Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Stone Tape

In 1972 having returned to the BBC after a sojourn as a freelancer with companies such as Hammer Films, Nigel Kneale was offered the chance to write the Xmas play for broadcast on BBC Two.  Following the well trod tradition of a Xmas ghost story Kneale decided to meld his take on the genre with the science fiction with which he made his name.

His story concerns the efforts of a team of researchers attempting to develop a new recording technology in the haunted house in which they have set up shop using the theory that the very stones of the building have become imprinted with a 'recording' of the death of a young woman.

The play stars Michael Bryant and Jane Asher, was produced by former Doctor Who producer Innes Lloyd (the man responsible for the Doctor regenerating) and directed by another former Hammer employee Peter Sasdy (director of Countess Dracula and Taste The Blood of Dracula).  The music and the, desperately unsettling, sounds for the show were created by Desmond Briscoe which marked a rare foray into the studio for the head of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; Briscoe, incidentally, had in 1958 created the special sound for Kneale's original TV version of Quatermass and the Pit in one of the first projects worked on by the then newly established Workshop.

There are many gems in the Kneale catalogue and we've featured a few of them here on Wyrd Britain in the past and this one is right up there with the best of them.  Like 'Murrain' it concerns itself with those most Kneale of topics the clash between the supernatural and the scientific and like 'Quatermass and the Pit' and the late 70s 'Quatermass Conclusion' with the echoes of history imprinted on a location and it does both in the most terrifying manner.

The Stone Tape was recently revived for radio by the BBC in a production overseen by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy) which we'll return to at a later date.  In the meantime though here's the original.

Buy it here - The Stone Tape [1972] [DVD] - or watch it below.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie
Harper Collins

It's seven in the morning. The Bantrys awake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing evening dress and heavy make-up. But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl?

When the Colonel and Mrs Bantry are awoken to the news that there's a dead young lady in their library there are two calls to make.  For the Colonel it's to the police, for his wife it's to her friend Miss Jane Marple.  Soon the good lady is quietly puzzling her way through a maze of alibis and potential murderers all the time being quietly certain of who did it but not quite knowing the how or the why.

Again this books proves to be an absolute delight.  The tangle of the plot, the wit and the invention of the dialogue and the masterful invention of the author all tied together with a central character who is perfectly realised.

Buy it here - The Body in the Library (Miss Marple)

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Making of 'The Innocents'

A few days ago I posted the 1961 gothic horror movie 'The Innocents'.  A brooding and, if you'll excuse the pun, haunting ghost story concerning a governess and her young charges.

The film itself is a masterclass of visual storytelling and as such when I spotted this short BFI documentary discussing the making of the film and the people behind it I thought it would be of interest to some of you, personally I found it fascinating.

Hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

London Falling

Paul Cornell 
Tor Books

The dark is rising ...Detective Inspector James Quill is about to complete the drugs bust of his career. Then his prize suspect Rob Toshack is murdered in custody. Furious, Quill pursues the investigation, co-opting intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover cops Costain and Sefton. But nothing about Toshack's murder is normal. Toshack had struck a bargain with a vindictive entity, whose occult powers kept Toshack one step ahead of the law -- until his luck ran out. Now, the team must find a 'suspect' who can bend space and time and alter memory itself. And they will kill again.
As the group starts to see London's sinister magic for themselves, they have two choices: panic or use their new abilities. Then they must hunt a terrifying supernatural force the only way they know how: using police methods, equipment and tactics. But they must all learn the rules of this new game - and quickly. More than their lives will depend on it.

I've read a few of Cornell's things over the years, mostly from the library when I've not found anything else which is not intended to be a slight against him but rather an observation that the titles on which he made his name as a comic writer - such as X-Men and Batman - aren't really to my taste. He did have a stretch on Hellblazer too but I was gone from comics by then and stayed gone for about 10 years.

I'm not sure why I'm saying any of this as what we have here isn't a comic but the first in a series of novels about a group of magic coppers. I think I'm probably just admitting to a tiny bias in that I really didn't like the other stuff but it had as much - if not more - to do with my disinterest in people dressed in spandex hitting each other as it did in the writing.

D.I. Quill and his small team of two undercover officers and an intelligence analyst are at the end of a long and complex investigation and about to make the score of their careers when the chief suspect is brutally murdered in custody, in plain sight of Quill and with no visible perpetrator.

Their investigations lead them in the direction of one particular old lady who possibly may have had a hand in a huge number of deaths stretching back further than seems possible. During the raid on her house something inexplicable happens and the team are plunged headlong, unprepared and ill-equipped, into an aspect of London that they'd previously been blissfully unaware of.

I must admit I struggled with this book. For the most part I found it to be a pretty ponderous read peopled by unlikeable characters. I almost gave up on it a few times during the first 100 pages or so but persevered after reading some online reviews that promised that it came to life in the second half, Well, I ploughed on and it did but not much. I found that with the exception of Sefton (one of the undercover coppers) I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them. The story was laborious and resolutely dull with an identity problem about whether it wanted to be Neverwhere or The Sweeney and ended up not really capturing the spirits of either.

Comparisons will also be made to Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London' series and there are similarities but Aaronovitch has a wit and a lightness of touch that is missing here. Cornell's protagonists are all so serious that they must have appalling and permanent jaw ache from all the teeth clenching and the whole thing felt drab and unlovely and perhaps that's the point and I just couldn't see it which would be annoying.  This - the supernatural detective -  is a genre I like very much indeed.  I have a shelf full of this sort of stuff and desperately want to like this book and can see that there's something quite interesting buried in there, especially with their find at the end, but everything is all so down and maudlin it feels like it's pushing me away.

When I picked this book up I grabbed the other two in the series with it - they were on offer - so I may try at least the second one just to find out if there is something here and I'm just missing it.

Buy it here - London Falling (Shadow Police)

Monday, 6 November 2017

Supernatural Tales 35

David Longhorn (editor)

I've been planning to pick up a copy of Supernatural Tales for a while now but things kept getting in the way and I'd forget about it.  This time when I got a mailout from Mark Valentine detailing his very intriguing contribution I straight way grabbed myself a copy.  Turns out it was worth every penny and I really should have started buying these sooner.

The magazine consists of 6 and half (possibly) stories and a couple of reviews.  The latter are of a book, a film and a comic, none of which I'm familiar with although the comic is an adaptation of Arthur Machen's superlative 'The White People'.  If you've read Longhorn's blog - http://suptales.blogspot.co.uk/ - then you'll know his reviewing style is eminently readable and he makes all three sound very enticing.

The first of the stories, 'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson is a hugely intriguing but ultimately frustrating prospect that sets up a mystery only to suddenly bring the whole thing to a crashing halt.  I really wanted this to be much longer to give Wilkinson the opportunity to develop and tease out and fully realise the really interesting premise.  Indeed, I was so taken by Wilkinson's writing that I tracked down a copy of his collection published by Egaeus Press.

Mark Valentine (photo by R.B. Russell)
Mark Valentine's story, 'The Scarlet Door' did everything his mailout promised it would with a story of the unexpected perils of book collecting. Andrew Alford's 'A Russian Nesting Demon' struck me as a very glib story about body dysmorphia and I skipped past Micheal Chislett's, 'The Subliminals' as it was part 1 of a story to be continued in the next issue when, if it concludes there, I'll read both parts together - it's also the reason for that 'possibly' you may have noticed back there.

Matt Joiner's paean to the buildings of our past and the remnants of their existence that inhabits our memories takes literal form in his 'The Utter Dust' which set me to quietly remembering those places that meant much but are now lost in all but memory.

John Howard is an author we've encountered here at Wyrd Britain before on a number of occasions and have always been delighted to do so.  His contribution 'The House at Twilight' also deals with place, memory and loss in a bittersweet tale of love broken, lives parted and the brutality of loneliness.

The beauty and the power of Howard's story does no favours to Helen Grant as her story of Midas' curse and the greed of selfish venal men seems rather empty after it.  A re-read a few days later helped me enjoy it more as a fun tale but I think it needed to be otherwise positioned in the magazine as anything would have struggled in the emotional backwash of Howard's piece.

As I said at that top of this I've long been meaning to dip a toe into S.T. and it seems I chose the most opportune moment as for the most part this was a very fine collection that I heartily recommend.

Buy it here - http://suptales.blogspot.co.uk/p/buy-supernatural-tales.html

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Innocents (1961)

Based on the Henry James novella 'The Turn of the Screw', The Innocents tells the story of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) who becomes governess to two young children, Flora and Miles (played with aplomb by Pamela Franklin and the creepiest kid of the 1960s Martin Stephens) and becomes convinced that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess (Clyte Jessop) and her abusive lover (Peter Wyngarde).

The Innocents is a masterclass of artful and restrained horror, a deliberate move away from the glorious schlock of the Hammer movies.  Scares are kept to a minimum and in their place is a mounting sense of terror realised through it's use of darkness, slow, languorous edits and astonishing, groundbreaking electronic sound from legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Daphne Oram.

Buy it here - The Innocents (Blu-ray) [1961] - or watch it below.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Dancers at the End of Time

Michael Moorcock
Orion Books

Enter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like 'conscience' and 'morality' are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveller, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time.
The Dancers at the End of Time, containing the novels An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs, is a brilliant homage to the 1890s of Wilde, Beardsley and the fin de siècle decadents, satire at its sharpest and most colourful.

 I first read this a few decades ago when I was about 19 or 20 and it blew my mind.  I'm not entirely convinced I understood everything but it certainly made an impact.

Here we have a collected edition of the three novels and across them Moorcock tells the story of Jherek Carnelian, a denizen of the utopia that exists on Earth at the end of time.  Into his perfect life is thrown an unwitting time traveller in the shape of a married, Victorian, Englishwoman named Mrs Amelia Underwood.

On a whim, which is how Jherek and his peers do everything, Jherek decides he's going to be in love with Amelia and to that end pursues her through various trials and tribulations from one end of time to the other and beyond.

Jherek is one of the most endearing heroes I've ever come across.  He has no understanding of hate, jealousy, rage or any other negative emotion and when faced by adversity his response is either gentle perplexity or smiling wonderment; he is, in all ways, nice.

Mrs Underwood on the other hand is a woman trapped.  Where Jherek has been raised in an environment of utter anarchy she is the product of the most restrictive societal and familial mores and when confronted by Jherek's purity, born from what she sees as sin, her reaction is to bury herself in her faith and her heritage until his relentless love soon begins to chip away at her resolve.

This is the most wonderful (3) book(s).  It is filled with joyous invention, Moorcock's words dance across the page and his character sparkle.  I am a long time fan of his work and regularly dip into one of his, many, books especially as they tend to be fairly short and fast reads that you can devour in a couple of hours.  I poured over this one and eked it out over a good few days allowing the humour to percolate and the ideas to insinuate and at the end of 665 pages I was still desperately craving more.

Buy it here -  The Dancers at the End of Time: Written by Michael Moorcock, 2013 Edition, Publisher: Gollancz [Paperback]

Monday, 30 October 2017

Short Story - 'The Ash Tree' by M.R.James

Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller country-houses with which it is studded—the rather dank little buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong attraction, with the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the meres with their reed-beds, and the line of distant woods. Then, I like the pillared portico—perhaps stuck on to a red-brick Queen Anne house which has been faced with stucco to bring it into line with the 'Grecian' taste of the end of the eighteenth century; the hall inside, going up to the roof, which hall ought always to be provided with a gallery and a small organ. I like the library, too, where you may find anything from a Psalter of the thirteenth century to a Shakespeare quarto. I like the pictures, of course; and perhaps most of all I like fancying what life in such a house was when it was first built, and in the piping times of landlords' prosperity, and not least now, when, if money is not so plentiful, taste is more varied and life quite as interesting. I wish to have one of these houses, and enough money to keep it together and entertain my friends in it modestly.

But this is a digression. I have to tell you of a curious series of events which happened in such a house as I have tried to describe. It is Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to the building since the period of my story, but the essential features I have sketched are still there—Italian portico, square block of white house, older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere. The one feature that marked out the house from a score of others is gone. As you looked at it from the park, you saw on the right a great old ash-tree growing within half a dozen yards of the wall, and almost or quite touching the building with its branches. I suppose it had stood there ever since Castringham ceased to be a fortified place, and since the moat was filled in and the Elizabethan dwelling-house built. At any rate, it had well-nigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690.

In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of a number of witch-trials. It will be long, I think, before we arrive at a just estimate of the amount of solid reason—if there was any—which lay at the root of the universal fear of witches in old times. Whether the persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were possessed of unusual power of any kind; or whether they had the will at least, if not the power, of doing mischief to their neighbours; or whether all the confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by the cruelty of the witch-finders—these are questions which are not, I fancy, yet solved. And the present narrative gives me pause. I cannot altogether sweep it away as mere invention. The reader must judge for himself.

Castringham contributed a victim to the auto-da-fé. Mrs Mothersole was her name, and she differed from the ordinary run of village witches only in being rather better off and in a more influential position. Efforts were made to save her by several reputable farmers of the parish. They did their best to testify to her character, and showed considerable anxiety as to the verdict of the jury.

But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of the then proprietor of Castringham Hall—Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed to having watched her on three different occasions from his window, at the full of the moon, gathering sprigs 'from the ash-tree near my house'. She had climbed into the branches, clad only in her shift, and was cutting off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she seemed to be talking to herself. On each occasion Sir Matthew had done his best to capture the woman, but she had always taken alarm at some accidental noise he had made, and all he could see when he got down to the garden was a hare running across the path in the direction of the village.

On the third night he had been at the pains to follow at his best speed, and had gone straight to Mrs Mothersole's house; but he had had to wait a quarter of an hour battering at her door, and then she had come out very cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed; and he had no good explanation to offer of his visit.

Mainly on this evidence, though there was much more of a less striking and unusual kind from other parishioners, Mrs Mothersole was found guilty and condemned to die. She was hanged a week after the trial, with five or six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds.

Sir Matthew Fell, then Deputy-Sheriff, was present at the execution. It was a damp, drizzly March morning when the cart made its way up the rough grass hill outside Northgate, where the gallows stood. The other victims were apathetic or broken down with misery; but Mrs Mothersole was, as in life so in death, of a very different temper. Her 'poysonous Rage', as a reporter of the time puts it, 'did so work upon the Bystanders—yea, even upon the Hangman—that it was constantly affirmed of all that saw her that she presented the living Aspect of a mad Divell. Yet she offer'd no Resistance to the Officers of the Law; onely she looked upon those that laid Hands upon her with so direfull and venomous an Aspect that—as one of them afterwards assured me—the meer Thought of it preyed inwardly upon his Mind for six Months after.'
However, all that she is reported to have said were the seemingly meaningless words: 'There will be guests at the Hall.' Which she repeated more than once in an undertone.

Sir Matthew Fell was not unimpressed by the bearing of the woman. He had some talk upon the matter with the Vicar of his parish, with whom he travelled home after the assize business was over. His evidence at the trial had not been very willingly given; he was not specially infected with the witch-finding mania, but he declared, then and afterwards, that he could not give any other account of the matter than that he had given, and that he could not possibly have been mistaken as to what he saw. The whole transaction had been repugnant to him, for he was a man who liked to be on pleasant terms with those about him; but he saw a duty to be done in this business, and he had done it. That seems to have been the gist of his sentiments, and the Vicar applauded it, as any reasonable man must have done.

A few weeks after, when the moon of May was at the full, Vicar and Squire met again in the park, and walked to the Hall together. Lady Fell was with her mother, who was dangerously ill, and Sir Matthew was alone at home; so the Vicar, Mr Crome, was easily persuaded to take a late supper at the Hall.

Sir Matthew was not very good company this evening. The talk ran chiefly on family and parish matters, and, as luck would have it, Sir Matthew made a memorandum in writing of certain wishes or intentions of his regarding his estates, which afterwards proved exceedingly useful.

When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine o'clock, Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the back of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome was this: they were in sight of the ash-tree which I described as growing near the windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said:
'What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.'
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs.

Still, not much was to be made of the momentary vision, and the two men parted. They may have met since then, but it was not for a score of years.

Next day Sir Matthew Fell was not downstairs at six in the morning, as was his custom, nor at seven, nor yet at eight. Hereupon the servants went and knocked at his chamber door. I need not prolong the description of their anxious listenings and renewed batterings on the panels. The door was opened at last from the outside, and they found their master dead and black. So much you have guessed. That there were any marks of violence did not at the moment appear; but the window was open.

One of the men went to fetch the parson, and then by his directions rode on to give notice to the coroner. Mr Crome himself went as quick as he might to the Hall, and was shown to the room where the dead man lay. He has left some notes among his papers which show how genuine a respect and sorrow was felt for Sir Matthew, and there is also this passage, which I transcribe for the sake of the light it throws upon the course of events, and also upon the common beliefs of the time:

'There was not any the least Trace of an Entrance having been forc'd to the Chamber: but the Casement stood open, as my poor Friend would always have it in this Season. He had his Evening Drink of small Ale in a silver vessel of about a pint measure, and tonight had not drunk it out. This Drink was examined by the Physician from Bury, a Mr Hodgkins, who could not, however, as he afterwards declar'd upon his Oath, before the Coroner's quest, discover that any matter of a venomous kind was present in it. For, as was natural, in the great Swelling and Blackness of the Corpse, there was talk made among the Neighbours of Poyson. The Body was very much Disorder'd as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and Patron had expir'd in great Pain and Agony. And what is as yet unexplain'd, and to myself the Argument of some Horrid and Artfull Designe in the Perpetrators of this Barbarous Murther, was this, that the Women which were entrusted with the laying-out of the Corpse and washing it, being both sad Pearsons and very well Respected in their Mournfull Profession, came to me in a great Pain and Distress both of Mind and Body, saying, what was indeed confirmed upon the first View, that they had no sooner touch'd the Breast of the Corpse with their naked Hands than they were sensible of a more than ordinary violent Smart and Acheing in their Palms, which, with their whole Forearms, in no long time swell'd so immoderately, the Pain still continuing, that, as afterwards proved, during many weeks they were forc'd to lay by the exercise of their Calling; and yet no mark seen on the Skin.

'Upon hearing this, I sent for the Physician, who was still in the House, and we made as carefull a Proof as we were able by the Help of a small Magnifying Lens of Crystal of the condition of the Skinn on this Part of the Body: but could not detect with the Instrument we had any Matter of Importance beyond a couple of small Punctures or Pricks, which we then concluded were the Spotts by which the Poyson might be introduced, remembering that Ring of Pope Borgia, with other known Specimens of the Horrid Art of the Italian Poysoners of the last age.

'So much is to be said of the Symptoms seen on the Corpse. As to what I am to add, it is meerly my own Experiment, and to be left to Posterity to judge whether there be anything of Value therein. There was on the Table by the Beddside a Bible of the small size, in which my Friend—punctuall as in Matters of less Moment, so in this more weighty one—used nightly, and upon his First Rising, to read a sett Portion. And I taking it up—not without a Tear duly paid to him wich from the Study of this poorer Adumbration was now pass'd to the contemplation of its great Originall—it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes; of which a Principall Instance, in the case of his late Sacred Majesty the Blessed Martyr King Charles and my Lord Falkland, was now much talked of. I must needs admit that by my Trial not much Assistance was afforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin of these Dreadfull Events may hereafter be search'd out, I set down the Results, in the case it may be found that they pointed the true Quarter of the Mischief to a quicker Intelligence than my own.

'I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones also suck up blood.'

This is all that need be quoted from Mr Crome's papers. Sir Matthew Fell was duly coffined and laid into the earth, and his funeral sermon, preached by Mr Crome on the following Sunday, has been printed under the title of 'The Unsearchable Way; or, England's Danger and the Malicious Dealings of Antichrist', it being the Vicar's view, as well as that most commonly held in the neighbourhood, that the Squire was the victim of a recrudescence of the Popish Plot.

His son, Sir Matthew the second, succeeded to the title and estates. And so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy. It is to be mentioned, though the fact is not surprising, that the new Baronet did not occupy the room in which his father had died. Nor, indeed, was it slept in by anyone but an occasional visitor during the whole of his occupation. He died in 1735, and I do not find that anything particular marked his reign, save a curiously constant mortality among his cattle and live-stock in general, which showed a tendency to increase slightly as time went on.

Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical account in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1772, which draws the facts from the Baronet's own papers. He put an end to it at last by a very simple expedient, that of shutting up all his beasts in sheds at night, and keeping no sheep in his park. For he had noticed that nothing was ever attacked that spent the night indoors. After that the disorder confined itself to wild birds, and beasts of chase. But as we have no good account of the symptoms, and as all-night watching was quite unproductive of any clue, I do not dwell on what the Suffolk farmers called the 'Castringham sickness'.

The second Sir Matthew died in 1735, as I said, and was duly succeeded by his son, Sir Richard. It was in his time that the great family pew was built out on the north side of the parish church. So large were the Squire's ideas that several of the graves on that unhallowed side of the building had to be disturbed to satisfy his requirements. Among them was that of Mrs Mothersole, the position of which was accurately known, thanks to a note on a plan of the church and yard, both made by Mr Crome.

A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be exhumed. And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very strong when it was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and unbroken, there was no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or dust. Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon, for at the time of her burying no such things were dreamt of as resurrection-men, and it is difficult to conceive any rational motive for stealing a body otherwise than for the uses of the dissecting-room.

The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir Richard's orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good many to be rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.

Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and, having more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an Italian palace where he had found an English house. So stucco and ashlar masked the brick; some indifferent Roman marbles were planted about in the entrance-hall and gardens; a reproduction of the Sibyl's temple at Tivoli was erected on the opposite bank of the mere; and Castringham took on an entirely new, and, I must say, a less engaging, aspect. But it was much admired, and served as a model to a good many of the neighbouring gentry in after-years.

* * * * *

One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently, and yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had so rattled about the window that no man could get a moment's peace. Further, there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving in the course of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the inroads of the distemper (which continued among his game) had been lately so serious that he was afraid for his reputation as a game-preserver. But what really touched him most nearly was the other matter of his sleepless night. He could certainly not sleep in that room again.

That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and after it he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which would suit his notions best. It was long before he found one. This had a window with an eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the servants would be always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in that. No, he must have a room with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him early, and it must be out of the way of the business of the house. The housekeeper was at the end of her resources.

'Well, Sir Richard,' she said, 'you know that there is but the one room like that in the house.'
'Which may that be?' said Sir Richard.
'And that is Sir Matthew's—the West Chamber.'
'Well, put me in there, for there I'll lie tonight,' said her master.
'Which way is it? Here, to be sure'; and he hurried off.
'Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The air has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there.'

Thus she spoke, and rustled after him.
'Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I'll see the chamber, at least.'

So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy. Sir Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont, threw the shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of the house was one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as it was with the great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from view.

'Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in the afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room.'
'Pray, Sir Richard,' said a new voice, breaking in on this speech, 'might I have the favour of a moment's interview?'

Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who bowed.
'I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You will, perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my grandfather was Vicar in your grandfather's time.'
'Well, sir,' said Sir Richard, 'the name of Crome is always a passport to Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations' standing. In what can I serve you? for your hour of calling—and, if I do not mistake you, your bearing—shows you to be in some haste.'
'That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to Bury St Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my way to leave with you some papers which we have but just come upon in looking over what my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you may find some matters of family interest in them.'
'You are mighty obliging, Mr Crome, and, if you will be so good as to follow me to the parlour, and drink a glass of wine, we will take a first look at these same papers together. And you, Mrs Chiddock, as I said, be about airing this chamber…. Yes, it is here my grandfather died…. Yes, the tree, perhaps, does make the place a little dampish…. No; I do not wish to listen to any more. Make no difficulties, I beg. You have your orders—go. Will you follow me, sir?'

They went to the study. The packet which young Mr Crome had brought—he was then just become a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, I may say, and subsequently brought out a respectable edition of Polyaenus—contained among other things the notes which the old Vicar had made upon the occasion of Sir Matthew Fell's death. And for the first time Sir Richard was confronted with the enigmatical Sortes Biblicae which you have heard. They amused him a good deal.
'Well,' he said, 'my grandfather's Bible gave one prudent piece of advice—Cut it down. If that stands for the ash-tree, he may rest assured I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was never seen.'

The parlour contained the family books, which, pending the arrival of a collection which Sir Richard had made in Italy, and the building of a proper room to receive them, were not many in number.

Sir Richard looked up from the paper to the bookcase.
'I wonder,' says he, 'whether the old prophet is there yet? I fancy I see him.'

Crossing the room, he took out a dumpy Bible, which, sure enough, bore on the flyleaf the inscription: 'To Matthew Fell, from his Loving Godmother, Anne Aldous, 2 September 1659.'
'It would be no bad plan to test him again, Mr Crome. I will wager we get a couple of names in the Chronicles. H'm! what have we here? "Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be." Well, well! Your grandfather would have made a fine omen of that, hey? No more prophets for me! They are all in a tale. And now, Mr Crome, I am infinitely obliged to you for your packet. You will, I fear, be impatient to get on. Pray allow me—another glass.'

So with offers of hospitality, which were genuinely meant (for Sir
Richard thought well of the young man's address and manner), they parted.
In the afternoon came the guests—the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc. Dinner at five, wine, cards, supper, and dispersal to bed.

Next morning Sir Richard is disinclined to take his gun with the rest. He talks with the Bishop of Kilmore. This prelate, unlike a good many of the Irish Bishops of his day, had visited his see, and, indeed, resided there, for some considerable time. This morning, as the two were walking along the terrace and talking over the alterations and improvements in the house, the Bishop said, pointing to the window of the West Room:
'You could never get one of my Irish flock to occupy that room, SirRichard.'
'Why is that, my lord? It is, in fact, my own.'
'Well, our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst of luck to sleep near an ash-tree, and you have a fine growth of ash not two yards from your chamber window. Perhaps,' the Bishop went on, with a smile, 'it has given you a touch of its quality already, for you do not seem, if I may say it, so much the fresher for your night's rest as your friends would like to see you.'
'That, or something else, it is true, cost me my sleep from twelve to four, my lord. But the tree is to come down tomorrow, so I shall not hear much more from it.'
'I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage.'
'Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open last night. It was rather the noise that went on—no doubt from the twigs sweeping the glass—that kept me open-eyed.'
'I think that can hardly be, Sir Richard. Here—you see it from this point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement unless there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They miss the panes by a foot.'
'No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and rustled so—ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?'

At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy. That was the Bishop's idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it.

So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed to their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night.

And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the window stands open.

There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another—four—and after that there is quiet again.

Thou shall seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.

As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard—dead and black in his bed!

A pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the window when the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected air—all these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop of Kilmore looked at the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a white tom-cat was crouching, looking down the hollow which years had gnawed in the trunk. It was watching something inside the tree with great interest.
Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge on which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked up at the noise of the fall.

It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash. Two or three screams there were—the witnesses are not sure which—and then a slight and muffled noise of some commotion or struggling was all that came. But Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper stopped her ears and fled till she fell on the terrace.

The Bishop of Kilmore and Sir William Kentfield stayed. Yet even they were daunted, though it was only at the cry of a cat; and Sir William swallowed once or twice before he could say:
'There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am for an instant search.'

And this was agreed upon. A ladder was brought, and one of the gardeners went up, and, looking down the hollow, could detect nothing but a few dim indications of something moving. They got a lantern, and let it down by a rope.

'We must get at the bottom of this. My life upon it, my lord, but the secret of these terrible deaths is there.'
Up went the gardener again with the lantern, and let it down the hole cautiously. They saw the yellow light upon his face as he bent over, and saw his face struck with an incredulous terror and loathing before he cried out in a dreadful voice and fell back from the ladder—where, happily, he was caught by two of the men—letting the lantern fall inside the tree.

He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could be got from him.

By then they had something else to look at. The lantern must have broken at the bottom, and the light in it caught upon dry leaves and rubbish that lay there for in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come up, and then flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.

The bystanders made a ring at some yards' distance, and Sir William and the Bishop sent men to get what weapons and tools they could; for, clearly, whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced out by the fire.

So it was. First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with fire—the size of a man's head—appear very suddenly, then seem to collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay still. The Bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw—what but the remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish hair.

All that day the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men stood about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted out. At last there was a long interval when none appeared, and they cautiously closed in and examined the roots of the tree.

'They found,' says the Bishop of Kilmore, 'below it a rounded hollow place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures that had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more curious, at the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones, having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a period of fifty years.'

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Every now and again I feel the need to dip into a classic and today is definitely one of those days and 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes' is most definitely a classic.

The film tells of the elaborate revenge Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) and his chauffeur Vulnavia (Virginia North) take on the medical team he blames for the death of his wife.   Taking his cues from the 10 biblical plagues of Egypt he exacts a bloody retribution whilst being hunted by Inspector Harry Trout (the great Peter Jeffrey) and potential victim Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten).

Price is at the top of his game here, no piece of scenery is left unchewed and his silent presence for the first 30 odd minutes of the film show just how good an actor he could be and how perfectly cast he is here.  The film manages to be both gory and amusing (occasionally downright silly) is beautifully made with a fantastically creepy ambience especially with regard to Phibes' automaton orchestra and the phenomenal Basil Kirchin score.  Both the actors opposite him give as solid performances as you'd expect given their respective pedigrees and indeed the cast as a whole seem to be relishing the gothic campness; my particular favourite being the gravedigger with the immortal line of "Fools! Fools! They'll have the worms soon enough."

Enjoy.

Buy it here - The Abominable Dr. Phibes [DVD]- or watch it below

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The 2nd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman
Fontana Books

Robert Aickman "Introduction"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "Playing With Fire"
Edith Nesbit "Man-Size in Marble"
Robert Hichens "How Love Came to Professor Guildea"
Elizabeth Bowen "The Demon Lover"
Sir Max Beerbohm "A. V. Laider"
Edgar Allan Poe "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"
Lord Dunsany "Our Distant Cousins"
Robert Aickman "The Inner Room"
Perceval Landon "Thurnley Abbey"
John Metcalfe "Nightmare Jack"
Ambrose Bierce "The Damned Thing"
Edith Wharton "Afterward"


It's been a while since I stuck my head into one of these Fontana anthologies but tonight I had the craving.

Aickman has put together an admirable collection with only 3 of the 12 stories being of the 'Oh, it's that one again' variety; E. Nesbit's 'Man Size in Marble', Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' and Edith Wharton's 'Afterward'. All great tales and all solid choices but one's I've become very accustomed to skipping past.

Lord Dunsany
A few of the stories here proved to be an absolute delight; Conan Doyle's 'Playing With Fire' with it's cautionary tale of reaching beyond ones abilities, Robert Hichens' superbly crafted 'How Love Came To Professor Guildea' and Aickman's own supremely creepy 'The Inner Room' are all deliciously bewitching,

A few others, such as Lord Dunsany's 'Our Distant Cousins', with it's odd little scfi-fi tale very much in the spirit of both Wells' 'Time Machine' and C.S. Lewis' 'Out of the Silent Planet', and Poe's 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' provided an enjoyable distraction. Whilst others like Sir Max Beerbohm's 'A.V. Laider', Perceval Landon's ghostly 'Thurnley Abbey', John Metcalfe's almost Sherlockian 'Nightmare Jack' and Ambrose Bierce's 'The Damned Thing' filled both time and pages without too much complaint or distraction.

As with the other volume - I have them all here but am eking them out - Aickman proves himself the consummate anthologist. Each story, even the ones I didn't overly enjoy felt as though they belonged, as though they were at home in the collection and it proved for the most part to be a hugely enjoyable read.