Archive | September, 2011

The Horrors of H P Lovecraft

21 Sep

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where he also lived for most of his life and eventually died in 1937. Despite his relatively short life and modest literary output – three short novels and about sixty short stories – he left an indelible stamp on the field of supernatural fiction, of which he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American exponent. Lovecraft was gifted with a fertile imagination which, fed by the independent study and reading that was forced upon him by frequent illnesses which disrupted his schooling, spurred him to write many essays and poems early in his career based on the wide knowledge he acquired. But it was in the writing of horror fiction that Lovecraft truly excelled, especially after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his stories.

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The Incomparable M R James

20 Sep

I’ve been looking forward to this one…

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) is generally acknowledged as the founding father of the ghost story as it is known today. The son of a clergyman raised in rural Suffolk, England, M R James attended prep school at Eton and it was here that he discovered traditional ‘gothic’ ghost tales full of the old trappings of antique castles, terrified maidens and spectres clanking chains. He decided to try his own interpretation of the genre – one of plausibility, actuality and malevolence more suited to 20th century readers – when he later became a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. The publication of his first collection of ghostly tales in 1904 met with an enthusiastic public response. An antiquarian by nature, James was a master of topography, scholarly detail and seemingly authentic documentation, which appealed to the audience of sophisticated modern readers that he sought (even the least of his stories exhibits a craftsmanship and attention to detail that must be the envy of more hasty and prolific writers). James also inspired countless other ghost story writers, who to this day owe a debt to his conception of the form (in his own words – “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way… and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage”).

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The Stone Secrets of Easter Island

19 Sep

If you’ve ever been anywhere near this strange island in the South Pacific, you’ll know that all over it stand hundreds of strange statues. As the Dutch admiral who discovered this island in 1722 wrote: “All over the island stand huge idols of stone, representing the figure of a man with big ears and bearing a head covered with a red crown”. These ‘idols’ remain secrets in stone because, to this day, no one knows why they are there or who built them.

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Galveston: The Eternal Carnival

18 Sep

It feels odd to be saying that a book which, not so long ago, won the World Fantasy Award is little known, but unfortunately that seems to be the case with Sean Stewart’s Galveston (I was amazed to see that Amazon does not even have a review of this book on its UK website!).

Galveston is a real town in Texas, described in the book as a ‘thin ribbon of sand’ not far from the Gulf of Mexico. Due to its position it has always been vulnerable to the elements and in 1900 it was hit by a Katrina-sized hurricane which basically obliterated everything in its path, leaving no structures standing and one-sixth of the population dead. Galveston the book imagines a time in the near future when the town is drowned not by water but by magic, when reason and rationality are washed away to be replaced by gods, ghosts and monsters in a bizarre and deadly Mardi Gras. This cataclysm, called the Flood, basically splits Galveston in two, with one half of the town trying to carry on their lives as normal while the other half is trapped in an endless carnival ruled by the malevolent entity known as Momus, who is part clown and part devil – a sort of psychotic version of the Greek god of mockery from whom he takes his name. Life away from Momus is not much better since the ‘free’ half of Galveston is overrun by dangerous and unpredictable ‘Krewes’ (basically gangs, but run by criminals who love dressing up in carnival gear). Eventually someone decides to take on both Momus and the Krewes and that’s when the fun really begins! Continue reading

The Devil in Dartmoor?

17 Sep

One evening in early February 1855 snow fell in Devon, and with it one of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time. For when people awoke in towns and villages across the county, they noticed in the otherwise untrodden snow thousands of very odd footprints – footprints which were found not only on the ground but also across the rooftops of houses, over high walls, and even across a two-mile estuary! But the oddest thing about the impressions left in the snow was the fact that they were left by cloven feet and were so deep and clearly defined that they looked as though they had been burned into the snow by a hot iron. All over Devon curiosity turned to fear as the question was asked: Did the Devil walk the rooftops? Continue reading

Thomas Carnacki: the original ghost-buster

16 Sep

A few years ago Wordsworth Editions, a highly respected publishing house most famous for its range of classic literary fiction, published a line known intriguingly as Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural. This was a collection of works written by Victorian and Edwardian ghost story writers, including giants such as Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, M R James, H P Lovecraft and Rudyard Kipling as well as far less well known (but perhaps equally gifted, in this field at least) writers such as W F Harvey, Algernon Blackwood and Sir Andrew Caldecott. Their aim was to bring those works which have been forgotten undeservedly back to a mass audience for the acclaim that they deserve. Many of the short story collections that made up this line of Wordsworth editions had been out of print for decades, despite being some of the finest examples of the short story form in any genre. Sadly, the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural are no longer being published, although there are still plenty available in the right bookshops (and online of course). I hope to talk about a number of the writers in this range in future posts but I thought I’d start with one of my favourites: William Hope Hodgson.

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Places to Visit 1

16 Sep

In what will become a regular feature on this site, I will be reviewing some of my favourite places to visit, including coffee shops, restaurants, museums and more, both all over this country and beyond. As a special treat you get three reviews for the price of one today!

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A Walk in the Woods

15 Sep

This is a strange one.

There aren’t many works of fiction like Mythago Wood, and that’s a shame because there have been very few times that I’ve been so utterly immersed in a book that I’ve read it in virtually one sitting, which is what happened to me the first time I picked up this novel by Robert Holdstock. Mythago Wood is set in and around a primeval tract of woodland known as Ryhope Wood, which to outward appearances is simply a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Hertfordshire. Needless to say, however, there is much more to Ryhope Wood than this, and in the course of the novel the impossible secret that it is hiding is slowly revealed – it is a place lost to time where familiar mythic archetypes such as  King Arthur, Robin Hood and Herne the Hunter come alive in twisted and terrifying ways. The story involves the estranged members of the Huxley family and their experiences with the forest and its enigmatic inhabitants, the ‘myth imagos’ (images of myth) or mythagos for short. Continue reading

Nick Drake

14 Sep

Who is Nick Drake and why should I know about him? Might be the first question that you’re asking, followed by, why are you writing about him on this site – I thought you were only interested in ghosts and ghouls? Well, read on and hopefully all will become clear.

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Edinburgh: Dark Deeds in the Old Town

13 Sep

I’ve always found Edinburgh a splendidly atmospheric city, which is why I’ve visited it time and again over the years. The city is perched on a series of extinct (we hope) volcanoes and rocky crags – a setting so striking that Sir Walter Scott was moved to call it “My own Romantic Town”. In my opinion, however, it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of this city with the following description in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes: “You go under arches and down dark stairs and alleys. The way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall; so steep that, in greasy winter weather, the pavement is almost as treacherous as ice.”

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