Man-Eater: Even the biggest movie stars can suffer from stage fright. But the strain of carrying a film like Man-Eater is turning its timid lead into a nervous wreck. So much so that he's started gnawing his own tentacles off. Matters aren't helped by unsympathetic director Guy Calvey's insistence on prodding him with a glass pole to make him flush his signature luminous green. When the pigeon-sized Mediterranean octopus subsequently snuffs it just as the film wraps the stage is set for a ghastly revenge from beyond Davy Jones's Locker. But Calvey isn't so easily quailed and sees a way to turn a haunted film to his own advantage.
Not a nasty story by any means but a mightily amusing one which has some well observed fun at the expense both of the craze for aquatic terrors and the parlous state of the 1970s UK film industry. This is particularly well executed in the attempted exorcism scene, staged in the salubrious surrounds of the Golders Green Talza, where the heyday of Stewart Granger and Errol Flynn flicks has long since surrendered to bingo and the occasional screenings of Dressing Down and Heat Between the Sheets.
Quite prescient also in its commentary on the way in which movies were then becoming promotional videos for corporate interests. In this instance Man-Eater is backed by Cine-Snax to promote their new range of Octo-Pies which might have all the nutritional benefits of cardboard but can sustain a great tag line: "See the film, eat the monster".
A very enjoyable apperatif which bodes well for the remaining six courses in this 1978 horror banquet.
Wind-up at Hillingdon Dig: Hack journalist Harry Dutton knows bugger all about dinosaurs and cares even less. So he isn't best pleased to find himself despatched by his editor to cover the excavation taking place at Hillingdon Mount. And all the scientific gobbledegook parrotted at him by Dr Willoughby and his colleagues does nothing to sway him from the conviction that they're all crackpots. He can't for the life of him understand all this fuss they're making about these four Polacanthus skeletons and the hitherto unsuspected hole which they've discovered in the creature's structure. But then Harry himself makes a discovery which promises to abolish the entire science of Palaeontology at a stroke.
More of a cute idea than a story with any dramatic flesh on its bones. But Harry's struggles to boil down Willoughby's anatomical speculations to comprehensible tabloid copy provides some laugh out loud moments; particularly Willoughby's idea that the hole is a posterior eye socket which Dutton renders as "Dinosaur kept look-out with his arse."
Hard to believe that any real reporter could be quite as ignorant and uninformed as Harry shows himself to be. But Stout himself was a journalist so I'll defer to his first hand experience.
That sounds like a fun book, Richard. Was that one of the gems you unearthed at that fabulous bookshop in some remote corner of England you were describing some months ago?
I wish I could claim that it was Steve. But I haven't found anything of this substance from such a source in quite a while now. But I'm hoping to making another foray to the coast come the spring. There's a certain establishment which I'm keen to check out and have high hopes for. Will post a full report at the appropriate time.
No, this one came my way by more prosaic means: from a certain auction site that shall remain nameless. Stumbled across it quite by chance and secured it solely on the strength of Dem's known judgement of Stout's quality. And am increasingly glad I did.
Road Hog: "Makes you laugh, don't it: a skull-face old lollipop man with a scythe in his hand waiting on the kerb to knock off the blokes he don't take a fancy to."
So says the hitch-hiking hippy which arrogant businessman Gordon Roper Blair has reluctantly given a lift to having got lost in the fog. But Blair isn't in the habit of paying attention to the drivel of urban myths. He's more concerned with the need to disinfect the seat once he's ejected the worthless scrounger.
The well of human kindness has long run dry in Gordon Roper Blair, along with every other virtue. Callousness in contrast courses fast and free within his veins. Almost as fast as his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow had been travelling when he mowed down that deaf farm worker on the blind bend. So what that the filthy old coot hadn't actually been dead when Blair had sunk his body in the flooded roadside ditch to cover his tracks. He would surely have been left a cabbage by the impact at the very least. Christ; it could be argued that he'd done him a favour.
Just like he was doing a favour to this jabbering layabout. Except that suddenly there was no hippy sitting next to him in the car but someone altogether different. At which point Blair's evening takes a decided turn for the worst.
Clearly not the most subtle or groundbreaking of scenarios. But I'd guess most readers could care less when the pay off is so grimly satisfying. Added to which is an additional final twist which adds a pleasing garnish to this detour into the macabre.
I have to buy most of my old pbs now from an "auction site" that is fitted into a more generic retail platform that is slowly consuming what's left of the world (not so slowly in some cases)... in March, I may be able to make a visit to the Cellar Bookshop down in Providence, Rhode Island, and have a browse through actual shelves! There's a good used bookstore in downtown Boston that is always awash with tourists and flaneurs whenever I visit which alas is not all that often.
As Dry as a Dinosaur: Nightwatchman Bert Wilson enjoys nothing better than a crafty midnight snifter whilst patrolling the rooms of the Munston Municipal Museum. But he has to watch himself with that bloody interfering jobsworth of a new curator around. You can never be sure where and when he might pop up. But a grumbling Bert consoles himself with the thought that tonight is the night when he's finally going to sample that new concoction of his own making. The one made to the recipe he'd copied out from the book in the Rural Lore gallery. The bright green stuff has been fermenting away in his shed for a year now: Warlock's Wine it's called.
Safe to say that when Bert's brain finally gets around to reporting to his tongue its to say that Robert Oppenheimer and his cohorts have relocated field tests to the inside of Bert's skull. But just at that moment the damn curator, Bannister, chooses to make one of his unscheduled appearances causing Bert to consign his next shot to the gaping jaws of the 60ft Cetiosaurus skeleton. With animated consequences.
Oh dear oh dear oh dear. This one wasn't to my taste at all. Can only presume Stout had reeled from a festive showing of One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing full of Christmas cheer when he sat down to write this one. Perhaps if the featured exhibit had been a stuffed one instead of a skeletal one it might have worked better. But the whole idea comes across as intrinsically silly, soppily sentimental and torturously contrived. All told a risible effort besides which Night at the Museum appears almost amusing. Almost.
High Moon: Back in the early 18th century an embittered old soldier called Herricks revenged himself on a bullying Miller named Clay by donning the pelt of the Lupergore and tearing out the man's throat whilst transformed into the semblance of a wolf. For this heinous act he was flayed alive by the executioner Groot, who sequestered the skin within his travelling case and suppressed its poisonous properties by the addition of a silver ring.
Two hundred and fifty years later the case is innocently acquired by wildlife artist Derek Hobbs, who inadvertantly releases Herricks' carniverous spirit. In no time at all Hobbs's kindly old friend Tyndale has been eviscerated in his own flat. Hobbs then finds himself stalked by the vengeful creature as it seeks to reclaim its missing hand which has attached itself intractably to the flesh of Hobb's chest. Events accelerate towards a final confrontation at the ruined old mill, the scene of Herricks's original execution.
Wtf? Have I picked up the wrong book? The contrast between this effort and the whimsical shenanigans found in the previous story could not be more pronounced if they tried. There is no trace whatsoever of trademark frivolity here to dilute the impact of a full on assault upon the senses.
This is the longest story in the book and Stout uses the extra space well to develop a compelling back story and to invest events with instances of genuine menace. This is best exemplified by the sequence in which Hobbs and Tyndale first become aware of something padding ominously along the plush carpet beyond their door.
Admittedly there is also a degree of padding of another sort involved as Hobbs makes fitful efforts to make passers by believe his incredible story and that space might have been better served developing the final confrontation. But make no mistake; this is a first class corker of a story which deserves consideration for inclusion in anyone's werewolf anthology.
The Code of the Carpathians: Not many people would relish finding themselves entertained by a Transylvanian nobleman in their isolated ruin of a castle. Should it be discovered that they had travelled there with a stake and mallet secreted in their baggage then the prospect pales even further. But that is the situation facing Dr Anton Popescu when he awakes from a roadside mugging as the reluctant guest of Baron Strengel.
But Strengel is an urbane and considerate monster, fully compliant with the rules of Transylvanian hospitality, and he simply will not entertain the idea of butchering the luckless doctor in a duel without first tutoring him to an acceptable standard with the sword. And so begins six months of rigorous nocturnal instruction by the aristocratic blademeister. During the daylight hours Popescu assists Strengel's deformed servitor Grollock, whom the Baron habitually maltreats as a living strop for his swords.
But when the day of the final duel eventually arrives the Baron receives a strange delegation which casts an entirely new complexion upon events.
So a werewolf story followed by a vampire one. And with the final story the triumverate of classical creatures will all be present and accounted for. I remain caught in two minds about this one. Its an interesting premise and the story boasts lashings of atmosphere. But that bloody delegation injects an element of Pythonesque absurdity into proceedings which I don't think is to the benefit of them. It provides a platform for a wonderfully ghoulish finale granted, but also flags up some pretty telling plot holes. And from a personal perspective I happen to dislike the gimmick of the unreliable narrator. But when its the author himself playing silly buggers with the reader then I strenuously object.
Christmas With Frankenstein: Glue-A-Ghoul Ltd's new product for the Christmas market has all the trappings of the year's must-have toy. A miniature Dr Frankenstein powered by a micro-chip which, when assembled, constructs its own monster from plastic off-cuts and installs it with its own electronic brain. Unfortunately a quantity of these brains have been damaged in an aborted raid at the company's factory. Consequently when little Jimmy Lockhart's miniature mad scientist activates its creation it hurls its mortified maker bodily across the room and evicerates all the other toys with Jimmy's modelling knife before throwing itself through the window.
A reign of terror then ensues in the town of Allingwell as the monster vents its rage on the local wildlife and even finds time to Weinstein a stock of Cuddle Cathy dolls. Events culminate at the Christmas charity event where the monster - now designated Homunculus rhombomorsus by the local conservation committee - finds itself besieged atop a blazing Christmas tree.
Oh what a joyous hoot this one is, chockerblock with informed jokes and knowing references to all manner of versions of Mary Shelley's immortal monster. And the epistolary form in which events unfold through a series of press reports is itself an inspired tip of the hat to the novel. My favourite is the piece about the savage assault on Mrs O'Connor's goldfish Neptune. Police rue the fact that Pedro the talking budgerigar, which might have provided a description of the assailant, was found throttled in its cage: "Poor Pedro! Poor Pedro! Squawk!" constituting its valedictory testimony.
A glorious high point on which to end an excellent collection. My only serious complaint is that there isn't more of it. I could quite happily have digested a double ration of Stout's ghoulish and very funny fare.
Really enjoyed your review, Crom. Have never even seen a copy of Hollow Laughter, let alone read it, but from your commentary, at least half of these are up there with his finest moments (it was The Dracula File turned me on to him, and I am also an admirer of Wake Up Dead and Jelly Baby). He doesn't seem to have been especially prolific as a short story writer, making it especially disappointing that there is no collected volume.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
Glad you enjoyed it Dem. Snapped it up solely on the strength of your own estimation of Stout. I don't have any of the Spaceor Spectrevolumes and so cannot judge how representative these stories are of his output generally. But I mightily enjoyed them for what they were. Thought you might be interested to see the author photo and bio from the backflap.