Bruce Pennington exhibition at the Atlantis Bookshop

Art, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Visionary

Well, much excitement at Allumination Towers as the other day I met Bruce Pennington! Even more excitingly, the Atlantis Bookshop will be hosting a major retrospective of his art in July and August. The exhibition catalogue website is now live, and stunning! There’s also going to be an interview with him in the next Fortean Times.

You may or may not know the name, but you’ll definitely know his work. He was the New English Library’s main cover illustrator in the early 70s – his images went a long way to defining what genre fiction looked like in its New Wave heyday.

Anyway, here’s the flyer for the exhibition – it’s got all the details you’ll need to go along and be astonished –

I’d only ever seen his work on scruffy, secondhand book jackets. While I was at the bookshop, I saw some of the limited edition prints they were preparing – seeing his images at full size, original colours blasting off the page, was remarkable. I suspect that the exhibition itself will be a cornucopia of wonderment – I for one can’t wait!

Oh, and finally, here’s the audioboo I recorded just after meeting him –

Bruce Pennington, secret hero of 70s Brit SF (mp3)

Aliens, invasions, and the act of reading

Fiction, Ghosts, Horror, Memory, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Television

Nigel Kneale’s masterpieces ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’ and ‘The Stone Tape’ cast a fascinating light on the nature of fiction, because each one shows the future invading from the past. In ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, the Martian invaders are five million year old fossils, in ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’, Neolithic stone circles become nexi for a barely comprehensible alien harvesting of humanity, and in ‘The Stone Tape’ hi-tech recording technology empowers an ancient, pre-human evil.

That sense of narrative drivers emerging from the past is an interesting way of thinking about how fiction works. The only building blocks of story available to any of us are what we’ve already experienced, whether directly through active living or indirectly through reading, viewing, relayed narrative, etc. Every single story we have began as an edit of those memories; that edit then being filtered through the writer’s imagination, to shift it from having an entirely personal resonance to achieving a more universal impact.

But that’s not all. Kneale’s invasions are very specifically alien invasions, acting on humanity to – to a greater or lesser extent – recast its sense of itself. In each story, Kneale tracks more than a physical invasion. He shows us the intellectual paradigm shift that is forced on humankind when it’s forced to engage not just with the physically alien, but with the intellectually alien. His invasions happen in the head, as much as in the flesh.

That adds an interesting layer to the reading metaphor, because reading too is an encounter with the alien – with someone else’s memories, with their lived experience. As a rule, direct experience of other people’s internal lives is pretty difficult. We can’t know what it’s like to be the other. But reading downloads a version of that internality directly into our own heads. Engaging with a writer’s modified memories remains one of the most effective ways of experiencing another self, being in the world.

Kneale’s concern with the reconfiguring attack of the other helps show how to read is to be invaded by that other, and to be reconfigured by it. An other’s experience of the world is introduced into our self, and – whether forcibly or more subtly – remoulds it in some small way, creating new perspectives or understandings that would have never existed without that other.

The Quatermass movies, ‘The Stone Tapes’, and indeed much of his other work describes directly how experience of the other can be radically, even traumatically, transformative; at a deeper level, it helps point out that – to experience a paradigm shifting alien invasion for ourselves, all we really need to do is go and read a book.

Why I’m writing a Spanish Inquisition cop show

General grumpiness, Rants, Religion, Supernatural, Television, Utter bollocks

Well, I’ve only ever been able to see ‘The Exorcist’ as a comedy, and if you believe Martin Shaw in the BBC’s nutty new exorco-drama ‘Apparitions’, that probably means I’m possessed. Hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear (or rather, pitchforks). In my defense, the scene in ‘The Exorcist’ that first set me off is undeniably a bit nutty. It’s the one where the psychiatrists come and visit Regan. The bed’s levitating; a head’s spinning round; the wardrobe’s dancing; and the shrinks confidently declare that it’s all in her mind, with a positively surreal determination to deny reality that was really a bit too Monty Python for me.

Alas, ‘Apparitions’ – just watched on BBC iPlayer – wasn’t as entertaining. In fact, it left me feeling positively depressed. Martin Shaw is – as ever – elegantly smooth as an exorcist who bucks authority (in classic cop show style, his grumpy boss even demands his exorcist badge at one point – and of course Shaw pops up a couple of scenes later, exorcising away. I go my own way, dammit! Or, in his rather more priestly take on that particular cliche, ‘I can only promise to follow my conscience’.), in this opening episode dealing with a young girl, quite possibly the reincarnation of Mother Teresa (yup, that’s what seems to be going on), whose dad is possessed. And it’s the way that that possession is handled, and the show’s related condemnation of atheism, that left me feeling so bummed out.

So, let’s start with possession. Martin Shaw’s nemesis – the possessed dad – was, it transpires, taken ill in India, rushed to Mother Teresa’s hospital, and there baptised without his knowledge. This is the root of his problems; Shaw tells us that, if baptism isn’t followed by an acceptance of God, a void is created that demons rush into. And he backs this up with scriptural quotation, so we’re not just hearing this from him; we’re hearing it from the church. This isn’t opinion, the show makes a point of telling us; it’s doctrine. And, given that we’re told this by an experienced exorcist, in this dramatic context, it’s not just doctrine either – it’s fact.

So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s in a very reasonable objection that Possessed Dad raises. He asks about the Hindus and Muslims that are brought into the hospital, and is outraged that they should be forcibly converted. Of course, within the context of the show’s rhetoric, everything he says is false; presumably his outrage is intended to create in us, the credulous audience, a sense that in fact it’s rather good that these non-believers are getting forcibly Christianised. That’s well on the way to being rather offensive; but that’s not all. In the dramatic world that the show creates for us, the forcibly baptised are in fact empty vessels for demons. It’s unlikely that a Hindu or Muslim, unknowingly baptised, will then embrace a Christian God; and so they become the most fertile voids, wherein demons may dwell.

Ugh. And Ugh, too, to the show’s treatment of atheism. Earlier on, Possessed Dad’s daughter tries to convince a doubting Shaw that her dad is possessed. Her proof? Richard Dawkins books, ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ on the CD player, and so on. Atheism is here a direct path to damnation; thought independent of church dictat a sure road to destructiveness in this world (Possessed Dad ends the episode by nearly, it’s implied, raping and killing his daughter) and eternal flame in the next. Is this kind of boneheadedly authoritarian theology the kind of nonsense my licence fee is funding? I’m going to be on the phone to the Beeb tomorrow…

And I’ll have one final thing to complain about, too. Because this show really is putting across a theology of command, and that’s made very clear when we find out how Possessed Dad’s daughter was conceived. Her seed was sown on the day of Mother Teresa’s death; Possessed Dad and Mrs Possessed Dad were in Kensington Gardens, mourning the death of Diana. At least, Mrs PD was; Possessed Dad dragged her into the bushes for a quick one, ostensibly to celebrate Diana’s death but in fact to celebrate Mother T’s death. A fascinating moment, linking temporal and spiritual authority in a way not seen since the obsolescence of the divine right of kings.

So, all in all a bit of a waste of time, this programme. And (not wanting to rant excessively after the X-Files explosion below) I haven’t even mentioned the truly bizarre treatment of the show’s only gay character, an ex-leper who’s now almost a priest, until he’s cast out of the church and falls prey to the temptation to visit a sauna – ‘The Hot Room’ (because Hell’s, like, hot, and he’s going into somewhere like Hell! Good grief, I’m embarrassed to even type this stuff. Anyway…) – and as a result is flayed alive by a knife wielding demon who – we have earlier learnt – also hangs out outside the Vatican, selling the Italian version of ‘The Big Issue’. Hmm, casual – and clod-hoppingly literal – demonization of the homeless, too.

So, who’s this witless, propagandistic, two dimensional, utterly conservative nonsense aimed at? Well, certainly not people like me. I would say the deeply, narrowly religious, but I suspect that they’ll have turned off after the first five minutes, where we learn that -apparently – Mother Teresa spent the last few hours of life either under demonic attack, or actively possessed by demons. Right…

So I can’t see anyone really enjoying it (except, perhaps, for Martin Shaw’s mum, and she kind of has to), and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. So why have I even written about it? Partially, because this kind of unpleasantly subtexted nonsense should always be dissected and exposed for the offensive cobblers that it is, and partially because I still can’t quite believe that something quite as witlessly regressive as this is being serialised on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday nights. If nothing else, it should lay to rest the myth of the dominance of the liberal media – along with those other myths about intelligent media, challenging media, entertaining media and even just basically well thought through media.

And what now for me? Well, I’m off to get stuck into a script about a heroic crime solving heretic torturing demon fighting member of that wonderfully sympathetic organisation, the Spanish Inquisition – if I get it in front of whoever commissioned ‘Apparitions’, I’ll be a TV big shot before you know it…

‘Ghosts’ lives!

Ghosts, Horror, My fiction, Science Fiction, Short stories, Supernatural

Well, much excitement here at Allumination Central as my short story, ‘Ghosts’ has hit the streets in the latest issue of ‘Midnight Street’ – and it’s the cover story! Which I didn’t know about at all until my copy popped through the postbox, so a lovely surprise.

Anyway… the story’s about the problems of exploring haunted, abandoned weapon satellites on your own, and the cover catches its atmosphere very nicely indeed. And of course there are many other great stories in there – particularly looking forward to sitting down with the Joel Lane, Stephen Gallagher and Andrew Humphrey ones – and an interview with Neil Gaiman. Anyway, enough rambling – check it out (and order a copy for yourself) here.

Oh, and if you came here having read the story, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoyed the story, and have fun rooting round here…

*plumps the virtual cushions, puts on welcoming music, opens a bottle or two of wine, sets out bowls of dry roast peanuts and Kettle Chips*

Truant heart

Ghosts, Music, Supernatural

Following on from today’s earlier quick post, another quick post, about magnificent Dubstep artist Burial – the anonymous Fisher King of modern bass culture, bleeding out nostalgic futures from the South London suburb of Croydon.

I’ve been grooving to his wonderfully haunted album ‘Untrue’ since just before Christmas, but have reached a new level of admiration for him on reading a fascinating interview with him in Wire. Here it is in full.

What’s so interesting about it? First of all, there’s his mythologising of rave. I grew up while all that was going on, and went to some of the events that Burial dreams about having visited. My nostalgia is grounded in direct experience, and I’ve done very little with it; his is rooted in a dream of what could have been, and he’s used it to make magnificent music.

Secondly, there’s  his very engaged sense of craft, his absolute precision of creative ambition, and his inventiveness in using the tools to hand to create. Burial is very direct about the limitations he works under; that he transcends them so effectively is a very strong reminder that it’s not the tools you have to hand, but rather the inventiveness with which you use them, that really counts.

And finally, there’s his deep respect for M. R. James, rooted in an appreciation of his obsessiveness (‘The techniques hit you between the eyes because they are so fucking focused, obsessed by the same devices’) and in his achievement (at his best, James can ‘burn a memory into you that isn’t yours’).

So – Burial – what’s not to like? Well, not very much… So go! Check him out! I suspect you’ll be blown away…

Prog horror

Supernatural, Television

Normal service is officially on hold today. So, instead of the usual platitudes, here’s some groovy prog-comedy from the ever magnificent Matt Berry – some prog joy that sounds oddly like the gig I went to last night.

Horror followers will of course know MB as ‘Sanch’ from cult horror visionary Garth Marenghi’s deathless ‘Darkplace’ TV series – just as a reminder, I’ve dropped in the titles from that too. Who can forget the deathless tragi-horror of Skipper the Eye Child? Or the bleak curse of the Highlands? Or the searing romantic trauma of the broccoli from beyond time?

Enjoy, pilgrims…

The Archers and their target

Fantasy, Film, Religion, Supernatural

‘A Matter of Life and Death’ shows us two broken utopias. The most obvious one is heaven; a perfect machine that cares for all who enter it. Stress and shock are balmed on entry. Enmities are forgotten. Grief seems not to exist. There’s even cricket on the radio.

But it’s a fragile utopia; it can be broken by something as predictable as fog over the channel. Lost in the weather, a collector of souls misses his target, allowing the film’s protagonist to stay alive beyond his time, and fall in love.

As ever, it’s only when the utopia is broken that the drama can begin. The restoration of utopia means the breaking of hearts. How can the two be reconciled? They can’t, and so utopia remains perfect by admitting the possibility of its own imperfection.

What’s interesting is the implicit cause of that break. It’s the first mistake in a thousand years or so. Fog, one assumes, wouldn’t normally have such a catastrophic impact on the collection of the dead.

But, as the film tells us, this is an unusual night; there has been a thousand bomber raid over Europe – and, for every bomber, thousands upon thousands of deaths.

And so the film begins as the machineries of Heaven – overloaded by the vast quantities of souls they presumably have to capture – creak and break apart. The film presents as a comedy, but buried beneath it is buried vast tragedy; the dead lost to world war.

Utopia hasn’t been broken by a mistake. It’s been broken by us, pushing and pushing at it until that mistake becomes inevitable.

Oh, and what’s the second broken utopia? It’s this world, broken by loss – an emotion and an action that the film absolutely and rigorously represses.

A mirror to shine in

Novelists, Philosophy, Psychology, Supernatural

Seeing a ghost is like experiencing a fragment of someone else’s memory; an insistent, present, repeated moment broken out of all context. Fiction takes such fragments and sets them in a reasoned and coherent narrative and emotional context.

For example, there’s Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining’. He’s trapped in the Overlook Hotel, surrounded by ghosts. The book presents him as being possessed by the hotel – but in fact, the hotel is possessed by him.

Torrance gives the disparate iconography sets of the hotel – the topiary animals, the boiler in the basement, the various phantoms of 20s gangsters and their hangers-on, the lift, the Indian graveyard – a nexus, a narrative reason-to-be.

He’s a locus of meaning that both justifies their presence and defines how they should act. ‘The Shining’ is a great Gothic masterpiece, using the apparatus of the supernatural to amplify the impact of and comment on the nature of one man’s profoundly flawed and destructive emotional makeup.

In real life, ghosts don’t do that; but then again, in real life very little does that. Fiction creates entire, self-absorbed imitations of worlds; these worlds serve to very precisely focus the reader’s attention onto a very small set of characters, providing the imagery and event structures that support and intensify interpretation of their actions and intents.

If ‘Gothic’ describes stories where externalised and highly artificial events and locations respond to and are inspired by internal emotional turmoil, then – read on one level – all fiction can be said to be Gothic. None of it’s real; and it’s all driven by the author’s need to express and amplify what (s)he understands his or her characters to be, and what (s)he wants the reader to find out about them.

M. R. James the dramatist

Ghosts, Short stories, Supernatural

And one more thing about M. R. James; he wrote his stories to be read out loud, and they still perform incredibly well. Come Halloween – or indeed any other cold, dark, spooky night – it’s well worth getting a few friends round, sitting down in front of the fire, and reading him to your (terrified) audience.

Quite apart from the spooky fun of it, it’s a fascinating insight into M. R. James the dramatist; his pacing, handling of tone, and character delineation and deployment are masterly.

Oh, and in a final chilling connection – while Provost at Eton, the aging MRJ taught the young Christopher Lee. The cold, bone white baton of spook was passed on to the next generation…

Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li! And a nice cup of tea…

Aliens, Fantasy, Novelists, Science Fiction, Short stories, Supernatural

Writing daily here’s been a very interesting exercise, if only because it’s made me ponder writers I’ve got a lot out of it and think about why I’ve found them so engaging. But I haven’t written about two of my great teenage obsessions – M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.

MRJ’s ghost stories – and Edwardian ghost stories in general – fascinated me as a teenager. I think it was the combination of the profoundly comforting, secure world that most of them begin, and the subsequent destabilisation / revelation of the limits of that world.

I see MRJ as the great poet of threatened repression. Read from that point of view, so much of his imagery is so resonant – the menacing bedsheets in ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’, the terror implicit in people having fun together when you’re on your own in ‘Number 13’, and, perhaps most memorably, the mouth buried beneath a pillow in ‘Casting the Runes’

‘So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.’

Intimacy – or the prospect of intimacy – is deeply destructive to worldviews built on repression. The English are a famously repressed bunch; hence, I would suspect, the attractiveness and emotional power of MRJ’s haunted explorations of emotional frigidity at breaking point, as it’s exposed to the possibility of contact.

And what about HPL? My first reading of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is one of the great book experiences of my life. I read it when I was about 14, on a skiing holiday – arctic wastes in prose, arctic wastes outside the window, mountains shadowing both.

HPL opened up whole worlds for me – worlds I found oddly attractive. Reading any one of the ‘real world’ stories (as opposed to the out and out fantasies), I was always falling for the locations – Boston, Arkham, Old New York, and so on. Notwithstanding the cosmic horror and sanity blasting reality of HPL’s world, these are places I’d love to live in.

Partially, that’s because HPL’s universe is such a beautiful place – the romantic sublime in all its awesome power made wildly successful pulp horror fiction. In HPL, terror often comes from enforced scale shifts, from a sudden, panicked realisation of the true place of humanity in the universe, and the consequent utter meaningless of our lives.

But once you’ve got over that, what mysteries and wonders to behold…! Even if, by implication, you have to lose your humanity to do so – becoming an ageless toad thing to swim to Unknown R’yleh, or a strange cone-like creature in a globe spanning prehistoric, pre-human civilisation, or a disembodied living brain in a glass jar carried between the planets by giant, cosmic insects.

And it’s worth remembering that humanity itself can be a source of the terror of difference for others – the implied experience of the resurrected alien characters in ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is fascinating, as is the protagonist’s changing response to them. He moves from terror to interest to respect to empathy, finally saluting the key characteristics that the profoundly alien and the profoundly human share.

‘Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!’

And of course to make the cosmic terrifying, it helps to have something cosy and homely to set it against. Hence also the appeal of Lovecraft’s earthbound locations – they need to be comforting and attractive, to make the rupture from them all the more upsetting. They’re nostalgia made stone; in literary terms, they function absolutely as idealised but artifical and eminently frangible Edens.

So that’s H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James; two writers that hypnotised me, both playing with innocence and experience and finding horror in the relationships and transitions between the two.