Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Thursday 23 May 2013

Perfect penny dreadfuls

I've been immersed (or should I say shrouded) in Victorian gothic recently. I was tempted to try Mask of the Macabre, a collection of four short stories by David Haynes, and became hooked. This led me to his second collection of tales, Ballet of the Bones. Just as I was regaining my breath from that one, I found out there was a novella called Seance of the Souls. I must point out that the author has done a very clever thing; it is quite possible to enjoy any of these books individually, in any order ... yet taken together, and in sequence, they tell a story which will keep you on the edge of your reading chair (perhaps your mind?) until the very last page.

Mask of the Macabre sets the scene for your journey to the sordidly time-worn and foggy streets of Victorian London. You will soon wonder at the magician's grisly sleight of hand, and be shocked by the change of scene taking you within the walls of the Bethlem lunatic asylum. Then, the photographer's hideous job will make you wonder at the evil within human nature; depositing you, finally, with the entertainer – looking to expand his gruesome repertoire. If you are not too shell-shocked by now, you are welcome to experience ...

... the Ballet of the Bones! Will you appreciate the hideous displays in The Gallery of Wax? If so, you will be ushered into The Bone House, to experience first hand the bare bones of the gravedigger's existence. You will then meet The Engineer, who will astound you with his baroque, intricate creations, operating with the strange grace of precision; yet somehow quite wrong. And finally, with an impending sense of doom, the Director will prepare you for the final curtain. Good luck!

Perhaps, though, you may not be able to make your escape quite yet. You will be drawn, almost against your will, into the swirling, misty alleyways of the past once more, to experience the Seance of the Souls. With a growing sense of unease, you'll recognise some of the hideous characters from your previous travails.

Beginning with a funeral where Matthew Napier is confronting the loss of his family, you will stumble through bloodstained gutters once more to witness a fortune teller giving him and his sister a bleak reading indeed. Once Matthew's sister is ripped from him too, his despair is complete; and he is vulnerable to the advances of pure evil. This is embodied by members of a spiritualist church, and he is confronted by the past in ways even you, dear reader, could not imagine. Is it magic, or murder? Who can Matthew trust? Amid corpses, skulls and ever-shifting masks, you will not know which way to turn. Be sure to keep your own senses sharp as those around you descend into madness!

Friday 17 May 2013

Mask of the Macabre and Ballet of the Bones

I have just discovered the work of David Haynes, and have thoroughly enjoyed his two collections of short stories, Mask of the Macabre and Ballet of the Bones.
Firstly I must say I was tempted to try them due to their excellent, quirky covers. As a graphic designer myself, I appreciate the visual side of the equation when it comes to publishing, and these really stand out. Not only are they that bit different, but they suit very well the content and style of the books.

As for the tales themselves, well, I may very well do a review soon (and also of his new novella, Seance of the Souls), but in the meantime I hope Mr Haynes would not mind me reproducing the blurb he has provided on his website:

Mask of the Macabre
Four short tales of Victorian terror, each bound to the other by a chilling  thread. The date is January 10th 1866 and the snow is falling thick on  the blood soaked streets of a murderous London…
Mask of The Macabre: A travelling magician appears with a gruesome show. But what secret does it  hide?
Doctor Harvey: Bethlem lunatic asylum’s newest patient has a story to tell, but how will he tell it to his doctor?
Memento Mori: A photographer is given a mysterious assignment with disturbing consequences.
The New Costume: The entertainer discovers a new string to his bow and gives the finest performance of his career.

Ballet of the Bones
Four short tales of Victorian terror, each bound to the other by a chilling thread. London suffocates under the festering reek of its bursting graveyards.
Ballet of the Bones
: The curtain goes up on the greatest show on earth, but is everything all it seems?
The Bone House
: The grave digger reflects on his morbid life, but what does his future hold?
The Engineer: His creations are beautiful, intricate and for a discerning  palate.
: The director makes ready for the end of the show.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Childhood influences and burial sites

One of the main influences for my writing thus far has been my childhood. I recently had the opportunity to revisit the playgrounds of my youth; and, perhaps inevitably, I was taken aback by how different they seemed. 
I set out for a run from my childhood home, across the playing fields and through the Spinney I wrote about in The Source of the Lea and Abraham's Bosom, and on to the Marsh House playgrounds. There used to be an enormous children's adventure area styled after a fort, which was impossibly exciting to me as a child, and now it has become a BMX track. Marsh House still stands alongside, but it's a sad sight now, doors and windows boarded or bricked up. I recall the side of the building being painted in bright colours, back in 1978, when it was transformed into a youth centre. At that time there was a go-kart track there, on some old tennis courts, delineated by piles of car tyres. It was a mecca for youngsters back then, but now it is mainly deserted. It occurred to me that there could be some inspiration for a story here, so I thought I'd take some photos.

This is the painted side of Marsh House, which now looks to be deserted and boarded up
The front of Marsh House
All the ground floor windows are either boarded or bricked up.
I wonder what's inside
This made me think about creepy stories suggesting childhood memories, of which there must be quite a few. Two such tales by Aickman spring to mind, The Same Dog and The Inner Room. The interesting thing to me about using a child (or a younger version of the writer) as the main protagonist is that misunderstandings can be created; the child's view of things can be unreliable, which adds to the mystery. One of my favourite stories along these lines must be The Shelter by James Everington. This is a particularly evocative tale of the vagaries involved in the formative years. The Boy in Green Velvet or Come into My Parlour by Reggie Oliver might fit the bill too.


While I was wandering around reminiscing, I was reminded that the surrounding area, Waulud's Bank, is named after a neolithic burial site. A D-shaped enclosure, it takes the form of a grassy bank through the surrounding woods, down which we used to run, roll, cycle, toboggan ... depending on the weather. I've since found out that a major ley line runs through the middle of the site, stretching from Cornwall to Yarmouth; it also bisects the Avebury stone circles. Apparently there would once have been stones at Waulud's Bank too, but they have long since disappeared. We used to find arrow heads, bits of pottery and so on in the chalky soil there, but we thought nothing of it. In recent years, many very significant finds have taken place there, but with almost no publicity. I could only find one scruffy old sign mentioning anything about it; but I'm sure more people would be interested if the history was more widely known.
I'm also sure there's a story in there somewhere ... History can make for a compelling tale, adding a convincing background to a good story, particularly when ghosts are involved. For proof, have a look at the excellent blog Freaky folk tales, for some evocative MR James-esque delights.

Part of the ancient Waulud's Bank in the foreground, and the three blocks
of flats over the hill. Five Springs is the closer of them 
The only sign I could find with details of this fascinating area

Friday 3 May 2013

Hitcher and Those bastards in their mansions

I have posted a couple of very well known Simon Armitage poems today; Hitcher and Those bastards in their mansions (both from Book of Matches). Not ghostly, but certainly horrific in a mundane, matter-of-fact way; which is something I strive to achieve in my writing. 

Hitcher must be Armitage's most famous poem. It is simple yet ambiguous; is it a straightforward monologue, or is the speaker remembering himself as he was before being enslaved into working life? The casual violence of it is shockingly effective. 

by Simon Armitage

I'd been tired, under
the weather, but the ansaphone kept screaming.
One more sick-note, mister, and you're finished. Fired.
I thumbed a lift to where the car was parked.
A Vauxhall Astra. It was hired.

I picked him up in Leeds.
He was following the sun to west from east
with just a toothbrush and the good earth for a bed. The truth,
he said, was blowin' in the wind,
or round the next bend.

I let him have it
on the top road out of Harrogate – once
with the head, then six times with the krooklok
in the face – and didn't even swerve.

I dropped it into third
and leant across
to let him out, and saw him in the mirror
bouncing off the kerb, then disappearing down the verge.
We were the same age, give or take a week.
He'd said he liked the breeze

to run its fingers
through his hair. It was twelve noon.
The outlook for the day was moderate to fair.
Stitch that, I remember thinking,
you can walk from there.

Those bastards in their mansions could be seen as a powerful call to arms for the populace. It would seem that the privileged should not persist with complacency; instead they should look out for one who sticks to shadows and carries a gun!

Those bastards in their mansions
by Simon Armitage

Those bastards in their mansions:
to hear them shriek, you'd think 
I'd poisoned the dogs and vaulted the ditches, 
crossed the lawns in stocking feet and threadbare britches, 
forced the door of one of the porches, and lifted 
the gift of fire from the burning torches,

then given heat and light to streets and houses, 
told the people how to ditch their cuffs and shackles, 
armed them with the iron from their wrists and ankles.

Those lords and ladies in their palaces and castles, 
they'd have me sniffed out by their beagles, 
picked at by their eagles, pinned down, grilled 
beneath the sun,  

Me, I stick to the shadows, carry a gun