Saturday, 5 January 2013
Saturday, 22 December 2012
Hammer horror, the romance of travelling by steam train; what can possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot, it seems. Despite the framing device, in which an American screenwriter pitches it to Michael Carreras, Hell Train's main story just doesn't bear much resemblance to a Hammer film (although it does borrow elements from Horror Express, which many people seem to think is a Hammer film). Considering the ending, it could be argued that this is part of the joke, but all it does in reality is render the Hammer link gratuitous. A cynical person (not me, of course...) might even view it as a blatant attempt to cash in on the reborn studio's resurgent popularity.
The story, taken by itself, is an acceptable piece of pulp, but it's easy to see why Fowler should want to "distance" himself from it - another reason for the framing sections. He clearly, for instance, hasn't bothered to find out anything about trains; how is it for instance, that passengers manage to get from the train on to the footplate of the locomotive (annoyingly called the "engine room") when it's moving? The Americanisms are irritating; I know the story-within-a-story's supposed to have been written by an American, but the author doesn't even know the meaning of at least one of the words. On p.229, one of the characters, "in the engine room", watches the "stoker" whilst "trapped against the caboose" (i.e. the brake van - famously found right at the back of an American freight train)!
The characters are stock ones and don't interact in a particularly interesting way. They are all given their own separate little story, leading some reviewers to compare the plot to a that of a portmanteau horror film such as Doctor Terror's House of Horrors , but those were made by Amicus; nothing to do with Hammer. The idea of each person being "tested"by the train itself for some moral flaw in their character is rather boring. It would have been much more interesting to see their characters develop as they responded to a mutual threat together. So far as the monsters are concerned, there are way too many zombies (oh, how bored I am with zombies!), once again decidedly un-Hammerlike as the studio only ever made one zombie movie in its huge output.
I quite enjoyed the framing sections which convey the "feel" of Hammer reasonably well, although there are a couple of sloppy mistakes. Nigel Hawthorne was never in a Hammer film and Ingrid Pitt didn't join the roster until 1971. Also - I can't imagine a writer who had previously worked for the notoriously miserly Roger Corman making the mistake of turning out a script that would go over budget for Hammer. Overall, there is so much more could have been done with the setting of the studio and the wonderful people who worked there. Fowler employs one of his characters to make observations about the company's declining fortunes and how these related to changes in society; but these do not go beyond the journalistic insights reflected in a work such as Sinclair McKay's A Thing of Unspeakable Horror.
By the time I had got near the end and was introduced to the "bloated" Controller, complete with his stovepipe hat, I started to feel that I really had been taken for a ride and had alighted on the Island of Sodor. At least the Rev. Awdry did his homework properly and was scrupulously correct about railway operations! I can only assume that this is a deliberate joke, but it is irrelevant and only serves to undermine "suspension of disbelief" at a crucial moment.
Fun, but nothing special, Hell Train is on a level with the type of writing that used to be churned out in industrial quantities by paperback houses such as NEL in the '70s and '80s. As I rarely read much modern horror, could it be that the high praise dished out to this book is a measure of how far the genre has deteriorated since that era?
Full praise however has to be given to Graham Humphreys' gorgeous cover painting. In these days of photoshopped blandness, it is a sheer delight to see work of this standard adorning a paperback. Let's hope it starts a revival of high quality pulp art.
Monday, 28 November 2011
I wonder if there was ever a No. 2?
"Highgate vampire" hysteria was obviously still raging, five years on (or somebody hoped it was). And people were expected to pick up on references to "The Communist Party Manifesto" in a trashy comic...
Wednesday, 9 November 2011
I would like to complain about the comments about Texan writer Robert E. Howard made by Stewart Lee at the end of "The Review Show" (4/11). Lee describes Howard as "a mad bloke" and then goes on to allege "Because he was insane, he maintained that he didn't write it but these characters stood over his shoulder, and dictated to him."
Both these statements are inaccurate. I assume that the notion that Howard was "mad" or "insane" stems from the biographical fact that he committed suicide at the age of 30. Although he was never diagnosed in his lifetime, it seems likely that this tragic action came about due to untreated clinical depression, probably induced by the stress of maintaining a living as a full-time writer during the Great Depression whilst acting as main carer for his terminally ill mother.
Having read Howard's published correspondence with friends and colleagues, I can confirm that he was intensely concerned with the creation of his stories, which were carefully crafted to suit distinct "pulp" markets. The notion that he believed they were dictated to him by discarnate entities is risible. Presumably it comes from a passage from one of the letters in which he describes figuratively the process behind his creation of "Conan". I find it near incredible that the BBC's premier arts programme should be inviting us to interpret this literally.
Not only is it inaccurate to describe Howard as "a mad bloke" because of his presumed depression, but it is insulting to people suffering from the same condition today. People with mental health problems suffer from discrimination from all directions, and hearing the words "mad bloke" and "insane" coming unexpectedly and inappropriately from a television comedian is likely to fall as another cruel blow to their self-esteem.
I am convinced that underlying this attack on one of the 20th Century's greatest fantasy and horror writers is the BBC's continuing bias against writing that falls outside of the narrow band of "literary fiction". A petition signed by 85 top authors was delivered to the Director General only this April, protesting against the network's "sneering coverage" of genre works. From the evidence of "The Review Show", it would appear that this has been ignored.
Kirsty Wark's sneering introduction to the piece backs up this impression: "Here's comedian Stewart Lee with a selection of his favourite books, most of which appear to be out of print - should that tell us something?" Presumably, to the mainstream mind of Ms. Wark, it should tell us that the books are worthless.
And yet; out of the three works chosen by Lee - two of them "genre" - only one (Machen's "The Green Round") is actually "out of print". "Conan", in particular, is readily available in a bewildering variety of editions, from e-books through cheap movie tie-ins to chunky hardbacks. To imply otherwise, not only demonstrates an appalling lack of research, but does the publishing industry a considerable disservice in these difficult times.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
(Warning - spoilers ahead)
John William Wall (1910-1989), who wrote under the name of "Sarban", has had something of a renaissance of late. This is largely due to the stalwart efforts of the Tartarus Press in publishing high-quality hardback and e-book editions of his long-out-of-print and unpublished works, plus a biography by Mark Valentine. Unfortunately, however, I have had to rely on a typo-riddled P.O.D. edition of The Sarban Omnibus. Two of the the three novels contained therein (Ringstones, The Sound of his Horn and The Doll Maker) are also available in free online editions.
Ringstones (1951) is centred on the first-person narrative of Daphne Hazel, a trainee gym teacher who accepts a holiday job at Ringstones Hall from an eccentric academic named Dr Ravelin. At this isolated moorland residence she is tasked with tutoring three mysterious "foreign" children of undisclosed nationality. In response to her questioning, Dr Ravelin is decidedly unforthcoming about the origin of his mysterious charges.
Idyllic to start with, the tale gradually becomes sinister as Miss Hazel discovers more about her mysterious charges and their surroundings. It becomes apparent that she is entrapped by the power of Nuaman, the fifteen year old boy (or is he?) who also dominates his younger female peers, Marvan and Ianthe, and Katia the Polish maid. Eventually, she is vouchsafed a disturbing revelation of where this domination is leading.
These events are punctuated by conversations with the reclusive Dr. Ravelin, who stays cloistered in his study for most of the daytime. An amateur archaeologist, he speculates that the ancient house occupies the site of a Roman arena set out for chariot races and other games. The moorland stone circle from which the Hall takes its name feeds wilder ruminations on history and mythology. Reflecting on the reuse of sacred sites by successive religions, Ravelin concludes "Perhaps these ancient stones hold down something far more ancient, something far stranger than the men who placed them understood. Some queer feet have danced here, I feel."
Ringstones is suffused by the spirit of Pan and "his representatives on (the) moors", who may or may not be the indigenous inhabitants of the land, driven out to desolate places but still recalled by folklore and superstition. The myth is of "the gift of the fairies" which, as Dr Ravelin observes "always has some disastrous condition attached to it. Their gold, in the morning, is a stone, or their invitation to a night's revels holds the unfortunate mortal in a century's slavery."
It will be clear from the above that we are in Arthur Machen territory. As with many of the Welsh master's accounts of the" Little People" Sarban's tale exudes an air of unwholesome sensuality. It starts off with in "Health and Efficiency" style with the well-toned Miss Hazel donning her "skimpy gym trunks" for a day's "romping and tumbling" with her shirtless young charge, whilst wondering at "the perfection of his physical development". Likewise, the clothing of the two little girls is of a type unlikely to be approved by the Mother's Union; "Like Nuaman's, their dress seemed more than is usual with English children to set off their figures rather than to cover them".
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, no explicitly carnal sentiments are expressed in the novel; things remain chaste even when Nuaman "caressingly" strokes Miss Hazel's arm in a "soothing, persuasive way". Sarban's eroticism runs underground and is focussed on male control and dominance. The measures that Nuaman (jokingly nicknamed "the Slave Driver" by his tutor) takes to impose his will on females very slowly become apparent, until the point at which Miss Hazel realises she has misheard the Polish maid Katia's broken English as "he weep" and that what she really meant was "he whips".
Miss Hazel also starts to realise that it is physically impossible for her to leave Ringstones. An attempt to reach a nearby village by crossing the moors results in her becoming lost and going around in circles until she returns to the Hall ("I want to keep you here for ever" observes Nuaman in a later conversation). She also receives a creepy indication that the two girls may be representatives of a larger group on the moors, as she spots some of them playing with Nuaman by the stream. Meanwhile, the Polish maid expresses her fear of lies-schi, which Dr Ravelin explains to the means "demons of the forest".
The conclusion of Miss Hazel's retelling of her adventures finds her arising on a moonlit night and finding herself mysteriously cast back in time to the Roman era, when the Games are being held on the site of Ringstones Hall. Preparations for track events are taking place in the arena and she encounters the Armenian servant Sarkissian with a special chariot. She had previously dreamt of him constructing this device with Nuaman in the stables.
It appears that Miss Hazel is about to be forced into an unconsenting act of what is termed "pony play" by modern devotees of the Aristotelian Perversion. Already leashed, she is to be stripped and manacled to the pole of this vehicle alongside the already-harnessed Katia in order to take part in a race. Then she sees the charioteer; "Nuaman gazed at me, and before I dropped my eyes I saw his expression begin to change… I dared not look at his face, but I saw the lash…" On this climactic note, her memoir comes to an end.
Daphne Hazel's story is framed by the sceptical account of an unnamed male narrator accompanying his friend Piers, who has received her manuscript and is keen to discover more about the extraordinary events described in it. When they arrive at Ringstones Hall, they discover it to be an uninhabited ruin. Tracking down Miss Hazel (placed as a tutor to two Egyptian girls in more normal accommodation), she explains her story to them as "a sort of dream, or a lot of dreams" which came to her after she injured herself at the ruin and was left there alone for several hours whilst medical assistance was sought for her.
One is reminded of the gift of the fairies, but the young woman seems, superficially at least, undamaged by her experiences, imagined or otherwise. Just before the narrator and his friend part company with her, they observe her making a movement which shows this is not the case;
"She held out both her hands … with a curious gesture of surrender as if offering the hands and wrists to someone. I saw a newly-healed long cut on the inside of her left wrist plain against the sun-browned skin. She seemed to offer her wrists a moment and then, yielding to an unknown compulsion, reluctantly turned down her palms, curling her fingers round something invisible to us."
Our narrator concludes "I was shocked to see how far behind Piers I had been in understanding the depth of her distress … I think we were all looking with a slowly rising fear at those two drooping hands, so helplessly waiting there." They respond in a reassuring way, but it seems clear that both believe that Pan's representatives have found a victim.
It could be argued that the extent to which Sarban's fantasy edges over into pornography is a measure of how it fails as literature. It could be that Sarban got away with so much kinkiness because he was writing in a more innocent time. Reaching the end of Ringstones, modern readers may feel that they have stumbled into one of John Norman's notorious Gor novels.
What saves Ringstones from being mere BDSM fare are its mysticism and atmosphere. Whilst it falls short of the bar set by Machen, there is a strangeness about the tale that captures the imagination in a similar way to The Hill of Dreams. It is very slow-moving and replete with detailed descriptions of the countryside and meditations on arcane subjects. The prurient person that James Branch Cabell dubbed "the pornoscopic reader" will have a laborious time finding the juicy bits.
Seen as a trilogy, the component novels of The Sarban Omnibus share the theme of male dominance. Ringstones introduces it as an archetypal principle arising from the mythic depths of the collective unconscious to ensnare a modern, independent young woman. The message is that, despite her superficial recovery, Daphne Hazel will remain permanently marked, physically and mentally, by her mysterious experiences. "Everything has end. Except a circle" she pleads to "Sir No Man" at one point. "Ringstones is a circle", he responds "You can never come to the end of Ringstones"…
(Next: The Sound Of His Horn)
Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Along the way, we are led to consider some interesting questions. What is suitable employment for a cerebrally augmented fox? And, most importantly; if ever-branching realities can be bridged, then how do ethics and justice apply to the way we relate to our other selves?
In the multiverse, of course, there are infinite answers to these questions, and the colourful characters of Coterie make the mistake of assuming that Tradition is a constant in which the rules never vary.
Elkie Riches’ short story is a finely crafted comedy of manners and paradox. The “New Wave” of science fiction is an obvious reference point in a tale that blends Chaucer and Hugh Everett III. Coterie would not be at all out of place in a copy of Michael Moorcock’s classic journal New Worlds, and will be very much appreciated by anyone with a taste for this genre.
Coterie is available for Kindle
Tuesday, 12 July 2011
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down”
– Jim Morrison
Cities are the future. Already, more than half the world’s population is urban-based and it is predicted that this figure will rise to almost 5 billion by 2030. Mumbai-base architect Vitasta Raina is well-placed to comment on the phenomenon. Writer’s Block casts a satirical eye on the fictional mega-city Chalet via a series of Joycean epiphanies centred on the alienated inhabitants of its eponymous literary ghetto.
The tale’s dystopianism evokes antecedents such as J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and M. John Harrison’s In Viriconium. The city is a physical reproduction of the society which creates it; class structures reified and set in stone. Civic planning has become the new totalitarianism as its Orwellian acronyms (helpfully listed at the start from “C-PUE” to “RUMP”) indicate.
Writer’s Block portrays a caste system based on material wealth; “Elegants”,”Indigents” and “Parasites” occupy distinct zones of the city, with the rich literally rising to the sky. Misguided attempts at encouraging social mobility have been frustrated by the mechanics of the property market as homes become multi-owned investments and status symbols.
As “Refined Indigents”, the “educated but not moneyed” inhabitants of the eponymous Writer’s Block play an interstitial role in the hierarchy. This affords them the dubious cachet of outsider status and an intellectually privileged but fundamentally powerless view of the city and her looming apocalypse; “We see the impending nightmare ready to explode. We see fat Chalet ready to erupt.”
Yet the human eruptions, when they arise, are minimal. Forced relocation of the Parasites to a floating ghetto leads to a night of rioting, but resistance is quickly crushed and life returns to normal. Fatalism is restored and polite indifference to injustice maintains the civilised facade. Quiescence is the human condition; as one character remarks of the Parasites “We know we’ll say “go” and ninety nine percent of them will”.
Yet Nemesis cannot be forestalled forever. It eventually takes the unexpected form of mechanical dysfunction, induced by the anthropomorphised entity of Chalet herself. Appalled by the concrete ravishment wrought on her by unrestrained development, the city takes revenge on the upper echelons of her human tormenters. It takes very little to disrupt and invert their fragile spatial hierarchy.
Writer’s Block is, at its heart, a tale of the Fall. A section near the centre gives voice to the megalopolis as she recounts her origins as a cluster of fishing villages, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the simple inhabitants; “I belonged to them as they did to me”. Imperialism imposed its grandeur and yet harmony was still maintained. Final loss of innocence came with post-war industrialisation; “They built and destroyed and built again and destroyed again, again and again and again till I was made of nothing except cold reinforced concrete.”
By offering a fantastic solution to the problems of the City, Raina seems to be implying that one in real life is not imminent. Her protagonists occupy a sub-section of society where imaginative withdrawal is an option. Rebellion takes the form of a self-parodying artistic movement; “My Avant-Garde Angst”. Disjointed in time and space, their idols are Western counter-cultural heroes of the 1960s; Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Robert E Heinlein and Philip K Dick. These are the children of globalisation, indicating perhaps that a simple return to the past is not a viable solution.
At the same time, however, one of the characters questions whether the past is actually over; “Even in the thickest of urban slums you see glimpses of rural villages… look around you and you will see how slowly the city is being taken over by ruralisation.” Could it be that the city is just a passing phase in the history of humanity?
The novella concludes with a magical-realist radio interview in which Chalet herself plays the role of chat-show host. After apocalyptic events, a bizarre form of normality returns. We become conscious of our status as passive consumers of reality. Through the media, the whole life becomes a staged event in which we all can step back and discuss our roles. And what is fiction but a medium?
With the globalised metropolis being the destination of the human race, it is the role of speculative fiction to explore the ramifications of this so we can create a liveable world. Writer’s Block provides no simplistic answers but invites us to explore a future (or could it be the present?) in which creativity is ghettoized and the mechanistic hierarchies of capitalism are reproduced in the physical environment. Showing that such deviations from the organic union of humankind and nature are unsustainable, it suggests that hope lies not in dreams of mass rebellion and resistance, but in the small details of everyday life and in the fabric of reality itself.
Writer’s Block is a short work about a vast subject. I left it feeling that there must be many more stories to be told about Chalet and her inhabitants, and hoping that one day Vitasta Raina might apply her pen to these. As it stands, it is a notable work by a first-time writer and very much recommended.