Sunday, 9 December 2018

Review: Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales 2018 (Tuesday and Wednesday)

13th-18th November 2018
Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Wales

We were away at Abertoir horror film festival in Wales last week. We've been wanting to go to the festival for ages, but this year was the first time that work commitments (pretty much) allowed it. And I'm so glad that we were able to make it this year - what a brilliant festival! Abertoir is a warm and welcoming festival, and within a few hours of arriving we really felt at home. But it's also a well-organized event, and the programme is very well put together. I was really impressed by the thought that clearly went into this year's line-up: a good selection of classics complimented new releases and a couple of UK premieres... and a few genuine surprises too.

Abertoir is a six-day festival, so we saw a LOT of films. And a lot of these are recommendations, so I'm planning to review all the titles we saw in November. To make it a bit more manageable, I'm going to do the review in three parts. First up... here are the films we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday 13th November

Sleepaway Camp (dir. Robert Hiltzik, 1983)

As this was the thirteenth Abertoir festival, and Friday the 13th was on the menu, the whole festival had a slasher theme, with some interesting selections made from the subgenre. The first screening was Sleepaway Camp – which set a quirky, off-beat tone to the proceedings. Sleepaway Camp is a cult classic, niche even by slasher standards, and I was surprised to find that even my horror aficionado husband had never heard of it (and it was quite the challenge not to let any spoilers slip beforehand). It’s hard to know what to say about Sleepaway Camp to do justice to its off-key mix of high camp and horror tropes. The film begins with a happy day out on the lake turning to tragedy, as a family is mown down by a rogue speedboat. A father and child are killed, but another child survives. Fast forward eight years, and we’re at Camp Arawak for the summer. Awkward teen Angela is attending the camp for the first time with her cousin Ricky. Angela is painfully shy and so is mercilessly bullied by Queen Bee Judy and malicious counsellor Meg. But an unseen killer is picking off teens (mostly the more unpleasant ones). Camp owner Mel Costic – apparently taking a page from Jaws’ Mayor Larry Vaughn’s playbook – is determined to brush off the violent murders to ensure the summer continues as planned, but the killings just don’t stop. The whole thing builds to a climax that has to be seen to be believed, and which will leave you questioning if this is exploitation, innovation or something somewhere in between. Chock-full of 80s fashion disasters (such tight shorts! such high side ponytails!), hammy acting and murdered teens, Sleepaway Camp is a wild ride. And it was a great start to our first Abertoir festival.

In Fabric (dir. Peter Strickland, 2018)

The first new film of the festival was In Fabric. In a nutshell, this is a film about a haunted dress. But that brief summary does a disservice to Strickland’s highly stylized – often overwhelmingly so – and sometimes disturbing critique of consumerism. The film introduces us to Sheila, a downtrodden single mother to a teen son, who has a boring job in a bank and uses a lonely hearts dating service. Sheila buys a dress from a ubiquitous but sinister department store – and things go badly wrong. Again, this doesn’t really do justice to how Strickland’s film unfolds. In many ways, it is the aesthetic – rather than the plot – which is most important here. Firstly, the film plays around with ostensibly ‘period’ detail and anachronism (a telling example: Sheila has an analogue tape answerphone, but a phone number that begins ‘01’), creating a feeling of timelessness, but not in a reassuring or positive way. Secondly, the film’s design is both minutely detailed and gloriously overblown: Sheila’s place of work and uniform are intricately mundane, which contrasts with the Gothic Victoriana of the department store’s creepy assistants. Other contrasts are used to strong effect in the film, such as dialogue (the juxtaposition of the stilted, comical awkwardness of Sheila’s dates, the daft management speak of her bosses, and the uncomfortable verbosity of the shop assistants) and tone (the contrast of sad silliness during the dates with the Grand Guignol-esque blood and disturbing eroticism in the department store after hours). Does this work? Mostly – yes, I think it does. In Fabric isn’t a horror narrative as such, but it utilizes generic story elements and visual tropes to undeniably powerful effect. My criticism would be that it’s somewhat overlong and loses its pacing once Sheila’s story ends and the dress acquires a new owner.

Piercing (dir. Nicolas Pesce, 2018)

Piercing is an adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel of the same name (translated into English in 2007). It’s the story of Reed, a married man with a young child, who fantasises about killing a woman with an ice pick. Admittedly, in the opening scenes, I did have doubts about whether this film was for me. The last horror film festival we went to (way back in 2015) became a bit of chore, as it felt like every single film we saw featured (sexual, gratuitous) violence against women. When Reed sets about making his fantasy a reality, checking into a hotel and testing out the effects of chloroform, I had a sinking feeling things were heading in the same direction. Oh me of little faith! Piercing was going to take us on a very different journey. Reed hires an escort – Jackie (played brilliantly by Mia Wasikowska) – who arrives at his hotel room, uncomfortable and awkward. Her client, too, is uncomfortable and awkward, and the audience waits for the violence to begin… But then the film takes an unexpected turn, when Jackie’s own psychological issues come to the surface. The film’s design is stylish (and stylized – though not to the same extent as In Fabric), and the back-and-forth between the two protagonists also has a sense of choreographed style (although we see some other characters, this is essentially a two-hander) that flips the script from predator-prey to a twisted pas de deux. Nevertheless, this is not a character study – we learn little about Reed, and even less about Jackie. Instead, Piercing emerges as a viciously glossy, but also funny and touching, tale of two messed-up people finding a way to deal with their mess. No spoilers, but I found the ending (and particularly the last line) really quite a satisfying conclusion.

Sadly, our stamina isn't what it used to be, so we had to skip the final screening of the day in favour of sleep. The last film on Tuesday was Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (dir. Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna, 2018).

Wednesday 14th November

The Tokoloshe (dir. Jerome Pikwane, 2018)

First film of Wednesday was The Tokoloshe, a South African horror inspired by a creature from Zulu mythology. Busi (Petronella Tshuma) is a poor young woman who arrives in Johannesburg looking for work. She manages to get a job at a run-down hospital, but is immediately beset both by the supernatural malevolence of the tokoloshe that’s apparently menacing the hospital’s children’s ward, and by the more human threat of a predatory boss. Desperate for money so that she can ‘save’ her sister, Busi is forced to stay at the hospital as things become increasingly violent and frightening. I really enjoyed The Tokoloshe – it was very skilful in its evocation of Gothic horror and the claustrophobia of Busi’s situation. The film’s bilingual (English/Zulu) dialogue also worked very well, with Busi’s isolation being conjured through the continued pressure to speak English to those in authority. One particular scene, when Busi attempts to flee on a bus, really highlighted the way language works in the film, with her English pleas to the bus driver falling on deaf ears before a voice offers assistance in Zulu – even as an Anglophone I felt the sheer relief that came with hearing Busi’s own language spoken. If I had a criticism of the film, it would be that it tries to do a little too much. The horror set pieces in the hospital are very well done, but these are only part of the story. Busi and her sister’s backstory is also revealed through flashback, and there is commentary on social and economic issues in Johannesburg as well. At times, it feels like the film tries to tell too many stories and this affects pacing. Nevertheless, the ending does an excellent job of bringing the threads together and revealing the underlying truth of the horror assailing Busi.

UK Premiere: Occult Bolshevism (dir. Hiroshi Takahashi, 2018)

Occult Bolshevism is a Japanese film, written and directed by Hiroshi Takahashi (the writer of Ringu). Our screening was prefixed by a short recorded interview by Takahashi, where he spoke of being inspired by classic British ghost stories (in the writing of both Ringu and Occult Bolshevism). We also had a brief intro from the festival organizers, who said that – despite being written by the same man – the film we were about to watch was definitely not in the same vein of horror as his more famous work. I’ll admit I was quite glad about that, because – shock horror! – I’m not really a fan of Ringu (don’t @ me). The organizers were right, though. Occult Bolshevism is a quite different type of tale – and I really enjoyed it. As part of a forbidden experiment into psychological/paranormal phenomena (it’s not made explicitly clear at the start what the nature of the experiment is), a group of people come together in an apparently abandoned industrial facility. As with classic ghost stories, they each take it in turn to tell their own tale of supernatural experience, which are recorded/monitored. But all this is being conducted under looming portraits of Communist leaders and is prefaced with a group rendition of the Bolshevik Party Anthem – and throughout the film the experiment is couched in terms of ‘spiritual revolution’. Occult Bolshevism is a weird and off-kilter ghost story that carries you along for its ride. I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand the ending, but it’s certainly a dramatic and unsettling climax that draws together disparate elements of the stories previously told. For me, the film was at its most powerful when the experiment’s participants narrated their tales – sparsely shot and without diegetic music, these sequences perfectly captured the essence of the ghost story.

Offsite Screening: Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D (dir. Steve Miner, 1982)

And now for a bit of an ‘event screening’. Abertoir have a tradition of holding off-site screenings during their annual festivals – it was one of the things that initially caught our attention about their programme. This year, in-keeping with this year’s theme, it was a screening of Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D at a remote barn in the Welsh countryside (well, not entirely remote – but let’s not worry too much about that). We were advised to wrap up warm, transported to the location by coach, and then given hockey masks with 3D glasses attached (a brilliant little touch, although given my hairdo and spectacles, I sadly had to detach my glasses so I could actually wear them). After a couple of other little surprises – including a nice little ‘I’ll be right back’ moment from an ‘audience member’ – we settled in for some slasher fun. Watching in a group is really the only way to enjoy a 3D film, and there were plenty of giggles and groans as various things flew out of the screen towards us. Arguably, Part 3 isn’t a particularly exciting or memorable instalment in the franchise, but I thoroughly enjoyed this screening. Afterwards, we stepped outside the barn for drinks, food and a bonfire. However, this did give me the distinct impression that we’d crossed our horror subgenres. Huddling around the bonfire in the darkness of the British countryside felt more folk horror than summer camp slasher – I wasn’t scared of Jason at this point, but I worried that someone might have to be sacrificed to ensure next year’s harvest. Fortunately, everyone survived (I think) and we got back on the bus to head back to the festival venue. This was an excellent, fun event screening – perfectly organized and a great addition to the programme.

Tumbbad (dir. Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi and Adesh Prasad, 2018)

When we got back to the festival venue, it was time for another new film. Tumbbad is a Hindi-language historical fantasy/horror with visual and narrative nods to the epic. The film begins with a narration of the story of the Goddess of Prosperity, and of her greedy son Hastar. The other gods attacked Hastar, but his mother saved him – on the condition that he was never worshipped and remained forgotten by humanity. But the village of Tumbbad did not forget him, and so they were cursed with eternal rains. The film’s story is divided into three sections. It begins in 1918, when Vinayak’s mother is servant to the local lord Sarkar. As well as tending to the house and Sarkar’s monstrous ancestor (seriously monstrous… she’s kept chained up in a basement), Vinayak’s mother performs sexual services for Sarkar – who is the father of her two sons – in the hope of acquiring one of Hastar’s gold coins. When Sarkar dies, she intends to leave Tumbbad for Pune, but her son has become fascinated by the possibility of discovering more of Hastar’s treasure. The story then moves to the 1930s, and the adult Vinayak’s return to Tumbbad and discovery of the treasure; the final chapter is set in 1947, when the now-rich Vinayak begins to train his son to extract the gold in his place. Storywise, Tumbbad is a fable: Vinayak desires wealth, then he realises his desire, then he faces the consequences. But it’s the film’s visual style that really makes it. Lavishly rendered, with exquisitely detailed sets and location shooting, Tumbbad is both sensual and disturbing. The eternal rains of Tumbbad village were very well done, to the point where you actually feel drenched just watching it. Tumbbad is a classy and evocative period piece with a timeless fabulist moral.

And despite our best intentions, we were once again too shattered to stay for the last screening of the day. This time, we missed Slumber Party Massacre (dir. Amy Holden Jones, 1982).

My next post will have reviews of the films we saw on Thursday and Friday.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

My Year in Books 2018: November

How exciting - I'm just one month away from having stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I've never done that before! Sadly, though, I didn't actually get time for much reading in November, so there's only one review on today's post. I anticipate I'll catch up in December though, as I usually read quite a bit over Christmas... I guess you'll find out in my next post!

If you want to see my reviews for the rest of the year, you can find them here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James (1971)

Okay, so I did say that I wasn’t going to read any more Adam Dalgleish novels. But I spent most of November with a horrible cold, and I just wanted to read something comforting – and my comfort reading is Golden Age detective fiction. In my poorly brain, I thought this would be sort of the same thing. The book begins promisingly enough. Two student nurses are killed at a training school, and Adam Dalgleish is called in to investigate. There is a sense of claustrophobia, of a closed little world in which the suspects operate, of secretive undercurrents and things left unsaid. But that’s pretty much it, I’m afraid. James’s work is incredibly evocative of place and setting, but her novels are ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. While there’s plenty of exploration of the world of nursing here – with some judgemental commentary, and an obsessive need to catalogue every early morning or late drink a character has (something I noticed in Cover Her Face as well, though at least there it was part of the plot) – there are no clues that the reader might use to solve the mystery. In fact, the ending comes quite out of the blue. There are also a couple of chapters that seem to belong to a different book: the first, which focuses in detail on a character who plays no part in the story, and the unpleasant chapter which details how Dalgleish’s sergeant gets information out of an older woman. Don’t think I’m a James fan.

Friday, 23 November 2018

My Year in Books 2018: October

Okay, it's another delayed post from me. But better late than never, I guess. Another month of sticking to my New Year's resolution. I found time to read four novels for pleasure in October (though I don't appear to have been very varied in my genre choice - it's all crime fiction this month!), so here are my short reviews of the titles I read.

(You can read all the other posts from this year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September)

I'll Keep You Safe by Peter May (2018)

I’m a big fan of Peter May’s novels. I loved the Lewis trilogy and reread the Enzo MacLeod books a couple of times. My mum and my mother-in-law are both fans as well, and it just so happened that both of them got a copy of I’ll Keep You Safe at the same time – and then they both offered to lend me their copy when they’d finished, so I raced them! My mum won (just), so I read her copy of the book. This is a book that I’d heard May talk about prior to its completion. He described it as ‘From Paris to Harris’ (though it turns out that the Hebridean portion of the book is set in Lewis, not Harris). Ruairidh and Niamh Macfarlane are the owners and creators of the Ranish Tweed fabric brand. During a trip to Paris Fashion Week, Niamh learns that Ruairidh has been having an affair, but then almost immediately witnesses her husband and his lover killed by a car bomb. She returns to Lewis bereft, but – of course – there are further revelations to come. I do enjoy Peter May’s writing, but this wasn’t one of my favourites. I loved the flashback sections describing Ruairidh and Niamh’s relationship, but the ‘present day’ crime chapters were a bit plodding and predictable. It’s a shame, because I think I probably would have been more than happy to have read a book just about the Macfarlanes and Ranish Tweed (though that might have been less marketable!).

The Secret Place by Tana French (2014)

Earlier in the year, I read a few of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels out of sequence, so managed to miss out the fifth one. This month, I finally read The Secret Place. The book sees the return of Stephen Moran (a minor character in Faithful Place) and teams him up with Antoinette Conway, a prickly and unpopular member of the Murder Squad, for the first time. The book begins with Holly Mackey – daughter of the main detective in Faithful Place – telling Moran about a development in a year-old murder investigation at her school. Moran grudgingly passes the information on to Conway, but on the understanding that he’ll be able to join the investigation. The two visit Holly’s boarding school to reopen the inquiry into the murder of Chris Harper, a pupil at the neighbouring boys’ school. The prime suspects are two cliques of girls – Holly and her friends, and a rival group – and the book switches between the police investigation and flashbacks to Holly’s gang’s involvement with Chris Harper, but also (more significantly) with each other. Like In the Woods, it’s as much about friendship as it is about a murder investigation. It’s not quite as good as In the Woods and Broken Harbour, but I preferred it to The Trespasser. Oh, and ignore any reviews that criticise the so-called ‘unexplained supernatural element’ – there’s a single, beautiful sentence that explains everything towards the end of the book, which reminded me just why I’m a fan of French’s work.

The Sleeping and the Dead by Ann Cleeves (2001)

Clearly, I wasn’t feeling very experimental this month so I seem to have stuck to writers I know. The Sleeping and the Dead is one of Cleeves’s standalone novels, so not part of the Vera or Shetland series. The book begins with the discovery of a long-dead body in a lake. Detective Peter Porteous (who is quite an unusual detective, not because he has a lot of eccentric quirks, but because he’s so calm and self-contained throughout the investigation) quickly narrows down the possibilities for identification, before concluding that the body must be that of Michael Grey, a young man who hasn’t been seen since the 1970s. Michael was an enigmatic man, who arrived in the local area to live with foster parents in his final year at school. No one appears to know where Michael came from or who his family was. The book switches between Porteous’s investigation and the story of Hannah Morton, a prison officer who was once Michael’s girlfriend. Hannah reminisces on her relationship with Michael, but also finds herself drawn into the investigation more directly (and dangerously) than she’d like. I was really drawn into this story and found myself engaged with Hannah’s story (and the mysterious Michael, of course). However, I’m not sure the mystery really went anywhere. It’s definitely a page-turner, but the denouement and explanation was a little bit of an anti-climax. There was also a bit of a tricksy coincidence that had to be swallowed on the journey to the resolution.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James (1967)

Okay, I know I sort of concluded last time that P.D. James wasn’t for me. But I got a really nasty cold towards the end of the month, and I just wanted some comfort reading (aka a whodunnit). I couldn’t find any Golden Age stuff that I fancied, so I thought I’d give James another whirl. And this one started off well. Adam Dalgliesh (admittedly not my favourite literary detective) is staying with his Aunt Jane (not Jane Marple) in Suffolk when one of the neighbours is found murdered and mutilated. The victim was a crime novelist, and he appears to have been killed with a method taken from his own writing. The other residents of the little village are all suspects, though some big crime types in that London also drift in and out of the frame. I loved the chapters in the village, with the vague air of menace that surrounded even mundane social interactions. However, the plot was at once convoluted and underexplained. I’m still not totally sure why that particular far-fetched method of murder (and the mutilation) was chosen. James isn’t too hot on clues (unlike my beloved Agatha), but I still guessed the culprit here. I also don’t quite get what was going on with Dalgliesh’s personal life. Did he break up with his girlfriend at the end? Or not? And why was he being so randomly aloof? To be fair, I’m probably going to stick with the Dalgliesh novels now – but just for completism.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

OUT NOW: The Black Room Manuscripts Volume Four, ed. by J.R. Park and Tracy Fahey (The Sinister Horror Company, 2018)

A new collection of tales of terror, including 'Planning Permission', a story of municipal horror from yours truly...

Some words are born in shadows.

Some tales told only in whispers.

Under the paper thin veneer of our sanity is a world that exists. Hidden just beyond in plain sight, waiting to consume you should you dare stray from the street-lit paths that sedate our fears.

For centuries the Black Room has stored stories of these encounters, suppressing the knowledge of the rarely seen. Protecting the civilised world from its own dark realities.

The door to the Black Room has once again swung open to unleash twenty four masterful tales of the macabre from the twisted minds of a new breed of horror author.

The Black Room holds many secrets.

Dare you enter… one final time?


Foreword by Michael David Wilson
Prologue by Tracy Fahey and J.R. Park
That Thing I Did by Tracy Fahey
Eating the Dream by K.A. Laity
A Clear Day in a Season of Storms by Simon Avery
The Hanging Boy by Gary McMahon
Mam's Girl by J.L. George
Tears of Honey by John McNee
Deciper by Daniel Marc Chant
Tap, Tap... by Marie O'Regan
Black Silk by Benedict J. Jones
Dragged Down by Ramsey Campbell
Palace of the Damned by C.L. Raven
Brooks Pond by Mark West
Planning Permission by Hannah Kate
Shrivelled Tongues of Dead Horses by Erik Hofstatter
Death Wish by Margrét Helgadóttir
Size Isn't Everything by James Everington
Pain Has a Voice by Stephen Bacon
Swimming Out to Sea by Penny Jones
Reanimation Channel by Mark Cassell
Craft Ail by Duncan P. Bradshaw
Dr Zwigli's Last Paper by Elizabeth Davis
Laurel by Terry Grimwood
Tide Will Tell by V.H. Leslie
The Last Horror Story by Tracy Fahey and J.R. Park
Epilogue by Tracy Fahey and J.R. Park
Afterword by Jim Mcleod

All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Refuge. For more information, or to buy a copy, please visit the Sinister Horror Company website.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Poirot Project: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-18(?) Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

And so, after a short run of adaptations of Christie’s novels, we return to the short stories for the final series of hour-long episodes. The first episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ – was first broadcast on 17th January 1993, and it was based on the short story of the same name, which was first published in The Sketch in September 1923. Having wandered ahead to 1940 with One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, it’s nice to come back to that first run of Poirot Sketch stories again.

And it’s familiar territory here – Hastings is our narrator, and he’s in full-on Watson mode:
‘I have always considered that one of the most thrilling and dramatic of the many adventures I have shared with Poirot was that of our investigation into the strange series of deaths which followed upon the discovery and opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra.’
After narrating this investigation to us, Hastings ends his story with another Watson-like pronouncement:
‘The case was hushed up as far as possible, and, to this day, people talk of the remarkable series of deaths in connection with the Tomb of Men-her-Ra as a triumphal proof of the vengeance of a bygone king upon the desecrators of his tomb – a belief which, as Poirot pointed out to me, is contrary to all Egyptian belief and thought.’
The story is situated as one of Hastings’s chronicles of Poirot’s past cases. There’s a bit of a suggestion that, much like ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, this is a story that Hastings has held back until the time is right for its narration.

But this tone doesn’t seem quite right here. While the investigation may well have been ‘one of the most thrilling and dramatic’ undertaken by the dynamic duo, it’s surely also one of the most recent.

Hastings draws explicit attention to the real-life inspiration for the story in the opening paragraphs:
‘Hard upon the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon, Sir John Willard and Mr Bleibner of New York, pursuing their excavations not far from Cairo, in the vicinity of the Pyramids of Gizeh, came unexpectedly on a series of funeral chambers.’
Now, the tomb of Tutankh-Amen (to use Christie’s spelling) was only discovered by Howard Carter in November 1922, less than a year before Christie’s story was published. The high-profile death of Lord Carnarvon, which cemented the myth of Tutankh-Amen’s curse (clearly the inspiration here), didn’t occur until April 1923. So, despite the Hastings-as-chronicler introduction, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ is a story inspired by a ‘hot’ news story – Hastings’s ‘to this day’ claims feel a bit like an affectation here, to be honest.

Still, let’s have a look at the story itself. Poirot is called upon by Lady Willard, the widow of Sir John Willard, who died (à la Lord Carnarvon) shortly after the tomb of Men-her-Ra was opened. Lady Willard is scared that the pharaoh’s curse might still have victims to claim. Poirot states that he believes superstition to be one of the world’s most powerful forces and agrees to look into the case. Hastings is surprised, but (naturally) goes along with things.

Lady Willard is particularly fearful for her son, who has gone out to Egypt to continue his late father’s work. He is part of a party that includes Mr Bleibner, an American archaeologist, Dr Tosswill of the British Museum, Mr Schneider of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Dr Ames, the expedition’s physician, and Hassan, a ‘native servant’ (ignore him – when has someone called ‘Hassan’ ever been the murderer in an Agatha Christie?). Previously, the party had also included Rupert Bleibner, nephew to the archaeologist, but this young man has recently taken his own life. Was young Mr Bleibner a victim of the pharaoh’s curse? Can there possibly be any connection between his death and that of Sir John Willard?

Only one man can work that out… but he’ll need to go to Egypt to investigate.

‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ isn’t one of my favourites, to be honest. It’s not a great mystery – though it has a lovely sleight-of-hand in Rupert’s suicide note, which I’ll come back to when I talk about the adaptation – and some of the motive is held back way longer than I expect from Christie. I’m not sure a reader could really work this one out, and that’s a bit naughty.

However, it’s fun to see an early example of Christie’s love of archaeology. And it’s always great to have Poirot and Hastings on the road. There’s a little reminder of how much Hercule hates ‘the sea! The hateful sea!’, and a description of him waging ‘an unceasing war on the dust’. Sadly, though, our narrator holds back on what could have been quite the memorable scene:
‘I pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel.’
(Though he does give us a flavour of his friend’s wild discomfort, before noting that he ended the journey on a little donkey.)

Overall, this isn’t the best of the Sketch stories, but it’s another nice little slice of Poirot ’n Hastings, and the start of the archaeological thread that will run through many more of Christie’s stories.

And so to the adaptation…

The episode was written by Clive Exton and directed by Peter Barber Fleming. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the short story, though Miss Lemon has been added to the mix (no Japp this time – either in the short story or the episode).

This might seem a bit weird, given that I’ve just said I’m not especially enamoured of the short story, but I remember really liking this episode when it first aired. And I can remember exactly what it was that I loved about it: it was that trick with the suicide note. I thought it was brilliant.

The trick is quite simple (the best ones always are). Rupert Bleibner leaves a note saying that he’s a ‘leper and an outcast’. Eventually, it dawns on Poirot that perhaps that first bit should have been taken literally. He didn’t kill himself because he’d been cast out by his friends; he killed himself because he thought he’d contracted leprosy. It’s one of those neat little details that appear in the best detective fiction – you’re given explicit information in the full knowledge that you’ll make the wrong interpretation.

Thinking about it, I’m not sure it’s so weird that I enjoyed the episode as a teenager, while being disappointed by the story as an adult. I think this is one of the episodes (there aren’t many, and they’re mostly written by Exton) that is actually better than its source material. It’s not that the plot or characterization is dramatically altered, but rather that there’s some subtle restructuring and reframing that makes for a more satisfying mystery.

The first alteration comes with the way Poirot finds out about Rupert Bleibner’s death. In Christie’s story, the detective sends a cable to New York for details. In the TV version, he has a more immediate source – as Miss Lemon points out, Hastings is currently in the States and so could do some on the spot investigation. This is probably why the ‘leper’ trick works better in the episode than in the story. Hastings actually gets to meet Rupert Bleibner (played by Paul Birchard), and so we get some additional visual clues (even if we don’t necessarily process what we’re seeing) to the young man’s plight. (And, here, it’s Hastings that discovers Rupert Bleibner’s body when he goes to talk to him about the death of his uncle.)

Of course, it’s never actually explained why Hastings is in America. Miss Lemon says he’s been doing some business in California. What business?? As I keep coming back to, Hastings is clearly a bit of a hapless, family-less posh lad. There’s a mention of him working for Lloyd’s at one point, but otherwise we see no evidence of him being involved in ‘business’. He hasn’t even got his own flat (most of the time). He certainly doesn’t make a habit of popping over to California, so his trip here seems a bit odd. In fact, Exton’s script makes it seem odder, as Hastings is a complete fish-out-of-water in the US of A. He doesn’t seem like a seasoned transatlantic traveller – he doesn’t even know what ‘over easy’ means.

That aside, the story does work better when the clues are presented more directly. There’s still the problem of Rupert Bleibner’s will, though, which is my biggest beef with both the episode and the story. In Christie’s story, the fact that Rupert made a will in favour of Dr Ames is just dropped in as near-speculation in the fourth-to-last paragraph, with the detective simply waving his lack of evidence away as ‘doubtless’. In the adaptation, we get a little bit more of a hint (there’s some reference to Ames’s previous acquaintance with young Bleibner), but Poirot still gets the detail from a Miss-Lemon-ex-machina phone call that the viewer can’t hear.

I guess, though, if you’ve worked out the ‘leper’ clue, then there’s only one possible suspect, and so the will isn’t that important. I guess.

The other alterations to the episode are minor, and mostly work to involve Miss Lemon (kind of) in the plot.

Exton retains Poirot’s comments on superstition being a powerful force and Hastings’s disbelief in his friend’s apparent gullibility. This is now paralleled by Miss Lemon’s rather earnest belief in the power of the supernatural, which is something we’ve seen before (and will see again).

Other changes are a bit more pragmatic. One that makes me giggle is the change in name for the British Library representative (played by Jon Strickland). I love the fact that someone thought ‘Dr Tosswill’ sounded a bit too snicker-inducing and so changed it to ‘Dr Fosswell’.

The timescale of the episode is also a little tighter – Poirot’s investigations in the series tend to be spread over days and weeks, rather than the months of some of the short stories – and so, with the delay caused by waiting for Hastings to return from America, our dynamic duo simply don’t have time to get the boat to Egypt. Instead, they fly, and so we miss out on Poirot’s sea-sickness. (In case you’re curious, regular flights from the UK to Cairo began in 1927, so it’s not an anachronism to have the TV characters taking this flight. It wasn’t an option for their literary counterparts.)

Sadly, the scriptwriters also chose to ‘pass over the spectacle of Poirot on a camel’ and replace the journey to the expedition with a wild car ride, gleefully piloted by Hastings. I think they still capture Poirot’s dramatic discomfort though.

But, although the method of travel is different, Poirot’s dislike of dust is retained (as well we might expect, given the characterization in the series). Poirot’s recourse to his clothes brush is still present – as is one of Hastings’s cheekiest lines from Christie’s story: ‘Come, now, there’s a lot of sand in Belgium.’ Not in Brussels, Hastings. Not in Brussels.

Throughout the episode – as with all his scripts – Exton’s knowledge of and affection for Christie’s text is apparent. He even has his Poirot reading the same book Christie’s character consults: The Magic of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. This is a really nice touch, as you could easily miss the title of Poirot’s volume, so it’s almost like an (admittedly niche) Easter Egg for Christie fans.

But I’m going to end this review with something else that’s been added in for the episode. It’s certainly not something we’d find anywhere in Christie’s Poirot stories, but it’s a lovely little addition for the TV series.

In case we hadn’t guessed, this episode tells us that Miss Lemon likes cats. But, sadly, her beloved pet Catherine the Great (or Catherine the Grate, given that she was named for her love of sleeping by the fire) has died. As Hastings points out to Poirot, much of Miss Lemon’s spiritual dabblings (tarot, automatic writing) are attempts to try and communicate with her departed feline companion.

At first, this seems like one of those times when Hastings and Miss Lemon’s friendship is developed, with Poirot unable to fully understand the vagaries of their ‘normal’ emotions. Certainly, he seems a little dismissive of Miss Lemon’s grief, as though he can’t quite understand what his secretary is going through.

We shouldn’t have doubted him though. At the end of the episode, when Poirot and Hastings return to London, our little Belgian detective comes good. He has understood Miss Lemon’s pain, and he’s had an idea how to comfort her. In the final scene, he presents Miss Lemon with a small statue of King Men-her-Ra’s favourite cat, a feline protector that, Poirot insists, will ensure that Miss Lemon is visited by Catherine in her sleep. It’s a really sweet moment, and the episode ends with a reminder of the warmth these characters feel towards each other (something that’s a big part of the TV series).

Does Miss Lemon believe that Poirot thinks her dead cat will come to her in a dream? Or does she know he’s just humouring her? I think she knows, deep down, but she also knows that he’s doing what he can to make her feel better. She seems so genuinely touched by his gesture – it’s such a lovely ending to the episode.

And so, time to move on to the next episode… ‘The Underdog’

Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Year in Books 2018: September

Here's the latest update from my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. This is definitely the longest I've ever stuck to a resolution, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep this up for the rest of the year. I read five novels in September (though I did go a bit faddy again this month). So here are my reviews...

(You can read the reviews from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August)

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

So, I picked this book up on a trip to Blackpool in August with the residents of the care home my mum and brother manage. The residents I was with were all buying books, and so I couldn’t not get one as well. I will admit, I judged this book by its cover – I was very intrigued by the design here. The blurb also looked like something I’d enjoy: a group of children are exiled by Elizabeth I to a place called Rotherweird; years later, the town has developed into a secretive and arcane place, excelling in science and technology, but restrictive of any knowledge of its past. The book begins with two strangers arriving in Rotherweird – a new history teacher, Jonah Oblong, and a mysterious millionaire, Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has bought the old manor house. Rotherweird’s inhabitants are an odd bunch, laden with quirks and old-time affectations, and its history is shrouded in obscurity. Except… it isn’t really. The ‘mystery’ of Rotherweird isn’t particularly hidden from the reader, and this makes much of the story somewhat ponderous. I found myself impatient for the characters to catch up and do something – perhaps it would’ve been better not to have so much insistence that there was a puzzle to be solved. The book is clearly indebted to the Gormenghast trilogy, but it lacks the absorbing intricacy of Peake’s work, and it feels more frivolous and – in places – silly. It’s Gormenghast-lite, and, sadly, I was a bit disappointed in the end.

The Private Patient by P.D. James (2008)

Another book I picked up in August – this time it’s one I bought from a jumble sale at a local fun day. I have to admit I haven’t read a lot of P.D. James (and until this month hadn’t read any of the Adam Dalgliesh books). I love the Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh), and I’m a big fan of the other Baroness of Crime (Rendell), so I thought it was about time I made a start on the Adam Dalgliesh novels. But, weirdly, this involved reading the last of the series first. The Private Patient is set (funnily enough) in a private clinic specialising in plastic surgery. Journalist Rhoda Gradwyn checks in before an operation – but someone ensures she’ll never check out. Dalgliesh and his team investigate. This is a classic country house mystery, though the country house has now been transformed into a clinic (there are shades of Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in the description of the forced sale of the hall – though James’s book was published 46 years later than Christie’s). Now, I’ll say up front that the denouement is a bit of a let-down, but I was completely engrossed in the story. It was a real page-turner, and I really enjoyed the way the plot unfolded. I was quite struck by the attention given to the victim before the murder, making her much more of a character than you normally find in detective fiction. I really enjoyed this one.

Cover Her Face by P.D. James (1962)

In for a penny, in for a pound… I thought I’d make a start on the rest of the Adam Dalgliesh novels. And this time, I started in the right place. Cover Her Face is James’s debut novel, which introduces her series detective (and isn’t it weird that James’s first and Christie’s last published novels use the same quote from The Duchess of Malfi?). We’re back in the world of the country house murder – this time, it’s the home of the Maxie family, who are just realising their way of life is on its way out and that their country house won’t be in the family forever. They take on a new maid (Sally Jupp) from the local home for unmarried mothers, but it isn’t long before Sally is found murdered. Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate, uncovering various secrets as he goes. It’s a very enjoyable murder mystery, though James isn’t quite as slick with her clues as Christie. And I’m fascinated by the parallels between this novel and Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which was published the same year. The Maxies of the former are in a similar boat to the Bantrys of the latter, though they haven’t yet been forced to sell their ancestral home – there’s even a set-piece garden fête in each novel. In many ways, though Christie’s novel is more accepting of the march of progress – James’s book has a much harder heart. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away.

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

Maybe – just maybe – I read too much P.D. James in one go. I went straight from Cover Her Face to the second Adam Dalgliesh novel, but I found this one really grated on me. A Mind to Murder is set in – surprise, surprise – a former posh house (townhouse this time) that’s been converted to another use. Here, the house is now a psychiatric clinic, and the administration manager is the unfortunate victim. There were some things I really liked about this one. Descriptions of the house, the city and the season (autumn) were vivid and compelling, and it was interesting reading a depiction of a psychiatric clinic in the early days of NHS mental health treatment. However, I find that I’m starting to dislike Adam Dalgliesh – he’s like an emo Lord Peter Wimsey – and while he has plenty of personality quirks, he doesn’t seem to have any particularly acute powers of detection. I’m pretty sure any other policeman could have solved this one, and I like my detectives a little more indispensable. After reading three Adam Dalgliesh novels, I also feel like it’s really obvious which benches this Baroness of Crime sat on in the House of Lords – and I can’t help comparing them to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. There are points in A Mind to Murder that make Miss Marple look like Jeremy Corbyn. Personally, I also struggled with some of the descriptions of ECT and LSD treatment in the clinic, but that was the 60s for you.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

Here’s another one I bought at the fun day in August. Now, this might sound shocking, but I’d never read anything by J.K. Rowling before. I love Robert Galbraith, though, so I had a sneaking suspicion I’d probably like Rowling too. Hmm… The Casual Vacancy was Rowling’s first ‘adult’ novel after the final Harry Potter book. It’s set in the West Country village of Pagford, and tells the story of the confusion, conflict and machinations set in motion by the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. It’s an overtly political book (even making direct reference to certain political parties), and its sprawling cast are drawn into debates on social housing, addiction and education in the run-up to the election. And… I really didn’t like it. Clearly trying to shake off the Hogwarts dust, Rowling has created a nasty, cynical little tale, where casual sexual assault, physical abuse and crime mount towards a painful climax (and an election that, by that point, really doesn’t matter). As the novel progresses, it’s clear that this is intended to be a ‘social issues’ novel, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot (it was dubbed Mugglemarch by some). Krystal Weedon becomes our council estate Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and we watch, pity and analyse (but don’t identify with) the horrors of Krystal’s life. To ensure no identification accidentally occurs, Krystal’s speech is written entirely phonetically, and this really really annoyed me. Turns out, I don’t like J.K. Rowling books. But I still love Robert Galbraith.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

My Year in Books 2018: August

This post is a little delayed, but I've finally had chance to catch up with my New Year's Resolution (which I'm still sticking to). Only four books this time, but that's not too bad. So here's the list of books I read for pleasure in August...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I discovered Fowler’s novel while looking for books with unreliable narrators and genuine twists. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from it, except that there was a secret that would be revealed on around page 77. The book’s narrator is Rosemary, a young woman studying at university who is rather reticent about her family. We know from the beginning that Rosemary has (had?) two siblings, Fern and Lowell, who are no longer part of her life. Fern, particularly, is something of a mystery as all we know is that she ‘went away’ one day without warning. Although I did guess in advance what the secret about Fern was, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. It’s an unusual story that’s both very funny and utterly heart-breaking. The style reminded me at times of Kate Atkinson and Marina Lewycka (two writers that I really like), particularly in its non-linear structure (the story loops back a couple of time, revealing things that may not have been clear the first time round) and in the often painful juxtaposition of comedy and the brutality of life. This is a book about empathy and kindness – a sort of coming-of-age story – but one that doesn’t shy away from presenting cruelty and unfairness. I can’t say too much more without giving major spoilers, but this was a genuinely unexpected story with a central character I was really invested in and ending that stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. I highly recommend this one.

Before I Let You In by Jenny Blackhurst (2016)

Somehow, I got sucked back into domestic noir after swearing blind that this genre is not for me. I don’t know how I keep falling for the promise of mind-blowing twists and endings I won’t see coming. Sadly, I’m just setting myself up for disappointment. Blackhurst’s book is very much of a type. It has a very intriguing blurb, but it just doesn’t deliver. Karen is a psychiatrist (apparently, though she actually spends most of her time giving psychotherapy sessions), who gets a new patient called Jessica. Jessica seems to know things about Karen’s personal life, and their sessions start to unsettle Karen. The book is told in genre-typical fragmented style, including the near-ubiquitous ‘unnamed narrator’ sections designed to add sinister intrigue to the proceedings. The book’s hook is the relationship between Karen and her mysterious patient, but most of the story focuses on Karen’s relationships with her two best friends, Bea and Eleanor, and her affair with a married man named Michael. The plot is, unfortunately, ploddingly predictable, and the characters are drawn with very broad strokes. As with other books in this genre I’ve read recently, you can see the oversold ending coming a mile away. I know this genre is really popular, and books like this are very readable (I got through this one in just two sittings), but I don’t think it’s for me. Admittedly, I’ve said this before, and yet here I am reviewing another one. But I’m definitely out now: I’m going cold turkey.

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler (2014)

So after finally quitting domestic noir (and I’m serious, I’ve really quit this time), I decided to turn to something I know I like: folk horror. I’d been familiar with Scarfolk via Twitter for a while, but hadn’t read Littler’s book. Scarfolk is a fictional north-west town that is permanently stuck in the 1970s. It first appeared on a blog creater by Littler, which purported to publish ‘artefacts’ of the town. The ‘artefacts’ on the website are public safety posters, leaflets and book covers, all based on British public safety information from the 70s, but with a disturbing, often horrific, twist. I’ve always enjoyed the way the posters and leaflets were stand-alone artefact, but that they gradually built up to create a sense of a place (and even a narrative) without spelling things out. I was curious to know how this would work in book form, where there is more text used to string things together. Undoubtedly, the star of the book is the material replicated from the website. However, there’s also a narrative (of sorts) that explains and contextualizes the artefacts. There’s a frame story about how the ‘artefacts’ came into the hands of the compiler, and the book is presented as an academic outline of the experiences of Daniel Bush, a man who accidentally ends up trapped in Scarfolk. The humour is satirical, though occasionally puerile, but I particularly loved the footnotes scattered through the story of Daniel’s descent into the madness of Scarfolk. Definitely enjoyed this one.

Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt by John Grindrod (2017)

The next book I read definitely isn’t folk horror, but it is about some of the quirks of urban, suburban and rural Britain that might inspire folk horror. Grindrod’s book is part memoir, part exploration of the history of the green belt. We’re introduced to New Addington, the council estate where Grindrod grew up, which was constructed right on the edge of London’s green belt. Taking his experiences of his childhood home as a starting point, Grindrod unpeels the layers of history to this peculiar (and often misunderstood) aspect of town planning. I found the history here fascinating – Grindrod jumps back and forth across the centuries, introducing the many writers, planners and politicians who have played a role in shaping our modern concept of the green belt. If it’s sometimes confusing, that’s because the green belt itself is a contradictory and complex mass of (often competing) ideological and pragmatic concerns, and its very existence is often misunderstood or misquoted by both its defenders and detractors. Alongside this history, Grindrod offers a more personal narrative of family life. The memoir element of the book is utterly compelling and very moving in places, but the real charm lies in the way this is woven into the story of the green belt itself. With carefully researched history and a good dose of personal reflection, the book offers an endearing snapshot of family life, personal identity and planning strategy, revealing the ways in which these connect to one another. I really recommend this one.