Horror without Wires

Tonight’s lecture is about the radio. Please note that if your radio is telling you not to listen to me, you need to increase your medication. Or do you? The toaster thinks otherwise…

I was raised on BBC radio comedy. Non-Brits may have to be patient for a while. My Great-Aunt Olive lived with us in the late sixties, and the wireless set was on for her all the time, mostly Radio Four – or was it the Home Service back then? Digital radio meant poking your fat boy-child fingers at the tuning dial to try and keep the signal.

Apart from the occasionally interminable cricket matches, I was free to cling to the set and absorb foreign tongues. Received Pronunciation, in other words, or BBC English (my Yorkshire accent still has to struggle to emerge some days).

Some of the shows were awful, and some sound even worse today. The Clitheroe Kid, which I thought hilarious at the age of ten, is painful to revisit. The Navy Lark is idiotic with touches of genuine humour, and The Men from the Ministry is strangely comforting, like an old uncle who drones on repeating himself now and then. Not terribly funny, though.

Round the Horne, on the other hand, was funny, is funny and probably always will be. J Peasemold Gruntfuttock from Round the Horne is immortal. I think I took to a seventies show, The Burkiss Way, only because their Eric Pode of Croydon was a character in the same vein.

Kenneth Horne’s programme was rich with innuendo, the most terrible puns and movie spoofs, and the most ludicrous introductions. The cast ridiculed and railed at each other, and the fabulous Betty Marsden ploughed her way through as the only female member of the cast, giving as good as she got.

Before you ask, I will say little about The Goons, because I didn’t understand it when I was little. I was in my later teens when I finally realised what I was listening to. My only comment will be that The Canal, with Valentine Dyall, is one of the most enjoyable radio comedy episodes I have ever heard. You had to be there.

But no horror, no ghostly tales. Maybe my parents turned it off at that point, or Great-Aunt Olive had a firewall on the set which blocked out anything spooky.

So as I grew old and less wise, I started purchasing cassettes of short ghost stories, such as those by M R James, or The Price of Fear. I haunted, and still haunt, car-boot sales and charity shops, poking into the darkest corners. I got bored with Bram Stoker after buying six different versions of Dracula, but did manage to find Christopher Lee reading Classic Tales of the Supernatural. Almost as good a voice as Valentine Dyall. And Classic Ghost Stories, which includes Dickens and E Nesbit.

I thought I was doing well until I came across two more wondrous finds, both of them via the internet.

The first was Wayne June reading H P Lovecraft. The pleasure I had from Lovecraft’s stories was multiplied thricefold by hearing Wayne June’s voice intoning The Dunwich Horror, or The Horror at Red Hook. The weakest stories were improved; the strongest ones were made magnificent. The man could read my shopping list and make me feel worried.

(I should add a note here. I must admit to being impressed by Richard Coyle’s recent Lovecraft recordings. At the Mountains Of Madness is terrific, and The Shadow over Innsmouth is pretty damned good.)

My second discovery was American and Canadian Old Time Radio. Who knew that they had recorded hundreds of classic and contemporary horror stories on their commercial channels? Most of North America, presumably. But not Yorkshire. How much richer my childhood might have been, replacing The Clitheroe Kid with Nightfall.

I found streaming audio – I always think that should be screaming audio – for many wonderful stories. I particularly like the shows Dark Fantasy and The Haunting Hour. Witch’s Tale, delivered by “Old Nancy the witch of Salem” has its moments, but my award goes to The Weird Circle.WeirdCircleBroadcast between 1943 and 1945, it had the most marvellous opening and closing lines. The show began with

“In this cave by the restless sea, we are met to call from out of past, stories strange and weird. Bell keeper, toll the bell, so that all may know that we are gathered again in The Weird Circle.”

and ended with

“From the time worn pages of the past, we have recalled (whatever the episode was). Bell Keeper, toll the bell!”

The lines were delivered with great solemnity, to the sound of surging waves, and classic writers such as Poe and de Maupassant were included. Had I heard these as a child I would have been awestruck. They’re pretty cool today. You might end up smoking a lot of Ogden’s Fine Cut Tobacco, however.

So search out mystery and horror on Old Time Radio, if you haven’t already. And I’ll be here at the same time next week. In three or four days, actually, but what the hell…

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Longdogs versus Zombies

Hey, are you an avid fan of zombie films and TV series? Do you love World War Z, and find yourself glued to The Walking Dead, or anything by George Romero?

I can’t say I do.

In fact, I could probably cope without ever tripping over another zombie for the rest of my life, in any medium you care to mention. Including my life, which is probably classed as a large rather than a medium, given my love of Pateley Bridge pork pies.

(I make one exception – the film Cockneys vs Zombies – because it features the slowest chase scene ever, where a stumbling zombie chases a pensioner with a zimmer frame. That bit is fun, believe me.)

So this entry isn’t about zombies.

It starts there, because of the way my mind works. The other day I finally remembered the title of the first zombie film I saw, White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. I didn’t actually see it in 1932, before you ask.

My interest was aroused when I found out that it was based on The Magic Island, by William Seabrook (1884-1945). Seabrook was interested in voudou, and travelled extensively. More interesting to me was that he claimed to have tasted human flesh. Accounts vary. He originally said that he was given human flesh in West Africa, and then that he had to obtain a body from a French morgue. He described it thus:

It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. Jungle Ways

I read this, and thought a lot about mild, good meat. I was brought up in the Church of the Confirmed Carnivore, you see. It was a bit like the Plymouth Brethren, but you could fancy other men if no-one was looking.

My father was a firearms dealer. We didn’t eat any of the neighbours in our tiny village, sadly. Instead, he taught me to hunt. He also taught me how to cast my own bullets and load cartridges, and we went out on the wolds to shoot rabbit and pigeon (mostly).

Out there, in the winds off the North Sea, we scanned the gorse bushes and let loose the wonky, unevenly-powered bullets from Hell. I’m not sure I was very good at the ammunition bit. And we carried home flesh for mother, who usually forced a smile.

The rabbits were paunched in the field, leaving the innards on the grass for other hunters. The pigeons were de-cropped and plucked on the kitchen floor. As the sink was sometimes filled with live crabs, this was a messy business with little hand washing.

I don’t have a gun any more, but when we took on our latest lurchers, we found out that the female had once been used for hunting. Given the hillsides full of rabbits near us, we considered the matter. Were we going to let Chilli hunt, and catch us some free dinners? A Household Meeting (me rattling on while my partner read a book and mumbled uh-huh now and then) came up with three key issues:

– If we started her back on hunting, would that make her even more likely to chase and eat the neighbourhood cats?
– How many farmers did we know who would let us do it (none)?
– What were we going to do with all the hares/rabbits, given that I was the only one who would touch them with a Polish bargee?

I have a family which considers chicken breasts to be a pretty bloody affair, and likes to live off long-dead pasta and humanely-killed salad vegetables.

Well-trained lurchers or longdogs know what to do. They have to. They hunt and take down the species(s) you train them on. You do have to proof them against going after anything that moves, but they can be taught to wander through a flock of sheep, ignore chickens and so forth. So it might be possible to train, or re-train, Chilli to focus on rabbits alone (and perhaps cats with very long ears). I can’t speak on the squirrel issue – every lurcher we’ve had has gone into a frenzy over squirrels, regardless of what we’ve told them.

Cand 8bDjango and Chilli enraged with bloodlust

Was it worth it? Even if we dealt with the first two issues, I would still be left living alone in the garage with lots of rabbit corpses. In the end we decided against the hunting, although Chilli didn’t get a vote. Perhaps that will teach her not to interfere in Labour Party leadership elections.

And today we were up at Pateley Bridge, and I had to walk the poor dog past half a dozen fenced fields full of lively bunnies. It was the Torment of Tantalus, rabbits offered but always out of reach. I was thinking, Mmm, pies; Chilli was thinking, Why wait for pies? My partner, who is a kindly soul when kept off the coffee, was thinking, Oh, they’re cute.

So my only recourse is to write to the Tory Party and ask if they want Chilli and me to hunt down some of these immigrants that are worrying them. Presumably not those who are building our houses, keeping our hospitals running and staffing our care homes. And not the ones who are half-drowned from crossing the Mediterranean.

It’s a complex issue, and I want to know – is it OK to hunt down totally unskilled, clueless immigrants with lurchers, paunch them in the car park and take them home for supper? Would William Seabrook have approved, and would they make good pork pies?

Politics, eh? Give me longdogs any time.

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The Lurking Adjectives of Doom

Put up your hand if you like adjectives. Good.

Now put up your pale, twisted claw of a hand with its squamous, flaking skin and flesh beneath which seems eldritch, almost fungoid, like some blasphemous mockery of humanity, if you really like adjectives.

Now we’re cooking.

Science fiction literature, one of my early loves, used to be plastered with things which were impregnable, unstoppable, invincible and impenetrable. The adjective ruled. Then, with equal frequency these things were pregnated, stopped, vinced and penetrated to satisfy the plot. Most SF idiots like me remember the joys of E E Doc Smith. Boy, did that man love his work.

Horror fiction, on the other hand, has always fallen back on the good ole’ indescribable.

There are two sound reasons for this. The first is that the author genuinely wants to convey something which has an impact beyond normal sensory perception, or is beyond rational description. The very best authors use subtlety, nuance and the effect on the characters to give you what you need.

And sometimes it is best not to describe. Graphic portrayal can be a risk. It reminds me of the two versions of the film Cat People. In the original 1942 version (unless my memory is shot), the menace came from shadows and suggestion. It was unsettling. The 1982 version showed what was happening quite openly and lost out in the process. But it did have a David Bowie theme song, so you takes your chances…

The second good reason for taking the indescribable route is that the author can’t think of a physical manifestation scary enough, and if they actually describe it, the readers will go “Meh! and throw the story away. I think that’s a great way out. Throw in some hints, write the rest of the story and hope that the readers can imagine things better than you can write. Why should writers do all the work?

There is a third reason, but it’s unkind to mention it. So I will. There are authors who can’t use adjectives (or similes) very well, and think that they have found an escape clause.

The creature was so big, no, enormous, well, really large, like a, what’s the word, you know, those bloody great fish, or maybe an eel but like those congers, not the jellied ones, and it had tendrils as large as, oh bugger…

The creature was indescribable.

My particular bugbear is where something supposedly can’t be put into words and then, in the next paragraph (or fifteen), everything is depicted in graphic detail anyway.

Under the guttering light of our one remaining torch, we finally managed to break open the tomb. I slid the stone lid to one side, my arms aching, and there, inside, we saw the indescribable horror that had once been St John Arthur Masters…

“Oh, wait a minute.” said Sandra, squinting. “I’ll tell you what we’ve got here. It’s a ratty old man with half his skin falling off, wearing a shroud which badly needs a wash. He’s deliquescing a bit, which is icky, and his nails need clipping. I think we should set fire to him and go for a pint.” Sandra’s First Pony by J Linseed Grant

On the other hand, I actually enjoy those stories which astonish by their use of language. By which I mean the ones where an earthquake has released a slumbering thesaurus. There are so many lurid adjectives that you have no idea what the central monster/spectre/alien looks like. It has been stamped to death by the thesaurus, which raises its head at the end and roars in triumph. I love a good B-movie.

I read a fantasy short story (no names) in bed last night, on my bargain-basement tablet. And then I read it out to my partner, and to the dogs. We laughed and wept; we shuddered. The adjective count was so high that we genuinely could not understand what had happened, even on a second reading. There wasn’t any space left for nouns and verbs.

H P Lovecraft, one of my favourite authors, was not exactly immune to the curse of the adjective. Which is to say, he used too many of them. Indescribable, antiquarian and shunned spring to mind. In fact, I had to check with The Arkham Archivist. Apparently hideous is the clear winner, with 260 uses in his complete works.

Dunwich_HorrorA subtle film interpretation of Lovecraft’s writing

Out of curiosity I picked up Lovecraft and Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold, which was in a pile by my desk, and looked up some descriptions of monster situations. Adjectives formed 20 – 25% of such passages. And I think you’ll agree that such an exercise demonstrates quite clearly that… I don’t have a life.

Fortunately Lovecraft’s ideas, and the impressions he conveys, far outweigh most quibbles about his writing style. He sought to portray events and beings beyond human comprehension, always a fun way to spend an evening. He also had some awareness of his own approach, as demonstrated in this passage from The Dunwich Horror:

It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions.

He gets points for that. And I am quite keen on “teratologically fabulous”, also from Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. You don’t come across combinations like that every day.

Don’t get me wrong. I make my own mistakes when writing. My particular weakness has always been for metaphors, where people have granite faces and spider hands, that sort of thing. It works really well for a golem infested with arachnids, but it can be a tad overused. Mea culpa.

In conclusion, because this entry is already too long, I can only hope that I’ve used the word “indescribable” so much that you can’t stand to hear it or come across it any more. In which case, my work is done.

In an unnameable, tenebrous and decadent sort of way, of course.

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Of Gods and Garden Rollers

Last time I was rattling on about some neglected writers of early ghost stories. We’d reached, rather oddly, Edgar Wallace and his questionable character Sanders of the River. You’ll have to bear with me whilst I navigate back to my actual subject here.

One thing I always liked about the Sanders stories is the coverage of complex local beliefs, especially those which centre round the evocatively-named deity or demon M’shimba M’shamba.

“M’shimba M’shamba was abroad, walking with his devastating feet through the forest, plucking up great trees by their roots and tossing them aside…”

Intrigued, I hunted for any more information on this West African God of Storms. The web was not helpful. One of the only references I could find was to M’shimba M’shamba of Houghton Hill. Sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? Perhaps a chilling tale of African power wreaking havoc in wherever Houghton Hill is (Cambridgeshire, apparently), only to be laid to rest by a brave young curate who has recently returned from a Mission in the Congo? Well, it’s even better than you think.

Yes, you guessed it. M’shimba M’shamba of Houghton Hill is, according to Google, someone’s pedigree Shetland Sheepdog, a little fawny-brown dog which yelps a lot. I had a sheltie just like it when I was little.

Not quite a real God, then.

The writer Henry S Whitehead was a real minister, though, as mentioned last time. Some of his Gerald Canevin stories include the value of having faith in the Christian God, but it isn’t a dominant theme. Two of my other favourite writers, William Hope Hodgson and H P Lovecraft, were less enthusiastic in their support for the established churches.

Lovecraft’s stories depicted the universe as a mostly empty void ruled by hostile or indifferent nightmares, with mankind at the mercy of the unknowable. And probably doomed. Nice. He described his own religious feelings in his correspondence:

“Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious… What the honest thinker wishes to know, has nothing to do with complex human conduct. He simply demands a scientific explanation of the things he sees. His only animus toward the church concerns its deliberate inculcation of demonstrable untruths in the community.” (Letters, 1918)

WHH, although the son of an Anglican minister, seems to have abandoned his father’s faith, or pushed it well to one side. His occult detective Carnacki was a scientist above all, although he at least thought there were benevolent forces which might occasionally intervene to protect the human soul. I don’t remember him packing crucifixes in his kitbag, and The Exorcist would probably have appalled him. No electric pentacle, for starters.

So we have to turn to the wonderful Mr Batchel, E G Swain’s creation, for good old fashioned vicar power. See, I did get there.

I don’t know how Mr Batchel drifted out of favour. E G Swain was a friend of M R James, and chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge. His short collection, Stoneground Ghost Tales, originally published in 1912, contains what might be described as utterly English ghost stories, gentle and redolent of place, of a long, slow sort of history rambling along its way.147989

If they fail to deliver the sense of incipient horror that marks some M R James stories, they succeed by providing the most genial of protagonists, a man who potters enthusiastically through life. James never pulled off this aspect in the same way. Mr Batchel himself is a treasure.

“Now Mr Batchel… was not much at home with young ladies, to whom he knew that, in the nature of things, he could be but imperfectly acceptable. With infinite good will towards them, and a genuine liking for their presence, he felt that he had but little to offer them in exchange.” (The Rockery)

He is mild without being characterless, personable in a way which can delight. He has an ongoing dispute over his shrubs with his gardener, and a love of odd objects which turn up in the soil. He believes in what I would call a very Church of England God – important and always around, but not given to crushing forests with His devastating feet.

There is a delicious, under-played humour in most of Swain’s work:

“But there are real ghosts sometimes, surely?” said Mr Batchel.
“No,” said the policeman, “me and my wife have both looked, and there’s no such thing.”
“Looked where?” enquired Mr Batchel.
“In the ‘Police Duty Catechism’. There’s lunatics, and deserters, and dead bodies, but no ghosts.” (The Richpins)

His tales are not ones of loathsome horror, or doom to come. They include hauntings, but avoid being trite or overly romanticised. They occur in a small fenland parish, and they are of loss, longing and wistful souls, and all the better for it. Incidentally, the story that most resembles M R James is The Man with the Roller, which really does feature a garden roller. It always makes me think of James’ The Mezzotint.

There were only nine of Swain’s Mr Batchel stories, although in the eighties David Rowland did a fine job extending the canon with a set of tasteful Mr Batchel follow-up stories. These are also well worth reading. They’re included in the old Equation Chillers collection of The Stoneground Ghost Tales, but you might be able to find some of them elsewhere.

And that, dear listener, is my other recommendation for the week. E G Swain.

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Literature, lurchers and life