Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Review: Ghosts and Other Supernatural Guests by PJ Hodge

I've long been a keen follower of the Freaky Folk Tales blog by PJ Hodge, so I was very excited when I heard that these fascinating tales would be published in book form. The first volume has duly arrived, just in time for Hallowe'en (and, perhaps even better, well in time for Christmas).
The great news is, these stories work really well in a book format; Hodge writes in the style of MR James, or, more recently, David G. Rowlands, perfect to enjoy while relaxing in front of a roaring fire as darkness falls outside.

There are twelve tales here, and all are imbued with a unique authenticity which lifts them above the usual; Hodge has done the hard yards of research, and it shows. The reader is treated to a supernatural tour of traditional England, in which local myth and legend is intertwined with well-crafted drama, creating the kind of book it's difficult not to read in one sitting.

The scene is set by The Ghost Bureau, welcoming us into the world of Victorian drawing rooms, spiritualism and seances. The sceptical protagonist accepts a position with the eponymous organisation, and is forced to reconsider her own lack of belief in the spiritual world when she sees her own murderer – or does she? A gripping start, followed by A Tip of the Hat, which is something of a comic interlude, and deftly done.

In The Viaduct, an evocative tale of childhood misadventure and is recounted. During their summer holidays, Peter, Tom and James have explored further from home than ever before, encountering the viaduct that they had previously only seen from afar. There they hear an inexplicable dialogue, and become fascinated by the place, returning a few days later to find out more. Unfortunately, warnings are not heeded, and it all ends in tragedy. The wistful companionship of youth in a long-lost English landscape is picture perfect, and the reader is led by the hand into Return to Tyneham. To me this was one of the most powerful tales here, tackling the thorny issue of evacuation during the war. A whole village is relocated, but one family reject the new accommodation and choose to be "taken in" by their aunt Alice, who lives nearby on a farm. Heartbroken, they arrive, expecting to be welcomed but finding a deserted shell of a house. Alice's ghostly presence is felt, as is the rearrangement of space and time; revealing the need in everyone to have somewhere to call home.

The Flames of Stalbridge Manor introduces us to a terrifying phantom. Staying at an unfamiliar country manor, a family is subjected to horrific visions of a figure engulfed in flames. Distressed, they leave, only to find out rather more than they are comfortable with; someone was burnt to death there long ago, and ever since, the house has been boarded up. This leads to a deliciously ambiguous ending, which leaves the reader thinking. By contrast, A Tale of Chirbury is a more ancient tale of superstition and suspicion. A village is told by a witch not to enter the grounds of St Michael's church on All Hallow's Eve, but certain of the congregation choose to ignore this warning; and they hear the names of those who will be shortly buried therein. This roll-call of terror comes to haunt the whole village and affect later generations. Is it possible to step out of the shadow?

The collection is concluded by Alice's Ghost, the touching tale of a nobleman's love for Lucinda, the young daughter of his housekeeper. His proposal of marriage to her is accepted; however, the ghost of his dead wife Alice returns to warn him against re-marrying, and eventually he wilts under her intense supernatural pressure. In despair, he throws himself from a cliff; but is it the end, or merely the beginning? And is he in fact rescued, and if so, by whom?

I can see this book being the first in a long and successful series, and PJ Hodge becoming even more of an authority in local myths and legends. I'm eagerly anticipating the next installment already!

My top five favourite tales of terror for Hallowe'en

As it's Hallowe'en, I was thinking about scary stories. It made me think about exactly why I read, and what I look for in a tale.
It isn't specifically to be scared. I'm not the biggest fan of horror as such (despite an early exposure to the Pan horror collections) and I really don't wish to be confronted with any poor protagonist's bloody body parts; it's all a bit too messy for me. I think what I look for is atmosphere, specifically strangeness created from everyday circumstance. The moment a story withdraws into some kind of fantastical universe, where anything can happen with no apparent consequence, is the moment I tune out. I'm quite happy for odd things to happen, but only if there can be some ambiguity about it; did it really happen like that, or was my/the character's perception of the event unreliable? So as it turns out, in a lot of my favourite stories (the ones I frequently go back to), nothing very much frightening happens at all.

So I thought I might share with you some of the scariest stories I have enjoyed recently. That is, they go a little further than strangeness and into the realm of terror. For example, my feeling is that very few Aickman stories fit this bill. I love his work almost because it isn't scary in the conventional sense; he never had to resort to anything like shock tactics. However there are exceptions, and I recall a shiver down my spine when reading particular parts of some of his stories.

1. Laura by Robert Aickman
One of his more conventional (and shorter) stories, from his final collection, Night Voices, in which Andrew recalls the strange ongoing encounters he has experienced since meeting a girl at a party as a young man. The girl left him in the lurch, but promised "I shall always come back". He then fails to make contact with her for some years, until she turns up unexpectedly once more, looking no different. Again she leaves him frustrated, yet saying they will meet in the future. In the mean time, Andrew marries Cecilia, but realises that Laura is his enduring obsession; he may never be satisfied with his own reality: "I am not one of those men who can easily forget the date of his wedding." Years pass again, during which time he divorces Cecilia, and they lose touch. "I believe she's in New South Wales, but I see no reason why she shouldn't be all right."
His final encounter with Laura documented in this story provides the sting in the tail.
They meet at a convention in an hotel in the north of Italy. Andrew is compelled to follow her upstairs, into a dilapidated wing of the building, devoid of windows. "She opened a door to our left. I felt immediately that it might have been any door." When I read the description of that room for the first time, I really felt a chill go up my spine. "'Come in and have a drink with me,' bade Laura. 'Then I can look after you properly." I shudder to think; so should you.

2. Mannequins in Aspects of Terror by Mark Samuels
This is from his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales. Speaking of chills going up my spine, this story succeeds only too well. This is a delightfully dark tale, set in a modern city landscape where terrible things exist alongside workers going about their everyday business. A junior architect develops an obsession with an apparently  deserted office block visible from his office window. When an 'art installation' is opened in the building, by Eleazor Golmi, an architect he admires, he just has to go and experience it. What he discovers is more than unnerving, and a couple of sequences in this story are genuinely frightening even for the seasoned strange story reader; in particular what happens in the stairwell. "When I did hear footsteps climbing up from below, they sounded too awkward to belong to the next visitor." I have re-read this story a number of times, and I can see myself doing so again. Scarily essential reading.

3. The Pennine Tower Restaurant by Simon Kurt Unsworth
This is from Lost Places, the author's excellent collection from 2010. This story is unusual because it is presented, very successfully, as a factual account. Simon is a writer who used to work for the council, and is asked by a previous colleague to investigate some strange and tragic happenings at the eponymous establishment. Unsworth sets out a thoroughly believable background and history for the building, then lists a large number of seemingly linked events, each becoming more bizarre and terrifying. There is a cumulative effect from these descriptions and accounts which thoroughly unnerves the reader, and as Simon's cynicism is overcome by gruesome evidence, the true horror of the situation is summed up in three words: "This is not fiction."

4. Disciple of the Torrent by Lee Battersby
The opening story from Satalyte Publishing's excellent anthology Great Southern Land, this tale was something of a surprise to me. It opens much like an historical tale of exploration on the high seas, then adds some devil worship, mutiny, storms and a shipwreck. Yet only then does the true horror begin. The unfortunate survivors are forced to try to live together on a group of desolate rocks off the coast of Australia. The ensuing cruelty, treachery and butchery combine with Cornelisz's delusions about resurrecting ancient gods to reclaim their earthly realm, and mayhem ensues. This is a strongly atmospheric tale, in which the sense of terror reaches a climax in the most dreadfully predictable of ways. Which doesn't make it any easier to bear!

5. The Whisperer by Brian Lumley
More of a conventional horror story, this is one of those tales that has stuck with me for many years. Frights, edited by Kirby McCauley back in 1976, is an essential collection containing great work by writers such as Gahan Wilson, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell and Russell Kirk. In The Whisperer, Miles Benton is alone in his railway carriage one morning when he is joined by "a little fellow – a very ugly little man" who sits opposite him; filthy and unkempt. To Benton's amazement, the figure whispers something to the ticket collector, who immediately ejects Benton from the carriage, saying it's suddenly "private". The following day, the ticket collector has no recollection of the strange figure or the event. Over the next few months, Benton is increasingly victimised by this creature, who is able to manipulate events with his hypnotic whispering. Eventually Benton becomes obsessed, then usurped; his wife leaves him, his life ruined, and his thoughts turn to violence and revenge. In his quest to hunt down his tormentor, Benton sees his wife with him; and, in a rage, he is knocked down by a taxi and badly injured. The horror of this tale comes when, just as the reader thinks things can get no worse, the whisperer takes away Benton's last desperate hope.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Publisher for Dying Embers

I am more than pleased to announce that my first collection of short stories, Dying Embers, will be published by Satalyte Publishing.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I have removed the countdown clock from my website; this is because its release has been put back to early next year, to suit their schedule. I'm very, very happy – Satalyte is expanding rapidly, and has some excellent writers and plenty of great books coming up. I'm sure Dying Embers will have a great home there.

Friday 4 October 2013

Haunted houses: research for my new project

With Dying Embers now just about complete, I have been thinking about my next project, tentatively titled Terror Australis. Several of the tales in Dying Embers feature historic houses, or at least some form of local legend, myth or folklore, and I know a number of English short story collections featuring such historical links (such as Ghost Realm by Paul Finch); so why not one from an Australian perspective?

To this end I have been doing some research, and I've put together a few options. Last year I visited Cockatoo Island (see my blog here), and found this otherworldly place to be inspirational. More recently I visited Meroogal house in Nowra, which is a fascinating time capsule from the 1800s, and full of stories. Next on my list is Monte Cristo Homestead, in Junee, which is said to be 'Australia's most haunted house'. Dare I stay the night there? You bet! I'll let you know how it goes.

The main view of Vaucluse House from the gardens as you approach

Anyway, for further research, today I visited Vaucluse House, in Sydney. It was home of William Charles Wentworth, father of the Australian Constitution, from 1827 until 1853; and I have discovered it contains many more fascinating tales from the past. I can't wait to get writing! 
I took some pictures for reference.
The 'games room' on the ground floor
The upstairs landing
The cellars
Barred windows in the cooler
My intention at this time is for Terror Australis to consist of around six dramatic 'strange adventures', written in a similar vein to Dying Embers, set in one of the feature locations. Each one would be followed by a non-fiction essay concerning the history, myth or legend surrounding the place.

It could be one of a series, several volumes concerning different areas of Australia. From my researches so far, it seems there would be plenty of material for such a project.

What do you think?