Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Demons, demons ... everywhere demons!


We’re firmly back on the horror trail this week. Primarily, that’s because there are big developments with the TERROR TALES series that I want to tell you about, but also because I’ll be reviewing and discussing A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, Paul Tremblay’s masterly study of a suburban family’s catastrophic decline during the course of what may or may not be a demonic possession.

As always, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blog. Skip straight on down if you’ve a mind to, but if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be interested to hang around and see what’s happening with TERROR TALES.

First of all, if readers of the series can forgive me, I’ll just need to give those who are new to it a quick thumbnail sketch.

TERROR TALES was born from my love of regional folklore, not just in the UK but all over the world.

It was long my dream to commence editing a series of anthologies dedicated to this uniquely homespun brand of horror, but in order to create as broad an overview as possible, I knew that I’d need to focus each particular volume on a specific geographic region. So, for example, the first book in the series was TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT. Since then, we’ve covered, in no order of preference, the COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, WALES, LONDON, CORNWALL, the SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, YORKSHIRE, the SEASIDE and the OCEAN.

My plan was not just to publish new fiction based on local terrifying mythology, but also to reprint a few classics here and there, and to intersperse the stories with short, factual anecdotes on the same theme.

So, again using TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT as an example, the marvellous stories Little Mag’s Barrow and The Coniston Star Mystery, as written by Adam Nevill and Simon Clark respectively, found themselves sitting either side of a vignette concerning the life and crimes of Tom Fool, the Mad Jester of Muncaster Castle (also depicted on the book’s cover). This has been the style of the series ever since, and from the responses I’ve had from readers, one of its most popular aspects.

When I first started with TERROR TALES back in 2011, the plan was to publish two books a year. But events have gradually conspired against that. My own novel-writing career has, to a degree, sky-rocketed, which has left me much less time to focus on the anthologies, and by the same token, Gary Fry, the owner of Gray Friar Press, the original publisher, has seen his own career develop and been left with no option but to move on.

This caused a brief interlude in the series, though last year we returned with a new publisher, Telos Books, and our first new title in a year and a half, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

I’m glad to say that our audience hadn’t deserted us, but even now, with a new publisher behind us, doing two books a year is a bit on the difficult side. So, the revised ambition is just to do one. That will be a much more manageable time-frame and will give all those involved opportunities to do other things as well.

As such, this year’s offering, which I’m hoping will be available for pre-order in the early autumn, will be TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND. I’m not able to show you the cover yet, though I’ve already viewed Neil Williams’s sensation artwork, and I’m totally blown away by it. Hopefully it will be available for you all to take a good look at in the very near future. Keep watching this space.

Making movies

Still on the subject of horror anthologies, here’s a fun thing.

I loved the recent, very scary movie, Ghost Stories (below, right), not least because it went where other recent British horror movies have feared to tread.

Some of you will already know that it was adapted by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson from their stage play of the same name. It tells a nightmarish supernatural tale in which three chilling shorts cleverly interweave with a central narrative, creating a very satisfying whole. It got a mainstream cinema release, which is a rarity for this kind of movie in the 21st century, and has been widely viewed and applauded.

At one time, British cinema was no stranger to this kind of thing. I’m sure you’ll all remember the halcyon days of the Amicus portmanteaux: Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden, Vault of Horror, Asylum, etc … which were very successful in the 1960s and 1970s (having taken their cue, of course from the classic Ealing chiller of 1945, Dead of Night).

I’d like nothing better than to see horror film-makers get back to this format in some shape of other, and it seems I’m not the only one. After the success of Ghost Stories, I understand that The Field Guide to Evil, another big-money portmanteau horror, is currently in production, while Channel 4 is presently running its True Horror TV series, in which real-life ghostly events from around the UK are each week dramatised and presented to us in short ‘horror fiction’ fashion.

In respect of this apparent new interest in the short scary form, I thought I’d slightly alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section, by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels – and each time I cover one, selecting four particular stories from it, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, complete with my usual fantasy casting, etc.

While I’m not in a position to review any new anthologies at this moment, though I’m already inserting several into my to-be-read pile, I thought I might as well start with the Terror Tales books. I won’t review these as such – that would bit rich, me reviewing my own anthologies (five stars all round, lads!) – but I can at least turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie, pick the four stories necessary and cast them. In which case, assuming you’ve bought into the conceit of that, we might as well start at the beginning, with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT (I’ll work my way through the others during the course of this year).

So, here is …


Just a bit of fun, remember. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book – I love all the stories in these anthos equally – but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, and your vivid imaginations, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all trapped in a cellar by a broken lift, and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror), or are marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror) – but basically it’s up to you.

Yes, I know, I’m copping out on that bit. But, tough. You’ve got the idea. So, without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:

ABOVE THE WORLD by Ramsey Campbell

Lonely soul, Knox, is convinced that he hasn’t returned to the idyllic country hotel on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite because he’s nostalgic about the holiday he once spent there with his lovely wife, Wendy. He’s moved on from those happy days, he tells himself, as he sets out on a solo hike through the surrounding fells, despite the impending stormy weather. He doesn’t regret their separation several years later, and he feels no grief that his ex-wife and the new man in her life suddenly and recently died while exploring these self-same wooded hills. What matter that he keeps hearing the drifting voices of an elusive couple? What matter the increasing sense that he isn’t alone in this bleak, desolate place …?

Knox - Steve Pemberton
Wendy - Anna Friel

THE CONISTON STAR MYSTERY by Simon Clark

Amateur frogmen, Blake Keller and Andrew Harper plan to scour the depths of Coniston Water, searching for the remains of famous escape artist, Iskander Carvesh, who drowned in 1910, when the boat he was chained upon, the Coniston Star, sank without trace. It’ll be a dangerous dive, but Keller and Harper know what they are doing. The only potential fly in the ointment, is Enid, a handsome blonde they’ve only known a day but who wants to accompany them. Loudmouthed Keller delights in trying to frighten her with his tales of underwater peril, but Enid is no novice, and she has dark reasons of her own for making this very dangerous dive …

Keller - Steve Oram
Harper - Michael Socha
Enid - Florence Pugh

THE CLAIFE CRYER – by Carole Johnstone

The tale of the Claife Cryer, a horrible, disembodied voice said to have cried out from the shadows on the wooded west shore of Windermere, luring a young ferryman to his death, is one of the scariest Lake District ghost stories Kerry has ever heard. But of course, she doesn’t believe it, or she tries not to on the day she and her unpleasant father attempt a bonding exercise by exploring that thickly-treed region. Local gossips say the voice belonged to a deranged monk from a monastery now long abandoned. Spooky as that is, Kerry doesn’t feel it’s half as bad as spending time with her scornful and argumentative parent, but then, as twilight descends, she hears an awful cry. And then she hears it again. And again. Undeniably, it’s getting closer …

Kerry - Ella Purnell              
Dad - David Morrissey

THE MORAINE by Simon Bestwick

College lecturers Steve and Diane’s relationship is in trouble. Hopes were high that a Lake District hiking trip would be just the thing. But they’re still not getting on, and that’s not helped by the terrible October weather, everything wet and gloomy, and now – typically – just when they’re lost among the high, rock-strewn peaks, a thick mist coming down, which ensures that they lose the path as well. Even then, in danger, they don’t form easy allies – though in truth, they don’t know the meaning of danger yet. That will only come when they realise they’re being stalked by something unseen, something that can mimic animal sounds and human voices, and which appears to be stalking them underneath the endless heaps of moraine …

Steve - Iwan Rheon
Diane - Jessica Brown Findlay


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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.


A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS 
by Paul Tremblay (2016)

Meredith Barrett is an intelligent, sophisticated and seemingly stable young woman, leading a relatively quiet life in a South Boston apartment. However, it’s fairly well known that when she was a child, something appalling happened to her family, something she hasn’t been able to speak fully about for years, in consequence of which the true facts in the case are much-mythologised. When best-selling author, Rachel Neville, arrives to interview Meredith, a loose agreement has been reached that the younger woman will finally, for the first time, tell all.

Rachel is unsure what she is going to get, or whether it will be adequately enthralling for a new book, but the story, when it starts to unfold, astounds her. It concerns a young suburban family entrapped by an intangible but malevolent something, which may have an entirely mundane (i.e. psychological) explanation, or alternatively could be the work of the Devil.

Central to the story are the then-eight-year-old Meredith, known back then as Merry, and her 15-year-old sister, Marjorie. They enjoy a typical sisterly relationship, adoring each other but at the same time adversarial, delighting in catching each other out with naughty, sometimes nasty tricks. Marjorie is the cannier and more dominant of the two, but Merry, while not necessarily adept at this game, is so willing to meet every challenge that Marjorie treats her with a degree of grudging respect, and affectionately calls her ‘Monkey’.

From a reader’s POV, it’s a charming scenario, and something that’s instantly recognisable in happy families everywhere.

The rest of the Barrett clan consists of father, John, a Catholic by upbringing who, since he lost his middle-management job a year and a half ago, is trying to re-energise his religious beliefs, and mother, Sarah, also a Catholic, but one who has grown away from the Church of her childhood and is now skeptical of its teachings.

Worried about their dwindling finances, the parents are going through a difficult patch, but their real problems commence when Marjorie starts displaying erratic behavior. On some occasions, it’s odd but harmless, Marjorie telling her sister some unusually scary and macabre stories, or rearranging her bedroom posters into weird patterns, but on others it’s more sinister, such as when she sneaks into Merry’s room while she’s asleep, and clamps her nose and mouth shut.

Merry, as our main observer, is never quite sure whether Marjorie, a natural mischief-maker, is faking all this bizarre stuff or not. But parents, John and Sarah, have been concerned about Marjorie’s fractious, moody behavior for some time.

Initially, at Sarah’s behest, a psycho-analytical approach is taken, but medical personnel, though they talk to her and prescribe meds (for which they charge handsomely), are unable to fix the older girl’s apparent personality-change, which continues to worsen. One minute she is mocking her father’s belief in Heaven in a cruel, smug way, and the next she is screaming at her parents to get the voices out of her head.

Increasingly fearful that she might be possessed, a worry encouraged in no small fashion by Marjorie herself when she climbs the bare wall of her bedroom with spider-like strength and agility, John finally calls on a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, who talks to Marjorie, seemingly calming her during a foul-mouthed tirade, but afterward admits suspicion that something evil has taken hold of her. Eager for publicity, the priest then makes an incredible suggestion: that the Barretts put themselves into a weekly television show, in which Marjorie’s deteriorating behavior will be filmed and discussed by various ‘experts’ in the field, from psychiatrists to theologians, with the grand finale the exorcism itself, at which point the heroic priest will cleanse the child of the entity possessing her.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah is not keen on this idea, but when a television company gets involved and substantial cash is offered, everything changes.

Thus, The Possession is born.

In the early stages, the experience isn’t too painful. Merry is intrigued to have TV people living with them. She doesn’t much like producer/director, Barry Cotton, but she gets on well with writer, Ken Fletcher. Marjorie’s antics remain unpredictable, but this is something that Merry, in that traditional way of easy-going eight-year-olds, has got used to. So, everything is cool.

Until Merry sees her sister strapped down on her bed for hardline interrogation. Until she sees her parents’ relationship completely break down, Sarah blaming John for this invasion of their lives, and John, who’s been desperate to find answers in his faith and has failed, losing track of reality and engaging in violent altercations with the crowds of curious onlookers who now attend their house day and night (many openly vilifying the family for this exploitation of their daughter’s illness).

And still there are questions in Merry’s mind about whether Marjorie is faking it. The older sister is a crafty child, even sly. In that tiresome way of all teen rebels without a cause, is it possible that she could be doing this to punish her quarreling mum and dad? Is it that she’s just a silly, naïve child, who, as a form of attention-seeking, is unconsciously allowing a callous media to manipulate her? Or could it be that she’s simply mentally ill? … because from the frightening things we are seeing now – and yes, by this stage of the narrative, it is way past a joke! – we could easily be witnessing a psychological breakdown.

Or alternatively, is it something genuinely evil?

There is no overt indication that a supernatural force is at work, but then … would a demon that wants to do extensive damage reveal its hand so quickly? And despite at one point assuring Merry that she has pretended to be possessed from the beginning in order to win her family the TV deal, Marjorie continues to give the impression that she is under some kind of malign influence, speaking in different, unrecognisable voices, moving around on all fours, and displaying arcane knowledge.

Despite the covert admission made to her, Merry is still unsure what to believe. And so are we, the readers. But one thing is certain. The ghastly turmoil besetting the Barrett family is not going to be resolved easily, or without serious and maybe multiple casualties …

Possession is an old premise for horror stories, these days. But Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a very original take on it. Whereas in early classics like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (not to mention recent movies like The Rite and The Conjuring), the investigators, usually after some doubt, settle on a firm conviction that evil spirits are real, A Head Full of Ghosts takes more of a Shirley Jackson approach, keeping us guessing right to the end of the book. And rather than doing this by locking everyone in a supposed haunted house for the weekend, the author throws us into very unfamiliar territory by locating it in a suburban family home, now massively disrupted not just by the elder daughter’s apparent illness, but by the economic stresses that are driving the parents apart, and the unfeeling presence of a TV crew who are mainly interested in securing a ratings hit.

And this is a point where A Head Full of Ghosts becomes a genuine horror show, with every key character tormented in his or her own way, and on various levels.

Non-believing Sarah only goes through with the whole farrago because she knows they need the money (if there’s any demon here, it could be argued that it’s Mammon). But even this leaves her racked with guilt, not just because she fears that she’s giving credence to something she reviles, the paternalistic power of the Church, but also because she can clearly see that Marjorie’s condition is worsening, not improving. This is such a terrible burden that she can’t bear it alone, but of course she can’t put it onto her daughter because she is convinced the teenager is ill, and so she directs it at her husband, treating his religious desperation as a kind of pathetic hysteria.

For John, it’s even more torturous. As head of the family, and former main bread-winner, he would normally be the guy who sorts things out, but on this occasion he can’t – in fact it’s quite the opposite, the burly, bearded Bostonian constantly belittled by his wife and his smart-mouthed daughter (or whatever’s lurking inside her). He’s vulnerable in other ways too: his certainty that they’re facing an infernal foe is terrifying him given that God and his angels seem incapable of intervening; at the same time, he is bewildered and mortified that his Christian beliefs are attracting scorn rather than respect, which in the end leaves him a puppet of a man, easy to manipulate and easier still to blame (and maybe, just maybe, the absolute perfect target for a genuinely malevolent intellect).

And then there is Merry, who, all the way through the book views these events in a mild state of disbelief, internalising the shock because she’s a child, naïvely assuming that one day she’ll simply wake up and find everything back to normal because her mum and dad have resolved it. Overall, Merry is a marvelous creation, Tremblay completely and convincingly getting into the lively and genuinely funny day-to-day world of a bright little eight-year-old.

Not that this reduces the awfulness of the predicament, an effect the author achieves without throwing buckets of gore and vomit over us or hitting us with horrendous blasphemy (though these disturbing elements are not completely absent). He primarily relies on the interplay of these tormented individuals, a once close-knit family brutally broken, and who though they’re now in a virtual goldfish bowl of public attention, are more isolated than they could ever have imagined.

There is such devastation here that I’m not sure it even matters whether a devious intelligence is directing the chaos, or whether it’s just rotten luck; the terror of this tale doesn’t need any such revelation. But even so, the book ends with a savage jolt, which because it again makes you reconsider everything you’ve just read, caps the whole thing off perfectly. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tremblay enjoys himself immensely in this book, filling it with a host of classic horror references, which has attracted much praise from the genre. We’ve already mentioned The Exorcist, The Turn of the Screw, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (a study of young woman going slowly mad) is clearly lurking in the background, along with The Amityville Horror (wherein a middle-class family struggling to pay their bills turn to the supernatural as a solution), Paranormal Activity, which also features a pair of quirky children at the root of the disturbance, and even Scream, another postmodern horror outing which trades on sneaky allusions to other works of fiction. If these references aren’t oblique enough in the text itself, you get several of them through an amusingly hyper-critical ‘horror fan blog’ provided by a lively young lady called Karen Brissette, which interrupts the narrative at regular intervals, analyzing the TV show from an uber-cynical ‘keyboard warrior’ perspective – though be warned, even this slice of 21st century normality is deceptive.

Overall, A Head Full of Ghosts is one clever, insightful and darkly entertaining horror novel. Just don’t expect your spirits to be uplifted by it.

It’s usually the case when I complete one of these reviews, that I also try to cast it. But I don’t think I’m going to bother with A Head Full of Ghosts simply because the two main characters are the youngsters, Merry and Marjorie, and as I have no real clue about exciting new child actors, it would utterly self-defeating to cast everyone except the two main protagonists. Either way, A Head Full of Ghosts deserves to be on the screen in some shape or form, and as soon as possible, because it is horror stories like this that will keep the genre alive and kicking at adult and intellectual level.

6 comments:

  1. Osgood Perkins has been slated to direct through Focus Features. His two previous features have received mixed reviews but their subject matter would suggest he's a very good choice to helm the project.

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    1. Thanks for that, Jake. Fascinating.

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  2. Surely Terror Tales of the Lake District covers much of the same territory as Terror Tales of Northwest England? Or will it focus primarily on Lancashire? Personally I've got my fingers crossed for Terror Tales of the Peak District and Terror Tales of Northumberland.

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    1. We started the series with Terror Tales of the Lake District because it was such a recognisable place geographically, culturally, mythologically, etc. Yes, it's in the Northwest, but we felt there was enough in the LD to do it alone. In contrast, Terror Tales of Northwest England will focus on Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Those other areas you mention will all follow in due course.

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