Monday, 14 October 2013

Will the Real Algy & Artie Please Stand Up?



When that nice young Hirshberg fellow and I created a pair of 1930s radio hosts for KRDR: Welcome to the Ether, the 2008 edition of The Rolling Darkness Revue, we thought it would be a cute little in-joke for our fellow horror geeks students of supernatural literature if we named said radio hosts after two towering icons of the classic period of fantastic fiction. Hence were born Algy Black and Artie Mack, and we sincerely hope that Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen have not been revolving in their graves in protest ever since. We figured that that year's show, like those of all previous years, would be a one-off and that the boys -- along with their annoying phone-in listener Howie Love and their pet parrot Monty -- would be heard from no more.

But Algy and Artie would not go gentle into that good night, and have shown up pretty regularly ever since. In 2010's Curtain Call, they were actors. In 2012's The Raven of October, they were detectives. And in this year's The Impostor's Monocle, they are hack writers for a fiction factory. Regardless of profession, they're always the same characters; spoiled, stupid, and selfish. Which makes them fine comic buffoons, but makes them very very far from the great men whose names we (lovingly) pilfered.

So consider this a Public Service Announcement. This is Arthur Machen:




Visionary. Mystic. Master of English prose. Immortal author of The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams, Holy Terrors, etc etc. In no way to be confused with Artie Mack:



Solipsistic narcissist. Barking mad and practically feral.

And consider Algernon Blackwood:



Adventurer. Explorer. Student of esoteric philosophy. Venerated author of The Willows, The Wendigo, The Wings of Horus, etc etc.

And who gets to 'borrow' his great name?

This fat fucking idiot, that's who:




Tomorrow (or sometime soon), by way of meagre apology and pathetic reparation, I'll post another of the But Enough About Me installments, featuring a couple of pieces I've done in the past about Machen.

In the meantime, if you wish to make your displeasure at our irreverence known in public, get thee to Friday or Saturday's performance of The Impostor's Monocle at The Missing Piece Theatre in Burbank (scroll down a couple of posts for full details).

Thursday, 10 October 2013

But Enough About Me #6

Actually, despite being the sixth installment of this ongoing series of non-fiction reprints, this one is a bit of an anomaly in that it is sort of about me. It's a little slice of memory first committed to paper at the request of the great and good Mr. Peter Crowther of PS Publishing, who commissioned it as a guest editorial for the 16th issue of PostScripts, a special Halloween issue. Given that we're currently in gear-up mode for this Halloween's Rolling Darkness Revue (see previous post for details), it seemed the appropriate time to give it another airing...

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Thank You, Mrs. Phillips


Halloween is when we're allowed to dream in public.

Sure, there are other outlets -- bragging to your mates about shit you'll never do, painting your face to feel like you're actually part of the winning team instead of just another idiot in the stands, pressing three red buttons on a plastic guitar and thinking that makes you Jimi fucking Hendrix -- but Halloween is the one that gives special leeway to our wilder imaginings. Not 'what if I could play the riff from Voodoo Chile?' Not 'what if I could bend it like Beckham?' But the deeper darker dreams: What if death is not the end? What if this isn't all there is? What if the world is infinitely stranger and richer than it appears to be on the morning commute or another evening down the pub?

Halloween is when we talk to the dead. We don't really believe that anymore, of course. Not literally. We don't lay out food on ritual tables for the returning dead the way the Celts did at Summer's End (or Samhain), and if we did we'd be more than a little surprised if they showed up and ate it. But every year on that single special night we open the door to them still -- the door of imagination at least -- and the ghosts walk with us, not as haunting revenants, not as unwelcome midnight visitors, but as invited and honoured guests.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, Britain didn't celebrate Halloween as openly and fulsomely as did the United States. Costuming and trick-or-treating were known to me only via American movies or books. I gather (I've been an exile for nearly twenty years now) that that's changed over the last decade or so and that these days the darkening hours of any October 31st find the streets of Liverpool and London just as full of midget demons and miniature Draculas as those of New York or Los Angeles. But that just wasn't the way it was when I was growing up. Best I could hope for was a quick game of duck-apple and a bullshit session on a home-made Ouija board.

And then came Peter Phillips' Halloween party.

Creepy little bastard that I was, I was already deeply in love with horror by the time I was eight or nine. The thanks for that go to the usual suspects when it comes to my generation; Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the Pan Book of Horror, Mars Attacks bubble-gum cards, and Castle Films' 8mm movie-digests (Oh, much-loved 50ft. extract of Son of Kong, where are you now?). But in 1964 I was still two years away from my first reading of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, so the thanks for Halloween -- at least as the special and spectacular holiday that it could be for my particular kind of misfit -- go to Peter Phillips' mum.

Thing was, I didn't even know Peter that well. We were in the same class at Heygreen Road County Primary and were friendly without being close friends -- didn't hang out, never been to each other's houses, you know what I mean -- so it was a surprise when he invited me to his party. I like to think, in retrospect, that his mum had told him only to invite people who were likely to appreciate it, but I've really no idea. Pretty small group, though; the only invitees were me, Lynne Robinson, and Barry Armour (Yeah. Armour. I know I make shit up for a living, but that was really his name. Honest).

The Phillips family lived in a flat above a glazier's shop on a corner of Picton Road. To this day, I haven't a clue what the flat looked like in real life, because it certainly couldn't have looked like it did that night.

I'd pressed the bell on the door on the side street quite some time before it was finally opened. It wasn't Peter. It was a woman dressed completely in black.

"Welcome," she said, not smiling. "There are no lights."

Which, I suppose, explained why she was holding in her hand the kind of flaming torch I'd only previously seen in stills from Ghost of Frankenstein in the pages of Famous Monsters.

Yeah, alright, it was a black rubber Woolworth's flashlight with crumpled orange tissue paper wrapped around the bulb housing but, trust me, it was fully and magically convincing to my eight year old eyes.

The street door gave directly on to a narrow staircase which led up to the door of the flat itself. "Upstairs," said Mrs. Phillips -- at least, I think it was Mrs. Phillips; she never broke character all night, God bless her -- and turned to lead the way.

Oh. Little aside to those of us past puberty. I'd love to tell you that this was like following Morticia Addams upstairs but the truth is -- with all love and respect to Mrs. Phillips -- she was actually more Margaret Rutherford than Carolyn Jones. Sorry to rain on that particular parade. But anyway.

The staircase was steep, narrow and dark and the light emanating from the flat doorway was yellow and dim and, as I made my way toward it, I was deliciously, fabulously, terrified.

The flat was a cave. A black cave. Mrs. Phillips must have bought up every sheet of black craft paper in Merseyside and taped them to the walls and ceilings. There were broomsticks, too, and witches' hats. And pumpkins and candles and pictures of black cats.

Sure, there was also a table arrayed with sandwiches and sausage rolls and bottles of pop. And Mr. Phillips was sitting in the corner watching the evening news on a depressingly normal telly. But none of that mattered. This was a Halloween House and I'd never seen anything so wonderful in all my life.

Peter was there, and Barry and Lynne, and I'm sure we played games, ate like pigs, and did whatever else eight year olds do at parties. I can't remember the details. All I remember is that, whatever we did, we did it in the shadowed confines of a witch's cave, overseen by the lady in black and her flaming torch.


Storytellers come in all sorts of guises. Mrs. Phillips, to the best of my knowledge, never wrote a word in her life but she belongs spiritually, I think, to the same tribe as writers do. Not just because she obviously loved Halloween -- and her son -- but because she creatively embraced the idea of Halloween and, in effect, made a narrative out of it, a narrative through which we lucky children on that long ago night could move, imagine, dream.

I'm forty-four years late. But thank you, Mrs. Phillips. Thank you very much.



Monday, 7 October 2013

Darkness on the Edge of Burbank

Oh alright, not so much the edge of Burbank as smack in the middle, but gimme a break; I'm running out of cutesy post titles that riff on 'dark' or 'darkness' and at least this one has the benefit of (approximate) geographical accuracy.

Yes, kids, it's that time of year again. The time when you delete all those foolishly optimistic 'record series' settings on your DVR (because, once more, every new pilot has sucked) and decide you need to get out more and enjoy some live, or at least undead, entertainment.

And, boy howdy, are you in luck. Algy Black and Artie Mack, the Laurel & Hardy of horror, are once again treading the boards for the Halloween season and presenting their patented and unlikely cocktail of lowbrow humor and sophisticated stories of the supernatural.

It's The Rolling Darkness Revue 2013: The Impostor's Monocle and it's strutting its stuff at

The Missing Piece Theatre
2811 W. Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91505

Friday October 18th and Saturday October 19th. 8 p.m. 

This year, Alge'n'Art are hack writers in a 1930s fiction factory who are surprised by the delivery of what appears to be the manuscript of the book they've just begun to write. The hacks are played by Atkins and Hirshberg of course and I won't even bother making a type-casting joke because I'm sure the one you've just come up with is much much funnier.

Kevin Gregg will, as usual, be raising the average of the quality of acting and Jonas Yip will, as usual, be enriching the atmosphere with his ambient soundscapes. (Rex Flowers, our fifth regular RDRer, will not be able to join us this year due to having too positive a sperm count, but we send him our love anyway)

Equally part of the RDR family, though much too smart to join us in the live show, are Paul Miller and Deena Warner who've once again done us proud with this year's chapbook:


Sometime soon, Paul will be selling signed chapbooks (but only 75 of them, so act fast) over at www.earthlingpub.com , but those of you who choose to fork over your twelve bucks to see the show will all be going home with a copy buckshee, gratis, and for nowt. Never say you're not loved.

And how do you go about forking over said twelve bucks? One of two ways, my little cabbage:

1) Old-School.  Cash. At the door. On the night.

2) Space-Age.  PayPal 'em right now, here:

http://glenhirshberg.com/appearances/rdr2013.html

The stories published in the chapbook (and, for those of you who really haven't been paying attention, read aloud at the show) are Glen's "Pride", my "Postcards from Abroad" (both brand new) and, for the first time in over a century, "Cranley Gardens, SW7" from our posthumous partner, Thomas St. John Bartlett.

Speaking of stories, particularly those which originate at RDR, I've been remiss in not keeping the Atkins completists (all four of 'em) up to date. My "Frumpy Little Beat Girl", which first appeared in the 2010 RDR chapbook Curtain Call, has since earlier this year been keeping company with some most illustrious fellow contributors in our beloved editrix Paula Guran's Mammoth Book of Angels & Demons. Published by Constable & Robinson and available wherever books are sold. Including no doubt, in this instance, Heaven and Hell.  

Monday, 1 April 2013

But Enough About Me #5

Astonishingly, the national treasure formerly known as Dennis Etchison turned seventy years old this past Saturday. We had a party for him at the great Glendale bookstore Mystery & Imagination and a whole bunch of people came and ate cake and drank wine and a whole other bunch of people who'd have liked to have been there but couldn't (on account of being in the UK) sent greetings-from-abroad and Dennis pretended that he wished we hadn't made such a fuss and we pretended to believe him and it was all very lovely.

Seven years ago, I wrote an introduction to Fine Cuts, a collection of Dennis's Hollywood-themed short stories, published by the wonderful UK press PS Publishing and now sadly out of print. It's been a while since I did one of these "Enough About Me" posts, and I figure the Great Man's birthday is reason enough to jump back in. So happy birthday Dennis and, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here's something I prepared earlier:

------------------------------------------------




COMING ATTRACTIONS

I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house
-- F Scott Fitzgerald


True story: I was staying in an apartment hotel in Westwood Village working on a script assignment, late summer 1989, and was hanging with a kid from the east coast who'd just landed his first low-level job in the industry. We had mutual friends and were becoming friends ourselves. There was a break in the conversation and the kid asked me a question out of the blue.

"So what was it like growing up in Europe," he said, "with all those Nazis running about?"

I blanched. How old did he think I was? When I asked him exactly that, the shrugged and ventured a guess.

"Thirty?"

I nodded. I was actually about three months shy of my thirty-fourth birthday but I let it stand -- perhaps I was already learning the ways of the town -- and asked him another question.

"And when do you think the Nazis were 'running about'?"

"Dunno," he said. "Sixties?"

So okay, he was ignorant. Big deal. I still -- call me old-fashioned -- find it rather alarming that a college graduate, particularly a Jewish one, could be that hazy on the dates of the Holocaust, but making him feel small and stupid as I proceeded gleefully to do seems to me now to be the bigger sin. Anyway, that's not the punchline.

The kid is now second-in-command at one of the largest studios in Hollywood.

Actually, that's not the punchline, either -- though it's certainly a snappy payoff and tells me just exactly where I can shove my self-satisfied grasp of world history. No, the punchline is this: Couple of years later I'm reading a newspaper interview with a Famous Friend of mine and he tells the story as his own -- not as reportage but as direct experience, as if it had happened to him not me. That's Hollywood in miniature, dear reader -- not the educational shortcomings of the soon-to-be-powerful, but the cavalier appropriation of someone else's story.

Dennis Etchison -- not, lest you think otherwise, the Famous Friend of the above anecdote -- seems to know this truth about the town in which he lives and works on an almost cellular level. His Hollywood stories, collected together here for the first time, are populated by characters who in one way or another have all had their stories appropriated -- sometimes in a literal sense, like the poor neophyte writer in "The Blood Kiss", but more often and more chillingly in the metaphoric. 

Etchison's people live on shifting ground -- not inappropriate for the denizens of a city built on fault-lines. Time, place, and memory betray them at all turns, as if they themselves are trapped inside a screenplay that is constantly being rewritten. Like survivors from an earlier draft, ghosts of discarded speculation, they walk the mean streets of a world in which the focus is never quite tight enough, seeking solutions to mysteries that are no longer even part of the plot. In a recurring and particularly poignant motif, some of Etchison's protagonists chase lost loved-ones -- sometimes a child, sometimes a parent -- through clouds of unknowing, attempting to grasp the past even as it retreats before them, and achieving at best a front-row seat from which they may watch the final acts of the disappearing trick.

Other things are lost to these people too -- possessions, professions, passion, promise -- but the main theme underlying every variation, the haunting minor-key melody that plays constantly in Etchison's dark country and imbues all of its stories with a profound metaphysical despair that is as much melancholia as it is terror, is the loss of self. A genuine loss of self -- not a disappearance but a dissolution, an effacement. Everything that these characters were or would be is in the process of an ineluctable erasure. Sometimes they are strapped to a surgical table, hallucinating alternate histories from a smorgasbord of half-forgotten popular culture. Sometimes their very physical beings are transmutated into unthinking (and inexpensive) slaves of the capitalist system. Sometimes they find themselves remembering lives that no longer seem to be their own or dwindling into a smaller sadder life from which perhaps only their illusions had previously protected them or kept them from acknowledging.

Well, that all sounds like a barrel of fucking laughs, doesn't it? In fact, though, the experience of actually reading Dennis's fiction (as opposed to listening to me babble on about it like I'm still trying to bullshit my way through an Eng. Lit. seminar) is very different. The stories are wonderfully written, of course -- achieving a clean and almost-invisible style that, while rendering other writers green with envy, sweeps readers effortlessly into the world it helps create -- but they are also, despite the darkness of their author's vision, paradoxically amusing. Enormously entertaining, in fact. You might be being given a tour of the terminal ward but your Guide is good company and his voice -- wryly skeptical but warmly sympathetic -- is somehow the saving grace that alchemically turns the dross of depression into the gold of art. A Dennis Etchison story is like a fine cigarette -- a comfort that kills, a killer that comforts.

Hollywood is a town where things disappear easily -- buildings, neighborhoods, careers -- and a community where memory is apparently a disability and the voicing of it something shameful. Dennis Etchison, though, is a man and a writer who marks the passing of things forgotten and mourns the loss of things despised. He's frankly a terrible fit for the film business. But, boy, he loves the movies. He has survived the humiliations and disappointments of an industry where -- as he once remarked to me in aphoristic perfection -- your mortal enemies have the sweetest smiles, and has pulled, as fragments from the ruins, these valentines to an ungrateful mistress. Writing well is the best revenge.   

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rumours about Rumours... #5

Two very generous reviews of Rumours of the Marvellous have just appeared in print in the UK. Neither are online yet, so I can't link to them, but here are some kind words from the illustrious gentlemen responsible:

David V Barrett, in Fortean Times #294, said

"A superb collection of short stories that fall in the borderland between science fiction, fantasy, horror and the supernatural ... every story is a gem"




And, in Black Static #30, Peter Tennant said

"A fine collection ... a unique and beguiling voice ... the stories [are] remarkable for their combination of a light touch with the weightier emotional freight they sometimes carry ... a real delight to read"




Hey, nothing to do with me, but isn't that cover art fantastic? It's the work of the great Ben Baldwin and you can (and should) see more of his stuff at www.benbaldwin.co.uk

My grateful thanks to Messrs. Barrett and Tennant for the warmth and thoughtfulness of their reviews. Both magazines are great, by the way, and, if you've heretofore been unfamiliar with either or both, you should seek to put that right before your friends start to shun you for being culturally incomplete.

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In other news, there's another mob-handed signing coming up at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Sunday November 4th will see Tamara Thorne, Glen Hirshberg, Lisa Morton and me gathered behind the DD picnic tables ready and willing to scribble in whatever you choose to lay before us.

Glen's launching Motherless Child, a novel about which I've already raved in these e-pages, and Tamara is showing the rest of us up by presenting 3[!] new paperbacks. Lisa and I are there as contributors to Zombie Apocalypse: Fightback (on editor/creator Steve Jones's birthday, as it happens), and I'll also be signing Best New Horror 23 and Ghosts: Recent Hauntings (which Glen is in too).





Go to www.darkdel.com for details and directions. Please come and say hello if you can. DD signings are always fun. Del and Sue make everyone welcome, and there are usually cookies and soft drinks (beer, too, if you know the secret handshake, or if Del likes the cut of your jib).


Finally, the Rolling Darkness Revue's 2012 show now has its own facebook page, courtesy of the enigmatic and delightful Dr. Miller: www.facebook.com/RollingDarknessRevue Apparently, you may 'like' it if you, um, like.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Raven Flies

Just a quick follow-up to the last post: We've finally found a theatre plucky enough to risk its previously impeccable reputation by agreeing to host this year's Rolling Darkness Revue.

The Road Theatre (based in the historic Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood) will be the venue for this year's shows, and Glen, Kevin, Jonas, Rex, and I want to thank their artistic directors Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson for saving us from limping back to bookstore gigs with our tails between our legs.



I'm sure the writing on the above image (a jpeg of a scanned PDF, sorry) is all-but-illegible to those of you checking this out on your phones, so here's the skinny:

Dates: Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th of October
Times: 8pm
Address: 5108 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood CA 91601
Tickets: 866 506 1248 or www.roadtheatre.org

Admission will cost you twelve bucks but, as I said last time, you'll go home with a fabulous chapbook which you can flog on eBay in a couple of months for an enormous profit, so you'd be an idiot not to come.

Kids are welcome, by the way. No gore effects. No nudity (I keep offering, but they won't let me). An enormous amount of bad language. Your call, parents.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Dark is Rising

The nights grow longer, o best beloved, and the evenings are perfumed with the scent of burning leaves. The season of the witch approaches, and something stirs in its grave, eager to be reborn...

Relax. It's just Atkins & Hirshberg up to their old tricks. Or treats, depending on how easily pleased you are.

Yes, kids, I'm delighted to announce that, after its sabbatical last year, The Rolling Darkness Revue is back. RDR -- for those of you who came in late -- is an annual October event featuring ghost stories, a wrap-around play, and live music. The highlight of every right-thinking person's Halloween since 2004, it was founded by me, Glen, and Dennis Etchison and is, to use a scientific term, the dog's bollocks.

This year's show -- which once again features everyone's favorite clueless-but-lovable lost souls, Algy Black and Artie Mack, this time as bumbling wannabe Occult Detectives -- is called The Raven of October. First person to post a comment identifying the source of that title, by the way, wins a free copy of this year's chapbook.

"Chapbook?" the intrigued newbie asks while, let's face it, googling his or her way to the correct answer. "What is this chapbook of which you speak?" (Apparently, Intrigued Newbie just got off the boat from Odessa.)

I shall explain, Boris or Natasha, I shall explain. The great Paul Miller of Earthling Publications has, since 2005, been kind enough to produce an annual chapbook to accompany each RDR show and wise enough to employ the fabulous Deena Warner to design their fantastic covers. The latest is another beaut. Check this the fuck out:



Paul covers his costs by making 75 signed copies available to his Earthling customers so, if you can't make the show but would like to read the stories and the full text of the accompanying play, head on over to Earthling's website and help keep a roof over the head of this kindly patron of the arts. (But don't head there quite yet; the chapbooks are still at the printers. When you do go, however, do yourself a favor and also buy a copy of Glen's superb new novel, Motherless Child. You will not be sorry.)

Our 'guest author' this year won't be appearing in person with us, on account of being dead. The Edwardian writer, Thomas St. John Bartlett, whose work also featured in our 2009 show, is back from the grave once more and the presence of his story, "The Problem with Mirrors", makes the fifteen-bucks-or-so that Paul will be asking for the chapbook even more of a steal. Why? Because the only other places you'll find that story are in a 1909 copy of The Strand Magazine, or in Bartlett's sole (and posthumous) collection, The Memory Pool:



Yeah, good luck. The bulk of its 1917 print run was lost to a warehouse fire in the last German airship raid of the Great War and the only copy to come on to the open market in the last ten years went at auction for $11,000.

Of course, you might be smiled on by fortune. You might, for example, wander into a junk shop in Colwyn Bay in 1983 and find a copy in a cardboard box labelled 'Old Books' and give the nice-but-underinformed gent behind the counter the three quid he was asking for it. I shall say no more...

Anyway, in Bartlett's absence, his story will be read at the show by the magnificent Kevin Gregg, who will also portray Algy'n'Artie's latest, and most mysterious, client. Also present -- and providing their wonderful ambient eeriness once more -- will be our musical brothers of the rolling dark, Jonas Yip and Rex Flowers.

So where will all these dark delights take place?

Ah.

Well, we had a theatre lined up, and were ready to begin rehearsals next week. But, just four days ago, the theatre owner was approached by someone else and was made an offer he couldn't refuse. Well, he could have refused it, but let's not be unpleasant.

So watch this space. As soon as we've locked down a new venue, I'll let you know dates, times, prices, etc. Of course, if you happen to have an auditorium in your back yard, then please don't stand on ceremony. Drop me a line, and we'll bring the dark directly to you.


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[Edited to add:] Oh, the chapbooks are free to every paying attendee of the shows, by the way. It's like the fanciest ticket-stub ever.