Archive for the Nostalgia Category

Another blast from the past…

Posted in Nostalgia with tags , , , on March 11, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

My good friend Nick Williams reminded me the other day, just after publishing my blog about The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31, of another anime that figured a great deal in my childhood (and I WAS actually a child when I first saw this series) – Marine Boy. This was actually one of the very first anime to be dubbed into English for the US, Australian and UK markets (although I think Astroboy took the distinction of being the first anime to be shown in Britain) and was one of the few anime to be produced in colour.

The history of the 78 episode series, reading the Wikipedia entry (with the usual proviso that Wiki isn’t entirely the most accurate fount of knowledge), is convoluted to say the least. Starting off as Dolphin Prince (3 b&w episodes), then metamorphosing into Hang on! Marine Kid (13 colour episodes) and finally into the Marine Boy (78 colour episodes) that people of my generation know and love, it didn’t really take off until Seven Arts Distribution in the US got hold of it. It was first broadcast in the UK in 1967-68 and, from the very moment I clapped eyes on it, I was hooked.

I was four or five years old when it was shown on BBC TV and it was everything a young boy could possibly want – a boy who, just by chewing special gum, could swim indefinitely underwater and who used an amzing boomerang to destroy ships and underwater craft. Plus a beautiful mermaid creature called Neptina as his companion and a dolphin, Splasher, who appeared to understand his every word.

But the biggest draw for me was the theme tune – it is singularly THE most recognisable theme somg for people of my generation. Every time I hear it, it sends shivers up and down my spine, as well as propelling me back along the years to the time when I was a young lad, trying to cope with being newly diagnosed as a diabetic and facing a lifetime of injections, non-sugary foods and having to test for my bloodsugar levels (which involved testing urine in those days – not the spohisticated blood-glucose monitors we have now). It instantly reminds me of the kindly district nurse who used to come every day to administer my insulin, and who finally taught my mum and dad how to inject me. It was also around that time or just after that I started school – in fact, I can remember my very first day in infant school, which was 43 years ago!

In subsequent years, I’ve made sporadic attempts to locate episodes on VHS or DVD and I have now learnt that a complete set of all 78 episodes is available for $49.99, so, once I am flush, or I find a generous benefactor, I’ll be acquiring this slice of nostalgia. Once more, I’ll be a five year-old boy sitting transfixed in front of the TV and watching the adventures a boy who can breathe underwater, a white dolphin and a girl with a fishtail instead of legs.


Blasts from the Past…

Posted in General Musings, Nostalgia with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

During my enforced rest over the last few months (see previous blog entry for details), to keep myself from total boredom and the creeping onset of ennui, I indulged in watching something that I have been fascinated with since childhood – animated films and serials. Back then I went through the stages of watching series such as Scooby-Doo, Hong Kong Phooey, The Pink Panther, all the Warner Bros cartoon shorts, the slightly obscure DePatie-Freleng version of Dr. Doolittle (does anyone actually remember that?), the various Charlie Brown shows and the full-length ‘classic’ Disney movies. Then I progressed onto longer films like Watership Down, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (which, perhaps oddly, I absolutely love, despite its very obvious flaws), the same director’s Fritz the Cat and Fire and Ice, the strange and surreal Fantastic Planet (original title: Le Planete Sauvage) and an obcure little porn cartoon called Jungleburger (classic dialogue: the villainess says at the end “So what if I have six tits?”). Add into the mix other obscure gems which I’ve completely forgotten plus, later in my twenties, my discovery of anime, and I must have seen thousands of ‘cartoons’ and suchlike.

However, during that brief restful sojourn, I revisited a couple of series for which I have a particularly fond attachment – The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31. Both of these were French/Japanese co-productions, and both were screened over here in the eighties. Okay, I admit, I was in my early twenties when I watched these shows, programmes that were resolutely aimed at younger teens, but, to be quite frank, I didn’t care. The two shows exhibited a modicum of imagination severely lacking in mainstream British and American productions of the time, a fact which  inspired me to watch them in the first place. I would avidly sit down every week and be glued to the TV set to follow the respective character’s adventures.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold was a 39 episode adventure series set against an historical background: the Spanish conquest of South America and the avaricious search for gold (and it didn’t stint on the cruelty exhibited by the conquistadores towards the natives in the greedy search for the yellow metal). The plot mainly centres around three children, Esteban, Zia and Tau, and their search for the fabled seven cities of gold, located somewhere in the impenetrable jungle. The show contrasts rather sharply the reasons for the search – the children want to find family or solve the mystery of who they are and their place in the world, while the adults accompanying or chasing them only want the wealth that will inevitably follow on from finding a city completely made from gold. It paints Western culture as avaricious, superficial and greedy – not as inaccurate a picture as all that, judging from the history of the actual conquest.

Ulysses 31, on the other hand, mixes Greek legend with sci-fi action and adventure. It updates the legend of Oddysseus (Ulysses is the Latin variant of the name) but sets the action in space. Ulysses has angered the gods by destroying Cyclops whilst in the act of saving his son Telemachus – and his punishment is to wander through an unknown part of the Cosmos in his spaceship in order to find the Kingdom of Hades, so that he can eventually return to earth. Simultaneously, Zeus, who hands down the sentence, also puts Ulysses’ crew into suspended animation and they will only be returned to life when the Kingdom of Hades is found. Accompanying our hero and his son is Yumi, a tiny blue-skinned girl from the planet Zotria (her brother Numinor is also there, but he’s  in suspended animation along with the rest of the crew) and Nono, a small and very nervous robot. Twenty-six episodes were made, a fairly short number for a Japanese production, but boy did they pack in a lot of action. It’s very typically Japanese fare and, stylistically, is also typical of eighties anime. And of course, there’s that stirring opening theme song… (there are also the tantalising rumours that there will be sequels to the series due in the near future, but who knows…?)

It’s funny how you remember, or not remember, things. I distinctly remember not catching the first episode of either, but coming coming into them with episode two with Cities and three with Ulysses. But, having watched all 39 episodes of the former, I remembered surprisingly little of it, apart from the characters and the Solaris ship and the Golden Condor. I also didn’t remember the short factual films at the end of each show, filling out the historical details of that particular episode. I am only a third through Ulysses and I remember more of that one, but I’ll report back when I’ve seen them all.

Be that as it may, however, what utterly delightful (and thrilling) blasts from the past. Whilst it would be true to say that technically I am more in tune with the anime of today, it was still a hoot watching these shows and reacquainting myself with them after something like thirty years. Back then, of course, I never thought that there’d be any means by which I could see them again, other than the terrestrial channels deigning to rebroadcast them. Which did happen with Cities I think – once. So, I for one say ‘Huzzah for the internet!’…

Now, to make my life complete, I need to find a source for Battle of the Planets or, better still, the original Science Team Gatchaman, which will be miles better than the bastardised Sandy Frank bowdlerisation screened on British TV (7 Zark 7, the robot who ‘starred’ in the linking sequences, was never in the original Japanese version…). Having said that, I’d still watch, if only for the sake of nostalgia…

Musings on Mary Danby…

Posted in General Musings, Nostalgia with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday, I pontificated on the processes involved in the editing I’ve been doing over the last fortnight – today, I’ll ruminate on the other job I’ve been involved with over the same time period. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I have been scanning in the short stories of Mary Danby, in preparation for the release of a retrospective collection of her work to be published by Noose and Gibbet Publishing early next year. I have to admit that, before this year, I’d only vaguely heard of this prolific author, as I’d never read any of the books that she was involved in editing or writing for. Strange though it may appear, when I was a child I very rarely read children’s books, preferring to read my Dad’s small collection of sci-fi books by many of the greats, as well as authors like Michael Moorcock and Tolkien (the only concession to children’s literature I remember was reading the Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigators series of books and a select few others).

Volunteering to scan in so many of her stories has been a delight, and an undiscovered gem that I’m sorry I missed when I was younger. Of course, I am reading them now through the eyes of an adult, and a slightly cynical and jaded one at that. When you develop and hone your critical faculties as you become older, it’s far too easy to dismiss such stories as bland efforts to scare children and younger teenagers. However, those same critical faculties allow you to discern that, while presumably having to write to a certain formula for the market that many of the books Danby edited and wrote for were aimed at, there’s also a firm sense that she knew how to speak to youngsters without talking down to them AND also talking to them in terms they could relate to. It’s readily apparent that she remembered what it was like to be a teenager, with all its attendant troubles, like school and trying to negotiate the complexities of friendships, first loves and the intimidating (and often very confusing) world of the adult.

In addtion, Danby never once underestimates the intelligence or sophistication of the young reader – by the time that he or she has reached the age-group that Danby was writing for, they’d probably have already discovered that life is nowhere near as rosy, cosy or simple as stories from their childhood years had painted, and that in fact life could be very unfair. Heroes don’t always win, and the people you least expect bad things to happen to often find themselves going through horrendous circumstances. A good case in point is Arbor Day, the first story I scanned. The automatic assumption, in a perfect world, is that the spoilt rich-kid Stephanie, with her lofty and slightly condescencing character, would be the one who would be brought down a peg or two – instead, it’s the other girl, Lisa, who finds herself on the receiving end of cosmic justice (for want of a better description). Or The Natterjack, where the genteel occupant of a country cottage comes up against a malign force of nature and the results are definitely not what one would normally expect (or want, for that matter).

Reading the stories through, it’s also immediately evident that they would instantly appeal on so many different levels to teens, with a broad stock of stories containing tales of revenge, sprinkled with elements of surprise, odd, macabre twists and just general nastiness. Many of them I would have loved as a child, appreciating the twists and turns and, in one or two cases, the squirm-inducing nature of the plots (Slugs being a prime example of that). I can honestly imagine reading some of these at bedtime, under the blankets with the lights out and nothing but a torch to read by. These stories are the sort of precarious thrill that every child of the type that I was would have have delighted in.

Her stories for older people, young adults maybe, I felt were less successful, although Keeping in Touch put me in mind of Robert W. Chambers (author of the deeply shiver-inducing The King in Yellow) in terms of atmospherics. Stories of haunted individuals, ghosts themselves despite being clothed in living flesh and blood, are, in many respects, scarier and more moving than tales of actual ghosts. In this tale in particular, it isn’t even the supernatural elements that frighten – it’s the narrator himself, despite his outwardly calm demeanour, that causes the most shivers. I would go on to say that, out of all the stories I’ve scanned so far, this has been by far and away the best.

I still have a couple of tales to scan as of this writing, plus I am expecting a second batch to arrive any day now. No doubt I’ll pass comment on those after I’ve finished with those as well. In the meantime, I can say that I am glad to have had an oversight corrected – albeit bearing with it a smidgin of regret that I didn’t read the Armada and Fontana books when I was younger, a time when I would have felt their impact even more. Having said that, it’s marvellous that I’ve been given the opportunity to discover and get to know Mary Danby’s body of work over the preceding weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product – and I can hazard a guess at this stage that it’ll be worth your while investing in a copy yourselves.

Influences: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS

Posted in Books, Nostalgia on September 23, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I’ve read many of Philip K. Dick’s novels over the years and I would say his vision is probably the most memorable, not to say influential, of all the science fiction authors whose work I’ve digested. All his stories are sideways glances at life, and are often peopled with odd characters with fractured psyches (Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After The Bomb) or who have identity issues (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly). Dick expertly and fluently plays about with the plasticity of reality, especially in the last two books mentioned, but perhaps the best example of questioning the very nature of reality, at least for me, is his 1981 novel VALIS, written just before he died.

It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that VALIS came in the wake of Dick suffering a major nervous breakdown, which, I seem to remember, he once described in terms of a ‘revelation’. The main character in the novel, who goes by the unlikely name of Horselover Fat (apparently a play on the meaning and derivation of his own name), is essentially Dick himself; however, it can be seen as a species of a personality splitting into two, as Dick uses the device in order to argue about Fat’s (Dick’s) theories regarding the ‘revelation’ that the protagonist has after he has suffered a similar crisis. The VALIS of the title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, an artificially intelligent satellite orbiting the Earth that he and his friends believe is aiding them in their quest to divine the reality behind the reality, so to speak. The novel, then, charts the characters’ search to understand the reality around them.

Dick appears to imply that meaning and truth are to be found outside ourselves, rather than inside us. Also, that there is something ‘greater’ moving behind the scenes, directing and arranging. This, of course, is a common thread through the whole of human civilisation and thought, the possibility that we are merely the players on a stage, and that we are simply reciting our lines and acting out some manner of script that we have no influence over and cannot change. VALIS is also a treatise, disguised as fiction, on perceived truth, as opposed to objective truth: truth itself, despite our species-long search, is one of the hardest things to find.

And of course, that particular uncertainty, that spiritual no-man’s land, is the region cannily inhabited (some would say cynically exploited) by religion. If truth could be solidly objectified, it stands to reason that ALL of humanity would see things in exactly the same way. Patently, that isn’t the case. My reading of VALIS bears this out; what Dick appears to be saying is that the fracturing of Horselover Fat’s mind, due to the breakdown, can either be seen as a disintegration of his mind OR that he’s been allowed to see the dismantling of the machinery of reality itself through having had a mental crisis. The point is that, to Fat the reality he sees is the one he believes is the real one, while what others see is the totally different, false reality.

The novel also has the character of presenting itself as a conspiracy, painted on a much broader and more profound canvas than anything the current crop of ‘conspiracy thriller’ authors could possibly come up with. Here, in Dick’s vision, the plot revolves around something ‘other’, be it ‘God’ or an artificially intelligent satellite, occultly directing the ways of man and with its own inscrutable agenda. Humans are merely the actors, starring in a vast cosmic play written and directed by some kind of intelligence, which is to be hoped is benign in nature. Fat’s breakdown has essentially ripped the veil from his eyes, enabling him to get a glimpse of the machinations being perpetrated by this ‘other’. In his search, he becomes obsessed with various religions and philosophies, such as Christianity, Taoism, Gnosticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, in a search for what Wikipedia describes as a “cure for what [Horselover Fat] believes is simultaneously a personal and a cosmic wound”. Ultimately, Sophia (to be equated with wisdom), in the form of a two-year-old girl, manifests at the end of the book, telling Fat that the ideas and conclusions he has come to are essentially correct.

Even from the above necessarily brief précis, it’s obvious that the book is a deeply thoughtful and complex book, at least in terms of what it sets out to do. Dick’s meditation on the subjects he is attempting to elucidate raises this novel from the level of a mere science fiction book, to that of a vitally important rumination of the nature of everything, from reality to mind itself. In my opinion, this book single-handedly gives the lie to some high-minded people’s insistence that sci-fi is ‘not literature’ – on this showing certainly, it knocks the spots off any ‘modern’ novel whose aim is to grasp at life and wring truths from it. Over and above that, it lays everything out in an accessible style, plus it has that one element missing from many a current ‘lit-fic’ novel: a story, and an engaging one at that.

Added poignancy is provided from knowing that Dick himself experienced a similar breakdown and a fracturing of the carefully constructed façade of reality. According to Wikipedia, the life of his son was saved through one of the ‘revelations’ he received from the ‘real-life’ VALIS – despite the doctor’s assurances that his son was in fact healthy, Dick insisted that he was suffering from a malady that was life-threatening. So tests were ultimately performed on the boy, and Dick was proven right. Dick attributed this insight to his contact with the higher  intelligence.

Whatever you make of the provenance of the story, it’s a wonderful tale, written by a singular human being who possessed a master-storyteller’s gift. Iwould recommend not only this particular novel, but would also direct you to any of his other works as well. The richness of the language and his imagination reap their own rewards. Rather than pity the man for having had a breakdown, marvel at the brain that consistently produced such masterworks over a thirty year period. Not many writers can clain such a fine literary pedigree.

Influences: William Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH

Posted in Books, Nostalgia on September 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This is one of those books that you either love or hate; there is definitely no middle ground with this. It’s a difficult book, to be sure, for reasons I will go into later; suffice to say that when David Cronenberg set about filming his 1991 take on this seminal classic of the Beat generation, he found it to be unfilmable as it was and used it instead as a basis for a film that mixes elements of the book along with parts of Burroughs’ biography.

The book was originally published in 1959 as The Naked Lunch, in Paris, by Olympia Press, but not the US, as it contravened obscenity laws there. It wasn’t until 1962 that it did find a release in Burroughs’ home country. Even then, it was a substantially different version from the one published in France, apparently, as it was based on a manuscript owned by Allen Ginsberg. The definite article was dropped from the title from that edition onward (as William Burroughs never intended it to be there in the first place) and thus has it been known as Naked Lunch ever since.

Summarising a novel as complex, and as groundbreaking in its own way, as Naked Lunch is, is extremely difficult in its own right. A conventionally linear narrative structure is completely non-existent – instead it’s a series of loosely-connected vignettes. According to Wikipedia (not entirely reliable I know), Burroughs himself stated that they could be read in any order. Plus the text itself is written in a stream-of-consciousness cut-up style, meaning that words jumble and collide in unexpected combinations. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place in Tangiers (a favourite haunt of the Beat poets in real-life) and Interzone, a strange otherworldly dimension (which, I think, is meant to represent the dreamlike state when under the influence of drugs – something else which the Beat generation were famous for). It brings together, albeit loosely, his experiences in both this world and the one induced through his well-known drug-addiction (let it be known that he probably ingested or sampled every illicit drug known to man – and he still managed to make it into his eighties).

It’s a deeply hallucinatory book, as life and drug-fuelled fugues mix and entwine quite freely. Additionally, the manner in which it was written does a superb job of transmitting those unfocused, hazy states that Burroughs habitually found himself in. While it’s quite hard to read, simply because of the way familiar words have been randomly juxtaposed with one another, for me it’s exactly those chance couplings and surprise concatenations that provide the rhythms and sheer poetry of the narrative. Images leap off the page and into the mind in a way that conventional prose doesn’t inspire very often. Perhaps it’s the very style and the way it has to be struggled with that makes the imagination work harder, in an attempt to make sense of it all. That, for me, is where the true power of this book lies.

I’d heard of Naked Lunch (and its reputation) way before the film (starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider) came out, but it was the film that prompted me to get the book and read it. In some ways, I am glad that this is how it happened, because I found the book far more fulfilling and certainly more powerful than the film. If I’d read the book first, I think my disappointment with the film would have been greater. I have to admit that when first I saw the film it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting and then, having read the book, I completely understood the impossibility (and illogicality) of shooting it as written. Necessarily, Cronenberg spliced the biographical elements of the writer’s life in there with parts of the vignettes, and ended up producing a meditation on the milieu that Burroughs walked in, plus the constant unreality that the drug-taking brought on. It gives us a privileged peek into the writing process, and also why his stories turned out the way they did – experiencing those fluid realities gave Burroughs the power to give us a new perspective on time and linearity, its solidity and also its plasticity. The unconscious imagery, welling up from the deepest parts of his psyche, opened wide the windows on just what made Burroughs tick.

And that, in essence, is how we all see life and reality: from our own unique perspectives. What Naked Lunch, inspired by the drugs, did for Burroughs was to free him from the constraints of both how he saw his situation and environment, and how he saw the novel and its possibilities. Ever since then, many writers have been playing around with narrative forms and structures, with varying degrees of success. It takes a peculiar species of genius to make what is essentially stream of conciousness nonsense (at least to some anyway) and bring meaning and substance to it. And THAT, I would venture to posit, WAS the genius of Burroughs – that not only did the drugs mould his perceptions but that he was able to translate that malleability of vision to the written page perfectly, so that those of lesser means and also those less adventurous could experience it too.

(And by the way, don’t go thinking from the above that I am advocating the use of drugs to facilitate the literary muse, although it has a fine pedigree (the Romantic poets for instance) – it’s a necessary approach to take when talking about Burroughs’ work, and I am describing it here in a purely academic context. So there.)


Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This 1995 film, by quirky French film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, is neither horror nor science fiction nor fantasy nor comedy, but a beautifully realised and seamless combination of all four. It is the stuff of all our dreams and nightmares: it simultaneously beguiles and threatens, invites hope and denies it, it is both technicolour bright and dangerously dark.

The story is, like most good tales, very simple: deranged scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is kidnapping children in order to steal their dreams, simply because he cannot dream himself. Denree, the younger brother of circus strongman One (played by Ron Perlman), is one of the kidnapped children and so, along with a young orphan girl called Miette (Judith Vittet), One sets out to rescue him. And that really is all there is to it.

Stylistically, however, it’s a different story. It’s a bande dessinée made real, a comic-book in the European style brought to three-dimensional life. Everything is exaggerated and over-emphasised, and the sets have been designed in such a way that it is both mittel-Européenne fairytale in character whilst at the same time hugely threatening and unsavoury. The colours in the film are primary yet they are simultaneously deeply muted, and edged with an undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. It isn’t a place where normal, decent people would choose to live. The buildings are tall and narrow, the windows glower down on streets which are twisty and perilous, and the docklands are always fogbound, dark and lit with a weak moon and pale lamplight.

On top of that, Jean-Paul Gaultier is credited with costume design and the French, as we all know, possess a deeply ingrained sense of style and flair. The film, especially the scenes set in Krank’s oil-rig based laboratory, appear to prefigure the current Steampunk fad to some extent. Certainly there’s enough of the rusty, creaky and hastily cobbled-together look about it to point in that direction. Nothing shiny and bleepy in here. In combination, it’s a gorgeous visual feast of a film.

It’s a classic story, about how we, as adults, have lost our innocence and imagination, our ability to see the world through childlike eyes of wonder. Taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, plus peer and familial pressures, force us to put away or discard altogether the toys of childhood and to walk the path that everyone else is made to walk. We are made to feel that, in clinging on to our childhoods and the dreams we fostered in them, we are somehow remiss as people, and that we are inevitably incomplete and immature.

This is where the horror comes in: the realisation that we have irretrievably lost those dreams and that some people will go to any lengths to find, and relive, them again. Obviously, most of us aren’t going to kidnap children and steal their dreams for real: nevertheless, it would be true to say that society, and the way that it educates our children (or preparing them for adulthood, as they would put it), really does snatch their dreams and wishes away from them. The idea that, as we grow older, the more we’re taught about the world and how it works, the blunter our sense of wonder becomes. That is the nightmare.

Krank steals the dreamlives of children because they don’t have a clue about how reality works. The world is a hard and sometimes cruel place, a place that many of us despise for those very reasons. There is a feeling that Krank’s reasoning is that, by doing what he does, he will blunt the sharp edges. The problem with that is that, if we were all to return to a state of childhood wonder and awe, then nothing would get done. That is why, presumably, Krank is ultimately returned to the state of being a baby. It reminds us that, however idyllic the idea is, in the end it wouldn’t do us any good.

On another level, given the dreadful instances of paedophilia being brought to light that appear to assail us on a regular basis in the news, one wonders whether there’s a reflection of that in City of Lost Children. I don’t think there is, but the stealing of innocence, as portrayed in the film, can certainly be taken as a metaphor for that heinous crime, albeit at a stretch.

The film itself caused a bit of a fuss when first released, because of the nature of the relationship between the characters of One and Miette. Apparently people interpreted it as inappropriately sexual; even Ron Perlman was reportedly uncomfortable at the connotations of the relationship. Jeunet & Caro, when they were interviewed about it, averred that during the making of the film itself they were unaware of the inferences, only realising it could be interpreted as such when they were in the editing phase.

I think that’s stretching it too far – the film itself is very fairtytale-like in treatment and quality, and is all about the loss of innocence through the kidnapping of children and then the stealing of their dreams. We, as western societies, sometimes look far too deeply at these kind of films and assign subtexts to them that simply aren’t there (I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else, however). In more innocent times, such as when fairytales were a means to entertain children as well as educate them, such friendships between an adult and child were less prone to being interpreted in such a manner. City of Lost Children is, in essence, nothing more than an updating of some familiar tropes and themes from such tales, at least in my view.

Regardless, it’s a wonderful film, shot and realised with a typically European flair that somehow Hollywood has yet to emulate properly. It’s inventive, has larger than life archetypal characters peopling its surreal landscape, and is woven around a story that everyone, from children to adults, can find meaning in. It’s funny (especially in those sequences starring Dominique Pinon, star of Jeunet & Caro’s other hit film, Delicatessen), moving and scary all at the same time. If you’ve never seen it, then may I suggest that you rectify that oversight as soon as possible?


Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 8, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

If there is one film that epitomises the ‘perfect’ horror film (for me, that is), then that film is 1987’s Hellraiser. It’s sleazy, it’s extreme in terms of the themes it explores and it positively seethes a hellish, nightmarish atmosphere. Additionally (and most memorably), it gave us probably THE most iconic ‘monster’ of the demonic variety in late 20th century horror cinema in the form of Pinhead. (Yes, I know there’s also Freddy and Jason, both demons in their own right, but in some sense they’re much more recognisably human than Pinhead or his fellow Cenobites).

Its a marvel of effective low-budget film-making at its best. It’s extremely claustrophobic: the close, dark sets and stifling family relationships continually make the viewer gasp for air. And to think it all started with a novella written by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart, originally published in the third volume of the Night Visions anthology, published by Dark Harvest in November 1986.

It’s a film that has so many layers to it: the idea that ultimate pleasure can be associated with ultimate pain is transgressive in the extreme, and yet there is an undeniable truth within its dark heart. It has a small cast of characters, around which everything orbits tightly. As it had a miniscule budget, it wasn’t about the effects or the Cenobites, but about the characters and their interactions. Yes, it starts with Frank (Sean Chapman), a man who is something of a hedonist, finding a fabled puzzle-box (The Lament Configuration) that, according to legend and rumour, if solved, will lead to ultimate pleasure. Of course, it’s nothing more than a key, a key that unlocks the dimensional doors to the realm of the Cenobites. Frank is dragged off, to experience unutterable hells of torture and pain.

However, ultimately, it’s about the hells we make for ourselves. The box does indeed open up gates to unknown pleasures, but they are only pleasures as the Cenobites understand the term. To them pain IS pleasure. Frank is inadvertently resurrected, having found a way to escape the confines of Hell, and in the process dragging Julia (Clare Higgins), who once had a fling with him and is now married to his brother Larry (Andrew Chapman), into the dark corridors of madness by persuading her to provide the means by which to bring him back fully.

It is here, of course, that matters spiral out of control – Kirsty (Julia and Larry’s daughter), discovers what’s going on and also figures out that the Lament Configuration is the key to everything. She eventually meets Pinhead and co. after solving the puzzle-box whilst recovering in hospital. Necessarily they want to drag her back with them, but she tells them about Frank’s escape and makes a bargain with them: she’ll give them Frank in return for her freedom.

The film leaves you wondering just who the real monsters are here – the Cenobites or the humans. Pinhead has no illusions about his role, but Frank’s reappearance brings destruction in his wake, destroying not just Julia and Kirtsy’s lives but also those of the lonely men she brings back home so Frank can feed. Frank doesn’t even care when he inadvertently stabs Julia, the woman who aided him in his quest and who once loved him, while going for her daughter. Julia has created her own hell when Frank reappeared by agreeing to nourish him, Kirsty brought about her own nightmare when she solved the puzzle box. And, of course, Frank assured his own place in the darkest circle of the netherworld when his pursuit of that ultimate high led him to acquiring, and solving, the Configuration box in the first place.

The other subtext running underneath is that everything has a consequence, that in the pursuit of pleasure, pain is inevitably a constant bedfellow. That hate is a partner to love. That to know the ultimate highs one has to have experienced the ultimate lows. There is something ultimately bleak and hopeless about the film, too – there is very little of light anywhere in it. Even when everything has been resolved, we come away with the notion that there is still taint. That lives cannot return to any form of normality. There’s the constant awareness that this life is but one dimension of many, and that the wall is perilously thin between this one and that of unspeakable torment and horror. That thin wall also denotes that the differences between here and there aren’t that great. Look at the torture and horror we’ve been inflicting on fellow humans over the millennia. Like I intimated, who are the real monsters here?

The film has spawned more than a few sequels, which have mostly diluted the original intent and atmosphere, although I will say I have a slight soft spot for the fourth film in the franchise, Hellraiser: Bloodline. Two and three weren’t that bad either. However, it’s that very first outing for Pinhead and cronies that will always hold a special place for me – one of those films I always revisit when I get the chance.


Posted in Film, Nostalgia on September 1, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

In 1977 or thereabouts, a film was released that changed the lives of many genre film fans. That film was Star Wars (and the subsequent sequels), and many who saw it that first time around cite it as THE film that launched them on the road to a lifelong love of all things sci-fi and genre. I loved the film too, with its tale of the never-ending fight between good and evil, and the ultimate triumph of good.  However,  there was another film that came out the same year, a film that did the same for me as Star Wars had done for others and changed my life quite profoundly. That film was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It was the absolutely perfect cinematic experience for a young boy of 14. I’d been reading a lot of science fiction up to that point – Silverberg, Asimov, Heinlein and others. I had also been brought up on a diet of 50s/60s style sci-fi films, which, although exciting and full of wonder in their own way, were still highly unrealistic, even to my young eyes. Then there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just found that baffling. That’s the way it stayed  until CE3K came out – and then my whole universe suffered a complete seismic shift.

I was interested in UFOs and extraterrestrial life just at that point, and had been for quite some while. I’d amassed a small library of tomes, including the most famous one of all – Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Before the advent of the internet advance publicity for films was solely by word of mouth, or articles in magazines and newspapers, or items on the television. I can’t even remember where I first heard about the film, but I do remember being eager to go and see it. Where I lived, however, even blockbuster films took anything up to six months or a year to finally reach us. Waiting was agony.

However, reach us it did. I went to see it, with my best mate Karl, at the Palace Cinema at the top of Market Street in dear old Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, in Wales. The buzz about it was tremendous and I had high hopes for it. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a spectacularly brilliant film, and portrayed family man Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) breakdown in the wake of being confronted by an event so momentous and huge that he struggles to cope with its import – the first actual actual encounter with the craft of an advanced alien, technological species. And he isn’t the only one so affected. Slowly and inexorably a privileged group of people, those who have also witnessed the same craft, are being drawn together, driven by purpose and curiosity. Even an unworldly fourteen-year-old like me could understand just how earth-shattering the impact of coming into contact with another civilisation would be on us.

It was not just the story that made an impression – it was the effects as well. Incredibly agile and brightly-lit craft seemingly defying gravity and physics, tumbling effortlessly through the skies of earth. More than that, however, is that the effects were subservient to the story and not the other way around, as is too often the case these days. They were so seamlessly integrated that you were willingly swept up in the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief’ and carried along on the tides of emotion and hope that the film represented. Everybody in the cinema felt the same, it was so palpable.

What really underscored it all, was the one scene which has burned itself into the memory so deeply. Night-time: the secret rendezvous point set up by the US Government and military, right at the foot of Devil’s Mountain, Wyoming. We all knew the mothership was on its way; we could see the roiling cloudbanks forming in the clear skies and we all wondered just what it would look like. And then….

… it rose up from behind the mountain, to a collective exclamation of “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” from the audience.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck – the sheer SIZE of the mothership took the breath away. It was the last thing anyone expected. It was just the most beautiful moment I’d ever experienced, an experience that thrilled me like nothing had before (or since, for that matter). I felt as if I had been close to a revelation of some kind. I shall never forget that moment, ever.

The other memorable element is that five-note riff that Francois Truffaut’s character comes up with in order to communicate with the aliens. Everytime I hear it I get the shudders and goose pimples – something so simple yet so highly effective. I bought the soundtrack album just so I could hear it over and over. It just telegraphed something mysterious and emotional – and yet, like I say, it only contains five notes.

Since then, of course, I have seen the film numerous times, all on the small screen. Necessarily its impact has been lessened, but I am still reminded of that delicious frisson I got when I first saw it. Apart from blowing my interest in sci-fi (and science and extraterrestrial life) wide open, it left me with a powerful idea of what film could achieve if done right. It was the first time I had been geuinely moved by a piece of celluloid. I can’t think of many films since then that have done the same (maybe the films of Hayao Miyazaki have come closest, as has Tim Burton’s Big Fish – that’s a wonderful film).

One other thing it left me with – possibilities. A feeling that this vast universe of ours hides many wondrous things and that we still have infinite amounts more to discover about it. And that. for me, is an absolutely incredible feeling….

Influences: HP LOVECRAFT

Posted in Books, Nostalgia on August 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s kind of predictable really, isn’t it, having HP Lovecraft as an influence? Seems like every horror writer cites the New England resident as having had a hand in shaping their work. Certainly Lovecraft has had a wider influence on horror since he died in 1937 than he ever did in his own lifetime, his work not only stamping its imprint on the generations of writers following him but also on film, comics and games.

I first came across him when I read The Illuminatus! Trilogy, back when I was a teenager (for details on that book, click here). Bearing in mind my somewhat hazy memory, it mentioned Yog-Sothoth and Great Cthulhu himself within its pages (along with references to Lovecraft, of course) and the very names intrigued me. However, it wasn’t until some years later, when I was in my early twenties, that I actually bought a collection of his stories and only because I came across a copy in my local bookshop (I was a supremely lazy boy). Grafton published three substantial paperback Omnibus volumes of his work – At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales and The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales – in the mid-eighties, all of which were graced with beautiful Tim White covers. Sadly, and somewhat stupidly, I left them back at home in Wales when I moved to Plymouth and I don’t know what’s become of them since.

Suffice it to say, however, that from the very first word, I was hooked. Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror entranced me completely – the notion that, behind the everyday reality that you and I engage with, are beings, existences and dimensions far beyond our human comprehension. Beings, existence and dimensions that, if we were to confront them, would actually drive us insane. Also, that the TRUE creators of our world were star-spanning monstrosities and not the God of Abraham; beings who truly see us with the same regard as we see ants. We are nothing to them. Moreover, they want their world back.

It was the title story of that first volume, At the Mountains of Madness, that REALLY drew me into his world. Like many, at such a tender age I still knew relatively little about the world around me and I hadn’t yet been beset by the cynicism and ennui that inevitably comes with growing older. The idea that hidden and scientifically unknown civilisations existed, and that there were cities extending way back before the recorded history of mankind still out there waiting to be found, held an enormous appeal, as it still does to a certain extent today. It was that very element that sent the chills down my spine, that were ancient entities and intelligences of whose existence we were as yet unaware of. Additionally, that the universe, as beautiful and as gorgeous as it looks to us through the telescope, is in fact a cold, uncaring and dangerous place.

For the next few years I got into his whole vision quite heavily, even playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu a few times and also buying Carl Ford’s Dagon ‘zine on a regular basis (look out for a special guest-blog from Mr. Ford, reminiscing about its heyday, appearing here very soon). I also harboured, if truth be told, a secret wish that, somehow, what Lovecraft wrote about was fact very cleverly disguised as fiction (and, in fact, there are some who actually do believe this…). His most famous creation, the dread tome called The Necronomicon, is often claimed to be real, and there have been more than a few fake attempts at bringing it to the masses… no-one has yet gone mad from reading them, though, as far as I am aware.

I recently bought, as some of you will know, the Wordsworth Edition of The Whisperer in Darkness from a second-hand bookstore. And I have to say that once again, as soon as I read the very first word of Dagon, it whisked me back down the years and gave me exactly the same species of dark thrills as they did when I read them initially. Yes, the language is archaic and some of the words he uses have long since fallen out of use, but still it brings the requisite air of abominable entities and ancient cults that the stories require. Yes, there are also those troublesome racist references in his work (such as in The Call of Cthulhu) that are very uncomfortable and difficult for our modern sensibilities to swallow. On that last point, though, let’s put this in context: early 20th century attitudes to race were very different to what they are now and racism was almost universally prevalent at all levels of US society at the time. This is NOT an excuse: this is just a fact, as unpalatable as it is. (Just to put it into context further: I have some mid-18th century copies of Scientific American here that carry shades of the same attitude, matter-of-factly talking about slave numbers in various states).

Generally-speaking, I do prefer the older ghost and horror stories – simply because, I think, much more is left to the imagination (that’s not to say, however, that I dislike modern horror – it’s just that it’s very different). Lovecraft, despite his faults, still pushes all the right buttons for me. The more I am reading, of whatever author (including Lovecraft), the more I see my own writing being infused with essences from these various individual writers, and that they, in turn, are helping me to create a literary voice that can be called Simon Marshall-Jones. Lovecraft will always feature heavily on my reading list and in a compilation of my favourite books. Moreover, it’s also inspired me to search out some of the other authors who contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton-Smith, Frank Belknap Long and August Derleth, as well as modern masters like Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. Whatever else I can say about him, his works (and those of his acquaintances) will provide some of those darkly delicious thrills that make the horror genre such a rewarding thing.

(By the way two things:

1) The picture accompanying this post isn’t the one I was looking for – I couldn’t find a good enough image of the cover of the first Grafton Omnibus volume – so if anyone has one please could they contact me? Thanks!

2) This is my 99th post here – I am looking for something interesting to upload for the next one, the 100th – so if anyone has anything special to send me, please do…!! Once again, thanks!)

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead

Posted in Film, Nostalgia on August 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

We all have to have things to pin the blame on. The very first Evil Dead film, which was made in 1981 by Sam Raimi on a meagre budget of $375,000, is one of mine. Up until the time I finally got around to seeing it, my horror film fare was restricted to classic black & white Universal and RKO Pictures, and the occasional Hammer Horror. I’d vaguely heard of these video nasties that were doing the rounds at the time, but I had absolutely no interest in them and thought they were pointless – besides, back then, I have to admit I was more than a tad squeamish.

I remember my mate Dan inviting me around his place one evening for a beer ‘n’ film session. There were a couple of movies on offer, all of which (except Evil Dead) I’ve forgotten the titles of. ED was the main attraction, and so I stayed late because Dan told me it was an absolutely brilliant, if brutal, film. I got through about a quarter of it before I made my excuses and bailed out (sad, I know). (One other thing I remember about that night – I had to walk through a dark cemetery on my way home!). Then, some months later, when my parents finally bought a video player (top-loader!), I hired the film and tried again. This time I got to the bit where the newly-demonified young woman starts chewing her hand off – and I bailed again, as it made me feel physically sick. This brand of ‘horror’ film was obviously not for me. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t long after that that the film was classified as one of the notorious ‘video nasties’, alongside the likes of Snuff, Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001, a full 17 years after being classified as a ‘nasty’, that it was released uncut. Certainly, it’s a very graphic film, containing lots of bloodshed and a very uncomfortable rape scene perpetrated by a vine tendril (a scene which Raimi himself regrets including). BUT, if you watch the film closely, there’s a great deal of humour in it, which tends to make the bloodletting scenes less horrific. Even so, despite the level of violence contained in the film, I have never thought that it ever deserved being shoved in with the ‘video nasty’ lot, as some of those are quite horrific (although equally, there are more than a few on the list that make you wonder just how utterly squeamish the compilers were – some of these were so laughably made that it was almost painfully obvious they were created using shoddily cheap special effects).

The plot revolves around a group of students staying at an isolated cabin in the woods one summer vacation. While there, they discover The Book of the Dead (as you do) and some tape recordings, the playback of which resurrects a demon. One of the girls gets possessed (which mercifully kills her) and she becomes a deadite (which isn’t so merciful). The only way of getting rid of the demonic infestation is to physically dismember them. Cue axes and chainsaws. And so, quite literally for the students, all hell breaks loose and it become a race for survival.

Although it received mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has since become a firm favourite amongst horror afficianados. More than that, however, is the fact that it gave us one of the more endearing (and enduring) horror characters, Ash Williams (played by the brilliant Bruce Campbell). There were two sequels, each getting sillier than the last, and there are persistent rumours that a fourth film is being worked upon, with Sam Raimi once again directing. There are also rumours that there’ll be a face-off between two other horror franchises in Freddie vs Jason vs Ash, but this appears to be more wishful think than anything else (although, I do have to admit that it’s a delicious-sounding premise).

And yes, I finally got to see it all the way through and, more to the point, loved every second of it. I found that it appealed to my blackly humorous outlook on life after all. But, you may well ask, why do I consider it as one of the things on which to pin blame on? Quite simply, it introduced to me a whole new world of horror, and set me off on a video- and book-collecting frenzy that lasted 20 years or more. Sadly, all the films, on video cassettes as they were, deteriorated in the shocking conditions of some of the domiciles I’ve had to endure over the years. I do have a few on DVD, but I have very little patience to watch films these days – I very rarely watch anything on TV, even when something interesting comes on. The books, too, have mostly all gone, due to me having to sell the majority just to feed myself.

However, all is not lost. Gradually, things are beginning to get better, although there’s still a hell of a long way to go. I still retain my love of the scary and frightening, especially in its literary incarnation, and I am slowly rediscovering books I got rid of, as well as stories and books I should have read years ago. And, to think that, if I hadn’t watched a low-budget horror movie all those years ago, then, in all probability, this blog and my foray into short story writing would never happened. So, if you ever get to meet Sam Raimi, then you can either shake his hand or slap him for that. At the very least, you too will have something to blame it all on. =)