Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

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Out On a Limb

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It took Robin Hardy until 2011 until he could turn out a sequel to folk horror classic The Wicker Man in the form of The Wicker Tree. To be frank, it’s not great. Supposedly it had a budget of over seven million dollars, though if this is so then for most of its running time that money simply isn’t evident onscreen, with the production values seeming more in keeping with a simple TV movie than anything fancier and a cast of comparative unknowns and reasonably skilled but not especially exciting character actors. (There’s a cameo from Christopher Lee, mind, but he was unable to undertake a more extensive role due to an injury.)

As far as the plot goes, it’s the exact same thing as The Wicker Man without the kidnapping angle to tie everything together. Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) used to be a wild and extremely sexualised pop-country star in the US of A, but she’s flinched back from that past, adopted a new gospel-country style, and got back together with her childhood sweetheart Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). Their backwater Texas church sends them on an evangelical mission to Scotland, they fall in with pagan masterminds Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard), who convince them that preaching door-to-door in the towns won’t do any good and they’ll have better luck coming out to the countryside village the Morrisons preside over, particularly since it will be a nice opportunity for them to partake in the May Day festivities. By this point you should have guessed where this is going.

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Satan’s Infectious Taint

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s somewhere in the English countryside, somewhere in the first half or so of the 18th Century. (A treasonous Jacobite toast made at one point to “his Catholic Majesty James III” means it must be somewhere between 1701 and 1766.) Ploughman Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is tilling the fields when he uncovers a corpse – too human to be an animal, too inhuman to be holy. He rushes to tell the Judge (Patrick Wymark), who’s visiting with Gower’s landlady Isobel Banham (Avice Landone), but when they come back to the field the body is gone.

The Judge puts the nonsense out of mind, and in any respect is too caught up giving moral support to Isobel, who deeply disapproves of her nephew Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) making plans to marry Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov). And yet, it seems that the thing from the field, or at least a part of it, must have followed Ralph to the Banham house – for when she’s dispatched to sleep in the musty old Banham attic, Rosalind has an encounter with something up there – something which reduces her to shrieking, scratching panic at first. By the morning, she’s eerily silent… and her right hand has turned into a hideous claw.

Rosalind gets taken away by the authorities. But out there in the fields, where Ralph farms for his meals, the local youth turn up another claw, remarkably similar to that which grew on Rosalind. Young Angel Blake (Linda Heyden), who first discovers the claw, becomes the centre of a cult – a cult whose members all undergo physical transformations and changes as a result of their exposure to the strange claw. As the cult sweeps among the local youth, will the Judge discover how to put things aright… or will the area be reduced to teenage wasteland?

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