Badvent Calendar Day 24

Tennant’s Solstice Surprise

A nice little unexpected early Christmas present was Peter Tennant’s review on the Black Static website of The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 3: A Miscellany of Monsters, which gave a thumbs up to it and my story in it:

“‘Cuckoo Flower’ by Tom Johnstone has a rogue botanist losing the plot when her contraband plants turn out to be rather different than advertised. It’s another gleeful story, with Johnstone capturing perfectly the obsessive tone of the protagonist and her disbelief about what is taking place.”

The story appears again in my collection Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, also published by Alchemy Press. Too late to order it for Christmas of course, but if you’re in Hove today doing last minute Christmas shopping, I think City Books on Western Road still has one copy left…

As an extra-special Christmas treat, here’s another extract of me reading a seasonal story from the collection: ‘The Cutty Wren’. (Part Two of Four)

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Badvent Calendar Day 23

The Count-down is over.

Not for Christmas of course. It’s not Christmas Eve yet — that’s tomorrow. But the countdown to the eagerly-awaited BBC2 adaptation of ‘Count Magnus’ has passed, as I am only now sitting down to write this after it was broadcast. So time for a potted review — of my first impressions of course. I’m not sure of the wisdom of Jason Watkins playing the hapless Mr Wraxhall as a kind of Mr Toad figure, or of using the least menacing-looking family vault in history to represent the Magnus mausoleum, but the flashback to the two peasants’ ill-fated ‘free hunt’ in the Count’s woods is effectively grisly, and Wraxhall’s attempted flight is as suspenseful as it should be. However, the rest suffers from the sense that the production got stuck with a long spell of far-too-good weather during the location shoot: The bright, sunny conditions on the extremely well-manicured De La Gardie estate severely detracts from the sense of doom-laden inevitability that makes this one of James’s most chilling tales.

But on an unrelated note, I can’t help wondering about the new Tory-appointed ethics advisor, whose name happens to be Sir Laurie Magnus…

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Badvent Calendar Day 22


I wonder if this is what ex-League of Gentlemen TV horror impresarios would like to rename Christmas. Mark Gatiss cast Simon Callow in his Christmas ghost story The Dead Room, and now he’s in the Inside No. 9 special tonight. But then he is ‘The Man Who Played Dickens’, notably in Gatiss’ first Doctor Who TV episode, ‘The Unquiet Dead’…

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Badvent Calendar Day 21

Bring out those Solstice bulls!

Local story-teller Jon Mason recently drew my attention to a Sussex tradition, called ‘gooding’. This custom seems to me connected to one that’s enjoyed something of a revival of late. I’m referring of course to Wassailing, the custom of toasting and blessing the apple trees to ensure a good crop, which also involved a certain amount of touring the homes of the wealthy asking, or perhaps demanding, their occupants invite them in and surrender some of their food and booze for the consumption of their visitors.

Gooding too involves a redistribution of wealth in the form of charitable bounty, but it takes place on December 21st, Solstice, also known as St Thomas’s Day, unlike Wassailing, which is on ‘Old Twelvey’, Jan 6th. It also has a particular demographic as the chief beneficiaries, poor widows or ‘good wives’, hence ‘Gooding’. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, every St. Thomas’s Day at Mitchelgrove Farm, near Patching, West Sussex, a bull was slaughtered, and the meat distributed to the poor. On the face of it, this sharing of wealth on the part of the gentry was voluntary, but it stands to reason the implicit threat of more forcible expropriation on the part of the common folk lies behind the jolly image of yuletide conviviality such customs conjure up, especially when you consider the enclosure of common land was a recent memory and its effects still ongoing.

The scene in the Dead of Night episode ‘The Exorcism’ (1972), where Rachel (Anna Cropper) becomes a medium channelling the tragedy that took place in the cottage, reminds us not all landowners were generous in response to the poverty of their widowed neighbours, and even if they were, their sense of noblesse oblige may at least in part have been out of fear of reprisals. It seems oddly apt that much of my information about ‘Gooding’ came from a page on Worthing Christmas folklore on a local estate agents’ website.

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Badvent Calendar Day 20


There have already been plenty of mentions of Krampus on this series of seasonal posts. But have you heard of Frau Perchta? This old crone, dressed in rags and sporting a beaky iron nose, was to slatternly hausfraus in the Alpine regions of Germany and Austria what Krampus was to naughty children: a form of discipline by means of supernatural terror. Despite her own scruffy appearance, she was most particular about the tidiness of other women’s homes, and woe betide anyone who failed to get their flax spun by Twelfth Night:

‘ “…for when the Christmas season was over, it would be time to set up the big upright loom, at which time you must have enough thread to warp it and start your weaving.” And what’s Frau Perchta’s punishment for those lazy ladies who haven’t finished all their weaving? “In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, there were numerous tales of Frau Perchta trampling and even settling fire to the half-spun fibers.” And if should you really irritate her? Like, say, not only is your flax not spun, but your house is a total mess (this domestic goddess/witch hates a messy house) and you’ve even failed to leave out a traditional bowl of porridge for her? Well, then her rampaging will extend far beyond your slovenly spinning room. She’ll do nothing less than steal into your bedroom, disembowel you and replace your guts with rocks and straw.’

From Frau Perchta, Terrifying Christmas Witch,

Also known as Holle, she’s associated with the Wild Hunt. Find out more here.

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Badvent Calendar Day 19b

Magnus dominus

Following on from yesterday’s post about ‘The Mezzotint’, and to make up for missing a day, here’s a trailer for the next Christmas ghost story, ‘Count Magnus’:

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Badvent Calendar Day 19

A far from indifferent ‘Mezzotint’

Last Christmas Eve, the BBC treated us to an adaptation of ‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James. In the story, museum curator Mr Williams receives the eponymous artwork.

“It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known.”

Actually, the mezzotint has some very unusual properties, in keeping with this kind of tale of the cursed or haunted objet d’art. The story has been adapted before, but previously either as a televised reading such as Robert Powell’s in 1986, or as a modernised variation in such shows as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-73), in whose pilot episode it appeared in the guise of ‘The Cemetery’ with Roddy McDowall. ‘The Mezzotint’ is also probably an influence, along with other M.R. James tales, upon the seminal Hideo Nakata ‘J-horror’ movie, Ringu. The creative force behind the most recent A Ghost Stories for Christmas films, Mark Gatiss, previously adapted it for radio, with himself as M.R. James.

But this is the first time ‘The Mezzotint’ has been directly dramatised for TV.

It’s up on i-player, so acts as a welcome foretaste of the forthcoming version of ‘Count Magnus’ to be shown on Christmas Eve-Eve, so I took a second look at ‘The Mezzotint’ after enjoying tuning in to the original broadcast. I still found it an accomplished version, played with a commendably straight face, which was a relief, as I always have a sneaking suspicion that Gatiss puts on these TV horror shows with something of a tongue-in-cheek smirk, but that might be his own screen persona and his history of involvement with clever-clever Sherlock influencing my view. The casting of Rory Kinnear as the unfortunate Williams is an excellent choice, ensuring the balance between humour and terror is the right one.

For the most part, it’s a very faithful rendering of the story, with parts of the dialogue transferred verbatim from the story, but as with Lawrence Gordon Clark’s classic adaptations, what’s interesting is what’s added and what taken away. Take ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1972). In James’ story, the working class bit-part players like ‘Boots’ at the inn are there for comic relief, ‘rude mechanicals’ with funny accents I can’t help feeling the author regards with a certain condescension that’s very much of its time. But in his spartan, minimalist version, Clark deliberately makes the doomed meddler, Paxton (Peter Vaughan), an unemployed bank clerk, and the only person manifesting contempt for him is ‘Boots’ himself, a deferential innkeeper who pointedly cites the other guest at the inn Dr Black (Clive Swift) as “a real gentleman” and looks askance at the battered shoes Paxton tries to hide. Eyeing the newspaper announcing three million unemployed, Boots acts affronted at his impecunious guest’s request for a bicycle. On his travels on the push-bike, Paxton meets a couple of eccentric middle class types, but also a young woman, like him working class, and driven out of London to the Norfolk coast by the need to find work.

At about half an hour, Gatiss’s ‘The Mezzotint’ is very brief, but nevertheless fleshes out Williams. Character is often cited as a weakness in James’s tales. Clark’s answer to this in ‘A Warning’ was to dispense with the usual scholarly milieu in which the central character moves, and replace it with impoverished circumstances that motivate him to embark upon the risky course he does. Gatiss’s approach is to give Williams a genealogical link to the tragedy that eerily plays out in the mezzotint, and the aridity of his characteristically Jamesian lifestyle as a confirmed bachelor “without issue” drives his increasingly obsessive researches into what becomes clear is his own family history, but also echoes the disquieting child abduction element at the heart of this story.

Williams’ story becoming entwined with that of Arthur Francis also prepares the ground for an ending that is arguably an attempt to compensate for the fact that the adaptation cannot fully show the horrors M.R. James describes as appearing in the mezzotint — the insect-like creature scuttling towards the house, disappearing inside and then re-emerging with its prey. It relies upon the reactions of the various characters to the uncanny changes to the landscape it depicts. But the conclusion allows these horrors to take on a more tangible form, which in style, theme and execution acts as a homage and nod back to Ringu. It is undoubtedly an effectively frightening climax, even if it feels a little tacked on, but the changes to the story and to Williams’ character help to stop it being too much so.

You can watch it here.

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Badvent Calendar Belated Day 17

Always a day behind…

The Female Ghost, a radio anthology of ghost stories by E. Nesbit, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Braddon is on BBC Sounds.

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Badvent Calendar Belated Day 16

Spenser’s spell in Munster

Music by Jason Smart

Caught napping last night, I failed to provide my Badvent Calendar blogpost on time, but here it is, with another one to follow later today. It’s an extract from a story without any yuletide lore or link, but there’s a Christmas tree in the background, which I hope compensates. It concerns Elizabethan poet Sir Edmund Spenser’s sojourn in the Munster plantation, Ireland, and suggests a supernatural explanation for the tragic events that hastened his return to England. If you enjoyed Part One, Part Two is out there somewhere on the YouTube, or else you could purchase a copy of my collection, Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, in which the entire story appears…

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Badvent Calendar Day 15

Continuing the Count-down

As the run-up to the Mark Gatiss production of ‘Count Magnus’ continues, the BBC invited lead actor Jason Watkins on yesterday’s Today program yesterday to discuss the appeal of ghost story-telling at Christmas. He spoke insightfully of the superstitions around Christmas Eve — indeed similar to Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) — the belief thar evil spirits were abroad on the night before Christmas, at this darkest time of the year, and the tradition of oral narrative into which M.R. James’s ‘chit-chat club’ falls — think neolithic cave-dwellers around the campfire, only in evening dress in an Eton parlour! The excerpt from the adaptation suggested his portrayal of Mr Wraxall has the requisite level of nervous facetiousness of the perennial Jamesian meddler, “very much alone in the world”, who practically dares the wicked Count to come for him and ignores the ‘red flags’ put in his way…

A little political aside: As you can see it was the obnoxious Tory journalist Nick Robinson who interviewed Jason Watkins yesterday, but of course the grilling he gave to Pat Cullen of the Royal College of Nursing this morning was considerably more hostile. Perhaps Nick would have been less ingratiating in his reporting of ‘Count Magnus’ if he knew Mark Gatiss has tweeted support for striking NHS workers, wore a CWU badge on BBC’s The One Show and even stood on a freezing picket line with striking postal workers.

You can probably find the Nick Robinson’s interview with Watkins on BBC Sounds if you missed it. Meanwhile, in one of my next posts, I shall review last year’s offering from A Ghost Story for Christmas, ‘The Mezzotint’.

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