Friday, 28 November 2014

Two-Fisted Tales:
The Lost Continent
by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(Tandem 1977, originally published 1916)

After posting the covers of some Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks a few months ago, I promised myself I’d finally give some of his writing a try, and, well, here we go.

Moreso than a Tarzan jungle adventure or Martian daring-do with John Carter, this curious little volume seemed a good entry point. (Nifty cover art too – sort of psychedelic/abstracty yet peculiarly specific and detailed at the same time… sure I recognize the style, but my mind is sieve-like as usual and I can’t put a name to the uncredited artist.. any ideas?)

Anyway: published just prior to the USA’s entry into the First World War, ‘The Lost Continent’ posits a 22nd Century future wherein the continent of America, combined into a single confederacy, has thrived in utopian fashion for over two centuries whilst maintaining a policy of strict isolationism from the rest of the world.

The Americans, we infer, more or less washed their hands of an increasingly war-torn Europe at some point during the 20th century, and henceforth, knowledge and discussion of the world beyond America was actively discouraged, whilst Pan-American ships continue to patrol the 30th and 175th meridians on each side of the continent, ensuring that nothing crosses in either direction. (This is the origin of the novella’s original title, “Beyond Thirty”, wisely dropped here lest anyone think ERB had turned out some introspective work of pre-middle age ennui.)

It is on-board one of these patrol vessels that we meet Lieutenant Jefferson Turck, a hero in what I assume to be the classic Burroughs mold, his achievements exaggerated to the extent that he quite possibly makes Tarzan look like a wuss. Though only twenty one years of age, Turck tells us in his first person narration, he has made love to innumerable women of a wide range of age groups and social classes, has successfully fought numerous duels, and has risen to the rank of Lieutenant in the proud Pan-American navy, gaining him sole command of a mighty Aero-submarine.

Winding down after presumably spending the day cracking granite blocks with his chin, Lieutenant Turck is also quite the scholar, and in particular has spent a great deal of time covertly studying the forbidden, ancient texts of Old Europe, giving him a persistent fascination with the world that lies “beyond 30”, and a burning curiosity about what may have become of it since America severed contact.

As readers might well have anticipated, a series of unfortunate events soon see Turck and a few of his men stranded on the wrong side of the dreaded 30th in a small motor launch, and, with no hope of making it back to American shores before fuel and provisions run out, the captain, natural leader that he is, takes the bold decision to continue Eastwards towards the British Isles, making he and his comrades the first Americans in over two centuries to set foot on those hallowed shores.

Much to our hero’s disappointment however, very little remains of the grand empire he has read about. England itself is little more than an overgrown wilderness with all traces of civilization apparently obliterated. This savage wasteland is populated, somewhat improbably, by ravenous hordes of lions, tigers and elephants (the descendants of zoo escapees, we’re told), with its human inhabitants limited to just a few scattered groups of stone-age primitives (who helpfully speak English, and have names like “Buckingham” and “Johnson”).

Clearly a man who likes to get things done, barely a chapter has passed before Turck has blasted his way through hordes of the local wildlife, floor-punched a few cavemen and hooked up with ‘Victory’ (wink wink), the beautiful, fur-clad teenage princess of what remains of the once proud nation of “Gerbriton”.

It is in her company that Turck finds himself navigating the lion-infested ruins of London’s South Bank, where the pair explore the remains of what was once a grand royal palace. I'm not quite sure where this might have been, as the action is still definitely South of the river at that point (maybe Burroughs’ grasp of London geography wasn’t all that?), but nonetheless, it is here that our hero finally gets an insight into the horrors that transpired in the decades after America turned its back.

“Beneath the desk were a pair of spurred military boots, green and rotten with decay. In them were the leg bones of a man. Among the tiny bones of the hands was an ancient fountain pen, as good, apparently, as the day it was made, and a metal covered memoranda book, closed over the bones of an index finger. It was a gruesome sight – a pitiful sight – this lone inhabitant of mighty London.

Only here and there was a sentence or part of a sentence legible. The first that I could read was near the middle of the little volume:

‘His Majesty left for Tundridge Wells today, he… jesty was stricken… terday. God give she does not die… am military governor of Lon…’
And further on:
‘It is awful… hundred deaths today… worse than the bombardm…’
‘Thank god we drove them out. There is not a single… man on British soil today; but at what awful cost. I tried to persuade Sir Philip to urge the people to remain. But they are mad with fear of the Death, and rage at our enemies. He tells me that the coast cities are packed… waiting to be taken across.”

And the last entry:
‘…. Alone. Only the wild beasts… A lion is roaring now beneath the palace windows. They say the people feared the beasts even more than they did the Death. But they are gone, all gone, and to what? How much better conditions will they find on the continent? All gone – only I remain. I promised his Majesty, and when he returns he will find that I was true to my trust, for I shall be awaiting him. God save the King!’

Some of the entries had been dated. From the few legible letters and figures which remained I judge the end came some time in 1937, but of that I am not at all certain.”

With Victory in tow, Turck and his men make it as far as Germany without encountering anyone remotely civilised, at which point they find themselves falling into the hands of an advance party from the Abyssinian Empire, a black super-state who, having solidified their command of Africa and the Middle East, are starting to have a bash at repopulating Europe too.

Refreshingly, the appearance of this black empire in the story doesn’t prompt quite as much out-right racism as you might have expected from WW1-era pulp, even if the standard eugenic fallacies of the era are still in full effect. Though they are eventually revealed as a bit of a barbarous rabble in comparison to the book’s other global superpowers, Burroughs does at least find time to credit the higher ranks of African society with at least some level of intelligence and ‘nobility’, whilst the scenes depicting whites being enslaved and generally belittled by their black ‘superiors’ tend to read more as a “flip the script” condemnation of contemporary racism than as a nightmare offered up to the (presumably white) readership.

All this is pushed into the background however at the book’s conclusion, when the Abyssinians’ European capital on the site of the former Berlin is violently overrun by their main competitor in the Eastern hemisphere – the fearsome Pan-Asian coalition overseen by the Emperor of China. Oh dear.

Well, thankfully, ERB seems pretty chilled out with the notion of a Far Eastern military empire too, despite this being the era of Sax Rohmer and the “yellow peril”, and it turns out that these the Asians, brutal suppression of the Africans notwithstanding, are the height of politeness, and treat Turck splendidly, acknowledging his position as a dignitary of a distant kingdom and treating him and his barbarian bride to an all-expenses paid tour of their happy and enlightened empire before arranging to send him home across the Pacific. So there ya go – a happy ending to a rip-roaring, all-action pulp rollercoaster of wanton brutality, barely suppressed eroticism, universal heroism and speculative genocide, all delivered by Burroughs in fast-paced, no nonsense fashion – a writing style as blunt and reliable as a Victorian train schedule.

Although numerous films named ‘The Lost Continent’ have appeared over the years, none of them have actually been based on this story, which to my knowledge has never been adapted for the screen at all - perhaps understandable given a) the kind of budget necessary to realise Burroughs’ vision, b) the story’s historical irrelevancy post-1917, and c) the fact that the hero spends much of his time shooting endangered species in the face.

Regarding point b), as is usually the case with science fiction of a certain age, ‘The Lost Continent’ tells us more about the time in which it was written than anything else, with the thinking that led to its now utterly fantastical prediction for the future anchoring it squarely within the brief window between the outbreak of WW1 in Europe and the USA’s decision to join the conflict in April 1917.

To modern readers, ERB’s take on things will seem odd and rather hypocritical – numerous allusions in the text make it clear that the author must have been deeply horrified by reports of trench warfare in Europe, yet he still seems keen to judge the merits of a civilization by the size and prowess of its armies, and seems happy to leave us with a conclusion in which the Earth is equally divided between two vast and apparently benevolent military powers (the question of how long they’ll be able to co-exist in harmony is never raised).

Clearly the overriding “war to end all wars” mentality and the humbling of Europe’s empires that followed 1918 had not yet taken hold when Burroughs was writing, and as an example of an everyday (non-academic/philosophical) voice struggling to find a way to square up the terrible events of 1914-16 with an ingrained faith in the sureties of 19th century imperialism, the rather conflicted point of view expressed through ‘The Lost Continent’ is quite fascinating.

A bit of a weird historical cul de sac admittedly, and one that was rendered wholly irrelevant mere months after ‘Beyond Thirty’ was published in magazine form (perhaps accounting for the story’s swift disappearance and relatively low profile within the ERB canon), but - interesting nonetheless, and maybe even slightly poignant too; there is a shaky thread of humanitarianism and fear for the future here that endures despite the story’s super-charged pulp bluster.

And the ‘worst cover’ award goes to...

File just above Tutis in the "conscious thought but just barely" category.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Adventures of Zatoichi
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964)

Arriving at a remote market town a few days before New Year’s Eve with the intention of watching the first dawn of the new year from the summit of a nearby mountain, Zatoichi regrettably finds his social skills stretched to breaking point as he attempts to deal with a disorganized rabble of supporting characters who between them seem to represent all of the various archetypes we’ve seen in the series thus far.

In no particular order, we have a sister pining for her brother (an exiled village leader who has just escaped imprisonment), another woman searching for her long lost father, a corrupt magistrate and his toadying local gang boss who are busy exploiting the local market traders with unfair taxes, a pair of lovable orphan acrobat kids, an obligatory surly lone wolf sword-master out for Ichi’s blood, another somewhat shabbier low rent ronin who’d prefer to keep out of his way if possible, an irascible drunk who may or may not be Ichi’s own long-lost father, and even a few guest-spots for a traditional comedy double-act whom one assumes must have been quite popular in Japan at this point.

Perhaps annoyed by the fact that none of this lot seem able to pull together much in the way of a compelling central storyline between them, Ichi patiently waits it out for eighty minutes then hits the bad guys’ HQ and arbitrarily kills a bunch of people before finally getting to enjoy his bloody sunrise in peace.

By this point, it would seem surplus to requirements to write a great deal about this rather middling entry in the Zatoichi series, whose Japanese title literally translates as the slightly more exciting-sounding “Zatoichi Storms the Government Checkpoint”. Basically I think, the problem here lies with scriptwriter Shozaburo Asai’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to plotting, and director Yasuda’s corresponding failure to really get to grips with the resultant dangling plot threads, or to figure out where to best concentrate his efforts, resulting in a sense of inertia and vague pointlessness that permeates the whole movie.

There seems to be some sort of vague theme of parental responsibility and the search for absent fathers running through the various storylines, but the film fails to really develop this is any satisfactory manner, and the sub-plot about Ichi finding echoes of his own father in the town drunk seems like a slightly cynical tug at the audience’s heart-strings, even if strong performances from the players concerned ensure that it plays out fairly well.

On the plus side, production values here are, as ever, top notch, with a bold new orchestral score from Taichirô Kosugi standing out, and intermittent examples of some of the most vivid photography yet seen in the series (which is saying something). Crowd scenes are rich with detail and incident, and the film gives us a nice glimpse into the traditions and good cheer that surround New Year’s celebrations in Japan, even if the set-bound nature of much of the action is regrettably obvious in places.

Shintaro Katsu is on fine form as usual, even if he does seem to be more or less treading water here, failing to really push the limits of his character the way he did in the last few films, and elsewhere, highlights come in the form of some superbly choreographed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sword exchanges between Ichi and the wolfish ronin, with some classic Zatoichi visual gags incorporated into the fight scenes. Real laugh-out-loud stuff, even if the “Ichi cuts stuff in half and nobody notices” trope has just about been milked for all its worth by this point.

At the end of the day, even lesser Zatoichi installments still make for fine entertainment, so I don’t want to rag on this one too harshly. At best, it has a kind of cheery “comforting communal viewing” feel to it, making it the sort of thing I can imagine going down very well on festive TV schedules over in Japan, but, well – as far as the wider series goes, it ain’t a stand-out, let’s just leave it at that.

Functioning as a kind of “new year’s special”, presumably planned to cash in on that season’s big movie market in Japan (damn, I should have reviewed it next month), ‘Adventures..’ (I really want to call it “Zatoichi Storms the Government Checkpoint”) marked the end of a phenomenally busy year for the franchise. Next month, we’ll be striding boldly on into a bright new 1965, with Akira Inoue’s ‘Zatoichi’s Revenge’, which debuted in April of that year.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Ken Takakura
(1931 - 2014)

Japanese movie fans are today reeling from the news that Ken Takakura, an absolute titan of the country’s popular film culture, has passed away at the age of 83.

Though predictably little known overseas, Takakura is a star who seems to have very much earned the overused epithet ‘iconic’, pretty much single-handedly embodying the figure of the noble, heroic lone wolf doomed by the obligations imposed by his conflicting loyalties, a role he perfected across dozens of examples of the ninkyo (noble) yakuza genre that dominated the box office through the 1960s – most notably, in the phenomenally popular Abashiri Prison and Nihon Kyokaku-den (Legends of Japanese Chivalry) series. He later popped up in a few Hollywood productions (Sydney Pollack’s ‘The Yakuza’, Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Rain’), but it is for his 150+ appearances in Japanese genre films that he will primarily be remembered.

Takakura’s IMDB bio insists that he was known as “the Japanese Clint Eastwood”, but from speaking to Japanese people and reading about his films, it seems to me that a closer analogue might be someone like Bogart or John Wayne (or perhaps Peter Cushing for us horror fans) – an actor who is seen as being inseparable from a certain set of beliefs and values, whose very presence brings a sense of stoic dignity and pathos to everything he appears in, and who, as a result, is much loved by his public on a level that goes far beyond his mere talents as an actor.

I can’t claim very much personal experience of Takakura’s acting - the majority of his films have not travelled far, and are probably too staid and old-fashioned to gain much traction on the fan/bootleg circuit from which I source much of my Japanese viewing. But, by way of a low-key tribute to a guy who nevertheless had a huge influence on an area of cinema I love, above are scans of two postcards I picked up in Tokyo earlier this year, featuring artwork by acclaimed collage artist (and Takakura mega-fan) Yokoo Tadanori.

The first is a poster used to promote a festival of Takakura’s films in New York in 1979, and the second is entitled “A Ballad Dedicated to the Small Finger Cutting Ceremony”, created back in Takakura’s heyday in 1966. Great stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Shadow Over Mount Sharon
by Frances Y. McHugh

(Belmont Tower, 1968)

Yet another addition to my collection of ’60 / ‘70s gothic horror/romance paperbacks. I’ve pretty much given up buying these because they’re so interchangeable and there’s just so damn many of them, but the lovely cover illustration on this one won me over.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Valkoinen Peura /
‘The White Reindeer’

(Erik Blomberg, 1952)

Although the roots of Finland’s film industry date back to the silent era, relatively few features made in the Finnish language have travelled beyond the country’s borders over the years, and its perceived contribution to commercial/genre filmmaking remains negligible. As such, it’s safe to say that ‘Valkoinen Peura’ (‘The White Reindeer’), a full strength supernatural horror film that concentrates entirely upon the oldest and most isolated aspects of the nation’s culture, must have been quite a novelty for international viewers back in 1952. (All the more so, given that it appeared right in the middle of the horror genre’s “dead zone” that stretched roughly from the tail end of the Universal/RKO horror cycles in the mid ‘40s to ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1957.)

With this in mind, you can appreciate that we’re looking today at a pretty unique motion picture, and indeed, perhaps it was this very sense of geographical novelty that led to the inclusion of a great deal of what seems almost like straight documentary footage in ‘The White Reindeer’, as director Erik Blomberg sets out to document (or at least, purports to document) the almost entirely reindeer-based culture of the Sámi people in the mountainous region of the country’s far North (more colloquially known as Lapland).

Due to the sheer unfamiliarity of the setting, modern viewers will likely be uncertain whether or not the film is meant to be taken as a period piece. The elaborate folk costumes and complete lack of references to modernity certainly suggest as much, but then, can we really say with any great authority that folk in rural Lapland didn't live like this at around the mid-point of the 20th century?

Certainly, many of the film’s early scenes carry a strong feeling of realism, and much of the footage – including rousing scenes of reindeer-racing on purpose-built snow slaloms and people travelling from place to place via the use of small, intricately carved ‘snowboats’ – is absolutely fascinating, culminating in one extraordinary moment in which we see a young woman on skis casually grasping a wild reindeer by the antlers and wrestling it to the ground.

Even if their garb and behavior may be to some extent contrived by the filmmakers, incidents like this are difficult to fake, and it is certainly easy to believe that the people on-screen did more or less live the life assigned to them in the film, just as it is no surprise to discover that director/cinematographer Blomberg actually spent the majority of his career working on documentaries for Scandinavian TV.

Alongside this documentary-style approach though, Blomberg also draws deep from the well of classic Hollywood romanticism, as witnessed by the stunning, high contrast b&w photography used to frame the snow-covered landscapes, alongside frequent close ups of leading lady Mirjami Kuosmanen that see her lit like Lauren Bacalle, and an exploration of community vs. wilderness themes and scenes of domestic bonhomie that could have pulled straight from a John Ford western.

To complete this triangle of potential influences, it is worth noting that ‘The White Reindeer’ has a strong “silent movie” feel to it too, perhaps necessitated by the technical limitations of a film industry still in the early stages of its development. Action is notably under-cranked for most of the running time, bringing a welcome feel of frantic momentum to sections of the story that might otherwise have drifted off into beautifully-shot dullness, and all of the film’s sound is obviously post-synced - sometimes quite awkwardly - with on-screen dialogue wisely kept to a minimum as a result.

Whether by accident or design, the combination of pre-sound methodology and bold, expressionistic visuals can’t help but suggest the influence of Murnau, Dreyer et al upon proceedings (one shot in particular is a blatant nod to ‘Nosferatu’), and it is this element that very much comes to the fore when, it’s social context sufficiently established, ‘The White Reindeer’ kicks things up a gear and heads for significantly darker and more fantastical realms.

As the cheery Disney documentary tones that soundtracked the domestic and communal scenes (cue the piccolos, etc) are once again swallowed by the more chilling folk refrains that accompanied the film’s blurry and baleful opening, the horror aspect begins to make its presence felt, as Pirita, our newly married protagonist, pays a visit to a snow-covered cabin straight out of a fairytale, where she consults with an intensely creepy, sing-song-voiced shaman.

As the flames of an open fire flicker in the wind, he begins to brew her a potion, including such choice ingredients as “a little bit of death mold” and “the testicles of ten reindeers”. Banging a drum-skin marked up with various primitive symbols as a counter carved from a reindeer vertebrae dances across the surface by way of divination, the shaman speaks enigmatically of the necessity of Pirita performing a sacrifice at “the altar of the first living thing”. (1)

He soon changes his tune however once Pirita, her inner witch apparently invoked by these sinister goings on, suddenly takes on a dramatic, Barbara Steele-like aspect, staring with bulging, blank eyes as she utilizes previously unguessed at supernatural powers to move the counter across the drum-skin. “Witch!” shrieks the shaman, cowering in terror, and thus their encounter ends with tormented flames and a super-imposed blizzard.

Mirjami Kuosmanen – who also co-wrote the film’s script – is, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful woman, and the performance she give here is equally remarkable, turning on a dime from newlywed innocence to snarling, cackling evil. As mentioned, European horror fans will instantly be reminded of Barbara Steele in ‘Black Sunday’, but, coming almost a full decade before that particular redefinition of gothic feminine evil-ness, I suppose we might distantly suppose that the filmmakers are going all the way back to the likes of Theda Bara or Irma Vep for their model.

Oh, and as it turns out, that “altar of the first living thing” is actually be real place within this movie – a terrifying reindeer graveyard surrounding a skull-topped 2001-esque obelisk towering above an isolated hilltop. The macabre garden of antlers rising from the snow around the monument implies that many other sacrifices have already been made here, and not too long ago either, cementing ‘The White Reindeer’s portrait of an entirely pagan world, existing wholly beyond the reach of Christianity.(2)

It is here that Pirita raises her pocket-knife and spills the blood of her pet deer, consummating her possession by what I suppose we might read as some kind of malign nature spirit, and finalizing her transformation into a card-carrying were-creature, as, a few solarized, proto-psychedelic shots later, she gallops off through the show in the form of a proud, pure white reindeer.

Hereafter, Pirita’s supernatural affliction follows a pattern that seems to merge elements of werewolf, witch and vampire, as she undergoes involuntary transformations into the white reindeer, during which she is driven to tempt the area’s hunters and herders with her striking coloration, luring them toward a deep ravine referred to in the English subs as “the valley of demons”, wherein they meet their doom as she approaches them in the form of a cackling, spectral witch, fangs at the ready.

An acknowledgement of Christianity does briefly intrude upon proceedings in the film’s final twenty minutes, during a wedding scene in a small Lutheran chapel, where, brilliantly, close ups of Pirita standing alienated amid the crowd are accompanied by composer Einar Englund’s sinister folk laments, which crash in over the top of the timid sound of the community's hesitant hymn-singing, reflecting the turmoil (or else mere other-ness) of the witch’s internal world, and perhaps, at a push, the conflicted identity of the Sámi culture as a whole.

Shortly after this, as the white reindeer’s unprovoked attacks upon the region’s menfolk continue and unease amongst the local people grows, we see Pirita’s husband enthusiastically forging an iron spear with which to join his comrades in hunting the supernatural foe. Behind him, his beloved wife looks on with scarcely concealed terror, and it is clear that there is only one way this story can end.

The question that will be burdening viewers of a more logical persuasion through much of this is of course, WHY has this previously happy young woman become subject to this sorry fate, and how and why has she found herself embarking upon all these evil deeds?

None of this is ever very clearly explained to be honest. The film’s rather oblique opening sequence appears to show Pirita’s mother being bothered by some wild wolves as she goes into labour with her daughter during a hike through the snow, but what that’s supposed to imply is largely left to our imagination. Is Pirita doomed to her fate merely due to the circumstances of her ill-stared birth? If so, that’s a bit of a grim message for us to take away, although it does at least convey a notion of brutal medievalism that fits the film’s antiquated feel quite nicely, I suppose.

Actually, another way in which ‘The White Reindeer’ prefigures the European horror films of subsequent decades comes via the fact that, like so many of the genre’s landmark classics, it makes no damn sense whatsoever once you stop to think about it for five minutes. Why does Pirita go to the shaman in first place, and what did she intend to achieve through the sacrifice she performed? Why, after transforming into a reindeer, does she gain fangs of all things? And come to that, who ever heard of a werewolf-like creature feasting on human blood via transformation into an animal that is actually entirely herbivorous?

All of these questions remain unresolved, but of course anyone who lets such petty concerns affect their enjoyment of such an eminently irrational form of entertainment as this is a fool from the outset. I draw your attention to these structural lapses out merely for the sake of completeness, because they are fairly unavoidable in this particular instance, but nonetheless, I refer you back to the argument I usually feel like yelling at fellow viewers who insist on interrogating the events of loopy supernatural horror films as if they were wrestling with an Agatha Christie mystery: Of course it doesn’t make sense! We’re dealing with MAGIC here, and magic by its very nature is beyond the ken of human logic and understanding. That’s why it’s magic, you idiot. Now collect your ticket from the director at the door, shut up, and go where s/he wants to take you. Jeez, and you wonder why I prefer to watch these films on my own.

As an old man remarks at one point during ‘The White Reindeer’, “a lot happens here that you can’t understand elsewhere”, and, whilst the basic outline of the doomed were-woman story  has been recounted numerous times throughout world cinema, from Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ to Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Woman From The Sea, by the time you’ve finished watching ‘The White Reindeer’, you will know exactly what he means.

At the risk of crude national stereotyping, I’ve always thought that Lapland and far Northern Europe in general is one of those places uniquely suited to horror films, and have been surprised that more such works haven’t plundered the area and it’s ample folklore for inspiration. A sparsely populated, icy wilderness with its own strong, inward-looking culture, whose embrace of Christianity has always seemed rather like a frail blanket draped over a set of rather different, rather stranger beliefs, complete with bleak, phantasmagorical landscapes, long shadows and the uniquely eerie power of the midnight sun, as so brilliantly captured here by Blomberg’s remarkable photography - it seems a no-brainer, really.

All of these elements are utilised to powerful (if arguably somewhat exploitative) effect by ‘The White Reindeer’, making it perhaps the definitive example of what we might glibly call ‘Lapland gothic’. The film’s modest 64 minutes comprise both an extraordinary and unique addition to Europe’s legacy of fantastique cinema, and an indelible hymn to the area in which it was shot, combining an invaluable record of the landscape and culture with a mammoth dose of the kind of unhinged pagan atavism and visual surrealism that only the darkest corners of popular culture seem able to provide. A perfect movie to seek out as the temperature drops and the evenings close in this winter, it is a viewing experience like no other.

(1) According to my usual in-depth research (ahem), the Sámi people practiced a form of indigenous shamanic polytheism that formed their main belief system right up until the 18th century, when they were eventually brought into the Christian mainstream. Quoth Wikipedia: “The old beliefs are closely connected to the land, animism, and the supernatural. Sami spirituality is often characterized by pantheism, a strong emphasis on the importance of personal spirituality and its interconnectivity with one's own daily life, and a deep connection between the natural and spiritual "worlds". Among other roles, the Sami Shaman, or noaidi, enabled ritual communication with the supernatural through the use of tools such as drums, chants, and sacred objects. Some practices within the Old Sami religion included natural sacred sites such as mountains, springs, land formations, as well as man-made ones such as petroglyphs and labyrinths.” All of this, I think, can be very clearly seen in the practices portrayed in ‘The White Reindeer’, even if their malign character has presumably been greatly exaggerated to help shoehorn things into a horror narrative.

(2)Wikipedia further notes that: “In the landscape throughout Northern Scandinavia, one can find sieidis, places that have unusual land forms different from the surrounding countryside. Sami shamanism considers these spiritual 'focal points' and worships them as gateways to the spirit world. At these sieidis, sacrifices were made, of animals and objects, […] The Storjunkare are described sometimes as stones, having some likeness to a man or an animal, that were set up on a mountain top, or in a cave, or near rivers and lakes. […] The Storjunkare had power over all animals, fish, and birds, and gave luck to those that hunted or fished for them. Reindeer were offered up to them, and every clan and family had its own hill of sacrifice.”

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Watcher by the Threshold
by John Buchan

(Digit, 1962 / Originally published 1901)

Did you know that John Buchan, remembered these days almost solely for ‘The 39 Steps’, also wrote a “weird and shuddering tale of the Scottish backwoods”?

Neither did I until I stumbled upon this one on last year’s annual Hay On Wye trip. I’d been meaning to hold off posting it here until I’d actually read the damn thing, but… that’s not happened yet, so the hell with it.

Buchan certainly got a lot done in life (check out his wikipedia entry), but to be honest he doesn’t exactly seem to enjoy the best reputation as a writer these days, and as such I’m thinking his chances of producing something as sublime as the Donisarius quote on the back of this edition are slim at best.

Actually consisting of a number of short stories published in ‘Blackwoods’ magazine around the turn of century, with a couple of later pieces randomly thrown in for this ‘60s paperback edition, the title here at least is fantastically evocative, and it’s surely worth considering the possibility that it, or the quote from which it is taken, may have gone on to inspire such Lovecraft titles as ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ and the Derleth "collaboration" The Lurker on the Threshold’, alongside innumerable similarly monikered horror and mystery stories.

Chances are, it’ll just comprise a few meandering old dark old house / inheritance feud type yarns, but I certainly won’t write it off until I’ve given it a go. Maybe after I’ve finished the book I’m on at the moment… and that other one I want to read immediately, and all those comics and old movie books and…

Well, enjoy this cover anyway. Aesthetically speaking, it’s a beauty.