Tuesday, 30 June 2015

COVER ART-ROCITIES #17


Nothing says 'ghost!' quite like a fox, a noose, the dagger from Cluedo, a toy knight...  Or at last that's what Pan's art director thought until his P45 arrived...

Sunday, 28 June 2015

HYPNOGORIA 14 - A Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee Part II


Mr Jim Moon pays tribute to the great Sir Christopher Lee with the first part of what will be a lengthy retrospective of his life and works. In the first part of this epic journey through a career that spanned seven decades, we learn of Lee's early life, military career and his early forays into acting. We discuss his involvement with the birth of Hammer horror and friendship with Peter Cushing, looking at his roles in Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll. We look at his non horror works such as Hound of the Baskervilles and Terror of the Tongs, learn of his close relationship with Boris Karloff and the movie they starred in together Corridors of Blood, and round off with another black and white chiller City of the Dead AKA Horror Hotel which was effectively the birth of Amicus. 

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - A Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee Part II

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Friday, 26 June 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Toad Stone


As we saw last week, toad bones were highly prized for their alleged unusual powers. However in ages past, despite their unfounded and undeserved reputation as being poisonous predators, toads were sought out for another bizarre but commonly believed reason, which William Shakespeare alluded to  in As You Like It.  In Act 2, Scene 1, the Bard of Avon has Duke Senior say:

Sweet the uses of adversity.
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head

Yes, as strange as it sounds for several centuries a belief flourished which asserted that toad's heads contained a curious gem stone. Now aside from the monetary value of a jewel, these toadstones were also alleged to possess extremely useful properties. In the early encyclopedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus in the 13th century, a toadstone was described as - 
A precyous stone somdeale whyte: other of dyuers colours. It is sayd yt this stone is take oute of a toodes heed... this stone helpith ayenst bytynh of serpentis & of creeping wormes: & ayenst venym. For in the presence of venym, yt stone warmyth & brennyeth his fynger yt towchyth him
Now this might seem to be absolute nonsense to the modern reader, but in earlier ages, when medicine was primitive, and poisoning was a common method of assassination, it is easy to understand why the idea that certain gems could not only ease, but also detect poisons, would be very appealing. Naturally it wasn't long before there was a flourishing trade in toadstones, and by the 16th century these gems, allegedly taken from the heads of amphibians, were being set in jewelry, most commonly rings, and were highly prized items. 

In later ages, their claimed magical properties shifted slightly. Presumably as the fear of being bumped off by poisoning receded, the toadstone became more generally known as a magical remedy, with  Thomas Lupton in his compendium of science and technology Thousand Notable Things, Of Sundry Sortes (1576) alleging that - 

A Tode stone (called Crapandina) touching any part be venomed, hurte or stung by Ratte, Spider or Waspe, or any other venomous Beast, ceases the paine and swelling thereof

What's more, being a tome full of handy practical hints and guides for the learned Elizabethean gent, Lupton handily gives us a method of making our own - 
A Goode way to get the stone called Crapandina, out of the Tode. Put a great or ouergrowne Tode, (fyrst brused in dyvers places) into an earthern potte, and put the same in an Antes hyllocke, & couer the same with earth, which Tode at length ye Antes wyll eate: So that the bones of the Tode and stone, wyll be left in the potte
As those of you who read last weeks article on toad bone amulets will recognize, clearly Mr Lupton (or his source) had read their Pliny. Various other writers and sages in later years would continue to recommend the "ante hyllock" method of extracting a toadstone, however obviously one expects there were many disappointed folks who found naught but ant-flensed bones when opening their "eathern pottes". And perhaps this is why seminal bestiary compiler Edward Topsell detailed an alternative and more arcane method in his 1608 work The Historie of Serpents
There be many late Writers, which doe affirme that there is a precious stone in the head of a Toade, whose opinions (because they attribute much to the vertue of this stone) it is good to examine in this place, that so the Reader may be satisfied whether to hold it as a fable or as a true matter, exemplifying the powerfull working of Almightie God in nature, for there be many that weare these stones in Ringes, being verily perswaded that they keepe them from all manner of grypings and paines of the belly and the small guttes. But the Art (as they terme it) is in taking of it out, for they say it must be taken out of the head alive, before the Toad be dead, with a peece of cloth of the colour of red Skarlet, where-withall they [sc. the toads] are much delighted, so that they stretch out themselves as it were in sport upon that cloth, they cast out the stone of their head, but instantly they sup it up againe, unlesse it be taken from them through some secrete hole in the said cloth, whereby it falleth into a cestern or vessell of water, into which the Toade dareth not enter, by reason of the coldnes of the water.

Very bizarre indeed I'm sure you'll agree! But no matter how strange and fruitless these methods of extracting the fabled stones from the toad's heads were, from the trade in toadstone jewelry quite clearly some one was managing to get them. However by the 17th century, some inquiring minds were begining to wonder quite where the toadstones were coming from. One such sharp fellow was Sir Thomas Browne, who in his 1646 work Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths, wittily debunked many commonly held misconceptions and myths. In this work, he rigorously investigated the subject of toadstones, basically highlighting the anatomical and biological unfeasibility of such things existing before revealing his own conclusion on what they were, and even proposed a test for alleged toadstones - 
But these Toadstones, at least very many thereof, which are esteemed among us, are at last found to be taken not out of Toads heads, but out of a Fishes mouth, being handsomely contrived out of the teeth of the Lupus Marinus, a Fish often taken in our Northern Seas, as was publickly declared by an eminent and Learned Physitian. But because men are unwilling to conceive so low of of their Toadstones which they so highly value, they may make some trial thereof by a candent or red hot Iron applied unto the hollow and unpolished part thereof, whereupon if they be true stones they will not be apt to burn or afford a burnt odour, which they may be apt to do, if contrived out of animal parts or the teeth of fishes.
 The Lupus Marinus is of course Latin for Sea-wolf, the archaic name for a shark. However while Sir Thomas was on the right track, he hadn't quite found the origin of the toadstones, for indeed many of these alleged mystic stones would have passed his hot iron test. A later writer (whom we encountered while talking of another alleged magical item the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan),  Thomas Pennant came closer still in his epic work British Zoology (1766). Pennant wrote of the toadstone that - 
all its fancied powers vanished on the discovery of its being nothing but the fossil Tooth of the Sea-Wolf, or some other flat-toothed Fish. 
And hence as they were fossils, a toadstone could be subjected to Browne's test and not give off the tell-tale smells of burnt calcium and enamel which would signify a fake. However again, while Mr Pennant was close to the truth, he was just a shade away from getting to the bottom of this batrachian mystery. In fact, he was quite correct on all counts except identifying the exact species of  fossilised fish teeth.

Modern science has of course now given us the answer: toadstones were in fact the teeth from fossils of a species of Lepidotes which flourished in everyone's favourite ancient time zones - the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. And looking at the stony remains of these primordial piscines' jaws, one can see why they were passed off as toadstones, for in their shape and colouring, they do resemble the wart, knobbly hide of monstrous toads. 





Wednesday, 24 June 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES Special - Mysteries of the Unknown


In the late '70s children's publisher Usborne, produced a new line of books aimed at young readers. Entitled 'World of the Unknown' it comprised of three large format paperbacks, with glossy covers and lavish colour illustrations throughout. One was  All About Monsters, the next All About Ghosts and the third and final volume All About UFOs. All three volumes were collected together in a large hardback edition which hit the shelves under the title of Mysteries of the Unknown.

Introducing kids to strange creatures such as the Lambton Worm, the Hopkinsville goblin and Gef the talking mongoose, and transporting them to weird locales such as Loch Ness, Borley Rectory and the Nazca Lines, these books are fondly remembered by several generations of children. Packed full of details and wonderful illustrations, these tomes were high octane fuel for the imagination and now can command frighteningly high prices secondhand... Something that make me very glad I still got my much cherished though slightly battered edition of Mysteries of the Unknown. Indeed I still enjoy flipping through this tome whose words and pictures still trill me to this very day. 

Last year, in as part of my adventures in audio, I decided to go through the books on air as it were and reminisce about their marvels and read aloud some samples of their magic. And as Usborne collected all three volumes together into one bumper package, it is only right and proper that I now do the same... 


MICROBOBS 05 - ALL ABOUT GHOSTS

In this minicast, Mr Jim Moon once again dusts off a spooky childhood favourite. This time we talk about a volume in Usborne's late 1970s series World of the Unknown, the haunting tome All About Ghosts

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Microbobs 05 All About Ghosts


MICROGORIA 04 - ALL ABOUT MONSTERS

Time travelling once more on the black batwings of nostalgia, Mr Jim Moon enthusiastically rambles about World of the Unknown: All About Monsters published by Usborne back in 1978. Swearing, over-excitement and a feast of monsterdom results!

LISTEN HERE
DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Microgoria 04: All About Monsters


MICROGORIA 11 - ALL ABOUT UFOS 

Completing the trilogy of World of the Unknown books, Mr Jim Moon, in a predictably over-excitable fashion, voyages back to the 1970s to take a look at  All About UFOs (Usborne 1977)

LISTEN HERE
DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  MICROGORIA 11 - All About UFOS



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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

COVER ART-ROCITIES #16


Who can forget F Scott Fitzgerald's classic tale of the giant blue blanket monster ate Las Vegas?

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Sunday, 21 June 2015

HYPNOGORIA 13 - A Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee Part I - Unearthing Dracula


To mark the passing of Sir Christopher Lee, we begin a triumvirate of shows celebrating the life and works of a true legend of cinema and horror. In our first episode, Mr Jim Moon goes on the trail of a lost Dracula, and uncovers the tale of a long forgotten audio version of Bram Stoker's classic narrated by Sir Christopher Lee and its links to one of the first graphic novels The Illustrated Dracula from 1966

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - A Tribute to Sir Christopher Lee Part I - Unearthing Dracula

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Friday, 19 June 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Toad Bones


As we discovered a few weeks ago, in ages past there was a whole branch of early medicine (and I use that term loosely) based about using toads, in whole or in part, as a remedy for a wide variety of ailments. Many of these dubious cures were in that strange borderland where early pharmacy emerges into folk magic, with some cures being derived from pills, lotions and potions made from toads while others worked by the patient carrying a dead specimen or some parts thereof as an amulet or charm against catching certain diseases and maladies. 

However, in a related set of folk beliefs, there is a long tradition of using toads for more purely magical purposes. As we have seen in previous articles, folk beliefs about the venomous nature of the creatures and assorted alleged familiar spirits appearing in the shape of toads, has resulting in the toad being associated with witchcraft and black magic, an idea that still persists today in the popular imagination. However the idea that toads possess magical properties stretches back further than the witch trials and medieval times, for like many widespread European superstitions, the origin of these beliefs can be traced back to Classical times. 

Now the surviving writings of assorted Greek and Roman scholars formed the basis for Western philosophy, science and history for hundreds of years, unfortunately our ancient sages weren't always on the mark with their data and theories. For example, Pliny the Elder gave the world one of the first encyclopedias - the epic tome Naturalis Historia (or Natural History) which covered topics such as astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, physiology, mineralogy, zoology, botany, agriculture, pharmacology, mining and art history. But while this massive book was an important reference work for learned men for literally centuries, in Naturalis Historia we also learn dubious facts such as burying a toad in a jar will ward off diseases on a crop of millet, the ashes of toad mixed with grease is a good treatment for gout, and that sick pigs can be cured with water in which a toad has been boiled. 

And it is also in this epic work by Pliny that we discover the root of a very common folk belief about toads - namely that their bones have magical properties. When writing on what he referred to as the rubet√¶ or bramble-frog (the Classical terms for toads) our seminal scholar notes that - 
Authors quite vie with one another in relating marvelous stories about them; such, for instance, as that if they are brought into the midst of a concourse of people, silence will instantly prevail; as also that by throwing into boiling water a small bone that is found in their right side, the vessel will immediately cool, and the water refuse to boil again until it has been removed. This bone, they say, may be found by exposing a dead bramble-frog to ants, and letting them eat away the flesh: after which the bones must be put into the vessel, one by one.
Naturalis Historia 32.18

However Pliny goes to to relate that after your ants have flensed your toad, don't chuck the rest of the skeletal remains away, for certain other bones have even more remarkable properties - 
In the left side of this reptile there is another bone, they say, which, thrown into water, has all the appearance of making it boil, and the name given to which is "apocynon." This bone, it is said, has the property of assuaging the fury of dogs, and, if put into the drink, of conciliating love and ending discord and strife. Worn, too, as an amulet, it acts as an aphrodisiac, we are told. The bone, on the contrary, which is taken from the right side, acts powerfully as a refrigerative upon boiling liquids, it is said: attached to the patient in a piece of fresh lamb's-skin, it has the repute of assuaging quartan and other fevers, and of checking amorous propensities. 

Now then, I'm sure you'll agree they sound like very useful bones to possess! Indeed over the years, right up until the present day, there is a continuing tradition of magical belief in the power of toad bones. What is most remarkable however is that these superstitions are clearly drawn from Pliny, albeit with some added embroidering over the centuries. For example, nearly all toad bone rituals follow the Classical lore in using ants to strip the flesh from the bones, and while the alleged properties of the toad bones do vary from place to place, they have remained generally consistent - namely that a certain part of the skeleton can cure diseases and/or give its owner the power to influence both people and animals.

And while Pliny rather unhelpfully doesn't specify which bone it was, over the centuries it seems plenty of folks thought they could find the right one! In some traditions a specific part  of the toad is identified, most often usually the pelvis or breast bone. However what is very interesting is that over time new stages have been added to the process to magically correct Pliny's vagueness. Hence after the flensing by ants, we have an additional rite whereby by the magical bones will be revealed, most usually by using running water. On a an alleged propitious night - new and full moons and various Saint's days are common - the bones were cast into running water and the magical bone reveals itself by floating up against the current.

Now here we can clearly see some deductive thinking at work. As Pliny mentions that the bone has the property of cooling hot water and boiling cold water, hence at some stage a prospective healer or magician reasoned that therefore given the magical bone's contrarian effects on water, it would logically float against a current and thereby reveal itself. Interestingly though, even in times and places where the local tradition identified which part of the toad skeleton was magical, the rite of immersing the bones in running water was still carried out, indeed in some areas the process of acquiring a toad bone was known as 'going to the river' or the rite of  'waters of the moon'. However in these cases, it seems that the act of immersing of the bones in running water was now seen as part of the magical charging of the resulting toad amulet -
Then take the bones and go down to a good stream of runnin' water at midnight an' throw the bones i' the stream. All the bones but one will go downstream, an' that one as wont go downstream is the breast-bone. Now you must get 'old of this 'ere bone afore the Devil gets it, an' if you get it an' keep it allus by you - in your pocket or wear it - then you can witch, as well as that, you'll be safe from bein' witched yourself
from Lincolnshire Folklore (1936)
by Ethel H Rudkin

While the simpler versions profess to create a charm that is good against certain diseases and grants a power over animals - in English traditions usually over horses - as the above quote illustrates, where the method of acquiring a toad bone becomes more magically, more of ritual than a technical process, so too the reputed powers of the bone grow. While in the 16th and 17th centuries, English witchcraft thought to be dependent on the powers granted by familiar spirits and animals, in the 18th and 19th centuries magical prowess came from possessing a toad bone.  
There was one charm she told me of witch was practiced when any one wanted to get command over there fellow creatures. Those that wished to cast the spell must search until they found a walking toad. It was a toad with a yellow ring round its neck, I have never seen one of them but I have been told they can be found in some parts of the Country. When they found the toad they must put it in a perforated box, and bury it in a Black Ant’s nest. When the Ants have eaten all the flesh away from the bones it must be taken up, and the person casting the spell must carry the bones to the edge of a running stream the midnight of Saint Marks Night, and throw them in the water. All will sink but one single bone and that will swim up stream. When they have taken out the bone the Devell would give them the power of Witchcraft, and they could use that power over both Man and Animals.

from I Walked by Night: Being the Life & History of the King of the Norfolk Poachers (1935) 
edited by LR Haggard

Indeed being the holder of a toad bone amulet was so seen as being the key to possessing magical powers that in some areas folks possessing arcane knowledge and skills were known as toadsmen. In some cases, a toadsman was seen as a beneficial member of the local community, similar to horse whisperers or cunning folks: some one who could provided remedies against all manner of maladies, both natural and supernatural for people, livestock and crops. However in others these folks had a more sinister reputation, with toadsman being a byword for witch; indeed in the county of Norfolk casting spells was known as 'tudding', a corruption of 'toading'. And correspondingly the rituals had a darker nature too, as an old horseman called Albert Love recounted in 1966
While you are watching these bones in the water, you must on no consideration take your eyes off it. Do (if you do) you will lose all power. That’s where you get your power from for messing about with horses, just keeping your eyes on that particular bone. But when you are watching it and these bones are parting, you’ll hear all the trees and all the noises that you can imagine, even as if buildings were falling down or a traction engine is running over you. But you still mustn’t take your eyes off, because that’s where you lose your power. Of course, the noises must be something to do with the Devil’s work in the middle of the night...
from The Pattern under the Plough  (1966)
by GE Evans

Furthermore some traditions had additional rituals, to give the toadsman even greater powers. In East Anglia it was said that some time after acquiring the toad bone, usually five nights later, the toadsman would spend the night in a barn and call up the Devil, who he would then bind - presumably exercising the powers of influence in the bone - to his will. Interestingly in a call back to earlier English witchlore about familiars, the  pact or bargain with the Devil involved the toadsman offering up his blood. However the price of gaining such powers was high - as Nigel Pennick recounts in Secrets of East Anglian Magic (1995) the toadsman could expect all manner of infirmities, hallucinations and even a sudden death. So then, despite the alluring powers that having a toad bone amulet grants, perhaps it is best to leave the bones where they belong - in the toads.  

The toad-bone ritual making an appearance in cult BBC children's serial The Moon Stallion in 1978




Wednesday, 17 June 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #14 - Monster Maker by Nicholas Fisk


If you were growing up in UK in the '70s or '80s, and like me, loved all manner of imaginative fiction, chances are that you'll have fond memories of many books by Nicolas Fisk. Actually the nom de plume of Mr David Higginbottom, from the mid '60s onward Fisk produced a legion of books for children of all ages, the majority of which were science fiction.  Kids loved his imaginative tales, and grown ups admired the quality of his writing - so much so that several titles ended up being studied in schools. And indeed, this was how I was introduced to his works, with our English class tackling his dark and offbeat novel Grinny. 

I adored Grinny, and after getting over the surprise at having done a book in school that was about a rather sinister and stealthy alien invasion, I was soon hunting his other titles such as Trillions (mysterious crystals from space), Space Hostages (kidnapped kids in an intergalactic cold war) and A Rag, A Bone and A Hank of Hair (future folks cloning people from the past). However my all-time favourite was Monster Maker, first published in hardback in March 1979 by Pelham Books, and reprinted many times over the next few decades in paperback. But interestingly, while Monster Maker is technically one of the least fantastical of Mr Fisk's books, it was the one which I would take to my heart, the one which spoke to me most clearly, and the one that I have reread many, many times down the years. 

So why did this particular novel make such an impression upon me? Well, it was simply because I could clearly see myself in the central character and relate very closely to his story. The novel tells the tale of a twelve year old lad named Matt, who is obsessed with monsters and the movies they appear in. As it happens, just outside his little English town is the studio and workshop of a great special effects artist, Chancey Balogh, who is effectively the Ray Harryhausen of the world of Monster Maker. And thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of quick thinking on Matt's part, he manages to meet the great man and gets a job for the summer helping out his hero making monsters for a new SF epic. However what would be Matt's dream summer is constantly being threatened by a gang of local bullies, who make Matt their target and decide to break into Chancey's studios...

And I'm sure that now many of you will understand perfectly why I related to this book so strongly, for Matt was essentially the kid I was - hunting down any horror, SF or monster movies I could, fascinated by the cinematic magic that brought monsters, spaceships and alien worlds to the screen, and even trying my own hand at various special effects techniques... Although admittedly not with the technical expertise that young Matt has in the book. But just like Matt, I grew up in a small town and had a band of local bullies to dodge too. In short, Matt could have very well have been me, and I suspect many of you too. 

And while there is a strong element of living out the fantasy of many a monster obsessed kid - after all, didn't we all dream at some point or another of becoming an apprentice to a movie wizards like Harryhauen, or Tom Savini or Rick Baker - at the same time Monster Maker is far from an exercise in wish fulfillment. Now at the time I first I read this wonderful little novel, back in 1980, I was already at an age when I had developed an on-going niggle with a lot of children's fiction, whether on the page or on the screen. And that was that all too often stories set in the alleged 'real world' featured kids who were not only nothing like me and my peers, but also these fictional brats got to do stuff that we would never in a zillion years be able or allowed to do. 

However Monster Maker was very different, with Fisk not only perfectly capturing the mindset of a young monster movie buff, but detailing his world with a gritty honesty. Matt has a proper home life; parents watching over him, a sister who he loves but squabbles with, and the villains of the book, the bully gang aren't just cardboard stooges but recognizably real young hooligans, the kind of lads aren't just calling you names or giving out wedgies, but will put you in hospital if you cross them. And unlike the aforementioned fiction brats who lived in worlds where parents never existed and never came to any real harm, Matt is growing up with the same rules and dangers as we did.

In 1989, it was adapted for television for The Jim Henson Hour, which aired in the UK as a forty five minute stand-alone special, and starred cult legend Harry Dean Stanton as Chancey Barlogh. However while I am aware that this is a fondly remembered production, and I was tremendously excited to see it back in the day, I have to say that the TV version just didn't cut it for me. For me, the Henson version just didn't hit the right notes of the story, watering down the somewhat honest and gritty portrayal of life for an ordinary English kid in the '70s with whimsical fantasy elements and  fuzzy sentimentality, in short losing what made reading the book so special. 

And while this book is now over forty years old, and to a new generation of readers it may seem strange that Matt's world is lacking in computers and smart phones and Chancey would probably be working with CGI nowadays, in the main the book hasn't really aged. For Matt's experiences still ring true, with Fisk deftly detailing the struggles we all have while growing up in making sense of the adult world, and on the flipside the way grown ups often don't understand a kid's worries, fears and interests. Hence I'm sure that monster obsessed kids will still relate to his tale today, and certainly that was the case for me when I first read this novel back in the day. However now when I reread Monster Maker, it's like looking at the world through the eyes of the kid I once was. While it may have been written for kids, Monster Maker is very much a timeless book for anyone who loves movie monsters. 


Tuesday, 16 June 2015

COVER ART-ROCITIES #15



Mongol General: What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their art department directors! Ha! Puny mortals! Conan is so mighty he disregards such decadent civilized concepts such as anatomy and proper proportions!

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world


Sunday, 14 June 2015

FROM THE GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS 10 - The Empire of the Necromancers


Mr Jim Moon returns once again to the weird and wonderful writings of Clark Ashton Smith, and presents a fantastic tale from the far future, a legend from the exotic land of Zothique, the last continent on a dying Earth basking under a dwindling red sun.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  The Empire of the Necromancers

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Friday, 12 June 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Fairy Finds IV: The Fairy Shoe of Beara Penisular


In this little sub-series on various artifacts allegedly left behind by the Fair Folk, we have seen a common pattern emerging, namely that objects ancient and/or mysterious have had fairy origins attributed to them. In the cases of both the Fairy Flag and the Luck of Edenhall we have seen how valuable and rare items that were brought back from the Middle East have had their true origins forgotten and tales of faeries have filled in the gaps. However the origins all such faery finds are so easily traced and explained. 

One of the most curious of all faerie artifacts appeared in an Irish edition of the long running magazine Country Life in 1973. The object was discovered by chance in 1835 in South West Ireland and remains a mystery until this very day. A farm worker in the Beara Penisula happened to notice a small item on a country road. Bending down to examine it more closely, he discovered it was a tiny shoe, just under three inches long. The mystery footwear was black, with eyelets for tiny laces, and resembled the type of shoe popular with Irish gentlemen in the previous century. Of course Ireland is home to the Leprechauns, the fairy cobblers, who are famously shy around us tall folk for our habit of trying to steal their gold. Had our clodhopping labourer disturbed one of this fellows, who took flight and accidentally left his work behind?  

Our puzzled farmer took his find to the local doctor, who was also baffled by it. The shoe eventually passed into the possession of a County Cork family, the Somervilles of Castletownshend. And while touring in the USA, Dr Edith Somerville took the show to Harvard University where it was examined by experts. They concluded that it was hand stitched, and thought it to be made from mouseskin.

Now there are two possible explanations for the shoe, however neither really seem to fit. Firstly if you or I were to find a tiny shoe we probably would assume it had belonged to a doll. However in the case of this particular lost shoe, the size and shape of the foot it was made to fit is somewhat different from the dainty feet of dolls.  Furthermore mouseskin is a peculiar choice of material for constructing  toy, and indeed no one yet has found a doll of the same vintage sporting such shoes.   

A second explanation is that the shoe was made by an apprentice to showcase the skills he had learned. It was common for tradesmen to set their charges unusual and difficult tasks to test the skills they have been taught, and the very fine, tiny stitching used in the shoes could well be a challenge set to an apprentice in cobbling or needlework. However as this accepting this theory raises several troubling questions. As Patrick Harpur notes while discussing the shoe in his book Daemonic Reality (Penguin 1994) - 
If it were an apprentice piece, how did it come to be found on a remote sheep track? Why was it made in the style of the previous century? Why is it such an odd shape? 
And for this writer the most curious question is why the shoe shows signs of having been worn. For indeed the shoe shows clear signs of having been worn by some one or something.... One can clearly see in the photograph that the heel has the distinctive rounded back that come from having walked in for many many miles...



Wednesday, 10 June 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #13 - The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories ed. Robert Aickman (1964)


In the '60 and '70s, there was a huge market for short weird fiction. Indeed so much so that many publishers had long running paperback franchises that tapped into the public's appetite for short shockers of all kinds. And Fontana Books were no exception, for they had several different series, The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, the Tales of Terror series, Frighteners, and a host of one-off anthologies. But the jewel in their crown was the Great Ghost Stories series, which were published over two decades and would run into a whopping twenty volumes.   

The first eight books in the series are particularly noted by lovers of weird fiction for these volumes were edited by a bona fide legend in the field, that modern master of the strange tale,  Robert Aickman. Now I picked up this little paperback secondhand back when I was nine or ten, and of course I had no idea who Robert Aickman was. But how could I resist that wonderfully eerie cover, a painting so atmospheric that for several years it actually quite spooked me  - it was one of those scary pictures that you would dare yourself to look at by torchlight in dark, and usually frighten yourself daft with.

However despite the creepy cover, I must admit that I didn't really take to this collection when I first got it. I had hoped that as this was a book for grown-ups, I'd get something that was far more terrifying than the assorted spooky anthologies aimed at young readers I already had (see earlier articles in this series for the main offenders). However despite the hair-raising promise of the chilling cover, I must confess I struggled with many of the stories in this volume, and I'm sure many of you might have a few questions over the contents, which are as follows -  
  • The Travelling Grave by LP Hartley
  • The Ghost Ship by Richard Middleton
  • Squire Toby’s Will by J. Sheridan le Fanu
  • The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson
  • Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • The Rocking-horse Winner by DH Laurence
  • The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood
  • The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen
  • The Trains by Robert Aickman
  • The Old Nurse’s Story by Mrs Gaskell
  • Seaton’s Aunt by Walter de la Mare
Now, while there are a good few classic titles in this selection, I'll bet that some of you are wondering if this is a book of great ghost stories, where is the MR James or the EF Benson? Indeed several of these tales - such as the stories from Harltey, Hodgson, Blackwood and Lawrence aren't actually ghost stories at all, but horror tales really. While the offerings from Howard, de la Mare and Mr Aickman himself are spooky tales where you are not entirely sure feature a ghost, or even what exactly has gone on.

So why this rather odd selection? Well, partly I think it is down to Mr Aickman trying to avoid the usual suspects and present a collection of tales that readers may not have already encountered. And his dedication in this volume is very telling -
In memory of 
Friend and Patron of ghosts
and of their Creators

For the good Lady was a pioneer of the modern ghost story anthology, assembling several classic collections that stayed in print for decades and penning some fine spectral tales herself too. Indeed when this first volume in the Fontana Great Ghost Stories series was published it would have been sat on shelves next to paperback editions of Lady Cynthia's anthologies. Hence Mr Aickman is not only respectfully doffing his hat to the doyenne of ghostly collections, but also seeking to no overlap her selections. Hence the exclusion of many titles that we would at first expect.

But also this collection does reflect the tastes of Mr Aickman himself; much like his own fiction, these stories are not cast from the conventional mold and instead pursue in their own different ways the unusual and the unsettling and the uncanny. And while I found several of these stories difficult to comprehend when I was a boy, in later years I was very glad I had kept hold of this little book. This was very much a book I grew into, and have grown to appreciate over the passing years. There may be few traditional ghost stories between its covers, but it is nevertheless a very strong selection of chillers, and one that rather masterfully demonstrates the range and scope of the weird tale.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

COVER ART-ROCITIES #14


Perhaps needless to say, this collection of short tales by the late great Ray Bradbury doesn't contain one single tale about a centaur being attacked by glove puppet versions of himself!

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Sunday, 7 June 2015

MICROGORIA 14 - Inside Berberian Sound Studio


In this episode Mr Jim Moon investigates the strange case of Berberian Sound Studio in which a sound engineer played by Toby Jones descends into a world of madness while working on the soundtrack for an Italian giallo movie.

The episode of Doug Talks Weird mentioned in the show is here

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  Inside Berberian Sound Studio

Find all the podcasts in the HYPNOBOBS family here -

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   MICROGORIA is hosted by GeekPlanetOnline and is part of the ROGUE TWO Podcasting network.

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Friday, 5 June 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - A Cure of Toads


Last week we discovered what a fearsome reputation the humble toad enjoyed, or rather perhaps suffered from, in times past. Folklore associated it with poison and disease, and it was commonly thought of as a venomous predator or a witches familiar. However despite allegedly being noxious both physically and spiritually, toads were surprisingly highly sought after for a huge variety of charms and folk remedies. Both the Romans and the ancient Chinese widely employed toads both live and dead, in whole and in part, for the treatment of a huge variety of ailments. And hence in the murky world of early health care, which was as much about magic as medicine, and where superstition was mingled with science, toads remained a prized ingredient for many a cure for several centuries. 

One of the best known medical superstitions about toads, and one that is still doing the rounds today, is the belief that you can catch warts from a toad. Of course this is completely untrue, however there is a factual basis, albeit a distorted one, to this old wives' tale. Essentially warts are caused by a viral infection in the skin, and it is true that the virus can be passed on by contact. Indeed you can not only catch warts from touching someone with warts but also by using items such as towels or clothes that have been in contact with infected areas of skin. Now as toads were erroneously thought to be covered in warts, it did therefore make sense to not touch them. Actually the characteristic lumps on their skin are completely natural and harmless, however many varieties will secrete toxins as a defense against predators if picked up, and these defensive poisons can be a mild irritant to human skin, sometimes causing lumps, bumps and swellings that folks in the past would have termed warts. 

As toads were thought to cause warts, it was also assumed that they would also be good for removing warts, in accordance with the ancient common belief which held that in nature like was drawn to like. Hence in some regions it was said the trick to getting rid of your warts was to rub a live toad on them, and the warts would be drawn to join its fellows on the toad's hide. And this was the common underlying concept for a wide variety of folk cures and charms involving toads. It was known as the law of sympathy, and hence as toads were thought to be poisonous and venomous, naturally they were also thought to be good for treating all manner of noxious complaints. Sir Kenelm Didgy in his 1656 tome Discourse on Sympathy explains it perfectly - 
In time of common contagion, they used to carry about them the powder of a toad, and sometimes a living toad or spider shut up in a box; or else carry arsnick, or some other venomous substance, which draws unto it the contagious air
And this belief was very prevalent right up to the 18th century. For example, Notes & Queries in 1869 reported the following case where a toad was being used to combat a disease that was considered both poisonous and to cause lumps and boils on the skin -
An old woman, whom I well remember, always carried in her pocket a dried toad, as a preservative from small-pox. One day... she went into the village without her toad. The small-pox prevailed in the place at the time, and the old woman caught it.
Another of the toad's natural defenses also qualified it for folk medical uses. For as well as secreting toxins when seized by a predator, toads also inflate their bodies to make themselves too big to swallow. Hence as they possessed the ability to cause swelling at will, it was assumed that therefore toads would be good for treating swellings in the human anatomy too.


For example in rural Scotland it was said that the way to relieve a sprain was by rubbing live toad in it. Likewise many 'medicines' were developed to harness this property. In 1678 W Salmon in his London Dispensary, no doubt counting on the toad's ability to cause swelling, advised -
A dried Toad steept in Vinegar... smelt to it stops bleeding at Nose, especially laid to the forehead... or hung from the neck
Wearing either a live toad, or portions of one was a common feature cure in many a toad cure. Sometimes these remedies were more like a charm or a ritual. For example, in Cornwall, if one was suffering from quinsy, a complaint that causes ulcerations and abscesses around the tonsils - again note the key symptoms of growths and swellings - toads once again held the key to a cure...
A 'wise woman'... prescribed for him as follows: 'Get a live toad, fasten a string round its throat, and hang it up till the body drops from the head; then tie the string around your own neck, and never take it off, night or day, till your fiftieth birthday. You'll never have quinsy again'.   
And if you think that cure is rather gruesome and cruel, then Worcestershire appears to have been an even worse county to have been a toad in. For Gentlemen's Magazine 1855 reports that - 
In the neighbourhood of Hartlebury (and also in Tenbury) they break the legs of the toad, sew it up in a bag alive, and tie it round the neck of the patient... the life or death of the patient being supposed to be shadowed forth by the survival or death of the animal.
However other cures were of a more medical flavour, with the 17th and 18th century seeing a boom in self qualified 'toad doctors'. A popular complaint they treated was scrofula, colloquially referred to as king's evil in ages past. This is an infection of the lymph nodes, and its symptoms manifest with the appearance of large warty growths and swellings on the face and neck. And naturally, as this was both a warty and swelling disease, toads were employed as a remedy. In an 1875 edition the ever-reliable Notes & Queries reports - 
A man came in a gig, who was known as 'the toad doctor'. He brought with him a number of small bags, and the people flocked to him from far and near with toads. The 'doctor' cut off the hind legs of these toads and put the severed portions into the bags, and hung them around the necks of his patients, the newly cut limbs quivering on their naked chests. This was held to be a certain remedy for the king's evil.
Selling bags of toad legs was a profitable venture, as was the sale of assorted toad bones, toad skins and dried toad powders. Aside from 'poisonous' humors that caused plague and small-pox, or a variety of complaints that caused swellings, inflammations and ugly growths, toads were also used in another set of treatments, usually in the form of ground up powders and pills. From Roman times onward, if you were having problems with your *ahem* waterworks, or your physician believed you needed to flush your system of poisonous humours, then dried toad was prescribed as a diuretic.

Again the belief that toad would be a good medicine for causing urination came from one of the animal's natural defenses - and that is, if you pick up a toad it will urinate on you in order to persuade you to put it down again. Mind you, considering what happened to many toads collected by humans in ages past, them widdling on us might well just be sheer bloody fear of being used as a medicine!



Wednesday, 3 June 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #12 - Dark Entries by Robert Aickman


An old school friend is discovered to be living in a house where every room is mysterious locked, possibly to keep something out, possibly to keep something in. In a remote seaside town on one night of the year the church bells ring all night long, waking everyone, perhaps even some who are no longer living. A railway waiting room houses some curious passengers. And a civil servant discovers an idyll on a remote island whose landscape keeps on shifting and changing.... 

...and such are the Dark Entries in this little volume. To connoisseurs of weird fiction, Robert Aickman needs no introduction, and indeed the likes of Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, and the League of Gentlemen are all Aickman devotees. During his lifetime Aickman won much critical praise and and both a World Fantasy Award and a British Fantasy Award, but thanks to his works being long of print (save for some small press editions that are long out of print and command terrifying second-hand prices) he remains something of a cult figure in the horror world. However as this year is the centenary of his birth, Faber & Faber are publishing a selection of his books in smart new editions. 

Dark Entries is the first of these very welcome reissues, and was originally published back in 1964. This was the first collection of Aickman's short fiction, however it was not his literary debut. Previous to this he had written half the tales in a collection co-authored with Elizabeth Jane Howard entitled We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories in 1951. And indeed one of the tales from that volume 'The View' is included in this new Faber edition of Dark Entries, and I suspect the remaining two from  We Are For The Dark will be appended to the future tomes in this reissue line. 

Now then firstly I must praise the wonderful new cover art by Tim McDonagh, who is doing the art for all the volumes in the series. It's broodingly eerie, strange, and oddly colourful; striking and evocative yet restrained and subtle – in this reviewer's humble opinion neatly mirroring the same qualities found in Aickman's prose. The book opens with an essay by author Richard T Kelly which deftly introduces us to the man and his works, and without being overly dry, maps out the main themes and qualities of Aickman's stories. Following the six tales, there is another piece on Aickman, this time a personal reminiscence of the man himself by a close friend, distinguished horror author Ramsey Campbell. And these two essays neatly bookend what is a fine introduction to the unsettling world of Robert Aickman. 

So what of the stories themselves? Well, while he was most fascinated by supernatural fiction - indeed Aickman curated  the first eight volumes of the Fontana Great Ghost Stories series - he never referred to his own work as ghost or horror stories, although they are filled with all manner of disturbing things wrought by shadowy dark forces. Aickman himself dubbed his fiction “strange stories”, and that is a most apt description. For while many of his tales, including some in this collection, feature the classic twist-in-the-tail endings so common in short weird fiction, the unique and strange nature of Aickman's stories make them almost impossible to spoil. 

The first story in this collection is very much a baptism by fire into the way Aickman weaves his weird literary sorcery. In 'The School Friend' it becomes very clear that there is something both horrid and supernatural going on, but what exactly that is is harder to define. And this is typically Aickman – as is the fact that while one may not be entirely certain of what has gone on, this vagueness which should be irritating is oddly satisfying. For his scenarios and imagery linger in the mind for a long time after reading, resisting comfortable definition, and in a very real sense haunting the reader. Hence one never feels cheated by his ambiguities - rather one is drawn into their mysteries, and having no clear answers to cosily wrap them up in, the stories remain potent and disturbing.

Some tales are clearer than others - 'Choose Your Weapons' for example concludes with a traditional twist which resolves the fate of the two leading characters in a straightforward manner. However the motivations and the nature of a supporting character, the key figure who has influenced the destiny of the main pair, leave us with a host of sinister questions to ponder. As is so often the case in an Aickman tale, there is a sense of the world drifting off kilter as the story unfolds, of unseen powers in operation, forces whose effects we are seeing but Aickman himself never details. 

Stylistically much like the great master of the British weird tale who preceded him, the great MR James, Aickman's works evoke wonderfully an England of yesteryear. However it is to be remembered that when he was writing, these were contemporary works, whereas James often deliberately set his tales a little in the past to give his ghosts a patina of history and nostalgia. And in his own distinct way, Aickman's strange tales are filled with sharp observations of the society of the time, quietly digging into the psychological and social forces enveloping his characters as keenly as any serious literary author. Hence on one hand 'Ringing the Changes' is about the dead returning, but on the other it's also an exploration of the social and personal tensions around an older man marrying a younger woman. Similarly while 'The Waiting Room' may be the most conventional ghostly tale in this collection, at the same time its as much peeling back the veil between the social classes as it is the veil between life and death. 

Another key difference with Aickman from his peers in weird fiction is that while his writing is as every bit as gentlemanly as MR James or EF Benson, unlike many classic British ghost stories his tales aren't a boys only affair. Aickman's tales have a wealth of strong and well-written ladies taking the centre stage. Furthermore while vintage supernatural fiction tends to be somewhat sexless, Aickman does not shy away from romance, lust and sensuality. For example while 'The View' is one of the stranger tales in the collection, where a stay on a remote island becomes as fluid as a shifting dream, it's equally the tale of a passionate affair arising from a chance encounter between two strangers.

Aickman's tales are meticulously crafted, with every word carefully chosen. However whereas other weird masters such as Lovecraft and Poe are similarly exacting in their choice of words, Aickman isn’t using language in the evocative  poetic way they did. Rather his tales have more than a little in common with the works of Harold Pinter or Mike Leigh; their language seems to reflect the everyday mundanity, and indeed banality, of ordinary life in Britain, but at the same time it's the little observations, the chance remarks, and what is pointedly not being said that are important. Thus the uncanny creeps into ordinary situations, and Aickman's carefully weighted phrases and concise descriptions paint the normal world in a weird unsettling light, and a far deeper and stranger portrait of reality emerges. One may be be doing something completely mundane, such as waiting for a train, or checking an friend's house while they are ill, but if Mr Aickman is in charge of your destiny then rest assured what is everyday and normal will soon begin shifting and transforming into something darkly unusual. 

"Nightmarish" is something of an overused adjective in horror, but in the case of Aickman's tales it is for a change most accurate. For while these stories contain much that is unexplained and much that is outr√©, there is a strange sort of dream logic to them; while we may not have the answers to many of their riddles, one senses that there are mysteries to unravel, symbols to decode, and that the weaver of these eerie dreams, Aickman himself, knew exactly what was going on. Also like dreams, many of these stories may be read psychologically – there is as much of the subconscious as there is the supernatural.  

With so many subtleties and ambiguities, Aickman's work is highly rereadable, and indeed generously repays returns visits. Of course Aickman is perhaps something of an acquired taste, and while he may be too obtuse for some, undoubtedly for others his strange stories will become an eerie source of endlessly fascination. And it is wonderful that this new edition of Dark Entries will swell the numbers of those under his dark spell, offering a new generation the chance to be ensnared by his uniquely unsettling tales. 


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

COVER ART-ROCITIES #13


If some sort of grasshopper doffing his hat to some giant seashells wasn't enough, there's the title itself!
Some one wasn't familiar with British swearing...


Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world