Thursday, 29 October 2015

Grinny

Nicholas Fisk
Puffin Books

Great Aunt Emma is no ordinary old lady. But why is she so strange? For a start, she just appeared, grinning, on the doorstep, as if from nowhere. Why have Mum and Dad never mentioned her before - after all, she is supposed to be Granny's sister, isn't she?
Soon Tim and Beth start noticing more and more odd things about the great-aunt they've nicknamed 'Grinny'. And before long, they make a horrifying discovery. She isn't even human, she's as dangerous as a time-bomb and she has a fearful task to perform which involves them…

When Great Aunt Emma turns up on the Carpenters doorstep one morning they are surprised to say the least.  Not only by her sudden appearance but by the fact that they didn't even know she existed.  The adults come to accept her presence almost immediately but the kids remain sceptical as with her naivety of the obvious, her constant questioning, her total recall and her lack of any sort of smell she's a definite enigma.

Nicholas Fisk
Fisk's writing style gives 'Grinny' - at least until the finale - the feel of one of Joan Aiken's 'Armitage Family' stories with it's middle class, middle England setting littered with literary references from the likes of William Blake and with a lead character, Timothy, who shares a period 'Boy's Own' spirit with Mark Armitage.  It's through Tim's diary that the story is told and as such it's filled with a strange sort of chummy sexism that seems anachronistic even for the 1973 publishing date. Tim's bright but vengeful sister is in many way the central character in the plot as she uncovers much of the going s on and puts the lie to Tim's misogynistic witterings.

The resolution of the story is a little untidy and oddly unsatisfying in it's vindictive cruelty but I suppose considering the alternative it's justified and works to round off a brief but diverting read.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Woman in Black (1989)

Produced for ITV and broadcast on Christmas Eve 1989 this version of Susan Hill's novel was adapted for the screen by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale.

The story tells of a junior solicitor, Arthur Kidd, and his journey to the town of Crythin Gifford in order to attend the funeral of local reclusive widow, Mrs. Drablow.  Once there he finds a village fearful of both her isolated home, Eel Marsh House, and of a mysterious black clad woman who Kidd keeps catching sight of.

Soon Kidd's duties necessitate his taking up residence in Eel Marsh where he discovers that the house's evil reputation is well deserved.

Director Herbert Wise has conjured a restrained and in many ways a somewhat old fashioned air of menace that he maintains throughout.  In this he is ably aided by both the script and some fine performances from his cast including Adrian Rawlins as Kidd (who would later play James (father of Harry) Potter), (Colditz Kommandant) Bernard Hepton as local bigwig Sam Toovey, Brit TV stalwart David Daker as pub landlord Josiah Freston and Pauline Moran (Poirot's Miss Lemon) as the titular Woman.

As I understand it this is, with some small changes, a mostly faithful adaptation of the novel and shows an admirable mastery of the form by Hill, Kneale and Wise who have produced a low key and deliciously eerie film that finds terror in disembodied sounds, the laughter of children, the superstition of villagers and the presence of an enigmatic figure.  It's a form of horror rarely seen these days outside of the BBCs Christmas ghost story adaptations of James' (and others) works and with it's Christmas Eve scheduling one can't help but think this was intended as a direct challenge to that series and a successful one at that.

I've not read the book or seen the more recent movie (starring Daniel Radcliffe) but I must admit I'm intrigued to do so in the case of the former, less so the latter, as what we have here is an adaptation that shows a story very much in the vein of M.R. James and the classic Victorian and Edwardian ghost story writers. 

(edit - since writing this I have indeed read the book.  My write up can be found here)

As a fan of both Kneale and of stories written and/or set in that era I have been long intrigued by this one and was very happy to discover that it was eminently watchable, downright spooky and a complete delight. 

Enjoy

Sunday, 18 October 2015

65 Great Tales of the Supernatural

Mary Danby (editor)
Octopus Books

This powerful and comprehensive collection of 65 brilliant stories contains the best of all the well-known writers of the supernatural, both old and new, with some stories specifically commissioned for this volume.

I've grown to love these anthologies particularly the older stories which this mammoth tome has in spades.  It also features a fairly large smattering of (at the time of publication) modern writers.

Of the 65 here it's the famous that have been represented by their A-game pieces.  Robert Aickman opens the book with the sublime terror of his 'Ringing the Changes', E.F. Benson's 'The Bus Conductor' will be familiar to some from it's film version in the 1945 Ealing Films classic 'Dead of Night'.  M.R. James' 'Lost Hearts' makes it's customary appearance as does William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki classic 'The Whistling Room', Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Body Snatcher' and Nigel Kneale's 'Minuke'.


Robert Aickman
Alongside these and other key authors such as Algernon Blackwood ('Keeping His Promise'), Ambrose Bierce ('The Middle Toe of the Right Foot'), Charles Dickens ('The Signal-Man'), Arthur Conan Doyle ('The Brown Hand'), Mark Twain ('A Ghost Story'), H.G. Wells ('The Red Room') and Dennis Wheatley ('The Case of the Long-Dead Lord'), editor Mary Danby has gathered an intriguing selection of lesser known authors such as Charles Birkin whose 'Little Boy Blue' is an affectingly grim tale of childhood friendship and Dorothy K. Haynes' intense and horrific hotel in 'Those Lights and Violins'.

Adrian Cole
Rounding out the collection is a selection of more modern storytellers such as Adrian Cole who does a Cornish Lovecraft (who's also here with his excellent 'Moon Bog') pastiche called 'The Horror under Penmire', Danby herself gives a nifty tale of well-deserved comeuppance with 'The Engelmayer Puppets', Roger Malisson brings the creepy, small town horror in 'A Fair Lady' and Tim Vicary's heart wrenching 'Guest Room'  is a real highlight.

Since it was published in 1979 (mine is a 1982 4th edition) this book has become a charity shop staple but please don't let that put you off as it really is a corking collection.  OK so maybe there isn't 65 'great'tales but there's certainly a large proportion of the freaky and the fabulous.  There's a couple of tales that are very much not 'great' but Danby has compiled a fairly solid collection and there's a great deal of macabre fun to be had here.

Friday, 16 October 2015

A Year In The Country - In Every Mind

An apology:  I started writing this review several months ago and it got somewhat derailed by my taking a short cut down a flight of stairs and not being able to finish it due to the whole operation and recuperation thing, not to mention the accompanying opiates.  So, it's very late going online but it is still available on both download and disc - I just checked - so it's definitely worth sharing.

Spinning out from his really rather wonderful blog of the same name is A Year In The Country's 'In Every Mind' a collection of 12 tracks that act as an eminently suitable companion to the blog itself.

The music has a stated inspirational link to 1960s UK television oddity 'The Owl Service' but it'll take better ears than mine to point out any links other than a shared hallucinatory quality that leaves a distinct feeling of perplexed awe at the conclusion.  What I can hear are echoes of the synthesizer rich David Cronenberg soundtracks woven through the deep, dark, sonic manipulations of British post-industrialists like Coil and dada cut-up maestros Nurse with Wound alongside the haunted, bucolic, landscapes of Comus and the Incredible String Band.

'In Every Mind' is a set that traverses genres and crashes notional boundaries with abandon creating a truly mesmerising array of sounds that are melded to great a ghost fiction; a spectral narrative haunting the echoes of a half remembered chimerical fantasy.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Jackanory

Between 1965 and 1996 the BBC produced several thousand episodes of a series based around a wonderfully simple idea; an actor / author reading a story in 15 minute chunks directly to camera.  The series, 'Jackanory', became a staple of children's television featuring many key books, authors and actors during it's long run.

Alongside folktales, classic fairy tales and long established writers such as Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter and P.L. Travers it also featured stories by less recognisable or less mainstream authors such as J. G. Ballard, Joan Aiken and Richard Hughes.

The list of those who signed up to read stories speaks volumes about the regard that the programme was held in; from the programmes most prolific reader Bernard Cribbins (who read some 114 different stories) and other well known British TV icons such as Brian Cant, Thora Hird and Joyce Grenfell through 7 different incarnations of The Doctor (numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 & War) to international superstars like Peter Sellers, Michael Palin and Judi Dench.

In 2006, 10 years after the original series ended, the BBC produced two new stories and also dedicated several hours of BBC4 to a celebration of the show.

The video embedded below is that night.  First up are two episodes, 'The Dribblesome Teapot' by Norman Hunter read by Kenneth Williams and Philippa Pearce's 'A Dog So Small' read by Judi Dench.  These are followed by an hour long documentary (it starts at 29:05 for those who don't want the stories) and then two more stories, Rik Mayall's full on reading of Roald Dahl's 'George's Marvellous Medicine' and finally Alan Bennett reading A.A. Milne's 'The House at Pooh Corner'.  The whole thing is compered by, who else, Bernard Cribbins.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Wyrd Britain mix 7: Grey Malkin guest mix

Today Wyrd Britain is happy to present the first in an occasional series of guest mixes for our monthly mixcloud music session.  First up is Scottish musician Grey Malkin.

Grey Malkin is the brains behind 'The Hare and the Moon' whose music melds the dark majesty of Coil with the rural psychedelia of the British Acid Folk scene.  He is also a regular contributor to The Active Listener blogzine.  Below are his thoughts on the music that makes up his mix.

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Stone Angel – Stone Angel
I am a huge fan and an avid collector of the period of folk music in the late 60s/early 70s where something a bit darker and ‘out there’ permeated, creating what is now often labelled acid, wyrd or psych folk. Albums such as ‘Swaddling Songs’ by Mellow Candle, Caedmon’s self-titled debut album and those by Mr Fox, Sourdeline, Forest and Stone Angel are all exceptionally inspired and truly creative. Over the last few years their influence is really starting to be acknowledged which is gratifying and some of these recordings (which were often private pressings or sold very few copies at the time) have become easier to get hold of. Stone Angel’s debut is one such album and comes highly recommended; its gothic folk and chilling skeletal sparseness has been a huge influence on my own music.

Coil – Backwards
If I had to choose a band that has meant the most to me throughout the years Coil is the one that springs immediately to mind. I always return to them, they describe the world as I know it to be and how I perceive it. Liminal, lunar and lysergic their likes will never be seen of again. But the legacy they have left is some of the most emotive, transportive and pleasingly disturbed music that has ever and will ever exist. Everything is indeed backwards.

Human Greed – World Fair Theme
Human Greed (or Michael Begg) is, for me, one of the foremost composers or musicians working today. His music is just immense, the emotional impact of it and the ease with which it soaks into the air and the atmosphere. It doesn’t feel right at all to describe his music as ambient as it is not background in any sense, it is intensely affecting and demands full attention and care. I would recommend any of their work to a newcomer but ‘World Fair’ is a personal favourite, the attention to detail and the sheer beauty and melancholy of it is astounding. Michael was a first choice for me to master ‘Wood Witch’, the last The Hare And The Moon album, as I wanted something of that sense of size and space in how it sounded. He did a fantastic job.

Julie Covington – My Silks And Fine Arrays
This is more of a choice based on something I am listening to a great deal of just now rather than enduring fandom. I am not a massive aficionado of all of Julie’s material although I am a fan of her voice even on the songs which are not to my taste. It’s just a very pure, affecting and storytelling vocal performance; quite a folk singer’s voice in fact. I’m not one for warbling or showing off in music (except for prog rock in which the more absurd the better) and there is a simplicity that is powerful in how she expresses herself. It’s also a cracking song.

Caedmon – Aslan
Caedmon are one of my all-time favourite bands and their debut album is quite rightly viewed as an essential (acid) folk release. It pleases me that they formed in Edinburgh where I now reside and that I got to see them perform here a few years back when they reformed. It delights me even more that I have been able to work with Ken Patterson from the band on previous and forthcoming The Hare And The Moon material. It’s just such a magical album; the songs are otherworldly, exciting and unpredictable. Seek it out!

Nurse With Wound – Two Shaves And A Shine
Steven Stapleton has also been a constant inspiration to me, the notion that you can be a non-musician and it doesn’t matter – you can still create swathes of mood and sound that disturb, intrigue and have an impact upon the listener. He is also unconstrained by genre and you never quite know what you are getting with each new release, only that it won’t sound like anything else on this earth. His music is also exceptionally useful for annoying the neighbours, clearing out unwelcome guests and scaring small children. ‘Two Shaves And A Shine’, with its demented performance by Nurse collaborator and Current 93 frontman David Tibet alongside frantic mandolin solos, distorted guitar and a truly funky bassline is for me one of their classic ‘hits’.

United Bible Studies –The Lowlands Of Holland
This track features two singers which I could listen to all day, every day; Alison O’Donnell (from the afore mentioned Mellow Candle) and David Colohan. I especially like the way that, for the most part, this is straight folk however there are a few details and shadows in there that just twist the track slightly off kilter. It’s very subtle but powerfully done and there is a tangible darkness as a result. United Bible Studies just seem to be a bottomless well of inventive and unique recordings, they are hugely prolific yet everything they release has such a high quality control. That may be about to end as I’ve been recording with them! I’ve also recorded a track with Alison for the forthcoming ‘Songs From The Black Meadow’ compilation based on Chris Lambert’s superb book ‘Tales From The Black Meadow’.

Strawbs – Witchwood 
Simply here because it is a beautiful, eerie and timeless song that is perfectly formed, it is not extravagant or overdone in any way but is just as it should be. I do like the Strawbs and the album ‘From The Witchwood’ is probably the one I reach for the most. Is ‘prog folk’ a genre? If not it should be. Perfect for listening to sitting in the heart of a wood whilst growing a beard.


Friday, 2 October 2015

The Vendetta Tapes

John Baker
Buried Treasure

If I say that much of what you can hear here is typically Baker you will of course understand that by saying that I am by no means deriding anyone or anything and I am, in fact, giving it very high praise indeed.  Perhaps the phrase 'quintessentially Baker' would be more appropriate except what we have here is indeed that but also so much more.

Compiled by Alan Gubby, who was also responsible for the two fantastic 'John Baker Tapes' compilations released on Trunk Records a couple of years back, this newer album is a two part sort of deal.

For the most part it's Baker's contributions to the soundtrack to 'Vendetta' a Mafia thriller produced by the BBC in the 1960s.  On these tracks we get to hear his characteristic processed and layered twangs, clonks and sprongs melded seamlessly with jazz melodies and instruments.  I must admit to having been sceptical when I first heard of this release as to how well these two things would merge and whether they could transcend any novelty factor well, they do, they can and I'm an idiot for thinking otherwise.  The fusion creates music that is a pure delight; an honest, purposeful and extraordinary marriage of Radiophonic Workshop eccentricity with giallo cool.

The rest of the album is where that 'quintessentially Baker' thing I mentioned earlier comes in with a selection of tracks that were left over from the 'John Baker Tapes'.  These show his mastery of rhythm and melody with both showcased through his meticulous cut and paste methodology to produce music that will be as familiar to entire generations of Brits as it is still perplexing, exhilarating, capricious and mesmerising.

Hugely recommended and available digitally (below) with limited numbers of LPs and CDs still available.