Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Haunted Palace

Here is the second in my series of ghostly poems. I had to include this classic, didn't I? Especially given the controversy surrounding the film of the same name ... more of that below.

The Haunted Palace by Edgar Allan Poe
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace

Radiant palace reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion

It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow,
all this was in the olden
Time long ago,)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odour went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute's well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!
for never sorrow
Shall dawn upon him desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, lie a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh – but smile no more. 

I must admit I don't read much Poe, but I read this poem years ago after watching the film of the same name, and I loved it. I still do. It has good flow and rhythm, and is easy to read considering its vintage (it was first published in 1839). At the time I assumed the film had something to do with the poem, as it was one of Roger Corman's successful series of "Poe" films. Recently, however, I found out it was in fact based on an HP Lovecraft tale, The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Apparently, at the time the film was made – 1963 – no one thought much of Lovecraft, so Poe fitted the bill better. Minor changes were made to cater for this, and I don't suppose many people noticed. Nonetheless, a great film. I remember it as a stylish, atmospheric film with great cinematography and acting. The plot was a bit dodgy, but you wouldn't watch a '60s horror flick for the plot, now would you? I fancy seeing it again, come to think of it. You just can't beat a film with Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr. What more could you ask for?

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Horror in the Museum

Yes I know, you're thinking Jurassic Park ...
Nonetheless, we went on a family outing this weekend to the Australian Museum in Sydney. As usual, I was thinking about writing while the kids were having fun, and I busied myself taking some photographs for reference. (In fact I got into trouble upon our return, as I had very few photographs with the children in them.) I was trying to think of creepy stories set in museums, of which there are a few waxworks-type ones, but I could think of none to do with dinosaurs. Then I remembered a "horror" novel called Carnosaur by Harry Adam Knight (aka John Brosnan) which I read many years ago and remember almost nothing about. Surely there are others?
If you know of any, please let me know!

I love the combination of enormous, threatening monster skeletons ... and dado rails.

Of course, one of the best known such tales must be The Horror in the Museum by H.P. Lovecraft, although it was ghostwritten for Hazel Heald in 1932. This tale may not have been one of Lovecraft's best (though I'm no expert) but it certainly helped make popular the premise of the someone-staying-the-night-in-a-waxwork-for-a-wager type scenario. 

A.M. Burrage

Speaking of which, a favourite short story of mine is The Waxwork by A.M. Burrage. (I have a wonderful collection of his short stories called Warning Whispers, well worth looking out for. Although, unfortunately, The Waxwork isn't included.) Raymond Hewson is a down-at-heel journalist who contrives to spend a night in the "murderers' den" of Marriner's Waxworks. Of course all the usual suspects are represented, such as Crippen, but also a strange Dr. Bourdette, who was supposed to have hypnotised his victims and cut their throats. The creepy thing is, though, this figure is especially lifelike; and the manager tells Hewson that Bourdette is the only figure represented who is still alive in reality ... and still on the run! "'I thought I saw him move,' said Hewson with a catch in his voice."
Hewson soon shows signs of nerves once the night begins, thinking he sees the waxworks moving, especially Bourdette. "'He's only a waxwork like the rest of you,' Hewson muttered defiantly. 'You're all only waxworks.'" He becomes mesmerised by Bourdette, unable to resist as he steps off his plinth, explaining how he is evading the authorities, by pretending to be his own wax likeness. Bourdette produces a razor. Hewlett is found dead the following morning. But surely his own imagination is ultimately to blame? It's an atmospheric, tense short story, worth searching out in various compilations. It's one of those tales where the reader is not sure if anything out of the ordinary happened or not.
Luckily, this critter was stuffed ...
There must be a creepy story in there somewhere.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Source of the Lea part two

Surely this is what the world has been waiting for ... Here is the second part of The Source of the Lea. I posted the first part in January here. So now you can find out what happens next!

The Source of the Lea part two
My old man never wanted kids, and mum wanted lots of girls. But she only got me.
Don't get me wrong, I was pretty happy. Everyone thought I was shy, and maybe I was. You might remember, Fowler, I was a bit of a loner. Content to amuse myself, I guess – living in my imagination.
Things went bad between my folks, and they went their separate ways. Well, dad was forced on his separate way at least. Mum kept our house. First, he went into one of those mobile home things. He did his best. He was a keen gardener, you know. He cut the grass, planted a flower bed, and even built a shed for his bike and lawnmower.
He didn't need a lawnmower once he'd been moved on by the council, though. You'll know the place he went, one of those tower blocks on the edge of the Moor Farm estate. He moved into the end block, Five Springs. No garden for him to look after there, of course, just a small balcony. I don't think he ever really got over that.
It was only about ten years old back then, but Five Springs was already pretty rough. The foyer was just a concrete shell. Graffiti everywhere. The lifts didn't smell great either, I can tell you. The building was grim, yet it kind of fascinated me.
You're wondering why I'm telling you all this, and I don't blame you. Well, it's all to do with the river, see.
Hey, Fowler, do you remember that primary school trip we did, to discover its source? Us kids, wandering around with notebooks, compasses and packed lunches, searching through the Spinney. Teachers must've been busy that day!

He laughed mirthlessly at that. I thought hard, dredging up long-forgotten impressions. I vaguely recalled the trip, and something about Pocock. It suddenly came back to me. He had wandered off into the trees, and was missing for the whole afternoon. Our outing to discover the source of the Lea had turned into one to find Pocock. Eventually, he had joined us again as if nothing had happened.
Shifting restlessly in his chair, he seemed distracted. I had to urge him to continue.

Well anyway, mum and dad couldn't shout at each other any more, so I was much happier at home. 'Bout then, I started to notice girls for the first time. One girl in particular, anyway.
I don't remember the first time I saw her. She just seemed to be around, friends with a small group of girls I knew by sight. Every morning I'd look out for her from our front window, trying to time it right to bump into her on my way to school. She was in the year below us. S'pose you could say I had a crush on her.
She was like some kind of exotic beauty. Her skin was a rich, deep brown. Her hair was long, shiny and dark. Maybe you remember her? I couldn't take my eyes off her.
I didn't have the first clue about girls, though. Still don't. Couldn't even pluck up the courage to speak to her. But I didn't care. Just to look at her was enough.
Back then, I didn't know that I could ever want anything more.

Pocock paused, closing his eyes. Telling me this was taking a lot out of him. It was getting late, but I had no reason to rush off. Besides, I was at last starting to get warm. With some effort he rose and shuffled to the kitchen, returning with a few cans of beer. He threw one over to me, the shadow of a smile on his lips.

One Sunday afternoon, shortly after he'd moved into Five Springs, I went to see my dad. He handed me a pair of binoculars, still in their box. I could tell they were good ones.
"Wow! Real binoculars. Where did you get them?"
I probably shouldn't have asked. Because of the trouble about how much he could afford to pay mum for my upkeep, he was always worried about showing me stuff he'd bought.
"I was at the market last week, and I picked them up for a song."
Fascinated, I played with them, adjusting the focus. They were pretty heavy. I reckoned they were brand new.
"There must be a great view from the top floor," he said. "Let's go up and see what we can make out."
I looked at him sadly as he shuffled into the filthy lift; a smartly-dressed man with a pencil moustache. He looked out of place, like someone from a previous age.
We went right up to the 14th floor. I'd never been so far from the ground. From one side of the building we could see right over the Spinney, all the way to the playground in the fields near my mum's house. And the river all the way until it disappeared under the railway bridge.
"It's a great view from up here," I said. But at that moment I was distracted. I'd focussed on some figures in the distance, and realised with a sudden shiver that one of them was her. They were wandering towards the swings. She seemed so beautiful and so calm. The other girls were running in all directions.
Dad tapped me on the shoulder.
"What are you gawping at? You'll be spying on your school friends next!" He was only having me on, but I quickly handed the binoculars back, embarrassed. I found myself hoping the girls would visit the playground on other Sunday afternoons, so I'd be able to look at them again from the top floor. I knew I wouldn't be able to help myself.

Part three (of four) coming soon. I know you can't wait.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Women in Horror; my Top 10

February is Women in Horror Month. (OK, I admit I didn't realise this until I read James Everington's excellent blog and decided to purloin the idea from him.) So, before it's too late, I thought I would re-read some of my favourite short stories by women; although I must say I've never really made any distinction between male or female writers. So I had to check my facts.
I have listed 10 of them, and added a few brief reviews.

I had no problem deciding my number one, as it's also one of my all-time favourite stories; Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Moving up to number two is Don't Get Lost by Tanith Lee.

Straight in at three is a story I have only recently discovered, Dual Control by Elizabeth Walter.

Number four is A Curious Experience by Nora Lofts.

Number five is Charley by A.L. Barker.

Number six is The Token by May Sinclair.

Number seven is a bit controversial ... Never Talk To Strangers by Alex White.

At eight is a modern choice, The Rain by Rosalie Parker.

Nine is Roaring Tower by Stella Gibbons.

Last but not least is a bit of fun; The Quest for Blank Claveringi by Patricia Highsmith is number 10.

(Apart from number one, there's no rhyme nor reason for the order, I must admit.)

So to some reviews.

Don't Get Lost by Tanith Lee
I have always felt the title of a story is so important. It's a bit like the research done into Formula One racing cars: if it doesn't look good, it won't be competitive, despite the technology beneath its skin. If the title ain't right, it won't work! (Although there could be another blog post there, great stories with duff titles ... if there are any!) I digress. Don't Get Lost is a great title, and says it all about the story.
Sally is being taken home after a night out by her unsavoury boyfriend, who rather unfortunately suggests they take a short cut through a housing estate. Having missed the last bus, and despite her misgivings, she acquiesces ("all the girls were jealous. She had to be careful.") They soon become hopelessly lost, the estate consisting of identical houses. The reader is swept along on their emotional journey, from being merely annoyed that all the streets look the same, and that they seem to be going round in circles, to the realisation that there are no street signs and no people or cars; and that something is seriously wrong. "Something else though ... he hadn't wanted to think of it, perhaps. Those vans. All the same. And no cars. No, he was sure. No cars at all. But the vans had come in to deliver something, and then, what? Forgotten how to leave?"
The urban landscape is sharp as a splinter, a growing sense of dread making it a compelling read. Once the protagonists notice the similarities in their situation to that of flies trapped in a spider's web, the reader senses it may be all downhill from there. The final sentence more than justifies this, providing a shocking climax!
This is one of those tales that I have read repeatedly. It is perfectly formed. Not a word is wasted, no item of punctuation is out of place. It would be in my top ten short stories by anyone.

Dual Control by Elizabeth Walter

As I mentioned above, this is a recent discovery of mine, and has made me think about the structure of my writing. It consists only of dialogue, the events opening up to the reader through the interaction between an unhappily married couple.  
Freda and Eric are on their way to the Brady's place for a dinner party. As they drive along an isolated road, there is an incident. Eric would seem to have knocked over a woman trying to thumb a lift, her car having broken down. At first the reader is led to believe it was just a glancing blow. Eric refuses to stop, and as they argue over who was at fault, it selfishly occurs to them how awkward it would be if the woman was on her way to their party; and, sure enough, she is there, albeit somewhat dishevelled. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the incident had been more serious than they had admitted to themselves. "You may not be drunk but anyone would think you are, the way you're driving. No wonder you hit that girl. And it wasn't just a shove. I think you've killed her."
The plot itself could be called predictable, but the way it is written is the great attraction for me. Freda and Eric have a precarious relationship, and the interest lies as much in their interaction, and of how this incident both pushes them apart and draws them together simultaneously. The ending is thoroughly satisfying in more than one way.
(Another great title, don't you think!)

The Rain, by Rosalie Parker
This is a fairly conventional affair, but it's a favourite of mine because of how beautifully written and evocative it is. This is another story I have gone back to and re-read a number of times.
Geraldine is having a break from "November-grey London, to cast off the routine of work." She has rented a cottage in a picturesque Yorkshire village. She is alone because her married boyfriend is unable to join her; and she is about to find out both that there really is a north-south divide, and that the weather is often worse in the north. Indeed, the constant rain reminds me of the church bells ringing relentlessly in Aickman's Ringing the Changes.
The Rain is a kind of a morality tale, highlighting the prejudice that still exists between country and city life. Geraldine is uneasy, feeling she is being judged by the villagers, particularly Mrs Williams, the "woman who cleaned the cottage." As she lets slip details about her less than blameless private life, it becomes clear that her behaviour may very well be unremarkable in the big smoke, but in such a small and remote village everything is scrutinised. A visit to the local pub is the turning point of the story, where she drinks too much and "engages in some rather outrageous flirting." Unable to recall exactly what she had revealed, her perception of the village changes, and it is only a matter of time before she gets her comeuppance. But is it deserved?
The Rain is an atmospheric, well-paced tale which is an ideal opener for The Old Knowledge,
Parker's collection of short stories.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Shadwell Stair

I have just been reminded by that excellent author Chris Hill that I love poetry. So here is the first of what may become a series of blog posts featuring my favourite poems ... with some kind of strange, weird or supernatural connection. I would love to hear about poems that are special to you.

This is Shadwell Stair, by Wilfred Owen.

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
      Along the wharves by the water-house,
      And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.

Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
      And eyes tumultuous as the gems
      Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.

Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
      Where I watch always; from the banks
      Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.

I walk till the stars of London wane
      And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
      But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

In the Penal Colony

Don't you just love a brutal landscape?
Today we caught the ferry across to Cockatoo Island, which operated as a convict penal settlement between 1839 and 1869. It is now a heritage site open to the public. Being an isolated island, it would have been easy to secure, with the convicts always 'under the eye of security'. Apparently they were often subject to harsh living and working conditions, and looking around the bleakly inhospitable place now, it's easy to imagine what might have happened.
Quarrying, general labouring and construction were carried out here by the convicts, and they built all their own living quarters on the island themselves. Which would I guess have provided some motivation!
From 1851, it was used as a shipyard, Navy ships being built here for two world wars as well as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. There is a fascinating juxtaposition of beautiful scenery (the harbour bridge can be seen across the water as a backdrop), harsh concrete bunkers from the wars, huge empty warehouses and rusty cranes from the shipbuilding years, and stunning Federation architecture. The whole place feels post-apocalyptic, and is so big that it's easy to find yourself all alone between the towering buildings and the long-unused industrial grain silos. It was compelling to look through the isolation cells, basically caves with barred windows set into the foot of cliffs. I was not expecting such a striking landscape, and I could not resist taking some pictures. I certainly felt inspired to use this place in a story. Now, maybe I need a plot ...

Harsh landscape: graffiti on some concrete grain silos.
The island has a number of tunnels through the cliffs, once used for transporting heavy items on the rails you can just make out in my photo. Needless to say, these are atmospheric places! The kids loved running along them, though.

A heavily secured door in an empty, crumbling warehouse, leading ... nowhere. Locked from the inside, but why?
The place is a maze, and there's no one around ...
Ghosts from the old shipyard
The rusting hulks of disused warehouses are ready to swallow up the unwary!

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Darker Times and a Liebster list

I found out this morning that my short story 'Abraham's Bosom' will be included in the next Darker Times Anthology (Volume 3). I'm very pleased it will see the light of day; it was another one of my early stories which I have since re-written. I think I have shortened it by about a third, and it is much improved! Many thanks to Jessica Grace Coleman at Darker Times.

I also found out I have been nominated for the Liebster Award by Paul D. Dail. Thanks Paul, it's a great honour! Here are the requirements:
• I have to list 11 random facts about me, and answer the 11 questions asked by the person who nominated me.
• I am to nominate 11 other people, and come up with 11 new questions.  I can’t nominate the person who nominated me (for obvious reasons.)
• I paste the award picture on my blog.

Here are 11 (very boring) facts about me, then:
1. I asked permission to leave the family dining table after each meal until the age of 27.
2. I produced artwork for Thomas the Tank Engine comics when I was an illustrator.
3. I try to run every day if I can. Can't miss my Sunday long run!
4. I love motorcycles. I used to own a Kawasaki GPz1100 and rode everywhere flat out. That was before speed cameras, mind you ... and before my marriage.
5. I ate the same kind of cereal for breakfast for around 20 years.
6. I used to play squash fairly seriously.
7. I loved school dinners.
8. I hate shopping.
9. I can't swim very well (more of an issue here in Aus than back in the UK.)
10. My father and grandfather owned MuDu watches, which I still have. I occasionally buy one if one comes up on ebay ... so I have a small collection.
11. New Order is my favourite band (but I have many favourites.)

These are Paul's questions for me:
1. What was one of the first books to have a profound effect on you (interpret as you will)?
1984 taught me that books could be bitter-sweet.

2. More peanut butter or more jelly on your sandwich?
Peanut butter (has to be quality stuff though!)

3. What’s one of the scariest things you’ve done?
Took some flying lessons.

4. What’s one of the stupidest things you’ve done?
Found out that 110mph can be attained in 3rd gear on a particular dual-carriageway if a GPz1100 is ridden to work every day.

5. What’s your first choice: beer, wine, hard liquor, soda, other?
Beer but rarely. (Mainly green tea.)
6. For #5, your favorite brand/style/cocktail?
Cooper's ale. (Mildura for the tea.)

7. If you could live anywhere for a year (money and/or reality are no object), where would it be?
Right here. Sydney's pretty good!

8. Who is one person who has been a big inspiration to you?
Haile Gebrselassie

9. If you were given the choice between losing your sight or your hearing, which would it be?

10. Speaking of hearing, who is one of your favorite bands or musicians?
The Smiths (see my own facts above.)

11. Have you ever done karaoke?
No. My reserved nature would never allow me to even try.

My 11 nominees:
(I'm including a number of people I know little about, in order to find out more about them.  I'm very sorry if you’ve already been nominated, or if you are irritated by me nominating you.)

1. James Everington
2. Chris Hill
3. Dionne Lister
4. Gary Dolman
5. Gregory James
6. Melissa Pearl
7. Bev Spicer
8. Clare Adams
9. Lisa Corelli
10. Caffeine & Chapters
11. Riley Banks

Finally, here are the questions for my nominees:
1. Do you write your first drafts by hand?
2. Do you follow more than 10 blogs?
3. Do you play a musical instrument?
4. Given the choice, which opera would you attend?
5. e-book or paper book?
6. Do you use an electric blanket?
7. Do you write in cafes?
8. Is there a film that has influenced you greatly?
9. Do you keep a diary?
10. Which foodstuff do you like the least?
11. Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?

Well, that's it then. I look forward to finding out your responses!