Friday, 24 December 2010

A Portsmouth Ghost Story

Runner-up in "The News" Christmas Ghost Story Competition, December 2010`

Portsmouth in December 1945 was a brave but war-ravaged city. Although Hitler’s bombs had destroyed buildings and blown apart bodies, he had never succeeded in breaking the proud naval port’s spirit. Now its people were getting on with rebuilding their lives.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I left Fratton station. I had not been back to Portsmouth since before the war, but I knew what to expect. Coming down from London, it wasn’t such a shock; we had all learned to live with bombsites. What made me nervous was learning of the human devastation. Portsmouth had suffered heavy casualties and there were bound to be friends I would never see again.

I had two hours to spare before my cousin Reg knocked off from his job at the dockyard. I was grateful to him for inviting me down to spend Christmas with him and his wife. With my parents moved away, he was my sole family connection with the city I had grown up in.

I decided to stop off in the Nell Gwynne for a beer. Halfway through a pint of Brickwood’s, I spotted a familiar face; Vic Voller, an old schoolmate.

Vic and his brother Vince had lived in Orchard Road. They were twins, but not identical and had very different personalities. Vic was down-to-earth, while Vince was a dreamer, full of strange ideas and interests.

One night after the pub he took a bunch of us ghost-hunting in Highland Road Cemetery. The only spirit we found was in the bottle of an old tramp propped up against a grave stone.

After twenty minutes football chat (Vic was never one to talk about himself), I was invited back for a cup of tea. Vic was still living in the same house, which had narrowly been missed early on in the Blitz.

I sat down in the tiny living room while Vic went to put the kettle on. There were no Christmas decorations and everything looked dusty. It seemed like the twins’ old mother had passed away during the war.

“I’ve remembered what I went out for; a bottle of milk!” Vic stuck his head around the door. “I’ll just nip round and get some – won’t be a minute.”

I reflected on how things had changed. Physically, Vic seemed much the same, but there was something different about him. Sadness. Perhaps it was the loss of his mother or something else he had experienced. The war left scars on everyone.

Lost in thought, I was startled to see a figure in the doorframe, standing in the passage. I hadn’t heard the front door open and it came as a jolt to see someone staring. Then I realised it wasn’t Vic, it was his brother Vince.

Vince must have been in the house all along, sleeping upstairs. This would explain why Vic hadn’t disturbed him when we came in. He didn’t look well, quite ashen in fact, but he smiled when he saw that I’d noticed him.

I had always got on well with Vince. He was easy to talk to, always keen to find out what I thought about his latest hare-brained theory.

“Hello Vince”, I said “It’s great to see you! How are things going?” Then, remembering our drunken antics together, I added “How’s the ghost-hunting?”

Despite his poorly appearance, Vince’s eyes lit up. “Oh you wouldn’t believe it, Geoff; I’ve found out incredible things! I was playing around before the war, but I know much more about the subject now.”

This wasn’t the response I had expected, but Vince was obviously keen to expand. “What have you been up to?” I asked.

“I’ve met people in touch with the Other Side”, he said, “Do you know about Helen Duncan?”

I suppressed a grin. Everyone had heard about Helen Duncan. A Spiritualist Medium from Scotland, she had been convicted in 1944 under Britain’s ancient Witchcraft Law.

Many argued that Mrs. Duncan had been unfairly persecuted. It was rumoured that the real reason she had been locked up was wartime security. At a séance in Portsmouth, she had been contacted by the spirit of a dead sailor from HMS Barham. The loss of this Portsmouth-based ship, with nearly 900 lives, had been an official secret at the time.

The authorities, it was claimed, were worried that a German spy might attend one of Mrs. Duncan’s séances and obtain classified information from the Spirit World.

From what I had heard, however, the true story was not so exciting.

“Oh yes”, I answered, “I know about Helen Duncan. One of my journalist friends covered her trial at the Old Bailey. But, you know, he was not impressed. He says she was arrested simply because the police were fed up with her taking money from the bereaved.

“You know, she had already been convicted of fraud in Scotland and exposed as a fake.”

I regretted those words instantly; I could see from his face that Vince was angry. “Well”, he hissed, “You can tell your friend he is wrong. Nell Duncan is a good woman. I was at the séance in Copnor and, trust me, I know she is genuine. Nell Duncan is no witch and she is certainly not a fraud!”

With this he turned around and left the doorway. I felt rotten for upsetting him. It seemed his belief in the after-life was something he was hanging on to. This is what suffering and loss did to people. How could I be so insensitive?

Just then the front door opened and Vic appeared, clutching a bottle of milk. I followed him through to the kitchen.

“I’m really sorry Vic”, I said, “I think I’ve upset your brother.”

A dark look entered Vic’s eyes, and his gaze went down to the kettle.

“Look, Geoff. I haven’t told you about Vince.”

“He’s not well, is he?” I asked gently.

Vic turned and lifted his eyes to meet mine.

“He’s dead, Geoff. He went down on the Barham in 1941”.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto

Guest post by Mark Finn

I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who created a multitude of unique characters, wrote original and inventive fiction, defined the genre of epic fantasy as we understand it, and inspired me to become a professional writer. There are tens of thousands of other fans just like myself. As fans of Robert E. Howard and his works, we are interested in reading more about our favorite author. We are interested in sharing and exchanging new ideas about his life and work, and we actively seek out these new ideas online, in print, and elsewhere.

What we do not want to see are semi-uninformed retreads of the same discussions that were in vogue circa 1984. The field of Howard Studies is alive and well, with new discoveries and voices appearing all the time. Interest in the author is high and remains so. If you have a thought or an opinion, even a controversial or untested one, and want to share it with the world at large, we encourage that you do so.

We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard.

If you want to write a review about how much you didn't like Kull: Exile of Atlantis, have at it. Take it apart for any and all textual reasons you choose to invoke. We may not agree because Howard's work isn't for everyone, and we understand that. But the minute you start bringing Robert E. Howard's life story into your Kull review, it will garner a much more careful reading, and if you don't have your facts straight, or your opinions backed up by same, then we will call you on it.

The online Robert E. Howard fanbase calls itself the "Shield Wall." Some writers who have been on the business end of the Shield Wall's attacks have accused us of being bullies and overly-obsessed for the protective stance we take.

While it is not our intention to bully anyone, and while we may get a little carried away on occasion, let me be very clear here as to why this is so: Robert E. Howard has not had a voice for 75 years now. For four decades after his death, he had very few advocates who would defend him against the libel and slander of those who stood to profit from his work. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. The Shield Wall's goal has been to stop in its entirety the kind of character assassination employed by L. Sprague de Camp and others who would adopt his methodology.

Consider this a challenge to survey the amount of work that has been done in Howard Studies in the last ten years alone and then try to come up with your own take on a topic or angle of discussion that has not been beaten to death. Do not make the mistake that so many others have made; just because Robert E. Howard isn't considered a "classic" author by the literary establishment that you can beat his literary reputation (or his personal life) like a rented mule and you will not get kicked for your efforts.

We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity. No more back handed compliments. No more snide insinuations. No more rampant and irresponsible speculation with no basis of fact or evidence to bolster it. And for God's Sake, no more "oedipal complex" crap, either. Those theories are thirty years out of date, and we are sick and tired of seeing it. Give us something new, or keep your parochial and backwards thinking to yourself.

Mark Finn
Author of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
And Commander of the Texas Shield Wall

Monday, 14 June 2010

“Film Noir” (2007)

I came across this dvd in the bargain bin at Morrisons. From the title and the description on the box, I was expecting a full-on animated tribute to the whole film noir genre. However, this isn't really what the movie's trying to do, although it does contain enough noir elements to get away with the title. Purists will find plenty to carp about, as the modern setting alone will be enough to alienate those who believe that a true film noir must be set in the 1940s and 1950s. Others will consider that the filmmakers have succeeded in their aim of creating a solid low budget 'B' movie which draws inspiration from the past. From its black and white format to its plot and characterisation, “Film Noir” lives up to its name, although it also has roots in the action movie genre. Although the two genres are not necessarily incompatible, the action movie aspect takes over at times and ruins the noir atmosphere that is really the movie’s greatest strength.

Animation-wise, “Film Noir” was never going to give “Sin City” a run for its money, but the work of its Belgrade-based crew is sufficient to carry the plot and convey a distinctive image. 2D style figures are superimposed on more realistic backgrounds, many of which were filmed on site in L.A., a semi-ironic nod to the back-projections often used in 1940s and 1950s movies during car scenes. As may be expected, rain pours down windscreens as cars speed down the long lonely freeways and it is generally night-time with neon signs flashing. Considering that they are drawings, the shady and troubled women who throw themselves at the hero / anti-hero at every opportunity are surprisingly hot and there are several sleazy sex scenes. Overall, however, you never stop being conscious of watching an animation, and the low-budget effects often give a game-like impression, especially when there are crashing vehicles and explosions.

The unlikely plot is equally cartoon-like and, in fact, probably wouldn’t work in a live-action movie. The theme is self-discovery, as an amnesiac man who finds himself regaining consciousness next to a murdered policeman beneath the famous Hollywood sign tries to piece together his past. The more he finds out, the less he likes himself, although twists abound in a manner I won’t disclose here. Identity appears to be a big issue for the movie’s L.A. based Serbian director, who uses the one-off pseudonym of “D. Jud Jones” for the project and claims to reject the concept of a career. In true noir style, most of the characters suffer from self-hatred and can be corrupted by money from a sinister “Mr. Big” who represents the cruel and perverted heart of the system.

Throughout the movie, the protagonist is threatened by a deadly gang of assassins who turn up unexpectedly in a machine-gun blazing helicopter. In most cases, no explanation is given as to how they know his whereabouts or which vehicle he is travelling in. I found myself wishing that more imagination had been applied to these attacks – perhaps a more traditionally noir mode of transport such as a train or a boat journey could have been incorporated into the story? It is at these points that the film seems to lose its bearings.

Just as many of the original directors who crafted the classic films noir of the 1940s and 1950s had arrived as refugees from Nazi Germany to present an outsider’s view of the States, the creative team behind “Film Noir” comes from part of Europe with a difficult recent history; the former Yugoslavia, with production taking place via the Internet between L.A. and Belgrade. The key difference is, of course, that the original film noir was a genre invented in retrospect by French critics and intellectuals who detected stylistic and thematic similarities in many of the Hollywood products of the time and came up with the theory to explain this. Modern noir (“neo-noir”), by way of contrast, is a self-conscious attempt to replicate these elements in a contemporary setting. The impetus behind “Film Noir” is a playful one, with the director attempting to employ available resources, including a spare team of animators and some pre-existing plot ideas, to an entertaining effect. (In the interview included as an extra on the dvd, he explains that he had never even thought about making an animation until he learnt about the team of former animators employed by one of his friends in a web-design business left high and dry by the Internet bubble).

One of the best things about movie is its score, composed by the multi-talented Mark Keller, who also voices the main character. Jazz-based, it also features a couple of excellent song compositions that are soul / blues pastiches and show Mr. Keller to have a voice comparable to Tom Waits’. (It is interesting to note, by the way, how few of the original films noir actually had jazz soundtracks, whereas the sound of a sleazy sax has become de rigueur in neo-noir.)

So overall, “Film Noir” is definitely worth a peak, as indeed are the bargain bins at Morrisons (my finest-ever haul from which was Stuart Gordon’s sublime Lovecraft adaptation "Dagon").

Monday, 24 May 2010

Portsmouth’s Carbuncle: The Tricorn Tragedy

(Originally published in Prototype X2, 2006.  Re-edited Feb. 2014)

The Tricorn is no more.  Leveled at last, its absence worries like a pulled tooth. In place of its concrete tiers and towers, the flatness of a temporary carpark yawns between the red brick Gothic of haunted St Agatha's (released at last from the dockyard and with God reinstalled, but still washed up like a ship cut adrift from its age and surroundings) and the ripped backside of Cascades, Portsmouth's very own air-conditioned nightmare. Driving past this desolation, we see the manifestation of urban folly and bureaucratic indecision. Like the Saturday afternoon achievements of Pompey Football Club (a deep-seated love of soccer is compulsory in Portsmouth), all this is supposed to make us proud. "Tricorn Down - Portsmouth Up!" was the Maoist-style slogan hung from the Tricorn as it awaited its own execution.

The Tricorn, of course, was never intended to provoke indifference. Designed by Rodney Gordon of the modish Owen Luder Partnership, it was a product of the controversial school of architecture that had been given the name 'Brutalism' from the French term for the material employed; béton brut or rough concrete. The shopping centre aroused strong positive and negative reactions right from its opening in 1966, when the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth reportedly admitted "It looks horrible from the outside..." The following year, it won the Civic Trust Award in recognition of its "exciting visual composition".  Then, in 1968, it was voted “the fourth ugliest building in Britain”…

Sections of the ‘quality’ press were ecstatic in their appreciation of the Tricorn's design. The Sunday Times lauded it as "an exotic essay in reinforced concrete, using towers, pyramids and minarets to give an eastern feel - the character of the Casbah".  Ian Nairn in The Observer was similarly gushing; "At last there is something to shout about in Portsmouth. Britain's primary naval port has a dreary record of post-war buildings; in fact, nothing grand has gone up there since the 1890s. The new Tricorn development designed by Owen Luder will change all that. It is in Charlotte Street, part of the main shopping centre, and it provided the full developer's repertoire: shops, supermarket, rooftop carparking, a tower carpark as well, flats, two pubs and a wholesale market. This is in fact a complete town ... every student's dream made visible; spiral staircases, heroically modelled facades, writhing compositions of cross-overs and pass-unders. Everything is going on at once on about six different levels."

Picking up on the Middle Eastern theme (strangely appropriate, given the 'Star and Crescent' design of  Portsmouth's city arms, said to have been brought back from Palestine by the crusader King Richard the Lionheart), architectural historian David Lloyd, writing in 1972, eulogised the shopping centre's imaginative appearance; "In form it is a romantic piece of 'concrete sculpture' on a huge scale ... The shape of the Tricorn as seen from the road to the north-west suggests allusions both to an Arabic city and to an oil refinery, expressed in the medium of concrete. The effects of the horizontal 'trays' of car parking space separated by dark space are dramatically exploited as are the concrete driveways up the round towers at the angles. The main building is massively chunky in form, and the irregular skyline is punctuated by round-topped turrets." Some years later he remarked "If only the building were painted in white ... its wonderful sculptural form would be even more emphasised."

This brings us to the Tricorn's greatest shortcoming; concrete decay. The structure's Space Age aspirations were sadly betrayed by the encroaching ugliness of its physical fabric. This fact alone gave sufficient ammunition to the building’s enemies and caused resentment to a general public ignorant of the advanced science of concrete restoration. Poetic souls, attuned to the interplay between Man and Nature, could gain lugubrious sustenance from the stained grey walls and stalactites, but for many people the tabloid tag 'ugliest building in Britain' quickly gained resonance.

The Tricorn had other issues as well. For a start, it was never completed. The 'hanging gardens' of greenery envisaged for the upper storeys were left unplanted and some planned lighting and street furniture were not installed.  The social housing built into the complex experienced serious problems with leaking. The design itself presented a challenge;  despite its high-profile visibility from the road, the Tricorn was essentially self-contained and inward-looking.  The Casbah-like structure insulated itself from the rest of the city centre, which did nothing to endear it to Portsmouth’s town planners, who aspired to a more integrated shopping area. Most importantly, the Tricorn failed to attract a 'big-name' store such as Marks and Spencers. The audacious concrete sculpture appeared to be incapable of earning enough money to justify its own existence. Dark murmurings about its future began at an early stage, but there was a widespread belief that it would be too difficult and expensive to knock the Tricorn down; the overwhelming mass of pre-stressed concrete would explode catastrophically when struck by a demolition ball. Under-investment and neglect followed. Portsmouth seemed to be stuck with Luder’s decaying citadel; a grim relic of the ‘Brutalist’ past.

Designed in socially optimistic times, the Tricorn’s warren of entrances eventually turned out to be a lurking ground for vandals and muggers and a pissoir for late night drunks. The stale stench of urine mingled with that of rotten vegetables from the adjoining Charlotte Street market to create an aesthetic experience that was was quintessentially Portsmouth.  Overflowing barrows and market stalls crept beneath dripping grey concrete into the Tricorn's dark precincts to create a vibrant street-scene that melded Dickensian squalor with one of J.G. Ballard's grey dystopias.

To an 'alternative' shopper seeking respite from the cloned tedium of Commercial Road, this was one of the joys of the Tricorn.  The maligned and necrotic structure gave shelter to a diverse and healthy community of independent traders.  Downstairs could be found such delights as Mr. Clive's leather shop (the purchase of a cheap biker jacket from Mr. Clive's was a rite of passage for Portmouth punks and rockers), cheap clothes stalls in ‘Charlotte’s Superstore’, a record shop, a mysterious Chinese food store and a martial arts supplier.  As well as a classic ‘greasy spoon’, the top floor hosted a variety of small open shops selling items such as secondhand paperbacks, comics, secondhand records, witchcraft supplies, and retro-clothing. There was not a 'High Street' name in sight (although the Tricorn had once been the home of Richard Branson’s very first Virgin record store). All these local businesses have now been destroyed, having no place in the portion-controlled corporate paradise aspired to by Portsmouth City Council. Gone too is Basin’s Night Club, which once reverberated to the likes of the Pink Fairies and Robert Calvert.

Ultimately, it is clear that the Tricorn didn’t stand a chance. Yesterday's future had become the present’s embarrassing past. Back in 1984, populist dabbler Charles Windsor had delivered his notorious “carbuncle” speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects.  Claiming to speak up for “‘ordinary’ people (who) need not be made to feel guilty or ignorant if their natural preference is for the more ‘traditional’ designs”, he soon had Portsmouth’s ‘carbuncle’ in his royal cross hairs, inventively describing it as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings”.  Modernist eyesores such as the Tricorn would be purged from the Prince's forelock-tugging Utopia. He was in tune with the zeitgeist; the perpetrators of Thatcher’s Britain looked back to a Merchant Ivory past of country houses, rose-tangled gardens and people who knew their place.  All social evils, from pregnant teenagers to striking binmen, were to be blamed on the left-wing 1960s. Through the prism of this demonology, radical architects were revealed as arrogant and contemptuous technocrats engaged in social engineering; Stalinist manipulators of public space.

The Tricorn clung on, concrete to the core and implacably representative of a hard naval city (one admirer hymned the “poignant relevance” of “its tough macho quality”). Although older residents still had grounds for viewing it as an alien interloper, for those born into its own decade it was as much a part of the Portsmouth landscape as seagulls crying overhead and diesel fumes belched by red and white corporation buses. In its decay, it became symbolic of a city past its prime. Through a kind of sympathetic magic, the Tricorn was held responsible for all the city’s ills and became the victim of a full scale witch hunt. Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock led the campaign for its destruction, declaiming to the press “it has dragged the economy down for years”. Insanity formed a sub-plot; the manager of the Tricorn’s pet shop went on a rampage in the nearby Sainsbury’s superstore, hurling bottles of single malt whisky down the aisles until the police arrived to arrest him.  He was sectioned and packed off to St. James' mental hospital; just another life swept up by the gales of destruction.

Semi-derelict and boarded up (it was in this state for a full ten years), the Tricorn retained its defenders. Serious-minded patricians of the Portsmouth Society conducted a campaign to have the building listed, something which, of course, there should have been no argument about. Ambitious plans to rejuvenate and remodel it were commissioned, seeking resolve its major problems and to provide Portsmouth with much needed housing and a new 'winter garden' in place of the failed department store.  “We have all noticed that public perception of what is beautiful or ugly works on the pendulum principle and reaches its nadir just before a fresh and positive evaluation”, the Society explained.  Unfortunately in the Tricorn’s case the pendulum had already reached the point of no return.

The end was cruel and protracted. Like an inmate on Death Row, the Tricorn clung to existence, in the vain hope that its architectural uniqueness would overcome mere commercial considerations and be recognised by the Heritage Minister. In its diminished state, it was turned into a distracting source of media controversy. ‘Middle England’ jumped in for the kill and Owen Luder’s once-lauded masterpiece was unimaginatively declared the “ugliest building in the UK” in a poll of Radio 4 listeners. Supercilious as ever, the presenters guffawed.  It seemed that the voters were blind to the melanoma-like rash of out-of-town retail hulks spreading across swathes of British countryside. Rodney Gordon's principle had been; “If people don’t notice it, it’s not architecture”.  He was right, but this meant that hideous non-architecture could pass safely without comment, so long as its dullness and ubiquity meant that it could disappear into the background.

In its final days, the Tricorn predictably became a focus for art school anarchists and other ironic types.  A local group of neo-Lettristes calling themselves ‘Proles for Modernism’ attempted to engineer a situation by insinuating themselves into plans for a ‘Tricorn Festival’ to mark the structure's demise. Issuing dubious psychogeographic tracts about an invented "Tricorn Ley Line", they proclaimed the failed shopping centre "a demotic symbol of resistance - it contradicts the role to which it’s assigned". Foaming with affected rage, they vowed to “spit on ‘Prince’ Charles, and on the scum who execute his wishes.” This type of rhetoric was calculated to alarm Taylor Woodrow, the Tricorn’s original builders, now turned demolition contractors.  Unsurprisingly, they withdrew permission for the festival. The official reason was that they suspected a graffiti spree, which was somewhat ironic given the incalculably greater vandalism they had been commissioned to undertake.

The Tricorn's final death sentence was announced in March 2004.  Mike Hancock lost no time to engage in some populist gloating: “With new developments like Gunwharf Quays, the Kings Theatre saved and now the Tricorn coming down, 'Pompey’s on the up.'”  Undeterred by the rabble, Owen Luder defended his creation to the end: "My problem now is that there is a lynch mob - the 'tear it down' lot - who have not given any thought to what the Tricorn was or what it could be. As it is, all they are going to do is knock it down and have a surface level car park, which is where I started in 1961. Portsmouth will regret having demolished the Tricorn in the long term."

At 11.00am on 24.03.04, Mr. Stuart Hamilton, Portsmouth resident and lucky winner of a Council competition, ceremonially commenced demolition to the bombastic strains of Tchaikovsky.  This was a cleverly sarcastic reference to Ian Nairn’s 1960s Observer article, in which the award-winning edifice was described as "an orchestration in reinforced concrete that is the equivalent of the 1812 overture". Solemn and defeated, members of the Portsmouth Society and other Tricorn supporters lined up in the crowd to witness the crass and depressing spectacle.

The campaign to eradicate the irreplaceable architectural heritage of the 1960s continues apace. Next on the death list is Luder’s second Brutalist classic, the Gateshead multi-storey car park that acquired iconic status (and some high profile international supporters such as Sylvester Stallone) from its appearance in the classic British gangster film ‘Get Carter’. Meanwhile, Portsmouth has a new Middle-Eastern inspired architectural emblem in the shape of the ‘Spinnaker Tower’, a half-sized replica of Dubai’s Burj-al-Arab hotel overlooking the harbour. Originally meant to be the centerpiece of Portsmouth’s Millennium celebrations, the scandal-ridden project was finally completed in October 2005 at a cost of £35.6m. £11.1m. of this, contrary to promises given at the outset, was funded by taxpayers through Portsmouth City Council. The building is constructed from concrete.

Monday, 17 May 2010

HUNT: Beyond the Frozen Fire

Gabriel Hunt is a new cycle of pulp paperbacks created by Charles Ardai, editor of the Hard Case Crime series. It is aimed at reviving the “two-fisted” genre of men’s adventure tales.

The gimmick of the series is that the hero's name appears on the cover of each book as though he were the chronicler of his own extravagant exploits. It is only on the title page that the name of the true author appears; "as told to ...". As the stories are narrated in the third person, this "ghost-writer" concept isn't exactly followed through, but it does give the books a very distinct brand identity, aided and abetted by the classic pulp artwork of Glen Orbik. It is clearly hoped that Hunt himself will become a strong enough draw to sell succeeding volumes.

It didn't really work that way for me however, as I purchased this novel primarily because it was penned by Hard Case's first female writer, Christa Faust, who shot to fame with the noir thriller Money Shot, in which she grippingly explored the nastier reaches of the porn industry. Beyond the Frozen Fire is a far lighter piece of work which shows another dimension of her talents.

Something of a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond, Gabriel Hunt is the sort of fantasy figure most men would secretly love to be, and most heterosexual women would like to get more closely acquainted with. Backed by the multi-million dollar resources of the Hunt Foundation, administered by his younger brother Michael, he has the onerous job of roving the world in search of missing ancient artefacts, an activity which necessarily seems to involve sexual entanglements with a wide variety of alluring and dangerous women.

I haven't read any of its predecessors, but my guess is that Beyond the Frozen Fire raises the bar in terms of exotic locales and outré happenings. To set the scene, it kicks off with a short adventure set in Eastern Europe, in which Hunt seeks to retrieve a priceless Cossack knife from a beautiful but treacherous female archaeologist. This short story within a novel is all that is needed to introduce the protagonist to newbies like myself and gets things off to a rollicking start.

The story proper is set off by the arrival on the scene of "a tall, auburn-haired beauty" who introduces herself as one Velda Silver. She is the daughter of a distinguished scientist who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances from a research station at the South Pole. Hunt quickly agrees to help her find her missing father and sets about assembling an expedition.

One of Ms. Faust's talents is the creation of interesting supporting characters and this is given full reign here. Sexual tension is introduced by the inclusion of one of Hunt's old flames, a tomboyish Brazilian mechanic named Rue Aparecido. It doesn't take long, however, for a liaison with the passionate Velda to take place; "her fierce, urgent heat threatening to melt through the polar ice beneath them."

It would be unfair to divulge too much of the ensuing plot, which is pure pulp hokum of the very best kind. Suffice to say it revolves around a “hollow earth” encounter with a lost tribe of Aryan Amazons. Close shaves and finger’s breadth escapes abound, including one memorable incident in which Hunt finds himself tied up by the Queen of the Amazons in a manner that is perhaps not surprising from a writer who lists “rope bondage” among her personal interests!

All this well-paced action is spiced with lashings of innuendo and lively banter between the characters. There is absolutely no pretence at profundity and the novel aspires to be nothing more than a light-hearted piece of entertainment. As such, it is ideal escapist reading for these troubled times, and one can only hope that Charles Ardai’s hope of sparking a pulp revival comes to fruition.

The only criticism I could make concerns the cover, which illustrates the East European prequel. I am a great admirer of Glen Orbik’s work, but this is a bit disappointing. The foreground figure seems too dark and takes up too much space for my liking, and the perspective is very confusing. Above all, it would have been nice to have a depiction of the blonde woman warriors who figure so large in the story (“dressed, if you can call it that, in scraps of black-and-tan-striped fur …”). However, it seems that Ardai’s modus operandi was to have Orbik produce the pictures first, and then distribute them to the authors for inspiration.

I shall certainly be seeking out more episodes of Gabriel Hunt's adventures. What seems most promising is that the individual writers are allowed to keep their own voice; Beyond the Frozen Fire is unmistakably a Christa Faust novel, no matter what name is written on the front.

A further Faustian treat is due early next year with Choke Hold, in which Angel Dare, the superbly characterised ex-porn star heroine of Money Shot, returns for another stab at society’s dark underbelly. Sporting a gorgeous Orbik cover, this is bound to sell in stacks. With a movie of Money Shot also in preparation, things seem to be on the up and up for the writer dubbed by Richard Prather “the ‘First Lady’ of Hard Case Crime”.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Attack of the Killer Earthworms

“God, when I think I used to pick them up as bait for fishing when I was a kid. Never again!”

In the pulp world of the mid ‘70s to early ‘80s, Nature was revolting. All manner of creatures had developed homicidal, if not genocidal, tendencies and were turning against their human overlords.

The first stirrings of this uprising had actually taken place way back in 1917 with the publication of Arthur Machen’s novella The Terror. As a committed Christian and former member of the Golden Dawn, Machen offered an esoteric explanation for the “great revolt of the beasts”, interpreting it as a response to Man’s spiritual abdication during the horrors of the Great War;

“He has declared, again and again, that he is not spiritual, but rational, that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign… If he were not king he was a sham, an imposter, a thing to be destroyed.”

The sto
ry ends with a warning; “They have risen once – they may rise again.” How true that was to prove!

Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds, set in a bleak Cornish location, offered no explanation for the behaviour of its feathered antagonists, although its year of publication (1952) led some to read it as a Cold War allegory. Two years later, the science fiction movie Them exploited a related anxiety; the effects on nature of the atmospheric testing of atomic weapons. Low tech special effects were skillfully employed to depict a colony of giant ants, genetically mutated by radiation from the New Mexico tests and breeding in the storm drains beneath L.A. Much suspense is generated from the police investigation into mysterious deaths caused by the ants, which do not themselves appear in the movie for quite some time.

Hitchcock’s movie of The Birds (1963) transferred the action to a Californian location and added a screwball romantic plot. It was inspired by an actual incident which jogged the director’s memory of the option he had purchased on du Maurier’s story. A Santa Cruz newspaper had reported a bird attack in which, possibly as the result of seafood poisoning, a flock of seagulls had shattered windows and flown into streetlights, leaving dead birds littering the streets. The adaptation, with its screenplay by Evan Hunter (more widely known for his crime writing as Ed McBain!), did not find favour with du Maurier herself, but was a great critical success.

The “revolt of the beasts” really entered the world of the pulp British paperback in 1974, with the publication of James Herbert’s notorious debut “The Rats”. The novel recounts with gusto attacks by giant rats in a London still pockmarked by bombsites, its unbridled gore and grimly realistic setting making it an instant bestseller and a landmark in the horror genre. The floodgates were open. No creature was too small and innocuous, too cute or too fluffy for a starring role in a pulp horror novel as publishers rushed to cash in on Herbert’s success.

Most notably, Guy N. Smith's Crabs series maintained just the right blend of sex, gore and excitement. Smith conveyed the authentic feeling of a small community under threat in his evocation of the Welsh seaside resort of Barmouth, but his main talent lay in keeping his tone just the right side of tongue-in-cheek in describing the villainous over-sized crustaceans, which became more ludicrously indestructible with each sequel. Who, after reading Night of the Crabs, could read those ghastly syllables “clickety-click” without a shudder (or at least a chuckle)? The Crabs series extended to six volumes and maintains a cult following to this day. (A private amusement of mine is to enquire politely “Do you have Crabs on the Rampage?” when visiting particularly staid secondhand bookshops.)

The Morgow Rises (1982) was penned by Peter Tremayne, the pseudonym of respected academic historian and biographer Peter Berresford Ellis. Engaging in some literary legerdemain, Tremayne swaps genres half way through the book, leading us to believe at first that we are reading one of his trademark Celtic supernatural tales. In fact, it even seems possible that he may have adapted an existing text to the cookie-cutter “Nature runs wild” formula demanded by the publisher.

In the finely realised setting of a Cornish fishing village, we are faced with a mad old witch, a family curse and an intriguing slice of Celtic legendry as the attractive heroine, Claire Penvose, arrives to visit her retired mining engineer uncle, Henry “Happy” Penvose, on his birthday, only to find him missing in the corridors of a disused tin mine called Wheal Tom he is hoping to reopen. His disappearance appears to be connected to an ancient prophecy concerning the return of a monstrous creature;

"Beware when the Morgow rises,

Lament for the living,
Lament for the Unborn.

All things end!"

Meanwhile, local fishing craft are being destroyed and threatened by a mysterious whirlpool at sea and sightings are made of “a black, rubbery thing, something like a gigantic slug”. Reporters and other outsiders converge on the village as news of these happenings spreads.

So far, so good, until we learn the real secret of Wheal Tom. The mine should not have been sold by the Government to “Happy” Penvose (who has by now, met a grisly end in its tunnels) at all, and had only been doe so as a result of “bureaucratic error”. It should really be “a strictly prohibited zone” due to its use as a store for radioactive waste (page 100). Readers familiar with Them and its countless imitators will of course have guessed the rest of the plot by now, but have to wait a further 55 pages for an identification of the Morgow from a Government scientist;

“Lambert cast a nervous glance towards the group of angry press reporters.

‘Strictly between ourse
lves … I believe that the radiation attacked the most primitive cell forms – chaetopoda – earthworms or marine worms, causing a disruption in their growth.’
Neville stared at the man’s calm scientific assessment.”

Scientific indeed. Note the way in which “marine worms” are needed to explain why attacks are taking place at sea as well as on land, although no
concessions are made to the biology or habits in the working out of this tale. (In fact, in a couple of places the creatures are referred to as “eels”, leading to a suspicion that Tremayne may have changed his mind at some point).

After munching their way through various characters including the local witch (who goes out to entreat with the Morgow); a “male chauvinist” reporter; an adulterous ecologist and his “well proportioned” secretary (“but she felt her bottom was perhaps too broad and her breasts too full” – it is her demise that is so pleasingly illustrated on the cover) and most of the crew of a coastal shipping vessel, the worms are eventually, and somewhat perfunctorily, dispatched by the RAF, armed with high explosives and napalm bombs;

“Being worms they have no central nervous system, so no bullets harm them. You all know what happens if you slice through a worm with a garden spade. The two halve
s can wriggle away!”

Following an obligatory homily about the dangers of messing with nature, the novel ends with the suggestion that one of the creatures has escaped, making room for a sequel, although none was ever written. Nor is it likely to be,

Tremayne is mi
ning a vein of literary gold nowadays as the creator of Sister Fidelma, a 7th Century Irish nun whose “whodunnit” style adventures have attracted a huge following, organised into the International Sister Fidelma Society. He shouldn’t be judged too harshly on “The Morgow Rises”, after all it’s an entertaining and amusing read that, despite its ridiculous premise and clichéd conclusion, does manage some moments of tension and terror.

Monday, 3 May 2010

“The Wicker Man” Rises From the Ashes

Featuring the ritual burning of a Wicker Man, the Beltaine Festival at Butser Ancient Farm is an annual fundraising event “for entertainment purposes only”. Nevertheless, it has attracted much patronage from local neo-Pagans; a point tacitly welcomed by the organisers, who are now attempting to sell “souvenir” bags of ash from last year’s conflagration at an inflated price, following an approach by someone who wished to use some in a ritual (although a Wiccan friend assures me that only the current year’s ash would be efficacious for this purpose).
As a fan of British horror, the event has always been inseparably linked in my mind to the classic 1973 movie The Wicker Man, starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. As the archaeologist Richard Sermon has noted,* the Festival’s “association of modern folk traditions with ancient Paganism, May Day with Beltane, and of course the Wicker Man itself” blends together many of the elements that formed such a potent mix on screen.
Whilst in previous years this link with the film has been unconscious, perhaps even coincidental (when I once gave a friend of mine who volunteers at the Farm a copy of the dvd, she told me that neither she, nor the man who constructs the Wicker Man, had ever seen it before), this year it was conscious and explicit as a tribute to Edward Woodward, who sadly died on November 16th last year. A further bonus this year was that the Saturday on which the Festival took place actually fell on May Day itself.
The centrepiece of the Festival is, of course, the Wicker Man itself, which this year was constructed as a smaller, somewhat wonky version of the one in the film. This made it a distinct improvement on last year’s, which was controversially immolated clutching an oversized effigy of Shaun the Sheep, much to the distress of the Pagans and (one must assume) any small children present.
For an additional fee, festival-goers over the age of 16(!) were able to climb into the wicker man’s central cavity for a Sergeant Howie’s eye view of the proceedings; fortunately free from the sensation of being crapped on by goats and chickens which had helped make Edward Woodward’s experience during filming so unnervingly authentic.
The Festival’s peripheral events (the gates opened at 4.30pm) were an array of British eccentricity. On the main stage, shamanic-themed belly dancers (including a cross-dresser!) wriggled away to ethnic sounds rendered Industrial by the appalling sound system, alternating with an Irish folk band. At the same time, a troupe of determined Morris dancers and some motley-clad, black-faced mummers cavorted among the mud and thatch roundhouses. There were falconry displays, drumming workshops, forest craft demonstrations, Iron Age food-tasting and consultations with an herbalist. The beer tent was drained dry of real ale and local cider long before its closing time.
Around 9pm, a procession was formed to march down to the Wicker Man. Among the crowd, high priestesses could be spotted assembling their covens. When everyone reached the field, an incongruous church fete note was added to the proceedings in the form of a raffle to determine who among the ticket-holders should be privileged to light the flames.
The Wicker Man was, of course, by this stage empty of bodies and, sadly, the crowd appeared to be ignorant of the words to the ancient song “Sumer Is Icumen In” used with such effect in Paul Giovanni’s movie soundtrack. Instead, many spectators chose to carry out the 21st Century ritual of holding aloft camera phones to record the primeval event.
Despite the Festival’s claim to be an historical reenactment, whether a Wicker Man was ever in actual fact burnt before the film was made in 1972 is open to question. Evidence that the Druids sacrificed condemned criminals and other victims by burning them alive in an anthropomorphically shaped wicker construction comes solely from the pen of Julius Caesar, so may just be Roman propaganda.
Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay has been criticised for its over-reliance on discredited works on folklore and anthropology such as, most notably, Sir J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”.** But this is missing the point; as Lord Summerisle explains to Sergeant Howie, the island’s Pagan society is a recreation introduced by his great-grandfather, not a genuine folk-survival. So it is with the folk traditions and neo-Paganism showcased at Butser. The Ancient Farm itself is a sober-minded archaeological experiment which lets its hair down once a year and indulges in some money-spinning flights of fantasy.
It is impossible not to wonder, however, exactly how some of the more serious Pagans queuing up at the vege-burger stall reconcile their participation in the reconstruction of such a bloody and murderous ritual with the words of the modern-day Wiccan Rede: An it harm none do what ye will”.
For lovers of weirdness, the event is highly recommended. Watching the giant human effigy being consumed by flames does actually provoke some deep feelings that could easily be interpreted as spiritual. It is the same emotional charge that powers the film, turning Shaffer’s anti-religious and somewhat cerebral script into an addictive experience for many of its viewers.

* "The Wicker Man, May Day and the Reinvention of Beltane" Richard Sermon
** "The Folklore Fallacy: A folkloritic / filmic perspective on The Wicker Man" Mikel J. Koven

Monday, 26 April 2010

"The Witch of Prague and Other Stories"

In his introduction to “The Witch of Prague and other Stories” (a volume in the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series) David Stuart Davies presents us with a mystery:

“During his lifetime Francis Marion Crawford (1854 - 1909) … [was] one of the most popular and commercially successful authors of his day. Yet strangely, quite soon after his death … [he] became a forgotten writer and there seems to be no logical reason for the evaporation of interest in this skilled author.”

Well, after working my way through the 300 page novel that forms the centrepiece of this collection, I feel I am on my way to solving this mystery.

Despite the originality of its conception, some interesting characterisation and an atmospheric, if sketchily realised, setting, the “classic of occult fiction” (as Dennis Wheatley, who presented a previous paperback edition in 1974, dubbed it) has several fatal flaws. Tedious purple passages full of rambling conjecture slow the action to the pace of a charnel worm and Crawford’s over-reliance on conventional plot contrivances such as unlikely coincidences and “love at first sight” undermine “the suspension of disbelief”, bogging the novel down in clichés. Overall, the modern reader is likely to feel crushed by the dead weight of Victorian Romanticism.

This is a pity, because at root, “The Witch of Prague” is an intriguing attempt at speculative fiction, largely inspired by the new science of hypnotism. In his exploration of this topic, Crawford rejects the “animal magnetism” theories of Mesmer and adopts an explanation based on “moral” influence. His central character, the beautiful but capricious Unorna, possesses hypnotic powers that she (and others) can’t help attributing to “superstitious” causes, hence her reputation as “the witch”.

Materialistic and reductionist science is caricatured in the bizarre figure of Keyork Arabian, an aged dwarf whose obsession with extending his own life leads to grotesque experiments with both living and dead subjects. The description of his Frankenstein-like chamber of horrors, full of dismembered remains and semi-revivified specimens, provides one of the most straightforwardly Gothic and enjoyable sections of the novel:

“Here a group of South Americans, found dried in the hollow of an ancient tree, had been restored almost to the likeness of life, and were apparently engaged in a lively dispute over the remains of a meal – as cold as themselves and as human. There, towered the standing body of an African, leaning upon a knotted club, fierce, grinning, lacking only sight in the sunken eyes to be terrible. There again, surmounting a lay figure wrapped in rich stuffs, smiled the calm and gentle face of a Malayan lady, decapitated for her sins, so marvellously preserved that the soft dark eyes still looked out from beneath the heavy, half-drooping lids, and the full lips, still richly coloured, parted a little to show the ivory teeth. Other sights there were, more ghastly still…”

Arabian’s self-centred quest for physical immortality throws him into an alliance of convenience with Unorna, whose skills are essential for his most sinister project; maintaining a centenarian in a state of hypnotic suspended animation pending rejuvenation via non-consensual blood transfusions from her young Jewish suitor, Israel Kafka (also kept hypnotised throughout the week-long procedure).

The main story is driven by Unorna’s abuse of her powers in advancing her unrequited passion for the mysterious, unnamed “Wanderer”. He in turn is single-mindedly engaged in tracking down his own long-lost love, Beatrice, in pursuit of whom he has travelled the globe before sighting her in a Prague church. Unorna’s egocentric ways (exacerbated by Arabian’s amoral tuition) eventually lead her to a state of moral crisis which precipitates the novel’s melodramatic conclusion.

A subplot concerns the fate of Israel Kafka, whose one-sided adoration of Unorna ironically mirrors her own predicament. Unfortunately, the novel’s portrayal of Prague’s Jewish community falls back on anti-Semitic stereotypes that still find favour among Far-Right and “Anti-Zionist” conspiracy theorists;

“…Israel sits, as a great spider in the midst of a dark web, dominating the whole capital with his eagle’s glance and weaving the destiny of the Bohemian people to suit his intricate speculations. For throughout the length and breadth of Slavonic and German Austria the Jew rules and rules alone.”

At one remarkably queasy point, Unorna, out of sadistic pique, places Kafka in a hypnotic trance and forces him to relive the life and death of Simon Abeles, a young Jewish apostate who (according to the Jesuit John Eder’s miracle-ridden account) was martyred by his father and an evil rabbi for converting to Christianity.

Crawford’s Prague is a spectrally foggy and frozen place of Gothic churches and deserted graveyards, a far cry from the stag party capital of today. This archetypal Mitteleuropean city seems to be more of a state of mind than a geographical location, and its icy gloom contrasts with the warmth of the tropical conservatory in which Unorna receives her visitors. The fact that the unnamed protagonist is referred to simply as “The Wanderer” adds to the feeling that we are reading some kind of psychological allegory.

David Stuart Davies reports that Crawford was in poor health when he drafted the novel, and its long, rambling passages certainly reveal some dark meditations that have scant relevance to the plot. These digressions try the reader’s patience and ultimately stifle any enjoyment or interest in the story. In contrast to Dennis Wheatley’s praise of the novel’s “fascinating reading” and the author’s “penetrating analysis of the powers of the human mind”, an Amazon reviewer wickedly hits the spot:

“If ruthlessly edited, it might have made a passable short story itself, but the melodramatic gothic tale goes on and on and on, padded out by relentless swathes of descriptive prose, philosophical treatises on life, love, romance, and a million other concepts, and bosom-heaving twaddle.”

If Crawford is remembered today, it is for a much-anthologised pair of short stories that have become classics. “For the Blood is the Life”, described by Basil Copper in his study of The Vampire: In Legend, Fact and Art as “one of the most original and unusual essays in the genre” is the tragic tale of Cristina, a murdered girl who returns to vampirise her lover, “he knew that her lips were red … and that she was dead”. Full of pathos and eroticism, the story is particularly memorable for its sun-drenched Italian setting.

“The Upper Berth”, lauded by H. P. Lovecraft as “one of the most tremendous horror stories in all literature” is the account of a haunted cabin aboard an Atlantic crossing. Its realistic setting, first-person immediacy and the narrator’s initial scepticism make its unexplained supernatural terrors all the more ghastly.

“The Screaming Skull” is inspired by a “real” 17th Century legend concerning a skull reserved at Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. It is an effectively scary tale, narrated in the cantankerous persona of a retired sea captain. It was filmed in 1958 and the movie was promoted with the gimmick of a free funeral for anyone scared to death during a screening. There is no record of any takers! It also seems likely that the story was an influence on Robert Bloch’s 1945 Weird Tales contribution “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”. This was far more effectively filmed by Amicus in 1965 as “The Skull”, featuring the immortal combination of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

From the rest of the stories, “The Dead Smile” is the purest Gothic, full of dark family secrets and mouldering crypts; “The Doll’s Ghost is a Dickens-like exercise in sentimentalism; “Man Overboard!” is a seafaring ghost story featuring identical twin, marred by an excess of nautical terminology; “By the Waters of Paradise” is a Gothic romance and “The King’s Messenger” is a tale of premonition.

The Wordsworth Editions Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series is a bargain-priced set of volumes from the publisher which launched the “£1 Classic” back in 1992. Retailing at under £3, the series contains some obscure works that would otherwise only be available in expensive small-press editions, alongside better-known works by Dennis Wheatley, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (including the “The Right Hand of Doom”, the only British edition of Howard’s original Solomon Kane stories).