Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ghoul Crazy

October 31--Halloween--is only four days away now. As a longtime fan of horror fiction, I look forward to this holiday as an opportunity to re-read classic tales of fright and fiends, and to watch some vintage flicks that never cease to chill my blood. In addition this year, there are several related events that British residents won’t want to miss, and lots of chances for everyone else to spook themselves a bit.

• If you happen to be in foggy London town this next week, you’ll want to stop by Waterstone’s in Gower Street and help celebrate the launch of author Stephen Jones’ latest (18th!) collection of dark yarns, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. Also spooking up the joint will be Christopher Fowler, who will read from his newest Arthur Bryant/John May “peculiar crimes” novel, White Corridor, together with Michael Marshall (Smith), author of The Intruders, and Mark Samuels (The White Hands and Other Weird Tales). The evening’s entertainment begins at 6:30 p.m. and will include book signings as well as a question-and-answer session.

For more information, click here.

• This year’s two-week London Film Festival is reaching its conclusion, and the talk of the town is former horror maestro David Cronenberg, who’s promoting his new film Eastern Promises. A tough and very violent look at Russian gangsters in London, Promises courts controversy with its sequences of hard-core gore. The movie’s really nothing out of the ordinary for Cronenberg, but it’s a perfect Halloween movie--especially if pure horror is not your cup of strychnine, because Eastern Promises is a crime thriller striated with some pretty horrific events.

The London Times appraised Cronenberg’s film career this week:
“For me, the human body is the first fact of human existence,” Cronenberg has said, and his films accordingly suture the mind–body split. Indeed, the phrase most often attached to his movies is “body horror”, a catch-all description that variously evokes Marilyn Chambers’ armpit phallus in Rabid (1976), Geneviève Bujold sinking her teeth deep into pulpy conjoined skin in Dead Ringers (1988) and the chilly auto-erotica of Crash (1996), in which a car-accident victim’s leg wound becomes an erogenous orifice. As the revolutionaries of Videodrome (1982) would cry: “Long live the new flesh!” While the body-horror label risks trapping a stunningly dense and accomplished oeuvre in the ghetto of genre, it also implies the excitement and astonishment that Cronenberg’s transgressive projects so often inspire.
• Should a trip to the cinema seem like too much hard work, consider instead staying home on Halloween night, preparing a few bowls of crunchy popcorn, and slipping some holiday-appropriate films into the DVD player. For help in choosing what to watch on Wednesday night, sift through the picks made by Times readers when they were asked to name the “Top 50 Scariest Movie Moments.”

I was glad to see a few crime-fiction works peppering this list (such as Mulholland Drive and Deliverance), along with several unexpected treats, such as The Wizard of Oz (about which one reader remarked, “The flying monkeys scared the crap out of me.”). So which features made the top 10?
10. Watership Down
9. Halloween
8. Event Horizon
7. The Shining
6. The Thing
5. Signs
4. The Exorcist III
3. Poltergeist
2. The Ring
1. The Exorcist
To see the rundown of all 50 “scariest moments,” with links to YouTube-based film clips from each, click here.

The 1991 movie version of Thomas HarrisThe Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, came in at No. 14 on the Times list (click here for an outtake reel). Incidentally, there’s been sufficient interest expressed in the recently released volume Dissecting Hannibal Lecter, that its editor, Australian Benjamin Szumskyj, has been commissioned by publishers McFarland & Company to put together an equally comprehensive book about the works of the late, great Robert Bloch, whose 1959 novel, Psycho, was turned into a pretty memorable movie by some guy name Alfred. As an avid reader of Bloch’s work, I have been asked to contribute to this long-overdue critical reappraisal of his literary efforts. With Halloween approaching fast, my attention inevitably drifts to my own collection of Bloch short stories, which for my money rank at the very top in terms of crime, suspense, science fiction, and horror fiction. I would suggest tracking down “That Hellbound Train,” “The Rubber Room,” or perhaps Bloch’s most celebrated short-story, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” for Halloween night. Some of his most chilling stories are available in this collection, and if you are unfamiliar about Bloch and his writing, click here and here to learn more.

• Need another author befitting the Halloween spirit? How about Algernon Blackwood, about whom author Kate Mosse (Labyrinth) wrote so affectionately in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian:
Algernon Henry Blackwood lived his first years in Shooter’s Hill, now a part of south-east London, but then in the Kent countryside. “A strong emotion,” he wrote, “especially if experienced for the first time, leaves a vivid memory of the scene where it occurred.” Shooter’s Hill runs alongside Blackheath, where the victims of the Great Plague were interred in mass graves. Such a marriage of beauty and horror is a perfect metaphor for his literary preoccupations.

Blackwood wrote children’s fiction, plays, more than 200 stories, and novels that today would probably be classified as fantasy or science fiction. From the publication of his first collection, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories [1906], he had a dedicated readership hungry for his peculiar blend of nature and the supernatural.
Mosse goes on to recall:
After years of travel, absorption in mystical philosophies and literary experimentation, [Blackwood] began a new career as a radio personality. He made his first radio broadcast in 1934, adapting and reading his own short stories, and became a television pioneer, appearing on the BBC as a storyteller. Sadly, most of Blackwood’s work is out of print. The best of his writing is beautiful and curiously intense, ranking alongside the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James and Edith Nesbit. And the most evocative of his descriptions belong in the company of the best and most reflective writers on landscape and nature. His least successful works are those in which the emotion overwhelms the narrative and meaning, but, even then, he never fails to intrigue.
The full Guardian piece can be read here.

• Finally, what celebration of Halloween in terms of books and films would be complete without mentioning that sanguinary count from Eastern Europe, Dracula, as he was envisioned by both Irishman Bram Stoker and Englishman Christopher Lee? Matthew Sweet writes in The Guardian about the transformation of Stoker’s 1897 novel into the 1958 movie chiller Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula):
Fifty years ago, in a cramped studio on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire, the director Terence Fisher called the shots on the Hammer [Films] version of Dracula. The original print has just been restored by the British Film Institute and is now ready to manifest itself again. Its colour palette, which always looked crude and garish on television, is now a rich mix of autumnal browns and priestly purples. Only the fake blood--which gathers inside Christopher Lee’s vampire contact lenses, spurts from staked hearts and spatters inexplicably from the air--reads as improperly, unnaturally bright, like Kathleen Byron’s tarty lipstick in Black Narcissus.

Fisher’s Dracula was shot in 25 days at a cost of £81,413. For Hammer, this was lavish. Some directors had to manage on a fifth of that. The company was still reeling from the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, a shocked-up version of the Mary Shelley story with a focus on scalpel edges, jellied brains and charnel-house comedy. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was next on the slab, and the publicity dope let the audience in on the angle. The posters were in black and white, with a trickle of red ink superimposed at the corners of Christopher Lee’s mouth. He was “the terrifying lover who died ... yet lived!” Every night, the tagline screamed, “he rises from his coffin-bed--silently to seek the soft flesh, the warm blood he needs to keep himself alive”.
Sweet’s newspaper feature is available here.

And should you be in London on Halloween night, why not trot down to the BFI Southbank/National Film Theatre for a special IMAX screening of Dracula. The movie will continue to run at the National Film Theatre from November 2 through 15. For more information, call the box office at 0044 [0]20 7928 3232.

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