Saturday, 3 October 2015

Keep That Darkness Rollin'

All aboard!

God knows how it happened, but apparently it's October already. Which means Halloween's just around the corner. Which means it must be time for Atkins & Hirshberg to put on their fancy hats and suspenders*, assume their secret identities as Algy Black and Artie Mack, and venture once more into the dark.

(*Relax, England. Doesn't mean what you think it means.)

It seems Burbank City Council couldn't get the restraining order together in time and that The Rolling Darkness Revue will in fact be back at the Missing Piece Theatre on Magnolia Boulevard the weekend before Halloween. Stories will be read. Schtick will be shamelessly schticked. Songs might even be sung.

Once more aiding and abetting Alge & Art in their latest shenanigans will be the great Kevin Gregg, the magnificent Jonas Yip & Rex Flowers and, making her second appearance with the Revue, that lovely chip off Glen's block, li'l miss Kate Hirshberg.

This is the paragraph where, for the sake of any new customers at the Atkins Bar & Grill, I should attempt to explain just what the hell the RDR is. But here's the thing, beloved and most welcome new customers, our regulars will get so bored if I do that again, that I'm going to ask instead that you cast your eye to the side of this column and, from the exhaustive list of labels you will find there, click on the one that says Rolling Darkness Revue and take a quick butcher's* at the relevant older posts that'll show up. All will become marginally less murky.

(*Sorry, America. Butcher's hook. Look.)

I should confirm though that, once again, our valued off-stage partners Paul Miller and Deena Warner have provided a beautiful chapbook that will be given free to all attendees of this year's show and will, in a couple of weeks time, be available at ridiculously low cost from Paul's yard -- -- for those unfortunates who live out of state. Deena's fantastic cover is framed within the show poster above, but let's give it its own well-deserved moment in the spotlight, shall we:

The Stella Noctis is slipping harbor. All ashore who's going ashore. The rest of you, welcome aboard. We're so glad you could join us on Die Reise der Toten*.

(*Apologies, sad mono-linguists. That's The Voyage of the Dead to you.)

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Graveyard Ballet in Cyberspace

I've never been what the tech media refer to as an early adopter. Didn't have a VCR until well into the eighties (and even then it was a second-hand Betamax), never had an iPod, still don't have a smart-phone, and only signed up for Netflix streaming about a year ago. Sad, I know. So you'll hardly be surprised to learn, my lovelies, that the Atkins oeuvre has heretofore been available only in the form of those relics of the last century, books-on-paper.

Well, strap me onto my HoverBoard and beam me up, Scotty, because we're about to make the jump into hyperspace. Fuck opening the pod bay doors, Hal, check this guy out:

That's right, droogies. It's an e-book. No shit. Thanks to the folks at Cemetery Dance Publications, and specifically the great Norman Prentiss (who, when he's not busy being an award-winning author in his own right, spends his time as editor of CD's e-book line), your Uncle Pete was invited to be one of the initial batch of scribblers in their brand-new series, Cemetery Dance Select.

These mini-collections, retailing (oh, I'm sorry, e-tailing) at $2.99 per, contain four or five stories hand-picked by the author, along with a never-before-published afterword explaining just where they get off inflicting their crap on you how and why these particular masterpieces were written.

The initial series is so new that there's not even a splash-page up on CD's own site yet. You should instead get thee to an online bookstore of your choice (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes) and type 'Cemetery Dance Select' into their search window. This will open up a panorama of all 11 of the Select titles available and allow you to hesitate before springing for my book. "Oh, wait a minute," you'll be able to say. "They've got Michael Marshall Smith? And Lisa Tuttle*? Fuck you, Atkins. Maybe next month." 

*And Jeff Strand. And Lisa Morton. And Bev Vincent. And Lee Thomas. And Terry Dowling. And Kealan Patrick Burke. And John R Little. And Kaaron Warren.

Should, however, you have the remarkably good taste to already possess every word ever written by my ten team-mates then you can settle for mine, wherein you will find a quartet of my Liverpool-set stories: "Between the Cold Moon and the Earth", "The Mystery", "Intricate Green Figurines", and "Postcards from Abroad". Here's the link, kids --  -- and remember to channel your inner Ringo or Sir Paul for the narrative accent for each of the tales. They should also, needless to say, be played at maximum volume.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

But Enough About Me #7


I remember, couple of posts back, blithely promising that I'd use the next But Enough About Me installment to reprint two tiny pieces I'd published about Arthur Machen some years ago. "Tomorrow," I said airily, "or some time soon." That was last October. Would have been nice, wouldn't it, if I'd got my finger out and actually managed to put the post up in 2013, the 150th anniversary of the great man's birth? Ah, well. Road to Hell, etc. Late to the party or not, why don't we take a gander at these paltry additions to the field of Machen scholarship?

The first appeared in My Favorite Horror Story, a book edited by Mike Baker and Martin H Greenberg in which a bunch of us got to select and introduce a story from horror's past. I picked a somewhat obscure Machen tale called "Opening the Door", which had first appeared in 1931 in When Churchyards Yawn, one of Lady Cynthia Asquith's ghost story anthologies, ...

... was reprinted three years later in Hutchinson's A Century of Creepy Stories (edited by an uncredited John Gawsworth, a poet and good friend of Machen's later years), ...

... and then formed part of the last collection Machen saw through the presses in his lifetime, 1946's Holy Terrors, an early Penguin paperback.

I lay out these useful and scholarly facts for you ahead of the reprinted essay, by the way, because they are useful and scholarly facts which -- with an impressively patrician disdain for bibliographic detail -- I had neglected to mention in the essay itself.


Opening The Door

Though his reputation remains solid among the more serious practitioners and enthusiasts in the horror field, the visionary Welsh writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) undoubtedly suffers that peculiar kind of fame in which his name is dropped more often than his books are read. This is perhaps not altogether surprising because Machen -- like the fine wines and good ales of which he was so fond -- has always been something of an acquired taste. He lived long enough to enjoy more than one brief period of voguish adulation, but for the most part he lived and worked in obscure poverty. Near the end of his eighty-four years he once did some foolish arithmetic and calculated that six decades worth of devotion to his muse had earned him approximately six hundred pounds. This is roughly equivalent to twenty dollars a year. The fact that he greeted this revelation with a mix of stoicism and amusement is a tribute to his character and seems, from all published accounts by friends and colleagues, to have been typical of a man profoundly blessed with warmth, wit, wisdom, and a healthy cynicism as regards the world and its rewards.

One reason why Machen will probably always count his core audience in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands is that quite frankly he's not an easy read. His prose, of course, is always beautiful, fluent, and masterly -- whether it be the Stevensonian pastiche of The Three Impostors, the hallucinogenic child-speak of "The White People", or the measured and elegant simplicity of his later tales -- but he has little patience with the undereducated. He assumes of his readership the same classical learning which he himself possessed and thus his writings abound with Latin and Greek quotations which he rarely bothers to translate or explain, and references to philosophical theorems with which the modern reader, unschooled in classical logic and renaissance theology, might be far from familiar.

The other problem is that in order to experience the full Machenian magic you really need to read a lot of his stuff -- essays, autobiographies, and articles as well as the novels and stories. The effect he has on you is cumulative, and consciously so; Machen, like the medieval alchemists whom he admired and to whom he made constant metaphorical reference throughout his writings, knew that each individual experiment (or, in his case, story) was but one aspect of the Great Work, one facet only of the inexpressible mystery at the heart of the universe.

Mystery -- and a reverence for it rather than a desire to solve it -- is the essential key to any understanding of Machen. His favorite Latin quotation was "Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium" (all things end in mystery) and his method in most of his storytelling is to maneuver his reader into a place where he or she feels thay have glanced tangentially at some aspect of the unknowable. The first chapter of The Great Return, his 1915 novella about the Grail, is called "A Rumour of the Marvellous" and I can think of no better nor more poetically eloquent a description of his work than that.

This sense of a proximity to the transcendent is one of the things H. P. Lovecraft admired so much about Machen and one of the things he appropriated from him for his own fiction (appropriated as narrative technique at least; philosophically they couldn't have been more different -- Machen a catholic mystic and Lovecraft an agnostic rationalist). Whether the transcendence that is glimpsed is horrifying or spiritually uplifting can vary from story to story and in his best work is usually both. Like his contemporary, Algernon Blackwood, Machen's concern was to inculcate awe in his readers and it seemed to matter little to him whether that awe was achieved by terror or by wonder. He was wonderfully dismissive of occultist mumbo-jumbo -- though a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn at the same time as the notorious Aleister Crowley, he considered Crowley a buffoon at best and a dangerous charlatan at worst. The way to the Great Secret, for Machen, was not via obscurantist rituals but via a Wordsworthian communion with nature in which one can glimpse the miraculous in the everyday. In an essay entitled "With the Gods in Spring" Machen describes how on a walk with friends he saw beneath a black thornbush a single daffodil. "Forgotten then," he writes, "but remembered always; the shining apparition of the god."

"Opening the Door", the story I have selected for this volume, dates from 1931. It is not, I tell you honestly, Machen's masterpiece, but it is a fine example of his art of suggestiveness, of his ability to demonstrate the interconnection of the mundane and the marvellous, and the reason I chose it is that when so little of Machen's work is currently in print it seems pointless to republish yet again "The White People" or "The Great God Pan", which are (deservedly) the most anthologized of his stories. My choice was also determined, I have to admit, by the desire to offer a small rejoinder to S. T. Joshi. In his otherwise excellent volume, The Weird Tale (a critical study of Machen and five other classic horror writers), Mr. Joshi declares that all the Machen fiction worth reading dates from his first decade of work. This, in my opinion, is far too dismissive of Machen's later period -- a period that not only produced such tales as "N" or "Out of the Earth" or "The Exalted Omega" or, indeed, "Opening the Door", but one in which Machen's prose, always breathtakingly good, actually got better.

So here is "Opening the Door". I commend it to you with the suggestion that you read it slowly. Don't look for sudden shocks or punchline endings. It offers no quick thrills, no instant frissons of horror. It will, however, leave the careful reader with a lingering sense of something beyond this world, a feeling that, however briefly, the veil that separates the natural from the supernatural (or, in Machen's phrase, the Actual from the Real) has been lifted, that a door has indeed been opened. 


The second -- even shorter -- piece was written for the 300-words-max "Curiosities" column in Fantasy & Science Fiction and appeared in the December 2000 issue. It's about one of Machen's non-fiction books, The London Adventure.


The London Adventure

Ostensibly the third volume of his autobiography, Arthur Machen's The London Adventure is actually a book about the failure to write a book called The London Adventure.

Machen, the great visionary author of such classics of the fantastic as The Great God Pan, The Three Impostors, and The Hill of Dreams had told the story of his life in two earlier volumes -- Far Off Things and Things Near and Far -- and now intended to give his readers a history of his impressions of London when he first moved there at the end of the nineteenth century.

He does nothing of the kind.

Instead, referring throughout to the book he has in mind as The Great Work on London, he proceeds, with consummate good humor, to demonstrate his absolute inability to get down to it. It's a book in which form matches content perfectly; constantly sounding warning notes to fellow writers and interested readers about the perils of digression and the pitfalls of procrastination, Machen meanders entertainingly through nearly two hundred pages of interesting digressions and entertaining procrastinations.

And what digressions! In addition to being one of the best books ever written about not writing, The London Adventure is also a proto-Fortean catalogue of curiosities and coincidence, an inventory of the inexplicable that forms a fine non-fiction companion to his fiction's obsessive love of metaphysical mystery.

By the time Machen takes his leave of us, full of apologies for his failure to deliver the book he had promised and full of shame for the book he has actually written ("I had thought of calling the book The Curate's Egg but I have a distaste for boastful titles"), we feel far from cheated -- feel instead that we've read a fine book on writing, on London, and on the world and its secret life.


If you're new to Machen and are at all intrigued, I highly recommend visits to both  and

Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium

Monday, 23 June 2014

Postcards from the Apocalypse

An author's Brag Shelf, for the uninitiated, is the particular bookcase where said author keeps copies of his or her own work, as opposed to the other bookcases -- sadly more numerous -- where he or she keeps the inferior rubbish produced by lesser talents.

Now, unless an author is an insufferable douchebag -- and you'd be surprised, my poppets, you'd be surprised -- the brag shelf, despite its name, should be stationed somewhere other than the living room or, indeed, anywhere else where the phrase this guy is so fucking into himself is likely to be triggered in the mind of a casual visitor.

My own brag shelf, for example, is at the far end of a narrow corridor in Castle Atkins and -- this is the important bit -- is past the door to the bathroom. Thus people who for the most part, let's face it, couldn't give a rat's arse about the Russian edition of Dark Delicacies II or the Italian Best New Horror 4 are spared any involuntary sightings of the fragments I shore against my ruin. Only upon request do I humbly point visitors at the bookcase in question while my foot accidentally presses the recessed floor-switch that triggers the spotlights and the audio-loops of Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary.

All of which is apropos of nothing other than to serve as an announcement that, later this year, two more items will be securing berths in the Atkins brag shelf:

The first actually arrives quite soon, and is the latest volume in the youngest-and-cutest of the three Year's Best anthologies. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 is edited, as ever, by the exquisite Ms. Paula Guran, who's been kind enough to stick an extra stamp or two on my "Postcards from Abroad" and send it back out into the world.

"Postcards" first appeared in The Impostor's Monocle, last year's RDR chapbook from Earthling Publications, and I'm delighted to say that Paula's had the impeccable taste to also take Glen Hirshberg's "Pride" from the same source, thus giving our little chapbook a batting average of .500 which I'm assured by my sports-savvy friends is pretty damn good. The full splendor of YBDF&H's table of contents can be seen at 

Later in the year (October in the UK, December in the US), the third volume in the 'mosaic novel' created by the great Steve Jones will be offending people of middle-class taste everywhere. Rejoicing in the title Zombie Apocalypse! Endgame, its cover should confirm that it doesn't give a shit what you think:

I'm thrilled to have been a contributor to all three brain-munching installments, and a quick click-through to will reveal my illustrious co-conspirators (including two -- two! -- fellow Scousers. Take that, Manchester).

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...


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 , 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:

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.