Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2015, ed. Andy Paciorek & Katherine Beem)

Back in 2010 I watched a series on tv, A History of Horror, hosted by Mark Gatiss. The second episode of this series was entitled ‘Home Counties Horror’ in which Gatiss focussed on British horror films of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I remember this episode vividly because Gatiss discussed three films which I’ve long had a fascination with, The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. In discussing these films he put two words together to describe a sub-genre, Folk Horror.

Folk Horror! Such a simple phrase with such a depth of meaning. It ignited an indefinable something in me; it seemed that all the subjects I had long been interested in had suddenly been gathered together and given nomenclature.

And it seems I wasn’t the only one.

Illustrator and writer Andy Paciorek created, what was to become, a very popular Facebook page under the name Folk Horror. In time, Paciorek changed the Facebook page to a Facebook group called Folk Horror Revival, of which I became a member shortly after it formed. This group now has a 10,000+ (and growing) membership base and an outstanding team of administrators made up of artists, musicians, filmmakers and academics all associated with the field. You can find the group here:

Folk Horror Revival: Facebook

On the back of the Folk Horror Revival group Paciorek recently created Wyrd Harvest Press, a small press dedicated to the subject. Their first publication is Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies.

folk horror revival field studies

So, what exactly is Folk Horror? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer as, by its very nature, it’s a nebulous thing. Each individual element of it is often shrouded in obscurity and the connecting threads are often intuitive rather than concrete. The definition of the phrase is something the Facebook group has been grasping for and this book elucidates upon; Paciorek gives an excellent overview in his introduction to this book.

For me the key to the subject would perhaps be somewhat inadequately described as “works which explore the darker side of humanity’s instinctive interaction with the landscape they find themselves in”. I’ve been using this theme in my own writing for several years.

Field Studies is a collection of fifty or so essays and interviews covering many of the key elements of the subject. I’m not going to go through the contents in detail as I always think it’s best to come to a book such as this, with such a diverse array of subjects, cold and see what surprises it holds for the individual reader. Instead, let’s whet your appetite with a selection of titles:

  • Public Information Films: Play Safe ~ Grey Malkin
  • Hysteria and Curses in Nigel Kneale’s Baby (Beasts 1976) ~ Adam Scovell
  • Folklore and the River: A Reflection on David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter ~ Stephen Canner
  • Kill Lists: The Occult, paganism and sacrifice in cinemas as an analogy for political upheaval in the 1970s and the 2010s ~ Aaron Jolly
  • Diabolical Landscapes and the Genii Locorum ~ Phil Legard
  • Darkness, Beauty, Fear and Wonder: Exploring the Grotesque and Fantastical World of Czech Folk Horror ~ Kat Ellinger

 

Now there’s some titles to get your imagination racing! And that’s really just skimming the surface, add to those other articles referencing folklore, film, literature, music, occultism, paganism, hauntology and psychogeography and you’ve got quite a collection.

We also have interviews with the likes of Philip Pullman, Thomas Ligotti, Robin Hardy and Alan Lee.

And to top it off, a rather touching dedication page:

folk horror revival field studies dedication

If you read this blog regularly, or if you’ve stumbled across it by accident and have got this far, then I would hazard a guess that you will find something in this book to interest you.

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies is available to purchase at the link below. At 500 pages it’s quite a hefty tome for £15.00 and, even better, 100% of profits go to The Wildlife Trust (which is, incidentally, an organisation I worked for as a ranger many years ago).

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies

Soliloquy for Pan, Egaeus Press, 2015 (Ed. Mark Beech)

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I rarely read modern publications. I’m an old fashioned sort so, by modern, I really mean anything more recent than 1980-ish. I’m not sure why this is, perhaps it’s because I already have a large collection of old books, perhaps it’s because I always buy my books cheaply from charity shops and car boot sales, perhaps it’s because I rarely socialise and never discuss the bewildering array of new stuff being constantly written.

Having said that, I was given the book Best British Horror 2014 (Salt, edited by Johnny Mains) for Christmas last year. I wrote a brief piece on it here (looking back, it is quite a clumsy piece but I did write it on January 1st so I’ll conveniently blame that on the festive hangover):

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2014

This book introduced me to an excellent magazine of modern horror fiction, Black Static, which I’ve had a subscription to since. Their website is here:

BLACK STATIC

So, I’ve dipped a tentative toe into the 21st century and I’m slowly turning over stones to see what horrors lay beneath. In a good way, you understand.

One of those things I’ve discovered is Egaeus Press. I found Egaeus Press through a two pronged attack. First Johnny Mains linked to them on Facebook and the following day a wonderful blog I follow published an article about them here:

WONDERFUL BLOG

The book I was particularly interested in from Egaeus was their beautifully titled Soliloquy for Pan but, being late to the party as usual, their limited edition run sold out within two weeks. However, luckily for me (and countless others, I imagine) they released a second limited edition run of 200 copies a few days ago. I pre-ordered mine as soon as I heard and today a parcel was delivered!

First off, just look at that cover. Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s made to resemble an aged and worn cloth bound edition from the late 19th / early 20th century. The foliate arabesque cartouche surrounding the gold-foiled Pan on the front cover and the gold-foiled Trajanesque typeface on the spine is reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement; which is, of course, the perfect choice for the theme of the collection as there was a massive resurgence of interest in Pan at that time.

(I thought this book deserved a better treatment than my standard cover scan so all photographs are courtesy of Samantha Webster (she thought Pan deserved a setting of death and fecundity)).

pan cover 1

pan cover 2

pan spine

But then what happens when we open the book, surely the inside is going to be a bit of a let-down after the splendour of the cover? No, of course it isn’t. The endpapers, back and front, give us a 17th Century Italian portrait of the god himself.

pan endpaper

Even the title page is a treat, complete with blind embossed logo of the press. Isn’t that a lovely touch?

pan title page

The book as a whole has a pleasing heft to it, it sits nicely in the hand and the off-white paper stock is easy on the eye. Flicking through the pages I see the text is interspersed with illustrations and decorative flourishes. It’s easy to tell that a lot of attention to detail has been put into this publication, even the endbands are in a colour suited to the God of Nature, leaf-green!

On to the important bit, the contents page. I know from the blurb on the website that this book is a:

…compendium of new and previously unpublished fiction, essays and poetry along with lesser known archive material, in praise, in awe, in fear of the great god…

Glancing down the contents page I’m delighted to see a handful of classic authors I’m very familiar with, a few contemporary authors whose work I’ve become slightly acquainted with over the course of this year and a few more authors who, although I’m sure are quite well known to most, I’m yet to discover.

I am tremendously happy to have discovered Egaeus Press, I can see myself being a regular customer of theirs (I already have my eye on some of their other editions). If you haven’t experienced the delights of them yet, here’s their website:

EGAEUS PRESS

I always keep a pile of books on a particular table in my house, these are books which I am currently reading or which I intend to read soon. Usually, a new acquisition goes to the bottom of the pile and gradually works its way to the top. I’m breaking that rule for Soliloquy for Pan, this one’s going straight to the top.

A Little Night Reading, Orbit, 1975 (Ed. Dave Allen)

We can’t really talk about horror paperbacks from the ‘60s and ‘70s without talking about the celebrity led anthologies. A smart move by the publishers to shift items off the shelves, nothing sells like celebrity.

Of course, we have the more obvious choices such as the iconic horror actors, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee & Boris Karloff lending their names to anthologies, but here we have a selection of twenty tales of terror from the legendary stumpy-fingered stand-up comedian and religious sceptic, Dave Allen.

The cover is quite uninspired, typically giving the bulk of the space over to the megalithic name of the man himself:

A LITTLE NIGHT READING

I always wonder how much input the celebrity on the cover has on the content of these anthologies. On occasion, a namecheck of the actual editor can be found on the copyright page of the book (such as Christopher Lee’s ‘X’ Certficate giving credit to Michel Parry) but not so here. Dave Allen gives us a typically charming and amiable introduction declaring his obvious love for story-telling which, he tells us, stems from two main inspirations from his upbringing in rural Ireland; his journalist father who loved to spin a tale by the fireside before bed and a local character with the wonderful name of Old Malachi Horn (see postscript at bottom of page):

…an old man with white hair and a flowing white beard, who lived in the village and whom I believed to be a hundred years old. Sometimes I used to play truant from school just to go for a ride in his pony and trap, and listen to the legends of wild banshees and headless coachmen.

Allen never strays too far from the obvious with the contents of his collection and gives us a selection of classic tales from mostly household-named authors. He implies in his introduction that he’s brought these tales together to provide a broad overview for the newcomer to the genre and, as a collection, it works very well.

C o n t e n t s

Introduction ~ Dave Allen
The Monkey’s Paw ~ W. W. Jacobs
Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad ~ M. R. James
The Signalman ~ Charles Dickens
The Open Window ~ ‘Saki’
Clarimonde ~ Theophile Gautier
The Black Cat ~ Edgar Allan Poe
The Canterville Ghost ~ Oscar Wilde
Nobody’s House ~ A. M. Burrage
Was it a Dream? ~ Guy de Maupassant
The Birds ~ Daphne du Maurier
The Furnished Room ~ O. Henry
The Withered Arm ~ Thomas Hardy
The Man with a Malady ~ J. F. Sullivan
Tcheriapin ~ Sax Rohmer
The Brown Hand ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lottery ~ Shirley Jackson
The Inn of the Two Witches ~ Joseph Conrad
The Rose Garden ~ M. R. James
The Inexperienced Ghost ~ H. G. Wells
The Squaw ~ Bram Stoker

It’s probably unnecessary to give a synopsis of these stories, I’m sure we all know them well enough but, for the sake of completion, here goes…

T h e  M o n k e y ’ s   P a w   ~   W.  W.  J a c o b s

This is the original ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale, being about a small family of mother, father and grown-up son acquiring the titular item from an old friend of the family who visits them on a suitably stormy night. The friend, a retired Sergeant Major, sits by the fire drinking whisky and recounting stories of his campaign days in India when he pulls from his pocket a mummified monkey’s paw, claiming it was created by a Fakir to give three men three wishes each. The friend throws the paw onto the fire, declaring it to be evil, but the father quickly retrieves it…with dire consequences, of course.

It’s interesting to note the original first line of the story, as first published in 1902 was:

Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnum Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly.

However, at some point in its publishing history Laburnum Villa became Lakesnam Villa, and that is how it is in this edition. I’ve no idea when, why or how this happened. What the hell is a Lakesnam anyway? If anyone has any more information on this I’d love to hear from you!

O h,  W h i s t l e   a n d  I ’ l l   c o m e  t o  y o u ,  M y  L a d  ~  M.  R.  J a m e s

This is that famous story by M. R. James, the one about the fusty old Cambridge scholar who goes on holiday and sees a ghost? Oh, hold on a minute, that’s not really narrowing it down much, is it?

Possibly the most famous ghost story ever written? Thanks, in part, to the splendid 1968 adaptation from Jonathan Miller which featured a remarkable performance from Michael Hordern and kicked off the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas season.

The tale itself is told in the author’s typical way, as though he is recounting the story to the reader personally; James’ presence looms over his fiction like a kindly yet creepily eccentric uncle. He uses metafictive devices to pull the reader in and out of the story; just look at how he wrong-foots us with the opening line:

I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full term is over, Professor”, said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography…

And this continues a few paragraphs later with:

Oh, Parkins,” said his neighbour on the other side, “if you are going to Burnstow, I wish you would look at the site of the Templars’ preceptory, and let me know if you think it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.

It was, as you might suppose, a person of antiquarian pursuits who said this, but, since he merely appears in this prologue, there is no need to give his entitlements.

So now we have this particular fusty protagonist introduced, Parkins the Professor of Ontography. Interestingly, there is no such thing as Ontography in standard academic circles, it’s thought to be one of James’ neologisms. This could not have been a mere error from James as he was completely immersed in academia, being a medieval scholar and Provost of King’s College. There is of course Ontology, the study of the nature of being and existence, but not Ontography. Why he did this is anyone’s guess.

However, the term did appear just two years before the publication of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (in which ‘Oh, Whistle’ first appeared) in a work by the famed US Geographer, William Morris Davis, in which he states:

It is the relationship between the physical environment and the environed organism, between physiography and ontography (to coin a term), that constitutes the essential principles of geography today.

Which all works out rather nicely considering the context of the story. An academic who is completely sceptical of the supernatural goes on holiday to the East Coast and finds an ancient whistle on the site of a Knights’ Templar tomb. When blown, this whistle summons a spirit which haunts poor Parkins and shakes his entire worldview. As often is the case with James, the sense of place, the way in which the environment affects the psyche, is key in this story.

Psychogeography! Perhaps not such a new thing after all!

T h e  S i g n a l – M a n   ~   C h a r l e s   D i c k e n s

Yet another massively famous story and yet another one which was adapted for the TV in the BBCs Ghost Stories for Christmas strand. This time from Charles Dickens.

Dickens was obviously most famous for his rather broad social commentary novels, so it’s easy to forget what a damn good short story writer he was too. Remarkable how he could switch between the vast sprawling forms of his novels and the tightly written, controlled and economical prose of his short stories.

This tale is a simple two-hander, an interaction between the narrator and the signal-man. Neither of these characters are named, so we have none of Dickens’ rather extravagant character names muddying things here. The setting is simple too, a dank and claustrophobic railway cutting by the entrance to a tunnel, which he describes:

…and drawing nearer to him, saw that he was a dark, sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows.  His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.  On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.  So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

It’s fascinating that we read this story now as a relic from the distant past, with all of the trapping of the Victorian gothic, but it’s worth remembering that when Dickens wrote it in 1866 the railway was still a very new thing. In fact, the real-life train crash which is thought to have inspired the piece only happened five years before it was published (Clayton Tunnel in Essex, if you’re interested).

T h e  O p e n  W i n d o w   ~   ‘ S a k i ’

Saki was the nom-de-plume of the Edwardian author H. H. Munro. He is quite rightly considered to be one of the great masters of the short story form and is often mentioned alongside such names as Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant.

This story, as is typical of his work, is a very short short story. Saki rarely wrote tales of more than two thousand words but, when you write with such succinctness, there’s really no need to labour the point.

This story, again being typical of his work, is a satire of Edwardian manners. There is a side story about long dead corpses rising from the bog they were drowned in but the real horror, one that strikes fear into my own heart, is one of being forced into sociability and unsolicited conversation. The horror!

C l a r i m o n d e   ~   T h é o p h i l e  G a u t i e r

Clarimonde or, to give it the original title, La Morte Amoureuse is a fascinating and often overlooked early piece of Vampire fiction. People talk of Stoker’s novel, Dracula, and those in the know will say “Ah, but he wasn’t the first, what about Le Fanu’s Carmilla? What about Polidori’s The Vampyre?”, but this little gem is rarely mentioned.

It has everything you would expect from a 19th Century tale of Vampirism; rich in imagery; darkly Gothic; nightmarish horseback chases on black stallions through midnight forests; porcelain skinned beauties; tormented priests. It’s heavy on the Romanticism and equally heavy on the Decadence.

What else would one expect from a famed poet and playwright with an obsession with death and the horrors of life who attended the same school as Charles Baudelaire, Voltaire and The Marquis de Sade? What the hell were they teaching there?

If you haven’t already, then read this one post-haste. The full text can be found here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22661/22661-h/22661-h.htm

T h e  B l a c k  C a t   ~   E d g a r  A l l a n  P o e

What can one say about any of Poe’s tales of the macabre that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? We all know them, anything I write would surely be superfluous.

Instead, shall we all sit back, relax and luxuriate in Tom O’Bedlam’s mellifluous voice giving us a reading?

T h e  C a n t e r v i l l e  G h o s t   ~   O s c a r  W i l d e

This tale of a put-upon ghost doing his best to haunt his stately home when a new family move in serves as a vehicle for Wilde to humorously highlight the divide between British traditionalism and the new US consumerism. And, not being the most subtle of authors, he does slap the reader around the face with it.

It’s interesting to include a humorous piece in an anthology such as this. The concept of the comic interlude has a long and noble tradition. The Elizabethan dramatists were big fans of placing a farcical element in the middle of a drama to throw the seriousness into stark contrast. Shakespeare obviously used the technique widely, such as in the Porter scene in Macbeth. In Italian opera too, a comic Intermezzo is often used between acts of a dramatic performance. The Japanese have their own version too, their Kyōgen (mad words) performs the same role.

I’m sure that most readers here will also recognise the technique from some of the British portmanteau horror films. The golf sequence in Ealing’s Dead of Night? The Elemental in Amicus’ From Beyond the Grave? The Neat Job in Amicus’ The Vault of Horror?

Yes, however misplaced we sometimes think these comic reliefs may be, they do seem to serve a purpose.

N o b o d y ’ s  H o u s e   ~   A.  M.  B u r r a g e

Alfred McLelland Burrage was a very prolific author. Along with his ghostly tales he also published many comedies and loves stories but is probably best remembered for his Great War memoirs, War is War, which he published under the pen-name of Ex-Private X.

From his horror short stories I suppose his most famous would be The Waxwork (the one we usually find anthologised) but here we have one that is a little less well known.

The opening paragraph is the sort of opening that fills me with dread for all the wrong reasons when reading a horror story. It’s a flabby, adjective heavy piece of prose, it’s all ‘great doors, meagre light, windy autumn evenings, grey light, veils of dingy clouds, and cavernous darkness’. However, it soon settles down and becomes an extremely well-paced and solid entry in the genre.

W a s  i t  a  D r e a m ?   ~   G u y  d e  M a u p a s s a n t

What a tremendous author Guy de Maupassant was. One of the finest exponents of the short story form and massively influential. This tale is a typically nihilistic piece, being about the hypocrisy of the post-mortem idealisation of our friends, acquaintances and family. de Maupassant takes the idea of the phrase ‘De mortuis nil nisi bene dicendum’ (Do not speak ill of the dead) and turns it on its head; what if the dead could speak for themselves?

T h e  B i r d s   ~   D a p h n e  d u  M a u r i e r

Daphne du Maurier, another of my favourite authors (…most of my favourite authors seem to be female, I wonder why that is).

I was going to write a fairly lengthy piece about this one but it’s such an interesting story with a fascinating and troubled history that I think I’ll save it and devote a whole post to it soon…watch this space.

T h e  F u r n i s h e d  R o o m   ~   O.  H e n r y

Good grief, we’re spoilt for choice with the literary heroes in this anthology. Now we have William Sydney Porter under his most famous pen name, O. Henry. He’s another one considered to be a master of the art of the short story, often with the epithet of ‘The American Guy de Maupassant’.

Porter didn’t often stray into the realms of the supernatural with his work, and this tale just skims the surface of the subject. It’s a beautifully written piece about a lost love and the despair and isolation of living in poverty in the big city. Porter writes with a sense of the poetic, how can you resist an opening paragraph like this?

Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself, is a certain vast bulk of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side. Homeless, they have a hundred homes. They flit from furnished room to furnished room, transients forever – transients in abode, transients in heart and mind. They sing “Home, Sweet Home” in ragtime; they carry their lares et penates in a bandbox; their vine is entwined about a picture hat; a rubber plant is their fig tree.

T h e  W i t h e r e d   A r m   ~   T h o m a s  H a r d y

This is a tale of love, superstition and witchery among simple country-folk. Well it would be, wouldn’t it? It’s Thomas Hardy. I’ll freely admit to not being a fan of Hardy’s prose (his poetry, on the other hand, I like. He handled verse with far more skill).

Having said that, I actually find this short story quite charming. The sort of thing you could imagine Hammer or Tigon adapting for a film in the ‘70s. In fact, I’d imagine the story would be quite popular today with the current trend in what has become popularly known as Folk Horror.

Hardy wrote this in 1888 and it’s set in 1833, so he’s essentially writing a trashy piece of historical fiction in which he romanticises the past. By today’s standards it would be something akin to one of the constant barrage of ‘vintage’ tv programs the BBC produce, Call the Midwife, Landgirls, something of that ilk. Yes, it’s clichéd; yes, it all gets a bit histrionic; yes, you can see the end coming from a country-mile away. But, putting all those things aside, it’s quite a fun read.

T h e  M a n  w i t h  a  M a l a d y   ~   J.  F.  S u l l i v a n

This is a jauntily written tale concerning a chap who, after having suffered from nervous exhaustion, found that he was cursed with the talent of precognition. Yes, cursed. Apparently, seeing the awful nature of your own death seven years in the future can really take the fun out of such a thing.

James Frank Sullivan seems to have had a more successful career as an illustrator and cartoonist than as an author, having written only a handful of short stories, most of which appeared in The Strand magazine in the late Victorian period. As far as I can gather, he had two collections published; The Queer Side of Things (which contained this and his other Strand stories) and The Flame Flower and Other Stories (which contained a parody of The Island of Dr Moreau).

Sadly, he doesn’t seem to have been reprinted or anthologised much through the 20th Century. This means I may have to try and hunt out his early books!

T c h e r i a p i n   ~   S a x  R o h m e r

Aaah, Sax Rohmer and his casual racism. He’s best known, of course, for his tales of inscrutable Oriental types. A product of his times, Rohmer encapsulated the threat of the Yellow Peril with his immortal character, Dr Fu Manchu.

This story comes from his 1922 collection, Tales from Chinatown. It’s a rollicking and rather bizarre tale concerning a half-Chinese/half-European violinist, a burly Scottish failed artist, bohemian lifestyles, a chemist who as discovered a process for turning living matter into gemstones, an explosion in a T.N.T. factory and unnecessary dental work.

T h e  B r o w n  H a n d   ~   S i r  A r t h u r  C o n a n  D o y l e

Now, we all know Doyle can spin a good yarn. Of course he can, it would be churlish to try and say otherwise. But, does his supernatural fiction work? Taking this story as an example, I’d say no.

It starts off well enough; suitable prologue which draws the reader in; nicely Gothic locations; good characterisation. It all trots along nicely until we get to the actual nub of the story which Doyle writes in such a linear fashion and deals with in such a matter of fact way that it removes any sense of eeriness or tension. Obviously not a good thing to do in a ghost story. I wonder whether Doyle’s bullish attitude towards the subject of the supernatural overrides his obvious skills as a writer.

T h e  L o t t e r y   ~   S h i r l e y  J a c k s o n

And we finally arrive at the highlight of this anthology. Not a bad accolade for a book with so many highlights!

I make no secret of the fact that Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors. I love a bit of ambiguity in my fiction and Jackson certainly does the ambiguous very well. She keeps her cards close to her chest when it comes to her themes, making them seem allegorical. This, of course, involves the reader in the story and makes them continue to think about them long after closing the book. It’s very difficult to forget a Jackson tale, they have a tendency to linger.

The Lottery is her most successful and famous (or should that be infamous?) short story by far. First published in The New Yorker in 1948 it courted quite a bit of controversy from the reading public. Jackson later spoke about the surprising reaction in a speech which she published in her collection ‘Come Along with Me’. This excerpt from her speech details her experiences post publishing (she doesn’t say here that some of the letters she received were actually death-threats which, ironically, possibly helps to highlight the point she was trying to make with the story in the first place):

Things began mildly enough with a note from a friend at The New Yorker: “Your story has kicked up quite a fuss around the office,” he wrote. I was flattered; it’s nice to think that your friends notice what you write. Later that day there was a call from one of the magazine’s editors; they had had a couple of people phone in about my story, he said, and was there anything I particularly wanted him to say if there were any more calls? No, I said, nothing particular; anything he chose to say was perfectly all right with me; it was just a story.

I was further puzzled by a cryptic note from another friend: “Heard a man talking about a story of yours on the bus this morning,” she wrote. “Very exciting. I wanted to tell him I knew the author, but after I heard what he was saying I decided I’d better not.”

One of the most terrifying aspects of publishing stories and books is the realization that they are going to be read, and read by strangers. I had never fully realized this before, although I had of course in my imagination dwelt lovingly upon the thought of the millions and millions of people who were going to be uplifted and enriched and delighted by the stories I wrote. It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” she wrote sternly; “it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?

If you haven’t read The Lottery yet then go out and buy it now. In fact, go out and buy all of Shirley Jackson’s back catalogue. You won’t regret it.

T h e  I n n  o f  t h e  T w o  W i t c h e s   ~   J o s e p h  C o n r a d

Joseph Conrad is up next so, obviously, it’s a tale of adventure and derring-do on the high seas. Conrad wrote some incredibly important works of great literature in his time. This isn’t one of them though.

Great literature it may not be but it’s still damnably good fun. The first few pages are given over to a blurb about how the narrator discovered the story in a manuscript hidden at the bottom of a box of old books which he had recently purchased (a typically Gothic framing story which attempts to give the tale some veracity). Once we get through this we’re immersed in the mid-19th century world of the stout-hearted Englishmen of the Royal Navy. On an undisclosed mission (rather conveniently we’re told those pages are missing from the original manuscript), two sailors are required to travel inland in a remote region of Spain. This is a land peopled by a wonderful array of grotesques;

A one-eyed wine seller:

He was a tall, one-eyed Asturian with scrubby, hollow cheeks; a grave expression of countenance contrasted enigmatically with the roaming restlessness of his solitary eye.

A mysterious, shrouded dwarf:

In front of them, just within the threshold, the little man in the large cloak and yellow hat had taken his stand. He was a diminutive person, a mere homunculus, Byrne describes him, in a ridiculously mysterious, yet assertive attitude, a corner of his cloak thrown cavalierly over his left shoulder, muffling his chin and mouth; while the broad-brimmed yellow hat hung on a corner of his square little head. He stood there taking snuff, repeatedly.

A satyresque boy:

The lad in goatskin breeches looking like a faun or a young satyr leaping ahead, stopped to wait for him, and then went off at a bound.

A sinister gypsy girl:

… she was still there motionless and disturbing, with her voluptuous mouth and slanting eyes, with the expression of expectant sensual ferocity of a baffled cat.

And, of course, the two ‘witches’ who seem to have fallen straight out of a Goya painting:

They were horrible. There was something grotesque in their decrepitude. Their toothless mouths, their hooked noses, the meagreness of the active one, and the hanging yellow cheeks of the other (the still one, whose head trembled) would have been laughable if the sight of their dreadful physical degradation had not been appalling to one’s eyes, had not gripped one’s heart with poignant amazement at the unspeakable misery of age, at the awful persistency of life becoming at last an object of disgust and dread.

What I would like to see is an adaptation of this done by The League of Gentlemen. Wouldn’t that be a spectacle!

T h e  R o s e  G a r d e n   ~   M.  R.  J a m e s

We’re treated to a second M. R. James story now, and a slightly less well known one at that.  The Rose Garden comes from James’ second collection, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. James writes this tale with a typically light hand and doesn’t stray far from his ‘antiquarian haunting’ theme, although he does leave his comfort zone a little by introducing a female character as the main protagonist. And what a character Mrs. Anstruther is! A no-nonsense type of woman who constantly hen-pecks her poor husband (who just wants to be left alone for the occasional round of golf). It seems she’s taken a fancy to planting a new rose garden in the grounds but refuses to take advice about the placement, even when it comes to the uprooting of an ancient wooden post. Silly thing to do when there is a latin motto involved – quieta non movere or, do no disturb the quiet things!

T h e  I n e x p e r i e n c e d  G h o s t   ~   H.  G.  W e l l s

If you’ll remember, I was talking about the comic interlude earlier with regards to Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. Here, Wells gives us a far more successful example of the sub-genre. A wonderfully dry and dark comedy set in an Edwardian Gentlemen’s Club. A group of fellows have met up there on a Saturday after a round or two of golf. Relaxing with pipes after dinner one of them begins a tale of his experiences in the clubhouse the previous night, being the only one to have slept there. And so the framing story is set.

It seems this stout Englishman met a ghost on the stairs of the club while on his way up to his rooms. He describes the ghost to his companions:

Lean. You know that sort of young man’s neck that has two great flutings down the back, here and here—so! And a little, meanish head with scrubby hair—And rather bad ears. Shoulders bad, narrower than the hips; turn-down collar, ready-made short jacket, trousers baggy and a little frayed at the heels.

However, the ghost gives the haunting his best shot by floating towards his victim and saying “Boo”:

‘Boo!’ I said. ‘Nonsense. You don’t belong to this place. What are you doing here?’, I could see him wince.

‘Boo-oo,’ he said.

‘Boo—be hanged! Are you a member?’ I said; and just to show I didn’t care a pin for him I stepped through a corner of him and made to light my candle. ‘Are you a member?’ I repeated, looking at him sideways.

He moved a little so as to stand clear of me, and his bearing became crestfallen. ‘No,’ he said, in answer to the persistent interrogation of my eye;

‘I’m not a member—I’m a ghost.’

Of course, not even the undead are a match for the arrogance of the English gentleman!

The narrator discovers that the ghost is stuck in this realm because he cannot remember the complex system of occult hand-gestures needed to send him back to wherever he came from. Not being an unkindly chap, the narrator assists the ghost in remembering them.

This story was obviously a huge influence on the Ealing portmanteau film, Dead of Night. As mentioned earlier, there is a comic relief tale in the film concerning two obsessive golfers in love with the same woman. They decide to play a round of golf for her, the winner taking the young lady’s hand. After the loser commits suicide and haunts the happy couple the trope of the haunted assisting the hauntee to remember the complex hand-signals to make himself disappear is used; directly lifted, it appears, from the H. G. Wells tale.

T h e  S q u a w   ~   B r a m  S t o k e r

And to round the anthology off we have yet another well-known classic, Bram Stoker’s tale of a honeymooning couple touring Bavaria. This pair of newlyweds pick up with another tourist, an awful American braggart by the name of Elias P. Hutcheson. I would think this would be most people’s worse nightmare wouldn’t it, a gun-toting buffoon following you around on a romantic holiday? Seems like enough of a horror story already to me. However, our genial young couple do not seem to mind the intrusion and they all visit the famed Nuremberg Museum of Torture together. Throw into the mix a black cat and an Iron Maiden and there’s an accident waiting to happen.

I’m sure it can’t just be my own peculiarity, but I was quite glad of the outcome of this one. Not for the cat, of course, but for Elias P. Hutcheson.

~

And that brings us to the end of the anthology! Good one wasn’t it? Just goes to prove the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I feel that we really should have Dave Allen signing off for us here in his customary fashion; sitting on his bar-stool, sipping his whiskey, brushing an imaginary speck of dust from his knee with his missing-fingered hand, and saying:

Thank you, goodnight and may your God go with you.

CUE MUSIC

~

POSTSCRIPT

I’ve been doing a little digging into Dave Allen’s account of the local character from his youth he describes in the introduction, Old Malachi Horn. It appears that he either misremembered the name or it’s a misprint, as there was a chap that lived near Allen’s childhood home called Malachi Horan.

Horan lived in Tallaght and Allen was born in Firhouse, just to the south. This was when the area was still rural, before the urban development of Dublin in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

It also turns out that Allen’s belief that the old storyteller was 100 years old wasn’t far from the mark. In 1945, when Allen was 9 years old, Horan died at the ripe old age of 98!

It also seems that Horan’s storytelling credentials were true, he is marked down as a folklorist and in 1943 one Dr George A. Little published a book of Horan’s tales and memoirs called Malachi Horan Remembers!

There’s another book I want for my collection.

Twisted, 1965, Four Square (Ed. Groff Conklin)

I know very little about Groff Conklin, other than he has a name that sounds like an adjective and condition (i.e. I can’t come into work today as I have a bit of a groff conklin). Apparently he’s more of a sci-fi anthologiser but here he’s strayed into horror with “an unholy bible of weird tales by fifteen masters of the supernatural”.

As so often is the case with the introduction to a horror anthology, Conklin offers a brief opinion on “Why horror?” It’s a fascinating subject and something I constantly ask myself, perhaps I’ll dedicate a post to the subject at some point. Groff nicely surmises here that:

Perhaps it is something like taking a smallpox vaccination to immunize ourselves against smallpox. We counter the black-magic bacillus of a cruel and often supernatural reality with the white-magic antibodies of a purely literary, unreal credulity.

The cover art is a little unclear as to what’s going on. We have a flying skull appearing from the gap in a pair of purple, diaphanous drapes. But look there on the floor. Is that a corpse that the black tentacles are slithering over? And look beyond the corpse, we have a hint of the being  from which the tentacles are coming, with its gaunt rib-like structure and glowing eyes.

Untitled-6

C O N T E N T S

Introduction – Groff Conklin

The Playground – Ray Bradbury

The Thing in The Cellar – George Langelaan

The Diary of a Madman – Guy de Maupassant

The Upturned Face – Stephen Crane

The Little Man Who Wasn’t Quite – William W. Stuart

Night Drive – Will F. Jenkins

The Song of Marya – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Mrs. Manifold – Stephen Grendon

A Holy Terror – Ambrose Bierce

Impulse – Eric Frank Russell

Brenda – Margaret St. Clair

The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

The Shunned House – H. P. Lovecraft

The World Well Lost – Theodore Sturgeon

 

H I G H L I G H T S  &  L O W L I G H T S

The Song of Marya – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is a remarkable tale from Miller, author of the post-apocalyptic epic A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller served as a tailgunner during WW2 and was involved in a bombing raid on a Benedictine Abbey which traumatised him (he converted to Catholicism after the war), so much of his work has an anti-war theme and this is no exception.

First published in 1957, this story is set in an unspecified near future at a time when the cold war has got completely out of hand and we’re in the middle of a Communist Russia being invaded by a Fascist USA under the leadership of the “megalomaniac evil genius” General MacAmsward. Now, I’m no expert on US military history but one can’t help feeling there may be shades of General Douglas MacArthur here.

…he reminds me of one of their earlier generals, thirty years ago. But that was before their Fascism, before their Blue Shirts.

 

The Blue Shirts are the US paramilitary bullyboys who take delight in torturing POWs:

The man who came in was not McCoy, but one of the Americanist Blue Shirts. He gave the major a cross-breasted Americanist salute and barked the slogan: “Ameh’ca Fust!”

“America First,” echoed the major without vigor…

The story itself concerns a young woman, the eponymous Marya Dmitriyevna, who lost her baby Nikolai during an American bombing raid the day before the tale opens. Marya is tasked by a Russian colonel to find, allow herself to be seduced by, and assassinate General MacAmsward. No conventional weapons can be used as she would be searched, so it has to be a suicide mission whereby she is injected with a slow acting bacteriological weapon which will contaminate her breast milk which she must feed to the General. Yes, you read that correctly!

This tale is often anthologised under the title Vengeance for Nikolai.

 

Brenda – Margaret St. Clair

This is a wonderfully peculiar tale. It concerns a tom-boyish young girl who lives in a small community on Moss Island. None of the other island children will be friends with her due to her odd and anti-social behaviour. As the story begins, Brenda is out playing alone in the sparse woodlands of the island when she encounters a man:

He was not a tramp, he was not one of the summer people. Brenda knew at once that he was not like any other man she had ever seen. His skin was not black, or brown, but of an inky grayness; his body was blobbish and irregular, as if it had been shaped out of the clots of soap and grease that stop up kitchen sinks. He held a dead bird in one crude hand. The rotten smell was welling out from him.

She teases the figure into chasing her and, when he does, she traps him in the old quarry that exists in the middle of the island. No one knows what was ever quarried there.

That night, back in the safety of her room, Brenda writes about the man. Surmising who he is and how he came to be on the island, she ends her writing with the mysterious note:

…I think that is why he came to Moss Island in the first place. Hunting. He is old. Has been the way he is for a long time. I think he wants to be born.

What follows, right up to the enigmatic denouement, is a strange and fairytale-like piece which I think works on an allegorical level in much the same way, and exploring similar themes, as Angela Carter’s work. I know that Margaret St. Clair had an MA in Greek Classics and often referenced Ancient Greek mythology in her work and I wonder if this story is one of them, it certainly seems to allude to something far deeper than story’s surface level.

 

The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

What I could I possibly say about this one that hasn’t already been said? It’s a classic. We all know it. We all love it. How about we sit back and watch Charles F. Klein’s 1928 expressionist adaptation instead?

 

The Shunned House – H. P. Lovecraft

It’s good to see one of my favourites of Lovecraft’s included, The Shunned House isn’t as anthologised as often as it should be. This is Lovecraft’s take on the classic haunted house tale and a fine example of how he takes a standard theme and pushes it just that little bit further than most. He begins with grounding the tale in reality and immediately instils a sense of dread by relating the irony of the fact that Edgar Allan Poe would often walked past this particular house during his “…unsuccessful wooing of the gifted poetess, Mrs. Whitman”, little knowing that the house stood “…starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous”.

We then have a history of the house, along with all of the deaths and disasters that have befallen its residents, narrated by a local man investigating the house along with his antiquarian uncle. We’re given hints to folk superstitions of ghosts and vampires during the narration and the centre of the activity is in the cellar, the earth floor of which is covered in patches of phosphorescent fungi. It’s not until the final act, when the narrator and his uncle are spending the night in the cellar that Lovecraft pulls out his trump card. Most authors in the genre, after creating such a set-up would go on to give the reader a ghostly apparition or indeed a vampire for the denouement. Even the protagonists arrive prepare for either of these eventualities. But Lovecraft, as is his wont, gives us something a little less explicit and a little more inter-dimensional!

The Hell of Mirrors, 1965, Four Square (ed. Peter Haining)

After getting all new-fangled in my last post I thought I’d retreat back to my comfort zone again. We know we’re in a safe pair of hands with Peter Haining so let’s go with the young Mr. Haining’s second anthology The Hell of Mirrors (no, that’s not a misprint but more of that later).

Four Square books had some great cover designs and this one’s no exception. I particularly like that title bar, which was so good they printed it on the back cover too.

hell of mirrors

As Haining states in his brief introduction, this anthology contains stories covering two centuries and five countries.

C O N T E N T S

The Werewolf – Frederick Marryat

Ligeia – Edgar Allan Poe

The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe

Young Goodman Brown – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Schalken the Painter – J. S. Le Fanu

The Middle Toe of the Right Foot – Ambrose Bierce

The Damned Thing – Ambrose Bierce

The Squaw – Bram Stoker

Who Knows? – Guy de Maupassant

The Drowned Man – Guy de Maupassant

The Caterpillar – Edogawa Rampo

The Hell of Mirrors – Edogawa Rampo

The Knocking in the Castle – Henry Slesar

The Fanatic – Arthur Porges

 

Lets skim through the contents then. Among others, Haining  gives us a duo of de Maupassants, a brace of Bierces and a pair of Poes, but what we really want to be talking about here are the two tales from Edogawa Rampo.

Edogawa Rampo is the nom-de-plume of the Japanese author and translator, Tarō Hirai (1894-1965). He’s still not that well known in the West but he’s considered a master of the genre in his own country. Being a huge fan of Western horror and mystery fiction, particularly the works of Edgar Allan Poe, he took the decision to write under the name of Edogawa Rampo as a Japanese rendering of Poe’s name (…go on, say Edogawa Rampo in a Japanese accent and see how it sounds, you know you want to!).

Aside from his horror tales he also wrote Detective fiction, creating the first popular Japanese detective, Kogoro Akechi. Rampo was also a fan and translator of Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective is based upon Sherlock Holmes.

But we’re concentrating on his horror tales. They were first translated into English in the mid-1950s under a collection called, keeping to the Poe theme, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The two stories we have here are from that collection and I believe this is the first time Rampo was anthologised in the West. Interestingly, he died in 1965, the same year as this publication so whether it was something to do with publication rights opening up or not, I don’t know.

Rampo’s tales are among the creepiest and memorable I have read. There’s something quite wonderfully distasteful about them. Thematically, these works fall into the category which gained popularity in 1920’s Japan, ‘Ero guro nansensu’. This is another Japanese rendering of English words, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. As you can imagine one of the main themes is sexual abnormality.

The first tale, The Caterpillar, concerns a military veteran invalided out of the army due to the severity of his injuries. He has lost both arms and both legs, his face is completely disfigured, he has no hearing and cannot speak. He is the caterpillar of the title. His wife looks after him in a lonely house in the grounds of her husband’s commanding officer’s mansion. No one visits and the unkempt gardens are overgrown and full of snakes and abandoned wells. The story deals with the wife’s loneliness, fantasies, guilt and mental decline. This story was banned in Japan in the run-up to WW2 as it was thought it to cast the Japanese military in a poor light.

The second tale, from which the anthology takes its title, is The Hell of Mirrors. Rampo seems to have somewhat of an obsession with lenses, mirrors and optics as they feature in many of his earlier stories. Let’s hope he was never quite as obsessed as the protagonist of this story whom we follow from childhood and witness as his insanity grows along with his obsession. His experiments become more and more outrageous; starting from the building of his first telescope which, of course, he uses to spy through his neighbour’s windows, we’re taken on a wild and psychedelic journey through his deviances which, of course, end in disaster.

Best British Horror 2014, Salt (Ed. Johnny Mains)

This is a bit of a departure for me, I rarely read anything written past the mid-20th century (hence this blog). There’s no real reason for this particular quirk, it’s not that I think modern fiction is of poorer quality than the older, it’s probably just something to do with the fact that there’s already more books published than I could ever read in a lifetime anyway and, as time is at a premium, why take the chance with the newer stuff?

However, I was given this book as a Christmas present. I eyed it warily. The cover image is not exactly to my taste with its Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque Leatherface type of character looking grimly into the middle-distance.

I then noticed the editor, Johnny Mains, and my interest was piqued a little. I’d heard of Mains from his passionate work with the reissuing of the first of the Pan Horror series.

My eyes then scanned down the cover to the publisher, Salt! A very well respected independent publisher, I already own several volumes from Salt as they were one of the finest publishers of poetry (another passion of mine). Notice I say ‘were’, they surprisingly stopped publishing single author collections of poetry last year (…actually, perhaps not so surprisingly as poetry is a notoriously poor seller).

Next I opened the book onto a random page, curious and a little worried as to what I was going to find among these new and exciting authors. And the first page I opened it on was…

Ramsey Campbell!

“Ok”, I thought, “…so things haven’t changed all that much since the ‘70s then!” But on flicking through the contents page I only noticed one other name I recognised, Tanith Lee. Actually, two names including Muriel Gray but I only knew her from her stint on The Tube back in the ‘80s.

I must admit that, from the cover, I was expecting pages dripping with gore and torture-porn; I’m not of a fan of this sub-genre of horror, rather than finding it disturbing or shocking I always find it tedious and juvenile. But, hands up, I’m very happy to say that I completely misjudged the situation with this publication. It is a mixed bag, obviously, and I’d be lying if I said that I liked all of the stories included; but there are enough stories here that are really quite outstanding to win me over.

best british horror 2014

C O N T E N T S

When Charlie Sleeps – Laura Mauro

Exploding Raphaelesque Heads – Ian Hunter

The Bloody Tower – Anna Taborska

Behind the Doors – Ramsey Campbell

The Secondary Host – John Llewellyn Probert

The Garscube Creative Writing Group – Muriel Gray

Biofeedback – Gary Fry

Doll Hands – Adam Nevill

Guinea Pig Girl – Thana Niveau

Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers – Elizabeth Stott

Dad Dancing – Kate Farrell

The Arse-Licker – Stephen Volk

Doll Re Mi – Tanith Lee

Laudate Dominium – D.P. Watt

Someone to Watch Over You – Marie O’Regan

Namesake – V.H. Leslie

Come Into My Parlour – Reggie Oliver

The Red Door – Mark Morris

Author of The Death – Michael Marshall Smith

The Magician Kelso Dennett – Stephen Volk

That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love – Robert Shearman

Without a Mind – Joel Lane

My favourite of the bunch is the opening tale When Charlie Sleeps by Laura Mauro. Surprisingly, looking through the contributor bios, Mauro is one of the less established authors in the list; but, going by this story, she has a sound literary future ahead of her. I think one of the most difficult things for an author to tackle is the balance between ambiguity and plot and Mauro manages it very well here. I love a bit of ambiguity in a story when done well (eg. Robert Aickman, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, etc), it pulls the reader in and gives them a sense of conspiratorial inclusion.

This anthology has opened my eyes to a new world of horror literature in the 21st Century and I genuinely hope it will be an annual event, I’ll certainly be buying it if it is. I even took out a 12 month subscription to one of the magazines mentioned in the author bios, Black Static. I’m converted.

Look at me being all modern and that.

Christopher Lee’s ‘X’ Certificate, Star, 1975 (ed. Christopher Lee and Michel Parry)

It’s easy to dismiss these celebrity linked anthologies as populist tat cashing in on a star turn to shift a few units, but it would be a shame to overlook them as this one’s a corker and worth the cover price just for Christopher Lee’s introduction alone.

Lee tells us that he (probably more than ably assisted by Michel Parry, a famed horror anthologist himself) chose the stories in this collection as they all have “…the personal appeal of reminding me of some aspect or another of my career as an actor.”

What follows in his introduction is the most brilliant series of name-drops you’re likely to read and best read with Lee’s sonorous tones in mind:

Take for instance, The Spider by Fritz Lieber, an author I had the pleasure of meeting in Hollywood.

Or…

…The Man with the Golden Gun in which I played Scaramanga. The creator of 007 was, of course, the late Ian Fleming and one of the stories which I have selected was written by Ian’s brother, Peter. Incidentally, it is not generally known that I was distantly related to both Ian and Peter, they were my step-cousins.

Or…

Curiously enough, I once actually met Conrad Veidt  when I was a young boy. Apparently he was a keen golfer (like me) and I was introduced to him on a golf-course back in 1938 or 1939.

 

 

christopher lee's x certificate

 

C O N T E N TS

Introduction – Christopher Lee

The Spider – Fritz Leiber

I, The Vampire – Henry Kuttner

Talent – Robert Bloch

Amber Print – Basil Copper

The Gorgon – Clark Ashton Smith

The Kill – Peter Fleming

Blood Son – Richard Matheson

The Black Stone – Robert E. Howard

The Monster-Maker – W. C. Morrow

The Judge’s House – Bram Stoker

 

The Spider – Fritz Leiber

This story, which is possibly a comment against the juvenilisation of the genre, begins with a trio of people on a city street on a winter’s night. We do not know who they are, Leiber enigmatically refers to them as The Beautiful People. We have The Old Man with a hawk like face, grey hair and a black overcoat with an astrakhan collar; The Other Man with his collar pulled up, his brimmed hat pulled down, dark glasses, thick gloves and a strange accent; The Woman has a ‘slim queenliness’ in her black evening gown and velvet cloak.

Lee suggests in his introduction that these three are Dracula, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein but I see no real evidence for this. They certainly represent the classic anti-heroes of horror fiction but I think Leiber is too classy a writer to sully his work, by specifying these characters he would risk reducing them to two dimensional clichés.

The reason these three are hanging about on a street corner is the unlikely named Gibby Monzer. Gibby is a cynic, a skeptic, a believer in science. He makes his money from producing comic strips mocking the characters from classic horror, portraying them as “louts, lugs, zanies, morons and stumblebums”. The Beautiful People have decided to pay Gibby a visit, or rather they decide to send an emissary, while he relaxes in his apartment.

 

I, The Vampire – Henry Kuttner

Kuttner was part of the Weird Tales set in the 30s and 40s and also involved with the “Lovecraft Circle”, along with his wife and fellow genre author C.L. Moore (with whom he co-wrote many stories under the shared pen-name of Lewis Padgett). Incredibly influential, he is cited as an inspiration to many later greats, including Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson (Matheson even dedicated I Am Legend to him).

Written in 1937, this is one of his earlier tales, the story of a Vampire in modern day Hollywood. It’s also an early example of what has become a staple of the genre, the ‘sympathetic’ vampire. Here, Kuttner takes the glitz and glamour of the film studios of 1930s Hollywood and deftly transforms them into the setting for a classic gothic tragedy.

“I went out on the porch and leaned against a pillar, sipping a cocktail and looking down at the lights of Hollywood. Hardy’s place was on the summit of a hill overlooking the film capital, near Falcon Lair, Valentino’s famous turreted castle. I shivered a little. Fog was sweeping in from Santa Monica, blotting out the lights to the west.”

Talent – Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch is probably best known as the author the novel Psycho, on which Hitchcock based the film of the same name. Another exceptionally prolific author writing countless novels, short stories and screenplays (many of the wonderful Amicus portmanteau films of the ‘60s and ‘70s were adapted by him from his own stories). This is a typically darkly humorous piece from Bloch written in a reportage style about a foundling child who discovers a talent for imitation after the orphanage decide to hold a weekly film night. It all starts innocently enough with a Marx brothers film, but as the child discovers more and more genre films the story takes a turn towards the sinister.

Amber Print – Basil Copper

There’s a hint of Richard Marsh’s Victorian series of classic short stories ‘Curios’ about Copper’s contribution, in that it concerns a pair of mildly eccentric bachelor collectors. But whereas Marsh’s duo collect a variety of esoteric antiquities, Copper’s pair of bachelors hold more select collections. Mr Carter and Mr Blenkinsop collect rare film reels. In this tale Mr. Blenkinsop acquires an exceptionally rare and previously unheard of print of Robert Weine’s legendary 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The pair’s initial excitement soon wears off when they discover that the protagonists of the film, Caligari and Cesare, do not necessarily seem content to stay on the screen. Copper writes this story with an obvious love for the film and makes for a fitting homage.

The Gorgon – Clark Ashton Smith

I was quite excited to read on the acknowledgements page that this story was from 1923 which would place it in Smith’s early poetic phase. However, it reads like a much later piece and, with a little research, I found that it’s actually from 1932, which makes much more sense. Smith was another, and arguably the most influential, member of the Lovecraft circle and, being written in that wonderfully typical verbose style, The Gorgon bears testament to this. Rather than being set in one of Smith’s ‘fantastic’ lands this tale unfolds in the foggy streets of contemporary London…well, mostly! Being a Clark Ashton Smith story we’re in a dreamlike, hallucinatory state where time and place have little meaning, words like ‘where’ and ‘when’ do not refer to the fundamental truths we’re used to, they tend to bend and morph into one another.

The Kill – Peter Fleming

This is an interesting one. I first encountered it in the first Pan Book of Horror Stories and I’ve never forgotten it. The introduction is well observed with a beautiful and cynically cold writing style (which, to give a more contemporary reference point, is reminiscent of Will Self’s style). It seems to be setting up a perfect short story which could be, to give another reference, quite Chekhovian in that it’s a theatrical, single scene, one act, two-hander. However, it devolves into a story within a story which one of the two characters narrates to the other and this secondary tale takes precedence. I can’t help feeling that Fleming missed a trick in not developing the initial setting to run alongside the secondary but he chose the linear method of introduction – narration – denouement, but he was a young writer at the beginning of his career at the time so perhaps we can forgive him that. It’s such a shame that Peter Fleming (older brother of Ian) was such an explorer and adventurer and dedicated most of his time to travel writing rather than developing his skills with fiction. Anyway, here’s the corker of opening scene-setter:

the kill fleming

Blood Son – Richard Matheson

In the introduction to this story Lee suggests Matheson is “…without any doubt, one of the greatest writers in this marvellous field of fantasy and the macabre and grotesque”. He’s right about that. Sadly, Matheson died last year but left behind him a legacy of novels, short stories and screenplays. In Blood Son, Matheson gives us a fresh twist on the vampire story (as he did with I am Legend, probably his most famous novel). It concerns a disturbed boy, Jules, who from birth had a vacuous stare and was silent. He didn’t speak until he was five years old when his first word was “death”. From that point Jules started to develop a large vocabulary, the young neologist enjoyed creating portmanteau words such as “…nightouch” and “…killove”. And at the age of twelve when Jules sees the film version of Dracula and subsequently reads the Stoker novel (again and again and again) he becomes obsessed with idea of becoming a vampire, much to the concern of everyone around him.

The Black Stone – Robert E. Howard

Being the author of the Conan series, among others, Robert E. Howard was better known as a progenitor of the Sword & Sorcery genre. For such a short life (he committed suicide at the age of thirty) he was remarkably prolific. He held a long time epistolary relationship with H.P. Lovecraft and is considered yet another member of the Lovecraft circle; this influence can be seen in The Black Stone, being a first person narration concerning an investigation into an ancient monolith which stands in a pine forest on a Hungarian mountainside and the Midsummer pagan rites witnessed there. Howard introduces us to a new tome of Yogsothery, Nameless Cults by Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt. He also alludes to a mad poet by the name of Justin Geoffrey.

The Monster Maker – W.C. Morrow

Morrow offers us a tale of a surgeon who has a sideline in assisting young men to end their lives. They visit him in his large, dilapidated and dismal house in an unfashionable part of town and, at their request, he dispatches them quickly, cleanly and quietly. Or does he? If he does then why does the surgeon’s wife wonder why he always insists on eating in his private room? And why does he take more food than any one man could possible eat?……….and they say torture porn is a modern invention!

The Judge’s House – Bram Stoker

This a much anthologised story, it’s Bram Stoker…of course it’s much anthologised! If it wasn’t this one then it would have been The Squaw or Dracula’s Guest. As you would expect, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece in that late Victorian / Edwardian dark gothic kind of a way. It concerns a young scholar who decides to get away from it all to study for his upcoming examinations. He rents a dishevelled Jacobean manor house which has stood empty and rat-infested since the last owner, an infamous judge known for the number of death-sentences he pronounced, died. As is so often the case in these tales of the supernatural, even the logical mind of a young and cynical scholar can easily be overwhelmed by dark forces, especially when the aforementioned scholar discovers that the bell rope in the living room was custom made for the judge from the rope his executioner used to hang his victims.

The Plague of the Living Dead, 1984 Ace/Stoneshire (ed. Kurt Singer)

Published in 1984, this is quite a late anthology in my collection, hence the photographed cover imagery rather than the garish illustrations we’re used to from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And what a cover it is in all its wraparound glory! You can’t help but wonder just who these people are. You wouldn’t think that they would have gone to the expense of hiring models or actors for such a tawdry affair, so are they friends and family of the editors? Staff of the publishing house? Who knows?

plague of the living dead

The editor, Kurt Singer, was quite a guy by all accounts. He was born in Austria and raised in Berlin. He witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime and fought against it by publishing an underground anti-Nazi newspaper. A price was put on his head and he fled Germany in 1933 to become a spy and journalist first in Sweden and later in the US. He spent his life writing books and giving lectures on WWII and espionage. He also wrote many biographies and, luckily for us, edited several horror short story collections.

C O N T E N T S

The Plague of the Living Dead – A. Hyatt Verrill

The Mask – Robert W. Chambers

The Affair at 7 rue de M… – John Steinbeck

Under the Hau Tree – Katherine Yates

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes – Rudyard Kipling

The Abyss – Robert A. W. Lowndes

Fever Dream – Ray Bradbury

Spawn of the Green Abyss – C. Hall Thompson

 

H I G H L I G H T S  &  L O W L I G H T S

The Plague of the Living Dead – A. Hyatt Verrill

The first and titular tale in the collection is an interesting piece, it reads like an embryonic form of the modern zombie story. Of course, with authors like W. B. Seabrook, the Haitian voodoo breed of zombie was becoming quite the fashion in the 1920s and 30s but Verrill’s is quite a different beast. First published in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1927, this is a story about a disgraced biologist who, after being ridiculed in the press for his experiments in immortality, exiles himself to a remote volcanic island to continue his work. Unfortunately for the islanders he partially succeeds and the dead are soon rampaging through the local community.

Verrill never once mentions the Z word in this story but it could well have paved the way for later works. There is an obvious similarity in the title with Romero’s series of films and the island setting gives it a certain Lucio Fulci feel.

The Mask – Robert W. Chambers

Chambers is far too important to have a brief summary of his work here. In fact, I’m not sure how well his stories work as stand-alone pieces in anthologies like this or whether they should always be read in context with his other ‘King in Yellow’ stories. I think he deserves an entire post to himself.

The Affair at 7 rue de M… – John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, you say? In a cheap and tawdry horror anthology? What is the literary world coming to? Here Steinbeck offers us a tale concerning a haunted (or should that be possessed?) piece of……errrrr……try to keep a straight face……..look, it’s a story about a haunted piece of bubblegum.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes – Rudyard Kipling

This is one of Kipling’s early tales, he was just nineteen when he wrote it. It appeared in his 1888 collection The Phantom Rickshaw, alongside his famous The Man Who Would be King. This is a brutal and hallucinatory journey of an English engineer in India who, suffering from a fever, rides his horse after a pack of dogs and falls, horse and all, into a large sandtrap which is impossible to escape from. To make matters worse it is inhabited by a colony of Indians who have all been exiled from their communities due to serious illnesses of one sort or another. The place becomes a limbo or purgatory and we’re never sure whether it is real or part of the narrator’s fever dream.

The Abyss – Robert A. W. Lowndes & Spawn of the Green Abyss – C. Hall Thompson

Singer treats us to not one, but two Lovecraft inspired pieces here, I think the word ‘abyss’ in both titles give the game away. They are both replete with all the expected Yogsothery, Lowndes even introduces us to a new a tome to add to the Mythos, The Song of Yste.

It’s interesting to see how two pieces of, what are essentially, author-sanctioned fan fiction can be so different.

With his 1941 piece Lowndes’ gives us a contemporary tale written in a modern voice, he’s taken the essence of Lovecraft’s mythos and made it his own. It has a quite a hard-hitting noirish opening paragraph and continues in the same style:

We took Graf Norden’s body out into the November night under the stars that burned with a brightness terrible to behold and drove madly, wildly, up the mountain road. The body had to be destroyed because of the eyes that would not close, but seemed to be staring at some object behind the observer, the body that was entirely drained of blood without the slightest trace of a wound, the body whose flesh was covered with luminous markings, designs that shifted and changed form before one’s eyes.

 

However, Thompson’s later piece (first published in Weird Tales in 1946) is a rather dated, gothic affair and reads more like a pastiche of Lovecraft. It’s a rollicking enough tale of doomed love and inter-dimensional aquatic cross-breeding but Thompson is one of those writers of the “why use one adjective when half a dozen will do” school of thought, which makes the read a bit like wading through a cloyingly fetid, noxiously stygian, eldritch swamp.

An example:

Heath was never quite certain about the island. It seemed probable that the Macedonia had run aground on the pinpoint of land that rose like a monstrous medusa from the mauve-green depths of the sea, yet Heath had never been aware of the existence of such an island; it was marked on none of the charts drawn by human hands. At a moment’s notice, it had seemed to rear itself into the cotton-wool fog off the port bow of the ship. The water lapping at its fungus-clotted shores gurgled insanely as it swallowed the last of the Macedonia…

 

The tale is set in a small and forgotten coastal town called Kalesmouth. There is a shadow over Kalesmouth and it’s the shape of a disgruntled H.P. Lovecraft wondering if he did the right thing in encouraging all these fanboys.

The Evil People, 1974 Ensign Books (ed. Peter Haining)

the evil people copy

Peter Haining! Everyone’s favourite horror anthologist. His output was staggering, between 1965 and his death in 2007 he produced well in excess of a hundred horror anthologies. Add to this several non-horror anthologies, dozens of non-fiction books, a handful of short stories and a couple of novels, and you’ve got quite a body of work.

Originally published in 1968 (my copy is the 1974 edition from Ensign Books), this is one of Haining’s early anthologies.

Haining kicks off his brief introduction with an adapted passage from Aleister Crowley:

I burn the Devil-cake, proclaim
These adorations of Thy name.
Behold this bleeding breast of mine
Gashed with the sacramental sign!
I stanch the Blood; the wafer soaks
It up, and the high priest invokes!
This Bread I eat. This Oath I swear
As I enflame myself with prayer:
“There is no grace: there is no guilt:
This is the Law: DO WHAT THOU WILT!”

This is an excerpt from Crowley’s infamous Thelemic ritual known as The Mass of the Phoenix from his 1913 publication The Book of Lies. However, the first line has been altered for this volume “Devil-cake” should actually read “Incense-cake”. Whether Haining made a genuine error or whether he altered it with a view to sensationalism I don’t know, but it does set the tone nicely for the thirteen stories of sorcery, Satanism, black magic and assorted witchery which follow.

Introduction – Peter Haining
William Harrison Ainsworth – Nocturnal Meeting
H. P. Lovecraft – The Peabody Heritage
W. B. Seabrook – The Witches Vengeance
Dennis Wheatley – The Snake
August Derleth – Prince Borgia’s Mass
Algernon Blackwood – Secret Worship
Francis Prevot – The Devil Worshipper
Basil Copper – Archives Of The Dead
Robert Bloch – Mother Of Serpents
Arthur J. Burks – Cerimarie
Shirley Jackson – The Witch­
Ray Bradbury – Homecoming
Edgar Allan Poe – Never Bet The Devil Your Head

H i g h l i g h t s  &  L o w l i g h t s

H.P. Lovecraft – The Peabody Heritage

This is a rather plodding, workmanlike affair concerning an inherited house and the realisation of the new owner that his ancestors were a little on the unsavoury side. This story is not actually by Lovecraft himself but by his post-mortem publisher and populariser, August Derleth. Derleth took several incomplete stories of Lovecraft’s, some of which were only fragments, and wove his own stories around them. Many believe that Derleth’s stories lack the depth, the all-encompassing despair and existential horror of Lovecraft and this certainly seems to be the case here. For a more Lovecraftian experience along similar themes, try his own The Rats in the Walls.

W.B. Seabrook – The Witches Vengeance

William Buehler Seabrook, soldier, adventurer, explorer, occultist, journalist, author, self-proclaimed cannibal, ex-asylum inmate, associate of Aleister Crowley, the man who allegedly brought the zombie shambling into popular culture and, finally, suicide victim. What a guy!! This book wouldn’t be complete without this tale of witchcraft among the rural population in the mountains of the South of France. Written in first person, Seabrook has placed himself as the narrator which gives the story a conversational tone and air of believability. Who knows? Given his background, perhaps it is true. I can see Mr Seabrook getting a blogpost all of his own here at some point.

Algernon Blackwood – Secret Worship

It’s always a joy to see Blackwood in a contents list, he’s one of the finest writers in the genre. This is one of his series of stories which include the character John Silence, the psychic doctor. The name and tagline of John Silence may suggest a sub-Holmesian psychic detective character, a stout chap battling the forces of evil and all that, but Blackwood is a far more subtle writer than that. John Silence is merely a one dimensional background character who Blackwood uses as a cipher to resolve the supernatural stories. Described as a small man in tweeds with wonderful eyes, Silence sits somewhere between a Christ figure and a post-Freudian rationalist.

Shirley Jackson – The Witch­

Shirley Jackson writes with such a beautiful and subversive ambiguity. She may be better known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which was adapted for the wonderful 1963 film The Haunting) and her infamous short story The Lottery (first published in 1948 by The New Yorker, who went on to receive hundreds of letters from confused and angry readers. The story was later banned in South Africa). Here, Jackson gives us her trademark ambiguity with a disturbing little story about a mother and her two young children on a train journey. Spreading over just four pages, there is dark and chilling subtext to this story which always manages to stay just out of reach. The more you grasp at it the more it slips away. This is one of those stories that lurks in the corners of your mind for a long time and demands reread after reread.

When Churchyards Yawn, Arrow 1963 (ed. Lady Cynthia Asquith)

A little about the title of my blog. It is, of course, a line from a writer whose work went a long way to shaping the modern horror story, William Shakespeare. Now, there was an author that could craft a chilling tale. If you consider the psychological horror of Macbeth, the serial killer thriller of Richard III, the ghost story of Hamlet or the out and out splatter-fest of Titus Andronicus you realise that Shakespeare was a genre writer through and through (…ok, he liked to do the odd rom-com too, but we’ll forgive him that).

I saw an RSC production of Titus Andronicus a year or so ago. So much blood!

So much blood!

The stage was awash with it, to the point of the bespattered audience members in the front row complaining to the management about the damage done to their clothes, not expecting a gentle evening of high culture to end in a veritable bloodbath.

So, back to the title of the blog. It comes from Hamlet:

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

But, as much as I love Shakespeare, this is a blog about mid-20th century horror paperbacks so I didn’t choose the title from Hamlet but from this anthology of ghost stories edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith:

when churchyards yawn copy

Now then, this book isn’t actually from my own collection. Well, it sort of is….it sits on the shelves along with my collection. I’ve collected these horror paperbacks since I was around 10 years old. They fascinated me. I would pick them up from jumble sales whenever I found them (…or whenever I could afford them (times were ‘ard back then)).

Anyway, skip forward ten years or so and I met the girl who was to become my wife. When I first walked into her bedroom her bookshelf stared me in the face…Peter Haining, Dennis Wheatley, Pan Horror, Fontana Ghosts…she had been collecting them since her childhood too! So this book rightly belongs to my wife, Samantha.

I’ve just read that paragraph back to myself. A young man walks into the bedroom of a young lady for the first time and all he can do is obsess about her bookshelf………and that’s not even a euphemism! Well, you play the hand you’re dealt, I suppose.

Contents

The Apple Tree – Elizabeth Bowen

A Little Ghost – Hugh Walpole

The Cotillon – L. P. Hartley

The Buick Saloon – Ann Bridge

A Threefold Cord… – Algernon Blackwood

Opening the Door – Arthur Machen

As In a Glass Dimly – Shane Leslie

The Horns of the Bull – W. S. Morrison

The Man Who Came Back – William Gerhardi

The Unbolted Door – Mrs. Belloc Lowndes

“John Gladwin Says…” – Oliver Onions

Our Feathered Friends – Philip MacDonald

“God Grante That She Lye Stille” – Cynthia Asquith

 

Edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, this anthology was first published in hardback form by Hutchinson in 1931 and the stories included, although appearing in many anthologies in the following decades, would mostly have been first published here. It’s a classy line-up, Asquith usually stuck with a similar list of authors for her anthologies and, why not? When you can have a contents page like this, why go elsewhere?

The highlights of this anthology for me are The Cotillon by L. P. Hartley and Our Feathered Friends by Philip MacDonald.

Hartley is a master of portraying the dangerous subtext within passionate relationships, as in his novel The Go-Between, and he doesn’t disappoint here in this wonderfully gothic tale set during a masked dance in the middle of winter. 78 masked guests should be present at the dance but, after a sash window is discovered open with the snow blowing in, a 79th masked guest has arrived!

MacDonald offers a very simple tale but tells it in such a hypnotic way it can’t fail to draw the reader in. MacDonald has a very cinematic writing style and uses it well here, at the opening of the story the reader is viewing the two characters as small parts in a panoramic landscape and as the tension increases he slowly pans us in closer and closer until we’re right on top of the action at the gruesome denouement.

For anyone out there that’s new to early to mid-20th century supernatural fiction, you could do a lot worse than getting hold of Lady Cynthia’s anthologies. She breaks no new ground here, most of the authors are well established in their writing careers, but it is a good solid read nonetheless.