Monday 28 October 2019

Halloween - Top Trumps

It's Halloween, when all the ghosts and ghouls come calling (usually for chocolate), when the evenings are dark and the air smells of woodsmoke and the thoughts of us all turn to the idea of watching or reading something scary and creepy.
For my third Halloween post (previously I wrote about VHS cover art and behind the scenes special effects shots), I've decided to highlight something that makes perfect sense (especially to monster loving kids, as I was) but also makes you wonder how they got away with it.

Top Trumps, launched in 1977 by a company called Dubreq (who also made the Stylophone), was a hugely popular children’s game in the UK particularly with kids who delighted in the statistical nature of it.  There were eleven different packs initially, each featuring 32 playing cards, themed around cars, sports stars, planes and military hardware amongst others, highly collectible and pocket-money-priced at 50p.  Eight at the time, I was an avid fan and one of my favourites was the Horror pack.
In fact, there were two versions, Dracula (the one I had) and Devil Priest (can you imagine a kids toy being sold under that name today?), which appeared in 1978.  Apparently the origins of the sets are shrouded in mystery - no-one seems to know who devised them, or created the bizarre artwork - and while they're put together in a slightly slapdash fashion, I like to think whoever was involved had a great deal of fun with the project.

Some of the stats make little sense (how can Death only have a Killing Power of 95?), some of the drawings even less so (why is The Phantom Of The Opera represented by The Abominable Dr Phibes, when he appears on two other cards) but to me that just adds to the delirious charm.  Some pictures are clearly lifted from films (how on earth did they get away with that?), others are epics of invention (Granite Man, anyone, or how about Circus Of Death), some are puzzling (why is Godzilla wearing a shirt and bow-tie?) while others, like the Zetan Warlord, just make you smile.  The scoring is also highly eccentric - King Kong understandably scores 100 on Physical Strength but his Horror Rating of 70 is beaten by the (much smaller and, to my mind, less horrific) Two-Headed-Monster who rates an 89.
The Hangman and Lord Of Death are clearly taken from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney while the actual Phantom card is illustrated with a masked Vincent Price from The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Full of “gleeful crudity and unashamed gore”, these were the ideal accompaniment to Denis Giffords’ A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies, a seminal rite-of-passage for horror fans of a certain age.  My original set, much loved and played with, is long since lost but I picked up one of the Waddingtons re-issues recently and shared a thoroughly enjoyable hour with Dude playing it (he had as much fun as I did, even if he’s not a monster kid like I was).
More homages, with The Madman from "Doomwatch" (1970-1972), The Freak from "The Reptile" (1966) and the Two Headed Monster some wonderful Rick Baker make-up from "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972)
Just in case Top Trumps passed you by, the rules were very simple.  Each game consisted of several players (2 to however many you wanted) being dealt a hand, one picking a statistic to compare and whoever won (ie, they had Dracula and played the Horror Rating - his was 100), collected the other cards in the round and went again.  The game continued until one player held all the cards.
Taken from "The Incredible Melting Man" (1977)
Another appearance by Lon Chaney, this time from "London After Midnight" (1927)
The card back
Dubreq was taken over by Waddingtons in 1982 and the popularity of Top Trumps continues to the present day.

As for us, Dude & I will be settling down for a game of this (the perfect Halloween activity) and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.  I just hope I get Dracula and King Kong in my first hand...

Happy Halloween!

with thanks to Hypnogoria for some of the history

Monday 21 October 2019

The Crusty Exterior Videotape Of Terror

The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

Another topic of conversation, of course, is the horror film and I thought (in the same vein as my Mixtape posts) it'd be interesting to see which movie it was that struck us so much, at an early age, to put us firmly on this horror loving path.  This, then, is the result (John plays a bit fast and loose with the rules) and I think it makes for an intriguing mixture.

Do you see an old favourite among the titles?  What set you on the horror path?

Don't Look Now (1973)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier
In the great, defining war of the previous generation, my Dad was on the wrong side. My Dad chose Betamax.

He was wrong about that, although it took him years to admit it. We couldn’t get Betamax from the shop where we lived, they only stocked VHS, so we had to drive out to a petrol-station that had a few tapes in the back. In my memory, Betamax already seemed obsolete, the tapes with their faded, sun-bleached covers already historical curios.

Because they didn’t have much choice, I think my Dad sometimes rented out films I wasn’t yet the right age for. One, in particular, I remembered for years. I didn’t remember the plot, or even the title, but I remembered the tone of it, the visual style, certain key images:

The colour red (I remembered that most of all).
A photo that seems to bleed, to seep colour into the reality around it.
A place I may or may not have recognised at that age as Venice.
A sex scene that, when you’re watching it with your parents, seems to last forever.
And a young girl, drowning. A girl dressed in red, drowning while a photo seems to seep blood into the reality around it…

It would be wrong to say I remembered the film completely, or even accurately, but I certainly remembered it vividly. Maybe not often, but periodically, I would recall that girl drowning, that sex scene, that photo blurring with blood, and a father screaming. Remember as if from a dream, uncertain as I was what the film was even called.

Years later, at university, I read a description of a film that was going to be shown that evening and I realised it must be the same one. Don’t Look Now it was called, and maybe I shouldn’t look, shouldn’t watch, because how could it compare? How could it be as good as the muddled and Chinese-whispered memories of it a decade on?

But I did watch it, and it did compare—it was magnificent. You all know the reasons why; it’s a brilliant piece of film making and after that second time of seeing it I already thought it might be my favourite film ever.

And now that I knew what it was called, I went and bought my own copy.


chosen by James Everington

The Beyond (1981)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti
I could always tell when a VHS movie was going to be a good one - tracking lines, caused by constant rewinding and reviewing, would appear at the top and bottom of the screen whenever decent gory or scary scenes were due.

My copy of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond was so thoroughly scanned by previous renters that tracking lines flickered throughout, and the tape was so stretched that the soundtrack warbled.

It was the early eighties, and massive top loader video players were so expensive that people hired them for the night with their movies. A huge machine perched before me on the coffee table, clicking and humming like a piece of equipment from a 1950s Russian power station.

The first VHS movie I ever watched was John Carpenter’s The Thing. To say I was blown away was an understatement. But it didn’t scare me.

The Beyond, however, certainly did.

It was a revelatory experience, and it kindled my enduring love of outrĂ© horror. I’d never seen an Italian horror movie before. The strange dubbing jarred. The actors weren’t all pearly toothed and well groomed like they were in Hollywood. That strained-by-use, warbling soundtrack added to the unease. There was something amateurish about the production, something forbidden, like a cheap porno. The pruriently rendered scenes of gore were almost fetishistic. Narratively, nothing made sense. Odd people were doing odd things in one long, unnerving fever dream - the opening flashback scenes of murder, the grody hand sticking out of the wall in the hotel cellar, the weird blind psychic, killer spiders climbing out of people’s mouths. What in hell’s going on? When will I recover?

The answer was I never would. I constantly re-watch. I just can’t get enough of this unsettling, nightmarish and truly great horror movie.

chosen by Steve Harris

The Beastmaster (1982)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman
Now at first glance you might be surprised to see The Beastmaster, the sword and sorcery epic, feature in a list of first films to scare the bejesus out of you. But this is a Don Coscarelli film, he of Phantasm and Bubba-Ho Tep horror fame and he litters the film with plenty of horror.

I watched The Beastmaster at some point in the mid-80s which would put me somewhere around 10 years old, maybe a little older or a little younger. My father used to take us to the local video store and we would pick out our Saturday evening viewing accompanied with a portion of fish and chips from the shop round the corner.

As a kid I remember there being a lot more plot to The Beastmaster  than there is when rewatching it as an adult. But that doesn’t matter, it is still a fantastically fun romp with Marc Singer’s oiled torso making up for a lack of acting skills, Tanya Roberts there to play the love interest and Rip Torn camping it up as the villain of the piece with prosthetic hawk-nose.

As far as the plot goes, there is a prophecy that one day Dar (Marc Singer) the as yet unborn son of King Zed will go on to kill the evil High Priest Maax (Rip Torn) who has a thing for killing young children in the name of his God but we’re not quite sure why. Along the way Dar is stolen from his mother’s womb, brought up by peasants and discovers he has the ability to psychically communicate with animals. Various escapades happen along the way, a band of heroes forms and we come to our climax.

So, where’s the horror, Phil? Apart from the child killing (thrown into an open fire) there are berserker style warriors imprisoned in the dungeons of Maax’s temple wearing some off-the-rack S&M gear all in black leather and covered in spikes including gimp style face mask. But that wasn’t what warped my impressionable young mind. No, it was the birdmen.

In one scene, Dar comes across a tree at night surrounded by large glowing orbs the size of a human hanging from the branches. A black altar in the shape of an eagle rests in front of the tree and a huge cooking pot bubbles away on an open fire. Overlooking the pot is a teenage boy suspended in a wooden cage. As Dar inspects the cooking pot, a human head floats to the surface but even this was not the terror for me.

Dar releases the boy only for him to run into the arms (wings?) of the birdmen, 7ft tall if not more, faces with eyes and no mouths, and all leathery and evil. Enveloping the boy within its leathery embrace, the boy struggles. As we watch, the boy hidden from view, we see white liquid spilling around the feet of the birdman only for it to open its grasp and let the defleshed bones of the boy collapse to the ground. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what scared the crap out of me in my dreams that evening long after the credits rolled.

chosen by Phil Sloman

Threads (1984)
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
Broadcast at 9.30pm on Sunday, 23 September 1984, Threads initially tells the story of Ruth and Jimmy as they prepare for their upcoming wedding. There’s tension in the air between the West and Russia, but not enough to stop people going about their daily lives.

Then without warning the Soviets fire two nuclear warheads over the town, unleashing Armageddon. Buildings are destroyed, people are roasted alive in the flames, their burning bodies tossed into the branches of charring trees, the heat so fierce it melts milk bottles on doorsteps. Those that survive struggle to find food, shelter, other survivors as nuclear winter arrives, the populace descending into primitivism, eating anything they can to survive, including each other. Civilisation is at an end, and the lucky ones died at the start. The End.

I sat there for about ten minutes afterwards in a state of shock, sweating, my hands shaking. Eventually ejecting the DVD, I put it back in its box. Then to my surprise I went online and shared this trauma. An hour later I was still shaking; at one point I couldn’t even bear to have the DVD in the room with me, the eyes of the bandaged and bloodied traffic warden on the cover following me around the room.

I don’t know what I was doing that night in 1984 but I certainly wasn’t watching Threads.  I’d have been in bed or getting ready to go. We didn’t watch horror in our house.  I got into all that later. But when I did… how can I put this without sounding like a heretic? I didn’t find it particularly scary. Exciting? Yes. Disturbing, imaginative, often unintentionally hilarious? Absolutely. But rarely scary.

So the scariest thing I saw as a child? Threads, without a doubt. Aged forty-six.

chosen by John Travis

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor and Michael Grais (from a story by Spielberg who, some suggest, also mostly directed it)
As I hit my teens in the early 80s, video began to take hold in the UK.  Dedicated shops (my local was Five Star Video) sprang up on high streets across our fair nation, while corner shops, Our Price and garages gave up space to metal racks showcasing glossy covers (almost always painted, almost always vivid and almost always not representative of what they were advertising) for films we’d heard of but never been able to see at the cinema.

Tapes were far too costly to buy but renting was easy - you’d get a snazzy card (generally paper but sometimes plastic) and, after perusing the racks, you’d take your title to the shopkeeper and hand over your money.  Most of the time, you’d have your membership number entered in a ledger and told to bring the tape back the next day though if you tried to push your luck (I remember, as a thirteen-year-old, trying to rent Emmanuelle), you’d often get sent back to pick something else.

The players were also expensive and it would be years before the West household was graced with one (in fact, I bought my own and later gifted it to my parents when I upgraded my model) but luckily my friend Matt had a toploader Betamax.  Even better, he was as keen on horror as me.

He rang one sunny Saturday morning - somehow (according to my diary, we saw the film in 1983 when I was thirteen so it might have been a pirate copy) he’d got hold of Poltergeist and wondered if I wanted to watch it with him.  I jumped at the chance and went straight round to his house.

So there we sat, in the front room with the curtains shut against the sun, Matt, me and his brother.  We got glasses of orange juice, shared a pack of custard creams and he hit play on the remote control that was attached to the player by a wire.  Nervous excitement filled the air as the film started and after the set-up of the family, things took a turn - we were stunned at the man finding ‘something on his face’ in the mirror, the tension ramping up with the clown, the specters on the stairs, that bloody tree and the swimming pool with poor JoBeth Williams and her fellow swimmers.

Although we would go on to see much scarier films - a few summers later, we rented Dead & Buried and Evilspeak on the same afternoon and, one evening, someone got hold of The Exorcist - but Poltergeist was the first film to give me that proper frisson of terror, where I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching and where it was going to go.  It would be a feeling I’d constantly try to re-capture and that’s as true now as I write this (a more worldy fifty-year-old) as it was back in the 80s.

chosen by Mark West

This advert from Starburst magazine in 1984 shows the high prices (that Spider-Man film was two episodes of the Nicholas Hammond series from the 70s, cut together), while Octopussy is resolutely "rental only".

Wellington Street Video Library in Kettering, another of my 'haunts'.  This is from the late 80s (picture by Glyn Dobs) with the shop renting "VHS on one side, Betamax on the other"

The Crusty Exterior in May 2017, having celebrated Steve's 50th with an afternoon at Astley Book Farm, followed by a nice curry.
from left - James Everington, John Travis, Steve 'birthday boy' Harris, me, Phil Sloman and Steve Bacon

You can read about other Crusty Exterior adventures on this link

Monday 14 October 2019

Ten Favourite Covers: More Childhood Terrors

Following on from last years collection of books that caused some gleeful childhood terror, here's another selection.  I hope you find an old favourite here too...
Originally published in 1968 (this is the fifth edition, from 1974), the Fontana series began in 1966 and ran through seventeen volumes until 1984 (1976 was skipped for some reason).  Christine Barnard edited the first four, Mary Danby took over for the rest.
The third in the series, edited by the wonderful Mary Danby (who I was lucky enough to meet in 2012 at FantasyCon in Brighton, when Johnny Mains introduced us), this features cover art by Peter Archer and twelve stories, including work by M. R. James, Christine Campbell Thomson,  R. Chetwynd-Hayes and Danby herself.
Features eight stories (including a Sherlock Holmes adventure,  The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), with the Master Of Suspense lending his name (though there's no note on the editor since, sadly, Hitchcock's regular collaborator Robert Arthur had already passed away).
A selection of true-life ghost stories
With cover art by Tom Chantrell, who created my favourite Star Wars poster, this excellent volume by Denis Gifford is beloved by fans of a certain age...
Originally published by Gollancz in 1975 (this is the 1978 Puffin edition) and ably edited by the excellent Peter Haining (who also edited the fantastic The Restless Bones, which I wrote about here), this features a veritable who's-who of horror fiction, including M. R. James, O. Henry, Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, Daphne du Maurier, Fritz Leiber, Joan Aiken, Ray Bradbury and others.
Edited by the prolific Richard Davis (though Pertwee contributed the introduction and epilogue), this contains nine original short stories.
Hardback edition from Hamlyn, originally published in 1977 as a Beaver paperback (see the last Childhood Terrors) as the Beaver Book Of Horror.
Another selection of true-life mysteries.
I was a huge fan of the TV show as a kid (some of it was scary and it was always fascinating) and I have the BCA edition of this, which is the first place I ever read of the Devil's footprints, a story I still find very creepy.

Puffin Books is the long-standing childrens imprint of Penguin Books and was formed in 1940.

Piccolo Books is the children's imprint of Pan Macmillan.

Armada Books was set up by Gordon Landsborough in 1962 as a paperback imprint of Mayfair Books Ltd, focussing exclusively on books for children to buy with the pocket money.  Collins bought it in 1966 as an imprint to publish books for 10-15 year olds under their Fontana Books paperback arm.  Armada ceased in 1995 but I will always love it because it published The Three Investigators.

Beaver was the children's imprint of Hamlyn which is now part of the Octopus Publishing Group, owned by Hachette Livre.

Fontana was the paperback imprint of William Collins & Sons and is now part of Harper Collins.

Magnet Books was the children's imprint of Methuen

Monday 7 October 2019

The Dream Zone 4 (first print appearance)

Twenty years ago this month saw my first horror short story in print when Back Above The Clouds appeared in The Dream Zone 4 - I was over the moon about it. 
Since discovering the small press in late 1998, I’d shifted back into writing horror which I hadn’t done since my teens (and wrote specifically to submit, rather than just because I fancied doing it).  My first acceptance came in February 1999 (As Quiet As It Gets, which appeared in Sci-Fright 6 in February 2000), while my first published story was 27:32 in Enigmatic Electronic, the then newfangled online presence of the superb Enigmatic Tales (edited and operated by Mick & Len, 'the ghost story men’ - Messrs. Sims & Maynard, excellent writers and editors who opened the door for quite a few of us).  Back Above The Clouds, though, beat them all to the punch.

The story, my third acceptance, came to me as I was lying in bed.  The Dream Zone editor, Paul Bradshaw, had recently rejected my story Sleep Deeply and I was trying to come up with a new idea when I had an image of hundreds of people floating in a dome (it was actually the Cine-2000 - which has long-since disappeared - at Wicksteeds Park).  That image, the magic of being able to fly, linked with my day-dreaming during a particularly boring meeting that afternoon and the story pretty much rolled out on its own.  According to my notes, I had the idea on Tuesday night, wrote it on Wednesday, revised it on Thursday and had it accepted (by post) the following Tuesday.

And here's the appearance...
Click on the picture for a larger image
The Dream Zone, stapled, features some names in the issue who, I’m pleased to say, are still involved with writing today.

Simon Logan, Paul Edwards and Rhys Hughes are still publishing, DF Lewis and Peter Tennant concentrate more on reviewing now (the latter highly regarded for his work on Black Static), while Tim Lebbon is doing really rather nicely for himself.  My fine friend and fellow Crusty, Steve Byrne, is also still publishing and I've reviewed his novels Phoenix and Craze on the blog.

I came to the small press, initially, through David Sutton & Stephen Jones’ Dark Voices 5 which I picked up in late 1998.  Thrilled to discover people were still publishing short horror fiction, I bought the latest Best New Horror and used the 'useful addresses' at the back of that, from which I discovered The Third Alternative (the original version of Black Static) and its sister publication Zene.  Zene was a listings magazine, a treasure trove of small presses, magazines and anthologies filled with markets, guidelines and addresses for me to explore and I did so with relish.

As it turns out, I was lucky enough to just get in to what turned out to be the final golden days of the small press during the print zine phase, a glorious time of desktop publishing where hardy editors and publishers put together some terrific physical magazines.  Often featuring vivid artwork, the editions were sometimes perfect bound, sometimes stapled, but always great fun to read and I subscribed to as many as I could find (and submitted to most too).  The end was already in sight though as e-zines were starting to appear and if you weren’t around then, imagine black backgrounds, white or red writing, loads of animated gifs (dripping blood and spinning skulls and the like) and you’re pretty much there.

That first year of my being published I appeared in five publications.  As well as those titles mentioned above, Infantophobia appeared in the superb Sackcloth & Ashes (edited by Andrew & Lisa Busby, very nice people who also set up the first Con I ever went to, in Wigan, where I first met Paul Finch), All The Rage was in Unhinged, edited by Paul Lockey and the black comedy Thank You For The Music appeared in Planet Prozak, edited by Stephen Bennion. As Quiet As It Gets, that first acceptance, was in Sci-Fright, edited by Sian Ross-Martin.
Sackcloth & Ashes #6 and Unhinged #4, both published December 1999
Planet Prozak #9 was published in December 1999, Sci-Fright #6 was published in February 2000

Infantophobia appeared in my first collection, Strange Tales (details here)
All The Rage appeared in my second collection, Things We Leave Behind (details here)

27:32, Back Above The Clouds, Thank You For The Music and As Quiet As It Gets have never been re-published

Twenty years - where did all that time go, eh?