Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Scarlet Soul: Stories For Dorian Gray

Mark Valentine (ed)
Swan River Press

"Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile." — Oscar Wilde

Art, obsession, love, lust, sorcery—ten contemporary writers respond to the imperishable themes of Oscar Wilde’s great Decadent romance, The Picture of Dorian Gray. What happens when a face, a form, an uncanny force changes everything we thought we knew? What survives of us when we stray into a borderland of the mind, where our deepest urges seem to call up remorseless powers?

Whether in fantastic imaginary realms or in the gritty noir of today, these new stories, all especially written for this anthology, take us into some of the strangest and darkest places of the psyche. These ten boldly original portraits in the attic take many disturbing forms, revealing strong truths about the secrets of our selves, our society, and our very souls.


I don't quite know what it was about the book but from the moment the teenage me saw the bright yellow 'Complete Works of Oscar Wilde' with it's Aubrey Beardsley illustration (of 'Salome' if memory serves) I desperately wanted to read it.  It was a very out of character choice as at the time my reading materials of choice were post apocalypse sci fi, beat fiction and underground comics so when I saw, what I presumed to be, a book of drawing room farces sporting that stark and stunning erotic cover art I just couldn't resist.  I can't remember much about the whole but I do recall enjoying various shorts and trying, failing and skipping the plays but mostly I remember 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and the impact it made.  I became mildly besotted with it, nothing about it was like anything I'd read beyond those tedious group reads they make you do in school but living the lifestyle I did and with no knowledge of what to follow it with it lapsed into memory and it was many years before I pursued more literature of it's kind.

In his introduction Mark Valentine relates his own entanglement with the book and of his fascination with it's themes of identity, behaviours and destiny before handing us over to the ten authors chosen to reflect and reinterpret these themes.

Reggie Oliver (photo by R.B. Russell)
Reggie Oliver opens the book proper with a search for 'Love and Death' as art and life collide with terrible results.  I have long harboured a desire to read some of Oliver's work as I'd heard nothing by praise but my only previous encounter was a M.R. James pastiche which moved me not but here finally I see what the fuss is about as this is a fantastically powerful tale.

Caitriona Lally's 'This is How it Will Be' is certainly no less powerful but it's story of identity loss (or perhaps identity theft would be a more appropriate term) comes with the extra frisson of frustrating believability as it reduces you to uncomfortably berating the narrator for her passivity, her malleability and her gullibility in the knowledge that in doing so you are, perhaps, behaving no differently from her new friend.

Lynda E. Rucker's 'Every Exquisite Thing' is a tricksier affair that chases love or at least the ghost of it to various locations only to find it unknowing and disheartening .  It seemed to me to speak of hidden lives and the reinventions of self and of a futile desire for stability amidst change.

John Howard
I've had the great pleasure to read a few things by John Howard over the last couple of years and he never disappoints.  His stories are often gut-wrenchingly acute dissections of life and love and in 'Speck' he takes us on an exploration of lives and identities used and discarded, of the callous disregard of others and of innocence and kindness.

D.P. Watt's tale of psychic vampirism, 'Doreen', is a jarring contrast to the subtlety of the previous and feels in many ways to be a hark back to the macabre tales of old but with a touch of the Beryl Cook in it's cast and milieu.

Rosanne Rabinowitz brings us right up to date with a harrowing and odd tale of two women caught up in the upsurge of racist idiocy that followed the E.U. vote in 'All That's Solid' while Avalon Brantley offers a tale redolent of Victorian houses filled with artistic gentlemen of impeccable manners and indulgent habits. Of discussions over brandy and cigars and of falls from grace as inevitable as they are improbable.

Timothy J. Jarvis' story within a story - that great tradition of the ghostly tale - 'The Yellow Book' layers the weird and the mundane to create an oddly soap operatic folk horror whereas in 'A Labyrinth of Graves' John Gale offers a tale of love, jealousy, rage, regret and longevity as we are offered fleeting glimpses of the long existence of a god and the mutual impact of the life and death of one particular devotee.

The book ends with 'The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Stebbing' by Derek John a light footed and fun steampunkish yarn concerning the titular 'scientist' and his machine to modify and manipulate the soul.

When I begun this book I was definitely expecting a parade of stories more directly linked to the original but what I got was something far more diverse and significantly more interesting.  There are moments when the link seems particularly tenuous but once you accept this the quality of the individual pieces shines through and what you get is a set of thought provoking and hugely enjoyable stories by a group of very interesting new (to me at least) writers assembled by one of the pre-eminent writers of (and about) the weird working today.

Available direct from the publisher.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Music Has The Right To Children

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the debut Boards of Canada album, 'Music Has The Right To Children'.

The work of two brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, Boards of Canada have carved a uniquely enigmatic path through the world of electronic music.

The record is a mesmerisingly oneiric and disturbingly beautiful meditation on childhood and memory.  It's detuned and hallucinatory qualities derived from vintage synthesizers, treated voices and library melodies provided the template for the entire hauntology movement.

It is an album that was born from half remembered memories, childhood fears and hazy nostalgia that exists in a place that is utterly timeless.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Thirteenth Reunion

Hammer House of Horror was an anthology series created by the titular studio and ITC Entertainment (home of shows such as The Prisoner, Jason King and The Saint as well as the various Gerry Anderson programmes) broadcast in 1980. Somewhat appropriately there were 13 episodes made each with a different writer and cast and exploring the various plot favourites of the Hammer Studios such as satanism, murder, witchcraft and voodoo but stripped of the gothic trappings that characterised the movies which makes it perhaps more redolent of Amicus Productions.

'The Thirteenth Reunion' was the second episode on the series and was written by Jeremy Burnham (co-writer of the amazing 'Children of the Stones') and directed by Peter Sasdy (director of Nigel Kneale's brilliant 'The Stone Tape' and various Hammer movies including 'Countess Dracula').  It tells the story of a reporter's investigation of a health farm and of the secret society that lurks behind it's facade.

The episode isn't entirely successful as it never quite seems to decide whether or not it wants to be scary or funny and winds up not really being either.  It does have it's moments though and some really good casting with Warren Clarke providing what's possibly the best scene of the episode and Doctor Who regular Kevin Stoney is an imposing presence as the doctor in charge. The main problem is lead actress Julia Foster who strives valiantly but seems like she would be far more at home in a sitcom (which is in no way meant to be an insult) and certainly doesn't conform to the body type they keep branding her as and which they've hidden under some truly hideous costume choices.  The end result is certainly not of the best remembered episodes of the series (I'm sure we'll get to them in due time) but with a pedigree like the one that Burnham and Sasdy bring it was an irresistible choice for sharing here and the big reveal when it comes is fun.

Buy it here - Hammer House Of Horror - Complete Collection [DVD] [1980] - or watch it below.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Holy Terrors: A Collection of Weird Tales by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen
Tartarus Press

A collection of weird tales by Arthur Machen featured in the portmanteau film Holy Terrors by Obsolete Films.
Contents: The Cosy Room, The White Powder, The Bowmen, Ritual, The Happy Children, Midsummer, Afterword, The Friends of Arthur Machen

Penguin Books published a collection of Machen's writings under the title 'Holy Terrors' in 1946, this isn't it.  This one is a recent collection from Tartarus Press that takes it's name and it's contents from a recent portmanteau film featuring the 6 short stories reprinted in this book (see below for the trailer).

Perhaps the most well known Machen tale here is the alchemical experimentation of 'The White Powder' although the inclusion of 'The Bowmen' perhaps challenges that but then is it famous as a Machen story or as the myth of the 'Angels of Mons'.  We also get the enigmatically pagan 'Midsummer', the reportage of 'Ritual', the quietly powerful 'The Happy Children' and an unexpected crime caper in 'The Cosy Room'.

At 70 pages it makes for a quick but enjoyable read that offers a fleeting insight into the scope of Machen's imagination if perhaps not into the best of it.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Day of the Triffids (1981)

It's 1981 and I'm an 11 year old geek besotted by science fiction, comics and Hammer horror movies and into my world arrives a show about the end of the world and walking, killer plants and there begins an obsession that continues to this day.

Brought to the screen by producer David Maloney, who had previously been responsible for the first three series of Blake's 7 and who with a different hat on had directed several Doctor Who serials during the 60s and 70s including the classics  Genesis of the Daleks and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, this version, unlike the previous Howard Keel fronted version - which you can watch here - is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel.

John Duttine plays Bill Masen who, whilst recovering from eye surgery resulting from a close encounter with a triffid's stinger, fortunately misses out on watching the spectacular meteor shower that blinds the majority of the worlds population.  Travelling through a desolated London he rescues Josella Playton (Emma Relph) before joining forces with a group of fellow survivors with plans on how to survive the catastrophe; plans derailed somewhat by the arrival of Jack Coker (Maurice Colbourne).

The end result is a fantastically atmospheric and bleak adaptation with some terrific performances from Duttine, Colbourne and Relph (who after a slightly stiff start improves noticeably through the series as she relaxes into her character).  The triffids are well realised if a little tottery and aren't particularly frightening but then they were never the main jeopardy in the story, that was always the other people.

Many of the TV shows beloved of Wyrd Britain - Children of the Stones, The Owl Service or The Changes - screened originally when I was a bit too young to be watching (or remembering) but this one, like Sapphire and Steel and The Quatermass Conclusion was mine.  I remember being there to watch it and being utterly mesmerised by it. I loved it on first viewing and still do today.

Buy it here - Day of the Triffids [DVD] [1981] - or watch it below.





Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A Twist in the Eye

Charles Wilkinson
Egaeus Press

Throughout the sixteen stories collected in this remarkable book Charles Wilkinson explores themes of place, ritual, identity, death and transmutation with a rare, if not utterly unique, confidence. They are enigmatic but never vague, dreamlike but never illogical, horrifying but only occasionally visceral. Few writers can write ‘weird’ with so convincing a voice.

I first read a Charles Wilkinson story in issue 35 of Supernatural Tales, it was a thoroughly enjoyable slice of weird fiction with an ending that I thought arrived far too suddenly which slightly marred the experience.  I was really impressed and invested in a copy of his collection issued by Egaeus Press back in 2016 and having spent the last two days immersed in it I'm still impressed, with reservations, but definitely impressed.

There are two or three obvious touch points to Wilkinson's writing - Robert Aickman, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood - and from the first he takes the sense of the strange in the mundane and in the liminality of new homes, guest houses and childhood abodes and in the unapologetic stylistic conceits of the jump cut endings and an oblique take on narrative flow.  From Machen and Blackwood in particular we see an embracing of the elsewhere and the otherhere.  The worlds within and beyond the natural where soul, spirit and anima are as ephemeral, as elusive and as dangerous as smoke.

As for my reservations well it remains the same as from my first reading.  Wilkinson crafts a beautifully realised story into which we are dropped and instantly and wonderfully submerged and there are storyworlds here that I could happily inhabit for days but with Wilkinson the ending is apt to burst through at any moment jarring us back into the mundane world.  It seems to me that many of his ideas could do with a bit more room, a novella (or even longer) would allow his ideas room to stretch and for their conclusions to arrive more organically and with a more deliberate pace.  But, and I want to stress this next part, this is just a reservation.  I adored this book and if I read another one half as good this year I'll be very happy indeed.

Available from the publisher at the link at the top of this review.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ripping Yarns: The Curse Of The Claw

Ripping Yarns was a series of, well, ripping yarns created and written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones to pastiche the 'Boys Own' adventure stories of their youths.  Among their targets were staples of the genre such as PoW stories, country house murder mysteries, public school hi-jinx and, in the case here, curses from the remote parts of the British Empire.

Taking a playful swipe at W.W. Jacobs' 'The Monkey's Paw', 'The Curse of the Claw' is the story of Sir Kevin Orr, newly widowed on his 60th birthday, who receives unexpected visitors who break his lonely vigil and to whom Kevin tells the story of the curse.

It's a gentle and fairly typical piece of post-Python comedy, very much of it's time and certainly not the best of the series but it retains much of it's charm and Palin is always very watchable.

Buy it here - Ripping Yarns - The Complete Series[DVD] [1976] - or watch it below.