Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Mystery and Imagination...A Chilling Blast From The Past

OK, I accept I'm older than many of my readers - hopefully not all! But am I alone in remembering a brilliant TV series broadcast on ITV between 1966-70, called Mystery and Imagination?

Technically I was too young to watch it, but my love of the ghostly, Gothic and scary had already been well and truly awakened by an early reading (at school) of The Monkey's Paw.  The original three series of Mystery and Imagination were broadcast by ITV franchise holder, ABC, who created a format for the episodes. Irrespective of the story, each had a central character - called David Buck (played by Richard Beckett - who was transposed into adaptations of some of the most famous Gothic and ghostly stories ever written. Sadly, it is believed only two episodes of that era survive.

ABC lost the franchise and Mystery and Imagination moved into a new era with new franchise holder, Thames television. Gone was David Buck and they proceeded to adapt six more episodes, branching into feature length versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, The Curse of the Mummy and more. The series also moved from black and white to colour.

The series served to introduce me to the works of M.R. James - who has proved such a huge influence on me - Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and even Oscar Wilde (The Canterville Ghost). Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher - about two Burke and Hare-like characters involved in stealing and dissecting bodies - had me gasping and holding my breath. The Tractate Middoth, Room 13, Casting The Runes and Lost Hearts sent me in search of anything and everything by M.R. James, and Edgar Allan Poe chilled and thrilled me with The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell Tale Heart. Along the way, I encountered Sheridan Le Fanu with Camilla, The Flying Dragon and the dark and sinister Uncle Silas.

Many famous names graced the screen including Denholm Elliott, Corin Redgrave, Susan George, Ian Holm, Joan Hickson and the late, great Jack Hawkins to name but a few.

Sadly, little remains of the original 24 episodes. Just eight appear to have survived, along with a few scenes from Casting The Runes. You can find them here Mystery and Imagination Box Set  I live in hope that, one day, someone deep in the bowels of some long forgotten basement archive, will open a drawer and find some rusting cans of film. With trepidation they will open them and the ghosts of Mystery and Imagination will rise again. In the meantime, here are a couple of the surviving clips for you to enjoy:

Monday, 14 April 2014

Do I Have a Writing Process?

 When friend and fellow author, Shehanne Moore, invited me to answer the four basic questions involved in the blog hop, 'My Writing Process', I immediately said, 'Yes'. Then, a millisecond after I'd hit the 'send' button on my acceptance email, I thought, 'Hang on, do I actually have a writing process?

Being a notorious 'pantser' (and aren't we the bane of the lives of our much more careful, studied 'plotters'?), I do tend to leap when an idea strikes, so this seemingly innocuous and straightforward subject is going to involve something of a journey of discovery. Ah, well, let's get at it then.

First, I offer this link back to the superb and highly entertaining world of Shehanne Moore, author of my second favourite genre - historical fiction - and some of my favourite characters ever. When you've finished here, please pop along and enjoy yourself.Please note, no hamsters were harmed during the creation of her blog, although they did run off with - and eat - my favourite editing pencil:

And now, for the first question:

1. What am I working on?

This is quite a busy time for me. Last autumn, I learned I had been fortunate enough to be one of the four winners of Samhain Publishing's Gothic Horror Anthology competition and my entry - Linden Manor - is coming out initially as a standalone ebook on May 6th, along with the other three). In addition, I have my first full length horror novel for Samhain - Saving Grace Devine - following hard on its heels (July 1st). 

As a result, I'm hard at work on activities related to those two stories. I am also putting the finishing touches to a radically revised draft of a novel I wrote before either of these two were conceived. I also have a novella in the pipeline and one simmering away at the back of my mind. More details when these are fleshed out.

2. How does my work differ from others?

Maybe this is a combination of factors. You won't find happy families in my stories. My main characters are usually either psychologically damaged or have suffered great hurt in the past. I tend to set my stories in places I am familiar with, even though I change them around and rename them.

Stromness, Orkney
In Saving Grace Devine, I created an entire island! My fictional Arnsay (from the Old Norse word 'Arn' meaning 'eagle' and 'ay' meaning 'island',) is set in Orkney and I combined a couple of Orcadian towns, and countryside from other isles to give it form. I generally invent my own demons, rather than relying on the tried and trusted, and try to mix things up a bit to keep my readers guessing. To give an example; Saving Grace Devine involves a timeslip, which I hadn't used before. I also endeavour to establish a 'twist in the tail (tale?)' at the very end.

3. Why do I write what I do?

 Because I love good horror. I love being scared and, when I write something and become totally engrossed in a major dramatic scene, I become so wrapped up in it, I scare myself. I've even been known to scream out loud if I haven't heard my husband come in and he speaks to me! He treads very carefully these days. He'd like to preserve whatever hearing he has left!

4. How does my writing process work?

Now this is the tough one I referred to at the beginning. An idea will come to me. It may be when I'm out for my daily walks (which have so far spawned two short stories and a potential novella). It can be a chance remark (as happened with Cold Revenge. Just what would happen if the old saying, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' was taken literally?). On more than one occasion, a first line has been the trigger. This happened with Linden Manor where the initial line that came to me was 'Have you ever been so scared you left your body?' This was eventually edited to 'Have you ever been so scared your soul left your body?' - much darker, thanks to Julia Kavan.

More than one idea has been born out of a nightmare - Saving Grace Devine came to me that way. I had a scary dream that I was in a museum in Orkney. I opened a drawer and took out a rolled up artist's canvas. As I unravelled it, it revealed a picture of a drowning girl. As I stared, the picture came to life. The waters moved, the girl's eyes flashed open and she mouthed 'Help me!'
Then I woke up - and immediately wrote it down.

 Once I have my trigger, I set to work thinking of the bare bones of a plot. I start to work out where the story will be set and search for photographs on the internet. I create files on my computer and store pictures of notable locations, interiors of any significant houses or other buildings. Simultaneously, I think about the main characters and what they would look like, their personalities and back stories. These develop over time because, fairly quickly, I begin a first draft. 

At this point, I let the story develop by itself. the characters take over. The horror manifests itself and, finally, with the first draft complete, I can actually start the real process of writing which, for me, involves a series of redrafts. I need to be ruthless. If a scene doesn't work, out it comes. Additional scenes are written one week, discarded the next, reworked the week after - whatever it takes. There's no room for loose or sloppy writing these days.

When I've gone as far as I can by myself, I consult my writer friends who know what they're talking about, tell me what I'm doing right and, crucially, point out the error of my ways. I take heed of their advice and my manuscript is always the better for it.

Then I put it away for a few weeks, retrieve it, read it through with fresh eyes...and send it off to my editor. It's out of my hands then. And that's the scariest part of the whole process!

Now it is my pleasure to tag friend and fellow horror author, Steve Emmett, who has reason to know more about Grace Devine than he would perhaps be willing to admit! He has agreed to pick up the baton and write about his writing process in the near future. Why not follow his link now and find out more about him?

Friday, 4 April 2014

When The Camera Shows All Is Still and Quiet...

...don't you just know something awful is going to happen?

Well, you certainly do if the 'still and quiet' camera shots happen to be on your DVD of a 'found footage' horror film.

In common with many people, I should imagine, my first exposure to this type of film was The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Now, I know an awful lot of people love this film. They get quite passionate in their defence of it, but I'm sorry, I have watched it a couple of times and it still doesn't really do it for me. It's entertaining enough in its own way, but I never felt it got going enough. I did, however, applaud its originality. Needless to say, so cheap was it to make and so popular was it at the Box Office, it spawned many imitators in the year that followed. Some worked, some didn't. Most incorporated the principles of low budget, unknown actors and minimal sets.

But 'found footage' films had been around for over nearly thirty years (at least) before Blair Witch hit the screen and the headlines. Early examples included Punishment Park , made in 1971, and UFO Abduction - The McPherson Tape from 1989. Even the BBC got in on the act. Halloween of 1992, saw the televising of  Ghostwatch - presented by popular TV host, Michael Parkinson in live documentary style. In fact, Parkinson and his co-presenters - all well known personalities - were interacting with footage shot weeks earlier. The premise of the story concerned an ordinary family, haunted by a presence they call 'Pipes' (because he taps on the water pipes). During the hour and a half transmission, some 30,000 calls were received by the BBC switchboard. As a result, many simply heard the engaged signal and never got through. Any viewers who were able to get through were instantly greeted with a message informing them that the show was pure fiction, before inviting them to contribute their own ghostly experiences. It fooled a lot of people and caused quite a furore at the time. Judge for yourself:

All good clean (if now somewhat dated) fun.

Moving beyond Blair Witch, we'll skip past the first of the phenomenally successful Paranormal Activity series and alight briefly on a 'found footage' film that worked well, in my opinion. The excellent sci-fi monster movie, Cloverfield. In common with many of its genre, considerable 'handheld camera shake' was incorporated into this movie. In fact, there was so much of it that, in some cinemas, audience members were warned about it and told what to do if they experienced 'motion sickness' - as some reported so doing. J.J. Abrams, hot on the heels of his success with TV series Lost, scored a winner with this in many people's eyes but, for others, the handheld camera wobbles were too much. Told in the first person, you either love the ending, or hate it. There are some heated exchanges to be found on the subject across the internet.

From titles such as, Cannibal Holocaust, Man Bites Dog and The Zombie Diaries to Long Pigs and The Last Exorcism, the list keeps growing, but now to return to Paranormal Activity.

The first in the series kept me riveted, had me hiding behind a large cushion (and my cat) and made me jump on more than one occasion. I actually squawked (well, gave sort of a mini squeal actually) at the ending. Excellent stuff, I thought, and eagerly awaited the sequel. Paranormal Activity 2 . Yes, I enjoyed it. Some really scary moments. Paranormal Activity 3 . OK, I've put the cushion down now and my cat is sleeping soundly on my knee. Still enjoyed it though. Paranormal Activity 4  gives further continuity to the story of demonic possession etc., but am I becoming sensitised? Or maybe the storyline is getting a little weak? I'm not sure, but it didn't deliver quite the ratio of scares I had hoped for.

Having said that, I am looking forward to the recent spin-off Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

So far it has gained a wide spectrum of reviews - from 'Where was the story line', to 'Winning entry in this terrific franchise'. The only way to judge is, of course to see it for myself. Which I fully intend to do. Will I also watch Paranormal Activity 5 when it comes out in the autumn? I expect so. And so will millions of other people, hooked on the series. Even though it has lost a lot of freshness and impetus, largely as a result of our over-familiarity with the techniques employed here, I have this fascination that comes with so much of the 'found footage' genre. You see, I just have to know what happens next...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Ghosts of Temple Newsam

 Dubbed, 'The Hampton Court of the North', Temple Newsam House is a magnificent and intriguing Tudor-Jacobean mansion situated on the outskirts of Leeds. Set in 1500 acres of glorious parkland, the house has seen many tumultuous events in its 500 year history. To cite just one, Lord Darnley - ill fated husband of Mary, Queen of Scots - was born here. For 300 years, the house was owned by the Ingram family and eventually sold to Leeds City Council in 1922 by its then owner, Lord Halifax.

Over the years, it has known fires, many changes, renovations - and acquired an impressive collection of ghosts. I used to visit the house regularly when I lived in Leeds and, on descending the main staircase, never failed to feel a chill that raised goosebumps on my arms and the hairs on the back of my neck. A feeling of dread - of something evil - would penetrate me, quicken my step and disappear as soon as I reached the ground floor. Who or what was responsible? I have no idea, but the feeling was all too real.

Here are the stories of two of Temple Newsam's most popular ghosts:

Lady Mary Ingram
The Blue Lady of Temple Newsam

Tragic Mary Ingram, granddaughter of Sir Arthur, was just fourteen years old when, on returning by carriage from a party, she fell victim to an ambush by a gang of highwaymen, who tore her pearl necklace from her throat. In addition to being valuable, the necklace held great sentimental value as it had been a christening present from her grandfather.

Mary was taken home, sobbing and in a state of collapse. The next morning she had no recollection of the robbery and seemed convinced she had somehow lost them. She looked everywhere, saying, 'Where are my pearls? Where are my pearls?' She unpicked cushions and even tried to lift floorboards in search of them. She also refused to eat and sank into a terminal decline. Two weeks later, she died. Her unhappy spirit still searches the house for the missing necklace. Eyewitnesses have reported seeing carpets ripple, hearing unexplained creaking noises and feeling sudden blasts of cold air.

The Ghost of Phoebe Gray

A great feast, celebrating Britain's victory at the Battle of Blenheim, was celebrated one hot, humid night in 1704. There was much merriment with roasting hogs, bonfires, music and dancing. Beer flowed freely. A little too freely in the case of servant William Collinson. He was a coarse fellow indeed. Foul mannered, foul mouthed, this ugly brutish man was a stranger to soap and water, even by the low personal hygiene standards of the day. He was, however, not averse to trying his luck with a pretty sixteen year old nursemaid called Phoebe Gray.

Phoebe had rather more discernment and rejected his advances, but William would not be dissuaded so easily. The night wore on. At midnight, fireworks exploded over the grounds and William, by now steaming drunk, remembered that it was Phoebe's routine to take Nanny Backhouse her hot drink last thing at night.

Phoebe found the upstairs corridors spooky at night. Her candle cast flickering shadows on the walls and made her nervous. Tonight she had good reason to be, for, in one of the darkest corners, William lurked and, as she passed, he pounced. Scared witless, she screamed and struggled. William fought to contain her and, in his stupor, he forgot his own strength. Her body suddenly went limp. Phoebe screamed no more and slipped to the floor. Dead.

William panicked, dragged her body down the back stairs to the damp cellars below. He opened the cover of the well down there and threw her in. Then he ran away. 

At first, people assumed he and Phoebe had eloped, but then, her body was discovered, and two servants went off in search of William. They found him, dead drunk again, in a nearby inn.

He was charged with her murder and sentenced to be hanged. 

Poor Phoebe is said to haunt the back stairs and passages where her muffled screams have been heard. People have also reported hearing a succession of bumps - as of someone's body being dragged down the stairs.
Temple Newsam in mid 18th century - Bridgeman Art Library

Find out more about Temple Newsam House HERE