disturbing atmosphere

June 4, 2020

I’m not aware of Enid Blyton writing a series of ghost stories, but she came close in the ones about Barney, the circus boy, his ordinary middle class mates and the politically-incorrect spaniel, Loony. They were all set in places with a disturbing atmosphere and names beginning with R – The Ring o’ Bells Mystery, The Rubadub Mystery, etc. At the age of eight, I decided I wanted to write books a bit like those.

Phil Rickman
Interviewed by Brenden King, 23rd July 2019

I grew up with a love for the Surrealists which has never faded: in particular, the works of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Hans Bellmer, and Paul Delvaux, along with those adopted by or close to the Surrealists, like Edward Burra, James Ensor, and Frida Kahlo. Graphic artists like Piranesi, Dürer, Escher, Bellmer’s pen-and-ink work, Mervyn Peake, Tenniell, and so on, are influential. As to modern comics and graphic art, I admire David Sandlin, Charles Burns, Kim Dietsch, Julie Doucet, and Chris Ware; from the post-punk comics underground, Burne Hogarth; and more mainstream British children’s comic artists like Ken Reid. I draw myself, pen and ink stuff, often illustrating my own stories.

I was always into everything to do with sf, fantasy, horror (as well as things set under the sea, which, along with dinosaurs, is honorary fantasy). I grew up on children’s sf by people like Douglas Hill and Nicholas Fisk, as well as horror comics, which were, in retrospect, deeply odd and unpleasant. Michael de Larrabeiti’s BORRIBLES books [The Borribles (1976), The Borribles Go For Broke (1981), and Across the Dark Metropolis (1986)] were massively influential. When I was a kid I read pretty much any sf I could get my hands on, so there was a lot of good pulp along with the classics—people like Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and Linsday Gutteridge — and that reveling in genre influenced me a lot. I read a review of Perdido Street Station which said that for a Clarke winner it’s surprisingly unashamed of its roots, which I take as a massive compliment. Overall, though, what I liked best was the aesthetic of alienation, of the macabre and grotesque, so I preferred New Worlds-type stuff to American Golden Age: Aldiss, Harrison, Moorcock, Disch, Ballard, and the like are all heroes of mine.

I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon [the setting of Perdido Street Station] is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry [1976] and Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates [1983], but they’d permeated me so deeply I was initially less conscious of them than of other influences. The very first (never-ever-to-see-the-light-of-day) New Crobuzon story I wrote was about the invention of photography in a fantasy city—which is precisely the plot of Aldiss’s book. I’d forgotten that I was remembering it. I’m still scared of inadvertently ripping people off.

I always loved classic ghost stories, like Henry James’s and Robert Aikman’s. I liked Lovecraft, and then maybe eight years ago I started getting very interested in early weird fiction: Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, E.H. Visiak, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, David Lindsay (though he’s not in quite the same tradition, there are shared aesthetics). There were two things I found particularly compelling about this work. One was the peculiarities of pulp style. If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft, for example, they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s unputdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing,” but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works. Though I also love much more minimalist writers, it’s that lush approach that I’m drawn to in terms of my own writing, for good and bad.

The other thing I liked about weird fiction was its location at the intersection of sf, fantasy, and horror. Lovecraft’s monsters do magic, but they’re time-traveling aliens with über-science, who do horrific things. Hodgson’s are similar (though less scientifically savvy). David Lindsay’s “spaceship” travels back to Arcturus by totally spurious—and not even remotely convincing—science, but it masquerades as sf. I find that bleeding of genre edges completely compelling. There’s been a (to my mind rather scholastic and sterile) debate about whether Perdido Street Station is sf or fantasy (or even horror—it made the long-list for the Bram Stoker Award). I always say that what I write is weird fiction, in that it is self-consciously at the intersection.

Some writers loom in my consciousness for single works, some for their whole oeuvre. M. John Harrison I consider one of the greatest living writers in any genre, and his influence on me is immense. Mervyn Peake, for his combination of lush language and aesthetic austerity; Gene Wolfe, for oddly similar reasons; all of Iain Sinclair’s books, but particularly Downriver [1991]; Alasdair Gray, especially Lanark [1981]; Russell Hoban, especially Riddley Walker [1980]; a book called Junglist by people calling themselves “Two Fingers” and “James T. Kirk” [1997]. I find Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre [1847] continually astonishing.

I love short stories, and there are writers like Borges, Calvino, and Stefan Grabinski whose short work is a constant reference, but there are others who loom large for me on the strength of a single piece: Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over,” E.L. White’s “Lukundoo,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Saki’s “Sredni Vastar.” I just finished Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen [2001], and can already feel her influencing me. Writers I’ve come to more recently include John Crowley, Unica Zürn (Hans Bellmer’s partner), Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Thomas.

The biggest recent influence on me, though, is not an sf writer: it’s the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, who died fourteen years ago. I first read him a decade ago, but came back to him recently and read all his published work. He’s quite astonishing. His influences are radically different from the folklorist tradition that one often associates with African literature. He writes in the tradition of the Beats, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, and he marshals their tools to talk about the freedom struggle, the iniquities of post-independence Zimbabwe, racism, loneliness, and so on. His poetry and prose are almost painfully intense and suffer from all the problems you’d imagine—the writing can be prolix and clunky—but the way he constantly wrestles with English (which wasn’t his first language) is extraordinary. He demands sustained effort from the reader, so that the work is almost interactive—reading it is an active process of collaboration with the writer—and the metaphors are simultaneously so unclichéd and so apt that he reinvigorates the language. The epigram to The Scar is taken from his most obscure book, Black Sunlight [1980], and he is a very strong presence throughout my recent writing.

China Miéville
Interviewed by Joan Gordon, November 2003

ghost stories

December 30, 2019

Writers of ghost stories today are at a disadvantage compared to their predecessors — and the situation is getting worse. That is of course because, as with ‘westerns’ or other ‘genre’ fiction, there are a strictly limited number of plots and incidents possible. Ghost behaviour is ‘old hat’, and the writer seeking acceptance today needs to come up with something a bit original or different.

David G. Rowlands
Introduction to: The Executor and Other Ghost Stories

The Demon Lover

October 31, 2019

What unites ghost stories and folksong? A Venn diagram of the two would surely put love and death in the centre. Robert Aickman wrote in the introduction to The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that the eerie tale fulfils our “need to escape, at least occasionally, from a mechanistic world, ever more definable, ever more predictable, and, therefore, ever more unsatisfying and frustrating.”

The traditional song, often set in a vague and archaic time, can be equally attractive to those who wish to escape the prosaic world. However, the folk song and the ghost story do not ignore the stuff of life. Instead, they transform it into art that captivates our attention while making us engage with the problems of our humanity.

A case in point is that of “The Demon Lover”. This ballad, which dates back to 1685 and has since become part of the corpus of traditional song in Britain, Ireland and North America, tells of a woman whose lover returns from sea only to find her married to another man. The old flame re-pledges his love, telling her that he turned down a king’s daughter for her sake. He promises her wealth and persuades her to leave her husband and young children, and they sail off in one of his seven ships. When at sea, however, he either reveals his true identity (supernatural) or their intended destination (Hell) and, with that, the ship sinks.

This ballad speaks of the dangers posed to lovers by the strength of romantic bonds, the way that love can be a gateway to danger and dissolution if not handled with care, and the return of spirits (emotional or literal) to make their claims upon, or take advantage of, our humanity. These themes have been constants in the horror and ghost story traditions for at least two centuries.

Love, especially its more physical expression, has tended to be the preserve of the vampire in popular culture and literature. However, while the vampire desires our life force, the ghost desires us in our entirety. The vampire lover, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Stoker’s Dracula, comes either out of nowhere or from somewhere “out there”. Ghosts, on the other hand, come out of our past, from intimate spaces, or even out of our thoughts. They come to take us back with them, or at least to ensure that no one else can have us.

Lewis Hurst
‘Well met, well met, my own true love’: Five Demon Lovers

Bryan Silva

It’s that time of year again. The shadows grow longer, the days colder. We light fires and candles, close our doors against the night and tell tales to terrify ourselves. Why when the darkness presses against the windows and the winds howl do we concentrate on our fears? The terror of the unknown, the closeness of death and decay?

For the rest of the year we keep these thoughts at bay. It is only when we feel most vulnerable to the in-definable, to the spirits that we don’t really believe in, to the afterlife we hope exists, but of which we can find no evidence, that we indulge in an orgy of spine chilling stories.

Misha Herwin
Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories

September 7, 2015


She took an apple from the bowl
and cut it into four pieces:
two for him and two for her.

They shared everything equally.
He told her nothing else mattered,
they had each other.

She fingered the bruises
he couldn’t see. Since the accident
he had stopped touching her flesh.

She caught the apple-pips in her hands.
They told each other ghost stories,
pretending to be Mary and Percy Shelley.

Each waited for the other to fall asleep;
each wanting to be the first
to dream up Frankenstein’s monster.

Helen Kitson

(Helen Kitson is an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry pamphlet Seeing’s Believing was published by Scratch and was short-listed for the Forward Best First Collection Prize in 1992. This was followed by a full collection, Love Among the Guilty, published by Bloodaxe in 1995. A further collection, Tesserae, was published by Oversteps in 2003. Her latest collection,The Family Romance, is available at Indigo Dreams Bookshop. Her poem ‘Day of the Dead’, from The Family Romance, was Sabotage’s Halloween Special choice).

Creepy, dour, John Laurie (as Algernon Blackwood) introduced the show each week. The shrill shriek of an owl, then Laurie half in shadow, speaking softly, confidentially to each and every one of us. Wednesday night’s “Tales of Mystery” materialised on our TV screen. Laurie would roll the whites of his eyes, glancing to right then to left, and you would feel yourself isolated and strangely at risk as this sinister show began.

The very first episode was the spooky “Terror of the Twins” which starred Malcolm Russell as Sir George Fletton; John Kidd and Aimee Delamain co-starred. Sir George wanted but one thing in life, he craved a male heir, but with the birth of twin boys to his wife, Sir George’s desire turns to hatred and madness.

“The Promise”, the second show in this macabre circus, concerned a student of Edinburgh University named Marriott who is visited by a friend not seen for some years. The friend looks close to starvation, and Marriott feeds him and lets him sleep. But all is not as it seems. An old promise will come back to haunt poor Marriott. Dinsdale Landon and Derrick Sherwin starred.

“The Man who was Milligan” starred a young Harry H Corbett (pre-Steptoe & Son) and Joan Newell. Harry H was the young man who sensed the mysterious Chinese picture on his wall had come to life. The boat with its solitary occupant moved in the darkness. Eventually the boat had two occupants.

“The Tradition” – who having heard them could ever forget the terrible sound of those horse’s hooves clattering on cobbled stones? (“It’s only the mail van, dear…”) Michael Aldridge and Ann Castle listened in horror as the pale horse came for their fever racked son. But the boy recovered and the horse returned for another, unsuspecting rider.

“Accessory before the fact” – Martin stumbles into a supernatural trap at the crossroads; the young traveler’s encounter with a tramp unfolds into a nightmare where nothing is as it seems. Charles Morgan and John Glyn-Jones starred.

There were three episodes in particular that haunt me still, all these long years later, each introduced as usual by Laurie who wore the darkness about him like some mysterious cloak of menace. His brooding presence overshadowed everything.

“Confession” – A wounded man returned from the front during the Great War, slightly shell shocked, alone, walks through a thick London fog (It is late and he’s missed the last train). All looks strange and unusual. He hears a sound. Beside him appears a dead comrade who accompanies him. One minute he’s there, then he’s gone, only to return seconds later. Silent, expressionless, unsettling. Ultimate the man, Paul Maxwell, meets a young woman, Petra Davies and offers to escort her safely home (foolish, foolish man, thinks the viewer).

At the time of viewing this episode, it was particularly relevant as we’d recently had some dreadful fogs, real pea-soupers where you became lost at the drop of a hat, where sound was muffled to an almost unnatural silence, and where people became simply shapes that shifted in the grey fog, insubstantial as ghosts.

“The empty sleeve” – a musician, Isidore Hyman’s desire for the small Strad (Guarnerius, I know in the original story. But I’m sure in the TV episode it was a Stradivarius?) owned by a couple of violin collectors (brothers), leads to diabolical pacts when he declares he would give his soul to own it. One of the collectors, John Gilmer disturbed a black cat in the room where the violin is kept. He lashed out with a whip (a Turkish sword in the original story)taken from the wall almost severing one of the cat’s front legs. And, of course, when Hyman makes a reappearance his arm is missing, the end of the empty sleeve of his dinner jacket tucked neatly in his pocket. This episode starred Walter Hudd, Hugh Burden and Paul Rogers. It was exceptionally powerful and disturbing. Especially the scene where Hyman frenetically plays the violin, his face positively demonical to observe.

“Ancient Sorceries” was certainly the stuff of nightmares! A young man, a tourist travelling by train, is persuaded to alight in a small remote French hill town. A bad mistake to make. Eerie from those first opening seconds the story takes our young hero into a spider’s web of secrets and ancient mysteries. Michael Bates starred with Jacques Cey and Selma Vaz Dias (whose eyes transposed into those of a cat ended the episode and haunted me for weeks after).

But enough, enough. Who today is interested in these old gems? They certainly don’t make television dramas like these any more. These were creations, interpretations, emotional depictions of the ethereal and supernatural, with good actors and script writers. Today we are content with the third rate, the plastic over the gold. The effect.

Where on television today could you watch anything as subtle as “Chinese Magic” (Helen Lindsay, Peter Williams and Hugh Burden)? Or the conversations between the reporter Williams and the murderer “Max Hensig” with its disturbing after echoes?

Answer: You can’t, and you won’t.

Episode list
The Promise
The Man who was Milligan
The Tradition
The Empty Sleeve
Accessory before the fact
The Woman’s Ghost Story
Chinese Magic
Max Hensig
The Man who found out
Ancient Sorceries
Deferred Appointment
The Pikerstaffe Cast
The Telephone
The Call
The Wolves of God
Old Clothes
The Doll
Egyptian Sorcery
The Damned
The Second Generation
A Case of Eavesdropping
Petershin and Mr. Snide
The Lodger
The Insanity of Jones
Dream Cottage