Thursday, 23 March 2017

'In Eternity - Two Lines Intersect'

The last story in Written in Darkness is both an ending and a liberation. After taking us through the festering labyrinths of modern corporate culture, Mark Samuels reaches something approaching the Great Good Place. Again, there are overtones of Machen, and of the lesser-known Christian mystic author Charles Williams.

The story begins with the first-person narrator being released from some unspecified place. Doctors have advised him to gradually re-integrate himself into society. He is given pills, sessions with a psychotherapist are arranged. Eventually the nameless man finds a flat he can afford in a run-down area of London. He finds much of the previous occupants' property and comes to feel closer to the vanished scholar, Ambrose Crashaw, than he does to the living. He abandons his modern clothes for an old-fashioned suit, as well as becoming absorbed by Crashaw's collection of rare books. Crashaw's old  radio seems to receive signals from all the outworn cultures of Europe, in many languages. A neo-Gothic church nearby starts to intrigue him, especially when an unearthly light shines from one of its high windows.

This story recaptures some of the awe-inspiring quality in supernatural fiction published around a hundred years ago. There is a touch of Algernon Blackwood in the way that the old radio eventually tunes in to the trees, London's last forests. There is also a reference to Turner, painter of light who was also a mystical poet. The narrator's dreams seem more real than his mundane existence, and he finds physical evidence of this - the page of an unknown book, a chess piece.

The revelation of Ambrose Crashaw's true fate coincides with the discovery of a precious truth, and the story ends with a vision of unity, of broken things made whole and the fallen lifted up. In a way it is the ultimate anti-twist ending,  to tell us that all can be well after fall, despite everything we know and have gone through.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

'My Heretical Existence'

This compact tale starts with a fascinating premise - that there are 'tribes' who never leave certain narrow areas of major cities, and never marry out. Mark Samuels' narrator hears of one such extended family in Sartor Street (a nod towards Thomas Carlyle, perhaps, a sort of heretic?). He is also infatuated with a young woman called Adela who goes to a pub near Sartor Street. He never dares approach her, simply getting drunk in her presence. Then one night he goes off in a random direction and finds himself in unknown territory. He finds a pub, 'The Hourglass Stilled', but when he enters he discovers a clientele far from welcoming.
I could hear the creak of wooden sinews, the flexing of wooden muscles, and the grinding of wooden teeth. Their faces were painted garishly in a motley attempt to convey the human, but oh, the deadly lifelessness of their expressions! Their glass eyes were without lustre, like grey flowers.

Inevitably, Adela is one of the mannequins. Blackout. Our narrator recovers in hospital, and is informed that there is no such place as Sartor Street. Yet he seems to be suffering from a strange ailment that leads to a stiffening of the limbs...

This is fine example of urban horror, with echoes of Fritz Leiber as well as Ligotti and, perhaps, Machen. I'm not quite sure what is 'heretical' about it, but titles are tricky.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

'Outside Interference'

We're back in the ghastly world of modern corporate life. One thing one can't accuse Mark Samuels of avoiding is a unifying theme. Written in Darkness is saying, to coin a phrase, that modern life is rubbish, and fetid rubbish at that. Admittedly he is not presenting any kind of alternative to our interconnected global culture, but it is a not a fiction writer's job to present manifestos. He calls 'em as he sees 'em,

'Outside Interference' is set in a bleak office building somewhere in central/eastern Europe. Not just any old bleak office building, but one being phased out by a crew of soon-to-redundant workers. A viciously cold winter closes in as the hapless crew struggle to shift junk from unheated offices. Things start to go wrong when the lift malfunctions and a member of the team is turned into a kind of zombie (thought the Z-word is never used).

With frantic inevitability attempts to escape or confront the menace that lurks below sub-basement level fail. And then the discarded, the unwanted, the human detritus of modern capitalism, are transformed. The shadows of Ligotti and, arguably, the late Joel Lane fall across this wintry mindscape. I have no idea if the ending is supposed to be downbeat in the strict sense of the word.

In our running review tomorrow a different theme emerges as everyone marches through the factory gates to a stirring rendition of 'Sing As We Go' by Gracie Fields.

No, not really.

Small Screen Folk Horror

King of the Castle: The Complete Series
A tower block harbours mystical secrets

Over here you can see a list of Seventies folk horror TV shows. Folk horror is a somewhat flexible term, but I think the list includes enough examples to give anyone a pretty good idea. We're talking about deep history, mythology, a sense of the past bearing down on the present and shaping it. Throw in demonic, ghostly, or otherwise paranormal phenomena, and you're on the way.

Raven (1977)
Raven

I remember a few of the shows listed, as a Seventies teenage telly viewer. Children of the Stones, Doctor Who - Image of the Fendahl, and the one-off Christmas ghost story 'Stigma' caught my attention. I don't remember the ITV shows King of the Castle or Raven, perhaps because were very much a BBC household. 'A Photograph' in the Play for Today strand is also a new one on me, and it's available to watch on YouTube.

Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (1977)
Image of the Fendahl

It's interesting to note that Nigel Kneale's Quatermass finale, also made by ITV, had strong folk horror elements. It was all about stone circles and a hippie back-to-nature cult with sinister undertones. However, the overall feel of the show is dystopian sci-fi, so perhaps it's a marginal example.