albert Productions