Friday, 22 September 2017

Doctor Who: In the Blood

Jenny T. Colgan
BBC Books

All over the world, people are venting their fury at one another on social media. Dropping their friends, giving vent to their hatred, and everywhere behaving with incredible cruelty. Even Donna has found that her friend Hettie, with her seemingly perfect life and fancy house, has unfriended her. And now, all over the world, internet trolls are dying...
As more and more people give in to this wave of bitterness and aggression, it's clear this is no simple case of modern living. This is unkindness as a plague.

From the streets of London to the web cafes of South Korea and the deepest darkest forests of Rio, can the Doctor and Donna find the cause of this unhappiness before it's too late?

Colgan has got to play in the Doctor Who sandpit a few times now, most notably with her 11th Doctor novel 'Dark Horizons' which had it's charms but if a good Viking story exists I've yet to read one. This time out though you can tell she's living the dream and getting to play with her favourites, the 10th and Donna Noble. Right from the off you can feel Colgan's enjoyment of these particular characters; their voices are perfect and Donna especially seems made for Colgan's pen.

Plot wise an alien conspiracy that is pushing internet trolls to greater and greater levels of vitriol is pretty silly but no more so than that episode about the Adipose that brought Donna back to the series after ' The Runaway Bride'.  What we get is a globe trotting romp - minus the TARDIS - with much banter and bluster which seems to lose focus as it progresses into it's fairly overblown final third.

I'm not entirely sure I was the target audience for this book. I've always preferred the more gothic end of the Doctor Who spectrum and the Tennant / Tate era was never a favourite but it's an OK and occasionally amusing read that very much revives that era and I'm sure it's fans will find much to like here.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: In the Blood

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Cold Embrace

Alex Hamilton (ed)
Corgi Books

There are two fields of the arts where I think women have truly overcome the belittling misogyny that would devalue their contributions, have made their presence felt and stand shoulder to shoulder with their male contemporaries. Happily for me they're two fields I like very much indeed; experimental music - oh the glory of Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Pauline Oliveros, Else Marie Pade to name just the first four to come to mind - and as tellers of stories of the macabre and the supernatural. Why these two in particular? I don't know. Perhaps it's just my taste bias spotting immensely talented women in the fields to which I'm most drawn, perhaps it's a willingness by fans of these fields to accept diversity, perhaps other fields have a more ingrained misogyny, perhaps all of these, perhaps none.

Shirley Jackson
The reason I bring this up is that this here anthology is staffed almost entirely (Editor Alex is sole exception) by women and there are some of the greats here too, Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Bowen & Edith Nesbit amongst them. Storywise though there is one tale here that stands head and shoulders above the others, Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' a classic piece of witty and terrifying writing. That's not to say that others fall far short it's just that it really is that good.

E. Nesbit
Of the others M.E. Braddon's story - from which this book takes it's name - is a regular in these anthologies and for good reason and Sheena MacKay provides the delightfully ghastly 'Open End' as a grieving widow finds an outlet for her emotions. Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' is another staple with a story of an unavoidable and terrifying fate whereas Agatha Christie's 'The Seance' allows a bereaved mother one last opportunity to see her child.

The book takes a dip with Marie de France's tediously folkloric 'The Werewolf', Margaret Irwin's idiotic 'The Country Gentleman' and Mary Coleridge's 'The King is Dead' before we're back on familiar territory with E. Nesbit's 'John Charrington's Wedding' which for me isn't one of the lady's best but is certainly both readable and a favourite of anthologists.

Hortense Calisher is a new name to me but her body horror tale 'Heartburn' is an enjoyably frivolous beastie worthy of further reads. Scheherezade's 'The Cenotaph' on the other hand is a Robert E. Howard story in most respects full of deceitful women and ancient magic.

Elizabeth Jane Howard
I first came across Elizabeth Jane Howard's 'Three Miles Up' a few years ago and it became one of those stories that stick fast in your head. The tale of two canal riding holidaymakers and the mysterious lady that joins them is a gently unsettling and ultimately deeply eerie read.

Unfortunately the high point delivered by Howard's tale is somewhat short lived by Margueritte de Navarre's 'The Confessor' a tedious piece of folkish drivel and Janet Frame's teeny tiny tale 'The Press Gang'.

Flannery O'Connor's story of sickness, homesickness and family ties tells of a rural man uprooted by family to the city and wishing to return home to die, It's a fabulously grimy and uncompromising tale which would sit proudly in a collection alongside folk such as Harry Crews or Barry Gifford but here it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The books ends on a bit of a low as Elizabeth Gaskell's 'The Doom of the Griffiths' has too much of the Victorian melodrama about it and Elizabeth Taylor's interestingly creepy but ultimately disappointing story felt too much in debt to 'The Turning of the Screw'.

So what we have is the very definition of a mixed bag; one classic tale, a personal favourite, a few solid, reliable old favourites and more than a few page fillers but that's a pattern I can live with for as the good ones really do shine out and that one classic is always worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Strange Report

John Burke 
A Lancer Book

Strange Report was an ITC TV show about a scientist / sociologist / detective named Adam Strange and starring Anthony Quayle. It also featured a chap called Kaz Garas and former 1st Doctor companion Anneke Wills as his assistants Ham and Evelyn.

This novelisation of, I assume, the first two episodes of the 1st (and only) series reveals a show that very much is following the formula of these sort of things. Older, enigmatic and knowledgeable male with a quirky sideline - in this case sociology to show he's a bit of a counterculture type (he also drives around in a London black cab) - and two helpers to deal with the action or research and to ask what's going on.

The two stories here deal with corporate corruption and the murder of a pop star - still going for that counterculture kudos - and the stories unfold as these things often do. The writing is competent but uninspired, as is the plot and the whole thing resolutely refuses to sparkle.

On a slightly more positive note I do have the soundtrack here too and that's a very different kettle of fish shaped things.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Penguin Books

Who better to investigate the literary spirit world than that supreme connoisseur of the unexpected, Roald Dahl? Of the many permutations of the macabre, Dahl was always especially fascinated by the classic ghost story. For this superbly disquieting collection, he selected fourteen of his favorite tales by such authors as E.F. Benson, Rosemary Timperley, and Edith Wharton.

In his introduction to this collection Dahl makes a big thing about how he read 749 ghost stories and had only found 32 that he deemed to be any good; of those he includes 14 here. One of them, 'Playmates' by A.M. Burrage, is my favourite of all the ghostly tales I've read over the years and a few of them - Robert Aickman's 'Ringing the Changes', Edith Wharton's 'Afterward' and Marion Crawford's 'The Upper Berth' - are staples of these sort of books. Of the rest they can best be described as a tepid selection.

A.M. Burrage
Of these remaining stories a couple such as L.P. Hartley's 'W.S.', Rosemary Timperley's 'Harry' and Cynthia Asquith's 'The Corner Shop' have a flavour of those 'unexpected tales' that Dahl himself was famous for. A few such, such as the ever readable J. Sheridan le Fanu's 'The Ghost of a Hand' are a little cliché or lovely but a little bit twee like Timperley's other tale 'Christmas Meeting'. Some are just bad - 'Elias and the Draug' by Jonas Lie and 'The Telephone' by Mary Treadgold - and a couple proved to be a delightful surprise - E.F. Benson's 'In The Tube' and A.M. Burrage's 'The Sweeper'.

It must be said I was expecting more from this collection. I thought a writer like Dahl would be able to assemble a collection to beat all others but this one rarely seemed to sparkle and was often a bit of a chore. It did serve to remind me though that what I really need to do is more fully explore the writing of A.M. Burrage.

Buy it here:  Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Back House Ghosts

Catherine Sefton (Martin Waddell)
Puffin Books

'You've excelled yourself this time, Ellen,' groaned her mother when Ellen had made the mistake and overbooked their guesthouse, so that the family had to camp out in the deserted old house at the back. It was not at all the sort of place for ghosts, but all the same Ellen began seeing and hearing things she shouldn't, and knew she was being haunted.
(Also published as 'The Haunting of Ellen')

The arrival of a unexpectedly large family of guests sends the two Bailey children, flighty Ellen and pragmatic Bella, out of their own rooms in the guest house they run along with their mother and into the ramshackle old cottage at the end of the garden.

The pair try to make the most of their circumstances but Ellen soon finds herself having visions of a family and of a time past. With the aid of a new friend from amongst the plethora of children roaming the guest house and her sceptical sister she begins investigating into the fate of the family whose memories and presence haunt her cottage.

Originally published in 1974 this book feels older. It's Blyton-esque adventure sub-plot mixed with a gentle and almost wistful ghost story makes it feel more 1950s than 1970s. It does though have a certain charm, the interplay between the various characters is nicely done and it's all wrapped up in 135 pages so it certainly doesn't linger.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Grey King

Susan Cooper 
Puffin Books

"Fire on the Mountain Shall Find the Harp of Gold Played to Wake the Sleepers, Oldest of the Old..."
With the final battle between the Light and the Dark soon approaching, Will sets out on a quest to call for aid. Hidden within the Welsh hills is a magical harp that he must use to wake the Sleepers - six noble riders who have slept for centuries. But an illness has robbed Will of nearly all his knowledge of the Old Ones, and he is left only with a broken riddle to guide him in his task. As Will travels blindly through the hills, his journey will bring him face-to-face with the most powerful Lord of the Dark - the Grey King. The King holds the harp and Sleepers within his lands, and there has yet to be a force strong enough to tear them from his grasp.

After the joy of the previous book in the series I had high hopes for this penultimate part of Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' sequence. Young Will has come into his inheritance as an Old One and is secure and confident in his powers. So much so that he stood alongside the others to face up to the power of the Witch. Unfortunately as we begin this book an all too mundane illness has robbed him of much of this and he starts 'The Grey King' much the worse off.

As with the others in the series this is essentially a quest book. Will is once again tasked with finding and releasing an ancient magical force / entity that will aid in the fight against the Dark. As ever there are forces pushing against him.

Within all this magical malarkey Cooper has written a warmly human novel. The love and friendship experienced by Will during his convalescence / adventures in the mountains of West Wales make this a delightful read. The story is told with a deft hand for character and the keen eye for the fantastical which has helped cement this series as one of the modern classics of Wyrd Britain.

Buy it here:  The Grey King (The Dark Is Rising)

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Shining Man / Diamond Dogs / Plague City

So, to accompany Peter Capaldi's last series as the Doctor BBC Books have released another 3 of their series of hardback adventures, These things, which they've been doing with increasing irregularity since the arrival of the 9th, are usually a bit of a wobbly assortment but there's often 1 or sometimes even 2 that are a bit of fun and Doctor Who books are a bit of an addiction with me.


Doctor Who: The Shining Man
Cavan Scott
BBC Books

“Being scared is the least of your worries.”
The Shining Men are everywhere. You spot them out of the corner of your eye. Abnormally tall, with long lank hair, blank faces and blazing eyes. If they catch you, they’ll drag you away to who knows where. No one is safe. They’re on every street corner. Waiting. Watching. Shining bright.
Of course it’s a hoax. It has to be, right? It started as a joke, a prank for Halloween. Then it went viral. Idiots dressing up as monsters. Giving folk a scare. Silly masks and fright wigs. No one gets hurt. Because bogeymen aren’t real.
Until people start going missing and lights burn in the darkness. Burning like eyes.
But help is on its way, in the form of a strange man called the Doctor and his friend, Bill. The Doctor will keep us safe. The Doctor will stop the monsters. Unless the monsters stop the Doctor first.

Cavan Scott is a new name to me but here he's jumped into the world of the Doctor with both feet. It's not often that Doctor Who goes fully fantasy, usually there's some sort of alien doohickey, thingamabob or race behind the happenings but here we get a full on fairyland extravaganza filled with folkloric traps, supernatural critters and other realms.

Scott has reproduced the Doctor and Bill very well - although the Doctor being outfoxed by cloud storage seems unlikely - but with what must have been only a cursory peek at a couple of the early episodes he has nailed the interaction between the two which is testimony I suppose to just how effective a character Bill Potts was.

As is always the case with these books it's a pretty quick read both in terms of pace and page count which suits me down to the ground as I can read them in an afternoon and get my doctor fix. They're not always entirely satisfying but sometimes, like here, they're often, at the very least, fun.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: The Shining Man

Doctor Who: Diamond Dogs
Mike Tucker
BBC Books

“Here on Saturn, it literally rains diamonds.”
For over fifteen years the crew of Kollo-Zarnista Mining Facility 27 has been extracting diamonds from deep within the atmosphere of Saturn, diamonds that help to fund the ever-expanding Human Empire. But when a mining operation goes wrong, a rescue mission must be launched to save a worker lost overboard, a worker who claims that he has seen something amongst the swirling clouds. Something that can’t possibly exist.
When the Doctor and Bill arrive, they immediately find themselves caught between hostile miners, suspicious security guards and corrupt company officials as they face accusations of sabotage and diamond theft.
And below them, in the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant, something is starting to rise.

The second - that I read but I suspect it's meant to be the first in the trio - of this years hardbacks is a Who by numbers romp for the 12th and Bill.

The Doctor takes a flying visit to a diamond mine in the atmosphere of Saturn in order to nick a diamond suitable to keep Nardole in biscuits. They are,of course, soon discovered, captured and inevitably find themselves embroiled in some sort of intergalactic incident that will erupt into all out war unless the Doctor does his usual thing.

There's nothing here that we haven't seen many, many times before and the whole thing feels rather tired. I was glad to be finished with this one.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: Diamond Dogs

Doctor Who: Plague City
Jonathan Morris
BBC Books

The year is 1645, and Edinburgh is in the grip of the worst plague in its history. Nobody knows who will be the next to succumb – nobody except the Night Doctor, a masked figure that stalks the streets, seeking out those who will not live to see another day.
But death is not the end. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover that the living are being haunted by the recently departed – by ghosts that do not know they are dead. And there are other creatures lurking in the shadows, slithering, creeping creatures filled with an insatiable hunger.
The Doctor and his friends must face the terrifying secret of the Street of Sorrows – that something which has lain dormant for two hundred million years is due to destroy the entire city.

This third of the latest trio of NSA Who books is an improvement on the last one but still a fairly uninspiring read.

Morris is a regular Who scribe so knows his way around the Doctor and his crew and here he places them in the middle of a plague epidemic in Edinburgh of 1645 alongside a mysterious 'plague doctor' who seemingly knows when someone will die and the ghosts of those who have succumbed to the disease. He really piles it on does Mr. Morris and that's most of the problem.

The Doctor and Bill running around doing their investigating thing, meeting people and butting against authority figures is OK but increasingly it all gets a bit silly and with the arrival of the aliens and the volcano I pretty much gave up and just stumbled through to the end.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: Plague City

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Horror Stories

E. Nesbit
Penguin Books

A groom promises to be at the church on time, even if he has to come back from the grave to do it. A man inherits a property where he discovers a portrait of a woman that will change his life forever. Two newlyweds find their dream country cottage, unaware of an ancient curse from the previous owners. A gripping, unsettling and utterly chilling collection of short stories from a best loved storyteller.

For many people Nesbit will forever be tied to her books for children such as 'Five Children and It' and the perennial classic 'The Railway Children'.  I've not read either of them and my experiences with the good lady have entirely revolved around occasional appearances in ghostly anthologies of stories such as 'Man-Size in Marble' and 'John Charrington's Wedding' both of which, unsurprisingly, feature here.

In this instance 'here' is a brand new collection of her supernatural stories from Penguin which is part of an odd set of five books that also features John Christopher's 'The World in Winter', the feminist sci-fi of Joanna Russ' 'We who Are About to...', cyberpunk romp 'True Names' by Vernor Vinge and the urban fantasy of 'War for the Oaks' by Emma Bull.  As I said, an odd assortment and all presented in garish day-glo cover art.

Inside the giant pink skull that adorns the book in hand we find ourselves in very capable hands indeed. Ms Nesbit has an assured touch and her stories are taught and deliciously macabre.  Aside from the wandering statuary and ghostly nuptials she presents us with stories of love lost ('Hurst of Hurstgate' and 'The Ebony Frame'), about the price of revenge ('The Violet Car'), about the madness of guilt ('In the Dark') and the destructive selfishness of pride ('From the Dead').

Scattered amongst these are a couple of standout tales such as the cosmic Jekyll & Hyde of 'The Five Senses' and 'The Three Drugs', the obsessive revenge of 'The Head' and the entertainingly gossipy story of 'The Shadow'.

These sort of collections often offer up a couple of duff tales and this is no exception but it is unfortunate that they constitute the final three in the book which means it all ends on a bit of a downer. 

This is though a pretty enjoyable selection. There's nothing here that you'll lose any sleep over but as a fun excursion into a vivid imagination it's a bit of a treat.

Buy it here - Horror Stories (Penguin Worlds)

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Midwinter Entertainment

Mark Beech (ed)
Egaeus Press

An entertainment consisting of 288 pages; dedicated to short, yellowish days and long nights, to heavy curtains and the cracks and pops of burning logs, to frost-encroached byways and sturdy old inns, to skeletal trees and hungry black birds; and to the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.

Featuring many curious pieces, including several newly written stories (amongst them a brand new Connoisseur tale by Mark Valentine & John Howard), a smattering of rarely collected obscurities, a couple of never before translated artifacts and much more.

The full contents are as follows...

Meet Me at the Frost Fair by Alison Littlewood
The Monkey & Basil Holderness by Vincent O’Sullivan
A Matter of Fact by Marion Fox
The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy (A Tale in Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Snow-Image’) by Sheryl Humphrey
Drebbel, Zander & Zervan by Ron Weighell
Second Master by Mark Valentine
Window Widows by Avalon Brantley
The Secret by Anatole Le Braz (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Longing for Which by Sara Rich
Barefoot Withouten Shoon by Tina Rath
A Winter’s Night by Arthur Symons
How Shall Dead Men Sing? (The Supernatural Affair of Lord Alfred Douglas & Oscar Wilde) by Nina Antonia
Better Than Borley Rectory by Jane Fox
The Harmony of Death (A Pianist's Most Terrible Experience) by Havelock Ettrick
Il va neiger... by Francis Jammes (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Celestial Tobacconist by Mark Valentine & John Howard
Finvarragh by Nora Hopper
From the Mouth of Mad Pratt by Ross Smeltzer
In St. James’s Park by Hubert Crackanthorpe
Aut Diabolus Aut Nihil by X.L.
Somewhere Snow by Jonathan Wood

Mark Valentine
When this was first announced last year I gazed longingly at the mailout, positively salivating over the prospect of a brand new 'Connoisseur' story by Mark Valentine and John Howard.  When it finally appeared though the price tag (and this is in no way a criticism, it's a beautifully presented book) was way out of my newly unemployed pockets.  Happily, post Christmas a copy came to light on a popular auction site for a third less than the asking price and so I decided to take the plunge and I'm very glad I did.

The book offers a mix of tales old and tales new, occasional poetry and a long discussion on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  Of these, poetry isn't my particular bag and whilst there was nothing that made me turn up my nose there was nothing that raised an eyebrow either. Nina Antonia's Oscar Wilde piece was certainly interesting but for someone like me with barely a passing interest in other people's personal lives it was ultimately a distraction from the fictions.

Alison Littlewood
The book opens strongly with Alison Littlewood's elemental tale of all consuming loss, 'Meet Me At The Frost Fair', followed by the body horror of Vincent O'Sullivan's 1895 tale 'The Monkey and Basil Holderness'.  Sheryl Humphrey's 'The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy' had far too much of the folktale about it to fully satisfy but the ever welcome presences of Ron Weighell with his charming tale of books, obsession and alchemical pursuits 'Drebbel, Zander and Zervan' and Mark Valentine with his story of the various holders of the title of 'Master of the Queen's Mysteries' in 'The Second Master', soon get the book back very much on track.

Avalon Brantley's 'Window Widows' is an enjoyable haunted house tale that feels a lot older than it evidently is.  It's followed by a translation of a story called 'The Secret' from 1900 which begins with perhaps the worst opening line I've ever read and doesn't improve from there.

Sara Rich's 'The Longing for Which' reveals itself to be an enjoyable tale of obsession and possession which is followed by Tina Rath's equally readable story of possessions and freedom, 'Barefoot Withouten Shoon'.

With Havelock Ettrick's 'The Harmony of Death' editor Mark Beech finds another intriguing old tale of a pianist subjected to a 'Most Terrible Experience' whilst Jane Fox's 'Better Than Boxley Rectory' is an engagingly written but ultimately disappointing and rather silly story that takes far to long in the telling.

John Howard
And so we arrive at the very welcome return of The Connoisseur in 'The Celestial Tobacconist' as our esteemed aesthete participates in both the finest of tobaccos and a ritual performance to resurrect an ancient pagan sect.  As ever with the duo of Valentine and Howard the tale is beautifully written and enchantingly seductive.

The trio of tales that close out the book begin with the 'Vault of Horror' type twisty demonic shenanigans of Ross Smeltzer's 'From the Mouth of Mad Pratt' whose ending you can see coming from many miles away.  Much more enjoyable is 'Auf Diabolus Auf Nihil' by X.L. and dating from 1895 which despite being written in a style drier than a sand sandwich is alluringly creepy.

The book ends with 'Somewhere Snow' by Jonathan Wood which tells a slightly hallucinatory tale of loneliness and stories that unfolds slowly to give the book the subdued and slightly melancholic close that a book this mesmerically charged deserved.


Note - As I was typing up this review I learned of the recent death of contributing author Avalon Brantley.  Our thoughts go out to her, her family and her friends and we dedicate this review to her memory in the knowledge that her work will be enjoyed for years to come.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Earth Dies Screaming

In 1964 the world ended...again.  This time it did so at the hands of legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher with the help of shiny silver space robots and some zombies.

The film stars husband and wife Willard Parker and Virginia Field as two of a small group of survivors who assemble in a small English country inn following the sudden death of seemingly everyone else.  The motley crew of survivors consists of rugged American pilot, Jeff, Peggy, the plucky English woman in exceedingly unsuitable shoes (Parker and Field), creepy criminal, Taggart (Dennis Price), drunken sot, Otis (Thorley Walters), Violet the panicky housewife (Vanda Godsell), Mel the rebellious young man turned obedient puppy (David Spenser) and his heavily pregnant wife, Lorna (Anna Palk).

The film opens with a series of establishing shots of trains and planes crashing, people dropping dead and of bodies lying in the street. Indeed, eight and a half minutes of the film pass like this before a word is spoken.  These long periods of silence are characteristic of the rest of the film with neither the robots nor the zombies uttering a sound and, of course, the absence of sound reflects the quietude of the newly dead world whilst contrasting heavily with the assertion in the title.

At only slightly over an hour in length it's pretty short and packs a fair bit in while maintaining what feels like a pretty leisurely pace.  The more familiar actors here - Price and Walters - are playing very much within their comfort zones but all the cast are fairly strong even if little (very little) is done with the female characters - Field is essentially a damsel-in-distress here whilst the other two are victim and baby factory.

Probably the films the most effective aspect are the zombies.  We're used to the prosthesis heavy gore laden shambling corpses of the current variety but here they are given blank eyes, an implacable, shuffling gait and an eerie silence and it works an absolute treat.  One can only assume their influence on George Romero when he made Night of the Living Dead four years later.

In this age of the remake with both science fiction and zombies being so hot and especially considering it has probably the greatest name of any movie ever made I am amazed that no-one has had another go at this one.

Buy it here - The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) DVD Reg 2 - or watch it below.