Casting the Runes: An Arts Alive production

“In one aspect, yes, I believe in ghosts, but we create them. We haunt ourselves.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson

25th March 2015 at Whittlesey Library and Learning Centre, 7pm

Robert Lloyd Parry as M R James

IMG_8302By now you will doubtless be familiar with my love of ghosts. So it will come as no surprise to know that I leapt at the opportunity to go to a ghost story reading. I was even more excited by the fact that the stories were those by none other than my favourite ghostly author, M R James. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is one of my bookshelf essentials. So I was simply quivering with anticipation from the day I was invited by my long-suffering best friend right up until the house lights went down and Robert Lloyd Parry took his place at the front of the audience.

The setting itself was less than spooky, a 20th century community building in the heart of a fenland market town, but the Arts Alive team had done a great job of creating a certain ghostly ambiance. The lights were dimmed, the audience assembled around a single high backed chair, nestled cosily next to a small wooden table topped with a decanter of ‘whisky’, several ageing leather backed books, a handful of old photographs and some other dusty artefacts.

IMG_8300For those of you who are unfamiliar with M R James, there are so many reasons why you absolutely need to get hold of and read some of his short ghostly stories (I recommend to the highest degree possible Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad). James is nothing short of a master of the ghost story. His stories specialise in circumstance and the terrible events which can emerge from ignorant mortals meddling in the unknown. His writing is subtle, focusing on the small details; shadows, the voices of madmen and figures glimpsed out the corner of your eye. Like all great gothic writers, James allows his readers to create their own ghosts, existing only in their minds, and never once flitting across the parchment.

Robert Lloyd Parry did a stunning job donning M R James’s persona. The mind boggles at how he was able to reel off a 90 minute performance with such ease, never stumbling over his words or seeming to pause for thought. He expertly assumed not just James but each of his characters, never flinching or breaking character even for a second.

IMG_8303The first story – Casting The Runes – threw the audience back to 1903, and began by with the reading of a collection of letters. The letters informed an unknown character that a draft paper submitted for publishing in a programme was not to be included. These seemingly innocent notes paved the way for a series of strange and ghostly events including vanishing tram adverts, mysterious roadside leafleters, and unknown furry creatures lurking beneath bedclothes, all linked together by the passing of a cursed script. Parry told the story with remarkable ease, barely glancing even once at the audience, and framing the tale from multiple points of view.

When he came to the end of the first story, Parry rose from his chair for the first time and silently swept from the room, leaving the audience alone and awestruck. The house lights came up and we were able to mull about for a short time, enjoying a reasonably priced drink from the charity bar and discussing the past 45 minutes.

I was delighted to find that my other half – who before the event reported that he was ‘livid’ at my forcing him to come along to a ghost story reading – had thoroughly enjoyed the performance thus far. As, it seemed, had everyone else. I’d spent so long raving about M R James in the days running up to this event that I will confess to having been being slightly nervous that the performance would be met with anything other than pure wonderment.

IMG_8305After a short interval the house lights went down, and we were quickly ushered back to our seats. Parry once more slipped into his seat and immediately transformed once again into the evenings faithful host.

The second tale – The Residence of Whitminster – which was in equal parts mesmerising and chilling, was an 18th century tale of the supernatural destruction of a Whitminster residence, beginning with the arrival of a gaunt young man, the disappearance of a jet black cockerel named Hannibal and the feverish rants of a distressed child. Parry assumed the persona of no less than eight characters, slipping seamlessly from one side of a conversation to another, in a performance which had the eyes of the audience glued to his every move.

I was overwhelmed by Parry’s performance; I went to the event as a lover of all things M R James, and was delighted that one man managed to do his work so much justice. The most remarkable thing about the event is one I am not sure I can adequately put into words. I could compare Parry’s performance to the alcohol induced ramblings of an ancient figure propped against the bar of a public house; a one way conversation with a compulsive storyteller; or the confession of one whose secrets have been kept for too long.

The event, I feel, is something you will have to see for yourself in order to fully appreciate it. One of the ladies in charge of Arts Alive said that the events had been very well received, and I can see why. Lovers of ghost stories, fans of M R James, and those who were even slightly intrigued by the beginning of this review, I urge you look and see if Robert Lloyd Parry is performing in a library near you.

‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.’ — Robert Frost

Found prose poetry.

I actually stumbled across this idea on a teaching forum as a suggested homework for English literature students, still I liked the idea and gave it a go. As with all my obscure poetry so far, it’s fairly simple, but I think gives you a little more opportunity for being yourself than some of my past ideas.

The model is as follows: choose a piece of prose fiction; select a passage from the text; identify important words, phrases and sentences; arrange these excerpts into a poem. I think you can be fairly unrestrained with this sort of method, you could try choosing a specific structure and molding the text, or using free verse.  It’s also fine to rearrange order, wording and phrases, do whatever sounds most appealing to you.

I opted to use free verse and selected the final paragraphs from both books.

Here are the results:

shepard_fairey_george_orwell_1984

1984 — George Orwell

He gazed up. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.


He gazed up.
What kind of
Cruel, stubborn smile
as hidden beneath the dark moustache?
He had learned.
Tears trickled down his nose.
Everything was all right,
He had won the struggle,
He loved Big Brother.

halloweenbooks_maryshelley

Frankenstein — Mary Shelley

“But soon,” he cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”

He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.


Soon I shall die.
I will no longer feel
these burning miseries,
the torturing flames.
My light will fade,
My ashes swept into the wind.
I will sleep.
Borne away by the waves,
Lost in the darkness.
Farewell.

My latest find is possibly my favourite so far, I really liked the freedom of constructing a poem in this way permitted me. If you find yourself at a loose end one afternoon give it a go, I’d love to see other people’s results.

As always, any suggestions for future methods would be greatly appreciated 🙂

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ― William Blake

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

The Dain Princess – Raitt Black

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Raitt Black was raised in New England, where he developed a love of literature. He tells me “I grew up reading books of all kinds”, before revealing that his favourites are “fantasy, science fiction, and horror”. Black first discovered a love of writing while in elementary school and it became a passion that he continued to feed as he progressed through high school. After studying for a BA in communications and relocating to the warm beaches of California, where he was to meet his future wife, Black began work on his first novel. He describes his writing as primarily fantasy with elements of mystery, love and horror. His debut novel, The Dain Princess, was released in 2013.


The Dain Princess introduces the reader to Lyhnzi Kole Dain, the only living heir to the fictional Innbern Kingdom. A colourful and feisty young girl, Lyhnzi spends her days training for battle with the castle guards and creating mischief with the hired help. Despite her comfortable existence, Lyhnzi yearns for adventure. When the opportunity arises to leave her home of Matraigh and stay with family on the coast she jumps at the opportunity, completely unsuspecting of the terrifying fate that awaits her. In the story that follows, Lyhnzi finds her understanding of good and evil challenged as she realises that those that she thinks of as friends or foes may not be all they seem.

This novel would suit a young adult audience – while I enjoyed the story, I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I were a few years younger.

Certain aspects of The Dain Princess reminded me of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, a comparison I’m sure I’m not alone in making. Lyhnzi is rather like Pullman’s Lyra – the girls share similar backgrounds and the same strong, stubborn character, but the similarities do not end here. Lyhnzi is an only child who rarely sees her father, and spends her days rattling around in an enormous castle, sneaking through hidden passageways and causing havoc with the children employed in the kitchens. A section quite early on in the book in particular reminded me of a scene in The Northern Lights, in which Lyra is made to have her knees washed before dinner, and then sneaks out onto the roofs of the college:

“Tris, this afternoon’s tutor, insisted she be clean for her lessons, and that she wear a dress. The pants and shirt she wore to train with the guards were not ladylike, according to Tris. Lyhnzi quickly washed and dressed. She went to the door and pressed her ear against it. Not a sound came from the other side. The guards were still there, she was sure of it, and they would only wait a few more moments. It was time to make her escape.”

The universe of The Dain Princess appears very similar to and yet considerably behind that of our own world, with armoured guards, gilded tapestries, cities enclosed within castle walls and travel by horse and cart, as if stuck within the realm of medieval Britain. It takes some time before elements of fantasy work their way into the text and I think this works really well. In Black’s world, the fantastic walk among everyday people rather than exist in an entirely alternate enchanted world.

Elements of horror within the story further add to the fantasy realm of the novel. Black creates new and obscure creatures, and ominous presences which lurk in the forest where the children are camping. The dangers of the forests are first revealed to the children, much like in a horror film, by an uneducated local man, who, without going into detail, suggests they sleep with one eye open:

“‘Some men hunt over there, come back in day. In light, it’s normal. Animals run, birds chirp, but in dark,’ he shook his head and shivered. ‘Most nights is quiet, silent. What should be, don’t. No crickets or nothing. Every sometime it’s like screams, only west of river. I’d sleep awake if I was.’”

As the story progresses the children learn of some of the horrors lurking in the trees. One creature in particular stays hidden just out of sight throughout the majority of their journey, quietly stalking the children by day, and emerging at night with a signature blood curdling scream. With the creatures kept at bay only by the light of the fire, the children find themselves coming closer and closer to the burning red eyes of the creatures of their nightmares.

The Dain Princess has many elements of a classic coming of age novel. As with much young adult fiction, the reader grows with the characters. Encompassed within this is the theme of trust, which runs throughout the novel. The characters are forever asking one another “why should I trust you?”, and having their whole understanding of trust completely redefined. Those who seem the most trustworthy in the traditional sense, those Lyhnzi has grown up with and those who swear to protect her, may have ulterior motives in mind, whereas the most unlikely characters become the most genuine. The reader finds themselves following Lyhnzi on her journey of self discovery and she grows from a teenager into a woman, learning to ignore traditional stereotypes and have confidence in her own instincts.

The story does have a few editing issues. However, I think that with self-published novels this is somewhat inevitable, and while a professional editor’s eye would undoubtedly improve the novel I don’t feel that the issues dramatically detract from its merits. There are also a few characters whose stories I don’t feel are properly concluded at the end of the book. The reader may find themselves with a few questions left hanging in the air.

On the whole I found The Dain Princess to be an engaging and fun read. Black’s work contains elements of horror, mystery and fantasy, which when combined make for a well structured and entertaining novel. I would recommend this book to young adult readers, and those who have read and enjoyed the work of Philip Pullman and other fantasy novelists.

Many thanks to Raitt Black for providing me with a free review copy of The Dain Princess. 

 

“The bad news is that if we do in fact get off the earth we will contaminate the rest of the universe with our moral insufficiency.” ― E.L. Doctorow,

The whole world has gone insane.

The Fog ― James Herbert

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I have wanted to read this book for a such a long time, I love a good horror story, but I am not really one for buying a book brand new, there is something I enjoy about owning second hand books. This week, after several years of searching for a used copy and coming up empty handed, I finally succumbed and bought a shiny new copy from Waterstones.

After all my waiting, I wasn’t disappointed by the book, it’s quite good fun, and definitely kept me interested up until the end. The premise of the story, I think, is fantastic. However I always find modern horror stories, much the same as modern horror films, never quite live up to my expectations. The style of so much modern horror fiction such as this is leagues behind the classic horror of Edgar Allan Poe, and M. R. James, and so I always find myself feeling a little underwhelmed.

To return to my previous point, the idea behind the story, is fantastic. Human intervention in nature leading to what could very quickly escalate into the end of the world. Brilliant. The story is also similar in many ways, to the much loved idea of a zombie apocalypse, with the odd tweak here and there.

A sleepy British town falls victim to an enormous earthquake, which creates a cavernous split in the earth, dividing the town in two and engulfing many locals and buildings in the process. John Holman, an employee of the Department of the Environment has been investigating a Ministry of Defence base within the small town, finds himself in the midst of a real life horror story, when his car in swallowed up by the cavernous opening. Attempting to rescue both himself, and a small girl who has also become trapped, Holman witnesses the emergence of a thick, acrid smelling yellow fog, flowing up from the depths of the earth. By the time Holman and the girl have been extracted from the hole, Holman is insane.

The fog makes it’s way across the country spreading disaster in it’s wake, an elderly woman is eaten alive by her cats, a farmer trampled to death by a herd of cows, and the entire population of Bournemouth leaves their beds to head for the sea, in a devastating mass suicide.

When Holman regains his senses, it is up to him to convince the police that the fog is the cause of the sudden outbreak of insanity throughout the country. It is then a race against time to discover the origins of the mysterious fog, and work out a way of stopping it before it is too late.

I can’t go much further into the plot without completely ruining the story for anyone who may want to read it, and I do think it is worth a read. I love the idea, and I like the way the story pans out.

The only thing I found particularly irritating about the story was the relationship between Holman and his girlfriend Casey, for me, it seemed unnecessary. I think the book would have worked just as well in the absence of awkward sex scenes, and frankly disturbing descriptions of Holman’s arousal while trying to restrain his insane lover, and I extend this point to cover all sex scenes within the book, lesbian or otherwise.

So, if you can blank out the needless erotica Herbert seems so fond of, I do think this book is worth a read. While I was a little disappointed with the style, I find this slightly inevitable, and I am willing to forgive . Taken at face value, The Fog certainly makes for a good horror story.