Monday, 12 March 2018

The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales

Bob Mann
Longmarsh Press

For several years, Totnes writer and Longmarsh Press founder Bob Mann has given to friends and family a short story at Christmas, instead of a card. These are mainly of a supernatural nature and are firmly rooted in his knowledge of the locality and its history and culture. Now he has decided to share some of them with a wider audience.
The Last Steamer and Other Strange Tales contains weird visions, disturbing ladies, long-vanished music and mysterious time slips, mainly set in recognisable buildings and terrains.

I found out about this collection of folky / ghosty tales via a post by Mark Valentine on his fantastic Wormwoodiana blog.  His write up made this sound like a very enticing prospect with elements of M.R. James and Arthur Machen.  I'm always on the look out for new, interesting things to read so I nabbed a copy.

It is an intriguing read consisting of stories written mostly in the stead of Xmas cards which for the most part feature Bob himself in an almost occult investigator type role reporting on various ghostly visitations, unearthly phenomena or eerie circumstance in and around the area of Totnes, Devon.

There's not much to most of the stories but there are two in particular that stand out.  The title piece is an intriguing little tale of a ride on a phantasmal steamer and the book's longest story, 'Early Music', which aside from some, let's say, clunky sexual politics is a fun story of love expressed across time and recognition achieved.

Mark is certainly not wrong in drawing parallels with James and Machen as each shows a clear influence but in the end it's all a little well mannered and lacking in bite and what we have is a relatively charming collection that offer an insight into one man's hobby.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Injection (vol.3)

Warren Ellis (writer)
Declan Shalvey (artist)
Jordie Bellaire (colours)
Image Comics

An archaeological dig in Cornwall has gone very wrong, very quickly. And Maria Kilbride has her hands full already, as the effects of the Injection begin to dig in. So Brigid Roth, her old comrade from the CCCU, gets hired to go to a stone circle in the middle of a moor, under a granite tor, to find out why a ritual murder might have torn a hole in the world. What is the Cold House?

The first two volumes of this series quickly established themselves as being amongst my favourite books.  Taking it's inspiration from various Wyrd Britain faves such as Quatermass, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Thomas Carnacki and Doctor Who it certainly rings all our bells.

After the Maria Kilbride (Quatermass) and the Viv Headland (Sherlock) stories of the first two volumes for this third one Irish computer type Brigid Roth does her Doctor Who thing and goes visiting a stone circle in Cornwall that has both a dead body and Maria's attention.  Upon her unorthodox arrival Brigid finds the circle to be very interesting indeed and there's a mysterious old professor with two students who seem suspiciously like henchmen hanging around.  When things inevitably go wrong it does so with almost apocalyptic effect.

As ever Warren has crafted a witty, immersive and downright exciting tale this time melding modern and ancient technologies in the manner of the best Nigel Kneale scripts.  There's a little bit of 'The Stone Tape' in there along with some 'Quatermass Conclusion' and a tiny smattering of Kneale's short story 'Minuke'.

The art team are on fire here particularly on the latter parts of the book when things start to kick off - just check out that image to the left there - although I did wonder why a newly unearthed stone circle would be so grassy.

As I said earlier, by the end of book 1 this was already a favourite and the two subsequent volumes have confirmed and strengthened this opinion and I'm only sorry that with only two books left in the series we are now past the halfway mark.

Buy it here - Injection Volume 3

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Three Miles Up

Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote 'Three Miles Up' as one of her three contributions (along with ‘Left Luggage’ and ‘Perfect Love’) to 'We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories' a collaborative book with Robert Aickman published in 1951.  Other than these Howard only ever wrote one other story of the supernatural, 'Mr Wrong', which is a crying shame as her take on the genre is very much in line with her previously mentioned collaborator and we all know how far he developed the genre.

'Three Miles Up' is by far the most famous of her 4 tales turning up in numerous anthologies and it's easy to see why it was chosen for adaptation both in terms of budget constraints as it's all set in the very enclosed environment of a canal barge travelling through a sparse and desolate landscape and in the inscrutable power of the story.

The original tale sets two friends, one recovering from a breakdown, on a canal holiday that they are woefully ill-prepared for and soon fall to bickering before the discovery of a young woman asleep near the canal who agrees to travel with them sets them down a very different path canal.  The TV version made for the short lived mid 90s series 'Ghosts' changes some elements of the story making the two men brothers (played by Douglas Henshall & Dan Mullane, with Jacqueline Leonard playing the mysterious Sara) and adding in a slightly confused and overwrought back story regarding the death of their mother that allows the actors chance to chew some scenery and for the director to bring the story to a more definite close than the more powerful and enigmatic ending of the original.

If, like me, you are a fan of the original story I doubt this version will take it's place in your affections but it's an interesting attempt at updating and filming one of the finest takes on the modern supernatural tale.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Arthur Machen's 'The White People'

Born 155 years ago today Arthur Machen was a Welsh writer and mystic;  the vicar's son from the former Roman settlement of Caerleon in Monmouthshire who transformed a Celtic pagan sensibility and a love of the bucolic and the arcane mysteries of his rural childhood home into an array of bewitching and beguiling stories.

Never one for anything as simple as a ghost story Machen's fiction tells of places and people outside of the normal, of contact with the ephemeral and of the importance of the mystical.

Of all his works there are perhaps three that stand above all others. His debut novella 'The Great God Pan', his semi-autobiographical novel 'The Hill of Dreams' and the terrifying supernatural masterclass of 'The White People'.

I heartily recommend that you track down and read all of these (especially the last as it's my personal favourite) but in the meantime I thought I would share with you this lovely video by Rosalie Parker and Ray Russell of Tartarus Press who here present an abridged reading of 'The White People' augmented by music from Ray.

'The White People' is included alongside many other core Machen stories in this lovely collection from Penguin Classics - The White People and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Death Line (aka Raw Meat)

Known - in the US - as Raw Meat this is a 1972 movie made by AIP and starring the brilliant Donald Pleasance as the cynical and tea obsessed Inspector Calhoun and the always watchable Norman Rossington as Detective Sergeant Rogers who are investigating the disappearance of a politician (James Cossins) from Russell Square tube station.  The pair are aided in their search by two students, Patricia (Sharon Gurney) and Alex (David Ladd), who were the last people to see him alive.  What they find are the two last surviving descendants of a colony of Victorian railway workers who had been abandoned in the tunnels after a cave in and had resorted to cannibalism.

As well as being an often pretty gory cannibalistic horror of the type that would become increasingly popular with horror directors as the decade wore on - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes - Death Line also has at it's core an exploration of UK class and social structures with various tiers of British society coming into conflict; from Christopher Lee's cameo as threatening upper class MI5 agent, Stratton-Villiers, through the new, young, bohemian, middle class students, to the working class coppers and the under class of 'The Man' and 'The Woman' literally feeding on those above them.

Please don't start thinking of this as a po-faced piece of social drama it is a bitingly visceral and often very funny movie with Pleasance and Rossington in fine form and with Hugh Armstrong giving an astonishing performance as 'The Man' that instills weight and pathos on a character that could have been horrendously one dimensional in the wrong hands.

Death Line is a neglected and very much overlooked gem with some notable admirers, Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright amongst them, that deserves to be recognised as, if perhaps not a classic of the genre then certainly as an important (and hugely enjoyable) contribution and as a signifier of the direction horror cinema was going to head over the next decade or so.

Buy it here - Deathline AKA Raw Meat Full Uncut Version DVD REGION 2 Donald Pleasence Christopher Lee 1972 Horror DVD Death line - or watch it below.

PS - for those of you put off by the two and a half hour run time as shown on the video, the film is actually only 87 minutes long at which point it loops back to the beginning - I suspect to confuse the YouTube bots so it doesn't get pulled.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Judge Dredd: Year Two

Michael Carroll, Matt Smith, Cavan Scott
Abaddon Books

Rookie Year's Over
Mega-City One, 2081. Judge Joe Dredd’s been on the beat for a year. He’s made tough calls, tackled hard bitten perps, and seen the consequences of his choices come back to bite him. 
But he’s not done learning yet. Dredd’s second year on the sked will see him back out in the Cursed Earth, where right and wrong are questions that go beyond the easy answers of the Law; he’ll tackle an apparent serial killer—or more than one?—targeting journalists; and he’ll take his first real beat down, leaving him bent and broken with only his badge and his conviction to protect him.

I read the first of these Dredd prose collections a couple of years back and quite enjoyed it - my review is here.  I had some problems with the rapidity of Rico's descent into corruption - to go that far under in a year seemed very unlikely - and in the first story here he's been arrested and is on trial and he's not the only one.

Tarred by their shared genetic heritage Dredd also finds himself under intense SJS scrutiny as he's packed off to the worst possible sector and then out into the Cursed Earth and all of this is just in the first of the three stories.  Indeed, Michael Carroll's 'Righteous Man' proved to be my favourite of the trio and that's no slight to the others as I pretty much enjoyed the hell out of this book.

2000ADs editor Matt Smith takes over for the second story - 'Down and Out' - as echoes of the Dredd movie (the good one) abound with him injured and making his way up (and then down again...and then up another) block full of gangers before the book closes with Cavan Scott's 'Alternative Facts' which, with it's thinly veiled Trump presidency plot, offers up a murder mystery, serial killer, fake news plot and a cathartic ending.

There's nothing here to shake the Dredd world to it's core but then that isn't really the point.  It's just a fun romp into the mysterious early years of our favourite fascist lawman.

Buy it here - Judge Dredd Year Two

Sunday, 18 February 2018


Made (and released) in 1972 'Asylum' is perhaps one of the least celebrated of Amicus Productions' portmanteau movies and undeservedly so. It's framing story tells of the arrival of Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) at the titular establishment where he is challenged by Patrick Magee's Dr. Lionel Rutherford to interview the inmates and identify the hospital's previous head who has been committed there following a breakdown.

The frame and the four tales that follow are all written by Psycho author Robert Bloch and whilst eschewing the more gothic trappings of the Hammer movies still drink from the same well with stories concerning voodoo, soul transference and magic.

Over the course of the movie we are treated to performances from a host of  Wyrd Britain film legends.  As well as the already mentioned Jesus of Nazareth we also have Professor Van Helsing, Catweazle, Willow MacGregor, Professor Victor Bergman and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus alongside a host of other great actors that I wasn't able to think of an easily identifiable role for such as Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Syms.

Director Roy Ward Baker, who had previously directed 'Quatermass and the Pit' and 'The Vampire Lovers' for Hammer and various episodes of ITC spy-fi series like 'The Saint' & 'The Avengers' and would go on to direct another Amicus anthology 'The Vault of Horror', brings a practised eye to the proceedings and the end result is nicely claustrophobic with rare narrative logic for the telling of the stories and a brutally satisfying ending.

Buy it here - Asylum (1972) ( House of Crazies ) - or watch it below.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Furthest Station

Ben Aaronovitch

There have been ghosts on the London Underground, sad, harmless spectres whose presence does little more than give a frisson to travelling and boost tourism. But now there's a rash of sightings on the Metropolitan Line and these ghosts are frightening, aggressive and seem to be looking for something.
Enter PC Peter Grant junior member of the Metropolitan Police's Special Assessment unit a.k.a. The Folly a.k.a. the only police officers whose official duties include ghost hunting. Together with Jaget Kumar, his counterpart at the British Transport Police, he must brave the terrifying the crush of London's rush hour to find the source of the ghosts.

I do like it when a new Peter Grant book turns up which they do fairly often and now adding to a workload that already includes a comic book series the good Mr. Aaronovitch has commenced a series of Rivers of London novellas.

Peter is called in by his transport police friend Jaget to investigate reports of various people getting harassed on the trains by what appear to be ghosts.  With help from his niece Abigail, his ghost hunting terrier Toby and, of course, Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale they are soon on the trail of a time sensitive case.

It's every bit as fun as this series usually is.  Aaronovitch is a hugely personable writer and how could you go wrong with a book that contains lines like, "Don't get me wrong, I like the countryside.  In fact some of my best friends are geological features.'

With each and every book I become increasingly enamoured of this series and I've just discovered much to my bank accounts dismay that since I last looked not 1, not even 2 but 3 graphic novel collections have emerged.

Buy it here -  The Furthest Station: A PC Grant Novella (PC Peter Grant)

Click the label below to read the Wyrd Britain write ups of the previous entries in this series.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dark Encounter

Taken from 'Shadows', the mid 70s series of supernatural tales for children, 'Dark Encounter' is an interesting addition to one of the YA cornerstones of Wyrd Britain fiction. Written by Susan Cooper what we have here is a short tale that seems to exist in the same storyworld as her 'The Dark is Rising' novels.

The story tells of an actor (Alex Scott) returning to the town where he was evacuated to during WWII and where he meets a quartet of unusual folks (including Brian Glover) in an old windmill and is made to confront his fears of both trees and 'The Dark'.

There really isn't all that much here; the story is crammed into the limited run time, the effects are entertainingly rudimentary and the acting - with the exception of Shelagh Fraser (Luke Skywalker's Aunt Beru) - is very overdone but it makes for an interesting artifact and an intriguing addendum to the novels.

Buy it here - Shadows - The Complete Second Series [DVD] - or watch it below.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

And Now For My Next Trick

'And Now For My Next Trick' is an episode of the children's supernatural TV series 'Shadows' first screened in October 1978 and written by the creator of Sapphire & Steel, P.J. Hammond.

It stars British television staple Clive Swift as Mr. Devine, a down on his luck magician reduced to playing to rooms full of the bored children of formidable parents such as Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan from Blake's 7), who suddenly finds himself in possession of three magical eggs.  Blind to the consequences of his new found luck he embarks on an attempt to relaunch his flagging career.

As you might expect from a writer like Hammond this is a nifty little tale although perhaps a little moralising with an ending that's particularly brutal for a children's show.

Buy it here - Shadows - The Complete Third Series [DVD] - or watch it below