Wednesday, 7 October 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #21 - The October Country

When I was young, I had a huge appetite for anthologies of weird fiction, largely spawned by my encounters with previously discussed volumes such as Deadly Nightshade, Ghostly Gallery and Ghosts, Spooks & Spectres. After ploughing through a great many short stories collections, I began to assemble a mental list of authors, writers that I knew always delivered a cracking tale. And if I saw an anthology in a library or bookshop that had a  tale by one of "The List" which I hadn't read or didn't already own, said book instantly was borrowed from the library/bought if I had the pocket money to spare.  

Now one of the oldest names on "The List" was Ray Bradbury, whose classic story The October Game in Deadly Nightshade made an unforgettable impression upon me, and if you've ever read that very dark and masterfully told tale you will know exactly what I mean. And as one of the top names on "The List", I was naturally mad keen to my little mitts on anything by Bradbury. The first book of his that I owned was a battered Corgi paperback edition of The Illustrated Man, which naturally I adored, but I was keen to track down some collections of his more horror-orientated tales.

I'd gleaned from somewhere, probably a bio blurb, that the collection I wanted was Dark Carnival, which by all accounts featured some of his most famous horror tales. I would later discover that this was his very first book, and also published first by the legendary Arkham House. However I also learned very quickly that it was wasn't readily available in his country, and it was even in the late 1970s already changing hands for well beyond pocket money prices. But fortunately, I also soon discovered that through a long and tangled publication history, that I will outline another day, a good two thirds of the tales in Dark Carnival had later been reprinted in another Bradbury collection entitled The October Country.

And this particular book had  been split into two volumes for the UK paperback market, with one half appearing as the edition that you can see pictured above and the other as another paperback entitled The Small Assassin. Now I luckily discovered this just as I had some birthday money to spend, however less fortunately, it would only stretch to one book. So which did I choose? Well, obviously the one with the grinning skull and what looked like a Grim Reaper on it! Seriously though, despite the considerable allure of that bony visage on the cover, the very title just appealed to me... The October Country... a promise of place where the leaves are always turning, the scent of bonfires haunts the air, and Halloween is always near.

The full line-up of tales in my edition was - 

The Dwarf
The Watchful Poker Chip of H.Matisse
The Jar
The Traveler
The Emissary
Touched with Fire
The Scythe
Uncle Einar
The Wind
There Was an Old Woman
The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone

Now if you are familiar with all or just some of the tales from Dark Carnival or the original version of The October Country - for many have been reprinted elsewhere over the years - I think you'll agree the most horrific of them actually ended up in The Small Assassin. Now that's not to say that there aren't some fine horror stories in this collection - real skin freezers like Skeleton or The Emissary - but there are also plenty of eerie fantasies too, haunting tales that touch the heart or make you smile, making this selection the lighter half of the stories on the whole. However despite that, this book certainly did not disappoint my younger self, and The October Country was somewhere I'd revisit time and time again.

Admittedly there were a couple of stories that would take time to grow on me - The Watchful Poker Chip of H.Matisse I'm looking at you - but on the whole, I fell in love with these stories right from the first reading. Just as his SF was always about more than just silver rockets and strange planets, so too in these weird tales: the darkness Bradbury is exploring is our own inner spaces, breaking the boundaries of our usual thinking, and mapping the chambers of the human heart. Hence even when Bradbury takes us to the more whimsical regions of his autumnal lands, there is still a real weight to the tales, delivering stories that resonate in the mind and capture the imagination just as powerfully as as the pure horrors found in the likes of The Jar.

The lighter tales in this collection also acknowledge the romance and appeal of the horror genre. As a life-long lover of Halloween, Bradbury's October Country reflects the fun as well as the frights of the dark season. And nowhere is this seen more clearly in the loose trilogy of tales concerning the Family. In The Traveler, Uncle Einar and Homecoming we are introduced to a strange clan of folks who dwell on the dark side, and possess many strange talents or shapes. In many ways, Bradbury's Family are the forerunners of similar but more well-known macabre enclaves, the Addams Family and The Munsters. But while those two more famous families were played just for laughs, Bradbury's tales are far more profound, exploring a secret world that where the darkness has been embraced, where horror is celebrated as a virtue, and being monstrous is the norm. They are tremendous fun, but they also have a great deal to say about our own attractions to the horror genre, that blurred line where having fun is being frightened, and where we get to swap places with the monsters for a while.  

Now around this time of the year, the web fills up with features and articles recommending spooky tales for the Halloween season, and you can discover a great many classic chillers perusing them. However, if you want a collection of tales that are as beautiful as they are chilling, as lyrical as they are horrific, and one that imaginatively explores our relationship with the darkness, then book a ticket to travel to The October Country. And if you do, you may well find, that like myself, you'll be revisiting these tales this time every year...  

Sunday, 4 October 2015

HYPNOGORIA 20 - Clemens at the Movies

At last, the long-delayed Clemens at the Movies episode is here! In this show, Mr Jim Moon delves into the late great Brian Clemens' work on the silver screen, from an early feature adapting Edgar Allan Poe for the big screen in The Tell-Tale Heart (1960), through his psychochillers And Soon the Darkness (1970) and See No Evil (1971), to his work with Hammer - Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1972)

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  Clemens at the Movies

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Friday, 2 October 2015


In 1939, noted poet Louis MacNeice wrote a long work entitled Autumn Journal, a snap shot in verse of life in London on the eve of the Second World War. MacNeice's poetry very much reflected the times he lived in, as Philip Larkin put it "his was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the news-boys were shouting". However a few particular lines have often puzzled readers - 
The plane-tree leaves come sidling down
            (Catch my guineas, catch my guineas)
And the sun caresses Camden Town,
               The barrels of oranges and apples. 

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice 

Many have thought that the odd refrain of "Catch my guineas, catch my guineas" is perhaps meant to echo of an old nursery rhyme, just as the following lines about oranges and apples recall "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements". However, while it does allude to a very old source, we must look a little further than the nursery for its inspiration. 

While these lines don't appear to be an allusion to any older traditional rhyme or verse, it would seem to be an allusion to a widespread folk belief about falling leaves, and one that many generations of children have been familiar with. In Copsford (1952), author WJC Murray recalled that - 
As a small boy I had whimsically been taught that there was a magic in a falling leaf if you caught it before it touched the ground
Now this is somewhat vague, but undoubtedly it does make for a fun game in a sunny autumn afternoon. Delving into the annals of folklore, I discovered that in Cheshire it was said that to catch a falling leaf before it hit the ground on Halloween night entitled the catcher to make a wish. However there are many other versions of this little piece of autumnal lore. Most commonly, in many areas, it is simply considered lucky to catch a falling autumn leaf, and certainly this was the version that I was familiar with as a child growing up in the 1970s in the North of England. It is therefore not a huge leap of logic to suggest that Mr MacNeice's refrain recalls a similar tradition, in which it was said that to catch a falling leaf would ensure money and good fortune, and seemingly recalls a forgotten chant that accompanied the leaf catching. 

In 1878, the Folklore Society was founded to study such matters, and indeed to preserve these kinds of traditions, songs and rhymes. And in their first year of operations their official journal records the common folk belief that - 
If you catch a falling leaf, you will have twelve months of the happiness 
from Folk-Lore Record (1878)

But not all versions of this tradition were as quite as generous. It was said in Northampton, as late as the 1980s, that  if you catch twelve falling leaves during the autumn, you'll have a happy year; presumably each leaf caught ensures one month of good fortune. However childrens' author Alison Uttley, in her memoir A Year in the Country (1957), recalls a more exacting version - 
We try to catch a dancing leaf, for every leaf caught is a 'happy day', but how elusive they are, these fluttering alive things, which slip through the fingers and evade pursuit!
Now these variations in number perhaps are the result of this superstition spawning a game for children, with the increased goals making this autumnal activity something more of a challenge. In the 1950s, folklorist Iona Opie conducted a nationwide survey on superstitions, and a Welsh schoolboy in Bucknell, Radnorshire informed her that one needed to catch a whopping 365 falling leave to ensure a lucky year - one can almost hear his breathless excitement at undertaking such a challenge! 

However the catching of falling leaves had other variations, and what's more were popular with grown-ups too. In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions (1949), Edwin Radford reports -
The peculiar belief mentioned in the first of the above superstitions was forcibly brought to the mind of the author one day in Hyde Park, London, in the autumn of 1946. A man and woman pretty well advanced in years stood looking up at an oak tree from which leaves were being blown by the wind. After making several attempts to catch a leaf, they at last managed to do so, the man first and the lady subsequently. They then walked away, apparently satisfied with the game. 
  A question to them elicited the fact that they expected to be free from colds in the head by reason of their performance. The author quoted to them the superstition in which they apparently believed. To this and a further question they announced that they were country bred, from the shires, and that since coming to London more than 20 years ago they had regularly caught falling leaves in the autumn. 'And we've never had a cold yet,' they concluded.
Whether there is any truth to this I do not know, but certainly the exercise involved in the task of catching those tricksy falling leaves certainly will help in warding off the coughs and colds of winter! 

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

TOMB OF THE TRUMPS #09 - Devil Priest Pack Part IX

Welcome once again to the dark and dubious world of Tomb of the Trumps! This week our investigations of the inspirations of the infamous vintage Horror Top Trumps, first dumps us in a very dank dungeon, the domain of Killer Rat! 

Now this was a very tricky fellow to track down! Indeed many of my predecessors who have probed the mysterious and arcane origins of the Horror Top Trumps concluded that this was a rare example of a wholly original piece by our Unknown Artist. And in all fairness, there seemed a reasonable assumption as there was no relevant rat-man in any monster movie that could have served as a model for this beastie. However there was something naggingly familiar about him, something I recognised even when I had these cards as a nipper, but could never quite place... That is until now! 

First up, the whole rodentine thing is something of a red herring, for what we have here is a bit of artistic collage. Yes, this is actually a rather better known monster disguised with a new head. Now the actual rat bonce could have been copied from almost anywhere - not wanted to sound rat-ist here, but they do all look alike! However given our Unknown Artist's usual selection of sources for images to copy from, I'd reckon a still for either killer rat flick Willard (1971) or its sequel Ben (1972) as the model for the rat head itself. But the main figure comes from a rather less obscure source. 

Now the key clues here are the barred window and the ripped white shirt. Ring any bells yet? No? Well, how about this... The bars suggest a scene in a prison cell, while the style of the shirt, one of those floppy affairs favoured by Romantic poets, suggests a ye olden days settings. Furthermore the fact it is torn rather suggests a violent bodily transformation has occurred. And the image of a rodent headed man does in itself conjure the words 'wererat'. So then, given that the rat head is paste-on job, we should be looking to werewolf cinema! 

Now then, can you name a movie in which a man transforms into a werewolf while in jail? Well, if you are in anyway acquainted with cinematic lycanthropy, I'm sure you know the answer - Hammer's 1961 classic Curse of the Werewolf. So then, I began scouring stills from that movie, and just for good measure it's demi-remake from Tyburn Legend of the Werewolf  (1975), which also features a floppy shirted wolf-man. However rather frustratingly I could not find a photo that matched, and it looked like the trail of the Killer Rat had gone cold...

...Until I remembered our Unknown Artist' previous form for cribbing from 1970s monster mags. Then it clicked - and I knew why this image had always been oddly familiar. In 1976, British comics maestro Dez Skinn launched the House of Hammer, a monthly mag devoted to the legendary horror film studio. And as well as articles and features on classic horror flicks, each issue boasted a comics adaptation of a classic Hammer movie by some of the finest creators working in the field at the time. Now Issue #10, published in March 1978, saw a gorgeous comicstrip version of Curse of the Werewolf, with art by the great John Bolton, and flipping through my aged copy, I found at last the template for the elusive Killer Rat! 

Note the pose and the distinctive shirt tatters - large drape on the left, and a pointy shred flapping out to the right!  On a purely personal and utterly self-indulgent note, I must say it's so satisfying to finally find the origin of Killer Rat - this one has been bugging me literally since I first got the Devil Priest pack three decades ago!

Thankfully the next exhibit in our rogue's gallery is far easier to identify!  

Now I'm sure this chap needs no introduction to kaiju fans, for "The Living Gargoyle" is in fact one of Godzilla's famous foes - the intergalactic space bastard Gigan. In the original cycle of Big G movies, the Showa series, this cyborg kaiju was first summoned to earth in Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972) by aliens from the M Space Hunter Nebula, and called in once again by undersea miscreants from Seatopia the following year in Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973). He would later appear again in more recent times in the third cycle of Godzilla movies, the Millennium series, in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), actually the final Big G movie from Toho (well, at least for now). In this flick, which features a whole array of famous kaiju, Gigan got to appear in two forms - in his original incarnation, and then later resurrected with new cybernetic enhancements, most notably twin chainsaws replacing his hook hands! Fun fact - Gigan was the first of Godzilla's foes to make the Big G bleed! And he was an utter bastard too - aside from some distinctly dirty fighting techniques, twice the big cyborg abandoned the monster we was allied, fucking off back into space when Godzilla was winning! Yes, there was a large element of chicken in Gigan, and not just in his design! 

However we do have a further possible mystery in this card. As we have discovered previously, our Unknown Artist was prone not just cribbing the monsters but also their victims. And given  the prone chap on this card has a very distinctive hand shape on his out-thrown arm, I rather suspect he has been copied from a movie still. But so far I've been unable to place the poor disemboweled sod... But if you recognise him, do drop me a line! 

Sunday, 27 September 2015


Mr Jim Moon invites you once again to the cosy fireside of the Great Library of Dreams to explore a shadowy world of childhood rites and ancient traditions, in the shape of a sinister school story by the great WF Harvey, a tale of a mysterious group known as The Dabblers...

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - The Dabblers by WF Harvey

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Friday, 25 September 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - A Forgotten Feast

When the leaves start changing and the nights begin to draw in, we know Autumn is here. However in centuries past, the turning of the wheel of the seasons was more definitely marked in the calendar. Roughly coinciding with the solstices and equinoxes, were four quarter days that marked the beginning of each season, and for Autumn that day was Michaelmas. As may be deduced from its name, this was the feast day of St. Michael, one of the archangels, and the Lord's champion who led the heavenly host against Lucifer's rebellion. In some branches of Christian lore, Michaelmas was actually thought to be the date of that celestial battle - indeed last year, we looked at an old superstition looking at this legend and its connection to blackberries. And it is commonly thought that it was St. Michael's reputation as the champion of light that inspired the early church to set his feast day at a time of the year when the nights were going to be growing longer. 

However there is a wealth of lore and tradition around Michaelmas that does not relate to that great war between the powers of the Light and Darkness. Once upon a time, Michaelmas was a very important time of the year and was marked by many festivities. And thus it was for centuries, and its decline only came in the 19th century, with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. But now, in the 21st century, it is only largely remembered as an odd name occurring in some official calendars - for example, many old schools and universities still refer to the first term of the academic year as the Michaelmas term. 

Over the years many have wondered why the school year begins in September, and the reason for this is tied to the forgotten importance of Michaelmas. For the school year was modeled upon the university system, and to this day most university courses still begin at the close of September, usually literally just after Michaelmas. This is turn is derived from the church calendar (as they ran the first colleges and schools), and the academic year was chosen to begin then as Michaelmas marked the date of the last harvest. And in ages past harvest was a most crucial time of the year: food had to be gathered in for the winter and the task of ensuring that all the crops were harvested, fruits and berries gathered, and livestock slaughtered, required everyone to muck in. Hence at harvest time, a communities needed all its young folks helping out, not sequestered in dusty classrooms. So then the academic year was set to begin after these vital tasks had been accomplished.

In a similar fashion, Michaelmas also saw the holding of what were called mop fairs. As the harvests were the end of the agricultural year, it was now contracts were renewed and that farms and estates looked for new employees. And so, great fairs, often as part of the harvest festivities, were held where folks could tout for jobs. And the traditional way of doing so was wander through the fair to carry something that signified your skills and profession; for example, shepherds would carry crooks, cowmen wisps of straw, and house maids would carry a mop. And hence, according to some, the name 'mop fairs' (although some claim it derives from tasseled tokens worn to signify different employers).  

It was also the traditional day for elections, where communities would appoint public officials and leaders to guide them through the winter, with mayoral election traditionally being held at this time in many places. Like the other quarter days, Michaelmas was also the date that tithes, taxes and rents were due. And this is tied to a once very well-known but now largely forgotten superstition. For centuries it was said that - 
He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay
Even at the dawn of the 18th century, the belief was already so old that its origins had become obscure, as demonstrated by a query to the British Apollo on 22nd of October 1708 -
Pray tell me whence the custom'd proverb did commence, that who eats goose on Michael's day, shan't money lack his debts to pay?
Now firstly, there are a host of connections between geese and Michaelmas. In Shropshire for example, the shearing of the last portion of grain of the harvest was referred to as "cutting the ganders neck", while in other parts of the country Michaelmas is known as 'Goose Day', with some places have celebrations known as 'goose fairs'. However a clue to the answer to the query above is to be found in an old Elizabethan text, in a poem by George Gascoigne written in 1575. In a verse about the quarter day feasts, Gascoigne wrote - 
And when the tenants come to pay their quarter's rent,
   They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
    And somewhat else at New-year's tide, for fear their lease fly loose
Now the eating of goose at Michaelmas was more than a mere tradition. It actually relates again to the agricultural year, for after the crops had been harvested, geese were allowed to feed on the stubble. And hence by Michaelmas, the geese were as fat and well-fed as they were going to be that year, hence it was the perfect time to sell or slaughter them. And thus the goose fairs came into being, and the bird became the main course at Michaelmas feasts. Now going back to the paying of tithes and rents, in ages past it was a common practice to settle debts with goods, therefore at Michaelmas a goose was often offered as part of the payment.

Now as to the origin of that old proverb, we may speculate that if you were tucking into a goose on Michaelmas Day, you were one of several groups. You might be a well-off fellow who had just had his rents or debts paid up in full, and now probably had many new geese. Or you had paid up whatever was owed and still had enough to acquire a big roasting bird for your own table. Alternatively you may have been a farmer who'd had a good harvest and plenty of livestock for the winter. Or further down the social scale, you may have been been fortunate in the local mop fair, for traditionally employers sealed the deal with the payment of a shilling, and in some cases at some times in history they would even pay your wages for the coming year in a lump sum. Hence securing employment at the mop fair would normally mean you would be eating well on Michaelmas Day. In short then, if you had the cash for a goose on Michaelmas, that generally meant the coming year looked rosy. 

Being tied to the harvest and the end of the agricultural year, in many respects for many folks Michaelmas was the real end of the working year. And hence in the British Isles, and in many parts of Europe, the bounty of the harvest was celebrated with feasts. While it has been forgotten now, a sign that the Michaelmas feast was an important part of calendar in ages past is evidenced by the superstitions and customs that grew up around it, many of which echo several of our Christmas feast traditions. 

For example, in Ireland, special sweet pies were baked for Michaelmas, and it was traditional to hide a ring in one. To find a ring in ones Michaelmas pie was a sign of good fortune, much like getting the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. However thanks to the association between marriage and rings, to find a ring in your Michaelmas pie was a sign you would be wed in the coming year. And there was another echo of a Christmas superstition, the snapping of the turkey's wish-bone, with the Michaelmas goose. It was said that if the bones of the cooked bird were brown, the coming winter would be mild. However white bones prophesied much snow and frost. And in Yorkshire, the condition of the meat itself held similar divinatory properties - 
If the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull
We'll have a sour winter, from the start to the full
However despite being a popular and important part of the calendar, the Industrial Revolution was to kill off the celebrations of Michaelmas. As factory work and urban life increasingly became the lot of the common folk, the old agricultural year and its traditions became less important. But while goose fairs and mop fairs still survive to this day, and Michaelmas still haunts academic and legal calendars, the great feasts and festivities at the end of September are now forgotten. However its a tradition that perhaps should be revived, for as the nights draw in and the days grow colder, what better time to gather family and friends for a slap-up roast dinner?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

TOMB OF THE TRUMPS #08 - Devil Priest Pack Part VIII

Welcome once again to the Tomb of the Trumps! Our continuing series where we discover where the mysterious Unknown Artist of the Horror Top Trumps sets from the late '70s, ripped off, I mean drew his fetid inspiration! This week, we have a pair of rascals that any horror buff worth their salt should instantly recognise!

Hail to the king baby! Oh yes, here we have the great Lon Chaney Snr. as Quasimodo in the 1923 silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Directed by Wallace Worsley, this movie was a box office smash in its day and catapulted Lon Chaney Snr. from character actor to Hollywood star. Here he is in the title role and the very still the card was from copied from! 

Aside from Chaney's emotive performance as the tragic Quasimodo, what also really put him on the map was the fabulous make-up that he devised himself. Later Chaney would be dubbed as "the man of a thousand faces" thanks to the extraordinary lengths he went to to create his characters.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame was also the beginnings of Universal horror, and had Chaney not died, he was in line to play the Count in Dracula, and no doubt would have been the creature in Frankenstein... Which by a handy coincidence relates to our next card and another famous hunchback! 

Evidently our Unknown Artist had procured some large tomes on classic horror movies, for once again he'd been faithfully recreating stills in felt-tip! Despite the warts and green skin, here we quite clearly have a rendition of a famous scene in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) where the mad doc's hunchback assistant Fritz, played by Dwight Frye keeps the newly made monster under control with a flaming torch. Get used to it kiddo, you're gonna be seeing ALOT of flaming torches in the future! 

Now in Mary Shelly's original novel, Frankenstein had no deformed half-crazy assistant, however it's highly probably that thanks the lasting impact of Lon Chaney's Quasimodo, Universal sought to up the horror quotient by adding the hunchbacked Fritz. Hollywood after all, still to this day cleaves to the rule that if it was successful once, it will be successful again. And they would return to hunchbacks many times in their horror movies, most famously with Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Although this character strictly speaking only had a hunch due to a broken neck, the popular imagination has taken his name and fused it with memories of Dwight Frye, and so now many believe any Doctor Frankenstein worth his salt should be assisted by a hunchbacked Ygor. 

And it is also interesting to go back to the original trailers for Universal's monster rally movies House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), for in both cases, alongside the Count, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, hunchbacks are trailed as one of the monster attractions in these all-star creature features! Yes, the impact of Quasimodo was such that even over twenty years later, studio bosses, and presumable the public too, associated hunchbacks with Universal horror.