Archive | January, 2012

Lovecraft and the Bard of Auburn

28 Jan

I’ve made mention before of the Lovecraft Circle, the group of visionary young American writers who, in the early years of the 20th century, contributed their horror stories to pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Black Cat. Whilst Robert E Howard and H P Lovecraft himself would go on to become the most famous of these authors, of all of them Clark Ashton Smith was perhaps the most gifted writer. Smith actually thought of himself primarily as a poet and only turned to prose due to the meagre financial rewards that his poetry had garnered. Even so, his longer work is marked chiefly by an extraordinarily wide and ornate vocabulary, a sort of ‘fleshed out’ version of his poetry, in which plot and characters are subservient to his literary milieu. Individually, Smith’s highly imaginative, genre-spanning visions of worlds of fantasy, horror and science fiction, combined with his profound understanding of the English language, have earned him wide and lasting acclaim. However, it is his collaboration with other members of the Lovecraft Circle to create a shared universe that is perhaps his greatest achievement. Smith, Howard and Lovecraft were the leaders of the Weird Tales school of fiction, and corresponded frequently although they never met (the writer of oriental fantasies, E Hoffman Price, is the only man known to have met all three in the flesh). Together they created and developed the alternate fictional worlds of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique, as well as the dark, disturbing and unique Cthulhu Mythos. For most of his life, Smith lived in physical and intellectual isolation in Auburn, California, which earned him the nickname ‘The Bard of Auburn’.

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The Curse of the Idol’s Eye

24 Jan

The Hope diamond, once the eye of a Hindu god, is the world’s unluckiest gemstone. Suicide, violence and ruin have dogged the footsteps of those who have possessed it. The diamond was purchased by Louis XIV in 1668 from a French trader named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who is believed to have stolen it from the eye socket of an idol in the temple of Rama-sitra, near Mandalay. Tavernier subsequently went bankrupt, sailed for India to try to recoup his fortune, and died en route. The French king had the diamond cut into the shape of a heart, and it was worn by his mistress, Madame de Montespan, who was also involved in the notorious ‘affair of the poisons’, in which a number of old crones who told fortunes provided poisons for killing off unwanted husbands. Black magic was allegedly involved and, though the scandal was suppressed, Madame de Montespan fell from favour and the old women were tried in secret and later burned. Tavernier and the King’s mistress were by no means the only ones, however, to whom the idol’s eye brought misfortune.

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Be afraid, be Very afraid

20 Jan

I’d like to draw your attention to a classic horror tale that has been re-relased recently by Penguin books – The Watcher by Charles Maclean. I first came across this novel when it was originally published way back in the 1980s and I have to admit that it was all I could back then just to finish it off. This was because, quite simply, it was (and remains) one of the most pant-wettingly frightening books that I’ve ever come across. Before you decide that the fear of having your blood chilled by reading The Watcher is reason enough to give the book a wide berth, I should add that it is also an immensely readable, compelling and devilishly well-written piece of fiction. As well as being a horror, Charles Maclean’s novel is also a terrifying twist on the classic whodunit and this, more than anything else, is what kept me reading long after the sun set when I first came across the book. Or maybe it was just because I was too scared to go to sleep…

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Tales of Innocence

16 Jan

I was mortified to note recently, looking back on my posts about ghost stories and writers, that I have neglected to do a piece on any of the numerous and brilliant female authors of supernatural fiction. To remedy this oversight I should mention that it is no exaggeration to say that at least fifty per cent of quality examples of the genre were penned by women. This is especially true of the nineteenth century, which began with the classic Gothic novels The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Most of the greatest female writers of the Victorian era contributed marvellous tales to famous magazines like Dickens’ Household Words and All the Year Round. This great tradition has endured triumphantly from the Edwardian era up to the present day, not only with specialists in the genre but also with other mainstream writers who experimented rarely, but successfully, with the form. It was a woman, the American Edith Wharton, who famously put into words the measure of a ghost story’s success: ‘… if it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well’.

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Freaky Fairy Tales

12 Jan

The old, familiar stories handed down through the generations that have come to be known as ‘fairy tales’ are, more accurately, tales of enchantment and the supernatural; they are märchen, to use the German term, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent. These tales, which we now tend to think of as children’s stories, were not meant in centuries past for children’s ears only – or, indeed, in some cases, for children’s ears at all. Only in the last century or so have the complex, dark, sensual or bawdy tales of the oral folk tradition been collected, edited and set down in print in the watered-down forms we are most familiar with today: filled with square-jawed princes, passive princesses and endings that are inevitably ‘happy ever after’. For instance, most of us grew up with the story of Sleeping Beauty; but how many modern readers know that in the older versions of the tale the sleeping princess is awakened not by a chaste kiss but by the suckling of twin children she has given birth to, impregnated by a less-than-charming prince who has come and gone while she lay in ‘sleep as heavy as death’? How many know that it was Red Riding Hood’s near-sighted granny who cried ‘Oh my, oh my, what big teeth you have!’ to the wolf, who quickly gobbled her up – and then finished off Red Riding Hood for dessert, with no convenient woodsman nearby to save her? The old tales were about anguish and darkness: they plunged heroes and heroines in the dark wood, into danger, despair and deception, and only then offered them the tools to save themselves. The power in old fairy tales lay in such self-determined acts of transformation. Happy endings, where they existed, were hard won, and at a price.

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9 Jan

If you’ve ever watched Edward Scissorhands you may have done so without realising that Tim Burton’s famous film is partly based upon an obscure Victorian nursery rhyme and urban legend – that of the Scissorman. The origin of this strange character is a matter of some dispute – some say that he is entirely fictitious, a nightmarish creature dreamt up by generations of parents to frighten their children into behaving themselves. To others there is no doubt that he is all too real and was in fact a serial killer in Victorian London (akin to other bogeymen like Sweeney Todd, Jack the Ripper and Springheel Jack). His trademark weapon was a massive pair of scissors that he used to stab and cut his unfortunate victims, usually following a sadistic game of hide-and-seek. Mark Chadbourn, a writer whose work I greatly admire, to some degree used both origin stories for the Scissorman in dreaming up his brilliant but twisted novel of the same name.

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Ghost Writers

6 Jan

Tales of mystery and the supernatural hold an almost endless fascination for me, as all regular readers of this blog will be well aware. I remember that the first ‘grown up’ ghost stories that I read were in an anthology named Ghost Breakers that I picked up in the library at my old primary school. This volume had been cunningly packaged to appeal to younger readers and I must admit that, as a child who had grown up in the 1980s, it was mainly my interest in Ghostbusters (and perhaps the hope that the anthology was somehow related) that led me to pick it up. My initial disappointment that the tome had nothing to do with the aforementioned Hollywood blockbuster faded rapidly when I was sucked completely into a world of haunted mansions, ancient curses and restless spectres. I finished the half dozen or so supernatural tales in the Ghost Breakers anthology in the space of a week and immediately afterwards sought out more of the same – a process which has absorbed me ever since and which indeed goes on to this day. Although my initial attraction was to the old-fashioned (that is ‘Victorian’ as opposed to modern) ghost story, it was not long before my interests widened. I looked to the past for the Classical, Medieval and Gothic predecessors to the Victorian ghost story as well as to the present for the modern horror fiction that was inspired by these traditional tales of the supernatural. I grew fascinated by the continuity I saw in hundreds of years of story-telling – the linked themes, the literary techniques and the recurring settings. I also noted the differences, how each generation adapted the ghost story to its tastes, adding something new to continually refresh and expand the genre. I became familiar with the founders and foremost exponents of the ghost story form, from its misty beginnings in antiquity to those pushing its boundaries in the modern age. Most of all I became determined that the short ghostly tale should remain alive and well. I wanted future generations to enjoy the stories that I had grown up with and also, for those (like me) who feel so inspired, to add to the corpus of supernatural fiction. It was this desire that led me to write my own  ghost stories and create this website, where I’ve so far talked about ghost stories and their writers in a somewhat haphazard manner. To provide some context, I thought that it might be useful at this stage to say something about the evolution of the ghost story from its very beginnings to the present day.

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The Heart of Winter

1 Jan

Happy New Year! Or should I say ‘Happy Tammikuu’, the rather evocative Finnish name for the month of January, meaning ‘the month of the heart of winter’ in that language. It is perhaps unsurprising that most of the names for January in the Northern Hemisphere countries have wintry associations, given that in this part of the world it is usually the coldest month of the year. The name for this month among the Anglo-Saxons was Wulfmonath (‘Wolf month’), since it was the time of year when the wolves were unable to find food and their hunger made them bold enough to come into the villages of ancient Britain. The word January, however, comes from the Roman god Janus or Ianuarius, whose name is derived from the Latin word for door (ianua) – appropriately enough given that January is the door to the year. Janus is usually depicted as a two-faced god since he looks to both the future and the past and is the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. It is sometimes suggested, as a result of January’s association with the Classical god of doorways, that a number of New Year’s festivities are founded on pagan traditions. The mystical side of the New Year is given further weight by the variety of other names that the month of January has around the world – such as The Gate of New Beginnings, The Wolf Moon and the Coming of the Dark.

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