The US TV series Supernatural (2005-) follows two brothers who were brought up in a rather unusual family business. Now a small screen stalwart, the show has also had international success that has earned it year after year of season pick-ups. For those who don’t know, Sam and Dean Winchester are monster-hunting brothers who drive around the back-roads of America in search of the things that go bump in the night. They’ve encountered everything from vampires and werewolves to pagan gods and shapeshifters, who they regularly dispatch with help from their father’s journal and fellow hunter Bobby Singer. Their father, John Winchester, taught them what it took to be hunters from childhood after the murder of their mother at the hands of a powerful demon, who the brothers finally caught up with and killed at the end of season two. For seven years the series has stayed strong, balancing the personal stories of Sam and Dean versus the increasingly ambitious narrative of evil messing with humanity on Earth. After several seasons of summoning every kind of spook, spectre, monster and angel to throw at the unlikely pair of demon hunters, the Supernatural writers finally played the literal God card at the end of series six, potentially making the Almighty himself the season villain. As ever on Supernatural, however, things did not quite turn out to be the way they at first seemed.
Science fiction horror has a long and venerable tradition on both the small and big screen. At the very dawn of the movie age, science fiction films were hopeful, almost idealistic in tone, looking forward to a bright age of exploration and discovery. It did not, however, take very long for the visions of film-makers to darken considerably and between about 1930 and 1950 the first true ‘horrors’ of the sci-fi genre were made. Classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, The War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were notable for the genuine terror that they could inspire in their audiences, just as much as for the more traditional qualities of a science-fiction film, like special effects and imagination. These films really set the tone for the creature features that followed in successive decades, from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the more sophisticated horror of Alien, Predator, Terminator and Species. This revolution on the big screen was reflected to some extent in television series which veered away from purely ‘futuristic’ science fiction to stray into horror territory, probably the best examples of which being Doctor Who in the 1970s and, of course, The Twilight Zone.
One day in 1872 the brig Dei Gratia, while butting her bows through the Atlantic rollers west of Spain, came across another ship that appeared to have been deserted in mid-ocean for no apparent reason – the Mary Celeste. When the Mary Celeste did not reply to their signal, the first and second mates of the Dei Gratia rowed over to the seemingly abandoned ship and hauled themselves on deck, little realising as they did so that they had stumbled across one of the greatest shipping mysteries of all time. It soon became clear that the Mary Celeste had no one aboard and to this day the mystery of what happened to her crew and passengers remains.
The term ‘Stone Tape’ relates to two things: first, the theory that inanimate materials such as buildings can record the resonances of living things and ‘play back’ those memories in the form of ‘ghosts’; and secondly, a little known original screenplay broadcast on BBC television way back in 1972. The Stone Tape theory is interesting enough, if a little mundane in the way that it explains away ghosts as ‘recordings’ rather than spirits, but the TV serial based on it is quite simply one of the most disturbing things that I’ve ever watched (which is perhaps why it has not been shown on TV again – it’s difficult enough to find it on DVD/video).
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.
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.
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
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
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.