It is happening now: live internet drama of the macabre

I have also found myself exploring the world of live-streamed dramatic events. Two of these were presented by the theatre group Hermetic Arts at online conferences on folk horror and the rural gothic organised by the people behind The Folklore Podcast and Room 207 Press. The first of these was Carbury Gifts, in which a woman (played by Carrie Thompson (one half of Hermetic Arts)) talks to Zoom camera from the flat in which she is locked down, mentioning that she is from a place called Carbury, which has a gift shop, where things are a bit… odd. Sadly connectivity issues meant that I got the start of this but not the end, which is sad as the beginning was great and I would love to see how it played out. LATE BREAKING ME AM BRANE UPDATE: I had forgotten that I can actually look back on Carbury Gifts on a secret URL link – must actually do this sometime. I will tell you whether it remained as good as its beginning promised but will not pass on the secret URL.
A later rural gothic event saw Hermetic Arts present A Spell at Home, with Hester. This again saw a woman (also played by Carrie Thompson) presenting to us over Zoom, this time the eponymous Hester, who is a new age Wiccan of the fluffy variety, supposedly leading us, her Wicca group, in a fluffy magic ritual. But while she is chatting to us she starts talking about her own life and how when she was a teenager her family moved back to where her mother was from, the small rural village of… Carbury. She tells a story of childhood scrapes that assumes an increasingly ominous tone before developing mysterious links to Carbury Gifts. This was all very spooky and delivered on the possibilities offered by streamed macabre theatre.
But in fairness I surely had already been assimilated into liking live spooky web theatre as I have been watching many performances by Robert Lloyd Parry. He is an actor fellow whose thing is performances or rehearsed readings of vintage horror short stories, most usually by M. R. James but on occasion by such writers as Saki, H. G. Wells, E. F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Lucy Boston, among others. I’ve seen him do a good few now and I remain in awe of his ability to inhabit the characters of the stories he performs. His managements of the tonal shifts required by these stories, from situations of bumptious amusement to ones of macabre peril or uncanny dread are truly astonishing. Check out his schedule of upcoming events here; his Christmas Eve performance of M. R. James’s “Count Magnus” has the potential to be particularly terrifying. Some previous performances can be seen on YouTube and on Facebook. Readers might also be interested in a book he has edited for Swan River Press, entitled Ghosts of the Chit-Chat, which contains stories that were read at M. R. James’s ghost stories club as well as biographical notes on the club’s leading members.


A Spell at Home, with Hester (Lara-Rose (@OnTheArrow) on Twitter)

Robert Lloyd Parry (Nunkie Theatre: The M R  James Project)

Audio drama: the most terrifying thing is that which is heard, but not seen

While the cinemas were closed I found myself exploring the world of audio dramas. I have been finding these quite entertaining, particularly if they are of the horror variety. You may recall that for Retro Hugo Awards research purposes I listened to an adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain, made for the radio programme Suspense! (and sponsored by Roma Wines, made in California for enjoyment throughout the world). When I downloaded that I saw that the same programme had also in 1945 adapted H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror‘ so I downloaded that too and eventually got round to listening to it. Unlike Donovan’s Brain it takes up only a single episode, which makes it a bit rushed. I don’t think Orson Welles is in this one (a cast list is hard to find) but the guy playing Wilbur Whateley (who turns out to be the less monstrous son of Yog Sothoth (spoiler)) has a suitably scary voice. Easily found on the Internet, this would I think be worth listening to if you are already familiar with the story and interested in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. This is one of his less racist works, unless you consider yokels to be a race.
Children of the Stones meanwhile was an adaptation for the BBC of the classic TV series, made by Bafflegab Productions. This version moves the story to the present day and jigs around the plot a bit but basically it’s the same thing – a child and parent move to the village of Milbury, which, like the real village of Avebury, is surrounded by a stone circle. The locals are all very cheerful and friendly, but maybe there is something a bit odd about how happy they all are, with their general-purpose greeting of “Happy day!” coming to seem more and more ominous as the episodes roll on. The child makes friends with some other newcomers, but they notice that after a while newcomers start changing and becoming like the happy people. And for some reason all the happy children in the village school are amazingly good at the kind of advanced mathematics that normally only astrophysicists know about. But two of the locals seem to be immune to the power of the stones – the local squire, who seems nevertheless to be in charge of things, and the village drunk.

And I think that as with the TV series, what is actually going on does not really matter as much as the sense of mystery around it, that feeling that things are not right but in a way that is hard to put your finger on. With this I was very impressed by the way the sound design created an extremely immersive experience when the episodes were listened to on headphones, particularly in the more spooky moments. And I was very fond of the song that the villagers can be heard singing in the background throughout the series and was very pleased when Bafflegab responded to a tweet querying the words by posting the lyrics. The first verse:

There is a place where stones stand tall
Where you’re held fist tight and never let fall
Where the sun shines bright if you heed the call
To join the Happy Ones!

Learn the words and we’ll have a lovely sing song next time we meet. Happy day!

The series did get me thinking about one thing that is more difficult for these folk horror rural gothic things to engage with now than it was in the 1970s, and that is race. Because this is a radio drama I failed to twig that Mia, the main character, is played by an actress (India Brown) who is a person of colour (as the Americans say). Even before learning that I was thinking about how one of Mia’s friends in the village was Rafiq, whose Asian family had recently moved to Milbury. In the past, dramas set in the countryside would have taken for granted that country folk are all white and so would not have cast anyone who wasn’t. We don’t really like monoethnic dramas so much these days, so these kind of rural dramas have to have some non-white characters thrown into them, either as new arrivals or as visitors (see also India Brown’s appearance in the Worzel Gummidge adaptations the BBC has been making). And again, that’s fine, but you end up with this weird version of the countryside where none of the white locals are Brexit-supporting racist Tories, because unless you are making something that is specifically about race and racism you don’t really want to deal with it in your drama. I don’t know what’s the way forward with this – perhaps making some rural horror thing that is actually about the yokels being racist Brexiters, or maybe just having them being a bit less friendly.

And then there was Eternal, made by Darkfield Radio for Dublin’s Bram Stoker Festival. This was a bit high concept: I had to listen to it on headphones in a darkened room while lying in bed. And I had to specifically be on the right hand side of the bed. While essentially being a monologue, this really went for it in terms of the sound design, at times using sound effects to make it seem that there was someone or something knocking around outside the room and scratching at the door (I’m pretty certain our cat was otherwise engaged), and then at times there was the extremely unnerving effect of the speaker being in bed beside me, whispering in my ear. Brrrr! The actual content of the monologue was the kind of vampire stuff you’d expect at a Bram Stoker Festival (though surely something about being a clerk of the petty sessions would also be appropriate?). It was also a broadcast rather than a download, so I’ve not been able to listen back to it, meaning that it has receded in my memory but was well spooky.
I should also mention The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the third of the Julian Simpson/Sweet Talk loose adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories made for the BBC (previously we were entertained by The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer In Darkness). As with the previous ones, the setup here is that we are following a real-life true-crime podcast, albeit one that has been diverted into strange territory. This one nods to the Lovecraft story of the same name but the plot is more apocalyptic, incorporating Covid-19 lockdowns into the plot and bringing us to a finale where the bad guys are trying to bring the entire universe to an end. This one keeps the tension going right to the end, with a conclusion that leaves loose ends dangling that cry out for a further series.

I know from his Twitter feed that Simpson is a role-playing gamer and at times there was a real evocation of the kind of moments you get in Call of Cthulhu games. My favourite of these was when a character accidentally interrupts some cultists doing their ritual stuff and then gamely tries to fast-talk his way out by claiming to have been looking for a friend who wasn’t there so he’ll be on his way see you around guys oh shit…

images (both from BBC Radio 4):

Children of the Stones

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Bandcamp Splurge 02: spooky records by United Bible Studies and Rowan Morrison

These are more recordings I have acquired on Bandcamp Fridays, grouped together because they share certain occult and spectral quality.

First there are two records from popular local outfit United Bible Studies, Cave Hill Ascension (2019) & Three Barrows Round (2020). UBS started life as an uber-experimental outfit, famously once sparking Dublin’s equivalent of the Rite of Spring riots when they played a concert with one guy hitting two CD cases together as an improvised percussion instrument (I did not see this myself). Over time they have moved in a more droney weird folky direction. Their line-up is ever-changing and I think by now nearly everyone in Dublin has played with them for a bit (apart from me). Included in its current line-up are David Colohan (possibly the last man standing of the original line-up) and Alison O’Donnell, formerly of 1970s folk-rockers Mellow Candle.

Of these two records, Cave Hill Ascension boasts two long tracks and two shorter ones. It feels ritualistic and mysterious. The long title track (supposedly a field recording made at a Roman cemetery at Bartlow Hill in Cambridgeshire) is also very much of the spooky ritualistic variety, while some of the shorter tracks are folk-adjacent (including a version of ‘Bonnie at Morn’, which coincidentally featured at an Unthanks singing weekend in January).

United Bible Studies page on Bandcamp

And then there is Lost in Seaburgh (2020) from Rowan Morrison, which is a collaboration between The Rowan Amber Mill (one of those one-person groups) and Angeline Morrison, who plays under many names in many outfits and is one of my Unthanks-weekend pals. The record is inspired by the ghost stories of M. R. James, with spoken word snippets nestling between songs. So thematically it is a similar kind of thing to the United Bible Studies records (the second of which also claims a link to M. R. James), with a shared interest in spectral hauntings, landscape and the past. The sonic landscape here is a bit different though, less drone-oriented and perhaps a bit more focussed on acoustic instruments. The record nevertheless has a rather dreamy quality, partly thanks to Morrison’s vocals.

Rowan Morrison page on Bandcamp

An Irish Worldcon, Part 3: Saturday

Previous instalments of my Worldcon write-up can be read here and here.

Folk Horror panelists
For me this morning began with breakfast and then a panel on Folk Horror, featuring Neil Williamson, Lisa Tuttle, Tim Major and Ramsey Campbell. If you have been a member of the Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook for some time now or indeed if you attended the 2014 Fiend in the Furrows conference in Belfast or the British Museum’s Folk Horror Revival event in 2016 (my account of which will soon be available) then some of this ground will be broadly familiar. The folk horror term appears to have been conjured up retrospectively to group three films from the late 1960s and early 1970s (The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw), all set in the British countryside and appearing to share themes connected with disturbing intrusions into the modern or modernising world of sinister elements from the past. The panel toured through some familiar literary, dramatic and musical works influenced by Folk Horror ideas or lumped into the genre but some of the recommendations here went beyond what is normally recommended in these contexts. I particularly liked the sound of Ghost Wall, a short novel by Sarah Moss about things going wrong when people attempt some Iron Age reenactment (which reminded me of that 1978 TV documentary about people living in an Iron Age village). Lisa Tuttle’s highlighting of the music of The Handsome Family also piqued my interest; they are one of those acts who plays here fairly frequently and are often praised but I have never properly engaged with their work.

I do wonder nevertheless how long this Folk Horror revival has left to run: can people indefinitely discuss the same three films and a whole succession of other things that to a greater or lesser degree are not strictly folk horror? For all that, I was struck by a remark of Lisa Tuttle near the panel’s close: that what is scary in Folk Horror is belief and the way the antagonists in Folk Horror narratives are consumed by a faith that is untroubled by facts or countervailing evidence. In a world where so many countries are currently in the grip of irrational politicians appealing to the atavistic impulses of their followers that kind of analysis seemed particularly on point.

No messing allowed when I met Conor Kostick.
That was pretty much it for programme items for me on the Saturday. Much of the rest of the time I spent at the Point Square information desk. The addition of a sign at the entrance to the Odeon complex telling people that the Alhambra and Stratocaster rooms were in the Gibson Hotel reduced rather than eliminated the numbers of people asking me where they were.

I did have time to wander around the dealers area in the Convention Centre, where I added to my Unread Books Mountain and met hardnut author Conor Kostick, who told me all about that LitRPG stuff that he is now involved in. I also had time for a few pints with some of my buds in Martin’s Bar (named after the late Martin Hoare, Worldcon’s bar manager). My memories are a bit hazy but I seem to recall a conversation about panama hats. Sadly I could not stay forever as I was on cat wrangling duties that evening and had to return home to attend to the needs of Billy Edwards.

Hungry Cat
More of my Worldcon pictures