Review of ‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris.

Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.  

Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair. 

Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.

The Supernatural Charm of the English Countryside

It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved. 

In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.  

In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.  

For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Epona is also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.

Four Uncanny Tales in One Volume

Although I have been working on a novel for almost three years, it has yet to see the light of day, for I keep getting distracted by ideas for shorter pieces. Thus it is that over the past eighteen months or so I have published nine tales – novelettes and novellas – on Kindle. None have been long enough to publish in paperback format individually, so I have waited until I have had a sufficient quantity available to issue anthologies. The first, Anthology: Wry Out West, came out last spring, and now the second – Uncanny Tales – has just been published as a paperback. It is also available in Kindle format

So, what does this new anthology contain, you may wonder. Four tales in all, the covers of which you see pictured in the collage above. It is likely that you may not recognise them, as I’ve given them a revamp this week in an attempt to make them look a little more appealing. One of the stories – The Rude Woman of Cerne – was too long to include in the first collection, so is found here alongside the first three novelettes in the Tales of the Uncanny series: The Ghost of Scarside Beck, At Fall of Night, and Epona. The last two of these tales are set in Victorian Wiltshire, and whilst standing independent of each other, are linked by two characters, one of whom is central to both stories.  

Within these pages the reader will encounter four spirits: a mediaeval animalistic heretic; a personification of Death that has journeyed far from its Breton homeland; a Celtic goddess thirsting for vengeance, and a mysterious sickle-wielding hedger. Some are guardians of their place and of their values, caring not for contemporary social mores, or those who cleave to them. Woe to those who care to transgress what they deem to be right! Others wreak a vengeance upon the living to make them atone for perceived injustices, unleashing chaos in the personal lives and relationships of their chosen victims. Beatrice Clemens, the eponymous Rude Woman of Cerne, is something of a living spirit too, and she’s equally rigid in what she believes to be right and just, and doesn’t she just like to let everyone know what those beliefs are! The tone of this particular novella, which is the final one to be encountered in this collection, is markedly different from the others, being primarily satirical, although it does also feature a pronounced supernatural element. It is hoped, therefore, that the reader will finish Uncanny Tales with a laugh, although perhaps a shudder too.  

You can preview and purchase the paperback version of Uncanny Tales by clicking on the link here, or on either of the images in this post. The Kindle version may be accessed by clicking here. Kindle Unlimited subscribers may read the volume for free. As for my novel, I’m not writing anything else – in terms of fiction, that is – until it is finished.

Review of ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner

Garner’s novel is a curious affair, and all the better for it. Compact, and spare in its prose, it manages to pack much into the generously-spaced text of its 158 pages. Interweaving two periods and two sets of characters united by a single space – the eponymous Pennine valley of the title – he creates a tale in which the landscape becomes a place of enchantment, possessed of an atmosphere dense enough to hold the imprint of memories of lives and events long since passed.  

It opens with a packman and his train of horses amidst a snowstorm on an open hillside track in 1755, and it was thanks to a short and enigmatic inscription in memory of this John Turner, that Garner’s imagination set to work in crafting this piece of prose. Turner died in that storm, and but for that bare fact and mention of the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow by his side, nothing more concrete is known. Garner’s creative imagining provides the reader with a plausible character and tale behind the name, embedded within a local community linked by his wanderings to the outside world, but resolutely insular, and minded to observe its own customs and ways. Pagan echoes resound about the valley of Thursbitch, its eighteenth-century inhabitants thinking nothing of their mushroom-induced hallucinogenic rites, which with its sacrificial climax brings to mind the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. They speak in dialect, faithfully rendered and richly textured, that some readers may not find to their taste. To my mind, however, it lends the tale an authenticity that it would otherwise lack.  

The lives of these characters somehow intersect with those of an academic with a penchant for geology, and her friend, a Catholic priest, who live on the cusp of the twenty-first century. They too are enamoured with Thursbitch, but they are transitory visitors, rather than residents, who tread its paths for leisure rather than trade. A vessel fashioned from Blue John, that tumbles from above and through time, brings their worlds into contact, and fleeting glimpses suggest that the span of the years has been bridged on more than one occasion.  

It is a tale of love and death, and the nature of time, place, and enchantment. The lives of both ‘couples’ is ultimately marred by loss, but Thursbitch, and their attachment to it, remains, seemingly, outside of time itself. An enchanting read.

Twelfth Night Old and New

Today we find ourselves enter the last day of Christmastide, traditionally marked by Twelfth Night celebrations that have in recent years dwindled to near extinction. Whereas it once served as a highlight of the festive celebratory calendar, a night of feasting and revelry, it is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of the country. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland where it frequently takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January. If you should happen to be wondering why there is such a marked divergence in dates, this is all down to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Britain which took place in September 1752, which caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform. 

The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of this practice illustrates, it is rather more likely that it is the participants who derive any enjoyment and benefit from its conduct (providing that they don’t overdo it on the cider of course). Perhaps it is because of this focus upon the future and the fruit of the year to come that Twelfth Night, unlike the immediate lead-up to Christmas, is not traditionally associated with ghost stories in Britain; it is focused not upon death, but rebirth. Moreover, the days are now beginning to perceptibly lengthen, and the inward focus of Christmas itself, which generally centres upon the family and stirs memories of those no longer with us with whom we celebrated Christmases past, is gone, as we turn once again to the wider world of work and society.  

Such a focus would, therefore, seem to be uncongenial to the ghost story, although I do know of one that specifically focuses upon Twelfth Night. It opens with a disorientating scene amidst a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night shortly after the local menfolk have returned from the trenches, and despite the ritual’s traditional future focus, its reinstitution has been undertaken with a view to restoring a past order that has been permanently ruptured by the Great War. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale.  

Returning to the present, the picture of the tree seen at the beginning of this post was taken recently in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!  

Time Travel in 2017

It had been intended to spend the better part of this year in the 1670s and 1680s, before skipping a couple of centuries to find myself in the 1920s by November, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Whereas the year began amidst the magic, superstition and suspicion of the 1680s, in the company of Devon cunning man Robert Tooley (resulting in the publication of The Cleft Owl), and it did then proceed, as intended, to the Cornwall of the preceding decade, my imagination insisted that I turn my attention elsewhere. What led to this change of plan? The discovery of a sinister, bizarre, and unexplained crime that took place in 1530s Yorkshire, but if you should think that this prompted me to focus upon that decade, then you would be wrong, at least in the first instance, for it hurtled me forward to the 1940s, and then back to the Edwardian period. ‘But, where then is the resultant tale?’ I hear you protest. I have not finished it yet, but I will. Why not? Well, all was progressing well, until something happened. 

This autumn I took a break in an out of the way part of the Lake District, and there experienced something the like of which I have never experienced before, and for which neither I, nor my wife (who shared this experience), can find any satisfactory rational explanation. Thus did The Ghost of Scarside Beck force itself upon me, finding its way to publication before October was out. Although the spirit may have stood without the confines of time, the characters of this tale were firmly located in the 1990s. Time to return to Edwardian Yorkshire, I thought to myself, but no, my imagination had resolved otherwise, having decided that it wished to spend some time amidst the world of ghostly Victorian gothic, sending me hurtling back to 1843, and then forward to 1899. Where? In Wiltshire. Involving whom? A talented, and superstitious, Breton artist, and his subject – the alluring Lady Helena Brocklington. December was thus ushered in with At Fall of Night, which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in the UK. 

As to where I find myself with my writing at this moment, another supernatural tale set in 1840s England is being penned (yes, that verb is appropriate, as its initial draft is being written in longhand), with the hope being that it will see the light of day before winter is out. What comes next? Well, according to my plans – and you have seen how they have panned out this year – 2018 will see me returning to 1906, before heading back to 1676, and then ending the year in early 1920s Devon. All being well, the coming year will see the publication of my first novel, which by then will have been more than three years in the writing, owing to the odd interruption, or ten.

Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories’

Book titles are sometimes misleading, perhaps no more so than in this instance, for the stories contained in this volume were not penned by Dahl, but selected by him as being exemplary pieces within the genre. That said, I was aware of this fact when I received this as a welcome Christmas present, so was not disappointed with its content. Dahl’s only contribution is in the form of an introductory essay, which outlines how he came to be tasked with selecting a number of ghost stories for adaptation for a US television series many years ago; this also outlines his thoughts on what makes a good ghost story.  

As with any selection of tales, the reader’s enjoyment will, to at least a certain extent, be conditioned by the coincidence, or otherwise, of his or her taste with that of the editor. In this instance, Dahl lets us know that he’s a very picky reader by stating that he managed to find only two dozen genuinely good stories amongst the 749 that he read for this project, fourteen of which are published between these covers. Luckily for me, there seems to have been a considerable overlap between my taste and that of the editor in this instance, for of the fourteen, I found eleven of them quite gripping.  

Strangely, not all of these tales are ghost stories, but they are nonetheless all possessed of a heavy dose of the uncanny. Two of the best are the introductory and closing tales, the first of which – W.S. by L.P. Hartley – features not a ghost, but an author’s creation come to life to seek an audience with his maker. It is a humorous piece, but unsettling all the same, and got me thinking as to which of my own characters I would not much relish meeting. Authors beware!  

The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford, manages to elicit a frisson of nautical terror accompanied by the salty stench and decay of something that has momentarily escaped the depths of Davy Jones’s Locker. Other spirits that stalk the pages of this book are possessed of a most malign intent, such as the eponymous character in A.M. Burrage’s The Sweeper, and the felt-hatted visitor in Edith Wharton’s Afterward, but others – such as the shade in Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop, – are of a more benign disposition. 

Overall, this book makes for a satisfying and rewarding read for those whose tastes incline more towards the traditional ghost story, but would probably not satisfy anyone who favours gore and breathless action-driven narrative. I would have given this volume five stars, but for the inclusion of Elias and Draug by Jonas Lie, which was not a ghost story, and by Dahl’s own admission, not a very good translation from the Norwegian. 

In the mood for some fresh shivers? Here are a couple of new ghostly works that you may find to your taste.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.

Review of ‘The Witch’ by Robert Eggers

At last, some two years after it made its debut at the cinema, I have watched Robert Eggers’s The Witch, and was relieved to find that it did not disappoint. From the polarised reviews that it had received, it seemed probable that it would be to my taste, as those which were critical tended to focus upon its slow pace. Such a criticism, presumably, derives from the expectations of a particular type of cinemagoer reared upon formulaic fare consisting of gore and splatter aplenty, and precious little by way of atmosphere, plot, or characterisation. A similar divide appears to exist in the virtual world of Amazon, where books, physical or electronic, are funnelled into rather rigidly defined genres which quite often do not permit the degree of subtle differentiation that the author might prefer.  

Returning to The Witch, it is a handsome film endowed with an authentic period feel, much attention evidently having been lavished upon ensuring that costume, architecture and the accoutrements of everyday life were appropriate to its 1630 New England setting. This matched the careful scripting of the dialogue, which although a little muffled at times (admittedly, one of my ears does need syringing) was convincing. The cinematography was beguiling, with the use of chiaroscuro in certain shots, where the light of the fire in the darkness accentuated the features of the faces and bodies that surrounded it, bringing to mind the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. The concluding scene, with its fantastical witches’ sabbat, was particularly striking in this regard, and succeeded in creating a colourful depiction of witches borne aloft, which is more familiar to our imaginations from the monochrome world of sixteenth and seventeenth-century woodcuts. A number of scenes and images seemed to quote the prints of Albrecht Dürer, particularly the recurring presence of the hare, as well as the glimpses of wizened hags that populated some of its nightmarish moments. The forest was appropriately bleak and forbidding, with one scene, where Caleb encounters and falls prey to his own Eve, bringing to mind the dangers that lurk in the tales of Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga. His price for this encounter is to cough up a bloodied apple whilst gripped in a fit of religious frenzy. 

The acting too is commendable, with all members of the cast, including the youngest, providing worthy performances. They successfully manage to convey the liminality of a dissenting family cast out from a colony of dissenters who themselves in turn were outcasts from their own homeland; a group of individuals on the edge of a wilderness both physical, and spiritual. What we watch is filtered through the popular beliefs of the time: we witness evil as an all too real and tangible reality, that although external to, and independent of, the fallen sinners that comprise the body of humanity, acts in and through these bodies to bring about its own nefarious ends. Its horror, when compared to many films that are bracketed within that genre today, is comparatively understated, but it is none the less horrific for that: abduction, murder, hysteria, possession and unnatural death, claim all seven members of this family in one way or another. Comfortable viewing, it is not, but cinema would be in a far better state, creatively speaking, if more such films were to be produced. Its relatively modest budget of $4 million, and subsequent box office success, demonstrates that solid pieces of engaging cinematography can be produced without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Review of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions

Detail from Wilhelm List’s ‘Transfiguration of St Elizabeth’

This is the most famous and highly rated of Onions’s stories, as well the first one that I have read in a weighty 657-page anthology of his ghostly tales. When any story, book, or film is spoken of so highly, I harbour a fear that I will be disappointed in what I find when I come to encounter that work, but in this instance, my apprehension proved to be misplaced. Then again, I must own that my misgivings of this type are generally attached to contemporary works, where marketing budgets are apt to skew the judgement of critics and public alike. As The Beckoning Fair One was first introduced to a general readership before the First World War, and continues to be recognised as a classic of its genre, it can be fairly assumed that it possesses merit, and that the passing of time has winnowed out those productions of lesser talents that have proved unworthy of a lengthy posterity. 

Although this may be a tale of a haunted house, it is of a subtle and understated kind, in which the building itself takes on as much of a personality as any of the human characters written into the story. The reader knows from the outset that it has remained long uninhabited before its protagonist – the author Paul Oleron – takes up residence there, and is thus curious, as is Oleron, as to why this should have been so. At first, he finds it a perfectly charming abode, although it has an immediate stultifying impact upon his creativity. He finds himself doubting the worth of the novel that he is working upon, particularly the merits of its central character, Romilly, who happens to be based upon a close female friend of his. Alas, it is not long before these doubts extend to his regard for the character of this friend – Elsie Bengough – whom he eventually comes to shun, despite her love for him. It would seem that it is the house, or something within it, that drives the two apart, causing him to despise her, and from the first moment that she sets foot in it, she voices the opinion that he will find it impossible to work whilst he lives there. This concern he dismisses out of hand, but that there is a latent antipathy within its structure towards his friend soon becomes apparent, owing to a couple of freakish accidents that she experiences during her visit.  

For anyone who has ever written a novel, or attempted to, Oleron’s doubts concerning the worth of his literary creation, as well as his resultant creative paralysis, will strike many a chord. Hopefully, however, that is where any element of self-recognition and identification with the character and his situation should end, as it is one that proves to be deeply disturbing, and unsettling. The novella builds slowly to a nausea-inducing denouement, in which the protagonist descends into squalor and disintegration, but as to whether the horror that is encountered in these pages derives from some presence within the building, or within the psyche of Oleron himself, is left for the reader to adjudge.