Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Opening chapter of Dances Sacred & Profane

Here's the opening chapter of my novel Dances Sacred & Profane: my sort-of-sequel to Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, by way of Hammer Films' The Vampire Lovers - the closest thing to an honest-to-goodness magnum opus I may ever have in me. The novel is available from Amazon's kindle store HERE...

1./ I woke to a quickening pulse of green light through the shade across the sleeping compartment's window. I lay and stared at the irregular flicker, too warmly cradled by the soft sheets and the lullaby clatter of the train's wheels to feel any presbyterian compulsion towards a swift rising, such as a chilly Scottish morning would have stirred. When the guard's rap on the door announced breakfast, I dragged back the covers and stepped to the window, drawing up the shade to reveal that the play of emerald glints was the refraction of sunlight off forest boughs crowding the side of the track. I supposed we must be nearing the Austrian border.

By the time I had taken my seat in the buffet car, we were slowing into the little station at the border post, the officers there very decently waiting until we first class passengers had finished dining before troubling us over passports.

My own inspection completed, I strolled the platform, taking my first proper breath of Austrian air, finding it piney-sweet with the lazy ripplings of the ocean of trees on every side. I caught the tang of wood-smoke, a thin and silvery plume unfurling amid the tree-tops banked high on the left of the track. Behind me, past the idling chuff of the engine, I discerned the roar of water through the gorge over which a bridge had just carried us. From that same direction came a clang of cow-bells, but the forest's immensest sound was the all-surrounding chatter of crickets. I raised my face to the sun and, in the instant before the glare forced my eyes to close, gained a vision of mountains staggered impossibly high above the highest firs, their grey and white crags where greens and browns could not reach melting into a paler shade of the blue the sky wore.

I was distracted by a compartment door's flapping wide and thumping against the wood alongside. Two of the station's officers were steering a young man from my carriage across the platform, his tall body hunched in its ill-fitting grey suit. He glanced my way, forcing a smile past his lop-sided moustache. Another officer opened the door of a little shack on the platform and the young man was hastened through, eyes directed forwards once again, the clench of his features reminiscent of a pupil at Burns Street Primary School being delivered to Mr. McAllion for a dose of the strap.

Our conductor was hurrying towards me, urging me to get aboard. I made the condition of my return an answer as to what was happening. "Fraulein, Fraulein, this... this is nothing for you to worry, " he said. "He is just... the man is, ay, ein Slav, ein Slavisches Kriminal, ein Serb. Or a… a suspect, to be sure, There is trouble, you see, with the, the politics today. Yes? They will put him on the next train if all is well. Now, please, we must keep time for Wien. Bitte."

I climbed aboard. We started off. Through the window of the door that had just been slammed at my back, I glimpsed the young man beyond the hut's window, caught by the sunlight blazing into the first couple of feet of an otherwise dark interior. He was taking off his jacket, an oval stain of sweat on the rear of his white shirt. I started towards my compartment, the conductor's portly wriggle along the corridor at my back closing off all other avenues. He was already forcing on me the menu for luncheon.


We raced on through the Salzkammergut, the Austrian equivalent of our Lake District, although far more richly-forested and steeper in its mountains, many of which still bore streaks of snow and precipitous expanses of glacier. The track snaked high above the lakes, their glassy surfaces painted the brightest of blues by the sky’s reflection.
We wound by onion-domed churches, schlosses, hunting lodges, lakeside hamlets, pausing at a few of the larger spa towns. My attention was drawn south towards the middle-distance and the jaggedness of the Dachstein alps, these marking the border between the Salzkammergut and the more secretive district of Styria, in which I had come to work.

Styria's proximity brought anxieties about my new post buzzing forth, sharper than ever in their stings to my confidence. Queen of this swarm remained the fabled Carla. Why, I asked myself for the thousandth time, was I being hired by Mr.Barsett as English tutor for his daughters when he already employed a governess who, though Austrian, had been leading the girls through their studies in English with, from the sound of things, an assured command of the language and literature? Or were Mr.Barsett's British agents merely being discreet when I raised the subject at my interview for the post? Did our shared employer bear some essential dissatisfaction with Carla's work; was he waiting merely to ensconse me in the schoolroom before dismissing her? Was my term to commence with the ugly scene of a colleague's being expelled? Would his daughters cheer her going or reject me as a paternal imposition?


It was late afternoon when the train reached Vienna's Westbahnhof. Gathering my three cases, I descended to the platform. It was, of course, a faux pas for a first-class passenger to stumble under the burden of her own luggage and a bull-like porter was soon wrestling the cases from my arms. He strode ahead, leaving me to keep pace as best I could. The platform itself was a torrent of dismounted passengers and greeters of passengers, amid which my eyes flitted in search of an employer I had never seen before.

The arrest of my porter just short of the gateway onto the concourse, seized by a figure darting from the thickest concentration of neck-craners and arm-wavers, prompted a flutter of anticipation in my stomach. But no: this little man, small and thin-boned in his fussy movements as one of the pigeons fluttering overhead, the sags and wrinkles on his gaunt face combining with the white stubble under his bowler hat to indicate the further end of middle age, jarred unacceptably with my hypothesised image of Mr. Kenneth Barsett.

All the same, the fellow was submitting my porter to an interrogation under which the bulkier man tilted and nodded like a tree given brisk chops halfway through its trunk. As I drew close, the little man faced me. "You are, excuse me," he asked, his accent the softest shade of German, "Miss Isobel MacMurdo?"

"Yes, yes, I - " I had begun, when a broad arm, jacketed in dark blue, stretched between us, its powerful hand, a hint of dark hair on the back, passing a half-smoked cigar to the bowler-hatted man, who took it not to smoke but to cradle, dutifully.

"Of couse you are," rumbled a voice to make me think of a bear taking its honey-fatted ease against a sun-warmed rock. The distinctly English intonation, a hint of the rural south-west buried, perhaps, beneath generations of refinement, made me turn with a shiver of certainty as to whom I should meet.

Mr.Barsett, dwarfing my anticipations, doffed his Homburg hat from a head of dark brown hair thinly templed with grey.

"One catches instantly the accents of Caledonia," he was saying. Although in early middle-age, he retained a hint of youthful muscularity, his square-boned face boasting a full but smoothly-trimmed moustache, its dark brown showing hints of the darkest reds.
"I'm Kenneth Barsett," he said, “your affectionate correspondent.” His warm paw of a hand closed about the slip of skin and bone I sent to meet it, his deep brown eyes staring into my waterier specimens as if he were taking a professional interest in the precise shade of their blue.

"Shall we trot?" he continued. He signalled the other man, who nodded and completed a muttering of instructions to the porter before sending the fellow before us, the little man then passing the cigar back to his master and facing me with a nod and a doffing of his bowler.

"This is my man Clemens," Mr.Barsett explained. "Valet, majordomo, guardian angel."

"Miss," nodded Clemens before popping the hat back on his head and scampering after the porter, whom he appeared to correct upon the holding of one of my bags at an inappropriate angle. With the slightest touch at my elbow, Mr.Barsett signalled that we should follow.

"How was your journey?" he asked. "You certainly had a pleasant day for hurtling the width of Austria."

"Yes, yes, it was beautiful, very... very beautiful," I replied, struggling to keep pace with his stride. "I look forward to seeing Styria tomorrow. Oh... will it be tomorrow?"

"What? Oh... oh, yes. I apologise for this roundabout route, but when your arrival coincided with my bringing Anabella here, well, I thought it might be as well for you to make the trip to Scharlachklippe with us. And it does afford you the chance for at least a glance around the capitol. Before we hasten you to less civilised parts."

"And tell me, your daughter... has the doctor here been able to help?"

"Oh, he's looked into this and that without, you know these experts, commiting himself to a straight answer. Nonetheless, she's perked up since we've been here. I suppose Anabella’s at that stage of young womanhood where they’re susceptible to all sorts of... influences. Perhaps it was just in her mind. We did get rather cooped up out there this last winter. At any rate, we can be off after breakfast tomorrow."

We had reached the doorway of the station and an onward view, over the cluster of motor cabs and horse-drawn carriages by the foot of the steps, to where sunlit streets streamed together from several directions, rumbling on into a broad main street, this leading towards the centre of the city, the richly ornamented facades of the buildings gleaming above the traffic like foam-bows.

A further touch at my elbow steered me down the steps and towards one motor cab in particular, Clemens shepherding both porter and driver through a geometrically precise loading of my cases. Mr.Barsett ushered me into the cab's back seat, squeezing his larger form through to join me as soon as he had clinked change into the porter's hand. Clemens and the cabbie climbed into the front seats, the former muttering what sounded like not merely the name of our destination but instructions as to the avoidance of every intervening bump in the road.

We roared from the kerb, swerving into that great shop-lined street, the cab weaving through a dense fabric of motor cars, wagons, carriages, hansoms and electric trams, the bright wood, metal and glass of all these dazzling in their play with the late afternoon sunshine. I glimpsed curvaceous rooftops with gilded slates; palatial shop-fronts with extravagant window displays; blue-robed madonnas and pinkish-plump cherubs painted immensely on church-fronts, the heavenly figures seeming to float on the intervening telegraph wires as surely as on their painted clouds, these jostled by the scarcely less numinous goddesses of artful, but somewhat immodest, advertising hoardings. Accustomed to the dour Protestant architecture of my native Glasgow, I felt as if I had stumbled into an operetta with a whole city for its stage.

Our path crossed the Ringstrasse enclosing the city’s medieval heart, the sky-impaling steeple and zig-zag patterned roof of St.Stephen's Cathedral rearing above the chocolate box facades like a Dies Irae disrupting a performance of Die Fledermaus. As our car turned by the Opera House - achitecturally, more fist in imperious gauntlet than gilded temple of frivolity - and swerved along narrower streets, the cathedral’s soot-dark sonorities kept reasserting themselves between the gaily-coloured shopfronts.

Our final swerve and halt swept away all intervening architecture, leaving me, as Mr. Barsett helped me climb out, peering up from close quarters at the cathedral’s rowdy gargoyles and grimy sculptings of saviours and angels and Our Ladies, my gaze reeling all the way to a roof and steeple seen from the perspective of a beetle in a giraffe’s shadow.

So thoroughly did the building seize the attention that I thought for a moment Mr. Barsett's influence must have allowed him to gain accomodation for us under that towering roof. It was only with another touch at my elbow that he drew my attention to the other buildings in this cramped corner of the plaza. The nearest of them, a short flight of marble steps climbing to a gilt-edged doorway in its butter-yellow facade, was our hotel.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013


I was almost at the car when a cry from Herr Taut made me glance up. A figure in overalls had bounded into view from the shadowed doorway and was hurrying down the steps, leaping two or three of them at a time. I think I was aware at once where I had seen him previously, but closer confirmation came when he reached the foot of the steps, ran around the rear of the car and, busy glancing sidelong at the alley I had just left, dashed straight into me, throwing both of us to the ground.

The shock of being plunged on my back amid lukewarm mud was superseded by the realisation that, in falling, my right arm hand had lost its grip on the glass unicorn. Wriggling about to look for it, catching the voices of Herr Taut and Jurgen as they shouted from the top of the steps, I saw the unicorn lying a yard further on from where I had landed, inches short of the scrambling hands and knees with which the escapee from the factory was raising himself. Drenched with the sandy brown mud though his clothes and face and dark hair and bushy moustache were, he was unmistakeably the figure I had seen lurking in the trees by the Barsett house the night before.

On his feet by the time I could struggle to my knees, the fellow glowered at me; I was unsure whether it was simple anger at my obstructing him or awareness of my recognition pressing such bestial furrows into his countenance. I heard Herr Taut call for the "Polizei!", the shout succeeded by the sound of several pairs of feet hurrying down the factory steps. The fugitive glanced to his right hand, expecting to find more than the empty palm he showed himself. He cursed in a language other than German, swivelling to survey the puddled ground.

When he lunged for the area where the unicorn lay, I was seized by the irrational supposition that theft of this was his intent; I threw myself flat across the mud to reach it before him. In this I succeeded, but only for his heel to fix that hand and the unicorn under its weight, probably quite unthinkingly, as he stooped to seize another object a few inches further on.

It was as he rose again that I suffered the fullest burden of his weight, my first reaction to the resultant cracking sound being that this was my bones splintering, a sharp pain piercing that left palm, forcing a cry from me, this in turn prompting a slippage aside of his heel. I looked up to see him stare quizzically down at me while wiping mud from an object in his hand, brushing it back and forth against the breastpiece of his dungarees, the better to confirm it as a revolver.

It was then I noticed that the sound of feet descending the factory steps had ceased, but also that the cries accompanying them had multiplied, grown shriller, and now seemed to be coming from both sides of the road. The figure above me cursed, then turned and and ran off along the street, heading toward the railway station.

I attempted to lift my hand off the unicorn, only to feel it stuck there by thin strands of pain. Raising myself onto the support of my knees and the other hand, I looked down to see that the unicorn had cracked in two, the blood stung from me by the sharp ends of either half thickening into a puddle. I staggered upright, pressing the palm with my other thumb to staunch the bleeding. The loudest call yet boomed from behind me on the side of the street opposite the factory, followed by the sound of running, splashing feet. I was about to turn and see who approached when I noticed that the fugitive, still no more than fifty feet from me, had stopped, turned, and was aiming his revolver in my direction.

I wondered if I was supposed to raise my hands and beg for mercy, but neither arm nor tongue could shift, burdened as they were by the thought of what the gun's barrel would look like, in a second or so's time, when a shot would likely blaze, immense, from its tiny dark spot, some scrap of metal, smaller still, snapping forever the life within me. At my back, the loudest of the footsteps had audibly accelerated yet sounded now as if they had the distance between Scharlachklippe and the moon left to cross.

White fire blasted from the barrel. I thought I glimpsed the approaching bullet amid a spray of pale smoke. I flinched my head to the right, closed my eyes, felt a punch of air through the curls above my left ear and found myself dropping to a squat, eyes opening to take in the sight of the imprint I had lately left in the mud. I put both hands out to steady myself, dizziness surging through my skull, the echo of the shot rolling by and leaving me stranded in absolute silence. The smell and taste of smoke and burning metal wrapped themselves about me. A bead of wetness seeped down my brow, along the bridge of my nose and dripped into the mud. I watched for the colour of the drip. It seemed transparent.

The silence began to recede, disclosing the sound of a pair of splashing footsteps. These, passing into the distance, seemed those of the man who had fired; a cautious look upward confirmed his figure as already a good deal further on towards the stockyard of the train station.

Rising, I glanced and felt about myself, making sure no wound was soaking through my hair or clothes, the sluggish ooze from my left palm the sole source of pain and bloodiness I could find. Becoming aware of a swelling babble behind me, I turned and saw the bullet's actual victim.

I knew instantly, across the distance of a good fifteen feet, that it was the blonde policeman earlier encountered in his arrest of the older man, recognition facilitated - as I hastened towards his sprawl - by the fact that in being hurled on his back by the shot he had lost his helmet, this leaving his blonde locks - in need of a trim, perhaps, given his station - standing out like spilled gold against the whiteness of his face and the powdery blue of his uniform.

Clustering about him were Herr Taut, Jurgen and several of the factory workers, the foremost among them striving to raise him to a sitting position, each pull on his shoulders evoking a wail of pain. Calling out that he ought to be left flat, I squeezed to his side, dropping to one knee and extending a hand I hadn't quite the nerve to lay upon him. A blot of purplish wetness was spreading through the blue of his tunic at the left side of his chest, a dark rip in the serge where the bullet had torn through what I took, from his laboured "hnnn... hnnn..." gasps and the bubblings of blood at the left corner of his greying lips, to be some portion of the lung.

The skin of his face was sweating to a blueish-green, his chalky-blue eyes wandering, blinking to clear spattered blood and perspiration, around those leaning over him, his look wary, childish, questioning, as if he had just wakened into his situation and was unsure if it wasn't we who had imposed it on him. He tried raising his right hand towards his head, either to tug his collar from the labouring muscles of his throat or to mop his face with his sleeve; but the exertion on that side briskly communicated pain to the wound on the other and he almost choked on the next breath, the hand stalling half way, Herr Taut easing it back to his side. A blow-fly buzzed around the salty beadings on his face, Herr Taut and Jurgen flicking at it, although one could hardly blame it for reacting so to the sour and earthy odour.

More splashing footsteps approached. Looking up, I saw most of the policeman from the other street come running into view, casting their comrade glances as they hurried past us and opened fire on the assassin, who had, by that time, shrunk to a speck against the sooty machineries of the stockyard. As the din of the shots hit him, the wounded officer squirmed against our attempts at restraint, thicker gouts of blood belching up, coursing down his cheek and puddling on the mud.

"Mein Helm!... Mein Helm..." he whimpered, glancing about, lips curled back across pink and scarlet teeth. Jurgen darted to where his helmet lay, close by the heel of the rearmost of the firing policemen. In snatching it up, he brushed the jackbooted heel. The officer turned, grabbed the chauffeur and pressing a smouldering gun barrel to his temple. The rest of us shouted in protest, but the loudest protest came from outwith our number and in brisk anglo-saxon.

"Bloody bullying bastards!"

Mr. Barsett raced to Jurgen's side, pushing the policeman aside, startling him into a defensive flinching of the gun under his left arm pit, as if he feared the newcomer might break his toy. Jurgen scrambled back to our little group, laying the helmet on the wounded man's chest with the awkward tenderness of one proffering a condemned man his final cigarette. The recipient, his head slightly raised as it rested on the knees of one of the factory workers, looked at the helmet with a tired thoughtfulness.

Then, with a grunt, he grabbed the helmet, tossing it, at arm's length, back in the direction from which it had been retrieved. The effort splashed a cough of phlegm and black blood across his chin. He spasmed onto his left side and out of the hands of those attending him. The left side of his face splashed into a shallow puddle, his last breath snorting crimson bubbles through the yellow water.

It was only then, with the shallowed blue of his right eye staring sightlessly up at the deeper blue of the sky, that I found I could touch him, laying the most tentative of hands upon the crumpled serge about his knee. Even through the thick, rough fabric, I could feel the leaden hollowness into which his form had already hardened. The clatter of the guns continued. I cursed them inwardly.

It was now Kanoff's turn to reach the scene, thumping through the mud like a circus elephant on its hind legs. He had a repeater rifle in his hands and had no sooner pushed his way to the forefront of his men than he was blasting off shot after shot. What efficacy this was intended to have was beyond me, for the gunfire had, by this point, choked the air in front of the line of officers with a gunpowder mist obscuring any view of the quarter into which the assassin had fled. But still they fired, reloaded, and fired on, as if the thickening of the mist, with its awful metallic odour, had become an end in itself.

Finally, realising perhaps that his men might run out of the bullets they would need for any sensible assault on their quarry, Kanoff yelled for them to cease and then ordered them into a swift advance on the stockyard. As they charged off through their own smoke, not a few of them succumbed to a coughing fit. Kanoff himself turned to face Mr. Barsett.

"You see?" he said. "Murderous vermin! And what, I ask, is to be done with them? I pray no man who should know better was such a fool as to give the serpent warning. Such a man would find this boy's death was his... his..." Clicking his plump fingers as he searched for the word, he looked down at those of us about the body. "Der knab ist tot?" he asked.

"Jawohl, Herr Kommisar," Herr Taut replied.

"The boy is dead," he said to Mr. Barsett, before pointing to four of the fitter men amongst our huddle and telling them to carry the body to the wagon. “We'll let, shall we, the slav pigs ride down the mountain with the stench of their victim, hmm, Herr Barsett?"

"That's your decision, Kanoff," said Mr. Barsett, striding to where I remained on one knee. "I’ve no vocation for undertaking. - Come along, Isobel."

He guided me to my feet. "Let's get home," he said, signalling to Jurgen. I wriggled from his grasp, hurrying to where I had abandoned the broken unicorn. But that was the area where the firing policemen had assembled most thickly and I found the spot trampled to a deeper swamp and littered with singed shell-cases. At first I thought the horse had been buried altogether, but then a few glints signalled its having been smashed past semblance of its moulded shape, the fragments scattered just enough distance to make a battlefield mock of its previous coherence.

The wound across my left hand panged. Mr. Barsett caught that hand by the wrist, raising the redness of the wound for examination. "Come, let's get this patched up," he said.
He steered me to the car, Jurgen doing an excellent job of bandaging before driving us clear of the town. Before long, we were crossing the bridge by the waterfall and climbing past the factory’s smoke, emerging into the purer sunlight of the upper mountainside.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

DANCES SACRED & PROFANE £0.99 on Amazon Kindle - this week only!

My novel DANCES SACRED AND PROFANE: A Gothic Romance... my deepest, richest, most ambitious work is available for Amazon Kindle all this week at a reduced price of £0.99. You can GET IT HERE... Here's a sample chapter to whet your appetite.

15./ I resumed my search for Anabella, clutching at her elder sister's suggestion that a second look at her bedroom would likely find her back beneath the sheets. Reaching her door, I found it closed, as I had left it, no illumination showing beneath. I pressed my ear to the wood, heard nothing, gave the door a discreet knock and then, when this went unanswered, clicked open the door.

My lamplight fell across Anabella. She lay face down beneath freshly-smoothed bedsheets, body animated solely by the slight rising and falling of her upper back in time to breaths drawn in deep slumber. I crossed to the bed, the doll on the wickerwork chair by the window watching me with those inescapable eyes often dispensed to humanity's simalucrums.

I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking aside a few wine dark curls that sprawled across the white pillow, better revealing the profile beneath, Anabella’s youthfully plump features bunched in sleep, a tiny sheen of saliva on the fabric below her half open lips. I turned to rise and found myself facing the figure in the wickerwork chair.

This was not the glass-eyed doll that had sat there a moment before, but the seated form of a tall, thin man, wizened skin taut across his skull, a widow's peak of dark grey hair equally tight across his scalp, a crumpled black suit loose as shovelled earth about his bones. His position in the chair suggested his staring at either myself or Anabella, but for the single moment I saw him the sockets of his eyes appeared either sunk in shadow or obscured by black spectacles, like those of a blind man. He was rising from the chair, or so I suppose, although my impression was more of his remaining seated but elongating his top half towards us, accompanied by a half sweet scent suggestive of wet earth and withered flowers.

I noted too, in that same instant, that his lap was heaped with what I took for half a second to be dead leaves, but which I then realised was a mingling of the corpses of small and scruffy birds with the limbs and severed heads of torn-apart dolls, all burnt black or bathed in oil, eyes of glass and eyes of flesh staring at me from the tangle. As the man’s lap began to rise in pursuit of the upper half of his body, this mess slid from his knees. As it slid, I saw two of the doll-eyes blink as if alive and helpless.

A bolt of flame flared up my lamp's glass chimney, dazzling me, then plunging me into darkness. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

CATCH MY BREATH - BBC Radio 4 Extra - Behind The Scenes - Part 2

My gothic horror serial CATCH MY BREATH is on BBC Radio 4 Extra once again this coming week, Monday 21st - Friday 25th October, 6pm every day, with a midnight repeat (and then each episode available digitally for 7 days afterward). So I thought I'd write a bit about the background of the story....

(Meanwhile, if you catch CATCH MY BREATH and like it, catch me LIVE at the London Horror Festival in my two shows there, the very vampiric BLOOD AND STONE: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory on Oct 30th and my Edinburgh Fringe hit 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS on Halloween.)

...So one night, while guiding up in the Cairngorms, I got the news - courtesy of a public phone booth in a remote highland village (a mobile signal - don't make me laugh....) that we were commissioned by BBC 7 (later Radio 4 Extra). My play about the expressionist poet Else Lasker Schuler, My Blue Piano, had been commissioned by Radio 4 around the same time, so it was a busy autumn shifting back and forth between the two projects. Director once again, as with all my BBC projects up to that point, was Bruce Young: we were a good partnership, in part because we were in many ways opposites in terms of aesthetic temperament, Bruce very pragmatic, keen on straightforward, coherent storytelling and an economical use of language, me the baroque fantasist, the reckless head-in-the-clouds dreamer. Even now, when I haven't done a production with him for some while, it's always a useful exercise to me to ask myself "What would Bruce say?" about this or that scene or speech or individual line of dialogue. He's certainly the guy who taught me the proverbial ropes in terms of radio storytelling and I owe him a lot.

A key contribution Bruce made was in pressing me to keep Strachan from being too straightforwardly villainous - my concern in the first draft or two was in making sure he was genuinely scary, but Bruce was insistent there be more to him than that. BBC directors are always too respectful of writers to tell you what to write, but they're good at discreet nudges - and so scenes like the attic scene between Strachan and the old man in episode 3, a scene in which we begin to get a sense of what an utterly lost soul Strachan is, a scene that's one of my favourites in the whole story, was very much my response to Bruce's promptings.

We recorded at a former school in a former school in the tiny village of Pencaitland in eastern Scotland. The old BBC radio studios in Edinburgh (where my first BBC play A Hundred Miles was recorded) had been shut down when the Beeb sold the property and while the BBC offices that now stand on Pacific Quay in Glasgow were being laboriously completed, with their own in-house studios, we used this tiny independent studio: all but Hundred Miles and Rough Magick of my BBC Scotland work were recorded there. I loved Pencaitland - cast and crew without their own transport would meet in Waverley Station in Edinburgh and be mini-bused for the better part of an hour out to this tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere. The studio was actually alongside a graveyard, where I used to go strolling in the coffee breaks, maybe a better setting for recording this sort of story than the corporate offices on Pacific Quay.

We had a good cast. Claire Knight was in BBC Scotland's soap River City, a good strong presence to hold the thing together. Suzanne Donaldson was more of a newcomer to radio, but I really liked her performance. I remember Suzanne telling me that she was a major Marilyn Monroe fan - and maybe there's a teeny whiff of Marilyn's influence in the way her characterization combines a sort of breezy sexual self confidence and a deeper vulnerability. We had Eileen McCallum as Isla Thorwald - a bit poignant for me as my grandmother had died just a couple of weeks before the recording: she was the biggest influence on me both as a human being and as an artist and she'd been a big fan of Take The High Road, the STV soap on which Eileen was the star, so she missed by a couple of weeks hearing one of her soap favourites appear in one of my dramas. (She was an even bigger fan of Frazer Hines - on account of Emmerdale rather than Doctor Who: if only she'd lived to hear Night's Black Agents a couple of years later....).

But another crucial bit of casting came with the character of Strachan himself. Bruce had an actor lined up - a very good actor who'd been in a couple of my previous pieces, but a middle-aged character actor, not necessarily the sort of radio presence who'd make you swoon over every syllable. There was, however, a scheduling conflict and with about a day to go, that actor pulled out and Bruce had to recast: maybe, as with Rochenda Sandall in Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, all major roles should be cast last minute, because as with Rochenda we wound up with someone brilliant, in the form of Liam Brennan.

I confess that when Bruce told me over the phone who he'd cast, my response was "Liam who?", Liam being primarily known as a classical actor on the Scottish stage, rather than TV or film. But he was utterly brilliant, all I could have asked for. Crucially, he connected with that aforementioned 'lost soul' aspect of the character: without his changing a single word of the script, I could see and hear him, day by day, deepening, expanding, the character beyond my own vision of it. That's the greatest part of being a playwright - when an actor, while respecting your text, gives it a richer life than you could ever have envisioned. It's like a parent seeing his or her kid doing something you never guessed the kid had in it. Just listen to him in the final scene between Strachan and Isla Thorwald in episode 5 and you'll hear what I mean....

As with Ghost Zone, we found an episode or two running too short in the recording, what with the hectic pace, so I had to write a couple of extra scenes at short notice. But one of these, the scene in episode 4 where Strachan does Colleen's make up for her, is almost my favourite in the whole thing. There's nothing overtly sexual in the scene, but it's a deeply creepy, sensual, fetishistic moment, more pervy and disturbing than any overt sex scene. That's one of the joys of writing a sexually-charged story in a very tightly censored medium - like Josef Von Sternberg in all those 30s Marlene Dietrich movies, you have to constantly find metaphors for the sexual aspects you can't portray directly. And the way Bruce directed the scene, so that in contrast to the material either side of it, it's all very S-L-O-W and hushed, almost if the actors were whispering in a trance, a kind of 'underwater' acting even, is really effective; I think it's almost my favourite bit of direction from Bruce on any of the shows we did together.

(Again, the scene in episode 3 with the horse falling over the cliff and dying very slowly and audibly while Strachan embraces Colleen above, shows how that kind of outrageous, bizarrely displaced imagery can be more sexual than any sex scene, that broken backed horse belching out blood and froth and screams a hundred feet below the lovers a bolder image of sexual violation than any sex scene could ever be: a kind of 'blatantly indirect' surrealist sexual fetishism.)

Things I wasn't happy about? Well, we had a genius doing the sound effects on Ghost Zone and we didn't quite have that this time around - the 'demons in the forest' FX could have been much better. I wish I'd breached recording studio etiquette and jumped in front of the mic myself when some of those demonic voices were being recorded (although I do appear as one of the cackling party guests in ep.4.) But all told, it was one of the productions I was happiest with - and it meant a lot, after all those years, to see my Primal Scenes trio of Kate, Colleen and Strachan gain the fullblown dramatic life so many other dream projects of those early years failed to achieve... an ongoing dramatic life given how often the BBC repeat it. Do tune in and listen at:

Friday, 18 October 2013

Catch My Breath - BBC Radio 4 Extra - Behind The Scenes Part 1

My gothic horror serial CATCH MY BREATH is on BBC Radio 4 Extra once again this coming week, Monday 21st - Friday 25th October, 6pm every day, with a midnight repeat (and then each episode available digitally for 7 days afterward). So I thought I'd write a bit about the background of the story....

(Meanwhile, if you catch CATCH MY BREATH and like it, catch me LIVE at the London Horror Festival in my two shows there, the very vampiric BLOOD AND STONE: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory on Oct 30th and my Edinburgh Fringe hit 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS on Halloween.)

We go back a long way do me and 'Catch My Breath' (on BBC Radio 4 Extra all this week LISTEN HERE.... It began one day in my teenage years when I came across a film still in a very highbrow movie magazine, a still from a German Expressionist silent film. I long since parted company with that magazine, but I have a faint memory that the still was supposed to come from the film Schatten / Warning Shadows... although I've since seen, and loved, that film and could nowhere see in it an image exactly matching the one I recalled from that movie magazine. But the still depicted a darkly handsome man holding a candelabra standing at the foot of a staircase and looking directly up at the camera. I don't think the accompanying article said anything about the narrative context of the image - it was a general survey of the German silent cinema - but there was a game I used to play in those days as a would-be writer, a sort of imaginative five finger exercise. I would look at a still from a film I'd never seen, about whose story I knew nothing, and make up my own story to go with the image. (I would also do this with titles of films I otherwise knew nothing about: I once got a great plot out of the title Spider Baby).

Anyway, I stared at this intriguing still, asking myself who is this man? What staircase is he stood at the foot at? And who is he looking at with that handsome but untrustworthy grin. And I started to come up with answers. He's in a grand house, he owns that house, he's welcoming us to that house, we're lost, we need someplace to stay, he's handsome, charming, seductive. But he's not to be trusted. He has a secret. A downright demonic secret.

It was just a game, but already it was the beginnings of an honest-to-goodness story and when I started to get serious about being a writer, clunking a typewriter onto a kitchen chair in my first Glasgow bedsit, I began using it as the starting point for a screenplay called 'Primal Scenes': there had been a brief boomlet in low budget British horror cinema and I thought, like many an ambitious tyro writer... who knows? Of course, like 99.9 % of screenplays it didn't have half a hope of actually being produced, although it did at least get me shortlisted for the National Film School's screenwriting course. But I didn't give up on the story, converting it into my first, abortive, attempt at writing a novel and then, when Ghost Zone was something of a hit on BBC 7 as (Radio 4 Extra then was) and I was offered the chance to do another serial for them, I decided to rework Primal Scenes into radio drama.

There was quite a bit of reworking required, as the change of title implies. The most obvious difference between Primal Scenes and Catch My Breath is that the two heroines of Primal Scenes were a mother, Colleen, and her daughter, Kate, both escaping suburbia and a violent / drunken husband / father. But when the chance to do the story for radio came along, I immediately wanted to change this: for one thing, I was aware of the radio convention that when there's a child character, directors tend to cast adult actors doing 'child voices' - and it's never really convincing. It's acceptable for a small part, but I didn't want the main actor through the whole 2 1/2 hours of a five part serial sounding like that, so I changed the situation to make Kate and Colleen both young women... though Kate's experiences with a violent father did find their way back into the plot - even more dramatically, in fact. And the dynamic of the two characters didn't even change as much as one might anticipate with a significantly younger Colleen still sexually self confident and an older Kate still implicitly virginal and fearful of the whole world of sexuality a figure like Adam Strachan embodies.

Furthermore, Primal Scenes had been much closer to a traditional vampire story - I was a child of Hammer Horror, the classy atmospheric gothic of Brides Of Dracula and Kiss Of the Vampire a particular influence. But by the time I did Catch My Breath, I'd been earning spare time money as a walking guide on the long distance paths of the Scottish highlands and, for the first time in my life, steeping myself in the supernatural folklore of my own country and culture, as distinct from that of Transylvania, or Bray Studios, or Hollywood. I can still remember the rainy, 'dreich' night in the King's House hotel out on Rannoch Moor when, huddling close to the fire in the bar, I fell into conversation with a much older hiker (from Aberdeen, I think), who'd caught me reading J.F. Campbell's Popular Tales Of The West Highlands and told me "Och, son, I ken a few mair fearful tales than yi'll find in an auld book like the yon." I called his bluff and he told me about a creature called a Beatha-Greimach that drew the breath from its victim's bodies. Instantly I was grabbing a beer mat and scrawling the name on the margin of a beer mat (like most names in Gaelic it doesn't look anything like how it sounds). This sounded fascinating: Scottish folklore doesn't have any vampires, but it's well known that it has creatures very close to the vampire, the beautiful female Leanhan Shee, for example, who may have been a stronger influence on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla or Bram Stoker's vampiresses than anything in Romanian folklore. Maybe that's what lies behind the fact that the four most important 19th century writers in the vampire genre were all Celts, or part-Celt at least; the Scots-Italian Polidori, the Scottish James Malcolm Rymer (Varney The Vampyre) and the Irish Stoker and LeFanu. What, I thought, if I ditched conventional vampirism in favour of a tradition of supernatural horror a Scottish author could truly call his own? One day that old man from the King's House bar is going to catch up with me and demand a 'finder's fee' at the very least!

Developing links with the Scottish folk tale tradition allowed me to go more into the origins of my supernatural villain, and that in its turn, allowed me to develop the character of Isla Thorwald, a character who existed in Primal Scenes solely as a babbling, toothless old crazy woman jumping out of the scenery occasionally to provide a scare or two, but who now became a major, developed character.

There were other, essentially practical changes. Primal Scenes was very much a film script, orientated around set pieces of visual action. There was a great scene, for example, where Kate tails Strachan all the way to the back streets of Glasgow, where she catches him 'in the act' with a young woman. Strachan chases Kate through the streets, he in a car, she on foot. She jumps on a train out to the countryside and he drives like a madman to head her off at the station. But that kind of purely visual, wordless action just doesn't work in the verbal medium of radio so you're better off reworking all that stuff into scenes that, though action-packed, are word driven.

The other main change came at a prompt from Patrick Rayner, head of drama at BBC Scotland. I'd been developing the idea with Bruce Young, the director, and we were all ready to go in terms of submitting the final pitch to the commissioning editor down in London, when on the day of the deadline Patrick got in touch to say he liked the idea, but we needed 'one more character': my storyline, devised initially for a two hour film might not have enough plot for a 2 1/2 hour radio slot. Panic! A whole other major character, with the deadline that afternoon? Who? Doing what?

So I took the dog for a very intensive walk around the local nature reserve and racked my brains. But something came to me very quickly. Originally, I'd purposefully not attempted to explain how a supernatural forest demon came to acquire a human name and identity: I thought it was fair enough in a gothic tale to leave some details shrouded in mystery. But then I thought there might be real dramatic potential in developing a human character from whom the demon's human identity was stolen. And, of course, to a writer in the Scottish gothic tradition, the tradition of Jekyll& Hyde and the Justified Sinner, the doppelganger aspects were irresistible. So suddenly there was an extra resident creeping around the upstairs recesses of the Strachan house. And the pitch made the deadline!

In part 2, I'll talk about the actual production.....

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk - BBC Radio 4 Friday

It was a few years ago now that in a reference book I encountered a mention of a Russian novella about a romantic murderess haunted by a ghostly cat. I sought out the story - it took a bit of searching! - and then a little while after encountered Shostakovich's opera based on the story: I remember getting hold of a box set CD of it just after getting my first ever BBC drama commission, for A Hundred Miles - another story set in Russia. In fact, I stole some Russian cuss-words for my play from the Russian libretto of the Shostakovich opera!

The Leskov story was always lurking somewhere at the back of my mind... I suppose its indirect influence can be seen in my novel Aztec Love Song...
Aztec Love Song - my novel
...which again features a very uncompromisingly murderous anti-heroine, although that's not set in Russia but in my own home town of Newton Mearns. But when Wireless Theatre Company, who'd produced Medusa On The BeachBlood And Stone (in conjunction with 3D Horror Fi) and Redder Than Roses asked for suggestions for an adaptation that could be pitched to BBC Radio 4, it was top of my list. And at last after a few rejiggings (it was going to be a 2 part serial, then a one hour one off, then suddenly a 45 minute afternoon play), it was commissioned - on a very hit-the-ground-running schedule.

But the piece basically wrote itself (sort of): the Leskov plot was so tight and brilliant, the only trouble was cramming everything (or nearly everything) in - and the short running time forced me to curb my more baroque flourishes in terms of language in favour of a terse, laconic style... which in itself suggested something of the dialogue in the 40s films noirs which we'd used as a reference point in selling the idea in the first place. And then suddenly we were round Cherry Cookson's house in the bright August sunshine, recording this evocation of Russia's chilly wastes in her back garden and her son's bedroom. And it all worked!

Good casting helped enormously. I've learned the hard way that the one thing a dramatist can't survive is miscasting - but here everything worked perfectly. We had a certain well known actress from a certain lah-di-dah high end soap lined up to play our anti-heroine Katerina, but she exercised a star's prerogative to drop you in the deep end at the last moment, forcing poor Cherry to recast over the phone while stuck in a traffic jam... she had an ex-student she thought might be able to handle the role, a prospect that gave one momentary pause... what was this - nepotism where we'd been after a Big Name??? But in fact Rochenda Sandall was/is utterly brilliant in the role - all this playwright could have asked for. Away from the mic, she's a bubbly laugh-a-minute young woman, in front of the mic she's fully wedded to the character's crazy, passionate intensity. If she's not a Big Name now, she will be very soon, I suspect.

As male lead we had Joe Armstrong. Joe was just back from holiday... unfortunately, he'd come back with a sore throat and worried about his ability to cope with the vocal demands of the role. That first day, he spent all his free time collapsed across a bed, trying to muster his strength for the next take, apologising to us, convinced he sounded like some hoarse subterranean monster in a horror flick, even as we kept reassuring him "No, no, Joe, it sounds fine." And then the second day his sore throat had miraculously cleared up - and now he worried he wouldn't sound like the same guy who'd done the other half of the scenes the day before. But again we reassured him that on-mic you couldn't tell the difference. And hearing him in the final cut was a revelation; they used to always say that when Gene Hackman acted on set, he hardly seemed to be doing that much, but then you saw him on screen you suddenly realised what a powerfully etched performance he'd created. Joe, I think, is a bit like that in front of a radio mic: what he does is very subtle, internal, he thinks deeply about what he's doing, asks a lot of questions... and you wind up, in Lady M with a performance of real power.

Backing those two up we had an ensemble of real skill, ranging from well known character actors to those who'd got their break through Wireless Theatre, such as Jessica Dennis who'd just given a terrific performance in another of my plays, Redder Than Roses, playing Mary, Queen Of Scots. Then the whole thing went into the editing suite... I was anxious about this as my previous BBC production Rough Magick had had to lose about 10 minutes in the editing room - and I was particularly worried the violence of the story would get cut away to nothing... and the hard clear eye Leskov has for violence is one of the great aesthetic virtues of his story - it's one of the great things Russians like Leskov or Dostoevsky do... they don't keep the hard dark edge of life at a genteel distance - like, for example, their English contemporaries. They go in hard for the hard gritty truths of life. A Glaswegian can relate to that....

Anyway,  the violence survived, as close to intact as I could have wished for (I'm willing to concede that in the script I maybe pushed a wee bit TOO far - rather than play safe!)... this is quite an intense piece when all's done and dusted. I have this fancy of folk listening on Friday after sitting through The Archers, thinking "19th century Russia? Set on a farm? Unhappy marriage? It must be like a sort of Russian version of the Archers...." and then getting knocked out of their seats by what we have for them.

Anyway, there it is -- and it goes out this Friday at 2.15 pm, and then onto the iPlayer for the next 7 days. I hope people like it... Radio Times certainly did. But it's the play I had in mind all along, certainly. It's not every time round I'm as completely happy with a production as I am with this - and for that I thank Cherry, Mariele and the wonderful cast (although I should add that if you listen very closely you can hear me shouting and mumbling in the background as a sort of extra filling out the crowd scenes... it's long been a tradition with me to do a bit of a 'Hitchcock' in my radio plays... I'm a soldier dying horribly in Ghost Zone (shortly to return to BBC Radio 4 Extra - and I'm a cackling demonic partygoer in Catch My Breath...)

Anyway, here's the link to the appropriate page on the BBC Radio 4 website - although it talks about my dialogue being 'Shakespearean'... not sure I can live up to that!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

REVEALED - My secret love affair with Elizabeth Bathory!

With my storytelling show about real life 'vampire' Countess Elizabeth Bathory coming up at the London Horror Festival on October 30th (and now booking, by way of link below!)...

Blood And Stone at the London Horror Festival website

Download audio drama of Blood And Stone here

..thought I'd throw in a few words about my lifelong secret love affair with 'Countess Dracula'...


We go back a long way together, Erzsebet Bathory and I. One of my earliest childhod memories is of a Saturday afternoon in the Govanhill area of Glasgow when I badgered my parents to let me spend my pocket money on a book I had just seen in a shop along the road: the novelisation of Hammer Films’ version of the Bathory story Countess Dracula. My Mum and Dad, to be fair, were less worried about my exposure to the horrors within those pages (I was already the kind of kid allowed to sit up in his Star Trek pyjamas to watch the late night horror film on TV), than concerned over the waste of money on a book surely unreadable to a child with his age still in single figures. (“Think of all the long words,” I remember my Mum saying.) But I persevered and soon had my hands on my very first ‘grown-up’ book, with its gorgeous front cover of a beautiful young Ingrid Pitt and its disturbing back cover image of a grotesquely aged Pitt shoved in her prison cell at the end of the film (which therefore ends just before BLOOD & STONE begins.) And within those covers I was introduced to at least a fictionalised version of the great lady, right at the absolute inception of my literary life. She has haunted me ever since.

How could she not? As someone who firmly believes that great horror is achieved when – and only when - horror and beauty ring out at the same instant (No beauty? Then I’m not interested.), this woman, simultaneously magnificent and beautiful and monstrous beyond conception, might stand as the sheerest embodiment of that aesthetic, less a commonplace serial killer (yawn...) than a kind of wondrous, terrible Goddess of death, like Kali or Medea, Hecate or Clytemnestra.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, a childhood blessed with the true writer’s ability to promiscuously mingle ‘fact’ and fantasy, the tenement building in Glasgow’s Catchcart Road which housed that newsagent’s shop became for me the home of Countess Bathory. I would look at the dusty upper windows of that tenement and visualise the Countess locked up in there – for it was the image of the imprisoned Countess of her latter years that truly haunted my imagination. (Likewise, the toy shop across the street where I bought a model kit of Doctor Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde housed, in my imagination, that very laboratory somewhere in its back shop.)  

And so, inevitably, I dreamed of one day creating my own artistic, dramatic vision of the Countess. The basic plot of BLOOD & STONE was already at least half-formulated in my mind by my teenage years, but I dithered over getting it down on paper, fearful perhaps of doing justice to the great lady, but also at a loss to think who would produce such a grim, gothic story. It hardly seemed material for the BBC or the Royal Court!

Then, when a backpacking trip around Austria saw me basing myself in Vienna, in a hotel room so cheap the window looked out on a romantic airshaft heaped with dead pigeons, I felt the Countess herself taking a hand in the matter. There’s no time to deal with this in BLOOD & STONE, but not all the Countess’s atrocities were committed in her Hungarian Castle. She also had a townhouse in Vienna, just behind the Imperial Court (signifying how highly ranked her family were in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy) and committed some of her crimes there. The monks on the other side of the street used to chuck pots across at her window when the screams of tortured girls disturbed their devotions – but never thought of reporting someone so important to the authorities. Vienna doesn’t publicise her its Bathory connection like it publicises Mozart, but after a bit of detective work at the Vienna police museum, I worked out her Vienna address and made my way there after dark one night.

The street is narrow, poorly lit and with houses that seem to lean towards one another across the street in Caligari fashion. The doorway that once been hers was large but drably painted and many of the floors above in a building now split into offices and apartments looked empty, derelict, buried in dust. I couldn’t help but picture her staring out of the uppermost windows, haunting the spot still. And, standing there, I happened to glance a few doors along to the window of a small record shop on the same block. Two big musicals were playing in Vienna that year: one of them, Elizabeth, portrayed the tragic 19th. Century empress ‘Sissi’, Austria’s very own Princess Di. The other show was Tanz Der Vampyr, a musical based on Roman Polanski’s film Dance Of The Vampires (aka Fearless Vampire Killers). But the way the posters for the two shows were juxtaposed in the window, one above the other, meant that what I saw when I glanced that way was the dim lamp light falling across two words only:
                                    VAMPYR ELIZABETH
It was like a sign, direct from the ghost of the lady herself to my own imagination. I turned away, hurried back up the street towards the brighter lights and broader byways around the opera house. And I swear I could hear the moth-eaten folds of her gown hissing after me up the pavement, pursuing me all the way back to the grey shadows of that hotel room. That night I felt her crawling into my skull.

After that, I had to write something. The first form the idea took on paper was that of a stage play entitled Laundry, but this was a different piece from BLOOD & STONE: the bare bones of the plot were identical, but Laundry updated the story to modern Eastern Europe, both under and after Stalinism and was written in a surreal, absurdist style closer to Ionesco or Kafka or Durrenmatt than to a straightforward horror story. Inevitably, perhaps, no one knew what to do with a play so wilfully off-beat and peculiar so the script lay gathering dust, like the Countess’s ghost up behind those Vienna windows.

But still I couldn’t let go of her; or she wouldn’t let go of me. The idea came to me to take the story back to what it had been in the first place: a pure no-bullshit gothic horror story, 17th. Century castle setting and all. When I took up professional storytelling, I performed a rough-and-ready 25 minute version of Blood And Stone during one of my regular stints with the Storytellers Of Nottingham in Nottingham’s haunted Trip To Jerusalem pub. It worked well, but seemed too big and intense for that tiny venue and limited slot, so I thought about developing it further as a full length piece in its own right. Meanwhile,
I pitched it tentatively to BBC Scotland as a radio play, but they took understandable fright at the thought of something so dark and nasty coming on straight after The Archers. Then Mariele Runacre Temple, who’d already produced another play of mine, Medusa On The Beach, for her Wireless Theatre Company dropped me a line about a new audio drama company being set up specially to focus on horror drama. And I knew in an instant that the ghost which had trailed me along the Vienna streets that night, which had maybe been trailing me all the way from that Glasgow street of my childhood, had found a home.

BLOOD & STONE was recorded in a spooky Norfolk church and then released, through 3D Horror Fi, Wireless Theatre Company, Amazon Audible, iTunes etc. and was very well received, ultimately earning a 2012 Rondo award nomination. But the tight hold the Countess had taken of me meant it wasn’t enough to just write a script and let others perform it – that dream of a longer storytelling version offered me the chance to bring to fruition my own inner Countess, to fully channel the way, years before, I’d felt her spirit creeping into me, whether in the streets of Glasgow or Vienna. Storytelling, when it’s really going full tilt, has an almost Shamanic quality… one feels the characters are passing through one like spirits, like you’re a medium, an intermediary, between your audience and the world of the dead. And, God help me, as I rehearse Blood And Stone, day and out, as I twist mind and voice and body into the Countess’ stark contours, it really feels as if there’s more than my imagination at work, as if something/someone who followed me home, skirts a-rustle that night in Vienna is slipping on my skin and bones like a ragged ballgown, a pair of dark gloves, a tragic mask for a tragic (anti) heroine…..

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

21st Century Poe at the London Horror Festival on Halloween - press release

Just pasting in here press release for my other show at this year's London Horror Festival, 21st. CENTURY POE: FALLING FOR THE USHERS, recently such a success in Edinburgh. If anyone reading this or the press release for BLOOD AND STONE: A LULLABY FOR ELIZABETH BATHORY, my other London Horror Festival show, wants to get on with buying some tickets, here are the appropriate links:
21st Century Poe: Falling For The Ushers
Blood And Stone: A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory

Anyway, here's the press release:

London Horror Festival
19.30, 31st. October 2013, Etcetera Theatre, Camden (Tickets £10)

Marty Ross (BBC Radio horror; Doctor Who audio) drags Edgar Allan kicking & screaming into the modern world – just in time for Halloween & the London Horror Festival!

In the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the same opening note is struck again and again: an isolated, tormented narrator wants – needs! – to tell us of his strange experiences. They are ideally suited, therefore, to contemporary theatre’s great comeback kid, the most ancient and suddenly most modern form of narrative theatre: live storytelling. But Marty Ross, a storytelling ‘modernist’ keen to shift this resurgent form away from backward looking quaintness, has no intention of presenting Poe’s stories as period pieces: rather he radically updates them to our era – shifting the setting to his native Glasgow. Fresh from critical raves and full houses for three of his 21st. Century Poe stories at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Ross now brings his reinvention of Poe’s most famous tale to the London Horror Festival – on Halloween!

Well established as a playwright, particularly with dark drama for BBC radio (Ghost Zone, Catch My Breath, Darker Side Of The Border, this month’s Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk), plus Doctor Who & award-nominated Dark Shadows audio drama, as well as Blood And Stone, nominated for a 2012 Rondo Award (horror fandom’s Oscars) and also presented at this year’s London Horror Festival  (Oct 30th), Marty Ross onstage is a whole dramatis personae in himself, using expressionistic mime and gesture as well as evocative words, shifting fluidly between the strange and troubling characters of his story - in which haunted, incestuous twins Roderick and Madeline Usher have left behind the misty gothic manor of the Poe tale to become superstars of the contemporary art world, thanks to their macabre conceptual installations in the manner of Damien Hirst and the Chapman Bros. But when Madeline’s old art school admirer Ed shows up, their tragic fall is as inescapable as ever….

Critics at the Edinburgh Fringe knew they had seen something special. Now London can see how cutting edge this most traditional form of theatre can be….

“Insanely good storytelling… a master craftsman who never turns down the pressure… Ross’ violently impressive performance make this a heart-pounding triumph… Trainspotting meets gothic horror….” – Broadway Baby *****

“Ross has a great aptitude for suspense and terror, and he hurls himself into his tale with energy and passion, in words which ring with Glasgow rhythm. An accomplished piece of work… a chilling conclusion.” – The Scotsman

“Visceral. A compelling narrator and onstage presence. … left you thinking as well as reeling… theatre that kept you on edge… an immensely entertaining ride that scared and shocked in equal measure – a fair ground ghost ride for the 21st Century….” – Fringe Review

“…What Marty Ross does with literature’s most mystical and macabre works is make them sing with new energy and beguile an audience all over again…. poetically re-worked ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ manages, in its modernisation, to preserve and revere the original, even intensifying its impact… a bewitchingly good story that leaves a haunting reminder long after the lights have gone down.” - 3 Weeks ****

Festival website:

Monday, 23 September 2013

BLOOD & STONE - A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory

Just pasting in here press release for Blood And Stone - the storytelling show I'm doing at the London Horror Festival on October 30th. Be there AND be scared! (And maybe moved - in a weird kind of a way...)

BLOOD & STONE – A Lullaby For Elizabeth Bathory
London Horror Festival
19.30, 30th. October 2013, Etcetera Theatre, 265 Camden High Street
London NW1 7BU (Above Oxford Arms pub), Camden (Tickets £10)

1610: Hungary’s real life ‘vampire’ countess is imprisoned in her castle, the most prolific serial killer in history. But at this year’s London Horror Festival, storyteller Marty Ross is going to set her free….

It’s one of history’s great horror stories – the Countess who bathed in blood to preserve her beauty. It has inspired horror films from Hammer’s ‘Countess Dracula’ to recent efforts starring Julie Delpy and Anna Friel. Those accounts have focused upon the Countess’ gory heyday, but the emphasis in Marty Ross’ storytelling show is on the aftermath… the ageing Countess punished by being locked for years in a lightless chamber in her castle, her hunger fierce as ever. Blood And Stone imagines a young maid listening to the Countess’ protestations of innocence - and being lured into unlocking the door of the cell….

Those who saw storyteller Marty Ross’ performances at last year’s London Horror Festival, or at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, will know his storyteller’s ability to shape-shift through the forms and voices of a myriad of strange characters, male and female. Well established as a playwright, particularly with dark drama for BBC radio (Ghost Zone, Catch My Breath, Darker Side Of The Border, this month’s Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk), plus Doctor Who & award-nominated Dark Shadows audio drama– as well as the audio drama version of Blood And Stone, nominated for a 2012 Rondo Award (horror fandom’s Oscars) - as a storyteller he is a whole dramatis personae in himself, a key figure in the current revival of this oldest – and yet suddenly most modern - of theatrical forms. As Broadway Baby said of his show 21st. Century Poe (also at the London Horror Festival on Halloween), “Ross is a master craftsman who never turns down the pressure, painting vile pictures and weaving a grotesque spell over his listeners… Certain images were so repulsive that people in the front row were noticeably squirming”. Using not just powerful words, but mime and gesture indebted to the likes of German Expressionism, Ross’ storytelling is more Theatre Of Cruelty than Book At Bedtime, creating vivid on-stage images, even as he projects more scarifying images still into the audience’s imaginations… which is where the really scary stuff  always happens….

Reviews for Ross’ storytelling at the Edinburgh Fringe:

 “Insanely good storytelling… a master craftsman who never turns down the pressure… violently impressive….” – Broadway Baby *****

“Ross has a great aptitude for suspense and terror… chilling.” – The Scotsman

“Visceral. A compelling narrator and onstage presence. … left you thinking as well as reeling… theatre that kept you on edge… an immensely entertaining ride that scared and shocked in equal measure – a fair ground ghost ride for the 21st Century….” – Fringe Review