Wednesday 27 January 2021

Update Your Bookmarks...

Well, it's the end of the line for this good ol' Blogger page. You'll find my new website, complete with new-look blog, over at

Please update your bookmarks - see you on the other side!

Thursday 19 December 2019

The End of the Year as we Know It

This year’s Lost Victorian Christmas card was designed by Jon Hart 
(check out #jonhartsart on Insta and Facebook).

It’s become a bit of a tradition that I write one final blog post near the end of December, and this year is no different.

It’s been a funny sort of year. I think I’ve been busier than ever since I started going freelance, but everything I’ve worked on is either top secret and under wraps, or not out for a while yet, so I don’t have much to show for my efforts. All of this groundwork should come to fruition in 2020 though, which will be a relief!

So what’s happening? Well, on the tabletop gaming front, the third edition of the Batman Miniature Game is about to hit the shelves. I’ve been working on the English translation and editing flat out for a few months. Knight Models are also continuing monthly releases for the Harry Potter Miniatures Adventure Game and the DC Universe Miniatures Game, so expect more stuff for those games very soon. The New Year will see the release of my biggest project of the year, The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms. This was a huge endeavour, starting out as a simple port of the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare system, but growing into its own beast of a game as the development process went on. In other news, I’ve just finished not one but two standalone board games, both top secret licences, which will hopefully launch next year. More news as it happens. Finally, there’s some really exciting stuff coming up for The Walking Dead (both Call to Arms – yes, the other one – and All Out War). To find out what it is, you have to listen carefully to the whispers…

From left: Sophie, Ali, James, and me!
(Thanks to Sophie for the pic)
The fiction front has been ominously quiet, and I do apologise for that (both to my readers, and to my long-suffering agent). I made a decision about 18 months ago to try something new. Something… gasp… not Victorian. In that time I’ve been working on a fantasy book, which is not only taking me absolutely ages, but has been suffering a bit as I’ve toiled away on the aforementioned games. It will be finished early next year, and then comes the task of finding a publisher! I’ve managed a few appearances this year, however, from seminars to panels. Staying in touch with the wider writing network is helping keep me sane.

It’s not been a great year for many people, and I’m sure lots of us will be glad to see the back of 2019. On a personal note, this was the year the gaming community lost Gustavo Cuadrado, my friend, and creator of the Batman Miniature Game, and that came as a suckerpunch. Political upheaval has made the world seem a bit grim at times. As much as I love a good social media rant, I am resolving to try to do a bit more good in the world next year, from charitable donations to simple acts of kindness. I don’t try to moralise too much, because I’m far from perfect, but when times are hardest, I think it’s more important than ever to grasp the nettle and help each other out: be excellent to each other, as two very wise men once said.

Which is a good place, I think, to end this post with a simple wish: that you all have a very merry Christmas (and/or non-denominational seasonal holiday), and a very happy new year.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Ghosts, Treat Them Gently

In blogs of days past, I’ve talked about ghosts on film, Christmas ghosts, and various weird tales. A few times, I’ve promised to write up a blog about my favourite spooky stories, but never really got round to it. Until now… (Dun… dun… DUUUNNN!)

It’s December. It’s my favourite time of the year, and I’m reading loads of short horror fiction. I’ve even done a stint at the UK Ghost Story Festival, where the following question was put to various panellists several times: What are your favourite ghost stories?

(Note: I’m looking primarily at stories about ghosts and malevolent presences here, not more broadly at horror and weird tales. That’s for another day…)

I’ve found it really hard to put together a top 5, and to be honest if you ask me on another day, you might get a different list. But as of now, here are the stories I would recommend to anyone wanting to scare themselves silly on a cold winter’s night.

The Woman in Black
Susan Hill
A modern classic, which has been turned into a stage play and two decent movies (one of which spawned a mediocre sequel), The Woman in Black is the quintessential ghost story. It’s told in the style of the masters (notably M R James), and follows many of James’s rules of the ghost story. It’s a short novella, so it just about qualifies for my list of short fiction, and it’s brilliant.

More by this author: Susan Hill has written a series of ghost stories now, some more successful than others. If you liked this, you’ll also (probably) like The Small Hand, and The Man in the Picture. (Maybe steer clear of Dolly and Printers’ Devil’s Court though. Even a writer of Hill’s quality can hit a dud.)

Image from the 1966 film adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You,
directed by Jonathan Miller who sadly passed away this year.
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
M R James
Regular readers will be aware that I love M R James stories. It’s unhealthy. I re-read a bunch of them every year, re-watch the excellent BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, as well as the dramatic readings by Nunkie Theatre (do check those out if you have chance). His most famous story is Oh, Whistle, and with good reason. An all-time classic, cautionary tale, that’s perhaps rather too obvious for a top 5 list…

More by this author: There’s very little by James that wouldn’t make recommended reading, to be honest. I could well have picked The Tractate Middoth, the Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, Number 13, or the Treasure of Abbot Thomas in place of Oh, Whistle. Just grab one of the many collected editions (except that 150th anniversary edition I previously reviewed, with its shlonky editing) – you won’t be disappointed.

All Hallows
Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare takes some getting into if you aren’t used to the vernacular, because his prose is poetic and florid (probably because he was mainly a poet…), and his stories are almost all ambiguous to a fault. All Hallows is no exception. I’ve read this story dozens of times, and there’s no ‘true’ reading of it. Are there any ghosts in it at all? I think so, but it’s hard to tell. What you have here, then, is a masterpiece of atmosphere and sustained tension. The titular cathedral certainly leaves an impression, even if the spooks lie low.

More by this author: Another de la Mare story that doesn’t technically feature a ghost (but I which the characters are certainly haunted), Seaton’s Aunt is rightly regarded as one of the finest, most unsettling short stories ever written.

Dark Matter
Michelle Paver
Swiftly becoming regarded as another modern classic, and without my favourite ghost story of the last decade, this has all the elements of a really great unsettling story: incredible location, brooding atmosphere, isolation, tension between a closed circle of protagonists, and a really terrifying ghost! This tale of arctic exploration gone wrong is novella-length, but never drags, and includes some real heart-in-mouth scenes rendered vividly. Highly recommended.

More by this author: Michelle Paver is also responsible for Thin Air – a ghost story of a similar length, swapping the desolate Arctic Circle for a mountaineering expedition. For me, it’s a tad too similar to Dark Matter, and I found myself comparing the two a bit too often. I have no such qualms abour recommending Michelle’s recent full-length novel, Wakenhyrst, however. A ‘proper’ Gothic novel, with brooding locales, family secrets and malevolent forces at work – a real gem.

The Upper Berth
F Marion Crawford
The only thing I like better than polar exploration settings is seafaring stories. I’m an absolute sucker for them. The Upper Berth is one of the very best (and even recommended by M R James, which is how I originally came to read it). Sure, the scares might seem thin on the ground by today’s standards, but the pacing is fantastic, the setting wonderfully rendered, and the narration about as evocative as it comes.

More by this author: F Marion Crawford wrote several great ghost stories, most of which can be found in the usual anthologies of great Victorian stories. Of these, a special shout out to Man Overboard!, which was one of the stories that inspired The Lazarus Gate (in a roundabout sort of way), and The Dead Smile, whose resolution seems ridiculously clichéd today, but features some incredible lyrical prose.

Honourable Mentions
Just because I can never get my lists down short enough, here are the stories that almost made the top 5, and probably would on a different day!
·       The Signalman, Charles Dickens (what a denouement!)
·       The Inner Room, Robert Aickmann (none more ambiguous)
·       The Gateway of the Monster, William Hope Hodgson (one of Carnacki’s best cases)
·       The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (I mean, come on, it’s amazing)
·       Florrie, Adam Nevill (a genuinely original take on the ghost story).

(Wow, ten writers, and I didn’t even mention D K Broster or Henry James…)

And, naturally, if you find yourself in agreement with my choices, you might rather like my own novelette, The Ghost Writer, as well as the stories in the anthology Phantoms (including my own modern ghost story, One New Follower).

Friday 6 December 2019

Ghosts of Future Past

In my second December ghost story blog, I’m looking back at another panel from the recent UK Ghost Story Festival. Entitled History in the Making, this one compared and contrasted classic ghost stories with the modern form, and asked not only where the ghost story is headed in the future, but whether it’s even relevant to modern audiences.

(Like last time, I’m incorporating a summary of the discussion into my own thoughts on the topic, so a big shout-out to fellow panellists Laura Purcell and Paul Kane for their insights, and to our wonderful chair Sophie Draper for her thought-provoking questions.)

Sophie asks an inciteful question,
while I make my serious pondering face.
Any discussion of the modern ghost story should probably kick off with a look at the current masters of the form. For me, Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are really excelling right now. John Connolly’s Night Music collections are truly superb. Meanwhile, aforementioned panellist Laura Purcell, along with Alison Littlewood, are proving that the long-form supernatural novel is very much thriving.

When you look at how the modern ghost story compares to the classics (M R James, Walter de la Mare, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc.), the parallels are really clear. In form and structure not a lot has really changed, and that’s probably due to the shared origin – those fireside tales I talked about in last week’s blog still form the basis of the

From left: Me, Laura Purcell,
and the greatest picture of Paul Kane ever taken.
traditional spooky story. What has changed, however, is the subject matter. The old clichés are generally best avoided (unless they can be subverted in a surprise twist). That’s not the same as conjuring a sense of the nostalgic, however – the Gothic form still thrives because its tropes are so familiar to the reader, and reading a good, slow-burn Gothic ghost story can be like slipping into a comfortable pair of slippers, voluntarily subjecting oneself to what M R James called a ‘pleasing terror’.

One thing that has changed, however, is the form and nature of the ghost itself. These days we find malevolent spirits inhabiting social media accounts, transmitting themselves like viruses, etching themselves onto old VHS tapes, or communicating through white noise on an untuned TV. It’s hardly surprising – what’s scarier than having your everyday life invaded by a malign presence? M R James said that a feature of the successful ghost story is that the spirits themselves are contemporaries of the protagonist. In the essay ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, he said the modern idea of the ghost story had ‘setting and personages of the writer’s own day’. He was generally against ‘ancient’ ghosts – if a ghost ‘resembles a man in a pageant’, he didn’t think it was very scary.

Something we are seeing in the modern age, however, are new and interesting ways to tell a ghost story beyond the traditional printed or spoken word. The formalised short story is still pretty popular, but it’s being slowly superseded by things like creepypasta. Viral ghost stories – often manufactured, like Slenderman – have had a huge cultural impact. The ipad/monitor is the new fireside – kids are still scaring each other silly with ghost stories and urban legends; they just don’t have to contain it within their circle of friends any more. We tell ghost stories to strangers on the internet rather than to our family on Christmas Eve.

I think we’re going to see more interesting uses of modern technology and the ghost in the machine. Perhaps more of the blurring of lines between SF and the ghost story (I really like Adam Christopher’s the Burning Dark, which is really a ghost story set against the backdrop of an interstellar war). We’ve already seen lots of overlap between transhumanism and horror – the idea that we can transplant our consciousness into a server to live on after our bodies die (but then, is the mapped program really us? Does it contain our soul? Have we literally just turned ourselves into ghosts?) – these sorts of hyper-modern concepts are taking the ghost story to new places. After all, the ghost story has traditionally struggled to deal with modern technology – ghosts are less scary if you can take out your mobile and call for help, so storytellers used to simply use locations with no data or wifi. Oh no! But increasingly I think we’re seeing the ghosts actively using tech like phones to scare the pants off people. That text you received telling you to go to the spooky old house wasn’t really from your friend… There’s a bit of a primal fear attached to communication devices, where I suppose making a simple phone call could be a bit like conducting a séance – you never know who, or what, is on the other side.

Even this isn’t a new idea, of course – the Victorians were using electricity to commune with the dead 150 years ago. Parapsychologists use gadgets to detect and monitor ghosts, so why shouldn’t the ghosts use them back? Even my own story, One New Follower, features a ghost that used to get about when people saw it, then advanced to photography, and finally embraced the freedom granted by the Insta generation. Ghosts gotta move with the times.

One theme that has remained surprisingly strong in the ghost story is religion. In some respects, it’s understandable – after all, the ghost story really exists to help us wrestle with the big questions about the soul, and life after death, right? But society is growing increasingly secular, so it’s a big leap for most people to thing you can call a Catholic priest to exorcise the ghost. What if you don’t believe? What if the ghost doesn’t believe? Hollywood in particular seems to have an obsession with exorcisms, and the laying of ghosts by Christian priests and ministers, and we kind of accept that as a plot device. I do think we’re seeing less of that in British and world fiction. As soon as you can fix any haunting by calling a priest, you take away the spirit’s power. However, most people who read and enjoy ghost stories, and are scared by them, don’t really believe in ghosts any more than they believe in a god. So if you can suspend disbelief long enough to get scared, I guess you can handle the old consecration cliché.

(Speaking of belief, the panel was asked if we’d ever had a ghostly experience. We all had, in one form or another. I always say that I’ve seen enough to not rule anything out, but not enough to be sure of anything… the perfect amount to freak myself out).

I think the future of the ghost story is pretty healthy. It’s such a part of traditional storytelling in so many cultures around the world, that our grandkids will be telling them, and their grandkids, and so on. Will they be told in the same form? Well, I think a lot of that will depend on the creativity of the writers, and the power of changing trends. But our love of the pleasing terror isn’t go away any time soon.