Archive for mary danby

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.

REVIEW ESSAY: With Deepest Sympathy by Johnny Mains

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cover image is © Johnny Mains - used with permission

(Note: I feel it only fair to point out that the book I am writing about in this review-essay [With Deepest Sympathy] I actually read and commented upon before publication. This is principally why I have chosen to post this here rather than anywhere else – it might [and will] be seen as a conflict of interest in some respects. However, in this case, I genuinely feel that Johnny Mains’ work should be talked about, on two levels – first, he deserves recognition for his gargantuan efforts to republish The Pan Books of Horror and also Mary Danby’s stories, and secondly, I want to talk about how his involvement with those older tales has influenced his work, and also brought about a revival, perhaps, of appreciation for them.)

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Now, I like a bit of gore in my stories as much as the next horror aficionado, but there are times when I think that certain stories disguise their lack of literary merit with bucketfuls of the red stuff, or that it’s nothing more than an excuse to either try and gross the reader out or just to see how inventive and sickening a writer can make the torture/murder scene. Some stories I’ve read concentrated solely on the visceral to the exclusion of just about any other consideration, leaving me slightly nauseous but ultimate dissatisfied and I walked away from it thinking “I’ve just wasted valuable time reading that…”

So, increasingly I find myself being drawn to the older horror/supernatural/ghostly stories, the kind that leave you to fill in the gaps and envision the action with something called your imagination. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t horror writers out there now who are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before. One such writer is Johnny Mains, a one-man champion of the crusade to bring back an older style of horror and ghost story. Within the past year or so he has published Back from the Dead, an anthology of new tales from some of the surviving writers whose work featured in the original Pan Horror books, along with a reprint or two. Then, he succeeded in persuading Pan-Macmillan to reissue the original 1959 first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories itself in facsimile (originally edited by Herbert Van Thal), along with a new introduction that charts the history of the series over the course of its more than thirty annual editions. Next year sees the publication of a collection of the stories of Mary Danby, who edited and contributed to more than a few volumes of both the Armada Book of Ghost Stories and the Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories.

Being so heavily immersed in such tales, it isn’t any wonder then that the flavour of all those old stories has thoroughly seeped into the ones included in his debut collection With Deepest Sympathy (published by Obverse Books). Fourteen tales are showcased here, many of which are based around his fictional town of Effingham-on-the-Stour: some of the stories work and others don’t. Mains has dutifully taken his cues from the time when stories suggested more than they actually described, and on that level they work considerably better than if he’d poured in some gratuitous gore just for the sake of it. The discomfort we feel from reading the title tale, With Deepest Sympathy, isn’t so much to do with what actually happens but arises from the sheer nastiness of Mrs. Primrose Hildebrand and the obvious pleasure she derives from upsetting and controlling people the way she does. The horror in The Bag Lady (the best story in the collection I think), isn’t just about a woman feeding children to a voracious sentient handbag, it’s the terror incipient in any parent’s heart when their child goes missing and also the horror when the woman in question appears to be going against natural instinct – women are meant to nurture and protect, not betray the trust of children. Life Through a Lens is also a terrific read: a prominent surgeon exacts his hideous revenge on a hospital photographer for not being professional enough when being presented with the aftermath of a car accident (which, ironically, happened to the surgeon himself). In this one, we really feel the building up of a subtle pressure, inevitably meaning something untoward is about to happen. And when it does, the reader really feels it.

It’s not all serious, however; Mains is also possessed of a blackly humorous streak as well. Losing the Plot, where an avid allotment holder has an encounter with a busybody council official which ends rather bloodily, is one example. Another instance is The Spoon, starring everyone’s favourite ‘psychic’ spoon-bender, Uri Geller – I have to admit that the ending had me wishing that it would happen in real life.

However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that not all the stories worked for me – the major one being The Family Business, which consists of nothing more than a description of how a funeral director/embalmer prepares a body, albeit the processes are being showed by the said embalmer to his young son who will one day inherit the business. Bloody Conventions has a nice idea at its core (author travels to convention, slowly losing his identity along the way) but it somehow missed the mark for me. The same can be said for Gun Money, a tale of a particularly nasty individual who not only contrives to leave hotels without paying but also steals money from the base of a memorial – the denouement, in one form or another, was obvious from the start. I also felt the end was rushed somewhat.

Overall, however, I can say that this collection is hugely enjoyable, atmospheric and delightfully spooky in places (check out Reconvened: The Judge’s House to see what I mean). Certainly for a first collection it shows potential and a lot of promise for the future. One other reviewer mentioned that Johnny shouldn’t rush to get to the end of his stories and to a certain extent whoever said that was right – some of the stories seemed to accelerate too quickly towards the end. However that may be, the fact remains that Mains is a writer at the start of his career and as such has the ability to take things in his own direction. In which case, I suggest you invest in a copy of With Deepest Sympathy right now and follow how Johnny Mains’ writing develops from here on in….

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Obverse Books

Publication date: October 2010

ISBN: 978-0-9565605-2-0