Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #12: The Sword in the Stone

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Once again memory is playing tricks on me. I’m fairly certain that the Disney film version came first.

Which I don’t think I will ever be able to watch in its entirety again.

This is fairly ridiculous. I don’t think it was a film that Dad watched with us an awful lot, and I’d never associated it with him until the last few years.One could make the argument that the wise, kindly old mentor who teaches the young boy, takes him on marvellous adventures and wants so much so badly for him, only for their relationship to be lost and ended (thankfully momentarily) in a moment of anger, hurt and misunderstanding, might just possibly be relevant…

…but I hold more to the fact that this is the shitty, cheating, sly, conniving bloody thing about grief. When does it ever make sense?

Also, there’s that bit with the little squirrel girl.

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If the utter heartbreak of the little squirrel girl doesn’t make you cry helplessly (or at least feel incredibly down and sick at the bitter cruelty of life) you are a barefaced liar, and you can meet me with guns at dawn.

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Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #9: The Journal of a Disappointed Man.

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I believe, I like to believe, that Dad was telling us about one of the saddest books he’s ever read; a journal of a man who’s slowly dying.

“At one point, he’s applying for the army, to fight in the First World War. He’s given a sealed letter by his family doctor, but he’s told not to look at what’s inside it. The army doctor says no, he’s not fit for the armed forces. He’s curious, so he opens up the letter on the train home, and finds that his doctor had written to tell whoever was examining him that he has multiple sclerosis. It’s a wasting disease that’ll kill him in only a few years. The rest of the diary is the rest of his life, as he slowly succumbs to it.”

I don’t remember if Dad ever read any of it to us, but he recommended it for when we were older; it was a terribly sad but beautifully written book.

I only got around to reading properly it this year.

Continue reading “Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #9: The Journal of a Disappointed Man.”

Sorting Through Dad’s Hoard #8: M.R. James

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Dad would usually read us M.R. James’s ghost stories in the evenings, after dinner and homework and sundry other bits were done; he’d occasionally play recorded versions of several of the stories, read by Michael Horden. I always preferred Dad’s narration, the way he’d growl for the villains and gruffer types, or use a slightly higher pitch for the various professorial characters with nasty things in store for them.

Quite I’d end up cuddling on his lap during the scary bits, ear pressed against his heart as his voice rumbled through me, waiting eagerly for my favourite parts to arrive. The fear these stories create was always there, but it was the cosy kind that gets your blood pumping without bringing on the terror sweat, with the fire on and the lights dim but still there. I was secure in the knowledge that I was safe with Dad, and I was safe going up the stairs to bed afterwards.

Do I really need to explain about Montague Rhodes James? Medievalist, scholar, lecturer and writer, there was no way Dad wouldn’t have adored him. H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith paid tribute to him, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell were inspired by him, heaps of British writers deliberately wrote in his style, forming the ‘James Gang’. (Now I have a vision of a bunch of writers and academics travelling around in a van getting traumatised by ghosts and ghoolies, and solving mysteries.) Without him, British ghost stories and stories about the supernatural in general would be very different.

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Sorting through Dad’s hoard #7: The Midwich Cuckoos

 

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Dad spoiled the ending of this book long before I ever got around to reading it. And I’m going to spoil it for you too, HA!!!

One day when we were intruding into his study, he got onto the subject of the film version (the 1960 version, The Village of the Damned – because apparently ‘cuckoos’ was far too subtle?) and what he personally thought to be one of the most tense scenes in cinema.

The stage: a school room. The plot: a climatic showdown. The players: a group of unnatural, all-blonde alien children who share a collective group mind and can read/control the minds of normal humans, and a desperate man who has decided he has no choice but to destroy them, for the sake of humanity’s future. The crux of the matter: he has smuggled a bomb into the classroom, hidden in a suitcase – but there’s still a few minutes before it goes off, and in that short space of time the children could read his mind and stop him. Continue reading “Sorting through Dad’s hoard #7: The Midwich Cuckoos”

Sorting through Dad’s hoard, part 6: The Day of the Triffids

 

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Dad may not have been interested in vampires and monsters, but he loved more subtle types of horror. He recommended plots and stories that could feasibly happen, and were all the more creepy for it.

“There’s a book,” he told us once, “which starts with everyone on the planet staying up late to watch a meteor. Green. The brightest meteor shower anyone’s ever seen – and when all the people who saw it wake up the next morning, they’re blind.”

All of them?”

“All except the few people who didn’t see the lights; there’s one man who didn’t see them because he’s in hospital with his eyes bandaged up. His nurse is describing the meteors to him the night before, and he’s hearing about it on the radio until he has to turn it off. But when he wakes up at the start of the book, everyone in the hospital is blind. Almost everyone else in the whole world is blind. And to make matters worse-”

“Worse?!?!”

“-before the meteor happened, people had been growing and farming huge plants called triffids. They have three legs that help them to walk, and a poisonous sting that can kill you. At one point, the main character’s talking to a friend who claims that the triffids can can talk to each other; he believes they can actually think. And now that nearly everyone is blind, the triffids start to break loose.”

Scary stuff.

(I sometimes wondered about suggesting just how much The Day of the Triffids is a forerunner of the zombie apocalypse genre. I like to think Dad would be dubious, but also find it funny as hell, especially if I’d sat him down to watch the opening scenes of 28 Days Later before allowing him to escape to the study.)

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Sorting through Dad’s hoard, part 5: Saki

I couldn’t have been older than eight when Dad sat me down to read me a story. The story was called Sredni Vashtar.

The main (really only proper) character was a young, frail Edwardian boy named Conradin, living with a domineering female cousin, who seemed determined to joylessly coddle, thwart and repress him into the grave. His only consolation was a shed down at the bottom of the barren garden, which to him was a ‘playroom and a cathedral’, populated by his own imagination.

(Having read The Secret Garden, I thought I knew where this was going. Conradin even rather resembled Colin Craven.)

The shed also housed Conradin’s pet hen; and, in a hutch in the corner, a large polecat-ferret that he’d bought off a friendly butcher’s boy and hid fervently from his cousin, dubbed in his hostile mind ‘The Woman’.

(Having read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I definitely thought I knew where this was going.)

Conradin, in his loneliness and mixed fear and awe of the polecat-ferret, named it – what else but Sredni Vashtar? And proceeded to worship the animal, giving it offerings of flowers and berries, and occasionally nutmeg, believing it to be responsible for the various ailments of The Woman.

(I still thought I knew where this was going.)

The Woman noticed Conradin’s trips down to the shed, ruled them contrary to her desires, and had the hen sold. Conradin’s hate grew ever fiercer, and he prayed to Sredni-Vashtar to ‘do one thing for me’. “The thing was not specified.

(I…was curious about where this was going.) Continue reading “Sorting through Dad’s hoard, part 5: Saki”

Sorting through my father’s hoard: Rudyard Kipling

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“Now, when they ask you what you like to read, don’t mention Kipling.” Dad’s words of wisdom when I was preparing for university interviews; probably not best, he agreed, to profess admiration for he who wrote of The White Man’s Burden and Gunga Din. I love Kipling, but I’ll be the first to admit he’s politically incorrect and hasn’t exactly aged well.

Still, it must have pained Dad to have to acknowledge that Kipling has his problems, and his detractors. Not for nothing did he have a shelf filled with the man’s work:

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