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Due to popular demand (one person's request does count as popular by my standards, yes) here is a little account of my day at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival last weekend. As I mentioned before, we arrived on Friday night and spent the night at the Dean Clough Travelodge, part of the Clough's complex of Victorian factories. I like the place a lot and thought it was a great place to talk ghost stories - the factories are set apart from the town and face onto a huge, windy expanse of square, and about a third of the towering soot-blackened stone buildings have evaded the hand of the restorer. The various buildings holding the Clough's museums, restaurants etc. are joined by a network of stone walks and tunnels also suggesting great age, with a canal running through it all. It actually felt a bit like a medieval castle complex. The Travelodge is in a restored part of the site but was surprisingly nice for a £30 a night chain hotel - the rooms seem to follow the original layout of the five-storey factory and the original stone walls and small factory windows remain, giving the rooms more character than is usually found in such places. After our terrible experience with the Imperial Crown hotel in Halifax town centre in 2010 (an appalling place costing twice as much as the Travelodge) we were also relieved to find a high level of cleanliness in the rooms! It was also very quiet at night, but I didn't manage more than an hour of sleep overnight due to issues with my body-clock.

Consequently I was rather knackered by the time we made it to the Crossley Art Gallery (a pleasant, modern space) at 11 the next morning for the panel on M R James and his modern descendants. Ray Rusell, co-owner of Tartarus Press, chaired the panel which consisted of modern Jamesian master Reggie Oliver, Ramsey Campbell (standing in at the last minute for John Probert) and Joel Lane, a talented writer of contemporary urban horror who Ray described as the "sceptic" of the line-up. Ray began with a question that has been much-discussed by supernatural fiction fans: what makes James different from those who came before him, and why is he such a big deal?

Campbell replied that James' core strength is his ability to bring the alien and the incomprehensible crashing into familiar situations (like the hand emerging from the rockery in 'A View From The Hill'), and praised the economy of his writing and the sheer impact of his turns of phrase (yes, the "face of crumpled linen" came up almost straightaway.) All the panellists agreed on James' skill at scaring, and appreciated his conversational, apparently effortless writing style, but Lane flagged up his general lack of characterisation and (a more severe criticism) his rather awful use of working-class slang and general narrowness of focus. I totally agree on both points and don't think Lane said anything unfair about James, though he did startle me by citing 'Martin's Close' as his favourite James story (it's generally considered a minor story and I found it rather underwhelming, though perhaps it deserves a re-read!) Meanwhile Reggie Oliver admired James' surprisingly modern, often film-like use of different perspectives and media (dreams, letters, third-person accounts etc.) within a single story (especially in later tales like 'Two Doctors' and the often overlooked 'A Residence At Whitminster'.)

Ray then asked the writers to identify some of of James' literary followers. Everyone was pretty unimpressed by the plethora of Jamesian copy-cat stories that continue to crop up today (though nobody named any names!) This is true to an extent - many of them are too "cosy" and seek to imitate Jamesian content at the expense of Jamesian intentions. Monty's more immediate acolytes, the famous "James gang" also got the hard end of the stick, especially from Joel Lane. He thought ANL Munby was dull and didn't even like H Russell Wakefield much! Wakefield is generally considered to be James' most worthy direct successor but Lane thought that he overdid it with the scares and the darkness and compared reading his stories to being stuck in a club listening to an old Colonel give you his view of women. I won't deny this last criticism put my back up a bit - I love Wakefield and never found him to over-egg the pudding. Indeed I'm not sure there can even be such a thing as "too many" scares, as long as they really are scary!

There was more controversy when Campbell suggested the American right-wing philosopher Russell Kirk as a key upholder of the Jamesian tradition. Both Lane and Oliver disagreed, and they were quite right - I can't stand the fellow. He is a very minor writer who is unable to leave his politics on the backburner even for the space of a short story, and his writing is distastefully pious and cloying (as Oliver pointed out, Kirk actually believed that only Christians are capable of writing a truly good ghost story, and was quite vocal about this.) Of course Campbell himself has exhibited some conservative tendencies in a couple of his most recent stories, so perhaps he's not too bothered by the dogma!

The conversation then moved on to those writers who have gone beyond James, using some of his techniques in the service of very different agendas. L.P.Hartley and Robert Aickman were mentioned, and Aickman's surprising dislike of James' stories (he only liked one, 'A School Story') was discussed. Of course Aickman was notoriously bitchy and opinionated and tended to nurse literary grudges, apparently! I must say I wouldn't have picked Aickman myself as a post-Jamesian - there's way too much sex in his stories, and he actively liked women! But I was pleased when one of my favourite post-Jamesians, L.T.C. Rolt, was brought up by a member of the audience. Rolt (whose wonderful collection Sleep No More was reviewed here last year) fused old-school antiquarian technique with images of the industrial landscape and life among the "lower orders", like a sort of proto-Joel Lane.

All in all the talk provided a fairly good overview of Jamesian writing today, and all panellists acquitted themselves well, speaking lightly and with humour (though I sided more with Lane and Oliver, of course.) My one criticism is that nobody tackled the place of women in the antiquarian ghost story. I meant to blurt out something about Edith Nesbit in the short Q&A session afterward, but I'm terrible at public speaking and somehow a load of stuff about MP Dare and David Rowland came out instead. And I didn't mention Ann Halam either, whose YA novels The Fear Man and especially King Death's Garden are true modernisations of James. I have let feminism down! I would've also liked to see Terry Lamsley mentioned (he mixes Jamesian style with body horror and fears of infestation and contagion in a very effective way) but of course there wasn't time to list all the neo-Jamesians in the world!

After that we adjourned for lunch (an underwhelming bacon butty in the overcrowded Chef's School cafe) and I pottered in the gift shop at length (wonderful selection of bird Christmas cards!) We were actually kept waiting for ages by the next act. Vampire fiction expert Christopher Frayling and Jonathan Miller were meant to appear "in conversation", but Frayling was replaced by horror critic Tony Earnshaw, and I can report that both men took a very long time to eat their lunch (quite annoying as we'd had to scarf ours down in a hurry so as not to miss their little chat!) I found the talk a bit disappointing and not nearly as fun as the first event. Miller was there mainly because he made the famous BBC version of 'O Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad', but he soon made it clear that he had no interest in the ghost story, didn't believe in ghosts, and had in fact made the film almost by accident. He is a philosophy graduate of the AJ Ayers school (argh!) and spent most of the time talking about the role of supernatural beliefs in anthropology and metaphysics. I don't mind people going a bit off-topic - we'd just had an hour of people singing James' praises, after all - and I enjoyed his criticism of the modern BBC, but Miller did go on a bit! I think Tony Earnshaw was a bit awestruck by him and didn't feel authorised to rein him in. I suspect the talk would've been better if Frayling had been there (he's of similar stature and age to Miller), but there you go.

This was followed by a screening of O Whistle And I'll Come To You, Miller's adaptation of James most famous story (it recently won a Fantasy Society poll of favourite ghost stories) which triggered a raft of other 70s adaptations. The James BBC adaptations have been discussed at length in the posts [personal profile] dfordoom has been making here recently, so I'll just say that it is a good, if fairly loose, adaptation. During the talk Miller was volubly proud of the dialogue in the middle which he introduced to make the whole thing more philosophical, which is funny as most people I know consider that to be the Boring Bit, despite the amusing walrussiness of the men involved. I suppose "There are more things in heaven and earth..." Hamlet quote was less hackneyed when the film came out...Still, a seminal work with great experimental use of sound and some fine imagery.

This film (which drew a much bigger crowd than the morning's events) was followed by various other treats - story readings from Reggie Oliver and Christopher Priest, a screening of the short film The Hand and a magic show in the evening from a guy called Max Raven (though you had to pay extra for that!) But by evening I had well and truly conked out and Duffy was tired too, so we headed ruefully home and I am unable to provide a first-person account of Sunday's activities!

But I can tell you that Sunday was Lawrence Gordon Clarke day, with his adaptations of Dicken's The Signalman (not a bad job considering how over-rated the story is) and one of his James films, The Stalls At Barchester Cathedral (not my all-time fave, but very atmospheric with some gorgeous dark camerawork.) They also screened A View From A Hill (one of the post-2000 ones by Luke Watson) which is quite good, but if you haven't read the story some bits of the plot are quite unclear and there is a rather unnecessary dollop of social comment and some annoying modish visual tricks to replace the excellent dream scene, plus some of the best imagery and lines are thrown out! Of the two short films, Wailing Well is a 15-minute piece and takes some liberties with the plot, providing an original backstory for the grim denizens of the well. It's quite cheaply made but not too bad. Sadly I haven't seen Vespers but I shall endeavour to rectify that ASAP!

I also bought some books - Paul Finch's Terror Tales from East Anglia and A Book of Shadows, a collection of prequels and sequels to James stories. Behold! It's got a great cover. Loving that groin action.

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