PlacePrints by David Rudkin

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Hidden voices and haunted landscapes are conjured up in ten unique stories from the imagination of visionary writer David Rudkin. Join a stellar cast including Juliet Stevenson, Toby Jones, Josie Lawrence, Michael Pennington and Stephen Rea, among many others on an enlightening journey across the British Isles with this dramatic audio cycle that will transform your sense of the landscape around you.

PlacePrints is the umbrella title for ten new audio plays by David Rudkin, a series directed by Jack McNamara for the New Perspectives theatre company. The series has been freely available online for over a year but only came to my attention last month. One of the pleasures of recent years has been seeing David Rudkin’s dramas being reappraised after many years of neglect, although interviews suggest the writer has ambivalent feelings about the concentration on the gaudier, generic elements of his surviving TV plays. In The Edge Is Where The Centre Is, a book by Texte und Töne about Penda’s Fen, Rudkin is determined to frame the film as a political work when most of the reaction to it over the past decade has been to label it “folk horror”. I can’t complain too much when I’ve been partly responsible for giving it the horror label in the first place, having written (at the request of one of the editors) a short review of the film for Horror: the Definitive Guide to the Cinema of Fear (2006), and later contributing a lengthy piece about Rudkin’s stage and TV dramas to Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies (2015). In my defence, the latter was intended to draw attention to Rudkin’s work as a whole, and you have to start somewhere. In 2006 Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 were mysteries to most people, not horror enough for the MR James obsessives, or, in the case of Artemis 81, too weird for the science-fiction crowd; both of them were also unavailable in any form. Grant Morrison was the only person I’d met who not only knew who Rudkin was but had read the available playscripts. Some of Rudkin’s works may touch on generic horror or science fiction but even his adaptation for the BBC of The Ash-Tree by MR James can be grouped with his own dramas via its themes of religious conflict and the presence of history in the landscape. He also changes Mothersole’s warning from James’s “There will be guests at the hall!” to the pithier “Mine shall inherit!”, a threat delivered with a playwright’s economy, and a declaration whose reference to inheritance connects the film to a persistent Rudkin theme, the legacies of people, place and history.

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All of which makes the existence of the PlacePrints dramas very welcome indeed. For the most part, these are closer to Rudkin’s theatrical works than his TV films, being a collection of lone voices engaging repeatedly with the legacies of people, place and history: a British Celt watching the invading Roman army build one of their roads across the Warwickshire fields (River, Of Course); a close description of a walk along an ancient pathway in Cornwall (Nemeton): the scathing voice of an earthwork following the clumsy searches of an aged academic (Grim’s Ditch); a young student slipping in and out of visions of life in Suffolk 30,000 years ago (Cave Girl/The Stone Age). The series features an impressive range of acting talent, especially Juliet Stevenson in Grim’s Ditch, and Frances Tomelty as an elemental spirit haunting the waters of Lough Fea in To the Waters and the Wild. Sympathetic sound design and music by Adam McCready adds a hint of location atmosphere and dramatic texture without ever being obtrusive. Each piece is preceded by an authorial introduction, one of which suggests that Rudkin may not be too displeased about being tagged with the horror label when he describes Grim’s Ditch as being a contemporary equivalent of an MR James warning to unwary academics. The episode has its share of uncanny moments, with Toby Jones as the professor receiving a lesson from the landscape that he won’t forget. The final recording is an interview with David Rudkin by Gareth Evans, one of the interviewers and contributors to The Edge Is Where The Centre Is.

There’s a further parallel in some of these pieces with chapters from Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore, a novel that also deals with (among other things) ancient Britain, the Roman invasion and the patterns of history. Fitting, then, that New Perspectives have produced the audio version of Voice of the Fire with the same director and sound designer, and with Toby Jones returning as one of the characters. I generally prefer to read books rather than to hear them read but I’m looking forward to listening to this one as well. (Thanks to Jay for the tip!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Voice of the Fire
Penda Reborn
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies
The Edge Is Where The Centre Is
Afore Night Come by David Rudkin
White Lady by David Rudkin
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Seasonal spectres

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In today’s post, my latest cover for Swan River Press (previously). One tradition I’m always happy to endorse is the Christmas ghost story, when festive banalities are quelled by the words “Quis est iste, qui venit?” and “No diggin’ ‘ere!” Ghosts of the Chit-Chat delivers the chills with an outstanding tale—Basil Netherby by AC Benson—that I’d not read before and which is worth the price of entry alone. (That’s a photo of AC at the foot of the printed board, together with brothers EF and RH, both of whom are also represented inside.) But this is a solid collection with two early versions of familiar stories by MR James, together with a host of rarities. And the usual Swan River complement of related postcards, of course. Order it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ghosts of the Chit-Chat
The Far Tower: Stories for WB Yeats
The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray
“Who is this who is coming?”

Weekend links 548

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The Aurora Borealis by Charles H. Whymper.

• “In 1829, when the celebrated Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai was almost 70 years old, he created more than 100 drawings of a dazzling array of subjects: playful cats, serene landscapes, even severed heads. Hokusai’s fame continued to grow after his death in 1849, and the suite of small, elaborate drawings was last purchased a century later, at a Paris auction in 1948. Then it disappeared from the public eye.” The British Museum now has the drawings which may be seen here.

• The week in cover design: Emily Temple compares US and UK covers for the same books, while Vyki Hendy collects recent titles with objects as the main feature of the cover designs. One of my recent covers (which will appear here soon) is less minimal than these but also features an arrangement of objects.

• The compilation experts at Light In The Attic Records have put together another collection of obscure Japanese music. Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds Of Japan 1980–1988 will be released in January.

“A Jamesian world is one of cursed artefacts, endlessly subsuming landscapes, forgotten manuscripts and tactile beings that punish the curious and intellectually arrogant.” Adam Scovell visits the grave of MR James.

• Dragons and Unicorns: John Boardley on the lost art of the Hieroglyphic Bible.

• I almost missed John Waters’ favourite films of the year.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sade’s Castle, Cardin’s House.

Northern lights photographer of the year.

Aurora Hominis (1970) by Beaver & Krause | Aurora (1971) by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band | Soft Aurora (1979) by Tod Dockstader

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat

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My latest cover for Swan River Press is very suitable for the season, It’s also a good example of the “window” type of cover design, where you show a view into a scene rather than a flat design. Window covers are common in fantasy and science fiction, less so in the horror genre where you often want to avoid giving too much away. The “Chit-Chat” of the title was The Chit-Chat Club, a group of students and tutors at King’s College, Cambridge:

On the evening of Saturday, 28 October 1893, Cambridge University’s Chit-Chat Club convened its 601st meeting. Ten members and one guest gathered in the rooms of Montague Rhodes James, the Junior Dean of King’s College, and listened — with increasing absorption one suspects — as their host read “Two Ghost Stories”.

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat celebrates this momentous event in the history of supernatural literature, the earliest dated record we have of M. R. James reading his ghost stories out loud. And it revives the contributions that other members made to the genre; men of imagination who invoked the ghostly in their work, and who are now themselves shades. In a series of essays, stories, and poems Robert Lloyd Parry looks at the history and culture of the Club.

In addition to tales and poems never before reprinted, Ghosts of the Chit-Chat features earlier, slightly different versions of two of M. R. James’s best-known ghost stories; Robert Lloyd Parry’s profiles and commentaries on each featured Chit-Chat member sheds new light on this supernatural tradition, making Ghosts of the Chit-Chat a valuable resource for casual readers and long-time Jamesians alike. (more)

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The full picture which will be a little cropped on the print version. Here you get to see more aspidistra.

The brief for the cover was to show a view of an empty room in a manner similar to the covers drawn by “Ionicus” (Joshua Charles Armitage) in the 1970s and 80s for a series of supernatural story collections. After looking at a number of these covers I took Tune in for Fear as a template; I liked the angle of the picture which offered a view of a welcoming fireplace to contrast with the night sky seen on the back of the book, and the two-point perspective makes a change from my tendency to create symmetrical pictures. The inhabitants of the Ionicus room seem to have either fled or been abducted whereas mine have either just left or are soon to arrive. The clock on the mantelpiece is almost at midnight, and there’s a Chit-Chat invitation next to it so I’d suggest the latter. The picture contains a number of references to the stories and poems in the book, although not as many as I’d originally intended when several of the pieces proved resistant to having their contents reduced to a single detail. I won’t list everything here since I’d prefer readers to try and match the details themselves.

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat will be published in December, and is available for pre-order here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Far Tower: Stories for WB Yeats
The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray

Demons by rail-light: Stefan Grabinski’s weird fiction

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Thanks to the demons of distraction it’s taken me a long time to find my way to these books by Polish author Stefan Grabinski (1887–1936) but I’m very pleased to have done so at last. Grabinski was one of several writers first drawn to my attention by Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book: The Ghostly, the Gothic, the Magical, the Unreal (1978), a lavishly illustrated popular study that charted the history of fantasy and horror fiction. The book is inevitably dominated by Anglophone authors but Rottensteiner was looking at the genres from a global perspective, to an extent that some of the writers in the sections devoted to Continental Europe were either difficult to find or, as with Grabinski, hadn’t yet been translated into English. Robert Hadji’s Grabinski entry in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986) further stoked my curiosity. Neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji mention how they came to read these obscure tales but I’d guess it was in the two collections published in Germany under the Bibliothek des Hauses Usher imprint, Das Abstellgleis (1971) and Dunst und andere unheimliche Geschichten (1974); several covers from the imprint appear in Rottensteiner’s book. Wherever it was that they read the stories, both writers praised Grabinski as an overlooked master of weird fiction. Rottensteiner notes that he was a contemporary of HP Lovecraft, and with a similar biography—briefly married and suffering artistic neglect during his lifetime—but neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji use the common shorthand descriptions of Grabinski as “the Polish Poe” or “the Polish Lovecraft”. These labels are intriguing but misapplied.

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Bearing in mind that these stories are translated works, one of the surprises of finally reading them is how fresh they seem compared to so many British ghost stories from the same period. Grabinski was writing during the birth of Modernism but the stories of his Anglophone contemporaries can often read like the products of an earlier epoch. His economical prose lacks the ornamentation of Poe and Lovecraft, just as it lacks Poe’s morbid Romanticism and has nothing of Lovecraft’s cosmic scale. But there are recurrent themes, particularly that of possession, whether by the spirits of the dead, by inhuman elementals, or by idée fixe. The latter provides the subject of The Glance, a story that also demonstrates Grabinski’s knack of finding horror in the most mundane situations: a man whose wife died prematurely is troubled by the sight of an open door, the same door through which she walked out of his life, and subsequently, out of her own. The man’s obsession with the door grows into a fear of closed doors and the implicit tragedies they may conceal, an obsession that soon extends itself to anything that hides too much of the world: curtains, rugs, the sharp corners of city streets… Edgar Allan Poe was fond of cataloguing madness in this manner but Grabinski’s stories go beyond glib formulations of insanity. “Metaphysical” is a word often used in discussion of the Grabinski oeuvre; the fixations of his protagonists reveal truths about the world to which others are blind.

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