The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Posts Tagged ‘doctor who’

World’s Greatest…

Posted by BigWords on March 1, 2020

There’s a story from one of the World’s Greatest books (Spirits, or Phantoms, or the Supernatural, perhaps) which has stuck with me all these years despite being repudiated as a hoax. A few people churned out these tomes over the seventies and eighties, and they are, in many ways, much more interesting than the boom in paranormal literature kicked off by The X Files, as they never pretended to be anything more than what they were – it is possible to look at the books following the wake of The X Files as furrowing deeper and deeper into a certain type of supernatural literature, but I’m not going to kick that wasp nest right now.

As a serious proportion of my time is spent finding information, drawn from as many disparate sources as I can find, there are minuscule threads I see regularly, all linking back to a handful of titles, and mostly tied to Hamlyn / Octopus / Hachette. I haven’t gone looking to see where Hamlyn was folded into the mix, but I have a strong suspicion – with an eye towards keeping this as simple as humanly possible – that it is wise not to muddy the waters by bringing a timeline of events into the mix.

For a substantial period of time there used to be books sold in the strangest of places. I’m not sure if there are still tables overflowing with paperbacks routinely on sale in gardening centers, home furnishing outlets, clothes stores, and other retailers (nowhere near me, at the moment, is doing this, but it would be great if somewhere still had this happening), and the predominant titles on display were of the… strange variety.

Yes, there were always the cartoon books, with their single-page gags on a subject (golf, marriage, work), and the hardback coffee table books with page after page of glossy photographs (usually featuring houseplants, thought sports cars were also a favorite), but the most interesting addition to these displays were the ghost stories. Allegedly true to life, absolutely, swear-on-my-heart, not-making-this-shit-up ghost stories. Their truth, looking back, is hard to accept on face value, but they told their narratives with style, wit, and a sense of solemnity which sold even the slightest of these narratives.

I have the feeling that these books had an immense influence on short stories, radio scripts, television scripts, novels, film scripts, comics, and more. You may not see it immediately, but there are things which, prior to the publication of those titles, didn’t have a wide circulation, but have since managed to spread far and wide.

There’s a part of me which wants to start naming people who I feel have been using the books as inspiration for their fiction. I’d likely get myself into hot water if I started naming everyone I believed to be influenced by these titles, but… it really isn’t difficult to start looking for yourself. There’s an immensely-talented chap who sometimes does comedy, who has written extensively for radio – and who also knows a thing or two about horror – who would be a perfect starting point, as well as a certain Doctor Who writer…

So, the story which I tried not to think of too much on cold nights, lying awake in the dark:

In one of the collections there’s a small section – probably only a page or so, though I haven’t read the book in a very long time – which outlines the case of the Faces of Bélmez, a story which takes us back to 1971. We even have a specific location for this supernatural incident (Calle Real 5, Bélmez de la Moraleda, Jaén, Andalusia, Spain), so it isn’t as if this is one of those friend-of-a-friend stories, whose nebulous placement in geography and history make ascertaining facts ridiculously difficult, and that hint of news reportage makes it all the more real.

In short, the floor of the kitchen (over an extended period of time) displayed the faces of what appeared to be various dead people.

You read that right.

It may sound stupid written out in such a manner, but it clicked in the portion of my brain which hungers for Weird Shit. What’s more, in harsh daylight there is very little of the supernatural which really tugs at the fabric of reality to any extent. It is only in the dark, when we are at our most vulnerable, that silly notions can warp, be transformed and grow – as if through some amplifier which charges these narratives with a discernible solidity and credibility – and we can accept, if only for a passing moment that when we place a bare foot upon the floor there is a chance (however small) that we may be standing on the face of a long-dead person.

Now, there’s a far more interesting angle to this whole affair than merely the faces of the dead appearing on a kitchen floor. You could argue that it is a hoax (as many have done before), or you might be wondering why?, which is perfectly understandable, but it is unlikely that you have stepped back and considered how a tiny story in a cheap paperback collection of hundreds of similarly strange events could possibly have any influence over popular culture.

One of the reasons I love the discussion of tropes – my main reason, in fact – is that we can use the analysis of works to attempt, however imprecisely, to discern transmission vectors for ideas. It is easier to think of ideas in this way, as certain criteria have to be present for a notion to have the ability to carry forwards into other works. A little-seen play, for example, can’t have the same cultural impact as a feature film, and a Victorian song won’t be as significant as a Bestselling novel in the charts right now. We also have to be careful when ascribing influences, as certain works have been unavailable for long periods of history.

Tolkien explicitly noted that Shakespeare’s use of Birnam Wood advancing on Dunsinane was a factor in his creation of Ents. At the time Tolkien was writing his fantasy magnum opus he was in regular contact with C.S. Lewis, who himself had used the notion throughout the Narnia books in a number of ways. Across the Atlantic, in yet another fantasy work with perennial appeal, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz played with the idea with (arguably) slightly less of a lasting influence – other aspects of the story have dominated adaptations and sequels, so his place in the chronology of sentient trees is lower than that of Tolkien or Lewis.

We can follow these influences, especially given that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was so popular throughout the sixties and seventies, and as Narnia has maintained a certain appeal, to arrive at the trees in the Evil Dead films, a darker mirror image of sentient foliage. There’s also a fondly-remembered strip from the second iteration of Knockout entitled The Haunted Wood, featuring – unsurprisingly – trees which could move and speak. I wouldn’t go so far as to include Whoopee!’s Family Trees, as that derives from a visual pun on “family tree” more than it does anything from Tolkien.

There’s also Ramsey Campbell’s In the Trees, which is… Well, it is probably the best short story of its type and subject, and if you haven’t read it you’re in for a treat. We really have to acknowledge here that the single most influential use of a moving tree in modern pop culture is likely J.K. Rowling’s Whomping Willow, which first appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

All of which, you should understand, are takes on ancient narratives.

We can look at dates and locations of a work’s origination to see where someone has possibly been influenced by a prior depiction, though in the majority of cases any suppositions of this nature will be guesswork. We should be thankful that there are so many people who have divulged their inspirations, as finding common links, and likely sources, is a largely thankless task.

But faces on flooring? That’s a whole ‘nother matter. There are only so many stories which could possibly feature such an unlikely occurrence, and the majority would likely treat this subject matter as a joke. But there’s also an episode of Doctor Who which we have to take into account – Ursula’s fate in Love & Monsters, from the second series, has more than a hint of the darkly comedic, but the face-on-a-pavement ending skews the episode into horror’s domain.

This is a living death which recalls the story of the Faces of Bélmez, and suggests that (though able to speak) Ursula is already, for all intents and purposes, dead.

I’ll point out, right now, that while I don’t believe Russell T Davies is deliberately invoking the events of the Spanish home, it isn’t a long shot to imagine that (at some point) he encountered the story in one of the many, many editions published over the years. He’s a geek. Of course he would know it.

And then there’s Mark Gatiss. If you haven’t been following his career then you are doing yourself a disservice, as he has written some of the oddest and most fascinating things… Well, ever. If there was one person whom I would state, categorically, likely read the World’s Greatest books at some point in the eighties or nineties it is Gatiss. His work drips with the uncanny, the preternatural, and the plain strange, and there are detectable traces of influence from a number of sources throughout his career. Some are obvious (Valentine Dyall, for example, or Conan Doyle), but also far less clear sources.

Despite not being able to put a finger on any specific thing, there’s an overall feeling that he’s either read the original books, or seen discussion of the contents somewhere. I would also note Gatiss as very likely a reader of Fortean Times (feel free to correct me on this), and those glorious old horror anthologies which seemed to appear every couple of months.

Getting back on point:

There were photographs in those non-fiction paperbacks, adding to the sense of dread that the world around us might not be so solid and tangible as we would like, but images which most struck me were those of real people. There were a pair of photographs of Joseph Merrick, on consecutive pages, with his appearance in life and the reconstruction of his skeleton at the same scale. Flipping the page back and forth, he appeared to have intangible skin – his bones appearing and disappearing from view. That I normally read these books at night, with whatever dim light I could scrounge up, only served to make the illusion more terrifying.

Merrick wasn’t the image which seared itself into my consciousness, as I had already seen Lynch’s 1980 docu-drama about him (at an unadvisably young age), and probably encountered the story so often that it had shed enough of its horror elements to become merely another dark and twisted glimpse into a bygone era. But the etching of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo… That was something else. Joannes’ enlarged head in the engraving, and the way in which he protruded in an inverted manner from Lazarus’ chest, seemed somehow more real than a photograph. While Merrick was a celebrated attraction, the Colloredo twins seemed to belong more to the fiction I was devouring at the time of this discovery.

Looking through what is often included in accounts of the fantastic and mysterious we encounter a great many thing which have been reused in fictional works. The “four-eyed man of Cricklade” (not that I’m entirely certain his story was told in any of the World’s Greatest books specifically) could almost be an inspiration for Abelard Snazz, and an entire mythology and alternative history has sprung up around the Wold Newton meteor, boosted to some degree by internet rumination and speculation.

We can see – if we squint a little, and tilt out heads – the inspiration for many mutants, freaks, and aliens in science fiction, sometimes taken wholesale from accounts and images which appeared in the books. There is a rather surprising similarity between the photograph of Edward Mordake’s parasitic face and the distorted features of Kid Knee from Strontium Dog (although Mordake’s story is one we can safely assign as a fabrication), and in seeing more and more instances where things originally collected in World’s Greatest volumes I am forced to view them as more than merely a bunch of interesting stories…

They may be one of the most influential titles (albeit often indirectly) published in the late twentieth century.

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Thanksgiving

Posted by BigWords on November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving. Yeah, that’s another brilliant idea I’m going to steal for Blighty. We don’t often look on the positive side of things over this side of the pond, rather tending – with equal parts dismay and dry humor – to paint a picture of a less than brilliant existence. We like moaning about the weather, telling horror stories about medical care, complaining about queues, and… Stuff. Needless to say, there comes a time when we should look, for once, to things which aren’t going to drive us to despair. It’s an opportunity to say “Hey, Britain isn’t as shit as we thought it was.” And we have a lot to be thankful for – medical advances, computer achievements on a par with anything coming out of Japan, a stellar literary community… Doctor Who as well, I guess. Or at least Amy Pond.

Okay, so this calls for a list. I may as well go all out here.

I am thankful for:

…the fact that Brannon Braga isn’t writing the new Star Trek film.
…the existence of Blair Atholl malt.
…the existence of the internet, and high speed connections which makes downloading all the important things so fast and easy.
…the cancellation of Enterprise. And Bionic Woman. And… Have they nixed Knight Rider yet?
99 Red Balloons. The perfect song to listen to as North Korea stirs up shit. Again.
…all of The Three Stooges shorts available online.
…British libraries. And book shops. Also the amazing staff who never throw me out.

Damn. I suck at this. I’m not sure this is going to take off in the UK.

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The Novelty Is Wearing Thin…

Posted by BigWords on October 30, 2009

Doctor Who‘s return to television screens a while back was exciting, and the stories – despite not breaking new ground, were well told for the most part. It didn’t cannibalize from itself as much as other shows which have returned to the small screen (such as Knight Rider‘s stupidity remaining intact from the original series) and the pairing of Eccleston and Pyper was eccentric enough to feel new. That should make my following grumble a little less provocative to fans of the series – The Sarah Jane Adventures is not worth watching if the writers can’t come up with something even remotely original.

A wedding, a time anomaly and a mysterious ‘otherworldly presense’ messing with time… Gee, that kinda sounds a lot like the first season episode Father’s Day. Which it should, because the parallels are obvious. There is even a disappearance at the wedding (riffing off Donna Noble’s introduction), The Doctor saying “I’m very, very sorry” to someone who is about to die, and the ending of the episode had too much sap. The way that The Doctor says goodbye is probably the bluntest example of lampshading I have seen in the last couple of months, and is just as obvious as the hokey “You’re song is coming to an end” dialogue from a while back.

I get the tongue-in-cheek referencing, really I do, but so many people seem content to cut and paste scenes together to fill time. I’m beginning to have some concerns about the reboot / revamp of the series unless the new production team can fully exorcise the ghost of R2D2 from their methods of storytelling. The final episodes of Doctor Who had better be fucking amazing or I’m gonna be really disappointed…

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In a related vein, I’ve finally succumbed to pressure from friends to read 52 (which is a dumb name for a comic), and I’m noticing call-backs to previous cross-overs such as Eclipso, the aftermath of Doomsday and a bunch of other old DC epics. When I finally get around to reading all of it I’ll give my final verdict, but after the first couple of issues I’m feeling a sense of déjà vu… It’ll probably be after November when I get around to reading all of it though, as NaNo is gonna be taking up quite a bit of my spare time.

damn crossoversRalph Dibny takes the news that DC is having a crossover event rather badly…

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Another Chance To See Doctor Who… On A Kids Show?

Posted by BigWords on October 28, 2009

Okay, so th’ Doc may have always been a kids show, and in many ways it still is, but after enjoying the slightly more mature (no, not mature… adult is a better word) Torchwood, the news that one of the final appearances David Tennant will make as The Doctor is gonna be in a for-sure kids show is… disappointing. No way will I miss it, it’s just a bit of a let-down after some really fun episodes. The biggest disappointment during R2D2’s reign as the mastermind behind the show (and it’s spin-offs) has been the lack of grit.

I’m going to put this in context, for those of you who believe there have been ‘dark’ moments in the shows so far. Nothing in the world of The Doctor is gritty. Not even Torchwood‘s faux ‘mature viewers’ angle. Gritty is more than sex and violence, and extends beyond cinematography. Go watch Se7en or take a look through a few dozen episodes of The Wire for the kind of ‘mature’ I was looking for. Characters return from the dead, the world is saved, a new Doctor takes over from the last. Ho-hum.

I want the Time Wars examined at some point. There’s a whole bunch of potential there which has been solidly ignored. Why the hell hasn’t any of the massive interior of the TARDIS been examined either? There’s a swimming pool in there somewhere (which had a thing living in it at one point), as well as a whole array of other interesting locations. That’s a budget issue, ain’t it? C’mon Mr. Davies, I know you’re penny-pinching for Auntie, but take us out of Tennant’s tenure with a fucking bang. Make it must-see television. Pleeease.

I’m getting rather worried that my lasting impression of his portrayal is one cameo in a kid’s show, and that would be a horrible dénouement to the series proper. The possibility that the new kid (whatsisname) might suck is still unresolved despite a lot of support in magazines and newspapers, and he’s starting to feel like Peter Davidson being foisted on kids who liked Tom Baker. Fuck it, Tom Baker IS The Doctor for some people. I had a hard enough time getting to like Chris Ecclestone in the role.

The Sarah Jane Adventures appeared while I wasn’t looking, and I missed a whole bunch of episodes, but from what I’ve seen it isn’t the kind of show I would normally go nuts over. And it has kids in it. For SF this is always a bad sign. I hated the Crusher kid in ST:TNG, thought that the rugrat in War Of The Worlds was gonna pierce my eardrums with her screeching, and absolutely detested Invasion (or whatever the hell the aliens-under-the-sea show was called). There are so few grown up shows around that I’m actually missing The X-Files.

I’m reminded of a spiel I used to deliver to Star Trek: Voyager fans when it was running:

How bad a captain is Janeway? Hmm? First she gets her crew lost thousands of light years from their home – in what must be the definitive example of women drivers, right? Then she takes a guy on board who she’s met for, what, five minutes?

“Want to stay?”
“Sure.”
“Do you have any talents?”

Psst. Cap, you might not want to hit on the lice-ridden stranger you just picked up in a strange part of space, and – for all you know – might think that stealing all your shiny new technology would make good black-market ware. Think with your head, not your crotch.

“I can cook.”
“Welcome aboard.”

Goddamn. The guy is not only allowed to remain on the ship, he’s preparing their food. Great job, Janeway. It’ll serve you right if he poisons you. But wait, this isn’t the best part. Oh no. Janeway is waaay more stupid than she looks, and that is just the appetizer for her moment of utter brain-free decision-making. Cue the drumroll…

She lets his underage lover aboard, and makes no attempt to question the situation. Kes is five years old for fuck sake. FIVE YEARS OLD. I know that randy old bastard Kirk would have re-written the Starfleet regulations regarding sexual conduct aboard a spaceship, but Janeway doesn’t even blink an eyelash.

She doesn’t even consider the moral implications of the alien with a mohawn shacking down with a five year old.

Sorry. It’s been a while since I delivered that particular speech, and it’ll probably be a while before I get to perform it again for the benefit of a Star Trek crowd. Always a fun experience. Not always a safe experience, but always a fun one.

Here’s hoping that Davies has a solid plan for the end of the current Doctor’s reign, or I might have to take the piss out of Doctor Who the next time I get to a convention. Consider this a warning, R2D2.

(There’s about half an hour’s worth of the Voyager jokes, that’s the best bit)

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Brightening Up The Blog

Posted by BigWords on July 23, 2009

Added some nice pics here. Go look.

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The Joy Of Series

Posted by BigWords on July 9, 2009

Have you taken a look at the number of novel series which have been published? Jeez, it’s too many… Way too many. I’ve been searching for information to add to a little something something which I’m working on, and it appears that every time I get close to nailing the “collection complete” phase, another title pops up. Is it too much to ask for a little pause between the publication of the books? I’m gonna go broke at this rate. The worst offenders are the TV tie-in books, especially those for younger readers, which seem to come off a conveyor belt somewhere.

I’ve managed to track down information on individual books, though the lists I come across are either outdated or plainly incorrect. It’s a pain when you just need a ISBN number or date of publication checked, especially when the book in question isn’t a rarity. I am, of course, skirting the issue of why I am hunting down information on books. Yeah, it’s a secret. You’ll get a kick out of the idea when I tell you, but for now I’m keeping the geeky list-listed listy kind of list under wraps. It is a difficult sell, simply reeling off a bunch of stats and information, so I’m trying to keep it from being too dry.

Whenever I decide to do one of my lists, which is more regularly than anyone should think about, I get around to the time / cost matters. How much is it gonna cost to buy all the books, and how long can I read the series before fatigue sets in. I didn’t do very well with Doctor Who, and I’ve only read a dozen or so Star Trek books. Star Wars? Maybe eight or nine books. I had the determination and the necessary funds to track down all of the X-Files tie-ins, both official and unofficial, but even those weren’t all read immediately. I’m currently sifting through a pile of completely unrelated novel series, and I think this is the way to go. Mix ‘n’ match.

I’m going to bypass the late seventies ultra-macho crap completely, and I hate the annoyingly twee Mary Kate & Ashley with a vengeance, so you can breathe easy if you thought that I was gonna be covering those. Uh-uh, not a chance. This is looking to be a much more interesting endeavour, and one which should turn out slightly better than my attempt at creating a dictionary of places, characters and terms used in the Judge Dredd strips.

Fingers crossed, this should be done by the end of the week…

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