We’re on a break…

…so that I can whisk The Actual Girlfriend off to somewhere exotic like Yarmouth (don’t laugh – there are parts of that town which are out of this world) and attend to other stuff that needs doing without tying myself up in knots.

Back in ten days to a fortnight, depending.

Be nice to each other while I’m gone.

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Song for a Saturday – Over the Hills and Far Away

You all know this one.

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The Performers

Three biopics that I watched recently dealing with the lives of famous performers.

Walk the Line (2005)

A film based on the life of country singer Johnny Cash, telling of his childhood with an abusive father and the tragic death of his older brother, two acts that were the formative events of Cash’s life. There follows early marriage, Cash trying to juggle family life and holding down a job with his desire for success as a singer. And eventually it all takes off for Cash, but life on the road and easy access to drugs and alcohol is the singer’s undoing. He reinvents himself by performing at Folsom prison and becoming the iconic ‘man in black’. In his personal life he finds happiness by finally persuading fellow performer June Carter to marry him. This is an inspirational film, beautifully shot and with memorable performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles, the latter winning a Best Actress Oscar. Both actors perform their own songs, and they’re not too shabby about it either. The excitement of the music industry comes over well, the early days of such pioneering figures as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, when anything must have seemed possible, and set against that we have the puritanism of much of the country scene, with members of the public happy to call June a slut for her divorce. The pitfalls of fame and addiction are laid out in a non-judgemental manner, while at the same time the film makes no excuses for how Cash behaves. At its heart this is a love story, the romance between the slightly earnest Cash and the bubbly Carter, with the latter grounding the former. It’s an excellent film and one I expect to watch again, and the day after seeing it I played my Johnny Cash Greatest Hits CD a couple of times to mark the occasion.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

There’s also romance here, in a film that chronicles the tempestuous six year affair between keyboard superstar Liberace (an amazing performance from Michael Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). As a kid I used to watch Liberace on the television and loved his theatrical flair and flamboyant showmanship. I might have considered him camp, but had no idea he was gay (nobody famous was gay, back then – homosexuality is a modern invention ;-)). The great dichotomy in this film is that of the star’s public persona and his private life, with the need to prevent even a whiff of scandal paramount. Liberace does not come over as wholly admirable. He uses Scott to serve his own sexual desires, and although the younger man benefits with a lifestyle he could only ever imagine, there is no doubt as to which one of them calls the shots in the relationship. For Scott the luxury alone simply isn’t enough, something that Lee can’t quite grasp; when Scott wants a hug, Lee gives him a diamante bracelet. It is this tension that tears their relationship apart, with jealousy adding yet another frisson. And when finally Scott is replaced with a younger model, the star is almost vindictive in forcing terms onto his former lover, but you sense that Lee is driven to act as he does by fear. This fear of public exposure is the bane of both their relationship and the society of the time, and though things are better now I believe we still have a long way to go. At the end, with AIDS making discussion of Lee’s sexuality a moot point, there is something akin to a deathbed reunion between the two men, with each recognising how much they had together and how much they lost. I loved every minute of this film and found it compulsively watchable.

La Vie en Rose (2007)

The story of singer Edith Piaf, about whom I knew nothing before watching this except that she was French and sang ‘No regrets’. The film takes a non-linear approach to its material, with scenes from past and present intercut and a fuller picture emerging as we watch and garner more information. Edith’s abandonment by her mother, the formative years when she was raised in a brothel. Her first success as a nightclub singer and then becoming a national and international star. Marriages and romances, particularly a doomed affair with a boxing champion who was killed when his airplane crashed en route to visit Edith. The later years in which she was dogged by ill health, rumours of criminal associations in her past, and attempts to relaunch her career. Death of liver cancer when only forty seven. It’s a fascinating story, and star Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her performance, one that was much deserved. Cotillard shows a superb range of expressions and versatility, appearing in one scene as an overbearing superstar and natural beauty, and in another as a bitter, wizened question mark of a woman, who does nothing except feel sorry for herself. And yet despite my fascination with the film, the impression left of Piaf is far from favourable. She is abusive to others, always insistent on getting her own way, largely uncaring who she hurts. In her person are embodied all the sins of fame and hubris, and ultimately she is an icon with feet of clay. It’s just about possible to understand how she got that way, but at the same time, unlike with Cash and Liberace, very hard to feel any sympathy for her.

Anyone else got any favourite biopics?

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Filler content from the late nineteenth century

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY NOVELLAS

Chris Butler’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static’s sister magazine Interzone, whose pages he’s been gracing since 2003, and because of that connection we’ll give him a free pass into the horror wing at TTA Towers.

THE FLIGHT OF THE RAVENS (Immersion Press hb, 96pp, £10) is a book that should appeal to horror aficionados every bit as much as it will to the fantasy demographic I suspect the author had in mind when writing. It’s one of those books that slips nicely through the gaps.

The story opens in Amsterdam in1889, as Elizabeth enters an abandoned house with her brother Bernard, where she sees what appears to be a man consume him with flames, and also the vision of a raven. The scholar Huginn, a friend of her parents, is particularly interested in what has happened, returning ten years later when Elizabeth has grown up and works as a teacher. At first attracted to him, Elizabeth is later made uneasy by Lukas Nostrand, a wealthy business man who intends to enrol his son at her school. Nostrand is linked both to the house where Bernard perished and to Huginn, who is not all he seems (though for those up on their Nordic mythology the character’s name is a dead give-away). Lurking at the back of all this is an even darker menace, one with the potential to wreak great destruction if our heroine, who has developed psychic powers, including the ability to view the past, makes the wrong decision.

Butler has crafted a complex story, one that initially seems like a variation on the vampire myth, with the early scenes bringing to mind Murnau’s Nosferatu, but by grafting elements of Norse mythology onto the concept of the psychic vampire who feeds on the life force of others, he creates something more original. At the heart of the narrative is the concept of sacrifice, embodied in the figure of its ostensible villain, but while Nostrand does terrible things, we are shown that he commits these acts for a good reason, to save others from an even worse fate, and this moral quandary, a question of ends justifying means, elevates The Flight of the Ravens above much similar fare.

I have quibbles. Some of the characters stretch credibility, as with Huginn whose allegiance to pagan gods never seems to give anyone pause, while sub-plots involving his mad wife and the woman he has a one night stand with don’t add much to the overall story arc, and in the latter case seemed rather contrived. Elizabeth however is an admirable creation, somebody who has been touched by the supernatural and grown thanks to the experience, a fully rounded woman of her time, making her own way in the world. Butler is equally adept with his descriptive writing, with the scenes of fiery destruction so vividly realised that the heat almost seems to rise from the page as the city burns, while Nostrand’s despair at the death of his loved ones, the pivotal event that set his course, is achingly rendered, Butler’s compassion for his villain’s suffering overriding all else.

This is a strong story, with far more to commend it than not, a gripping account of personal tragedy and the greater good, convincingly rooted in its milieu, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

UNHALLOWED GROUND (DarkFuse eBook, 197pp, $2.99) by Daniel Mills is set in 1891 and opens with Henry Feathering on a train journey to stay with his uncle Edward at Bittersweet Lodge in Berwick. He meets brother and sister Justice and Clemency, and is attracted to her through a shared love of Gothic literature, Poe in particular. The siblings are invited to visit at Bittersweet and Henry subsequently proposes to Clemency, but Edward warns him against bringing her to live at Bittersweet, which he is to inherit on his uncle’s death. Edward believes that the Lodge is haunted by the vengeful spirit of Lily Stark, who killed herself and is buried in the grounds, and who he holds responsible for the early death of his own young bride. Though Justice is opposed to the match, the marriage takes place and the happy couple move into Bittersweet, but tragedy ensues.

Mills’ excellent novella is rich in period detail and redolent of the Gothic narratives that are referenced throughout. And yet, bleak and minatory as the atmosphere of Bittersweet is, the real threat comes from the human heart. Psychology rather than the supernatural is at play, with the characters doomed by what they cannot confide to each other even as they talk of ghostly matters with no reticence whatever. This is a story where the true nature of what is happening is evident only to the reader, the characters wearing the blinkers of custom and propriety, though Mills is canny enough not to commit completely to this schemata, leaving elbow room for belief in a spectral cause. Further enriching the narrative is Mills’ deft touch at characterisation, with the obsessive Edward, lost in a world of ancient warfare, and his manservant Asaph who acts as an equal at times, while the humour of the original introduction of the siblings undercuts the menace that will later become apparent. Also wonderfully drawn are the cousins Phyllis and Edith, two spinsters who seem more at peace with themselves than any of the other characters, so that for a cynic the moral of the story could very well be that to attain happiness/contentment you need to leave all this horror stuff and romance equally well alone, that such things will just screw you up.

Of course, some of us like being screwed up.

And lastly we have THE DEMETER (Printers Blood pb, 144pp, £7), written by Martin Jones and lovingly illustrated by Derek Gray, produced in a limited edition of 40 numbered copies, and for the collector demographic there’s a special ‘deluxe’ edition of 10 copies (not seen), with signatures, slipcase, four track complementary CD and probably a genuine bloodstain from a genuine Transylvanian Count, though they don’t mention it in the marketing, all for the bargain price of £13.

At 144 pages I’m not sure if this is a short novel or a novella, but given the number of blank pages I suspect the latter. It’s prefaced by a quotation from Poe’s ‘M. S. Found in a Bottle’, but is basically the story of Dracula’s shipboard transport to Whitby, set in 1893 by Stoker but here transplanted to the present day and told by means of the journal entries written by the Demeter’s captain. Captain Nikolai agrees to a request from English archaeologist Dr Gregory to transport four sealed boxes of earth and pottery to Whitby, and initially all goes well, with the journal referencing gossip among the crew – first mate Anton, cook Leon, old hand Boris, new guys Peter and Petrofsky (who may be gay lovers). For Nikolai the challenge is to maintain discipline and soothe tensions among the crew, but as the voyage continues a strange mood of fatalism sets in, with unnatural weather conditions, reports of a stowaway hiding on board and members of the crew disappearing, all of which sets us up for the final, shocking revelation.

I have mixed feelings about this. Jones tells the story well, with the change in mood aboard the ship and Nikolai’s eventual madness captured perfectly on the page. Handled particularly well is the dawning realisation that the ship is travelling under its own steam and the men aboard are there only as sustenance for the vampire in the hold. The other characters, and the interplay between them, are painted with conviction so that we never have reason to doubt the credibility of what is taking place. On the down side, the plot doesn’t really hold any surprises as we already know the vampire is in the hold even if the crew don’t, and some aspects of the story don’t quite hold water, such as an archaeologist with budget problems hiring a ship to transport four boxes of earth, and the ship’s captain not looking for other goods to maximise the profits of his journey.

Reflecting on this book, I’m forced to wonder what the point of it all was, and the comparison that springs to mind is Borges story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, though the analogy isn’t a precise one, given that Martin Jones’ work is a contemporary retelling of an episode from Stoker’s Dracula, rather than a direct copy. We can, via such things as the smuggling of contraband material, the gay crew members, the sense of loneliness and isolation that infect the narrative, ground the book in the present day, even unfurl its bat wings to embrace the war on (t)error and exploitation of workers, but roughly similar allusions are already present in the source material, waiting to be discovered and interpreted by each generation of new readers. Jones brings little originality to the mix, just shifts the calendar, so perhaps not Pierre Menard at all, but the equivalent of a Hollywood remake of a classic with a cast of C-listers.  Of course, I’m being unduly harsh in these comparisons. I wouldn’t dismiss it as insubstantial or without merit, and enjoyed the book more than not, but all the same I feel The Demeter will appeal more to collectors than the general reader, and on the basis of production values and rarity it’s a real bargain at the asking price, with going deluxe probably the investment choice of preference for those who are serious about diversifying their portfolio.

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Trailer Trash – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

It’s a paradox. I have my doubts about Tom Cruise, what with the whole Scientology thing, but I pretty much always enjoy his films.

This doesn’t look like being an exception to the rule.

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Horror Films Beginning with D

I didn’t plan to watch three horror films whose titles begin with D; it just turned out that way.

Darkness (2002)

A family move into an isolated house in the Spanish countryside, only for strange things to start occurring (inexplicable power outages, visions of children etc.), which has a knock on effect on the mental health of father Mark, who is recovering from problems in his past. Young son Paul seems to be suffering the most, with his only help coming from sister Regina (Anna Paquin) and, possibly, the grandfather who lives nearby and gifted them the house. Investigating Regina learns that six children disappeared in and around the house forty years before and that it was built for the completion of an occult ritual requiring the deaths of seven children, with a vital lunar eclipse about to recur. I have mixed feelings about this, but enjoyed it rather more than not. Aspects of the plot put me very much in mind of Christopher Fowler’s novel Nyctophobia. There are some excellent jump moments, with the children’s ghosts coming across as extremely creepy, and a nice plot twist towards the end, when we learn who the real villain of the piece is. Concerns about Mark’s mental health, with wife and mother Maria (Lena Olin) in denial, add to the tension and play nicely off the supernatural elements. And the end sequence, with the final fate of the various characters revealed, is handled with a gratifyingly understated sense of menace. On the down side, we never actually learn what the purpose of the dreaded ritual was, why occultists were prepared to sacrifice those that they loved, and really, forty years later its completion doesn’t really seem all that necessary. In conclusion a decent horror outing that is good on the who and how, but somewhat remiss in providing a why.

Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

This one comes with the curse that is usually conveyed by the line ‘based on a true story’. The true story is that of New York cop turned demonologist Ralph Sarchie, here played by Eric Bana. It opens in Iraq in 2010, with three Marines finding an underground cavern and, presumably, getting possessed by whatever evil entity it contained. Skip forward to 2013, with Sarchie investigating a series of oddball and disturbing crimes that all lead back to the three soldiers. With help from a priest who believes they have been taken over by a demon, Sarchie manages to stop two of them, but the third kidnaps his wife and child, making an exorcism necessary to learn where they are being held. This is all pretty much familiar horror fare, with most of the scenes shot in dimly lit rooms, with dead bodies, hieroglyphics on the walls, cockroaches etc., all used as stage setting. One scene in particular, with a mother at the zoo who has thrown her child into a wild animal pit, is especially well done, both unsettling and convincingly staged. The scenes of the climactic exorcism have to be among the best that I’ve ever seen, with some horrific effects, though I have to admit that I have no idea why, having taken Sarchie’s family, the demon possessed ex-soldier hung around to get caught. All in all it was an entertaining horror film but nothing special.

Dracula Untold (2014)

Yet another attempt to find a fresh spin that can be applied to one of horror’s archetypal figures, and this time they have turned him into a superhero (albeit Marvel may have got there first). Luke Evans is Vlad, the rather nice ruler of Transylvania, albeit he has an unsavoury past. With a Turkish invasion pending, Vlad realises that his people can’t be saved by his being Mr. Nice Guy, and so he goes to a cave where a master vampire is trapped and makes a deal with the monster, gaining great power in exchange for its freedom. With his newfound abilities, which he has passed on to others, Vlad has no trouble dealing with the Turkish horde, mostly. The master vampire is another matter entirely. There’s an interesting dichotomy at the heart of this film, as expressed by the tagline, ‘sometimes you need a monster’ (actually that’s not the tagline, but I can’t remember the actual quote and it captures the spirit of the thing). The idea that sometimes you have to do nasty things for a noble end isn’t really explored all that much though, gets lost in an action movie where things like soul searching and moral dilemmas are just stepping stones to the next big fight scene. We don’t have the sense that Vlad really is a man fighting to hold his monstrous impulses in check, to release the inner beast only when circumstances compel him to do so. In many ways it reminded me of the historical scenes of Vlad from Bram Stoker’s Dracula but without the star cast and Coppola’s assured hand on the directorial helm. I enjoyed it in a pass the time sort of way, but apart from Charles Dance as the master vampire, found little that was memorable. It’s Dracula awash in sentimentality not blood, and that will never do.

So, anyone got any recent horror film recommendations, beginning with D or otherwise?

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Filler content with chapbooks

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-

GHOSTS AND MERMAIDS

Angela Slatter’s chapbook HOME AND HEARTH (Spectral Press chapbook, 25pp, £4.50), the latest offering from Spectral Press, is grounded in the modern world rather than one of the fantasy settings where much, if not most, of her work is set. Caroline’s son Simon has just returned home, after being on trial for the murder of another young boy, the son of a Traveller. But though found innocent, largely owing to his mother providing an alibi, Simon’s presence unsettles her, feelings that are crystallised by a visit to the Traveller site and a meeting with the dead boy’s mother.

Home and Hearth is a beautifully rendered tale, with little touches of incidental detail, such as the sensation of cold sweat on the palms and the feeling that people are always watching, aware of what has happened and accusing. Also strongly conveyed is Caroline’s growing fear as she realises that her son is a stranger and the sense of alienation from other people that she feels. At the heart of the tale is a moral dilemma, the conflict between a mother’s desire to protect her child, an instinct that most would argue is hardwired into the species, and awareness of the menace to others that he represents, and as far as that goes there are echoes of Jack Ketchum’s story ‘The Rifle’, though Slatter’s take on the theme has a more societal dimension to it. On the down side, Spectral chapbooks concentrate “on the ghostly/supernatural end of the literary spectrum”, and while there is a ghost in this story, that of the murdered child, it felt very much like an unnecessary intrusion or plot convenience, an element latterly grafted on to a tale of purely human evil to fit the publisher’s brief. That quibble aside, this is an excellent story. As always with Slatter the writing is powerful and evocative, and the understated ending was just right.

The first person narrator of THE ELVIS ROOM (This Is Horror chapbook, 32pp, £5.99) by Stephen Graham Jones is a discredited experimental psychologist who is given a second chance when he discovers the secret of the Elvis Room, the room in hotels that is always kept empty, ostensibly just in case a major celebrity should turn up, though the real reason is somewhat more off the wall. He also discovers that when the room is occupied by a paying guest, someone always dies in the hotel, but this revelation leads to his undoing.

Fascinating ideas are woven into the text of this story and it contains an interesting variation on the theories of ghostly existence. There is an oriental feel to the supernatural phenomena in the story, the implication that ghosts are just part and parcel of our natural world even if not acknowledged as such. Driving the story is the egotism of the narrator, his desire to be vindicated and the tone of voice that author Stephen Graham Jones maintains throughout, switching back and forth from self-justification to apologetic, all while trying to project a veneer of scientific detachment. He is somebody who, while not exactly evil, is led into evil by his perception of and obedience to the diktats of science, so that inevitably what he does causes more problems than it solves. There’s an element of ambiguity present, so that we wonder if in fact it is the narrator who is haunted, by guilt over his first failure. The cumulative effect of all this good stuff is a story that is never less than gripping, one that delights with its twists and turns of fortune, and the concepts that provide its solid foundation.

Ray Cluley is the writer with the most Black Static credits under his belt, a grand total of eleven published stories last time I checked, and another one in this issue. One of those stories, ‘Shark! Shark!’ from #29, won a British Fantasy Award, and if that’s the good news then the even better news is that if you missed it then you can read it now, as it features as the bonus story in WATER FOR DROWNING (This Is Horror chapbook, 91pp, £5.99). It’s a bright and witty account of the making of a horror film with killer sharks, metafictional in a way that put me in mind of John Langan’s work, especially ‘The Revel’, with the writer directly addressing the reader and chiding us for the wrong conclusions he has led us to make before pulling the rug out from under our feet one last time with a revelation of the true nature of the beast. It was great stuff and thoroughly deserving of all the praise heaped on it and award given.

Having got ‘Shark! Shark!’ reeled in, let’s move on to consideration of the headline act that is ‘Water For Drowning’. Josh doesn’t think much of the other members of Break N’ Wave, the band he plays with and writes the occasional song for, but it does get him a lot of girls, so that’s okay then. One such girl is Genna, who he decides to fuck even though everyone else tells him she is seriously screwed up. Sadly for them both he gets drawn into her obsession, a fascination with mermaids undercut by the belief that her parents have gone back to the sea and she will follow them, just as soon as she finds the right way to transform herself. Josh tells her a ‘comforting lie’ that only reinforces this belief and eventually leads to tragedy.

There’s a lot of mermaid stuff going on here by way of backdrop, with folklore and fiction all used to reinforce Genna’s obsession (and her attraction to Josh is initially based on some marine themed songs he’s written), Cluley presenting a powerful picture of mental illness and variation on the changeling story template. For mixed-up Genna the mermaid represents a chance to achieve the happiness she feels is missing from her life. Against that we have the not so nice character of Josh, with Cluley creating a vivid picture of selfish and self-centred musicians, the love hate relationship between the various members of the band, their rivalry and at the same time almost parasitic need for each other. While he has an agenda of his own, Josh is coming to see Genna as an alternative to the band. Her madness speaks to something in his own nature, so that he can’t just fuck and run, is instead drawn into her world, the idea that she is in some way special playing counterpoint to similar feelings he has about himself. Love is of course impossible between these two, no matter how often they say or think the word, but there is a form of symbiosis going on, so that after the encore has been played and the audience all gone home, Josh realises that he has lost something of value, flawed though it may have been, and that forever after he will be haunted by memories of the mistakes he made. Cluley’s great achievement here is to make us believe in someone as unlikely as Genna and see the good in a prick like Josh, his narrative moving effortlessly from a strident account of a cynical male exploiter to something that borders on the poignant and compassionate. I loved every harsh, bitter word of it.

All three chapbooks are produced in limited editions, and the publishers have various special offers available, such as four issue subscriptions and electronic alternatives, so check out their websites for the full story.

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