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Out of the Deep: Walter de la Mare’s Supernatural Tales

27 Oct

What qualities contribute to the making of a really good ghost story? A deftly crafted air of unease and suspense is essential. A well-defined sense of place is also an advantage – the isolated mist-shrouded mansion, or the forest landscape never penetrated by the sun. Then you need a protagonist, someone who is haunted as much by loneliness and doubt as by the spirits of those departed. All these qualities help to shape a good ghost story, but the best ghost stories, and those by Walter de la Mare are certainly among the best, have something else in their favour – an enduring sense of mystery and a solution or explanation that remains tantalisingly out of reach. Take for example perhaps the most famous ghost story of them all, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). James’s tale certainly has the atmosphere, the location and the troubled protagonist, but it also raises numerous tantalising questions. Are the ghosts in the story ‘real’, or do they only exist within the mind of the governess? Do the children within her care see the ghosts but refuse to admit it, or are they totally innocent and merely bewildered by events? Is the governess malevolent or mad, or is she rather the only hope of salvation in a story that deals almost exclusively with evil? James’s ability to weave ambiguity into the fabric of the tale makes it a sublime ghost story. Walter de la Mare possessed a very similar ability to create narratives in which many interpretations are possible, something which – taken together with his perfectly pitched sense of place and his elegant prose – made him one of the finest writers of supernatural tales in the language.

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Devilishly Good: The Best of Dennis Wheatley

21 Jul

Dennis Wheatley was an English writer whose prolific output of thrillers and occult novels made him one of the world’s best-selling authors from the 1930s through the 1960s. His Gregory Sallust series was one of the main inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories but he is probably associated first and foremost with the Black Magic series of novels, among them The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley mainly wrote adventure novels, with many books in a series of linked works. Background themes included the French Revolution (the Roger Brook series), Satanism (the Duke de Richleau series), World War II (the Gregory Sallust series) and espionage (the Julian Day novels). Over time, each of his major series would include at least one book pitting the hero against some manifestation of the supernatural – making them into Fantasy and specifically Contemporary Fantasy. He came to be considered an authority on Satanism, the practice of exorcism, and black magic, toward all of which he expressed hostility. During his study of the paranormal, though, he joined the Ghost Club. Wheatley himself once said: “Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or a woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.”

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Five Ghosts

22 Apr

Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham, along with colourist Lauren Affe, launched Five Ghosts in 2013, first as a Kickstarter and later as a series from Image Comics. Barbiere’s central character Fabian Gray is a treasure hunter, and he deliberately and squarely is drawn from two types: the adventurer, best typified by Indiana Jones and the gothic villain or Byronic hero who has a brilliant mind, dark secrets and a tortured soul. Gray’s central affliction and rare talents come from a long-ago encounter with a mysterious artifact called ‘The Dreamstone,’ which resulted in his ability to draw upon the abilities of five legendary ‘ghosts.’ Although unnamed, it’s fair to guess that The Wizard is Merlin, The Archer is Robin Hood, The Detective is Sherlock Holmes, The Samurai is Musashi and The Vampire is Dracula. All these literary and cinematic influences heavily shape Barbiere’s characters and plot. Five Ghosts feels like a descendent of H. Rider Haggard’s swashbuckling adventure stories from the 1880s. It also shares the retro feel and some of the same narrative approach as Alan Moore’s similarly allusion-heavy and genre-fusing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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Dark Entries: Robert Aickman

13 Aug

Robert Aickman was the grandson of Richard Marsh, a leading Victorian novelist of the occult. Though his chief occupation in life was first as a conservationist of England’s canals he eventually turned his talents to writing what he called ‘strange stories’. Dark Entries was his first full collection, the debut in a body of work that would inspire Peter Straub to hail Aickman as “this century’s most profound writer of what we call horror stories”. So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly four-square – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

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They Return at Evening: H R Wakefield

16 Jul

When Herbert Russell Wakefield’s first collection of supernatural stories, They Return at Evening, was published in 1928, it would not have been apparent to contemporary readers that the book marked the start of a new era. Wakefield’s appearance on the ghost story scene came at a time when many of the great names in the field were nearing the end of their careers as writers of supernatural fiction. M R James, E F Benson and Algernon Blackwood, who had dominated the field, had either published their last new stories or were within a few years of doing so. That his first two collections of ghost stories, They Return at Evening (1928) and Old Man’s Beard (1929) have not been reprinted since is little short of a crime, albeit one that may be partly explained by the popularity of the two anthologies which were published by Jonathan Cape in their Florin Books series, which used many of the best stories from Wakefield’s first three collections. Such neglect places Wakefield in distinguished company: E G Swain, R H Malden, A N L Munby and L T C Rolt are all authors of fine collections of ghost stories, which for many years after their publication were not easily available, and consequently more talked-about than read by ghost story enthusiasts. Wakefield, however, differs from the others in that he wrote several collections of weird tales, over a period of thirty-three years – Messrs Swain, Malden, Munby and Rolt wrote one collection each. They Return at Evening thus marked a turning point – away from the last century and on into a brave new world whose boundaries seemed limitless.

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The Dunwich Horror

12 Mar

The Dunwich Horror was written by H P Lovecraft in August 1928 and is considered one of the core tales in his Cthulhu mythos. There are several significant literary influences on the tale. The central premise – the sexual union of a ‘god’ or monster with a human woman – is taken directly from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan; Lovecraft actually alludes to the story at one point in his narrative. The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are several other celebrated weird tales featuring invisible monsters Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It?; Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla (certain features of which had already been adapted for The Call of Cthulhu); Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing – but they do not appear to have influenced the tale substantially. A less well-known story, Anthony M Rud’s Ooze, also deals with an invisible monster that eventually bursts forth from the house in which it is trapped; Lovecraft expressed great enthusiasm for the tale when he read it in the spring of 1923. The Dunwich Horror also stands out as being one of the few tales Lovecraft wrote wherein the heroes successfully defeat the antagonistic entity or monster of the story.

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The Kingdom of Hay

15 Jan

The rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county linking most of the places of interest. Plonked in the middle of the county on the Wye is Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned sort of place whose proudest possession, the remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. To the west of Hereford, hard by the Welsh border, the key attraction is Hay-on-Wye, which – thanks to the purposeful industry of its very own self-proclaimed ‘King’ Richard Booth – has become the world’s largest repository of secondhand books, on sale in a score of secondhand bookshops. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held there for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’. But Hay-on-Wye was already well known for its many bookshops before the festival was launched. Booth opened his first shop there in 1961, and by the 1970s Hay had gained the nickname ‘The Town of Books’. On 1 April 1977 Booth proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as king – styled Richard Cœur de Livre – and his horse as Prime Minister. He lives there still, ruling the kingdom of Hay from his very own castle in the hills.

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Video

A Warning to the Curious

18 Dec

Here’s a real festive treat. In 2000 the BBC produced a series called Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee in which Lee played M R James reading four of his own stories. Lee, who actually once met James, obviously enjoyed making this series and A Warning to the Curious is a real highlight – enjoy!

Mysteries of the Moor

12 Jun

Occupying the main part of the county of Devon between Exeter and Plymouth, Dartmoor is southern England’s greatest expanse of wilderness, some 365 square miles of raw granite, barren bogland, sparse grass and heather-grown moor. It was not always so desolate, as testified by the remnants of scattered Stone Age settlements and the ruined relics of the area’s 19th century tin-mining industry. Today, desultory flocks of sheep and groups of ponies are virtually the only living creatures to be seen wandering over the central vastnesses of the National Park, with solitary birds – buzzards, kestrels, pipits, stonechats and wagtails – wheeling and hovering high above. But even more than its natural beauty, Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. It is reputedly the haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, a mysterious pack of spectral hounds, and a large black dog, among others. Many landmarks have ancient legends and ghost stories associated with them, such as the allegedly haunted Jay’s Grave, the ancient burial site of Childe’s Tomb, the rock pile called Bowerman’s Nose, and the stone crosses that mark former mediaeval routes across the moor. Dartmoor has also inspired a number of artists and writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. D. Blackmore, Eden Phillpotts, Beatrice Chase, Agatha Christie, Rosamunde Pilcher, and the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fictional Quidditch World Cup final between Ireland and Bulgaria was even hosted on the moor!

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