Saturday, 31 December 2016

Murrain

Screened in 1975 as an episode of the, for the most part forgotten, ITV series 'Against the Crowd' and written by Wyrd Britain legend Nigel Kneale, 'Murrain' (an old term meaning a disease affecting animals) is a TV play exploring that most Kneale of topics the clash of science and the supernatural, the modern and the archaic, the logical and superstitious.

The story tells of a visit by veterinarian Alan Crich (David Simeon) to a tiny, rural village to investigate a mystery illness affecting the pigs belong to Mr. Beeley (played by James Bond's boss, Bernard Lee).  The poorly pigs aren't the only problem in the village with drought, and sickness amongst the villagers adding to their woes.  Spurning the scientific minded approach of the outsider vet the villagers have already decided on the cause of the murrain, local odd bod and suspected witch, Mrs. Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones).

For a show with a runtime of less than an hour it maintains a fairly leisurely pace filled with extended silences as Beeley's bumpkin workforce slowly process even the simplest of tasks and questions. The lack of soundtrack is an unexpected joy that allows ambient sounds to add to the growing air of bucolic menace.  The cast all give a fairly strong account of themselves with Brandon-Jones' lonely, persecuted and unhinged Mrs Clemson being the standout performance and the very downbeat ending leaves a satisfying ambiguity.

In discussions of Kneales' work 'Murrain', if mentioned at all, is often relegated to a footnote, eclipsed by it's more exuberant siblings like 'Quatermass', 'The Stone Tape' or 'Beasts', but sometimes there's gold in a footnote and I think that's the case here.  'Murrain' with the constraints of it's obviously limited budget makes for a tightly controlled and concentrated exploration of Kneale's interests bereft of the more overt science fiction and horror elements of later work such as 'Baby' and 'The Quatermass Conclusion' and is all the better for it.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Werewolf Pack

Mark Valentine (editor)
Wordsworth Editions

The wolf has always been a creature of legend and romance, while kings, sorcerers and outlaws have been proud to be called by the name of the wolf. It's no wonder, then, that tales of transformation between man and wolf are so powerful and persistent.

On a recent visit to Hay on Wye I scored a big stack of these Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural books (and then three more in Cardiff three days later) so expect a few of them to crop up here over the coming months.  One of the first books in this series that I read was Mark's other Wordsworth Editions anthology, 'The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths', which was about as much fun as a book is capable of being so I jumped at this new discovery even though a fan of monster stories I am not.


Count Stenbock
I've not read many werewolf stories before - there was a short in one of 'The Sandman' volumes and I've vague memories of flipping through an adaptation of one of the 'Howling' movies as a kid and there's a Wyrd Britain regular that I'll come to later - but I've seen a whole host of movies, it is a most filmable creature, but the books have never really interested me.  There are some really interesting moments but I didn't really find this volume as satisfying as the other.  Much of that must be put down to my love of of the occult detective angle and my ambivalence to monsters but also far too many of the stories here had the feel of a folktale which, as regular perusers of my scribblings will know, aren't my favourite things.

There are though several interesting stories lurking here, Saki's 'Gabriel-Ernest' (which I alluded to earlier) is a perennial anthology entrant but I'd not come across his tale of bluster and comeuppance, 'The She-Wolf', before and won't be sorry if I never do again.  'The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains' by Captain Frederick Marryat is a worthy opener with elements of folk tale providing a backbone for a much more interesting story than I assumed from it's first few pages.


R.B. Russell
Count Stenbock's 'The Other Side' is a delicately hallucinatory tale of forbidden flowers and beguiling women and an ambiguously supernatural Sherlock Holmes pastiche called 'The Shadow of the Wolf' by Ron Weighell sticks out dynamic duo on the roof of an old house in the country tracking a savage murderer.  The book closes with R.B. Russell's wonderfully strange 'Loup-Garou' which I'm not even going to try and describe to you as it's something you need to experience yourself.

Around these stories are a host of other tales that are all worthy of your time as they display interesting takes on the mythos but the above were, for me, the standouts. As I said at the beginning, creature stories aren't my favourites but as a toe dipping exercise into the genre this book has much to recommend it.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Infinite Ghost Cage

This is a special Xmas edition of the fabulous BBC Radio 4 series 'The Infinite Monkey Cage' dealing with that most Wyrd Britain of topics, ghosts.  Woooooooooo (sorry, I promise I won't do that again)

Alongside hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox this episode features Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, actor and writer Mark Gatiss, cultural anthropologist Deborah Hyde and Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds. 

It's not the most coherent of discussions - too many people pulling in too many directions - and I'm well aware that many people find Brian Cox to be entirely marmite but it is entertaining.

I don't know how long the link will last and as it's the BBC those of you living beyond these shores may have to use a proxy server to get it to play.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b085tq49

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Woman In Black

Susan Hill
Vintage

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house's sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a pale young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.

I've avoided the Harry Potter version of this like the plague but the Nigel Kneale adaptation was particularly good so I was pretty intrigued to read the book at some point and so when I finally came across a copy I dived in.

As a pastiche of the ghost books of old it is absolutely spot on and Hill has nailed both the voice and the vibe.  There is a little wobble in that at times it's quite difficult to pin down exactly when the various parts of the story are set - at one point Arthur (Kipps, our narrator) makes an allusion to something being like a Victorian melodrama  (or some such, I stupidly forgot to make a note of the page) which is when I thought it was meant to be set so I revised forward to early Edwardian and in the opening sequence to possibly pre-WWII.


But anyway,  it's pastiche credentials notwithstanding the book has to stand on it's own account and it absolutely does.  Hill has created a genuinely creepy and disquieting tale wherein the Black Lady's presence and the spectral goings-on on the marsh are palpably upsetting.  Kipps is a sympathetically human character that we first meet as a gentle if somewhat melancholy character before we get to view the terrible events that turn the ambitious and slightly starchy younger version into the man we meet at the outset.

The supporting cast are, for the most part, fairly sketchily drawn which is unsurprising in a novella but Hill uses a lovely light touch to give them anima such as Tomes the clerk with his constant sniffing.

The books conclusion is both inevitable and horrible and drenched with vindictive and pointless malice leaving the reader drained and as bereft as our protagonist.

Buy it here -  The Woman In Black

Monday, 26 December 2016

A Foot in the Grave

Joan Aiken (author)
Jan Pienkowski (artist)
Puffin Books

There are a few of these collaborations between Aiken and Pienkowski with this one being the second I've managed to track down.  The first was a collection of Eastern European folk and fairy tales with the art interlaced through and framing the words (my review is here).  This time it's a much more straight forward writer / illustrator relationship with Pienkowski providing a series of paintings and Aiken writing stories to accompany them.

It's an engaging collection with a mix of stories seemingly written for adults alongside ones undoubtedly produced with younger people in mind.  It gives rise to occasionally jarring tonal shifts such as from the creepiness of the 'Movable Eyes' of Zia Tisna's dolls to the comedy of the outraged ghosts and their officious saviour in the books title piece.

These jars are few though and Aiken's storytelling flair and peerless imagination sends us into various places both mundane and unusual that are populated by the charming, the pathetic, the doomed and the damnable such as the screaming ghost infant in 'Beelzebub's Baby', an imaginary land populated by two brothers and an Italian graveyard amongst others.

It's a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read with a light hearted touch that belies the sinister aspect of both the stories and the stark expressionist artwork.

Buy it here -  A Foot in the Grave: and other ghost stories

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Horse of the Invisible

Broadcast in 1971 'The Horse of the Invisible' is so far the only live action adaptation of one of William Hope Hodgson's 'Thomas Carnacki' stories.

Created as an episode of the TV series 'The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes' a series which featured an adaptation of a different Holmes contemporary in each episode such as Guy Boothby's 'Simon Carne' and Emma Orczy's 'Polly Burton'.

In the story Carnacki (played by Donald Pleasence - forever beloved of Wyrd Britain for being the voice of the 'Dark and Lonely Water' public information film) is engaged by Captain Hisgins (Tony Steedman) to save his daughter, Mary (Michele Dotrice, who amassed an impressive Wyrd Britain pedigree in her early career) from the family curse, an invisible horse that begins to terrorise her on the night of her engagement.

Pleasence is, of course, excellent but personally I've always pictured Carnacki as a younger and more dynamic man so Pleasence's portrayal as a rather sedate, distracted and bookish character took a little getting used to.  The screenplay is faithful to the story and the ending looks every bit as daft in reality as I pictured it when I first read the story but you do get to see Carnacki's trademark electric pentacle in action (kind of).

It is a well-mannered and fairly placid example of early 70s TV that was obviously made on a pretty tight budget but the cast all throw themselves into the story and the end result is entirely enjoyable and makes one wonder why no one else has taken the opportunity to bring Carnacki to the screen.

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs

Tom Baker
Faber & Faber

This is the story of Robert Caligari - a thoroughly evil 13-year-old who gets his kicks from kicking pigs. After a humiliating episode with a bacon butty, Robert realises just how much he loathes the human race - and his revenge is truly terrible. 

This one has sat on my book shelf for a good long while.  It's sat there for the same reason I didn't buy it for years after it was released.  I didn't want to read it and find out it was a bit shit.  I'm the Tom Baker era type of book geek.  I was 4 when he woke up on the floor of UNIT HQ and 11 when he swan dived off the TV mast.  His is the face I picture when I think of madcap eccentrics and his is the voice I hear when I think of the same.  I really didn't want it to suck. It didn't. Phew!

This fun little novella is entirely Baker.  So entirely him that you hear his voice as you read his words.  His irreverence, his absurdity, his contempt for authority and his anarchic spirit all shine through as he tells the story of the malicious little boy, Robert Caligari, of his misdeeds and his misstep that leads to his grizzly end.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Over Sea, Under Stone

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. This is the first volume of Susan Cooper's brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising.

In the literature of Wyrd Britain a few authors work has come to define the various aspects of the aesthetic, James, Wyndham, Wells, Kneale, Garner and a few other worthies reign supreme but there are other authors whose impact has yet to be fully assessed none more so than Susan Cooper.

'Over Sea, Under Stone' is the first book in Cooper's Arthurian(ish) story collection known collectively as 'The Dark is Rising' (also the title of the second book in the sequence).  It tells of three young children and their enigmatic 'uncle' and their search for the grail.  

Barney, Simon and Jane along with their parents relocate for the summer to the small Cornish seaside town of Trewissick to stay with Great Uncle Merry.  Once there the three kids are drawn into Merry's search for the Arthurian grail and are subjected to all the associated dangers that entails. 

In this first book the storyline is a fairly typical quest story with the 3 kids up against some remarkably ineffective adults and a rather stupid bully of their own age.  The three manage to dodge their way through the peril spouting vague (and not so) period sexist drivel (the book was written in 1965) whilst working out the clues they stumble across along the way. 

It's a fun little romp with one foot firmly in the 'Famous Five', 'Secret Seven' tradition and the other in the more lively and interesting forms of children's fiction being established by contemporaries like Alan Garner.  This duality does leave the book feeling a little uneven as the two halves occasionally make for odd bedfellows but it does give the whole thing a definite period charm.

Buy it here -  Over Sea Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising)

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Flash Gordon OST

"Klytus, I'm bored. What play thing can you offer me today?"

Cheese, Sire! Pure, unadulterated cheese.

I have films that serve certain roles in my life.  There're a few films that I pretty much only watch when I'm ill because they are guaranteed to make me feel better; 'Singin' in the Rain' is one of them,  the Peter Falk wrestling movie 'California Dolls' ('All The Marbles' in the US) is another and the pitch perfect creature feature 'Tremors' is a definite.  When I'm feeling at odds with the world then 'Amelie' or (the original) 'Harvey' goes on but when I want to be festive and get all Christmassy then the gloriously camp extravaganza that is 'Flash Gordon' is the only candidate.

I have watched the film so many times.  I love everything about it.  Sam Jones' outrageously wooden acting (although he's still better than ex-Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan having his manhood tested), Peter Wyngarde's magnificently sleazy henchman, Klytus, Brian Blessed BELLOWING EVERY LINE whilst dressed in feathery underpants and gold wings, Max von Sydow's lecherous tyrant Ming and, of course, there's the lurid, day-glo plastic sets made with all the restraint of a toddler in a sweet shop and all the better for it. 

And then there's that soundtrack.

When Queen recorded the album in late 1980 they were riding high on the back of a series of massive selling albums and two recent global hit singles with "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" so a synthesizer heavy, predominantly instrumental soundtrack to a sci-fi B-movie could be seen as an odd move but this is a band that put an opera bit in the middle of their signature tune so odd moves were par for the course.  The soundtrack is a glorious mess of rock licks, ambient synthscapes and radiophonic electronic twiddles interlaced with choice pieces of dialogue with the tracks running into each other so the whole thing sounds like a massive prog rock concept album.

In those pre home video days if the TV wasn't showing it albums like this alongside the novelisations were the only way you had of reliving a favourite.  As a sci-fi obsessed 11 year old in 1981 listening to this album (along with Jeff Wayne's 'The War of the Worlds') through giant headphones on a beaten up Panasonic cassette recorder got me through a bout of chicken pox quarantined at my grandparents house for a week with only one comic to read.  As a result I know every wibble, wobble and word and it holds a special place in my heart.

So, with Xmas only 4 days away it's time to unwrap a favourite, sit back with a tasty beverage and enjoy.



Buy it here - Flash Gordon

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Ghosts That Haunt You

Aidan Chambers (ed)
Puffin Books

Chambers has amassed an impressive array of talent for this volume with only two names out of the ten being unfamiliar to me.  As it's themed to children you'll be unsurprised that 'Lost Hearts' makes an appearance but the rest of the contents are pleasingly fresh although of varying degrees of success.

The book gets off to a poor start with August Derleth's 'The Lonesome Place'.  A nice idea told well at first that loses it's way terribly and ends with a thud.  It's followed by 'The Empty Schoolroom' by Pamela Hansford Johnson whose tale of bullying and loneliness at a French boarding school is readable but ultimately too hackneyed to be entirely satisfying.

August Derleth
R. Chetwynd-Hayes' 'Brownie' is the story of an encounter between two precocious boys and a rather dim ghostly monk.   Again, enjoyable enough as a story of childish mischief and the triumph of common sense and compassion but with no real substance it's a little forgettable.

Jumping over the aforementioned M.R. James classic we arrive for 'Tea at Ravensburgh'.  Now, I'm a huge fan of Joan Aiken's 'Armitage Family' stories but the light hearted whimsy feels out of place here particularly as it follows in the footsteps of 'Lost Hearts'.

Pamela Hansford Johnson
The gloriously named Manly Wade Wellman gives us access to the 'School for the Unspeakable' in a tale of devil worship and revenge before Ray Bradbury's 'The Emissary' is sent out into the world again.  It's a story that crops up in these things fairly often and whilst not being one of his best it's very much at home here.

'The Lamp' by Agatha Christie treads similar ground to Algernon Blackwood's 'The Attic' (which I reviewed here) and is kind of lovely which is more than can be said for the unrelenting grimness of Brian Morse's 'We'll Always Have Tommy'.  It confronts us with two grieving parents and what could be madness, ghost or child in an interesting but slightly too jumbled tale to fully satisfy.

Ray Bradbury
The book ends with a piece by the editor called 'Dead Trouble' which isn't anywhere near as funny as it thinks it is as it tells of a ghosts attempts to let his family know where his body is.

I've read more than a few of these kid themed ghost anthologies over the last few years and this one is on a par with most of them giving an interesting if not entirely wonderful selection.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Grey Ones

John Lymington
Corgi Books

The fabulous Josh Kirby cover art made this one leap off the shelf at me in a dingy bookshop basement.  That the author was responsible for 'Night of the Big Heat' certainly didn't cause any problems to my mind either.

Here Lymington tells a very Wyndham-esque tale of two lone survivors trapped in a village filled with inhabitants who have lost - almost - all their inhibitions (and marbles) and which is surrounded by killer plants that are growing at a phenomenal rate.

Now, any of these things are enough to get me excited so this was a tantalising prospect but unfortunately Lymington has neither the chops nor the charm of Wyndham and his story is clunky, the characters are deeply unlikeable and the denouement is risible.  Further to this the titular creatures seem entirely tacked on; they are barely mentioned and never satisfactorily explained leaving you wondering just what the point was, something could be asked of the entire book. Still, you've got to love that cover art.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Ghosts, Spooks and Spectres

Charles Molin (ed)
Puffin Books

A collection of horror stories, many with a humorous turn.

One of the real joys of reading for me these days is cracking open another of these anthologies of late 19th / early 20th century ghostly fiction especially when it turns out to be full of stories I've not read before.  This one transpires to be a really nice cross section of the famous and the less so with Wilde, Dickens and Wells rubbing shoulders with folks such as Dora Broome and Richard Bartram.

The book opens with the venerable Oscar Wilde and his lovely tale of penance paid as a thoroughly modern American family drive the resident spirit to despair in 'The Canterbury Ghost', a story I must have read before as many years ago I read the complete works of Mr. Wilde but I had no memory of whatsoever.

Next up is one of several anonymous stories, none of which really bear much scrutiny but here goes. 'Teeny-Tiny' tells of a stolen bone and the disembodied voice demanding it's return, 'The Strange Visitor' is a truly dreadful piece of poetry, 'A Ghostly Wife' finds a ghost taking the place of a Brahman's wife whilst 'The Ghost- Brahman' finds the husband being replaced.  The final one, 'The Ghost Who Was Afraid of Being Bagged' is a silly folk tale about a barber tricking a gullible spirit into helping improve his fortunes and is easily the best of the five but as I said none are really worth the bother.


J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Charles Dickens is represented by one of his most famous and ubiquitous stories, 'The Signal-man', the story of a man haunted by a ghostly figure at the head of a railway tunnel whose appearance precedes a disaster of some kind.  This is followed by J.Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Madam Crowl's Ghost' where a young girl hired to work in the house of the dying Madam Crowl experiences several terrifying events that eventually bring forth the grim truth about the old lady.

Richard Bartram's 'Legend of Hamilton Tighe' is the second, and thankfully last, poem in the book.  Now, I'm not averse to poetry but this was a load of old 'dum-de-dum-de-dum' tosh but it's nautical theme does filter nicely in Captain Marryat's tale of the Flying Dutchman, 'The Phantom Ship'.


H.G. Wells
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Brown Hand' makes a fairly common appearance but it's story of a ghost seeking the return of the titular appendage is one that stands up to an occasional reread as does Richard Middleton's jokey romp 'The Ghost Ship'.  Less successful but continuing the watery theme is 'The Water Ghost' by John Kendrick Bangs which tells of the vindictive ghost of a drowned woman and the attempts to thwart her.

H.G. Wells goes for the more whimsical route as should be expected from a story titled 'The Inexperienced Ghost'.  Here a drunk man finds, berates and eventually aids a pitiful ghost he finds lurking in the corridors of his club in an amusing little ditty of a tale with an ending you can see coming a mile off.


W.F. Harvey
Dora Broome's 'The Buggane and the Tailor' has the feel of a folktale about it and, as is often the case with stories of that ilk, ends poorly.

Another author who is a regular in these books is Saki, especially in the form of his werewolf tale, 'Gabriel-Ernest' but this time out it's a story about vindictiveness and reincarnation as the titular 'Laura' continues her habit of picking on her friends husband in various forms following her demise.

R. Blakeborough's 'The Betrayal of Nance' is another folktale-esque story this time filled to the brim with betrayal, loss and attempts at redemption from beyond the grave whilst redemption is the last thing on the mind of 'The Beast With Five Fingers' as W.F. Harvey spins a terrific yarn about the murderous creature and the attempts to thwart it.


Andrew Lang
Harvey's tale is really the last hurrah of this fun collection as the final two stories, 'The Night the Ghost Got In' by James Thurber and Andrew Lang's 'The Story of Glam' are amusing but very slight in the case of the former and veering once more into pesky folktale territory with the later which is hardly surprising given his status as the author of the 25 collections of variously coloured 'Fairy Books'.

And so the book ends - for me at least - on an undeserved low note.  Undeserved because for the most part this was a thoroughly enjoyable set that offered a number of highlights whilst the few disappointments were also relatively short lived.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Algernon Blackwood reads

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the death of one of the finest writers of the ghostly and the weird,  Algernon Blackwood.

Born in Kent in 1869 Blackwood spent much of his early adulthood travelling through Europe, Canada and the US before returning to the UK in his thirties where he began a prolific writing career that was to spawn over a dozen novels, a number of plays and short stories by the score.

Happily for us Blackwood also had a small sideline in radio where he would read his stories.  It seems likely that most of these broadcasts are lost to us forever but happily one remains.  It's far from being one of his best stories and he's not a great reader but the opportunity to hear the man himself is too good an opportunity to pass up.

Enjoy


Friday, 9 December 2016

Gilray's Ghost

John Norman
Walker Books

A tense and gripping tale of horror and desire. In a pyramid-shaped tomb, in the forest, lie the last remains of Doctor Septimus Carr. An evil necromancer, he believed the bodily fluids of virgins could rejuvenate him; his grisly experiments claiming the life of a servant girl. Now, two centuries later, another girl is in mortal danger. Enter Gilray. Short and chubby, with a turn of speech as bizarre as his attire, Gilray has flown back in time to prevent the wickedness he fears is looming. But it's no simple task. For a start, who is the girl? Is it Linda Blake, Pauline Withers, Cassandra Ashe? Their teacher, flirtatious, poetry-loving Bob Wheatley, is the man whose help Gilray needs most, but he is preoccupied with passionate affairs of his own. At the same time, unknown to Gilray, the sinister Rosa and Robin Underleaf are planning to resurrect their "Master". The key, it seems, is the malign doctor's lost book of spells, if only Gilray can find and interpret it in time. The book explores a number of very different male-female relationships as it moves towards its chilling climax.

This is the third book by John Gordon that I've read over the last year or so.  The first was the one about the woman who was scared of a stick, the second was about some flying kids and a chalk giant and this one is about a time travelling bicycle repairman baker who traps people inside a walking stick.  Traditional plots are not where Mr. Gordon likes to travel.

So, how do I explain that plot?  You know what? I'm not going to try.  'Gilray's Ghost' is another intriguing oddity from the good Mr. Gordon but, much like the others, it just doesn't quite hit the mark for me. The daftness of the concept and the distasteful hints at necrophilia and paedophilia alongside his characteristic jumbled dialogue and unlikeable characters make it a bit of a gruelling and ultimately unfulfilling read.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Blue Notebooks

'The Blue Notebooks' is an album by British composer Max Richter originally released in early 2004. Written as Richter's response to the prospect of the Iraq War this beautifully haunting suite of compositions has slipped the shackles of it's composers intentions and has featured in a number of movies over the years most recently in 2016's 'Arrival'.

The music is often fragile, sometimes brittle and always deeply poignant.  It features several spoken word extracts from Franz Kafka's 'The Blue Octavo Notebooks' and Czesław Miłosz's 'Hymn of the Pearl' and 'Unattainable Earth' as read by Tilda Swinton.

It's a stunning piece of music and one I find myself returning to again and again.

I hope you enjoy.




Buy it here - The Blue Notebooks

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Newbury & Hobbes

As I'm currently knee deep in the 4th book in George Mann's series of steampunk romps I thought I'd share with you my write-ups of the first three that appeared a few years ago in the pages of another blog.

..........................................................

The Affinity Bridge
Snowbooks

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where lycanthropy is a rampant disease that plagues the dirty whorehouses of Whitechapel, where poltergeist infestations create havoc in old country seats, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where nobody ever goes near the Natural History Museum.

Inside this beautiful cover lies a rather nifty little romp featuring gentleman investigator Sir Maurice Newbury along with his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes and his close friend Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge. In this first novel in the series Newbury sets his sights on unravelling the cause of a mysterious airship crash. Around this main strand there are a number of intriguing subplots (the zombies particularly) that are left maddeningly undeveloped as they fade from view over the course of the book. One can only imagine that they'll play a stronger part in later books in the series - although not it seems in book 2.

Mann has a lively and engaging style that is a joy to read. The world he has created is plausible with the new technologies still, for the most part, emerging and finding acceptance amongst the inhabitants. This small concession gives the storyworld a solidity that can be lost in those books that rush to fill the world with new techno marvels. The characters follow fairly established tropes but this is genre writing they're kinda meant to and besides they are fleshed out nicely and soon find their own identities within the story.

The Affinity Bridge is fast, fun and frivolous with a real 'Boy's Own' playfulness. Full of spiffingly brave and honest chaps (and a chapess) that battle doggedly against all manner of dastardly foes for the glory of her Britannic Majesty. It's great fun and like all good pulp writing utterly compulsive.

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The Osiris Ritual
Snowbooks

Sir Maurice Newbury, Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, imagines life can be a little quieter from now on after his dual success in solving The Affinity Bridge affair. But he hasn't banked on his villainous predecessor, Knox, hell bent on achieving immortality, not to mention a secret agent who isn't quite as he seems.... So continues an adventure quite unlike any other, a thrilling steampunk mystery and the second in the series of Newbury & Hobbes investigations.

The second of his Newbury & Hobbes Steampunk mysteries. I thought the first (The Affinity Bridge) was a fun, if a little flawed, romp through a fog-ridden London that mixed zombies, robots and airships into an entertaining neo-Victorian thriller. It's recommended for those looking for a more than satisfyingly pulp steampunk fix.

This second one wasn't as good as it's predecessor. The plot was a little rushed and lacked grandeur and scope but mostly i think he sacrificed too much of the world-building that was so well done in the first. I heartily approved of how naturalistic he allows the newly emerging technology to feel but half the joy (for me at least) of this sort of genre fiction lies in how the author interweaves technology and the subsequent cultural and societal changes into the narrative. I felt like I didn't learn anything new about the universe he's created and without that it may as well have been set (to an extent) in our own Victorian era.

That said though, Mann has an engaging style and the book was a fun, fast-paced read with a third volume still to come.

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The Immorality Engine
Snowbooks

On the surface, life is going well for Victorian special agent Sir Maurice Newbury, who has brilliantly solved several nigh-impossible cases for Queen Victoria with his indomitable assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes, by his side. But these facts haven’t stopped Newbury from succumbing increasingly frequently to his dire flirtation with the lure of opium. His addiction is fueled in part by his ill-gotten knowledge of Veronica’s secret relationship with the queen, which Newbury fears must be some kind of betrayal. Veronica, consumed by worry and care for her prophetic but physically fragile sister Amelia, has no idea that she is a catalyst for Newbury’s steadily worsening condition. Veronica and Newbury’s dear friend Bainbridge, the Chief Investigator at Scotland Yard, tries to cover for him as much as possible, but when the body of a well known criminal turns up, Bainbridge and Veronica track Newbury down in an opium den and drag him out to help them with the case. The body is clearly, irrefutably, that of the man in question, but shortly after his body is brought to the morgue, a crime is discovered that bears all the dead man’s hallmarks. Bainbridge and Veronica fear someone is committing copycat crimes, but Newbury is not sure. Somehow, the details are too perfect for it to be the work of a copycat. But how can a dead man commit a crime?

This is the third of Mann's Newbury and Hobbes books and, judging by the way it ends, not the last.

Newbury's drug use has escalated over the time between books and it opens with him an opium addled mess. The erstwhile Miss Veronica Hobbes and Chief Inspector Bainbridge find him and set him back on track in order to help them with a puzzling new case. Someone has been leaving dead duplicates around the place. These investigations soon begin to incorporate both the shady Bastion Society and also the very refuge where Veronica's sister is being treated for her visions.

As the investigation proceeds events start to tumble over each other and intertwine in a not altogether satisfying way. The characters seem at odds with their own personalities and often behave like cliches. Newbury's addictions, in full swing at the opening, are managed with almost ridiculous ease throughout the rest of the book and Veronica has become almost superheroic.

This volume was lacking the spark that made the other books in the series so much fun. It felt more than a little overblown. Towards the end it really started to come together and I enjoyed the final ride. I could definitely go another set of these in the future though.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Wyrd Britain Shop

Those of you who follow the Wyrd Britain Instagram page (ID: wyrdbritain) will have noticed several posts recently marked as being 'For sale in the Wyrd Britain  Etsy Shop.'

I've been building the shop up over the last couple of months and thought it was about time to share it with you all.  Currently the focus is on vintage books (Etsy describes vintage as pre 1997) but other things will be added over time.

There are a fairly wide selection of genres represented from sci-fi to horror to young adult & kids books to romance and I've loosened the strings slightly to include cool books from all over the world rather than the solely British content that I focus on in the blog.

Hopefully you'll find something of interest.

www.wyrdbritain.etsy.com

Friday, 25 November 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson
Collins Crime Club

The latest in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins is a reissue of one of literature’s most audacious and thought-provoking novels of murder and intrigue, in hardback with its 1929 cover design and a brand new introduction.
“The Detective Story Club”, launched by Collins in 1929, was a clearing house for the best and most ingenious crime stories of the age, chosen by a select committee of experts. Now, almost 90 years later, these books are the classics of the Golden Age, republished at last with the same popular cover designs that appealed to their original readers.
Originally published in 1886 as “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book had been propelled to massive success following a favourable review in The Times, and by 1901 had sold a quarter of a million copies. This is how the Detective Club described the book:
‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’
This new printing includes a brand new introduction by classic horror story expert, Richard Dalby.


This is one of those books that I've always wanted to read but have simply never found a nice copy of.  Cover design goes a long way to deciding which edition of a book I buy and on the day I bought this I'd passed on two others in two different shops.  The one I settled on is a reproduction of an edition originally released in the early 20th C. by The Detective Story Club. I liked the pulp fiction vibe of the cover and being a new edition it was immaculate so I took the plunge.

Now, before I start on the main story I'm going to point out that more than half of this edition is padding.  The actual story is a novella of only 82 pages so to make up the other 98 they've added a number of things; two Stevenson shorts - his fabulous resurrection men tale 'The Bodysnatchers' and another called 'Markheim' which there really didn't seem much point in reading because the ending had already been revealed (spoiled) in the book's introduction by Richard Dalby - I'll return to it some other time when memory has faded - there's also an afterword dating from the 1929 edition.  The oddest inclusion though is of two unauthorised sequels by Francis H. Little and Robert J. McLaughlin.  Of the first, just 5 pages proved there to be nothing of interest there and of the second, well, I didn't even try.  Unprofessional of me? Possibly so but I am but a humble amateur and by then other more intriguing looking books were beckoning from the shelf.

So, just the main story to discuss then.

Like the rest of you I know the most basic of premises for the story - Doctor makes potion that makes him fall behind a settee and then get up again as a hairy evil, troglodyte looking fellow - which is pretty accurate as far as it goes (apart from the settee bit) but does nothing to restraint and subtlety of the story.

Jekyll's story is told in a number of ways via an acquaintance - a lawyer named Utterson, who in addition to his meetings with and observations of the two titular men also receives various verbal and written accounts of their actions via numerous other acquaintances and finally from Jekyll himself.

The Doctor is portrayed as a well intentioned but ultimately deeply flawed man whose weaknesses lead him to let loose his darker side to the point where it's depredations consume him and he loses his identity to the other.

Stevenson never lingers on Hyde's activities, indeed we are really only presented with examples of a couple of his callous and evil actions and neither does he preach at the reader.  We are left to sympathise, empathise or despise Jekyll at our will and this moral ambiguity on the part of the author allows the reader a greater investment in the story and a much deeper appreciation of the flaws of both man and the society that binds him.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Making of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Way, way back in a time almost lost to history and now known only as Monday the 5th of January 1981 the BBC screened the first episode of the TV adaptation of the book adaptation of the radio show adaptation of the thoughts of a bloke called Douglas.

Douglas was a clever man and like all the best types of clever men he knew that some clever things were also funny things and so set about making a funny thing out of the clever things.  In order to do this he drafted in some other clever people.  Some who were clever at organising, some who were clever at drawing, some who were clever at filming or recording or building or musicing or pretending to be someone else.

Then, 10 years later, someone else who was clever had a clever idea to take all the extra bits that the clever people had filmed, film some new bits of some of those self-same clever people and get the main clever pretending man to talk about how clever everyone was.  They even had the idea to put two different spaceships at the beginning to make less clever people who really like watching clever people at work go "Yay!" like the big geeky kid that he is they are.


Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Man in the Picture

Susan Hill
Profile Books

An extraordinary ghost story from a modern master, published just in time for Halloween. In the apartment of Oliver's old professor at Cambridge, there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival. On this cold winter's night, the old professor has decided to reveal the painting's eerie secret. The dark art of the Venetian scene, instead of imitating life, has the power to entrap it. To stare into the painting is to play dangerously with the unseen demons it hides, and become the victim of its macabre beauty.
By the renowned storyteller Susan Hill--whose first ghost story, The Woman in Black, has run for eighteen years as a play in London's West End--here is a new take on a form that is fully classical and, in Hill's able hands, newly vital. The Man in the Picture is a haunting tale of loss, love, and the very basest fear of our beings.


Although this book is subtitled 'A Ghost Story' I can't help feeling that to be a bit of a misnomer.  There're no ghosts in it,  plenty of haunted people and a darkly delicious core idea but not really any actual ghosts.

This novella tells a story within a story that's framed, at the very last inside two other stories all concerning the same painting of Venice and the people depicted within. An elderly Cambridge professor tells a visiting ex-student of his acquisition of the painting and the events that surround him gaining a deeper understanding of it's history and the tale surrounding it.

In the classic way of things much of what happens does so through the telling of tales around a fire with a glass of liquor to hand and a cosiness that offsets the mounting unease.  The professor's story at the heart of the tale shares this with it's country house setting but suffers from a marked similarity to Wilkie Collins' 'The Haunted Hotel'.  The outermost layer of the story is likewise flawed but also in it's rather heavy handed attempt to provide a 'shock' ending that can be seen coming long before it lands.

If I sound overly negative then please understand that there is much to like here.  Hill is a writer with an eminently readable style and she's obviously and utterly au fait with those writers of the macabre, the unsettling and the weird that she is channelling here and with only 145 pages it provided me with a pleasantly macabre early Sunday morning read alongside some mellow music and a cafetiere full of my favourite coffee.

Buy it here -  The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story (The Susan Hill Collection)

Monday, 24 October 2016

Passenger to Frankfurt

Agatha Christie
Fontana Books

It was an unusual predicament for Sir Stafford Nye-to awaken in a stupor after being drugged, only to find his passport stolen. There was also no trace of the fascinating woman he encountered in Frankfurt who begged him to help save her life. But Sir Stafford's troubles are only just beginning. The target of two murder attempts, he now seeks the help of the stranger who so urgently sought his. If he can locate her. What he finds is a woman of numerous identities and twice as many secrets, who ushers him into the shadows of an international conspiracy that could well prove to be the death of them.

Well, what a very odd book.

I love the Agatha Christie TV adaptations, the Geraldine McEwan Marples are a particular favourite but the only thing I've ever read by her is a short horror story.  This one is one of her, very, late books published in 1970 to mark the ladies 80th birthday.  The cover art alone, by Tom Adams, was enough to get me to drag it off the shelf but a quick web search for a synopsis meant it jumped to the head of the pile.

What we have is not, as you might have guessed, a detective novel but a spy novel.  Now, I've only ever read one other spy novel in my life, the utterly brilliant 'Death will Have Your Eyes' by James Sallis, but I thought it was perhaps time for another.

At the heart of this book we have a global conspiracy to encourage armed revolt amongst disaffected teenagers by a shadowy cartel of nazi sympathisers and the plucky Brit aristos lined up against them. There are a few flashes of wit and brilliance here, Lady Matilda being a favourite and especially so when she heads off on her little spying trip, but on the whole this is a fairly uncomfortable read that seems much more of a chance for Christie to complain about the various she thinks that are wrong with the 1960s.  What kept popping into my head was how much it reminded me, in particular, of the movie adaptation of Michael Moorcock's 'The Final Programme'  (the first Jerry Cornelius novel) just with a very different mind set and purpose.

The story is sketchy and lacking in flow and the ending arrives unheralded and unexpected dragging itself out of the muddy morass of the rest of the book.  There's an interesting story in there somewhere but one that I think would have needed a few rewrites to tease into shape.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery

Various authors
Puffin Books

"Good evening, and welcome to Alfred Hitchock's Ghostly Gallery..." So begins the introduction to this marvellous book for young readers presented by none other than the master of the macabre himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Following his invitation to "browse through my gallery", readers will find ghoulish ghost stories "designed to frighten and instruct" -- instruct, that is, about the strange existence ghosts must endure! Stories include Miss Emmeline Takes Off by Walter Brooks; The Valley of the Beasts by Algernon Blackwood; The Haunted Trailer by Robert Arthur; The Truth About Pyecraft by H.G. Wells; The Isle of Voices by Robert Louis Stevenson; and more. Parents and kids can't help but chuckle at Hitchcock's comment, "I don't want to appear disloyal to television, but I think reading will be good for you."

Bit of a classic this one.  It's one of those books that loads of folks seem to have owned back in their youth.  I didn't, I wasn't a horror book reader as a kid, films yes, books no.  I was all about the sci-fi books and it's only in the last few years that I've got into exploring these old horror folks which is one of the things that make these 1970s Puffin (and the like) reprints such a draw - the other reason is I'm a sucker for the wonderfully lurid cover art.

A.M. Burrage
So, as you'd probably expect from a book with that title this one is heavy on the big names but also has a pleasing selection of stories that aren't common fodder in anthologies.

After a short and silly introduction by the man with his name on the top the book opens properly with a story I've seen pop up in a few places, A.M. Burrage's 'The Waxwork' where a reporter endeavours to spend the night in a house of horrors.  It's a pretty nondescript little thing that feels old fashioned and a bit weak in it's ending.  This is followed by the first of several humorous stories that are littered throughout the book, 'Miss Emmeline Takes Off' by Walter Brooks (the creator of the 'Mister Ed' stories).  A tale of witchcraft, friendship, social climbing and money.  It's entertaining enough in it's way but not something I have any particularly desire to read a second time.

Algernon Blackwood
The ubiquitous Algernon Blackwood tale follows and it's one of his American adventure stories, 'The Valley of the Beasts', where a belligerent, arrogant and wasteful Englishman meets native American spirituality and both loses and wins which is a fate that also befalls the hapless lead in Robert Arthur's, 'The Haunted Trailer'.  Arthur actually provides three stories to the book which is no surprise as he was the actual compiler of the contents with Hitchcock's name added purely as a selling point.  His other two stories, 'The Wonderful Day' and 'Obstinate Uncle Otis' are both as whimsical and readable as the first but all three come across as very disposable and a little like a comedy back-up tale from an old 'Vault of Horror' comic or some such.

Lord Dunsany
F. Marion Crawford is another of those authors that turns up regularly in these things as does this particular story, 'The Upper Berth' as a ship-board traveller is disturbed by a ghostly presence on an Atlantic crossing.  Following this there's a run of humorous stories topped and tailed by the two Robert Arthur stories I mentioned earlier.  H.G. Wells', 'The Truth About Pyecraft', is a pretty dreadful little tale about one unpleasant little man and one unpleasant bigger one.  Henry Kuttner tells of a mysterious bird cage in 'Housing Problem' and, of most interest to this reader, a chance to finally read something by Lord Dunsany in the form of 'In a Dim Room' an amusing little tale about a tiger.

Closing the book is one of Robert Louis Stevenson's south sea islands stories of greed, magic and cannibalism on 'The Isle of Voices'.  These sort of stories aren't of great appeal to me as my anthropology degree starts yelling in my head and it all gets a little uncomfortable but the story itself is obviously written with a fondness for both people and place.

This is very much a book for those with a marked fondness for amusing, lighter stories or simply a need for an occasional smile.  For me it was a reasonably entertaining way to pass an afternoon.