‘Ghostwatch’ review

31 10 2010

[written by author, NKKingston]

“WE DON’T WANT TO GIVE ANYONE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. WE DON’T WANT TO CAUSE A PANIC.”

On October 31st 1992, at 9:25, a seminal piece of drama was aired. For the next two decades it would regularly top ‘scariest ever’ polls. Frequently compared to Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’, it would not be shown by the BBC again, but it’s been aired by other channels around the world.

Legitimate DVD’s are so hard to get hold of these days even the show’s writer suggests you watch it on YouTube, though personally I think you lose something with all the stops and starts. If you can get hold of a DVD (LoveFilm has it, I don’t know about Netflix) watch it without pausing, rewinding, or otherwise taking advantage of the fact it’s a DVD. If you want to really relive the experience, watch it at 21:25, the original time of broadcast. It’s the 18th anniversary tonight.

Have you done so?

Good.

Are you going to sleep tonight?

I didn’t think so.

But why does it work? Well, if you’re British you’ll understand the kind of weight Michael Parkinson brings to the proceedings. If you’re American, imagine it presented by Oprah Winfrey. They’ve both interviewed Tom Cruise, after all.

Add to this the presence of well known presenters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, married couple, and comedian Craig Charles (in his Red Dwarf heyday). Bear in mind that all those psychic shows you see now, like ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Paranormal Investigation: Live’, didn’t exist. That very few people had satellite or cable television and thus no ‘info’ button to explain the premise of the show to them. That since it didn’t start on the hour many people missed those all important writers credits in the first few minutes.

It’s not all good casting and serendipity, of course.

“I felt someone all over me.”

In the first clip claiming to offer evidence of the ghost, you’ll note that the banging of the pipes doesn’t start until one of the girls leaves the room. For the first hour of the show the majority of phenomena can be explained as the actions of one girl or the other (usually Suzanne). There’s some false scares and a lot of larking about amongst the crew, as you’d expect from a live broadcast. Parkinson explains that other shows will come on later and Ghostwatch will offer updates between them until midnight. Except… at the hour mark the show is still running.

“Do you think Mr Pipes wants to hurt you?” “I think he wants to hurt everyone. I think he wants to do bad things.”

It’s around this point that Suzanne is caught fabricating phenomena. Parkinson becomes thoroughly convinced of the hoax while Dr Pascoe tries to explain Suzanne’s behaviour away. Dr Sylvestri (had the Americans done something to offend us recently? That’s the only explanation for such a dud performance in an otherwise sterling show), our out-and-out sceptic, has a field day with it. Meanwhile, even the most unobservant audience member has probably seen Pipes at least once. He’s actually appeared four times now.

“We thought you’d leave us. All we were is noises to you.”

The non-plot ghost stories told by audience members and the taped interviews (and even Sarah Greene’s own) are all true. Sadly, we don’t get to see as many as we’d like because Pipes strikes. The ghost is literally in the machine. Callers are getting hysterical, Parkinson has been wrong footed, and Suzanne is in a trance. Parkinson informs the viewers the next show will be late, as too much is happening.

“We have to stay. Pipes says we have to stay.”

There are three more sightings of Pipes between now and the end of the show (four if you’re being picky, but two are so close I count them together). The ‘onion skin’ element of the haunting is revealed through phone calls. The phenomena in the house extend to bangings, breakings, and Pipes speaking through Suzanne. Even the camera man gets a glimpse of him. Parkinson’s scepticism dissolves, Dr Pascoe looks increasingly distraught, Mike interrupts repeatedly as his concern for Sarah reaches desperate levels, and Craig and the outside crew have no clue there’s anything going on. Anarchy reigns.

“What big eyes you have. What big eyes you have.”

And then all is calm. And then it’s not.

“It’s in the Machine.”

And then it gets worse.

What makes Ghostwatch work so well, I believe, are the unacknowledged appearances of Pipes. The “did you see him? did I see him?” element. That’s what gives theatrical ghost stories an edge over the literary (if you want to see a genuinely theatrical ghost story, get yourself to London and see Ghost Stories. Thank me later). By giving the audience glimpses the characters are denied Ghostwatch ramps up the tension without dissolving the suspension of disbelief.

The phenomena reported and seen can all be tied back to real world hauntings such as the Enfield Poltergeist. Circular patches of liquid, banging sounds, crude images and words, scratches, temperature changes, smells, even the tying up of phone lines…Ghostwatch hits all of them. It’s this level of research that makes it all the more believable. Unlike certain horror films, the more a viewer knows about the subject the more frightening the show become.

As well as the straight forward haunting there’s a strong sexual theme running through the show. Poltergeist activity commonly focuses on pubescent girls, making it somewhat inevitable, but this is deliberately added to with the stories of Mother Seddons taking in the babies of unwed girls, of Raymond Tunstall sexually assaulting children, and Pam Early’s experience in the glory hole. “I felt someone all over me,” she says, and you know from her tone that it wasn’t just the physical presence that was intimidating. Glory hole is, of course, a perfectly common phrase all over England used to describe the cupboard under the stairs. However, it can also mean a hole in the wall of a public toilet cubicle, made for purposes you can probably work out for yourself. Is the entendre intentional? Well, probably not, but it does add another layer to the sexual imagery.

Ghostwatch has its faults, of course. The aforementioned Dr Sylvestri is so over the top I want to apologise on his behalf to any Americans watching it. Some of the acting (especially the children’s) is decidedly ropey, though as the story progresses you notice it less and less, and a lot of viewers find the ending a bit too much.

The show has an almost mythic status in British television history. Rumours such as Sarah Greene exhorting her child-viewers to watch in during Going Live (disproved by the Ghost Watch: Behind the Curtain blog ) give the show a touch of the conspiracy theory about it, though BBC never tried to pretend it was real. Even the pre-programme trail refers to it as a ‘film’ and the presenters as ‘stars’. It’s credited as the first television show to give viewers Post Traumatic Stress.

The BBC have never reshown Ghostwatch. Shortly after its original showing, a teenager committed suicide. His parents blamed the show for his death. Though the BBC take no responsibility for his death, out of tack they have opted not to show it again. It’s a shame, but a reasonable decision.

Ghostwatch was the first film to ever really scare me. Not ‘make me jump, not ‘gross me out’, but to genuinely, seriously scare me. When you place ghosts amongst other supernatural entities they have a massive advantage. Even the toughest vampire with stagger back when hit with a chair, but a ghost can be everywhere and anywhere, untouchable but all too able to touch you. Even through your TV screen.

And make you scared of your own curtains.

“Did you believe the story of Mother Seddons? Did you? Fee Fi Fo Fum.”





‘The Orphanage’ review

31 10 2010

[written by reviewer and writer, Harry Markov]

The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is a 2007 Spanish horror film, which I overlooked, based on the fact that its choice to scare is an orphanage, which automatically means ghastly children. Personally, I have tired of demonic children. Yes, Samara (The Ring) was delightfully terrifying, but I can’t say the same about other horror movies such as Dark Water and The Antichrist. However, Mark assured me it was well worth my time and gave it a shot.

Now, what The Orphanage accomplishes is to create a truly atmospheric movie. All recent US attempts at tales of haunting pale compared to The Orphanage. The movie works to create a sense of setting, present compelling characters for me to care about and avoid the cheap scares, such as constant barrages of screeching noises, sudden bursts of movement, screaming and gore. No, the scare here creeps in, much like frost. It’s a descent into grief-induced madness and the results of human wickedness.

The plot follows Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman who returns home, to an orphanage with plans to restore it into a home for disabled children. The days of preparation function as an introduction to Laura’s life, her interaction with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simon (Roger Princep), the concerns she harbors for Simon’s constant use of imaginary friends as a coping mechanism, her dedication as a mother and her altruism. However, it’s not long until a mysterious woman appears and Simon befriends six more children, who, this time, are supposedly real, when things go wrong. On the day of the opening, Simon disappears after a fight with Laura and from here on the movie follows Laura’s desperate search for her son, not to mention unveiling all of the secrets surrounding the orphanage.

What utterly captivated me is how whole The Orphanage is. There is nothing in excess. Every frame, every scene, every item that passes in front of the lens plays a part later on and I’d say that this is a movie for people with a long attention span. The woman with the faked identity, the new game Simon and Laura played, a small brooch and even fallen pipes are of importance as the end nears and all these elements swarm together into an intricate puzzle, which paints a very tragic chain of events.

If I’m to discuss the plot any further, spoilers will be revealed; a big disservice to all potential viewers. Instead, I will move on to the actors’ performances. Rueda’s acting is intense and overpowering. I didn’t just watch a desperate and haunted woman reach the end of her strength, her resources to find her son even after nine months, her sanity. I wanted to help her push through it all. Her acting is all-consuming, raw and believable. Cayo felt stiff and two dimensional, but his role was limited in the first place. Princep is convincing as a sweet and emotional boy, who spends a lot of his time in his own world, which more or less leads him to his death. The surprise for me was Geraldine Chaplin, who plays the medium Aurora. It’s a brief appearance, but the scenes with her séance are some of the more memorable and hair-raising ones.

I’ll conclude with just how unusual this movie is. First, the orphanage itself was never shown as negative, gloomy or foreboding. In fact, to Laura this was home, as shown in the movie’s opening. For Laura, the orphanage is a return to her past as well as a promise for a new beginning. Second, the haunting transcends the characteristic ‘a few days to a few weeks’ time frame. I’m talking about nine months of subtle accumulation of events, which also doubles as the deconstruction of Laura’s psyche. Third, the ending is more than bitter, but sweet in its own way as well.

The Orphanage may not have hostile ghosts erupting into violent acts of bizarre property damage and its ghosts may seem passive, but director Juan Bayona and Fernando Velazquez (the man behind the soundtrack) know how to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats.





SoSF: Special – Stephen Volk

30 10 2010

[Interview conducted by Ghost Appreciation Month, team member, Mark S. Deniz]

 

Stephen Volk

 

Stephen Volk is the creator/writer of ITV1’s multi award-winning paranormal drama series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln, and the notorious, some say legendary, BBCTV “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch, which spooked the nation, hit the headlines, and caused questions to be raised in Parliament.

His latest feature film, The Awakening, shoots in June 2010 starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton.

[Taken from Stephen Volk‘s website]

Very honoured to have you over at Beyond Fiction for this very special ‘Stars of Speculative Fiction’ interview for Ghost Appreciation Month, Stephen.

1. I’d like start by asking you what you are up to at the moment, what books, stories have you coming out/recently out?

What have I been up to recently?…. Well, I seem to have had several stories out in anthologies at FantasyCon: After the Ape was in Never Again and Best New Horror; In the Colosseum was in The End of the Line from Solaris; and Swell Head was in The 7th Black Book of Horror, as well as my piece on Westworld appearing in Mark Morris’s Cinema Futura from PS. I’m also presently working on a long novella – around 30,000 words – which has required a lot of work but I’m getting there. This one’s a real labour of love and something I’ve had in mind for a long time.

This summer BBC Films and Origin Pictures shot The Awakening, screenplay by myself and director Nick Murphy (BBCTV’s Occupation). It’s now in post-production for a 2011 release. It stars Rebecca Hall as a hard nosed psychical researcher investigating a haunting in a boy’s school in 1921. It also stars Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and John Shrapnel.

Sadly, I’ve recently had a paranormal TV series pilot crash and burn at the BBC after three years’ development, but I’m talking to them about other concepts: it seems “genre” is out at the moment, so that is painful. If, as they say, they want me to write for BBC1, I will have to find out what they want of me. I also have other TV series ideas I am punting around, one of which I’m exceptionally excited about. It’s selling the thing is the hard part!

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a spec screenplay called The Life and Loves of Sgt Bertrand, and working with Tim Lebbon on a screenplay called Play Time, which we are both enjoying immensely.

So not much then? 😉 Sorry to hear about the series pilot, as that must be really frustrating. Very much looking forward to The Awakening though!

2. So how did you come up with the idea for Ghostwatch, and why?

GW came about in the late 80s when my agent Linda Seifert thought – wrongly! – that the BBC might be in the market for a six part supernatural thriller, because Edge of Darkness had just been a big success. So my original outline for a thing called Ghostwatch was a six-part drama series about a documentary film crew (World in Action -type) who get involved with a psychical researcher (we didn’t have parapsychologist in those days!) and the final episode happened to be a live TV transmission from a haunted flat in a tower block in London. The thing was to be written like a conventional filmed drama, without breaking any fourth wall or anything – like Edge of Darkness.

Well, it turned out the producer Ruth Baumgarten couldn’t persuade the BBC to invest in six hours of supernatural telly (it was ever thus!) – so she said to me: “Can we do it as a 90-minute single for Screen One?” And I said, “Look, it’d be crazy to shoe-horn six hours of story into ninety minutes, but what if we just did the final episode – the live TV bit – and pretended it was a live TV transmission from a haunted house?” And she went “Oh my God! Do you think we can do it? It could be like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds!” And I said, “We can try.”

That’s how the idea came about, but explaining the why is a bit trickier.

Firstly ever since seeing the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas and The Stone Tape I’ve always wanted to do a ghost story for telly. But what makes a ghost story work? Often the use of the first person to entice you in. The believability: this really happened. And what’s the equivalent of that first-person narrative in TV? The documentary, the live broadcast, talking heads. That’s why I thought GW would really work as an extension of the ghost story telling tradition.

The second answer – beyond simply scaring people for fun – was as a satirical take on the way TV was going.  In 1992 the producer, director and I were all acutely aware that the boundaries were being blurred between fact and fiction on TV. Reality TV had raised its ugly head and shows like Rescue: 999 used actors to recreate dramatic situations in documentaries, whilst dramas like NYPD Blue used hand held camera to feign a documentary feel. The high water mark of this blurring was when during the first Gulf war CNN used music over a newscast of the bombing of Baghdad. Music: a fiction convention! So the producer intuited at the beginning, as we all did, that this project was subtextually an examination of television. Who do you trust, who do you believe? Can you believe what you’re told or even what you see? In that respect – without being pompous or self-aggrandizing in any way – I think Ghostwatch is more political than a lot of “political” dramas the BBC has produced over the years.

Excellent stuff but such a complex situation this screenwriting lark!

3. As it’s a regular question in this series, I may as well throw it in now, what on earth is speculative fiction then?

All fiction is by its nature speculation, isn’t it? “Speculative fiction” as a category I take to mean Fantasy/Horror/Science-Fiction, but all those appellations are pretty nebulous, to me anyway. Nowadays I call it “genre” because of the preponderance of “genre” films. Generally I suppose we define “genre” as something that plays “what if” a bit more than realism. A white guy and a black guy sharing a flat is realism. A white guy and a zombie black guy sharing a flat is genre. I think you could say speculative fiction really introduces an element of the impossible or the unlikely or the unknown to a narrative (whether the paranormal or simply the future). I don’t really think of definitions when I write, personally – that’s for others to do after the event. I had a story in Best New Horror #21 which Steve Jones said wasn’t horror until the last two pages: I didn’t think it was horror at all (even though it had King Kong in it!). And I gave a story to a horror anthology recently which definitely wasn’t horror. It was just – weirdness.

Time to start a ‘remove the Speculative Fiction from literature’ Facebook group then?

4. Another regular question of mine involves music and I’m curious about whether you listen to music while you work. If you do, why? If you don’t, why not? Does music inspire you?

Sometimes silence is required – I can understand it more for prose writing when you need to hear the rhythm of your own sentences, but for screenplays I literally pick out ten or twelve albums to put on repeat, and they are specific albums – often soundtracks – chosen to short-cut me to the head space of the film I’m writing. So, it’s getting the atmosphere going that you can immerse yourself in. Beside me right now sit the OSTs of: Gods and Monsters, Finding Neverland, In The Valley of Elah. They have a wistfulness about memory and the past that I find evocative for this novella I’m writing. When I move on to another project, I’ll pick a different ten or twelve.

5. Do you believe in ghosts, the afterlife? How does your belief/disbelief affect your writing?

People assume I believe in ghosts (otherwise why do you write that stuff, right?) but my personal belief system is often totally different from that of some of my characters. I don’t see a contradiction here.  I’m a complete skeptic and atheist and every fibre of my intellect and research tells me there are no such things as ghosts, all mediums are charlatans – it’s all mis-perception, delusion and self-delusion (not that, I hasten to add, that isn’t interesting in itself – I write about those subjects a lot: all the time).  Essentially, I’m fascinated by what makes people tick and most of all I’m fascinated by what we choose to believe in, and why. It obsesses me, in fact, and I’m not really interested in a ghost story that doesn’t in some way acknowledge the psychological component: that’s just a cop-out, to my mind.

My wife says I believe in ghosts and pretend I don’t, because she knows I am a complete wimp and scaredy-cat and I have to say, of course, if I’m in the dark and there’s a loud bang I’ll jump – but that’s my emotions at work. In the cold light of day I still say there’s no such things. I don’t think I’m unique here: a lot of my friends who write ghost stories are privately skeptical people because they are both intelligent and by their very nature as writers, analytical. But, like me, they write ghost stories for all sorts of reasons.  Not to preach about what they do or don’t believe in. In my case, I love the fictional world of ghosts and ghost hunters and mediums and skeptics, of the TV and storybook ghosts I grew up on and I want to return to, and re-live that excitement I got reading and watching them for the first time.

I definitely see where you’re coming from. I’m still undecided on the whole ghost belief element but adore reading about them and watching TV/film involving them too.

6. I’m sure any budding scriptwriters are eager for me to ask you for tips on how to get a foot in the door of the industry. What advice can you give?

Meet other writers, form a group, critique each other, go along to conferences in the genre you love, write to producers, ask for copies of the scripts of the show you’re enjoying, ask if they’ve got runners’ jobs going, move to London – but most of all, DON’T write because you think in some misguided way there is money in it (or fame – ha!) but because you love it. Not just love it – here’s the test – you can’t NOT do it. If you can go a week without writing, you’re not a writer – you’re a fake. Deal with it. If you go on holiday and you have to pack a notebook, just in case you want to write something – you’re a writer. Ask yourself, not “Do I want to be a writer?” but “Do I want to write?”  – the rest – in terms of getting into scriptwriting – is, a) work hard, and b) luck, like anything else. Don’t expect to get an agent on one script – write five. Write ten. None of them might get made but they might get you in a door. Get better by writing. Don’t just ask a writer for the address of his agent (that’s insulting, by the way): ask if you can improve what you do. Contemplate that – horrid thought – You Might Not Be Good Enough Yet.  And decide the medium you love, not the one that feels commercial, or feels “cool” – that’s bullshit. I started writing screenplays when I was 15. My first was made when I was 30.  Write, write, write – also READ scripts – WATCH, films, WATCH TV! Learn! An astonishing number of writers who decide to write scripts, to my amazement DON’T WATCH TV! Like, you’d write a novel without having read a book or two? Get out of here! In the end Steven Soderberg says it best: Talent + Perseverance = Luck. Make your luck. By stamina and fucking hard work. And, if you love it, you will never give in till you get there.

Pretty brutal advice there sir, but damn valuable too!

7. I’m sure there shouldn’t be any other answer than ‘collapse’ to this question but what do you do when you’re not writing or attending screenings and cons?

It’s important to have chill out time. Every Sunday I meet my old art director and we go for a walk and chat. Other odd things occur during the week, shopping, going to exhibitions, social life, etc – but generally I do 7-8 hours writing a day – most of which is not *writing* – like NOW! But it all adds up and things get done. Yesterday was a day in London, four meetings with producers, all of which might come to nothing. And of course I watch TV and movies. That’s work too!  it really is! You can’t write stuff without having a passing acquaintance with what’s laughingly called the zeitgeist. Theatre, art, books.  It’s all tax deductible, remember.

That’s what I keep telling the tax man!

8. Why do you write?

As I say, I think a large part of it is to return to a feeling you had when you were much younger when you found yourself really excited by certain things: The M R James Ghost Story at Christmas, The Stone Tape, The Prisoner, The Avengers, Edgar Allan Poe, The Hound of the Baskervilles… when you first started to slip to the dark side and get sucked into this lovely, terrible genre. It’s a kind of regression in that respect but it’s also returning to riff on it, understand, embellish and push at the sides of the genre you love – shove the concept of a ghost story a little bit this way, or that – just playing “what if…” or “oh, that’d be great….”  I’ve said before when people ask “Where do you get your ideas?” – I think essentially the ideas get you. It’s not work – well of course, it’s work – but the ideas come from somewhere else and attach themselves. The interesting thing about the “why” is “what makes one story idea appealing and another not?” – then it’s very much about you as a complex individual, and hopefully a body of work over a period of years starts to reveal to the reader (or watcher) what that author is about. Even if there are themes there of which the author is blissfully unaware.

9. How do you think the industry is doing at the moment, both in terms of for screenwriters and indie press?

In films there is no money. Studios are only interested in massive blockbusters based on books or comics or both, or sequels to remakes. It’s very uninspiring. You can make a film for £100,000 with no name actors but even then the money is impossible to find. Everything is impossible. Not just difficult – impossible! The Film Council is closing. All the subsidies are gone. And in television nobody is giving any script development money. The BBC (recently slashed by 16% cuts) is the only place interested in paying writers up front – but they take 6 months to read anything and (as I heard yesterday) they are no longer interested in “genre”. So that’s that!  It’s a desert. A wasteland out there.  And, with electronic books, the publishing business is virtually in meltdown, too. My God!  I don’t understand that in all these three areas we are teetering on the brink of utter ruin, yet broadcast media and the global entertainment industry and supposed to be one of the few worldwide growth areas! Go figure! Like I say – it was always fucking difficult – now it’s fucking impossible! What are you going to do? Just keep writing. People will always need stories. Gotta believe that or we’re sunk. (Which we might be!)

*nods*

10. Who are your favourite authors? Who inspired/inspires you to write?

Oh dear.  There’s a whole thesis right there! Where do I begin?  Big inspirations were Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch at the beginning. Loved the way they slipped between screen and page. Psycho. Duel. Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Amicus pictures. The Devil Rides Out. Man, those guys’ careers were my idea of heaven on earth. Also, in terms of my interest in television and imaginative television, Brian Clemens, whose flair in The Avengers was outstanding, and Dennis Spooner, who also created a load of those ITC shows (Department S, The Champions) with Monty Berman.  I loved those. I also adored Michael Crichton when I saw Westworld, one of my favourite films, and of course Rod Serling (Planet of the Apes). In print – off the top of my head – I love Chris Priest, J G Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Shearman.  Non-genre writers I love include Raymond Carver for his economy, Pete Dexter, Joyce Carol Oates (superbly creepy short story writer), Bret Easton Ellis, Rupert Thomson and early, nasty Ian McEwan. The Comfort of Strangers is a super horror novel. I wish he’d write another.





‘The Winter Ghosts’ review

30 10 2010

[written by writer, reviewer and blogger, Liz de Jager]

Kate Mosse’s writing really does cross genres, managing to be both literary, beautiful, eerie and haunting.

In both her previous novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, there had been underlying hints of the paranormal/supernatural.  But what worked so well for me in these novels is how restrained these elements were – they were never in your face or over the top. And that, on a personal level, is something I could get behind.  Yes, there  is a place and time for in your face howling demons, but my type of ghost or horror story is a lot more subtle.

Ms. Mosse has subsequently given us The Winter Ghosts which is an expansion on her The Cave short story she wrote for Quick Reads and is therefore not a full sized novel but nevertheless a fully contained, albeit brief story.

Here then is the write-up:

From the bestselling author of LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE – a compelling story of ghosts and remembrance. Illustrated throughout by Brian Gallagher. The Great War took much more than lives. It robbed a generation of friends, lovers and futures. In Freddie Watson’s case, it took his beloved brother and, at times, his peace of mind. In the winter of 1928, still seeking resolution, Freddie is travelling through the French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. He stumbles through woods, emerging in a tiny village. There he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful woman also mourning a lost generation. Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, he will have stumbled across a tragic mystery that goes back through the centuries. By turns thrilling, poignant and haunting, this is a story of two lives touched by war and transformed by courage. THE WINTER GHOSTS is a gorgeous illustrated novel inspired by The Cave, Kate Mosse’s short story written for the Quick Reads Initiative for adult emergent readers.

Ms. Mosse’s skill lays in placing the reader within her setting, which is important in any kind of spooky/horror/genre novel. When Freddie meets Fabrissa and they settle in to talk about what has gone before, your campfire-gene immediately responds to that. You want somewhere warm and snug to sit quietly and listen to this conversation. Freddie is a deeply thoughtful and unhappy person, haunted by the loss of his brother and his own distancing of himself from friends and family. His isolation leaves him vulnerable and sensitive, allowing Freddie to unwittingly perhaps, pick up on the sensations of long past memories of death, war and destruction in this very old haunted area.

The setting of the winter fete in the old town of Nulle where Freddie and Fabrissa meet is finely detailed and redolent of those beautiful but stark mountain villages you see in old photographs. Wrapped in Cathar history, Fabrissa’s story leads Freddie to realise that maybe he’s not quite where he seems to be and that maybe he has travelled further than he intended to seek solace.

The Winter Ghosts is a beautifully written novel with rich characterisations that contrast with the eeriness of the settings and the stories told. It is not the usual in your face ghost story that we’ve become so inured to, but more a slow acclimatisation and an awakening of the senses, that something is just not right…if only you can figure it out, you just may make it.





Dancing with the Dead: Ghosts in “The Graveyard Book”

29 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

That Neil Gaiman has written a book for children called The Graveyard Book should come as no surprise. His previous offerings for young readers have included a story which sees a young girl visit a parallel world where people have buttons for eyes (Coraline) and a book in which a family are driven from their home by rambunctious wolves (The Wolves In The Walls), so it’s fair to say that Gaiman is becoming a master of the mini-macabre.

The Graveyard Book opens at night, with a sleeping family–and their brutal murder at the hands of an all-too-real assailant. One of the family, however, escapes: the young son, barely even a toddler, who finds his way out of the house and through the dark to the nearby graveyard. And who should he find waiting for him but a cast of ghostly characters who will become his new family; who will protect, guide and teach him about the world–and more importantly, about life. After all, who knows more about living than someone who has already done all of theirs?

Gaiman was greatly influenced by The Jungle Book in writing this (even the title alludes to it) and, like the world Kipling created for Mowgli, little Bod (full name: Nobody Owens) is furnished with a wealth of friends and neighbours in his new home in the graveyard–from the homely and well-meaning ghosts of Mr and Mrs Owens who never had a child of their own and become his surrogate parents, to the tricky Liza Hempstock who only wants a gravestone of her own.

The mastery of The Graveyard Book is not in its plot, which follows Bod’s adventures at key points in his journey from infant to adult, nor in the sheer Gothic joy of the graveyard–but in the ghosts themselves. Gaiman knows full well that no two ghosts are the same, just as the people they once were differed. He infuses them with (ironically) life, and energy; wisdom and stubbornness, pity and pathos. Even from the comfort of the graveyard, the echoes of the world outside, the world of the living, seep inside the gates: on the night of Bod’s arrival, the sedate and settled ghosts of the cemetery contrast with the sudden appearance of the shocked ghost of Bod’s newly-dead mother as she appeals to the others to protect her son–a violent death begetting a violent-seeming apparition.

Bod is a boy between the two worlds, between the living and the dead, able to see (rather like Gaiman himself, perhaps) the things that others miss. And it is when the two worlds converge that The Graveyard Book really soars: with the “Macabray”, for instance, the Danse Macabre between the living and the dead–and at the centre of it all, the Lady on the Grey, sinister and smiling at once; one part Gaiman’s own Death of the Endless to one part Terry Pratchett’s mounted Grim Reaper mixed with something strange and new.

Not that being between the two worlds is easy, of course. Bod outgrows his first playmates, all of whom are stranded as children forever. Nor can it be straightforward trying to make friends in a world that you don’t perhaps fully understand–like school, as Bod discovers. While this could be true of a hundred, a thousand, other books about childhood, by invoking ghosts and spectres with which to people his narrative, Gaiman exaggerates the challenges of childhood and makes the real world, the adult world, the living world which must be negotiated even more alien to our hero.

There is, of course, much more to The Graveyard Book than just its ghosts. There are the humans who tumble in and out of Bod’s life; the deliciously awful ghouls who seek to carry him off; the creepy, whispering menace that lurks in the shadows and waits for its master; and Silas–the lonely figure who protects Bod from the corporeal dangers of the world.

With its graveyard that is all things to Bod: shelter, school, playground and battlefield, the message of the book is clear. Ghosts are not the enemy: the living have little to fear from the dead. The dead are dead, and as Silas tells Bod: “they are, for the most part, done with the world”. It is the living who pose the greatest threat to Bod as he grows: the man who killed his family, the school bullies, policemen, unscrupulous antiques dealers… the list goes on.

The Graveyard Book is, in so many ways, a love song to graveyards and their ghosts, separated from the living but not so different from them after all. Midway through the book, Bod is told: “You’re alive Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” and it is not the living who help him realise this, but the dead.

Through the graveyard–the Egyptian Walk and the unhallowed ground, the Owenses, the Lady on the Grey, the formidable Mother Slaughter and even Silas–through the dead, the ghosts, Gaiman asks us to consider what it really means to be alive… and then, simply, quietly, to go out and live.





Designed by the Devil & Powered by the Dead: The World of Thir13en Ghosts

28 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

I’m going to let you in on a secret. I hate titles with numbers in them. Not “normal” numbers–you know, Twelve Angry Men, The Thirty-Nine Steps–but titles which feel the need to try and incorporate numbers within the text. Se7en makes my blood boil. Thir13en Ghosts, as you can imagine, should make me very cross indeed.

13 Ghosts, as we’ll call it for the sake of my sanity, if nothing else, is one of two recent remakes of Castle & White films–the other being The House on Haunted Hill. Today, Robb White is best known for his fiction, including books like Deathwatch, while William Castle, a prolific director and producer of B-movies with a near-visionary eye for a gimmick, became the inspiration for Dark Castle Entertainment–originally intended to remake Castle’s own films.

Castle’s pictures were a nightmare for cinema owners: his ambitious and complex marketing tools included hearses parked outside the theatres and nurses stationed at the doors in case patrons should suffer fright-induced heart attacks (Macabre), buzzers attached to seats (The Tingler), skeletons flying over the audience on wires (The House on Haunted Hill) and “fright breaks” (Homicidal). The original Thirteen Ghosts was supposedly filmed in “Illusion-O” and watched through a special two-tone ghost viewer/remover which allowed the audience to “remove” the tinted ghosts superimposed over the film should they find them too disturbing.

Of course the ghosts weren’t disturbing–not to our jaded and cynical eyes, anyway. After all, it was 1960. Another world.

And that’s probably why, come the millennium, the time was ripe for some of Castle’s movies to be remade. There’s a vein of similarity between the new 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill–unsurprisingly, given the same creative team on the originals, and the same production company remaking them–but 13 Ghosts is the more interesting of the two.

The plot deviates slightly from that of the original: here, widower Arthur is contacted by a lawyer and told that his uncle Cyrus has left him a house. However, this is not any old house, and dear old Uncle Cyrus has more than a few skeletons in his closet.

Cyrus was a collector of ghosts, and the house was built as their prison. Arthur’s new family home comes with sitting tenants: twelve of them.

And here’s the thing about this film. It’s deeply flawed, but this dirty dozen includes some of the most interesting, memorable ghosts I’ve seen. What they lack in scares, they make up for in sheer imagination and design. Known by nicknames including “The Torn Prince”, “The Juggernaut”, “The Torso” and “The Bound Woman” collectively they form the Black Zodiac. They are solid, meaty ghosts with a real physical presence–and yet they can only be seen by the human characters through special glasses (a clever in-film update of Castle’s “Illusion-O”). Nor are they simply “ghosts”–each of them has a complete backstory which, while it does not appear in the film, informs their look and behaviour. Take the Torn Princess: a once-beautiful young woman with low self-esteem who mutilated herself trying to perform plastic surgery on her own face. She killed herself by slashing her body with a butcher’s knife in the bath, and so her ghost, naked and wet, wanders the halls clutching her knife, surrounded by blood.

One of the most visually striking of the ghosts is the Jackal: a former asylum inmate who still wears his straightjacket and a shattered metal cage around his head, his violent nature has only been exacerbated by the horror of his death and imprisonment in Cyrus’s cellar. No wonder he is described by psychic Dennis (Matthew Lillard in scenery-chewing mode) as “the Charlie Manson of ghosts”. And if you’re looking for my personal favourite, that would be the Torn Prince: the 1950s high-school letterman who developed a bad case of road rash and never got to take up that college baseball scholarship.

They may not be the subtlest of ghosts, and the film may not be the cleverest of haunted house movies, but something of the fun B-movie spirit of Castle’s pictures remains. The house which acts as the setting for the story: the ghosts’ prison (and which is still more than it seems) is a piece of art–a mix of shining glass and clever CG; its shifting form occasionally reminiscent of Cube. However, it is not the star of the show: that role is reserved for the dozen lunatics–dead, deranged and downright dangerous–hiding in plain sight within.





In Portugal – A real life ghost story

28 10 2010

[written by author, Mark West]

I am 41 years old, which is certainly old enough to know better. Also, in keeping with people my age, I’ve lost relatives who, given the option, I’m sure would have come back to check up on me from time to time (thereby, effectively, haunting me). I also have a five year old son who is starting to develop a perfectly rational fear of the dark and, as I keep reassuring him, “there’s nothing there.”

Really?

I love ghost stories and have done since I was a kid. To me, there wasn’t much better – apart from eating Space Dust whilst I watched a girl called Amanda play at lunchtime – when I was nine or ten than losing myself in a Three Investigator book, or a Peter Haining or Mary Danby collection. I formed ghost hunting groups with friends (one day, I might tell you about the ghost at Blue Bridge, who was said to be Old Nick himself), I read as much as I could and I scared myself silly with real-life ghost books from the library. Happy days.

I have had three brushes with what I think are perhaps most accurately described as unidentified phenomena. One was with my childhood friend Nick and he still talks about the incident, over thirty years later. Two were with my friend Craig – one was an unidentified flying object, one was about ghosts.

In 1989, he & I went on holiday to Portugal. He worked for a travel company, we got a reduced rate, we had a great time. Our hotel was a lovely place, run by a bear of an Englishman, with local staff. Beyond the restaurant/club house, there was a patio area, then two blocks of apartments – we were on the ground floor of the first, facing back towards the house. We got on well with fellow guests, there was a good atmosphere in general, it was a cracking holiday.

Towards the end of the week, after having sworn off drink for a few days (we were twenty and didn’t realise that the shots were doubles), we’d had a meal and enjoyed the evening in the club and gone back to our room. It wasn’t a big room – through the front door, the bathroom opened off the hall, then the main room had twin beds, patio doors (which faced out towards the main house) and built in wardrobes across from them (against the back of the bathroom wall). I slept in the bed nearest the wardrobes, Craig had the bed by the window.

On this particular night, nothing spectacular had happened. We had a chat for a while, then went to sleep and that was it.

I woke up and just knew it was the middle of the night, though it wasn’t particularly dark (we tended to keep the curtains open). As my eyes got accustomed to the light, I was very surprised to see someone crouching down beside the bed, staring at me. My over-riding memory of it now is that it looked like one of the guards out of the “Flash Gordon” film – a monks habit, with the hood drawn up and some kind of gas mask/breathing apparatus obscuring the face. I don’t remember reacting to this interloper, but watched as he stood up and walked carefully around my bed and along the back wall. As the thing reached the end of Craig’s bed (with me now up on one elbow, watching it go), Craig sat bolt upright in bed (and that startled me more than my ghost had).

“What time is it?”

I fumbled for my watch. “Ten past three.”

“Okay,” he said and laid back down. I couldn’t see my ghost any more, so I too laid down and went back to sleep.

The next morning, he was up bright and early and went to reception to make a call. When he got back, he explained that he’d wanted to ring his parents, as he was really worried. I asked why. He explained that he’d woken up that night to see two people sitting on the end of his bed, watching him. His first thought was that it must be his parents, checking that he was okay, but when he rang home, they were fine and healthy (and still are, thankfully, to this day).

As we sat there, on our beds in the early morning Portugese sunshine, I told him about the thing that I’d seen. As we talked, it came to me that maybe my ghost had been moving slowly because he was threading his way between things I couldn’t see, perhaps guests at a party. Guests that might, conceivably, be sitting at the end of Craig’s bed saying “look at that, a ghost person in bed.”

Completely stumped as to what was going on, but convinced the party angle was the one to go for, we trooped off to reception (I don’t know that we expected to find out that a party had been going on years before, until a fire broke out and killed everyone, but it would have been a start). The girl behind the counter was very nice, we’d spoken in the past and even tried to learn a few words of Portugese with her. Haltingly, we explained ourselves.

“We were just wondering if there’d been a party in our room.” We gave our room number and she went to check the pigeon hole and came back with our passports. “No, we’re in there, we just wondered if there’d been a party in there before.”

She looked at us and frowned. So we told her the story. About halfway through, she started to hyperventilate. Towards the end, she looked genuinely upset. When we got to the time part, she was very agitated. So much so that she went to get the manager’s wife (a fearsome, if friendly, lady – when I got sunstroke just after arriving, she made sure that I got grilled chicken for dinner to help me, even though it wasn’t on the menu). We re-told our story, conscious of the poor receptionist who was, by now, sitting in the backroom being comforted by her colleagues.

The manager’s wife listened to our story, looking at us to make sure we weren’t pulling her leg. She tried the obvious – were monks on my mind, there was a brand of drink that had as its logo a man in a cape, all manner of stuff – and realised that our story wasn’t going to change. She took us to one side and said, “If you promise not to mention this again, whilst you’re here, you can have free meals for the rest of your stay.”

Did my years of wanting to be a ghost-hunter kick in? Was my drive to discover the paranormal world enough that I would refuse? No, I’m now ashamed to admit that Craig & I thought with our bellies and went for the free meal option.

So, story ended right? We saw something we couldn’t explain, we freaked out a receptionist (who might have been prone to over-react, who knows?) and we were then offered hush money. I’d love to report that we experienced more phenomena but we didn’t – I was wary about being in the room on my own for the duration of our stay, but neither of us ever saw anything untoward in that room again.

It was all finished, except for something we overhead that night at dinner. Sharing our floor in the block were ex-employees of BOAC. Friendly, chatty and very funny, we got on well with them (bearing in mind they were perhaps fifty years older than us) and our little table was next to the large one they occupied.

Obviously, part of our deal was to tell no-one and we adhered to that. So imagine our surprise when the BOAC table started to talk about their previous night. Every one of them had woken up – either from hearing something or through a bad dream – and all of them were tired. We couldn’t resist and leaned back.

“What time was this then?” we asked.

There was general murmuring from the table, as people thought back about it.

So what time did five or six couples – a total of seven separate rooms – all wake up, on the same night, when nothing untoward was happening?

“Ten past three,” they said.