Supernatural Tales, #31

Supernatural Tales published its thirty first volume this month, including my second contribution to this excellent weird fiction journal, ‘What I Found in the Shed’. It won’t be the last either, as I have two more stories scheduled to appear in future issues next year. My previous contribution, ‘An To Bury Ring’, which appeared in Supernatural Tales, #27, was included on Ellen Datlow’s list of recommendations for last year, and she also mentioned ‘What I Found in the Shed’ on the SFEditorsPicks page: the https://www.facebook.com/sfeditorspicks/?fref=ts, calling the story ‘surprising’ and ‘horrifying’. So thanks to Ellen for recommending them, and thanks to ST editor David Longhorn for publishing them!

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This cover image is by the multi-talented Sam Dawson, who is also an accomplished writer, having contributed both to ST itself and two of the Black Books of Horror. Sam’s contribution to the Eleventh Black Book of Horror ‘The Weather Vane’ was one of the highlights of that volume, a tale of class warfare in the Jamesian mode reminding me of John Connolly’s ‘The Ritual of the Bones’. When I first saw the image, I thought it was a hand with severed finger-tips. It was only when I looked closer that I saw that what I thought were bloodied stumps were in fact tiny serpents’ heads…

You can buy a copy, either physical or e-book, here:

http://suptales.blogspot.co.uk/p/buy-supernatural-tales.html

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Clearance Tale

The Gothic history of Scotland in literature goes back a long way, before the recent Gray Friar Press publication Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, and even Fontana’s Scottish Tales of Terror from the early Seventies, which featured classics like James Hogg’s ‘Brownie of the Black Hags’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body Snatcher’. Even before the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott with their supernatural interludes and Robert Burns’s poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter’, no less a horror icon than Victor Frankenstein himself found himself washed up on the Orkney Islands in his flight from the creature he’d made and brought to life. The hovel he holes up in to create a female companion for his creation is a far cry from the cavernous laboratories of Universal monster movies and the bubbling retorts and glass tanks of Peter Cushing’s Hammer Horror mansions. I did wonder why he’d picked such a desolate Orcadian islet to create the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. It even stretched credibility a little, until I remembered the background. Frankenstein is on the run from his man-made Nemesis. Plus Victor has a taste for melodrama: he’s closer to the feverish Colin Clive than the sang froid of Peter Cushing. The travelogue narrative taking in the Arctic, Switzerland, Scotland, even washing its anti-hero up in Ireland at one point, chimes in with Mary Shelley’s life story, one that saw her similarly fugitive from the scandal around her liaison with Percy Shelley and her traumatic experiences of childbirth. It’s no accident that Frankenstein’s main domestic tragedy takes place in Switzerland, where she and her husband participated in the famous ghost story competition with Byron and Dr Polidori that helped to midwife Frankenstein.

A barren rock with only sheep, and a handful of people ground down by the poverty of scratching a living from this place, for company is perfect for Victor’s purposes. Its desolation brings us back to Scotland and the Clearances, one form of the ‘agrarian revolution’ that laid the foundations for capitalism by turning a relatively autonomous rural population into a class of landless labourers. Marx suggested that capital had created its own negation in the proletariat. I’ve often thought Frankenstein and his rejected, vengeful creation were a good metaphor for what was happening in the wider society, the upheavals shaking Europe in the wake of the French revolution. It’s no accident that Victor Frankenstein is from a background of money and power; his creation is the dispossessed, an Adam who never even gets a sniff of Eden.

In my contribution to Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, ‘Face Down in the Earth’. I look at the practice of burying Gaelic Bards face-down as punishment for their support for tenants’ resistance and land struggles against the Clearances, returning to the theme of bizarre, punitive burial practices I used in my Ninth Black Book of Horror story ‘Bit on the Side’, again with a Celtic flavour: http://mortburypress.webs.com/volume910.htm.

If there’s another subtext to ‘Face Down in the Earth’, it’s that there’s a big historical reason for all that grand emptiness. There’s a dark, terrible background to that glorious back-drop!

Apologies for taking the names of Mary and her eponymous filthy creation in vein, but if you’re interested in reading more, Marilyn Butler’s introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the 1818 text of the Frankenstein makes interesting reading (apparently MWS rewrote it to make it more compatible with conservative, religious sentiment on science for the 1831 reprint, after some criticism of the original from such quarters) http://www.oup.com/worldsclassics

Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands edited by Paul Finch is available here: http://www.grayfriarpress.com/

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TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS available to pre-order

Very happy to announce that my story ‘Face Down in the Earth’ will see publication this week in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, publication date June 18th, from Gray Friar Press. You can pre-order it here:

http://grayfriarpress.com/catalogue/scottish.html

Here’s the full TOC as well as the back cover blurb and three excerpts from some of the other tales:

The Scottish Highlands, picturesque home to grand mountains and plunging glens. But also a land of bitterness, betrayal and blood-feud, where phantom pipers lament callous slaughters, evil spirits haunt crag and loch, and ancient monsters roam the fogbound moors …

The Black Wolf of Badenoch

The deformed horror at Glamis

The witch coven of Auldearn

The faceless giant of Ben Macdui

The shrieking voices on Skye

The feathered fiend of Glen Etive

The headless killer at Arisaig

And many more chilling tales by William Meikle, Helen Grant, Barbara Roden, Carole Johnstone, DP Watt and other award-winning masters and mistresses of the macabre.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Skye’s Skary Places – Ian Hunter

Phantoms in the Mist

The Dove – Helen Grant

Prey of the Fin-Folk

Strone House – Barbara Roden

The Well of Heads

Face Down In The Earth – Tom Johnstone

The Vanishing

The Dreaming God Is Singing Where She Lies – William Meikle

The Curse of Scotland

Terror Tales

Neil Williams’s deliciously evocative cover artwork…

The Housekeeper – Rosie Seymour

From Out The Hollow Hills

The Executioner – Peter Bell

Saurians of the Deep

You Must Be Cold – John Whitbourn

Glamis Castle

The Fellow Travellers Sheila Hodgson

Daemonologie

Shelleycoat – Graeme Hurry

Evil Monsters

The Other House, The Other Voice – Craig Herbertson

The Mull Plane Mystery

Myself/Thyself – DP Watt

The Bauchan

Broken Spectres – Carl Barker

The Big Grey Man

Jack Knife – Gary Fry

Tristicloke the Wolf

The Foul Mass At Tongue House – Johnny Mains

The Drummer of Cortachy

There You’ll Be – Carole Johnstone 

A person must be a brute if he can sit of an evening warming his hands over the fire and know that under the stone upon which his buckled shoe rests is the mouldering body of his own child. How could he stand the evil scent that must have seeped from under it, rising on the warm air?

The Dove

Helen Grant

“Oh, there are all sorts of vague tales about weird voices, climbers’ ghosts, and so on – the winds make peculiar sounds howling round the crags. But the only creature linked specifically with the Cuillin is the Uraisg. There’s a corrie and a pass named after it. It’s supposed to look like a goat in a man’s shape, all shaggy, with sharp teeth and claws. Very frightening to behold.”

The Executioner

Peter Bell

The collectivised farms were famine factories. It wasn’t just sheepdogs who worked seven days a week all their short lives. In the hamlets there were scaffolds: they sagged with examples bearing placards strung round stretched necks. From Lochgilphead I heard the crackle of a distant firing squad.

You Must Be Cold

John Whitbourn

For more information, visit the blog of the book’s editor, Paul Finch:

http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.co.uk/

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Reading from STRANGE TALES V in Brighton Open Market…

Just a quick post to say I’m reading my story ‘Look for the Place Where the Ivy Rises’ at Ubu Books in Brighton’s Open Market on Saturday 13th June, 2 pm (tomorrow at the time of writing!). More details here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/849706955104241/

The story originally appeared in the anthology Strange Tales V (Ed. Rosalie Parker) from Tartarus Press, so I’ll be bringing a copy of this mighty tome. If you want to acquire your own copy, here is the link:

http://www.tartaruspress.com/stftfive.htm

If you can’t afford to pay £35 for the hardback edition, you can get it in e-book form now from Amazon for about a fiver…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Tales-V-Mark-Valentine-ebook/dp/B00YZ0NK1M/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1434123596&sr=1-1&keywords=strange+tales+V

The tale’s horticultural theme got me thinking about the history of gardens and gardening in the literature of the weird and macabre. Here’s a list of all the horticultural horror stories I could think of…

‘The Lawnmower Man’ by Stephen King
‘Rappacini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne
‘The Rose Garden’ by M.R.James
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ by H.G.Wells
Then there’s the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ films with their sinister pods, from the novel by Jack Finney.

Those are quite famous ones, some from way back in the mists of time. More recently, I enjoyed ‘The Head Gardener’ by Bruce Currie, an eerie variation on the mandrake legend that appeared in the fine but all-too infrequent journal Dark Tales, ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’ by Priya Sharma, with a memorably frightening ghost / monster from another excellent magazine Black Static, and ‘In the Garden’ by Rosalie Parker, coincidentally the editor of Strange Tales, though this story appeared first in the Fifth Black Book of Horror before being reprinted in the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror.

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More austerity horror news, featuring a review of Black Static 45…

First, belated congratulations to Gary McMahon, whose haunting tale ‘Only Bleeding’, has made the cut for Salt Press’s 2015 edition of Best British Horror, edited by Johnny Mains, which should hit the shelves this May! Full TOC of BBH here. http://wardrobesandwormholes.com/?p=65 In his real-time review of Horror Uncut, D.F. Lewis said of ‘Only Bleeding’ “Buy this book even if for this story alone.” Full review here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/horror-uncut-tales-of-social-insecurity-and-economic-unease/ So if you can’t bear to wait until May to read Gary’s tale, why not order a copy of HU from Gray Friar Press here: http://www.grayfriarpress.com/catalogue/uncut.html (There are sixteen other excellent tales of social insecurity and economic unease in there too…)

While working on the anthology, I had a go at writing some austerity horror stories myself but sent them elsewhere. One story ‘Masque’ about NHS privatisation was published in Shroud Magazine, #15 (see my Happy New Fear post). Another, ‘Under Occupation’, about bailliffs, eviction, the ‘bedroom tax’ and, er, corpse collectors, is about to appear in Darkest Minds (Dark Minds Press). This is the TOC, in alphabetic order by authors’ last names:

It Came From The Ground by Stephen Bacon

darkest minds final wraparoundWalking The Borderlines by Tracy Fahey

The Catalyst by Gary Fry

Bothersome by Andrew Hook

Under Occupation by Tom Johnstone

Going South To Meet The Devil by Benedict J. Jones

Vacation by Glen Krisch

Refugees by Robert Mammone

The 18 by Ralph Robert Moore

The Great Divide by Clayton Stealback

The Sea In Darkness Calls by David Surface

Time Waits… by Mark West

Quite a line-up!

It was gratifying to see that the latest Black Static (#45) is bookended by two very fine tales dealing with some of the themes explored in Horror Uncut. (I wouldn’t claim the anthology should take credit for this–I think economic unease is horror’s natural territory!)

S.P. Miskowski’s ‘The Second Floor’ is ostensibly about a playwright taking stock of her life, while staying in a B & B that used to be the shared house where she led a more chaotic and exciting existence. She contrasts the romantically Bohemian squatters of her youth with the more desperate homeless people ignored by the yuppies in the now gentrified city of Seattle, the intensity and camaraderie of her former life with the atomisation of now *. This vision of economic insecurity is the background to a troubling narrative about the unreliability of memory. The story’s inconclusive chills and undercurrent of menace in the guest house put me in mind of Shirley Jackson.

In Danny Rhodes’s ‘The Cleansing’, government austerity measures take centre stage. It’s a story that would have fit perfectly in Horror Uncut, with its references to food banks, evictions and the ‘bedroom tax’. Two young girls investigate the foul substance appearing in the basement of their increasingly deserted block of flats. It soon becomes clear from the displacement of the residents that ‘The Cleansing’ is the social kind. The power of the tale lies in its clarity, and yet avoidance of heavy-handedness, in portraying its social and political aspects. The opening scene shows the younger of the two girls watching an old woman remonstrating with a man in a suit, while removal men load her possessions into a van. It’s never stated what’s happening, but we know…

If the foulness in the basement in Rhodes’ story is a metaphor for social insecurity, ‘The Grey Men’ that Laura Mauro offers us represent the harbingers of a more personal malaise for her grief-stricken protagonist. Their appearance is not all in his head though: it’s a ‘shared nightmare’, a paranormal phenomenon that becomes the subject of endless public debate and speculation, meaning different things to different people. Mauro deals with this side of the story with a certain wry humour, but also evokes the grey, foggy conditions that mirror Adam’s depression, intimately portraying a kind of masculine withdrawal and loneliness. Reading Laura’s assured fiction, it’s hard to believe this is only her fourth appearance in print (fifth counting the reprint of her previous Black Static contribution, ‘When Charlie Sleeps’). I’m proud to have played a part in her writing career myself, by including her story ‘Ptichka’ in Horror Uncut!

The scene in the pub where Adam fails to get through to his brother makes a nice lead-in to ‘The Visitors’, with Stephen Hargadon returning to the man-in-a-pub monologue mode of his extraordinary Black Static (and published fiction) debut ‘World of Trevor’, though it’s an internal monologue interspersed with snatches of overheard conversation rather than a chatty raconteur’s narration. His narrator’s air of garrulousness masks a solitude as profound as Adam’s in ‘The Grey Men’, and echoes Miskowski’s story in his meditation on the social changes happening around him. The apparently random final scene of supernatural retribution from a source as unique as Hargadon’s voice mirrors the narrator’s troubled past and traumatic relationship with booze, culminating in a devastatingly apt last line.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s story presents us with a similarly gut-punching final line. It’s the tale of a man who feels a bit of a fish out of water when he goes on a trip to ‘The Fishing Hut’ for health reasons. More lonely and isolated people inhabit Emily B. Cataneo’s and Cate Gardner’s tales, vulnerable girls facing up to childhood terrors, alone unlike the duo in Danny Rhodes’ story, and with precious little help from the adults in their lives. The creepy, sleep-masked mother of the narrator in Cataneo’s eerie confession initiates her daughter into a world where friendship can only be a prelude to deceit and betrayal, as they struggle to appease the ‘Hungry Ghosts’. In Gardner’s brief and to the point ‘The Drop of Light and the Rise of the Dark’, disabled Mari is plunged into utter darkness and solitude by an eclipse that seems as apocalyptic as Laura Mauro’s grey, foggy, faceless angels. In her enclosed, bedridden world, her parents and best friend Birdie seem to have vanished, won’t answer her cries. This is an excellent Black Static debut by Gardner, standing out from the other fiction in the magazine in that it’s set at a pitch of full-blooded, heart-stopping terror almost from the outset. This is not to belittle the more softly spoken shudders of the others in the volume, some of which are examples of horror so quiet it barely reaches a whisper–and none the worse for that!

Speaking of which, last (in the review, not the magazine!) but not least, Andrew Hook’s ‘The Frequency of Existence’, a tale of sex, lies and photography. The arch coolness of Hook’s style could alienate the reader. Maybe it’s meant to, because it’s entirely in keeping with his narrator’s self-serving unscrupulousness. It’s a very modern morality tale, with a sardonic eyebrow raised. Never mess with someone called Valerie may be its moral, if it has one, especially if she’s named after the author of The SCUM Manifesto, though the wrong-doer’s comeuppance isn’t the obvious, grisly one this association might lead you to expect.

I’m aware I’ve slightly digressed from the original subject of this post: austerity horror. However, in some ways, all the stories in the magazine can be seen as critiques of aspects of society under ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism. They talk about poverty, homelessness, gentrification, depression, disability, isolation, the dangers of ambition and of, er, fishing. All right, I’m aware I’m wildly over-generalising and over-stretching the point here… I should also mention the production values, which are as gorgeous as ever, with Richard Wagner providing what I think may be one of the best Black Static covers ever, and creepily evocative illustrations for the stories themselves by Wagner and Ben Baldwin!

Item image: Black Static 45 (cover art by Richard Wagner) All this cutting edge fiction, and columns by Stephen Volk, on pitching, with more wry and dispiriting anecdotes about his and others’ (mis)adventures in the screen trade, and Lynda E. Rucker, drawing some fine insights about the gender politics of movies ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to Martyrs. There are more reviews of films in DVD and Blu-Ray from Tony Lee, ranging as ever from the adulatory to the acid. Finally, Peter Tennant’s ‘Case Notes’ features an interview with Helen Marshall, alongside reviews of her two Chizine collections. Finally, there are reviews of several other books, including some of Ellen Datlow’s most recent anthologies. Here’s a link to this issue: http://www.ttapress.com/blackstatic/currentissue/

* Interesting to compare Miskowski’s portrayal of the changing city where the poor are marginalised to, say, T.E.D. Klein’s vision of New York in ‘Children of the Kingdom’, reflecting and commenting on the racial and class paranoia of the time about the Inner City ‘underclass’. Also see Lucius Shepherd’s ‘The Last Time’, where the sexually obsessed narrator’s  relocation to a poor, ‘ethnic’ area of the city is shown as part of his descent into addiction and madness, in contrast with Jane in ‘The Second Floor’, who is on the face of it upwardly mobile though not without psychological problems of her own…

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Happy new fear!

I seem to have hit the ground running this new year, writing-wise, with a new story just published in the excellent Shroud Magazine, and another few publications in the pipeline. You can view my publication history from the past five years or so here: https://tomjohnstone.wordpress.com/publication-history-since-2010/

Shroud cover (2)

One recent acceptance I was particularly pleased about was in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands, the latest in the long-running and acclaimed regional anthology series edited by Paul Finch for Gray Friar Press. I used to love scaring myself silly reading horror anthologies and books of supposedly true ghost stories, when I was on holiday in the Western Isles as a kid. If they were actually set in the Highlands, so much the better for a delicious frisson when the rain and wind was battering the corrugated iron roof of the cottage my family was renting. Terrance Dicks’s TV tie-in novel Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster was one of the first books to frighten the living daylights out of me, with its recounting of the two Jamieson boys getting lost in the fog while peat-cutting, and the only one of them who makes it back unable for the rest of his life to speak a word, ‘the fear in his eyes… terrible to see’… Thanks, Terrance, for the sleepless nights! Another one that had me sleeping with the light on was a crudely but creepily illustrated book of Scottish ghost stories, about such horrors as ‘The Sallow-Faced Woman’ and the monster of Glamis Castle, so much more thrilling because they were apparently true…

Scottish Tales of TerrorTerror Tales

As I got older, I began to enjoy horror and supernatural fiction more than far-fetched fact, but another great Highland holiday read was of course the forerunner of the Gray Friar Press anthology series, Scottish Tales of Terror, edited by Angus Campbell for Fontana, which featured such classics as ‘The Head’ by Dorothy K. Haynes, ‘Consanguinity’ by Ronald Duncan, and ‘The Brownie of the Black Haggs’ by James Hogg. In the more recent series, Paul Finch has lovingly recreated their mixture of literary horror fiction and snippets of folklore, and extended it to English regions such as the Lake District, the Cotswolds, Yorskshire, East Anglia and even London, as well as Wales and the Seaside. It’s an honour to be able to contribute to one of these anthologies, stories from which regularly crop up in one or more of the various ‘Year’s Best’ reprint omnibuses. When I lay in bed reading Scottish Tales of Terror as a youngster, I never dreamed that one day I’d be writing something for a similar anthology…!

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“It’s bad enough you’re making these cuts, but do you have to abuse the English language while you’re hacking away…?”

…I couldn’t help thinking of this line from Rosanne Rabinowitz’s story in the austerrorty-themed anthology  Horror Uncut, edited by the late Joel Lane and myself, coming soon from http://www.grayfriarpress.com. It popped into my head when the tragic story broke about the fifteen babies poisoned (two of them fatally) by contaminated intravenous feeding drips. Of course the Tory press screamed that these were “NHS drips”, giving the impression that the public sector is to blame, despite the contaminated batch coming from a private pharmaceutical firm ITH Pharma. Of course, the full details aren’t out yet, but later reports strongly implied that the firm’s practices were at the root of the problem, mentioning that ITH had since cleaned up their act. And, what do you know? The story hasn’t cropped up much since… http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-28113157

Horror Uncut Cover Concept

All through the editing process, I’ve been asking myself: what is the point of a horror fiction anthology as a way of campaigning against austerity / cuts / privatisation? I think I’ve answered my own question! Those responsible for these policies know the importance of words as a tool in promoting, justifying and generally softening up the public for them. A recent poll, suggesting that a large section of the public is swayed by the myths about welfare promoted by the popular press, demonstrates the effectiveness of this tool. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/voters-brainwashed-by-tory-welfare-myths-shows-new-poll-8437872.html. When politicians and their friends in the media turn fiction into  a ‘truth’ that’s widely believed, why not use fiction to reveal the truth?

It would be deluded to argue that fiction can change society. However, as I’ve argued, how writers (whether journalists or fiction authors) use language can affect how their readers view reality, and this can change society, for better or worse. When it reaches a mass audience, the fantasy genre has a great influence on the language of popular struggles: Take the adoption by the ‘Occupy’ movement of the mask from V for Vendetta, or the use by Thai anti-government demonstrators of three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games movies. Of course, I can’t pretend that this small press publication will have quite that impact. But it would be nice to think it might represent a small two-fingered salute against the ‘Con Dems’…

As this wonderful, if ghastly, cover image by the talented Neil Williams suggests, the effect of austerity and privatisation on healthcare is a recurring theme in a few of the stories in Horror Uncut, not least Joel’s  own contribution, ‘A Cry for Help’, as well as tales by David Williamson and Laura Mauro. In fact, the idea for this artwork was loosely inspired by an image from another of his NHS-themed tales, ‘For Their Own Ends’, which he wrote for Black Static #22, as a response to what was then (2011) still a government white paper on Health and Social Care. For a back copy, go here: http://www.ttapress.com/blackstatic/backissues/2/

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