October 31, 2012

All Hallow's Read Recommendations

So, today's the day and we certainly hope that you ladies and germs have a day of spooksome fun and certainly one of more treats than tricks.  However, before you sit back and relax into an evening of guising and scary movies ask yourself this:  Have I passed on an All Hallow's Read?  No?  Well get on it and if you are still unsure of what terrifying tale or slice of the darker side of life to pass on then do not fear as below are a list of our recommendations - just click on the image to read our reviews and then pass one on... or at least treat yourself to one tonight!

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenDark InsideAshes (Ashes Trilogy #1)

Happy Halloween!

October 30, 2012

All Hallow's Listen: Click Clack the Rattle-Bag... and it's FREE!

As we've devoted this month to promoting Neil Gaiman's All Hallow's Read, it would be inopportune not to promote an entirely new Gaiman story.

Click Clack the Rattle-Bag is available via audible.co.uk and audible.com as a free download and it's pretty darn good. Vaguely Gothic, brilliantly sinister and roundly marvelous it is, in short, very Gaiman. Not to mention it's read by none other than the man himself.

Not only will you get a chance to hear a new and unique story from one of the best authors around, for every download, Audible are donating 50p to the charity BookTrust so get over there NOW and enjoy a very special All Hallow's listen.

Monster Mash - Terrifying Tunes and Mournful Music

So,Halloween isn't just about scary stories - or scary films, for that matter - sometimes music can be more evocative of fear than anything we read or watch, sometimes it can compliment both books and movies and sometimes it's just awesome in it's own right.  Today, Cannonball Jones returns with a few of his favourite Halloween tunes. Perhaps suitable for an All Hallow's Listen?

It's easy to forget, living in this increasingly visual and visceral world of horror movies competing to out-shock and out-gore each other at every turn, that ghost stories were once purely an oral tradition. The remnants still survive in our culture: tales told around the campfire, their chill countering the warmth of the embers; slumber parties, torches in hand while quivering under blanket tents; even urban legends, passed on at the holy circle of The Water Cooler to be crafted and mangled into ever more ludicrous forms. Thinking about Hallowe'en stirred these memories and my thoughts turned to one of the last bastions of the ghost story in its purest form – music.

It seems only natural that music would form an alliance with tales of terror. After all, music can haunt the darkest corners of our psyches in much the same way as any headless horseman. The melodies can add to the intensity of the experience, lighten the mood or even, as I hope you'll agree, transform an autobiographical tune into a beautifully sombre reminder of a candle now snuffed out. I've picked three songs for this post, each with differing moods and subjects.

Tom Waits – Big Joe and Phantom 309
Possibly the most iconic and instantly recognisable voice in music today, Tom Waits has spent his career making an art out of storytelling set to music ranging from shambolic to sublime. Although I love his entire back catalogue I have a soft spot for his early days playing the part of booze-soaked barfly, rattling the piano keys for drinking money. This track from the Nighthawks At The Diner live set is a cover of a Red Sovine tune but Tom's delivery beats the original hands down.

Old Joe's yarn is familiar enough – how many times have you heard the old “But there hasn't been a house in that spot for 200 years!” line – but the details manage to keep things fresh. The musical backing has a forlorn feel, particularly the morose double bass, and the feeling is far more wistful than frightening. I challenge anyone to listen without releasing a forlorn sigh at the end.

Grant Lee Buffalo – Dixie Drugstore
Once again taking on the theme of harmless phantoms from the past is Grant Lee Buffalo, a criminally underrated three piece who teetered on the verge of fame in the mid-90s without ever making good on the promise. GLB's catalogue was obsessed with Americana and the darker side of their country's nature. However there was always a playfulness under the surface and this was never  more clearly manifested in Dixie Drugstore.

In this song we're transported to New Orleans, following a drifter who has pulled into town and needs to find some shelter for the night. Fortune smiles on him in the shape of a voodoo store and its enchanting, overly friendly owner, both of which seem to be open for the night. Of course voodoo runs through every street in New Orleans so our travelling friend awakens to a surprise in the morning.

Nirvana – Something In The Way
Yes, this post is about ghost stories set to music and yes, I'm serious. I grew up listening to Nirvana in my formative years – I was 15 when Nevermind was unleashed on the world so as an aspiring rock drummer you can imagine how quickly they became the centre of my universe. However, following Kurt's suicide and my diversifying musical tastes I had less and less cause to play the albums. Perhaps they had made one too many circuits through my aural nerves. Years could easily pass without me so much as playing a single of their songs. However, the minute I contemplated writing this post I found myself humming a familiar dirge, something about fish and feelings.

Something In The Way is most certainly not a ghost story in the traditional sense. It relates Kurt's life during a brief period of homelessness and eerily captures his feelings of helplessness, boredom and the fear of drifting too far from reality. Just listen though. You can hear the dripping from his broken tarpaulin. You can see the darkness encroaching on his meagre home, almost feel the space shrinking around you. More than any other Nirvana song, this feels like someone dead is there, listening over your shoulder. He's singing to you now. The song used to display a snapshot of his life, perhaps now it's his afterlife. This thought, once it squirmed its way into my mind, unsettled me far more than the two actual ghost stories.

And that's your lot. This barely scratches the surface of musical spirits though, so please add your own favourites in the comments. Oh, and I'm indulging in some rather more raucous Hallowe'en tunesmithery at my personal blog for those who may be interested....

October 29, 2012

A Hell of a Scary Crack In Your Wall

The Magic Cottage
James Herbert
New English Library 1987 (1st ed.)
DESIRABLE PROPERTY. Cottage, secluded position adjoining woodland, needs renovation, but excel. Potential. 2 beds, recep. kitchen, bathroom, ½ acre garden, offers invited.            
Cantrip 612.

For Mike and Midge, a session musician and children's books illustrator respectively, the idea of a move to the country brings mixed responses. Mike, a city boy through and through, would miss the hustle and bustle of the big smoke whereas Midge was country born and bred and feels a calling to her roots. However, something in this innocuous ad manages to pull them both in and before they know it they're en route to the New Forest. Despite the severely dilapidated state of Gramarye, the titular cottage, Midge in particular is entranced. Financial concerns are suddenly evaporated by lucrative contracts for their skills landing in their laps with serendipitous timing.

From the outset there is something magical about the cottage. The builders sent to survey and repair the extensive damage to the property return puzzled, the majority of the reported major faults nowhere to be seen. Every morning they are greeted by a coterie of woodland animals straight out of a Disney movie, including a remarkably tame red squirrel and a badly injured bird who, after one night in the house, flies away as right as rain. The cottage's powerful aura becomes more and more noticeable and the couple begin asking questions about the former owner, Flora Chaldean, a recluse whose powers as a healer afforded her great respect in the area. However, the nature of Flora's untimely and mysterious death soon casts a pall on their rural idyll.

A further shadow comes in the form of the Synergists, a religious cult who have taken up residence in a nearby country mansion christened 'Bleak House' by Mike for its forbidding countenance and atmosphere. Harasses and hounded by the locals, it initially seems that the Synergists, led by the mysterious Mycroft, are innocent victims being persecuted by ignorant locals for their unconventional beliefs. However it soon becomes apparent that there is something less than wholesome about their aims and that they may have been linked to Flora's death.

Before long the power of the cottage and the intentions of the Synergists become inextricably linked and the fairytale Mike and Midge have been living comes crashing down around them with terrifying consequences. The Magic Cottage is above all the story of a couple trying to stay together amidst the chaos which surrounds them. Buffeted at all sides by forces they can't understand and whose very existence they fear to acknowledge, Mike and Midge are put through a series of trials which test their very grip on reality.

The Magic Cottage takes the form of a first-person narrative, the story being told to us by Mike from an undisclosed time following the events. Unlike many such novels where the narration can seem forced and a little stilted, Mike's tale flows completely naturally. In this respect a comparison can be made to the friendly, homey style of Stephen King. It is one of James Herbert's great strength that he manages to accomplish this so well and makes the reader feel as if they're sat at a table in a rural pub, listening to Mike recounting the tale over a pint of bitter.

The second great pillar lifting The Magic Cottage above the rest of the haunted house genre is Herbert's portrayal of the relationship between Mike and Midge. The palpable love they feel for each other is absolutely central to the story and the small details Herbert injects into this aspect of the story are what truly brings the reader into the novel. The way they finish each other's sentences, break into spontaneous song and make idiots of themselves for the other's entertainment, it all flows so perfectly that their relationship seems almost more fantastical than the events surrounding the cottage.

The comfort and warmth engendered by their love for each other makes it that much more terrifying when the tale begins to darken. We're left not only having to deal with sinister events surrounding the cottage – Who is the shadowy figure in the woods? Why did that crack reappear? - but also having to watch the lovers drift ever further apart. This emotional double punch leaves the reader's defences low so that what may seem hackneyed ghost-story scares in another book can suddenly become genuinely creepy. During my two-night reading of the book I found myself raising my eyes from the book on more than one occasion, peering out into the darkness of the living room beyond and silently cursing myself for not having closed the bedroom door before settling down.

I first read The Magic Cottage back in high school at the age of fourteen or fifteen and must admit that back then it made far less of an impression. I was more interested in James Herbert's other titles, the far gorier Rats trilogy and The Fog. The Magic Cottage delivers its scares on a much more subtle level and is far more suited to an older reader so for me it was like reading an entirely new book, and a wonderful one at that. The truly believable nature of the narrative and relationship, the lack of any distracting over-the-top horror and the wonderful way he treats magic towards the story's climax make this a perfect entry to James Herbert's oeuvre or a magical All Hallow's Read gift.

(As a final note, I was inspired to re-read this by Neil Gaiman's All Hallow's Read recommendation list and on reflection it is stunningly similar to Gaiman's own work. Only now do I realise that in my mind I had been picturing him as the narrator all along.)

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Magic Cottage is available in both traditional and digital format from all good bookstores and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read.

October 23, 2012

The Breeze In The Trees, Singing Weird Melodies (Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray)

The Diviners
Libba Bray
Atom 2012

New York City has much to offer to those who seek its unsleeping streets.  Arriving fresh from Ohio, Evie O’Neill spends her evenings on the town, living life to its fullest while her days are spent in the Museum of the Occult with her uncle. Alongside Evie work Jericho and Sam, both hiding secrets and seeking answers even as she herself learns about her own strange ability – not that she lets it get in the way of having a good time.  Elsewhere in the city is Memphis, running bets while trying to both forget and reclaim his past in a community where superstition sits side on to devout faith. Elsewhere again are Theta and Henry, learning to live with harsh truths and an uncertain future.  Finally, lurking darkly behind the bright lights is Naughty John, who has waited and watched and now acts horribly, irrevocably drawing all the characters into an ineffable and awful dance.

Evie is something else.  Effervescent, her breathtaking enthusiasm is directed at all she encounters, from elicit gin joints to her Uncle Will’s Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.  Impulsive, often silly and frequently selfish there is more than a touch of the Scarlett O’ Hara about her yet she is, at heart, extremely kind and very likable.  It seems that her determination to be a Thoroughly Modern Girl hides sadness and that, for all her bravura, Evie is a rather lost little girl. Memphis, in a way, is paradoxical to Evie.  A character who thinks on things deeply he has more in common with Jericho than anyone else in the book, wondering at his past and worrying about his future but, in his own way, trying (like Evie) to make the best of things.  The warmth of his personality lends light to the nightmare that haunts him and the confusion that surrounds his younger brother. 

Jericho himself remains largely in the background for much of the story, drawn cleverly into focus towards the end.  He clearly has a secret and some strange tie to venture capitalist Jake Marlowe (think Tony Stark minus the iron suit… actually, Marlowe probably has an iron suit, he seems like that kind of guy) yet the author is in no hurry to let us, nor the curious Evie, in on what lies at the heart of Jericho.  This pays off later in the book when all is revealed to heartbreaking effect.  In contrast to Jericho stands Sam.  Sam is full of mischief and charm yet his quick smile hides something much darker.  He’s pretty ambiguous and while hard to dislike, one suspects he wouldn’t hesitate to double-cross all around him to get to the truth he seeks.

Theta and Henry are again beautifully written, adding their own secrets and sadness to the mix, while lesser characters Mabel, Will, Sister Margaret and Gabe all seem fully rounded and fascinating – quite a triumph in a cast of so many.  Yet the triumph here, the character that holds The Diviners together, is Naughty John – a creature of such malevolence and evil that he becomes an omnipotent presence in the city’s bright lights, even when not on the page.

The Diviners is a long and ambitious book, tying together multiple story strands and delving deep into the dangers of fanaticism and the occult.  The book swings from viewpoint to viewpoint in a way that should discombobulate yet never does.  Cleverly, Libba Bray has written the character of New York itself into her pages and every now and again zooms out, portraying the city – and not just the city but the country – as a living breathing organism where the land remembers an endless past and the wind worries futilely of an unknown yet fearsome future.  Using this tactic, the shifts from Manhattan’s bright lights to the sinister lair of Naughty John seem organic and the reader is never unaware that the story being told is part of a much greater whole.

The writing here is exceptional.  The book’s opening moves us,  by way of the wind, from a frivolous yet pivotal gathering on the upper east side, through changing streets to a dark, house filled with dangerous secrets and is nothing less than stunning – as is the prose throughout.  Bray has written a deeply frightening tale that looms starkly against 1920’s New York and smartly inserts passages of real terror within gorgeous frivolity, leaving the reader scared and uncertain.  The Diviners is also oddly musical using throwaway song lyrics and a haunting nursery rhyme to imbue the book with longing and fear and loss. It’s extraordinarily clever storytelling, placing an excellent horror story in a beautifully envisioned historical setting. 

I nearly turned down The Diviners but in the end the lure of the 1920’s changed my mind – a decade that glistened between two wars, full of a hope that was epitomised by girls like Evie who grabbed at experience that rose towards them like the champagne bubbles in their glasses.  Luckily, I did change my mind as it is quite brilliant. While first in a series, it stands perfectly well alone and The Diviners and is absolutely, pos-i-tutely recommended.  And how!

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who would also like to recommend the fantastic audio book. Thank you to Atom for providing us with this title to review.

October 18, 2012

Scary Shorts (not the type you, er, wear).

Halloween is nearly upon us and while we usually focus on books here in The Mountains of Instead, Cannonball Jones is here with a terrifying array of short films. Proceed at your own peril and keep a weather eye on your electric meter - because after this little lot you're going to want to sleep with the lights ON.

Over the years I've been lucky enough to attend Dead By Dawn, Edinburgh's premier horror movie festival, several times. Aside from the delights of seeing such luminaries as Robert Englund and Hershell Gordon Lewis, spending quality drinking time with Tony 'Candyman' Todd and being introduced to all manner of underground movies which would never see a full release there were also the short films. Every year we waited with baited breath to see what new five-minute delights the world's most twisted directors could unleash.

In honour of Hallowe'en, here's  a selection of some of the best from over the years. Unfortunately I couldn't find the one movie I really wanted to share, its name and details lost to the years. If it comes back to me I'll have our gracious hostess post it immediately.

Red Lines
A good old-fashioned scare story for you first, straight out of Tales Of The Unexpected or The Twilight Zone. Naughty Emily has been given detention for running in the hallway. Given that her detainer is none other than Doug 'Hellraiser' Bradley, what are the chances of her ever seeing another breaktime?

The Fifth
Was that too scary for you? Just think yourself lucky I didn't choose director Frazer Lee's other classic short, On Edge. You'd never visit a dentist again... To lighten the mood here's a charming American tale about four American poker buddies who are desperate for a fifth to complete their table. However, something about regular player Ken (the hapless lawyer from Scrubs) doesn't sit too well with the newcomer. First he shows up late and then...

The Ten Steps
This Irish short won my heart the first time it played and it still stands up to repeated viewing. A poor lass has been left to look after her little brother in a spooky old Irish mansion while her parents dine with her father's boss. Things take a turn for the worse when the power goes out – mysteriously one appliance at a time – necessitating a trip to the fuse box in the basement. There are only ten steps to get down there, all she has to do is focus and be brave...

The End Is Night
Okay, time to ease up again. Some laughter to ease the nerves. We're back in Ireland for this film and seeing as I'm obsessed with post-apocalyptic literature these days this short seemed fitting. I've seen many scenarios for the end of the world but none so charming as this.

The French Doors
As soon as I started getting into House OfLeaves my thoughts turned to French Doors, a truly original little movie from New Zealand. A young man has just moved into his new house and is in the process of installing some french doors to brighten his room. When he wakes up the next morning, something just isn't right. Where exactly do those doors lead?

I hope these provided some chills and chuckles in equal measure. If you check the archive at the Dead By Dawn website you'll get leads to all manner of other wonders, most of which can be found on YouTube. Spider, Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl, On Edge... more than enough for  any rainy October day or a nighttime Hallowe'en marathon. If you have any favourites of your own then please share them with us!

October 15, 2012

Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? (Review of Henry Franks by Peter Adam Salomon)

Henry Franks
Peter Adam Salomon
Flux 2012

Henry Franks is neither here nor there.  Sleep-walking through his present and unable to remember his past he is a haunted by non-memories, living in a limbo that seems unlikely to change.  Held together by 4000 stitches, he’s recovering from the accident that left him irreparably changed and his mother dead but of course he remembers none of this.  In fact, all Henry does remember is life as he now knows it.  He gets up, drifts through his dark house, occasionally running into his father – a man who is largely absent, clearly tormented by some unspoken grief and preoccupied with searching for a mysterious figure – before heading to a school where barely anyone notices him.  Until someone does and his life becomes entwined with that of the irrepressible Justine, who seems able to see past his scars and into his past.  Perhaps Justine should represent some light at the end of Henry’s dark tunnel but he has other things on his mind not least a host of local killings, his slowly numbing limbs and the nightmares that plague which seem to belong to someone else…

Henry is an interesting character.  At once attractive and likable while also being an object of horror.  As we get to know him, so we get to know his damaged body with its many itching scars and strange and disturbing patchwork of skin.  His physical appearance is dripped down to the reader throughout the course of the book with each almost careless fact introduced without warning.  It’s a clever technique which runs side by side with his developing character.  There is nothing not to like about Henry, yet his slight disconnect with the world around him again adds to the sense that he is somewhat other.  He truly has no memory of his past and this clearly torments him – he literally doesn't know who he is.  His horrific nightmares confuse him further, as does his father’s secretive behaviour.  Henry is convinced that something isn't quite right with the information that he’s being fed and as he starts moving towards the dark truth at the heart of his story he starts to claim ownership of himself once more, regardless of who that true self may end up being.

Cleverly, while the reader is constantly reminded of Henry’s injuries, those around him rarely mention them.  While he experiences some fairly mild teasing at school, he seems to have gained the ability to melt into the background.  Justine, however, seems unfazed by his stand-offish manner and strange appearance and slowly draws him out of his shell.  She’s kind and giving and incredibly trusting, allowing Henry to creep out of his self-imposed shell.  Her characterisation may seem slight, yet the author throws in some surprising aspects to her personality later in the novel that, in retrospect, were possibly there throughout.   The other main character, in a story that has only a small cast, is Henry’s father.  William is a character in conflict, driven almost mad with confusion, guilt and grief.  The small sections of the book from his point of view are both disturbing and oddly moving as he struggles to come to terms with the stranger that his is son and the torment that is his past.  He’s extremely well written, engendering both sympathy and disgust in equal measure.

The story line of Henry Franks is based around Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It is not a direct re-telling, nor entirely a re-imagining, but rather takes the core premise of the original and plays with it in a modern setting.  Like Frankenstein, though, it asks readers to consider what is more monstrous – the idea or the result?  And if it is the idea then could the true horror lie in whatever drove that idea in the first place?  Peter Salomon explores these questions artfully and takes them a step further asking, eventually, about the lengths it is possible to go in order to survive or enable those we love to survive.  While this all sounds terribly existential, Salomon has surrounded these ideas with a sharp, bone-chilling horror story.  His writing is stark and compelling and the structure of the book itself works very well.  Switching viewpoints from Henry, to his father, to his psychiatrist allows readers a three dimensional view of what is going on while the newspaper reports concerning local murders and weather reports on a coming hurricane add to the already screaming tension.  Additionally, while the original Frankenstein brings to mind damp, foggy climes, Salomon has set Henry Franks in Georgia where the suffocating heat seems to bring to the connotations of wetness, rot and decay.

This is the second Frankenstein influenced title we've reviewed in the last week and while the first (Broken, review here) was successful and sometimes chilling, it focused largely on a teen romance.  Henry Franks, while featuring a young couple, is no romantic tale of sad monsters and redeeming love.  It is out and out horror, stomach-curdling without being gory and deeply disturbing without every being overt.   The last line will stay with this reader for a long time to come, sending shivers down the spine.  An excellent choice for an All Hallow’s Read, this is a title that anyone looking for thought provoking, clever and terrifying writing should be adding to their wish list straight away.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Henry Franks is available now and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read. Thank you to the publisher, via NetGalley for providing us with this title to review.

October 12, 2012

Must There Be Horror? An All Hallow's Guest post from Helen Grant.

As you are probably aware by now, we're running a month long promotion of All Hallow's Read and today we're excited to welcome author Helen Grant to our foothills. Helen is here to share some very old ghost stories so for those of you who can't pass on a book for AHR, perhaps you could pass on this fascinating post.

“It’s the scariest game ever,” my son told me with a definite note of awe in his voice.
“Er…are you sure you should be playing it, then? You’d better let me take a look first…”

Sigh. The perennial appeal of a really good scare is such that I am now not only pre-watching creepy films to make sure they are suitable for my teenage daughter, but also pre-playing scary video games for my son. The game in question was Slendergame, which involves creeping around a darkened virtual wood by torchlight trying to collect obscure and menacing messages before the Slender Man gets you. Brrr. A charming instance of modern technology tapping into age-old fears.

It sometimes seems to me that you can divide people into two camps: those who “can’t” watch or read creepy material because they find it too scary, and those who absolutely love watching or reading that same material for precisely the same reason.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to re-tell us the ghost stories of M.R.James to while away long walks. Wailing Well was probably my favourite, with its murderous creatures that are all “flutterin' rags and whity bones” – what a deliciously nasty thought!

Saturday night was not Saturday night without watching Dr. Who from behind the sofa (I distinctly recall watching The Green Death through my fingers with a kind of horrified fascination). Now and again I even wangled a peep at some highly unsuitable film such as Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price.

Evidently the predilection for nastiness runs in the family: when my mother was growing up, the one book she was expressly forbidden to read was the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. This prohibition virtually guaranteed that the moment she was alone in the house, that was the book she would go for!

“Must there be horror?” asks M.R.James in his essay Ghosts, treat them gently! Yes, I rather think there must. He was making the point that ghost stories need not be horrid; a ghost may be pitiable instead, but it is much harder to make a good story out of it.

Of course, what is one person’s worst fear may not be another’s. Among the events that I occasionally carry out in schools, I offer a ghost story writing workshop. As part of the workshop, I read out two different accounts of a similar ghostly experience. One of them is from a collection of fictional ghost stories, the other a supposedly “true” story from a Victorian collection called The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. The participants are then invited to say which account they find more frightening, and why. There is, of course, no “right” answer, but the majority tend to find the fictional story creepier as it pulls no punches with its lovingly detailed description of spectral nastiness. Interestingly, however, some people find the Haunted Homes story creepier, simply because I read it from an obviously very old and dusty-looking book. The presence of the book somehow makes the story more real, as though it is drawing the listeners right into it.

I thought therefore that it might be interesting to offer here a couple of stories that come from a very old book indeed.

Recently I have been spending a lot of time reading Broomhall's History of Specters (printed in 1658, the title page describes as A Treatise of Specters), which was the nearest thing a seventeenth century amateur of creepy tales could get to a nice fat volume of Stephen King stories. The book is a collection of anecdotes and tales from various authors going right back to and including classical sources, evidence that whatever other characteristics our species has, we have always relished a really nasty story.

There is a copy of the History of Specters at Innerpeffray Library, which is Scotland’s oldest lending library, and perhaps unique in allowing members of the public to handle and read the books, some of which date back to the 1500s. As far as I can tell, the book has not been digitized, so I am transcribing some of the more interesting (for interesting, read nasty) stories myself. Here are a couple of them.

Both stories come from a section alluringly entitled An History of Strange Apparitions, and cunning delusions of Devils. The first is a description of what appears to be a zombie or perhaps a vampire in sixteenth century Bohemia!

In the year 1567, in Trawtenaw,  a City of Buhemia, there was one Stephen Hubener, that gathered such great Riches, built such stately houses, and was so successfull that all admired. And at last falling sick, dyed and was very honourably inter’d. But a short while after his death and buriall, his body (or that which is more likely, the Devill by his Diabolical power, carried about his body) did pinch many men with such strait embracements, that many of them died, yet diverse recovered again, who all with one consent confessed that they were thus clasped or beclipped by this rich man, in that very habit in which they had seen him alive, therefore the Magistrate of that place, that he might void or lay this Satanical sight, commanded the body of that man to be digged out of the grave, after he had lain in the Earth twenty weeks, yet was not corrupted or rotten, but fat, as young and well fed bodies use to be; the body was delivered to the Hangman, to be carried away to the place of execution, where he cut off his head with his Axe, and anatomizing him, took out his heart, and did cleave it: there issued out of his body bloud, as if he had been alive (witch-like) to sustain punishment, therefore the Hangman threw the body into the fire, a great company standing by, his head being bound to his feet, and so he tyed neck and heels.

"Not corrupted or rotten, but fat“ – how very unpleasant!

The second extract is a seasonal tale of witchcraft from Italy.

We read in Paulus Grillandus, a Lawyer of Italy, a man very well experienc’d in the facts of Witches and Sorcerers, That there was a certain Country-man not far from Rome, in the year of the world, 1526. who when he saw his Wife rise naked in the night to anoint her self, and that thereupon presently she was gone out of his sight, and could not be found in the house, the next day provided himself of a good cudgel wherewith to belabour her sides, untill she should tell him whither, and to what end she so conveyed her self last night, which she presently doing, he pardoned her, upon condition that she would convey him amongst her fraternity. She the next day anointed both her husband and her self, and then they were presently mounted each of them upon a Goat, and so presently brought amongst the muster of Witches. Now his Wife had forewarned the man, he should by no means name God or Christ, unlesse in scorn and opproby to him: when they were thus in the croud, the wife appointed her husband to stand a little aloof till she had saluted the Prince of them , (who was most magnificently cloathed and guarded about with a great ring of men and women; all honouring and waiting upon this their Lord) and that by so doing, he should see the whole of the businesse. When they had done this, they began a ring-dance, (which is now taken up among the Countrey-people) that dancing backwards, they might not see one the others faces: It may be to the intent they might not know, nor accuse one another, if perhaps they might be arraigned in the presence of one another, after: which Triscalanus did, to whom Charls the Ninth gave leave and liberty, that he might discover his fellows. He told them, being in a great assembly of young men, That there were many there that adored and worshipped a Goat in their meetings, and kissed his very posteriours (or arse-hole in plain English, if you will have it so). Then by reason his back was towards them, he not seeing them, they danced together, and the devils copulated together in men and womens shapes. After their dancing, the tables were covered and furnished with meat; the woman then moved the man to salute the Prince, and sitting down with the rest of the company to the table, seeing the table furnished with meat, he called for salt; and when salt was brought to the table, before he tasted any thing, he said grace, which being ended, presently men, meats and table vanished away, and he was left desolate alone, being very cold, and not knowing where he was; As soon as it was day, he came to some shepherds, of whom being asked, Whether he knew where he were? He answered, That he knew himself to be in the Beneventanian Earldom, in the royal command of the Pope. These things were done a thousand miles from Rome, from whence travelling, he was forc’d to beg his meat and rayment, and at length coming home upon the eighth day after, poor and lean, he apprehended his Wife; by whom many more being accused, and confessing the truth, they were all hanged.

I particularly like these two tales because of the wealth of detail in them; they are told almost as colourfully as any literary ghost story. I like to think that the seventeenth century readers of the History of Specters experienced a very pleasant frisson whilst reading them!

To return to the twenty-first century: I happened to mention to someone the other day that Slendergame was apparently the scariest game ever, and my son corrected me.
"Now it’s only the second scariest game ever,“ he said. "There’s another one that’s even scarier.“
Sigh. I wonder who’s going to end up pre-playing that one for him..?

Thank you, Helen for such an interesting, spooky and well-researched post.  Another MOI recommendation for All Hallow's Read would be Helen's latest book Wish Me Dead, a tale that epitomises the age old advice of being careful what you wish for... Helen also has a book of ghost stories hitting the shelves next year, so keep The Sea Change and Other Stories (published by Swan River Pressin mind when we remind you of All Hallow's Read 2013.  You can find out more about Helen and her great stories here and we'll see you over the weekend for some scary short films here in the MOI.

October 10, 2012

Because It Is My Heart (review: Broken by A. E. Rought)

A. E. Rought
Strange Chemistry 2012

In this modern day re-imagining of Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emma Gentry is one familiar with the dead (as one would like to expect from any good Gothic heroine).  Well, she at least spends a lot of time in her local cemetery, desperately missing her recently deceased boyfriend Daniel while realising how the time has come to move on with her life.  Surrounded by concerned friends and family, she’s just about getting back to normal when new guy at school, Alex, attracts her attention. It’s not his good looks that catch her eye, though he undoubtedly has them, nor is it his inordinately numerous scars, although they do make her wonder at their origin.  What really makes Emma notice him is his odd, almost intangible resemblance to Daniel – something which she knows to be impossible but can’t quite ignore.  As Emma and Alex start to spend more time together, she finds herself torn between the past and the present, unsure of which is which and certain that there is more to Alex, his sinister father and his latticework of scarring than meets the eye. 

Emma is pretty emo.  Obviously, she’s grieving and obviously, she’s not been at her best since Daniel’s death but one suspects that she was probably a bit emo before hand.  The cemetery was most definitely a favourite hangout even before her recent tragedy and it’s easy to imagine her wearing perhaps just a little too much eyeliner.  However, there’s nothing wrong with the odd Emo, and Emma is incredibly likable.  Confident at school (her ability to trade insults with Daniel’s best friend is both funny and speaks of a real backbone) and rebellious yet believably in need of her parents support at home, she’s very easy to relate to.  Her sneaking suspicion that Alex may be, er, more than the sum of his parts is more a gut instinct than anything else but she sticks to her guns, even while reeling in dismay from the Instalove ™ that she finds herself in the grip of.

Alex himself is a really well-written character.  Confused, funny, caring and clearly entirely screwed up his interactions with Emma are incredibly touching.  He has fewer questions than she does about their instant bond but as his carefully constructed life starts to come apart at the seams his vulnerability is tangible.  His relationship with his father could have been explored more (the relationship being key to the original Frankenstein) as could his reaction to the truth (some interesting psychology to be explored there, one might imagine) but all in all he is a likable, sympathetic and paradoxically horrifying creation.  Other characters pepper the story and are all well drawn.  Emma’s best friend Bree is supportive and also delightfully flippant while the relationship that Emma has with her mother is surprisingly complex and, well, real.  Daniel’s best friend sniffs around Emma in a way that is as disturbing as the core story and becomes creepier as the book progresses – a triumph in a story that is pretty creepy to begin with.

Broken makes no bones about the fact that it is written in the Gothic tradition and A E Rought has been largely successful.  All the requisite fictional tropes appear – mysterious and oddly attractive stranger,  unexplained accidents, spooky manor houses and questioning of the heroine’s sanity (in this case, largely by herself) and are handled beautifully (Emma’s walk through the grounds of Alex’s house is stomach-churningly gruesome).  Equally, the writing echoes that seen in all the best Gothic novels, swinging between heavy hyperbole and sly humour.  My one criticism is that the ending is rather swiftly resolved and not particularly true to the original, which was disappointing yet unsurprising.  However, it is still a relatively satisfying conclusion, although it would have been interesting to follow the remaining characters slightly longer.   Equally, sections of the text are sometimes a little difficult to read but as this review is based on an ARC, it has to be assumed that all small glitches will be resolved prior to the book’s publication in January 2013.

The second Gothic novel to appear recently in YA fiction, Broken is perhaps not quite as slick as Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken (review here) but in terms of characterisation and trueness to the original form, it is easily as good and in some cases better.  Certainly, as with all good re-imaginings it should encourage those who read it to pick up Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Dracula (lovingly referred to throughout). Interesting, sinister and awfully good fun, Broken is an excellent introduction to the world of Gothic novels.

Reviewed by Splendibird, Broken isn't available until January 2013 but Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a great All Hallow's Read. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with a copy of Broken.

October 08, 2012

Because It Is Bitter (Review: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson)

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson
Gollancz 2006 (originally published 1954)

Another day, another post-apocalyptic book review. As Splendibird has pointed out, Hallowe'en approaches so it's time to rustle up our best costumes (I'm doing 'Sexy Book Reviewer' this year), carve up a lantern and curl up with a favourite scary story. I'll be doing my part for Mountains Of Instead with forays into spooky songs, frightening films and bone-chilling books. For my first festive selection I'm returning to one of my very favourite novels ever, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

Set in the southern part of LA County, somewhere near Inglewood in the near future (actually our past I suppose), I Am Legend follows Robert Neville, a grizzled and weary 40-ish alcoholic as he faces up to his new reality. The world has been torn apart, first by bombs and the violent dust storms they have unleashed but more importantly by the plague which followed in their wake. Over the course of several months the whole of humanity succumbed to a transformation, slowly becoming sicker and sicker until they were comatose during the daylight hours, averse to garlic and religious symbols and driven into a frenzy by a thirst for blood and violence.

Neville finds himself utterly alone in this horrific new world. By day he scours his neighbourhood for supplies and repairs his house and fortress, disposing of any infected individuals he discovers by the methods he knows work best: stake, sunlight or fire. By night he locks himself in his house, relatively safe behind his security measures of garlic, mirrors and crosses. The vampires, as Neville has come to recognize them, congregate outside from dusk till dawn, baiting him with taunts and insults (especially his former neighbour Ben Cortman) and sexual provocation - Robert does still have a man's urges, having lost his wife and all prospect of female companionship to the plague.

The stage is set for what could have been a pitched battle between man and mythical beast, a blood-soaked last-man-standing cataclysm as Neville repels the invaders night after night. Instead, Matheson chooses to focus on his lead character and how he adapts to the nightmare around him. This is the book's strength and what found me locked inside the house alongside him during his trial. Unlike many movie heroes (Will Smith, I'm looking at you) he is just a man. Bitter, enraged at the hand he's been dealt and lacking any magic bullets to clear his path. His nights are alcohol-fuelled binges and blackouts, annihilating himself with whisky while blasting classical music to drown out the howls outside his door. He's no noble creature, his animal urges leading him even to consider assaulting the hideous females parading themselves in his driveway every night.

However, like every human he is also capable of greatness. In I Am Legend, Richard Matheson gets right under the skin of vampirism, casting aside the old superstitions and mysticism to probe a scientific angle. Once Neville manages to accept his fate and control his self-destructive urges he channels all of his energies into finding the cause of the plague. Equipping himself with books on blood, bacteria and biology as well as lab equipment he methodically arranges his knowledge of what his opponents are and what they are not. Which weapons work and which are naught but folklore? And why?

In one of the books great contributions to the cornucopia of vampire lore, Matheson asserts that crosses will not necessarily have any effect on a vampire. Why would they when the affliction is borne by a germ? In a wonderful example of scientific thinking, Neville asserts that the sporadic efficiency of crosses in instilling fear in the undead is caused by expectation we have that it would do so. Our western, Christian background spoke of vampires being unholy beasts, afraid only of the power of god. On being reanimated we retain some of our memories and this crude fear becomes magnified in those from our cultural milieu. How does Neville test his hypotheses? By approaching his former neighbour Cortman, a Jew, with first a crucifix (no effect) and then a Talmud – bingo!

Through the course of the novel Robert is beset by all manner of calamities, each threatening to send him back to the bottle or just throw in the towel for good. The episode where he finds a dog still alive and apparently well is heartbreaking in its conclusion. Neville is not easily deterred though, stubborn as a mule he keeps on working through an increasingly bleak series of realisations. The finale of the book is the true reason I love it so dearly. The title comes from the last three words printed and it left me stunned on my first read. Of course I had seen it all coming but the way Matheson handles the climax to Neville's adventure is truly masterful and only after reading do you realise what a huge influence Matheson has had on horror and sci-fi in the decades since.

Now, I can't end this without a cursory word about the movies (The Last Man On Earth, The Omega Man, I Am Legend) which have been based on this book. However, all of these films took such liberties with the story that it is fair to say that there has, thus far, been NO real adaptation of I Am Legend. The recent version failed dismally in its casting – Neville is clearly Dr Cox from Scrubs, not Will Smith – and committed a truly heinous crime: despite shooting an ending reasonably true to the book they balked at test audience reactions and released a Hollywood-friendly sequel set-up instead. Scumdogs, the lot of them.

So, save yourself the trouble of viewings and go straight for the source. I Am Legend is everything you could want from this kind of novel. Aspects of sci-fi, horror, post-apocalyptica and the examination of the protagonist make this a wonderfully rounded read. Perfect for an evening in front of the fire while ignoring those pesky kids in their 'Sexy Spongebob' outfits.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. I Am Legend is available in both traditional and digital format from all good bookstores and is highly recommended as an All Hallow's Read.

October 05, 2012

I Cannot Sleep for Dreamin' (Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson)

Hollow Pike
James Dawson
Orion 2012

Lis London is due a new start. Having fled her mother’s house in Wales after enduring a school life of systematic bullying, she finds herself safe in the comfortable home of her sister, situated in the small Yorkshire village of Hollow Pike. On starting school, Lis is instantly targeted by the It girls of the local high school, yet targeted in a way that is completely different to what she has come to expect.  The beautiful Laura and her acolytes seem to genuinely want to befriend Lis, introducing her to a life of boys, parties and money. Even as she realises that she is aligning herself with girls who so easily could have been the bullies that previously tormented her, the victim in her rejoices on being on the other side of their slings and arrows.  However, after playing with fire for a while, Lis is not surprised to find herself burnt.  Rejected and terrorised by the not so lovely Laura, she finds herself with a different group of friends – ones who aren't shy about their hatred for the local mean girls and quite ready to do something about it… When a practical joke goes horribly wrong, Lis finds herself adrift in a world of murder, mayhem and witchcraft all of which seems awfully like the nightmares that plague her: nightmares based entirely in her real life surrounds of Hollow Pike.

Lis is believably wary of her new life and new school. Being cosseted in the home of her much loved sister doesn’t automatically engender feelings of safeness but she attacks her first day at school with an admirable strength, something that develops further as the story progresses. Her desire to keep in with the school mean girls even as she sees them in all their bitchy reality is an accurate representation of a former victim very nearly becoming the image of those who bullied them – something often seen and easily understood. However, Li has a conscience that refuses to allow her to stand back and watch and eventually leads to her finding friends who are similarly outcast, yet far from victimised. She’s a great character, believable, funny and full of common sense, even as her story moves towards a far darker core.

Her friends, Delilah, Kitty and Jack are also believable as outsiders.  However, where Lis has previously run from her problems, these three face them head on and their particular brand of snark and strength is a lot of fun to read.  However, they (and Lis, by default) are far from perfect and their willingness to play an incredibly cruel trick on their enemies again reflects on the often vacillating line between bully and victim.  However, the friendship between the four is palpably real and often touching.  Lis also builds a tentative friendship with local boy Danny and this is, again, relatable for anyone who has ever swooned under the weight of their first crush.  Danny, while being in possession of the obligatory good looks, is entirely believable as a teenage boy and his initial attempts at getting to know Lis better are both cringeworthy and delightful.

In fact, the strength of Hollow Pike is in its teenage characters.  They are all so real.  Laura, resident queen bee, is mean without being particularly clever about it; the boys are likable but tactless, full to the brim of bravura and bad innuendos; Kitty, Delilah and Jack embrace the role of outsiders a little too much, enjoying their own private rebellions and Lis flounders around in the midst of teenage angst, first love and the horror that can be high school for so many.  All of this glorious reality is set against a story that is classically paranormal – full of witches and crows and things that go bump in the night.  It’s a lot of fun and there are sections that are genuinely creepy, not least a section where Lis tries to find an intruder in her quite, tree-lined house. 

Although the paranormal aspect of Hollow Pike is strong, where James Dawson has triumphed is in his portrayal of what it is to be a teenager.  Again and again he riffs on the necessity that all teenagers (not to mention adults) feel to fit in.  Both Lis and Danny spend time with people they dislike because it’s easier than being, once more, on the wrong side of the “right” crowd and both are aware of the somewhat false image they often project of who they truly are.  Kitty et al, thrust their true personalities forward and are castigated.  Knowingly referencing The Crucible (which is mentioned repeatedly), Hollow Pike uses its paranormal aspects to support the idea that bullying, isolation and cruelty repeatedly come from a place of fear of anything other on the part of the instigators with the subtext being that it is they who are weak – not their victims.

It is for this that Hollow Pike should be placed high on recommended reading lists for teenagers, their parents and any adult who once stood on either side of the fence when it came to the horror of high school.  It’s a hugely enjoyable read and one that manages to make its vitally important points without every feeling heavy handed.  Indeed, it’s written with such gleeful enthusiasm that the reader cannot help but grin wildly as they close the last page and hope for much much more from this talented new kid on the teen block.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird and is recommended as an All Hallow's Read.