Sunday, 22 November 2020

Where lies the future for TERROR TALES?

Today, I’ll be asking the question what does the future hold for my TERROR TALES series? Now, before some smart Alec says ‘you need to ask your publisher, surely?’, I’m talking purely in the aesthetic sense.

Yes, whatever happens with the TERROR TALES series, however long it’s destined to last in its current format, will be entirely down to TELOS PUBLISHING, who’ve done such an amazing job with the last three volumes. The last one in particular, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES, seems to be attracting huge interest online.

But what I’m pondering today is where to go with the substance of the series. Those who follow it will have realised that we are now past halfway in our round-tour of mainland Britain. Okay, we’re not going to complete it in the next year or so. There are still plenty of places to visit here in Blighty. But it will happen eventually, so where do we take TERROR TALES after that?

I have rafts of ideas, but there are lots of issues to talk about.

In addition today, and it’s very in keeping with the main theme, because this is one author whose stories have featured regularly in TERROR TALES, I’ll be reviewing THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI, Reggie Oliver’s seventh collection of horror stories under the Tartarus Press banner. 

For those who don’t know him, Reggie Oliver has often been referred to as the best kept secret in British horror and as the heir-apparent to both MR James (left) and Robert Aickman ... imagine that combination, if you can. He’s also known worldwide for his endlessly inventive scenarios and for the eloquence of his nightmarish prose.

If you’re only here for that review, you can find it at the bottom of today’s blog, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. 

If that’s your main interest today, shoot on down there straight away. However, those with a little more time on their hands, may also be interested in …

Terror Tales from everywhere

I don’t want to get repetitive on you and go again through the whole story behind my TERROR TALES series (in which we’ve so far published twelve titles). Suffice to say that it was inspired by the Fontana Tales of Terror series of the 1970s, which was mostly helmed by Ron Chetwynd-Hayes, and which selected one specific region per volume and would then tell horror stories about it, snippets of true terror interspersing with great works of fiction, some of these old and well-known, others brand new but commissioned from some of the best authors around.

I’ve adopted exactly the same format with the TERROR TALES series, though whereas Fontana had broader targets: Welsh Tales of Terror, Irish Tales of Terror, Scottish Tales of Terror for example, we’ve narrowed things done a little. Yes, we too have done TERROR TALES OF WALES and CORNWALL, as Fontana did, but we started with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, and went on to do TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, YORKSHIRE etc etc.

The big question now, having covered roughly half of the mainland UK, is where do we go once we’ve finished with this little island?

Well, before that, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve got firm plans for the immediate future. For example, to compliment TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, we simply must, at some point, publish TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS. Other British districts that we must go to include THE WEST COUNTRY, THE ENGLISH MIDLANDS, and to balance out TERROR TALES OF NOTHWEST ENGLAND, there has to be a TERROR TALES OF NORTHEAST ENGLAND

At the other end of the country, meanwhile, THE SOUTH COAST would also be worth a book.

By the way, the reason behind these relatively small target areas is quite simple. Having extensively researched the folklore and mythology that provides the factual palate-cleansers located between the works of fiction in these anthologies, I’ve uncovered vast amounts of scary material, chilling tales purporting to be true and located in all these different regions of the country. It would have been a crying shame to throw much of it away simply because we were taking too large a scope and therefore couldn’t fit it in.

But still we get back to that nagging question: where do we go when mainland Britain is done?

Terror overseas

I’ve never worked on the basis that the writers who produce fiction for these books need to be ‘ethnically correct’ for the region under examination, but I’ve always been insistent that each story must be relevant to that region. However, once you’ve gone overseas, the ethics of this approach become murkier.

I’d certainly like to do TERROR TALES OF IRELAND (again, as Fontana did back in the day). I pride myself on knowing plenty of Irish writers. On top of that, Britain and Ireland enjoy a close friendship these days, with much cultural exchange. I strongly doubt that anyone would object if there were one or two British (or American authors) in there as well … so it really wouldn’t be a problem putting this one together.

But then, when we go further afield into Europe, it might become more of an issue. I have optimistic plans to take the TERROR TALES series around the European continent, from the MEDITERRANEAN to SCANDINAVIA, from WESTERN EUROPE to EASTERN EUROPE. I reckon those are four potentially delightful books that I wish I could start editing right now. But the problem is that I don’t know many authors from the countries we would cover. In fact, in most cases, none at all.

I’ve no doubt that I could safely commission a whole bunch of superb fictional horror stories set in all of these lands, but they would be by English-speaking authors, and even though said Brits might know these places inside out, would that be the correct thing to do?

I’d genuinely value opinions on this. 

Personally, I’d be inclined to say ‘yes it would’ given that the only other alternative would be not doing these books at all.

However, once you’ve cleared that hurdle, and are looking to take the series even further afield, other complexities arise.

The Americas, you might think, would be the obvious next place for the series to pitch up, North America in particular: it’s primarily English-speaking, plus I know many writers from the US and Canada. 

What a laugh we’d have with that. Imagine it: TERROR TALES OF THE DEEP SOUTH, TERROR TALES OF THE GREAT PLAINS, TERROR TALES OF NEW YORK, TERROR TALES OF THE WHITE NORTH etc etc etc. 

Except that how could I, an Englishman, who has only ever visited the North American continent twice in his entire life, possibly have the temerity to set myself up as editor for an American folklore-based anthology? Surely, it would have to be another American? I mean, don’t get me wrong … I would love to have a go, but I would only attempt this with the tacit permission of the American horror fiction community.

Consider this, and then imagine the even more immense problems if I was to try my hand at editing
TERROR TALES OF CENTRAL AMERICA or TERROR TALES OF SOUTH AMERICA

Both those regions have wonderful literary traditions, and again, strong horror-writing communities … but alas, I’d be a total stranger in their eyes (and largely ignorant of their expertise).

The same issues would apply to TERROR TALES OF THE CARIBBEAN, TERROR TALES OF THE MIDDLE EAST or TERROR TALES OF THE FAR EAST. In the latter case, when JJ Strating edited Fontana’s Oriental Tales of Terror back in 1971, at least half the stories were provided by authors of Oriental origin or western writers who were living there. I wouldn’t have the contacts or knowledge to even commence compiling an anthology of that sort.

A better option might be, once we have covered Britain and Europe, to move out of the realm of specifics.

So, for example, TERROR TALES OF THE TROPICS would sit very nicely alongside TERROR TALES OF THE TUNDRA. I couldn’t see that there’d be much controversy there. 

TERROR TALES OF OUTER SPACE has to be done at some point, if for no other reason than to honour Fontana’s Tales of Terror from Outer Space (I’ve already done TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN and TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE in tribute to Fontana’s original Sea Tales of Terror).

Beyond that, we could move onto society itself. How about TERROR TALES OF THE INNER CITY, TERROR TALES OF THE SUBURBS, TERROR TALES OF THE COUNTRYSIDE and TERROR TALES OF THE WILDERNESS …?

We could even start looking at the calendar.

TERROR TALES OF CHRISTMAS
would be an obvious one. Likewise, TERROR TALES OF
HALLOWEEN
. But what about TERROR TALES OF SPRING, TERROR TALES OF SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER … ? I know what you’re thinking. At the rate we produce these books, which is roughly one a year, we’d all be pushing Zimmer frames before we got even half way through a list like this. But should that stop us trying?

Perhaps our final pursuit, after all this, as the series gradually winds its way towards a stately and inevitable end, is horror culture itself.

These titles would round it all off nicely: TERROR TALES OF THE OCCULT, TERROR TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL, TERROR TALES OF MONSTERS, TERROR TALES OF FOLKLORE, and finishing it all off maybe, TERROR TALES OF MANIACS.

Please forgive me for thinking aloud today. That’s often all I do on this blog, if I’m honest. Though I make no apology for dreaming these dreams.

Maybe we’ve been a little bit ambitious, but if anyone has any better ideas, feel free to let me know. You can rest assured, any that are really good will be freely pinched.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI
by Reggie Oliver (2018)

Reggie Oliver is one of the most readable and elegant purveyors of supernatural fiction working today, and yet his reputation in that field continues to elude many out there in the wider world. This is a minor tragedy in my view because, on merit alone, Oliver deserves to be a household name. At least he is well-recognised within the genre itself, a cause served admirably by Tartarus Press, who to date have brought out seven collections of his stories. 

The Ballet of Dr Caligari is the most recent on the list, but is something of an oddity in that it incorporates the best of Madder Mysteries, a much earlier Oliver collection, put out in 2009 in fact but which for various reasons was read by almost nobody. The opportunity to get hold of older material that almost sank without trace through no fault of the author gives added value to this particular collection, of course, though there are many more recent stories in here as well, these congregated in the second half of the book, which makes for a most satisfying whole.

When Reggie Oliver first burst onto the ghost story scene in the early 2000s, he was viewed by many as the heir to MR James, his preferred subject the traditional English supernatural tale though with more than a hint of danger in it. Since then, however, and this is excellently illustrated in The Ballet of Dr Caligari, his style has moved more towards the realms of Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman in that he favours strangeness over the straightforwardly ghostly. And yet Oliver’s work is just as frightening now as it ever was, even if he does tend to tackle slightly more complex subject-matter.

Things that have never changed, however, include his eloquent writing style, his scholarly tone, his mordant wit, his effortless evocation of different times and places and his skilled creation of sad, lost characters, all of it coming neatly packaged in deceptively gentle prose.

Another trademark of Oliver’s are his regular trips down memory lane where his own theatrical career was concerned. Oliver was a successful actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before he moved into a darker literary world, his supernatural canon subsequently making many visits to Britain’s provincial theatre-land of former decades, the majority of these stories steeped in melancholy, though not always because the author is bemoaning the loss of something wonderful. Oliver never skimps on detail when it comes to the tawdriness of some of the experiences he had back then, be it damp dressing rooms, dingy backstage corridors, unpleasant and even predatory fellow professionals, or maybe just second rate accommodation in seaside towns that time forgot.

The Final Stage is a perfect example in this particular collection. It sees an arrogant young actor injured during rehearsal, knocked unconscious and plunged into a theatrical hell of his own making. Another powerful tale of this ilk, less disturbing but dark and foggy nonetheless, is The Vampyre Trap, an atmospheric murder mystery set in Bradford’s Victorian era theatre district, complete with ghosts, arson and multiple deaths by strychnine poisoning. Though by far the most intriguing and yet repellent study of theatre life in times gone by is Baskerville’s Midgets. Read in the age of diversity, it walks the line somewhat, but like many of these stories, it comes to us from another era, when sensibilities were significantly different. I consider this one quite a special piece as low-key horror stories go, so more about this one later.

Reggie Oliver could never really be regarded as an experimental author, but there are three particular stories in The Ballet of Dr Caligari that are fascinatingly off-the-wall compared to his normal output. The first of these, Tawny, you probably would have to classify as experimental fiction, because the story is told entirely in dialogue between characters who are never formally introduced. Such is Oliver’s skill, however, that this never becomes a problem. It concerns an upper class christening, which is interrupted by the arrival of a huge, shaggy animal, which might be a local farm dog gone astray, or something much more sinister.

The two other stories in the trio, while not what I’d regard as experimental, certainly belong in the school of weird fiction rather than the overtly supernatural, though both are deeply macabre. Probably the more lauded of the two, and probably the most Aickmanesque tale in the whole of this collection, if not the most Aickmanesque tale that Oliver has ever written, is A Donkey at the Mysteries, which tells the story of an adventurous undergraduate who makes a one-man tour of Ancient Greek sites, only to arrive on the island of Thrakonisos, where his investigation of the mysterious Sanctuary of the Great Gods invokes an ancient and malignant power. The third story in this small group, The Head, is equally difficult to categorise, but no less unnerving and no less morbidly chilling. In this one, an eccentric art-dealer receives a terminal diagnosis, and so plans to commit suicide with the assistance of an amoral young taxi driver he takes a fancy to, though it won’t be as easy as either of them expects.

Oliver aficionados may consider that more familiar territory is to be found in Love and Death. In this one we’re firmly back in the world of the recognisably supernatural, but it’s a slower burn than usual, and laced with academic interest. It takes place in Victorian London, where it sees Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now mysteriously disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is misleadingly beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches. A similar tone is struck by Lady With a Rose, in which a young British artist sets up shop in Rome of the 1960s, where he struggles to make a living until he is summoned to the grand home of Prince Valerio Grandoni, who has an unusual and potentially very dangerous commission for him.

Both of these arts-themed tales are intriguing rather than out-and-out frightening, but they hint at extreme darkness and will keep you glued to the page. 

Possibly the dreamiest (and perhaps most meaningful) story in the book, and certainly the most folk-horrorish (if such a word exists), is Porson’s Piece, another deceptively gentle fable. It centres on Jane, an Oxford scholar, who seeks an interview with Bernard Wilkes, a former professor of philosophy now in his 80s. She finds him living in a quaint Cotswolds village, but though he’s still an avowed atheist, he now lives in fear of a nearby strip of land called Porson’s Piece, on which the dead are said to dance.

Of course, no Reggie Oliver collection would ever be worthy of the name if it didn’t contain at least a bunch of Gothic horror stories penned with the sole intention of instilling terror in the reader. This, for me, is where the great man really excels, and The Ballet of Dr Caligari is no exception.

First up is The Game of Bear, co-written with MR James himself, though obviously Oliver added his bit long after Dr James had died, the story at that point incomplete.

It centres on Henry Pardue, fortunate heir to a vast country estate, though endless problems are caused for him by his cousin, Caroline, who feels that with her own small inheritance, she has been ill-treated. When Caroline dies, Pardue hopes the matter is over, but it isn’t … as he will learn for himself that following Christmas Day, during the infamous Game of Bear.

Three other tales, owing purely to the imagination of Reggie Oliver, are worthy to stand alongside this one in terms of how genuinely hair-raising they become: The Devil’s Funeral, which I seriously believe is one of the best and eeriest horror stories of modern times, even though it’s set in a distinctly Jamesian past; The Endless Corridor, an uber-Gothic terror tale reminiscent of the great horror writers of earlier eras, Poe, Shelley, Stevenson and so on; and the titular story, The Ballet of Dr Caligari, a phenomenal piece of dark fiction, which though it draws heavily on the original classic tale, is possibly even more crammed with madness and obsession and certainly no less chilling.

I’ve not even hinted at the synopses behind these three final stories simply because I’ll deal with those in the next section. In the meantime, all fans of short eerie fiction should get hold of The Ballet of Dr Caligari. It’s a mixed bag for sure, but the writing is of the highest quality (as are the illustrations, which are provided by the author himself), and it amply demonstrates what a fine and versatile writer Reggie Oliver is.

And now …

THE BALLET OF DR CALIGARI – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). So as always, part of this review will involve me non-too-seriously casting this beast before someone with enough development money comes along and does it for real. Here are my thoughts.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of
Horror
), or maybe they find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night).

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

(It may look like I’ve spent a fortune on these actors, but remember, for portmanteau horrors they only usually have to work for one day each 😉).

Baskerville’s Midgets: A professional actor stays regularly at a theatrical guest-house in a drab seaside resort. One year, however, he is progressively more disturbed by an unruly band of performing midgets who have finished up in the same lodgings …

The Actor – Peter Capaldi 
Ruby Baker - Emily Watson

The Devil’s Funeral: In an age when Darwinian theories are capturing the public imagination, idealistic Canon Simms of Morchester Cathedral is tormented by nightmarish visions, which he feels are predicting disaster for the Church of England. The older, sturdier Dean Bennett is helpful but dismisses his fears as dreams. Neither link the young man’s terrors with the impending arrival of the strangely secretive Bishop Hartley …

Simms – Arthur Darvill
Bennett – Robert Pugh
Hartley – Michael Sheen

The Endless Corridor: A lady academic researches a romantic poet of the Regency period, William Sotherham, and in so doing, uncovers a terrifying tale concerning a trip he made across Spain, which saw him call at an isolated and long-abandoned monastery …

Academic – Kate Winslet
Sotherham – Robert Pattinson

The Ballet of Dr Caligari: When Charles May, a young London composer, is commissioned to write a ballet for Sir Daniel Vernon, one of the most acclaimed choreographers at the British National Ballet, he jumps at the chance. But when he learns the ballet must tell the famous horror story of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, he wonders if he is doing the right thing …

Charles May – Kit Harington
Daniel Vernon – Anthony Sher 
Jane ‘Marda’ Fisher – Elizabeth Olsen

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