Saturday, September 13, 2014

Spooky Ukiyo-e

Hitsune sees the skull beneath the skin (and everywhere else)
I recently came across this article in the Japan Times about an exhibit of ukiyo-e horror art, with lurid, grotesque illustrations from ghost stories and folklore.  Pictured above is a triptych from "The Dream of Hitsune", a kabuki drama, in which the villain is prevented from further mischief by a vision of the bones of his previous victims.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Weird... alarming... occult": The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories

Robert Aickman begins his introduction to Fontana #4 with a dour rant against science and the familiar prophecy that science will, if not kill us all, at least "close in the world around us, shutter by shutter..."  He continues with "truth can be found only through the imagination" before getting on with it:  "Ghost stories inquire and hint, waver and dissemble, startle and astonish.  They are a last refuge from the universal affirmative shout."

The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories contains ten stories, starting with The Accident, by Ann Bridge, the pen name of an author not know for ghost stories, who based most of her work, including this story, on her travels.  The Accident takes place at a Swiss resort and involves mountain climbers menaced, without much of a motive, by the spirits of deceased mountain climbers.

Not on the Passenger List, by Barry Pain, is one of the more satisfying stories in the collection.  On an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, a jealous shade pursues a widow on her way to remarry.  Pain's tale is congenial and concise, sunny yet chilly, and makes me want to read more of his horror stories and other fiction.

To call Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx without a Secret a ghost story is to use an already loose term even more loosely.

Vincent O'Sullivan's When I was Dead quickly veers in an unexpected direction as the narrator mentions his belief that "if you place some drops of human blood near you, and then concentrate, you will after a while see a man or a woman who will stay with you during long hours of the night..."

The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, is the story of an elderly countess in possession of a surefire way to win at cards and the avaricious soldier who wants the knowledge at any price.  Needless to say, things end badly for him.  Tchaikovsky loosely based an opera on this story.

The ghostly strangulation depicted on the cover of this volume comes from Hugh Walpole's The Snow, in which a temperamental second wife fails to heed the warnings of the protective first wife's ghost.

Along with Not on the Passenger List, Carleton's Father, by Eric Ambrose, is one of the highlights of this collection.  The plot involves a room insulated from time, and the writing has a classic pulp magazine tone.

What can be said about A School Story, by M.R. James?  James is frequently, and deservedly, anthologized and this classic might be his most frequently printed story.  I've read it so many times in different places that I have it almost memorized.  "He was beastly thin, and he looked as if he was wet all over, and... I'm not at all sure he was alive."  James specialized in concise chills.

In The Wolves of Cernogratz, by Saki, wolves appear and howl when members of the aristocratic von Cernogratz family die in their castle.

Mad Monkton, by Wilkie Collins, involves hereditary madness in 60 gothic pages, over one third of the total word count in The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.  It's enjoyable, but a few more shorter stories would have been preferable instead.  There's no contribution from Aickman in this collection; his writing (The Swords) returns in the next volume.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Beast Within (1982)

Nioba, Mississippi, 1964: a dark night, a stranded couple, and a barely-glimpsed, dog-eating, raping thing. So begins The Beast Within, directed by Philippe Mora (who later directed several Howling sequels). Seventeen years later, the product of the rape, Michael (Paul Clemens), is suffering from strange dreams and what his doctor thinks is a mysterious pituitary disorder. His parents (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) rather optimistically go in search of his real father to try to find some answers. Before long, Michael too is compelled to go in search of his roots, drawn to creepy small-town Nioba. Soon a murder and the discovery of mass graves in the woods stir things up, and then the body count starts to rise. Who was Michael’s real father, and what dark secrets lurk in Nioba’s old rotting houses and eerie swamps?

Mora makes good use of small town and rural southern imagery, and of the creepiness of small town dwellers. Almost every scene is well planned for maximum horror (the camera lingers lovingly on raw meat mixed with ketchup as Michael rips a man’s throat out).

The acting is enjoyable as well. As the tormented Michael, Paul Clemens shines.  His twitchy, shifty mannerisms effectively convey his character’s struggle with the “beast within”, and these combined with subtle makeup effects make him truly scary. In fact, when the beast finally does take over (and the transformation effects are well done, with one of the early uses of air bladders to convey the look of things bursting out from under the skin) the final product isn’t as frightening as the glaring, crazed Michael himself. Also good are Kitty Moffat as the innocent Amanda Platt, the object of Michael’s twisted affection, and John Dennis Johnston as her abusive father. The undertaker, Dexter Ward (Luke Askew), ramps up the creepiness factor. The town drunk (Ron Soble), the doctor (R.G. Armstrong), the judge (Don Gordon), and the cold-eyed sheriff (L.Q. Jones, in one of his many sheriff roles), are all enjoyable if overly-familiar small town characters.

The blaring score by Les Baxter is sometimes overused - silence would evoke more horror. Also, the beast-Michael is creative but oddly cartoonish and unthreatening. Still, the end result is fairly satisfying. The Beast Within may not break much new ground, but it stands out from the crowd. What it does, it does well.