Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Nightmarish world of ghosts and monsters


I almost feel honoured this week to be reviewing BROKEN MONSTERS by Lauren Beukes, which is surely one of the most astonishing horror/fantasy/thriller novels I’ve read in many a year. But as usual, that’s for a little later – you can find my full review of it at the lower end of this column. Feel free to scroll your way down there right away if you so wish, but for those with more time on their hands, I’m first going to talk a little about the Jamesian elements in my TERROR TALES series, and am also honoured – I’m doubly honoured today, it seems – to be able to include the whole of a rather spiffing review of the series as written by the legendary Rosemary Pardoe in that Bible of all things MR James, the GHOSTS & SCHOLARS newsletter.

First of all ... what is the definition of Jamesian fiction?

Well ... lots of us would love to have a final, decisive answer on that. Such a thing would certainly aid with our own ghost stories. But I think that overall it’s a pleasingly elusive concept. Montague Rhodes James (left) is one of the most important writers of supernatural fiction in literary history, as relevant in the field now as he was during his lifetime (1862 – 1936). Readers of all cultures and creeds adore his work and get many different things out of it, so I don’t think it’s possible to lay out a definitive set pattern of requirements.

However, to try and be at least a little bit specific, I think there are some key ingredients to Jamesian fiction which you can sort of rely on ...

Firstly, the setting needs to be quite distinctive. Often it’s some fine old building of religious or scholarly antiquity: a cathedral, an abbey or a university, though seaside villages are also acceptable so long as they are – well, Jamesian in tone (sorry … not much help, I know). Rural towns in Europe and Scandinavia are not unknown, though it helps if they are also seats of arcane knowledge and ancient ritual.

Secondly, the cause of the trouble will often be the recovery after many centuries of some ancient, eldritch thing: the discovery of a long lost tomb or hidden room, or the retrieval of an old book or scroll, or some other dusty and mysterious artefact.

Thirdly, the supernatural entity invoked by this impertinence will be horrible and merciless. Call it a ghost if you wish (and sometimes it will be – as in an ancestor who returns), but that isn’t a prerequisite.

It could be a demon, a vampire, a ghoul, an animated church statue; Hell, it could be nothing we have a name for, but it must be real and it must be on its way already – coming fast to enact vengeance for the trespass or to reclaim the pillaged item (and quite often it won’t be seen in its grisly entirety until the final awful moments of the tale, though readers will get the nod that it’s on its way long before it arrives).

Fourthly, the hero is often a mild-mannered, intelligent but rather asexual character, a clergyman or university don, an amateur archaeologist or some other kind of scholar; someone learned in the field but unusually innocent in general terms – this innocence will quite often be his undoing, as he plods happily into the most appalling danger.  

Fifthly, the story is FRIGHTENING. This is probably the one non-negotiable element. Forget your nice, funny or whimsical English ghost stories, forget those voices from beyond that seek only to assist. MR James had no time for that nursery room gentility. His tales are still among the most chilling ever written, usually with savage outcomes, and you’re not doing the tradition any justice if you try to write Jamesian ghost stories of your own and don’t make them extremely scary and/or disturbing.

As you can probably tell, I’m a long-time lover of the Jamesian tale. Not that I’ve written too many myself – one or two at the most – but as editor of the TERROR TALES series, I have tried to include more than a few in the final line-ups, or at the very least have commissioned new work from contemporary ghost story writers who are strongly associated with the Jamesian school – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Roger Johnson, Helen Grant and Peter Bell, among many others.

Even if I hadn’t been a Jamesian fan, it would be near enough impossible to edit a series of supernatural horror anthologies based on and inspired by British regional folklore without including at least a few stories of that persuasion, the late MRJ also strongly influenced by eerie rural locations, village mysteries, hidden secrets, isolated coves, etc.

As such, and as I mentioned at the start of this post, the series has now come to the attention of Rosemary Pardoe at GHOSTS & SCHOLARS, and she was good enough to include this lengthy assessment of it in her March edition. In case you missed that, Rosemary has now, very kindly, granted me permission to reprint her review in full on this blog.

And so here we go (many thanks, Ro):  


TERROR TALES OF…
Edited by Paul Finch
Gray Friar Press 
Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe

Paul Finch has been editing his Terror Tales series of paperback anthologies for Gray Friar Press on a roughly twice-yearly basis now since 2011.  

To date there have been nine volumes: Terror Tales of London, Terror Tales of East Anglia, Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of the Lake District, Terror Tales of the Seaside, Terror Tales of Wales, Terror Tales of Yorkshire, Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands and most recently Terror Tales of the Ocean. All of them are still available (print on demand) and all contain a mixture of (mostly) new stories with a few reprints by (mostly) current writers, set in the relevant areas, interspersed with little vignettes of local mythology, folklore and history.  

There are stories for Jamesian aficionados in the majority of the collections; and tales by authors whose names will be familiar to readers of Ghosts & Scholars, Haunted Library publications and the G&S Books of Shadows.

Thus, for instance, in the Scottish Highlands book there are stories by Helen Grant, Peter Bell, John Whitbourn and D.P. Watt, as well as a reprint of Sheila Hodgson's ‘The Fellow Travellers’. Similarly in Yorkshire, Chico Kidd and Christopher Harman feature; in Wales are Steve Duffy (‘Old as the Hills’, reprinted from G&S 33), Reggie Oliver and John Llewellyn Probert; at the Seaside are Ramsey Campbell, Reggie Oliver and Christopher Harman; in London, Roger Johnson's superb London that was Rome-influenced ‘The Soldier’ is a highlight; in the Cotswolds we find Ramsey Campbell, Christopher Harman, Reggie Oliver and John Llewellyn Probert; and in the Lake District are Ramsey Campbell, Reggie Oliver and Peter Bell. 

Of course, not all of these authors contribute Jamesian stories, while some of the writers who might be less familiar to G&S readers do. To illustrate the mix, and for obvious reasons, I've picked Terror Tales of East Anglia (2012) to look at in slightly more detail. 

It contains thirteen stories with twelve non-fiction vignettes; the latter are a mix of the familiar (the Murder in the Red Barn, the ghostly knight of Wandlebury Camp, the Rendlesham Forest UFO) and the unfamiliar (the mutilated torso that haunted Happisburgh, the demon of Wallasea Island, the giggling ghost of Dagworth Castle). 

Most of the tales are original to the volume, although some have since been reprinted elsewhere. 

The first Jamesian story is ‘The Watchman’ by Roger Johnson, reprinted from The Best of Ghosts & Scholars (1986). When a statue on the west front of Stockbridge Minster in Suffolk is replaced by one of St Michael and All Angels, it becomes clear that the former was sculpted from the life; and anyone who attempts to steal from the Minster is running a considerable risk. ‘The Watchman’ isn’t Roger at his best (which, as we know, can be very good indeed), but it’s a decent, workmanlike, if predictable, antiquarian tale. 

I would say the same about Edward Pearce’s ‘The Little Wooden Box’, which again deals with the perils of stealing from an ecclesiastical building. 

Steve Duffy’s ‘The Marsh Warden’ (originally published in Midnight Never Comes, 1997), set in and around an inn on the Essex marshes, is also traditional in plot, involving plague pits and haunted wells. But it’s so immaculately and atmospherically written that it’s a joy to read and (although I admire him for being his own man and going his own way) it makes me regret that Steve no longer seems to write Jamesian fiction. 

‘Wolferton Hall’ by James Doig (originally in Shadows and Silence, 2000) is another tale that deals in the standard James themes: an academic researches family papers in a Norfolk country house, and is disturbed by a fresco depicting a "man being pursued by [a] curious scarecrow figure". Yet a story like this, when written with the skilful scholarly touch that is characteristic of James Doig, remains extremely effective and satisfying. Johnny Mains’ ‘Aldeburgh’, a sequel to ‘A Warning to the Curious’ as the title suggests, is more unusual. Or at least it starts that way as a murder mystery, with the intriguing premise that the events in the story were based on fact, and were inspired by the death of one Mr Payton. His demise was witnessed by MRJ himself, and Mr Payton has a son who accuses MRJ of killing his father. 

Unfortunately the tale peters out with an ending that doesn’t live up to the promise of the start (it’s also a problem that the character of MRJ in the story isn’t in the least like the real one). Another story set in (a renamed) Aldeburgh is Reggie Oliver’s excellent ‘The Spooks of Shellborough’. 

This is not exactly a ‘Warning to the Curious’-connected tale, and yet it takes certain motifs from that story: the distant figure which haunts the narrator's golfing companion; and also the description of the two bodies at the end, found with their mouths choked by sand. 

The final image of the revenant is Jamesian enough, and shocks because the rest of the tale is so restrained. I also like ‘Double Space’, Gary Fry’s smart variant on the ‘Casting the Runes’ style curse that rebounds on its sender.

Non-Jamesian stories are by the likes of Christopher Harman, Paul Finch and Simon Bestwick, but my favourite of these is Mark Valentine's superb ‘The Fall of the King of Babylon’ (reprinted in Seventeen Stories, 2013). Mark rarely tackles out-and-out horror, but this is an exception. Set in Ely in the medieval period when that city acquired its name from its thriving industry in the harvesting of a certain sort of fish, this story demonstrates that one should never get on their wrong side. As an eel-phobic, I never really doubted that, but non-phobics will get a chill from the tale too, and everyone can appreciate the wonderfully evoked, dark setting and atmosphere.

Happily, there is no end in sight for the Terror Tales series. 

The latest, Terror Tales of the Ocean (with contributions from Stephen Laws, Steve Duffy, Adam Golaski, Adam Nevill, Lynda E. Rucker, etc.), continues to the same standard, although by its nature there are few if any Jamesian stories in this volume. 

Paul Finch already has plans for Terror Tales of Cornwall, Terror Tales of the Northwest, Terror Tales of the Home Counties, Terror Tales of the Midlands and Terror Tales of the South Coast.  He won't even be stopping when Great Britain is fully covered, the idea at that stage being to venture over the seas to Europe and possibly beyond. 

With such a good stable of authors regularly participating, I don't foresee any drop-off in quality either. Inevitably not every story will please everyone (some by no means please me) but other anthologists will struggle hard to reach the consistent standard of these books, which G&S has neglected for too long ...


Again, many thanks to Rosemary. You can hook up with Ghosts & Scholars and discover all you need to about Jamesian fiction both old and new by either following this LINK. Or alternatively, contact Rosemary Pardoe directly at dandrpardoe@gmail.com and she’ll be happy to send you an info/order form.

The images used in this section of the blog, from the top down, are: Lost Hearts (BBC, 1973); MRJ himself; Whistle and I'll Come to You (BBC, 1968); The Tractate Middloth (BBC, 2013); The Stalls of Barchester (BBC, 1971); G&S #9, cover illustration by Tony Patrick; G&S #28, cover illustration by Paul Lowe; G&S #32, cover illustration by Paul Lowe; G&S # 19, cover illustration by Douglas Walters; and Terror Tales of the Ocean, artwork by Neil Williams.

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

BROKEN MONSTERS 
by Lauren Beukes (2014)

The time is now. The place is Detroit, a city in its post-industrial death throes.

This is a landscape that is not just physically decayed, but morally bereft: where there are more citizens without jobs than with; where the homeless almost outnumber the residents; where over-worldly youngsters drink, take drugs and swear; where underage girls tease online paedophiles just for kicks, and high school kids are more interested in filming their friends being bullied than in helping them out; a place where graffiti and ruin-porn pass for art; where any hipster careerist thinks he/she can be a sculptor, or a musician, or a writer, or a journalist, or a social commentator, and yet somehow all of them finish up being vapid, vacuous wannabes.

In the midst of this urban ooze, cop and single mom Detective Gabi Versado finds herself investigating a particularly distressing case.

The fusing of a dead boy’s torso to the hindquarters of a deer sparks the commencement of a sadistic and gratuitous murder spree – the handiwork of a killer soon known as the ‘Detroit Monster’ because of the grotesque public displays he makes of his victims.

All the monumental complexity of a massive homicide enquiry follows, with various colourful but complex characters getting in on the act. For example, Layla is Gabi’s neglected yet spirited daughter, one of those brattish modern teens who can’t seem to live if she isn’t constantly active on social media, and yet who in this case is irrepressibly likeable; Jonno Haim is a failed New York writer-turned-blogger, a minimally-talented chancer looking to kick-start a career he hasn’t earned by shouldering his way into the Detroit arts scene; Thomas ‘TK’ Keen is an amiable hobo, a father figure to his fellow homeless, but a guy haunted by his own tragic and violent past; and then we have Clayton Broom, another failure – all these lives are broken in this land of broken dreams! – a skilled artist who struggles to support himself when his work doesn’t sell, and as such lives in a slum, absorbedly dwelling on his bizarre visions … which leaves him open to some very pernicious influences.

And this is the point where, for some readers at least, this novel’s wheels have come off.

Fans of Lauren Beukes, particularly those familiar with her stunning tale of magical realism, The Shining Girls, will probably expect Broken Monsters to enter the territory of the unreal at some point, and – well, that’s precisely what it does. Quite unapologetically. So be under no illusion. Despite first appearances, this is NOT a police procedural or even a traditional murder mystery.

At a relatively early stage, the identity of the felon is given away, but he quite literally is not himself. Call it what you will – an alien intelligence, a ghost, a demon, a faerie, an ancient god – but some powerful, unknowable and insane entity has awakened inside this already damaged soul, driving him to commit terrible deeds, each time intensifying the horror and savagery in its vain efforts to create better things, to entrance and heal the suffering public, and usher in a new age of wonder and enlightenment through the chalk doorways it motivates him to inscribe on walls near the scenes of his crimes.

And this is the real narrative, not the internal fantasy of a madman. The closer our various heroes come to resolving this case, the ever more bizarre, lurid and warped the realities they encounter, until we reach a point where you know in your bones that normality can never resume. It builds to such a crescendo of the weird and horrific that the annihilation of some of the good guys – or at least the annihilation of their sanity – seems inevitable …

I hate pigeon-holing in literature, but in this case it serves a valid purpose. Broken Monsters may not be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. But neither is it your standard urban horror story. In fact, if the vague term ‘dark fantasy’ ever had a living embodiment, this is it. And so what if certain readers were not happy about that? That is down to their own preconceptions – they thought they were reading cops ‘n’ robbers when all the blurbs said otherwise.  

For me, in this case if none other, the quality is more important than the content. Because this is far and away one of the most readable novels I’ve ever picked up. It doesn’t just move at electrifying pace, it is exquisitely written. The loving descriptions of the half-abandoned city are intense and detailed – you can almost smell the oil and filth, the rotted steel, the rain-soaked concrete. The characters are rich and multi-layered, all forlorn, all struggling, all in many ways annoying, and yet on occasion funny and loveable too, and as such, so real that it is easy to form emotional connections with them. Even the killer is the star-turn in one achingly sad scene where, in an unwitting attempt to head off his ghastly future, he tries to reacquaint with the mother of his child, a slatternly ‘roadhouse mom’ – who casually and spitefully rejects him.

For all these reasons, Broken Monsters gets my highest recommendation. Yes, the change of gear (the ‘thriller to horror’ moment) is a bit of a jolt for those who didn’t anticipate it, but this is truly excellent stuff: compelling and fascinating, at the same time both depressing and uplifting. The depth and imagery of the ruined city and the raddled folk living therein is almost seductive; the soullessness of the internet age will horrify you; the constant madness of mass-communication, mass profanity, mass insolence, mass embarrassment – the whole damn thing is amazing and infuriating and scary and intoxicating all at the same time.

You may not love this novel (unlike me – I did, as if you can’t tell!), but I can damn well guarantee that you’ll be totally overwhelmed by it.

And as always – purely for a laugh, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Broken Monsters ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which is surely very likely given the adaptation clamour that greeted The Shining Girls). 

Detective Gabi Versado – Salma Hayek 
Layla  – Amandla Stenburg 
Thomas 'TK' Keen  – Chris Chalk 
Jonna Haim  – Jonathan Rhys Meyers 
Clayton Broom  – Peter Stormare

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