Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Power of Three - 23rd Installment

Well … weeks of turmoil have now passed in terms of what can only be described as a supercharged workload, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to spoil another of your Friday morning coffee breaks. Not that most of you will be having one today, of course, because yet again we’re on the Bank Holiday trail. But I’ve already missed one ‘Power of Three’ this month, and certainly can’t be allowed to do it again.

So here, for your delectation – whether you recollect them over desk-side coffee, or while sitting with a laptop on your knee, watching the Royal Wedding on the goggle box in the corner - are three more of the world’s greatest scary stories.

Remember them and shriek.

The Long-Term Residents by Kit Pedler

A stressed scientist takes a break in a charming seaside hotel, but the attractive landlady is someone he thinks he remembers committing suicide, and why are his fellow guests content to remain in the hotel lounge, rarely conversing? Only when it’s too late does he realise why he’s been lured here.

An ingenious but thoroughly unpleasant little chiller from Kit Pedler, famous for his work on Doctor Who but also in his capacity as a medical scientist. In fact, Pedler’s scientific training comes through strongly here. He doesn’t just write with an economy of words that would do justice to any lab report, but he also presents us with complex chemical and biological issues, though rather helpfully it’s all expressed in language a layman can understand. We’re also dealing with a significant philosophical argument. It’s been done before – particularly in vampire stories, though this is not a vampire story by any means – but just how generous is a person being when they extend your life indefinitely but for their own purposes? The hero, Riker, has a reached a stage where he doesn’t know if he wants to go on. His love life’s a mess, his career dissatisfactory. He’s mentally and emotionally exhausted, and how will prolonging things improve that, especially when it looks as if the next century at least will be spent in this pokey little hotel lounge, which like any good greenhouse, is stultifyingly hot and humid? Understated sci-fi horror at its finest.

First published in THE SEVENTH GHOST BOOK, 1971.

The Man Who Drew Cats by Michael Marshall Smith

A peaceful atmosphere in a small town is spoiled by the presence of a drunken bully, who frequently beats his wife and step-son. Then a mysterious artist gets involved; a laconic guy who one day starts work on the image of a terrifying tiger.

When first published, this masterwork of sumptuous Bradbury-esque prose was seen as Mike Marshall Smith’s signature story. But he’s gone on to produce so many visionary tales since then, all so different from each other in terms of tone, style and subtext, that it’s now regarded as just one of his many milestones in strange fiction. However, I suppose the big question must be – can you class this as horror? Well what else? At the end of the day you’re dealing with extreme offences, which can only be countered by extreme measures. You’re talking horrific parental and spousal cruelty, but an even more horrific reckoning for those responsible. You’re also of course dealing with the paranormal, the supernatural, the demonic, the angelic – call it what you will. Just because it has a happy ending, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a horror story. It’s not exactly gore-free, either. By the same token, Tom, the brooding street-artist who almost by virtue of his own dark will is able to create monsters with chalk and paint, rapidly emerges as one of those iconic figures of weird literature. Michael Moorcock would have been proud.

First published in DARK VOICES 2 (pictured), 1990.

The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

A traveller visits a lonely signal box in a deep railway cutting, only to meet a disturbed signal-man, who insists that whenever he sees a mysterious hooded figure at the entrance to the nearby tunnel, disaster soon strikes. Unfortunately, he has seen the figure again that very week.

Probably one of the most famous and most popular ghost stories ever written, but neither the world’s familiarity with it nor its great age will lessen the impact if, by some remote chance, you have yet to experience it. Dickens was a lover of ghost stories, of course, but here he boxes clever, choosing to leave the matter open. Is there a genuine supernatural power at work? If there is, we are never told why it has chosen this spot or this particular individual to haunt. Or has the signal-man, a lonely character somewhat bereft at his isolated post, simply invented the spectral shape that always seems to precede a tragedy? The traveller is undecided, and by the end so is the reader. For all that, it’s a superbly eerie and atmospheric piece. Dickens utilises the misty moorland location and the bleak, echoing canyon to great effect. A survivor of a terrible railway accident himself, he also recalls with shattering clarity the horror and carnage of such incidents. One of the oldest tales we’ve featured on this blog, but still one of the best.

First published in ALL THE YEAR ROUND, 1866.

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