Ghostly Influences


Writing for Nightmare Magazine, John Langan discusses the influence of Shirley Jackson on horror writers like Stephen King, Paul Tremblay, and others. Here are some excerpts from Langan’s essay:

One novel does not a profound and lasting influence prove. However, there are others. Stephen King, for instance, has returned to Jackson’s work throughout his long career. In Carrie, there is a description of the young Carrie White having experienced a rain of stones very much like the one that precipitated upon the young Eleanor Vance. (And the novel’s portrait of the relationship between Carrie White and her mother probably owes something to the maternal conflict hinted at in The Haunting of Hill House) . . . As (King) acknowledges in Danse Macabre, The Shining engages Jackson’s The Sundial in its plot of a family confined to a large, old building while a storm rages outside. King’s script for Rose Red, in which a group of researchers gathers to investigate an infamous haunted house, began as a deliberate response to The Haunting of Hill House. Among recent works by other writers, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door incorporates a rewriting of the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House into a late chapter to signal its conversation with the novel, particularly at the nexus of mental illness, maternal anxiety, and uncanny dwelling places. Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts mirrors the sibling relationship at the heart of We Have Always Lived in the Castle to add resonance to his story of a family under pressure from forces from without and within.

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A Sci-Fi Screenplay Written by Artificial Intelligence

Here’s an intriguing article about a screenplay written by a computer. I found this at ARS Technica.

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days.

“As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. 

Benjamin is an LSTM recurrent neural network, a type of AI that is often used for text recognition. To train Benjamin, Goodwin fed the AI with a corpus of dozens of sci-fi screenplays he found online—mostly movies from the 1980s and 90s. Benjamin dissected them down to the letter, learning to predict which letters tended to follow each other and from there which words and phrases tended to occur together. The advantage of an LSTM algorithm over a Markov chain is that it can sample much longer strings of letters, so it’s better at predicting whole paragraphs rather than just a few words. It’s also good at generating original sentences rather than cutting and pasting sentences together from its corpus. Over time, Benjamin learned to imitate the structure of a screenplay, producing stage directions and well-formatted character lines.

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Annihilation, the film: A Fresh Review

Natalie-Portman-in-Annihilation-photo-Paramount-Pictures-1038x576 (2)

Natalie Portman in Annihilation (2018, Paramount-Pictures)

Scott Ashlin doesn’t pull punches. If he doesn’t like a movie, he will tell you, and he will tell you why. Ashlin, also known as El Santo, writes reviews at one of my favorite sites,  1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Even though he jokingly calls his site “aimed exppressly at wrong-thinking,” Ashlin actually excels at knowledgeable film criticism. That’s why I was so interested in his opinion of Annihilation (2018), based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, directed and co-written by Alex Garland. Many reviews of this film, both good and bad, seem to have agendas. S. T. Joshi, for example, hardly ever likes the most recent books of the weird or their movies, preferring the old, grizzled masters.  For example, he dismisses Stephen King and champions H. P. Lovecraft. It’s almost as though you can’t be that good if your book has been made into a blockbuster movie. Joshi is a great scholar of the weird, and I enjoy reading him, even if I don’t always agree with him.

But here is Scott Ashlin’s unsolicited opinion of Annihilation. He likes it:

 What I am certain of is that Annihilation is suffused throughout with something that’s been largely missing from mainstream science fiction movies for far too long, a sense of the vast and awesome strangeness of the universe that we inhabit. One of my favorite characteristics of the best and most ambitious sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s is that it reveled in the majesty of the unknown. . .

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D. Harlan Wilson’s excellent book on J. G. Ballard

Book Review by Bill Ectric

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has made a literary mark in the field of cultural theory, focusing on the loss of humanity in the inescapable rush of accelerating technology, with books like Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction and Cultographies: They Live. While his fiction tends to be disorienting (a trait his fans enjoy), his non-fiction has the clarity and delivery of a seasoned educator, as in his most recent study of the life and work of J.G. Ballard. 

Ballard was a vital force in the British New Wave of science fiction whose novels and stories inspired the cyberpunk subgenre, but he is most famous for writing Empire of the Sun (1984) and Crash (1973), both of which became movies, directed by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg respectively. D. Harlan Wilson makes a convincing case that even Empire of Sun contains elements of science fiction.

Wilson writes brisk, lucid text that flows like quicksilver. Clearly respectful of Ballard as an author and a man, his new book analyzes Ballard’s singular style, dystopian themes, and sometimes disturbing plots in a relatively simple, but smart, well organized, and skillfully researched masterwork.

Wilson describes how Ballard was less interested in flying saucers, aliens, and outer space than he was in the inner space of our minds, as we become the future, with relentless input from the internet, television, radio, billboards, working and playing inside mega-malls, gated communities, and high-rise apartments. We are the cyborgs, perceiving reality as dictated to us by the very media we covet. Ballard explores how these conditions affect the evolution of life, society, sex, and death. His influences included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transgressive experimental “Beat” writer William S. Burroughs, and media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the Internet 30 years before it existed. Wilson demonstrates, with fascinating examples, how the landscapes and cities in Ballard’s novels are often extensions or reflections of his character’s mindscapes.

Critics have complained about the violence in some of Ballard’s books. Wilson says, “Ballard didn’t want to see it happen in the real world” and quotes Ballard’s explanation that “notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressure of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes.”

In 1924, Andre Breton described Surrealism as thought or art created in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. This launched an array of weird, dreamlike paintings and theater. But on a darker note, Breton also said that the ultimate surrealist act would be “to go out into the street and fire a revolver at random into the crowd.” Chillingly, we recall Donald Trump’s words on the campaign trail in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible.” As Ballard said way back in 1971, “Everything is becoming science fiction.”

If you are new to Ballard, this book is a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the man’s work, you will appreciate what Jonathan Lethem calls “a new comprehensive standard.”

Read More at the website of D. Harlan Wilson

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” as an Indictment of Government/Industry Collusion

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson  Company Store

In her short story, “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson symbolizes the power of “big business,” in collusion with the government, to control the private citizens. She published it in 1948, not a particularly strong year for anti-industry rhetoric. Earlier American authors were a better fit for that subgenre, with novels like The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) by Frank Norris and The Jungle (1906) by Sinclair Lewis. Conversely, only three years after World War II ended, most Americans were optimistic about industry growth. On the eve of the Golden Age of Capitalism (Marglin 39). Nevertheless, Jackson placed signs and symbols of corporate tyranny in The Lottery, as this essay will demonstrate. Post-war optimism aside, Jackson knew something was wrong. Her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, probably said it best when he called The Lottery, “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of ours times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb” (Hyman).

The lottery takes place in a small, rural village and is officiated by three men who are, arguably, the three most powerful men in town. The owner of the coal company, Mr. Summers, directs the proceedings of the lottery. Summers enters the town square carrying a black box full of folded strips of paper. Mr. Graves, the Postmaster, performs the swearing-in of Mr. Summers. Mr. Martin, who owns the grocery store, and his son Baxter, hold the box steady while Mr. Summers stirs the papers inside. The men in the crowd talk about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes,” which indicates that many of them are farmers. As farmers, they might rely on Mr. Martin, the grocer, to buy their produce. They might be in debt to the bank for the purchase of tractors or other farm equipment. They are certainly subservient to the government in that they must pay taxes, indirectly supporting the Postmaster, Mr. Graves. Only around 300 people live in the village, so most of the non-farmers must work for the coal business, owned by Mr. Summers.

In this village, the tradition of the lottery goes back so far into the past that the townspeople have forgotten some of the original parts of the ceremony, but they accept the validity of the lottery, mostly without question. They link the ceremony to crop fertility, as evidenced by Old Man Warner quoting an adage, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” It sounds like a pagan rite, and by the end of the story, we see just how pagan it is. We learn why people have collected rocks in preparation for the event. The townspeople kill the lottery winner by stoning. This time around, they kill Tessie Hutchinson. Thus, Tessie Hutchinson becomes a sacrifice, ostensibly for a bountiful harvest.

Why would anyone want to continue such a terrible tradition? Notice that all the slips of paper are blank except for one. The “winning” paper had a black spot on it, “the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company.” Graphite is the main ingredient in pencil lead. Graphite and coal are both forms of carbon. The black spot on the paper represents coal. Notice that Mr. Summers wielded a “heavy” pencil, representing the heavy hand of power. The lottery is a control system.

The most powerful men in the village are perpetuating a violent ritual among the obedient residents of the community, and that makes the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s tale a sinister variation on Girard’s scapegoat mechanism. Girard described the scapegoat mechanism as a small dose of violence that served to avert a more catastrophic violence. Conflicts occur within a community, according to Girard, because of rivalries. When conflicts grow, threatening the existence of the community, the scapegoat mechanism acts as a pressure valve. The members of the community set aside their differences to unite against one person, and that person becomes the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat mechanism, as described by Girard, is a subconscious human phenomenon. What makes the lottery in Jackson’s story so sinister is that the town leaders have consciously institutionalized it to keep the populace docile. Whatever circumstances might normally interfere with docility need not be specified, as conflict is a part of any society.

Governments and corporations often work together, sometimes legitimately and other times in illegal collusion. Singer/songwriter Merle Travis recorded and released a song in 1946 called “Sixteen Tons.” The song described the plight of coal miners who, in return for employment, were required to buy supplies from the company store, which was owned by the coal company and more expensive than other stores. It was often very difficult to get out of debt to the company store. Historian Lou Athey says, “The stores served numerous functions, such as a locus for the government post office…and community center…(Athey). The connection between the coal-company-owned store and Post Office may only be coincidental to the setting in The Lottery, but it illustrates the idea of privately-owned corporations working with government institutions. When coal miners went on strike in 1919, the Federal government invoked a wartime measure that made the strike a crime and sent soldiers and spies into the camps to enforce production (Marcus). The government and police created scapegoats by accusing strike sympathizers, especially foreigners, of socialism and communism, going so far as to arrest some of them (Marcus). Similarly, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw the rise of the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism, in the United States, in which anti-communist paranoia resulted in “systemic persecution of those who were believed to have subversive worldviews” (“The 1940s”). The company stores are closed now, but other collusions abound. As recently as February 7, 2018, President Trump nominated Marco Rajkovich, an attorney who has defended coal mining companies charged with safety violations, explosions, and other disasters, to oversee mine safety cases (Ganim). In March 2017, “A bill approved by Kentucky lawmakers Tuesday would cut back the number of state inspections of coal mines per year” (Jamieson).

In 1939, the population of the United States was 131,028,000 (Clodfelder). In the four years this country was involved in World War II, we lost 418,500 soldiers (Clodfelder), or roughly .32% of our total population. Shirley Jackson tells us there were just over 300 people in the village in The Lottery. When the villagers stone their annual victim, Tessie Hutchinson, they are killing around .32% of their own.    

by Bill Ectric

Works Cited

Athey, Lou. “The Company Store in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990 pp 6-23.

Clodfelder, Michael (2002). Warfare and Armed Conflicts – A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. McFarland & Co. p. 582.

Ganim, Sara and Gregory Wallace. “Trump nominee to oversee mine safety cases is lawyer who defended coal companies.” CNN Politics. 07 Feb. 2018 Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Preface. The Magic of Shirley Jackson, by Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966, p. viii.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. 2nd ed., Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

Jameison, Dave. “Coal Country Republicans Set to Cut Mine Safety Inspections.” Huffington Post, 14 March 2017. Accessed 14 February 2018.

Marcus, Irwin, Eileen Mountjoy, and Beth O’Leary. “The Coal Strike of 1919 in Indiana County and Its Aftermath.” Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Accessed 02 Feb. 2018

Marglin, Stephen, and Juliet Schor. The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience. University of Oxford Press, 2011

“The 1940s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.” American Decades. 2001. Web. 30 Nov. 2012>.


Ghost Stories at Christmas?

Christmas Spirits

Bill Ectric’s Place is celebrating Christmas with this website called Hypnogoria and the history of Christmas ghost stories:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…

So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in his festive favourite It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. And the lyric quoted above has caused much scratching of heads over the years, as not every one is aware of the old tradition of telling spooky tales upon a Christmas night. Indeed some have wondered whether the lines above are merely referring solely, in a hap-hazard fashion, to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But of course there’s more spectres abroad at Yuletide other than just Mr Marley and his crew. To begin with some of the finest ghost stories ever written were produced by M. R. James who notes in the preface to his first collection of tales, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904) –

“I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas…”

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The Pete Brown Interview

Morden Tower / Photo © Andrew Curtis (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Morden Tower / Photo © Andrew Curtis (cc-by-sa/2.0)

By Bill Ectric

On June 16, 1964, Pete Brown gave the first ever poetry reading at Morden Tower, now a literary landmark in Newcastle, England. The Morden Tower Readings, conceived and organized by Tom and Connie Pickard, went on to host readings by more poets than can be listed here, especially from the Beat and Black Mountain movements, including Allen Ginsberg’s first European reading of Kaddish. I have always found the connections and cross-pollination of different scenes fascinating, but in 1964, the only poetry I cared about was surrounded by electric guitars and drums. As the sixties progressed, I absorbed rock & roll, blues rock, acid rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal.

Pete Brown, Living Life BackwardsI did like to read, however, and I was one of those kids who not only listened to records, I read everything printed on the album covers: Music and production credits, liner notes, and even the ads on the inner sleeves. We didn’t have CDs back then, and those 12-inch wide phonograph disks had plenty of room on the packaging for text. Polydor Records used to promote various artists on the paper inner sleeves of their albums covers, and I remember the curious feeling of seeing my favorite rockers (Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who) alongside artists that, to me, seemed arcane even then (Acker Bilk, Teagarden and Van Winkle, Len Novy). I remember wondering, who is this mysterious person named Pete Brown, listed in the credits on Cream albums alongside Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker? On the album itself, under each song title, the composer’s names appeared in parentheses: Sunshine of Your Love (Clapton, Bruce, Brown); White Room (Bruce, Brown); I Feel Free (Bruce, Brown).

Much later, I learned that he was none other than the same Pete Brown who gave the first reading at Morden Tower. Born on December 25, 1940, in Ashtead, Surrey, England, Pete Brown started writing when he was fourteen. He cites a jazz and poetry recording by Kenneth Patchen as a turning point in his life. He also names Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca as important influences. By age 19, Pete was a professional performance poet and worked with Michael Horovitz to produce the New Departures magazine, which published early works by Samuel Beckett and William S. Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg saw the New Departure group as a counterpart to the American Beats. As previously mentioned, Brown co-wrote a number of songs with members of Cream, which, at the time, was considered an avant-garde band due to their extended improvisations and dedication to a psychedelic version of the classic blues form. After Cream disbanded, Pete Brown and Jack Bruce continued to co-write lyrics for  Bruce’s solo albums, including Songs For a Tailor, Harmony Row, and Into the Storm. Pete has been the producer and/or percussionist and/or vocalist for a variety of bands, including The Battered Ornaments, Pete Brown and Piblokto!, The Hamburg Blues Band (guest sideman), Back to Front, The Interoceters, and more. His books include Few Poems (1966, Migrant Press: Birmingham), Let ‘Em Roll, Kafka (1969, Fulcrum: London), and The Old Pal’s Act (1972, Allison & Busby: London).Pete Brown & Piblokto

I had the pleasure of asking Pete Brown some questions by email.

BILL: Being involved in both music and Beat poetry, did you ever meet David Amram?

PETE: Yes. I have done two gigs with David Amram, both under the name of LIPS Festivals. The first was a few years ago at the now-defunct Ocean in Hackney. He played piano and French horn. My bassist, David Hadley, jammed with him. The second time was last November when we did a 50 years of On the Road celebration at the new Marquee club, now, sadly, also defunct. Amram played on all three nights with various people including on a poetry/music set with me. I also had my whole band there one night and it was the last gig of that particular incarnation as I am now back with Phil Ryan and we are planning a much larger band to tour next year when the new record is out. Amram and I got on very well, incidentally- being a jazz fan of old I was quite aware of his work with Miles, and also saw Pull My Daisy when it first came out. He is extremely sprightly, and reminded me a little of Mose Allison, one of my idols, who also seems to go on forever. Would it were the same for me in ten years time!

BILL: I understand you were the first poet to read at Morden Tower. Was there any musical accompaniment during the readings?

PETE: I was definitely the first poet to read at the Morden Tower, and no, there was no music then.

BILL: Can you talk about some of the people you met there?

PETE: The most important person I met there was Basil Bunting, who Tom Pickard had coaxed out of retirement. What an incredible writer and a great bloke. I later took Ginsberg there and I think Robert Creeley, too. It was a terrific place, great atmosphere and the girls were very friendly!

BILL: How did you and Jack Bruce collaborate? Did one person write the lyrics while the other wrote the music?

PETE: When I worked with Jack, which I did for over thirty years, the music mostly came first. There were exceptions, such as Rope Ladder and White Room. As You Said was written almost simultaneously, Jack playing and me writing.

BILL: Did you ever meet or work with Alexis Korner?

PETE: I knew Alexis quite well, ever since Graham Bond and Dick Heckstall-Smith began playing with him. When I was doing the New Departures Jazz/Poetry thing we had a residency at the Marquee at the same time as Alexis’ Blues Inc., and we were allowed in free, so I was usually around. I did the odd gig with Alexis later on, one memorable festival in a muddy hole in the ground near Hannover in Germany. I think I also did at least one gig at Les Cousins folk club with him, it was when he was in a more experimental mode and had a violinist with him. We also had many musical colleagues in common over the years, for instance Danny Thompson and Zoot Money.

BILL: First I heard that Harry Shapiro was writing a biography about you. Later I heard that you are writing your own autobiography.

PETE: I’m writing an autobiography. It’s nearly finished – should be ready by the end of the year. I wanted Harry to do it with me but the publishers, having seen a couple of chapters I wrote, felt it would benefit from having my voice in it.

Pete Brown & The Interoceters

BILL: Any other news?

PETE: The only news is that, with luck, Phil Ryan and I will have finished recording the new album, which also features Arthur Brown, Clem Clempson, Jim Mullen, Richard Bailey, David Hadley, Bob Jenkins, John McKenzie, Mo Nazam, Taff Williams, Art Themen, Annie Whitehead, and possibly a cameo appearance by Peter Greene (the elusive founder of Fleetwood Mac). We are still waiting on a decision from Peter Greene. We hope to finish recording by the end of September and have it mixed by the end of October. That’s my main effort right now, and the book. There are mutterings of lyric and poetry books but we are still in negotiation. There also seems to be a plan for me to produce Peter Green again, but it’s just a plan right now.

BILL: Are you the Peter Brown mentioned in the song, The Ballad of John and Yoko?

PETE: No, the Peter Brown mentioned in that song was part of the Beatles management team and not me. Sorry to disappoint.

BILL: I guarantee you, I am in no way disappointed, having actually been able to interview a person who shines so mythical from my golden past.

More Interviews by Bill

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