Friday, 29 September 2017

A Creepy Company

Joan Aiken
Puffin Books

Here are ten ghastly, ghostly, weird and witty tales from a master of suspense, Joan Aiken. Each macabre story takes readers from the everyday world to the fantastic, creating a collection full of delightful shivers that will hold readers spellbound.

I've a real love for Joan Aiken's stories and have enjoyed several anthologies of her ghostly tales. This one is not going to trouble the best of them but it can sit proudly amongst the rest.

A Creepy Company consists of 11 stories of the supernatural mostly with a young adult audience in mind, as befits the publisher. There are a few stand out stories like the murderous, ghostly children of 'Toomie' and 'Little Nym', the vengeful spirit that condemns a man to a life of tedium and loveless drudgery in 'Die From Day To Day', the gossipy folk horror of 'My Disability' and the obsessive and miserly creature feature of 'They Have Found Out'. There's nothing about the other six to dislike and on a different day I'd probably have listed one or two others as the standouts.

It's always a pleasure to be allowed to take a stroll in the lady's imagination; a place of the most vivid and often unsettling beauty.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Fellside

M.R. Carey
Orbit

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It's not the kind of place you'd want to end up. But it's where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.
It's a place where even the walls whisper.
And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.
Will she listen?


Over the years I've read quite a lot of Carey's writing. I liked his Lucifer series and his run on Hellblazer was fun and I worked my way through a couple of books of Unwritten before lack of funds put a stop to my graphic novel buying. Of his novels I think I've read them all; the Felix Castor books were enjoyable but a little too Constantine and 'The Girl With All The Gifts' was a worthy successor to the apocalyptic proclivities of the two Johns (Wyndham and Christopher).

This time out Carey has condemned us all to prison, a women's prison on the Yorkshire moors where newly convicted child killer, Jess Moulson, has started to see and hear the one person who absolutely cannot be there, the little boy she accidentally burned to death whilst in a heroin stupor.

'Fellside' is a dark and unforgiving book that sometimes feels just a little too soap opera for it's own good. The prisoner hierarchy has a whiff of a certain Australian prison show about it and the less 'conventional' aspects of what's going on with Jess aren't explored anywhere near deeply enough for my liking.

When it's on game though it's an engaging read that uses a pretty intense premise to explore guilt and redemption without leaving you too emotionally drained.

Buy it here - Fellside

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Dark Towers

In the 1970s there was relatively little actual television available to watch in the UK.  Only 3 channels that all shut down over night and which occasionally went off air throughout the day displaying only a test card accompanied by some stock music of varying degrees of grooviness.  In the spirit of television (and the BBC in particular) as a medium required to “inform, educate and entertain” it also dedicated a proportion of each days broadcasting to showing programmes intended for use in schools and colleges.  In the case of my school watching these shows involved trooping into the hall where the television was kept inside a padlocked wooden box on top of a metal stand and sitting cross legged on the hardwood floor craning our necks to watch the shows while the teachers took turns to nip into the staff room at the far end for a opportunistic cigarette break.  Whether or not we ever actually did any of the work you were meant to do in conjunction with the shows I don't remember - probably not - but I do remember the shows themselves and in particular 'Look and Read'.

'Look and Read' as you can probably guess (or remember even) was a show intended to improve children's literacy skills through tasks, songs (created by Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb and Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and mostly sung by Derek Griffiths) and tuition based around a serial drama occasionally interrupted by a squeaky voiced flying...thing.  They produced quite a few of these dramas, most of which have disappeared into well deserved obscurity but a couple have found their way into Wyrd Britain folklore, sci fi adventure 'The Boy from Space' being one of them (not currently available for streaming but you can buy it here - The Boy From Space [2 - Disc DVD Set]) and the ghost story 'Dark Towers' being another.

Written by Andrew Davies, 'Dark Towers' tells the story of Tracy Brown (Juliet Waley) and her new friend Lord Edward Dark (Gary Russell - now more known as the author of several Doctor Who novels) and their race to find the hidden treasure of Dark Towers before it's stolen by the nefarious trio of Miss Hawk, Benger and Bunce (Juliet Hammond-Hills, Christopher Biggins and Harry Jones).  In this they are aided by Edward's father and The Friendly Ghost (dual roles for David Collings - beloved by us here at Wyrd Britain as Silver in Sapphire and Steel), Tracy's dog Towser and The Tall Knight (Peter Mayhew - who had previously achieved worldwide fame playing Chewbacca in a heart wrenching family drama called 'Star Wars Holiday Special' - watch it here if you dare).

I'm not sure when I first saw this show, in 1981 when it first aired I had moved on to secondary school so the days of TV in the school hall were over, but nevertheless it's a show that I have very fond memories of, the music (by Roger Limb) in particular.

With the exception of episode 1 all the mid show breaks - where Wordy the floating thingamabob would try to teach you something - have been edited out so you can sit back and enjoy without worrying about having to learn about apostrophes.

Enjoy.

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)