Whatever Happened To Horror?
In September I was asked to speak about my kind of horror at the Northampton BooQFest. As the year draws to a close, I thought it might be a good idea to share here what I said. If some of the comments seem out of place it’s because I tailored them to the event and the meeting place – the wonderful 78 Derngate. I was introduced by author Julia Kavan…
Julia made a reference to Chucky, the doll from Child’s Play, and if you’re wondering what he’s got to with anything it’s that my nickname is Chukkie – albeit with 2K’s and an IE –and when I started my online presence I had to choose an avatar. For those who don’t know what an avatar is, it’s like a logo that identifies you in online forums and so on. So, being a horror writer I chose the Chucky doll. Chucky doesn’t scare me at all – but he evidently does some people.
When I agreed to speak today I had visions of being in a cream-coloured marquee, ankle deep in mud, shouting over the battering of the wind. Well, it couldn’t be more different, could it? Isn’t this a fabulous venue? And thanks to 78 Derngate for having us, and the booQfest team for organising it.
You may be surprised to know that this is a very apt place to talk about my kind of horror. Why do you think that is? Was Mackintosh a vampire, perhaps? Apparently he wore a cloak but no, that’s not it.
The Oxford Group was a bunch of male artists that included the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement. Essentially a male brotherhood rebelling against the status quo, they got together in 1852 in reaction to the horrors of mass manufacturing revealed in the Great Exhibition a year earlier. Their arts and crafts movement merged effortlessly with the English version of Art Nouveau where, of course, we find Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Their movement looked for inspiration to the romantic English poets like Byron and Shelley, and like the German romantics before them, to Gothic architecture. And as you’ll soon find out, architecture and Gothicism are essential ingredients in my horror.
Julia tells you that I’m a nice guy. I know myself too well to comment one way or the other, but the one thing I get asked over and over again by people who knew me before I began writing is this: how can a nice guy like you write about such terrible things?
I think we all know now that early childhood experiences affect our development, and influence what sort of adult we grow into. In many ways, then, I was doomed from the start – and not just because I was brought up to believe that the elixir of life was a carrier bag of Mars bars on a Friday evening. Something that crops up time and again in my writing is religion, specifically Catholicism.
My grandfather was a devout Catholic and I was exposed to the mysteries of the faith even before I started school. And when I went to school it was of course the Roman Catholic primary of which my grandfather was a governor. Now, I’m talking about the 1960’s and I’m not saying that it’s the same today – I hope it isn’t – but then we were taught almost nothing but religion. From those days I can remember a bit of history and some English, but above all my memory is of lessons in faith. How to pray, whom to pray to, preparations for first communion and so on.
Transubstantiation – where the wafer actually becomes the flesh of Christ even though it is still a wafer, and the wine actually becomes His blood despite remaining wine. My young mind saw it as cannibalism – whichever way I looked at it – and as I matured I began to see the parallels between my religion which was meant to be good, and something else that was meant to be bad. I had unearthed the element of contrast that lies at the root of all horror.
To exist at all, Good needs Evil, as Evil needs Good.
Witchcraft and devilry are the necessary and natural complements to organized religion. It has been so for over two thousand years. Organised religion is weakened without its dark cousin. It would probably cease to exist at all. Good and evil. The contrast of all contrasts. So when people ask how a nice person like me can write about such bad things, that is one answer I give them. Good guys can write bad things because we really feel that contrast. And is that so strange? I don’t think so. Consider the art of ancient Rome, especially the time of the Emperors. They provide us with stunningly beautiful works that actually portray the most terrible acts.
And, of course, I blame the church.
I was soon into Hammer Horror films and, not long after that, the occult novels of Dennis Wheatley. He wasn’t exactly a pillar of the community by all accounts. He picked up women in Richmond Park and was a terrible racist and right-winger (traits which sometimes deflect the reader from his stories). He also associated with rather iffy characters like Eric Gordon Tombe, a fraudster with whom Wheatley enjoyed the playboy life, quaffing champagne and picking up yet more women. Tombe eventually disappeared in suspicious circumstances, leaving Wheatley to draw on his exploits when the latter began his writing career. Incidentally, if you want to know more about Dennis Wheatley there is an excellent book by Phil Baker called The Devil is a Gentleman.
One of Wheatley’s other acquaintances was the Egyptian occult scholar, Rollo Ahmed. His book, The Black Art, is a wonderful source of information on all matters occult. It can be hard to find at times and I cherish my copy. In his summing up, Ahmed says this:
‘No one should ever yield to a temptation to dabble in sorcery, even if only from curiosity or the search for a new thrill. It is impossible to involve oneself in black magic in any shape or form without becoming contaminated; it is impossible to approach it and not risk losing judgment and reason. I have personally investigated it and, speaking from experience, strongly advise no one to do likewise. There is nothing of true value to gain, and everything to lose. It does not matter how light-heartedly it may be entered into as an intriguing pastime, with a tempting spice of the forbidden, the penalty is the same.’
It is well-known that Wheatley continually gave the same warning, stressing that his own works were based on information gained from people such as Ahmed rather than his own personal experiences. And that has always been my position, drilled into me from an early age. In my Catholic school mere talk of the supernatural was deemed a sin. I recall being told that we were not allowed to believe in ghosts. There seemed to be no discomfort caused by the fact that images of a Holy Ghost hung on the walls, or that our religion rested on foundations of a virgin birth and a corpse rising from the dead. And I have to ask, is it not a fine line between Christ’s resurrection and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead?
But for horror to work, does there have to be more than good and evil? Contrasts are as essential to horror as flour is to bread, but good bread is more than just flour.
For me, the finest horror has its origins in the Gothic tradition. If you think of a Gothic horror story, what comes to mind? I bet you imagine graveyards and crumbling castles, dark forests and abbeys. Right?
In fact the castle, all gloom in its decay, bleak as death and riddled with mysterious passageways, was the locus for early Gothic works. And the castle became associated with other medieval buildings such as abbeys, churches and even cemeteries – all icons of a past time when superstition and fear pervaded all walks of life
As a student of architecture I had already come across the theory that these edifices acted as a kind of bridge, a link, between the past – and the present with its very different values. In this way, figures from the past can be made to reappear in the present, and this is one way that pleasure can be created through horror and terror.
To have value, to have impact, to mean something, the Gothic narrative has to remain anchored on contemporary concerns. This doesn’t necessarily mean jettisoning the medieval landscape – though as Gothic stories developed the castle was replaced by the old house which then became the location where old fears and anxieties resurfaced to haunt the present.
Then along with the physical, the bricks and mortar, came the metaphysical and supernatural: mysterious incidents, horrifying images and dangerous pursuits. Ghosts, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns.
With these ingredients, we are presented then with a scenario where the villain, for want of a better word, threatens through his actions the total disintegration of respectable society to replace it with a world where virtue cedes to vice, reason to desire and law to tyranny.
Vice. Desire. Tyranny. Aspects of 2012 are they not?
Since those days when I used to read Wheatley and M R James, I had been so busy with real life that I hadn’t kept up with my reading, so I began to look. King, Barker, Herbert, Aickman, Lovecraft – I devoured them. But I wanted to read new writers, too. And that’s where I found it hard. Whilst there were plenty of books purporting to be horror, they just didn’t satisfy me. Why was this? Well, too many turned out to be no more than gore fest crime stories and, while I readily acknowledge their place in the market, they are not my sort of thing.
And at the other end of the spectrum lies a form of alleged horror that, for me, completely misses the mark. My sentiments are perfectly explained by the horror editor Stephen Jones in his forward to the anthology A Book of Horrors. Jones says:
“What the Hell happened to the horror genre?…These days our bloodsuckers are more likely to show their romantic nature, werewolves work for government organisations, phantoms are private investigators and the walking dead can be found sipping tea amongst the polite society of a Jane Austen novel…..Today we are living in a world that is ‘horror-lite’…This appalling appellation was coined by publishers to describe the type of fiction that is currently enjoying massive success under such genres as ‘paranormal romance’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘literary mash-up’ or even ‘steampunk’…these books are not aimed at readers of traditional horror stories.”
So what did happen to horror? Was it that in the period post-Thatcher/Reagan everyone was too busy grabbing what they could to be bothered with such flights of fancy? Surely greed and an obsession with self would fit well with the occult ? But even the grand master of horror, Clive Barker, turned away at one point to write urban fantasy and young adult books, leaving the world of horror writing to flounder and almost mirror that of the horror film.
Remake upon remake, rework after rework, parody after stupid parody. It isn’t helped, in my view, by the fact that in the USA, the term suspense is used for crime stories. Add to that the ease with which anyone can now self-publish a book – however unfit for human consumption – and the horror genre has been lying on a gurney outside the Intensive Care Unit for much of the last three decades. I have discussed with Julia many times the problem of finding the kind of work that we consider horror, and it was against this background that I entered the world of the horror writer.
I am not, of course, suggesting that I’m resurrecting horror single-handedly, or even alongside other writers like Julia. No, there are more writers of the same frame of mind, of course there are. But together, informally, we are all breathing life into our beloved cadaver.
I’ll never forget the day that Amazon delivered Stephen King’s novella The Mist to my door in Umbria. I sat down to begin it and four hours later had finished. I hadn’t moved in that time other than to turn the pages. I put it down on the table and said to my partner, I can do this and I’m going to.
Saying it was one thing, doing was something entirely different. I had, of course, not a clue how to write a novel, and whilst I’ll not digress into that now I’m perfectly happy to answer any questions later. But when I finally began to write Diavolino I had made up my mind that I wanted it to be the kind of big adventure that Wheatley wrote with a barmy and flawed cast, translated into something contemporary. I felt this could work. And I had, after all, many of the essential ingredients for a Gothic narrative right on my doorstep.
Umbria, a land of medieval castles and monasteries, mists, churches and superstitions, a place where the Catholic church still influences day to day life. Ordinary Italians live forever in the shadow of the church, even those who don’t believe. One of my neighbours ran a filling station and one day I was there buying petrol when a religious procession came passed. He stopped filling my tank and stood to attention, telling me to do likewise. I queried him and he said out of the corner of his mouth that if the priest saw him working – even saw me not jumping to – as they passed he’d never sell another litre. He was, in simple terms, afraid of The Church, afraid of something in which– if he told me the truth – he did not believe.
And this sits nicely with the history of my chosen genre, as well as with my own sentiments: the Goth tribes of northern Europe – warmongers opposed to tyranny and slavery – were always believed to have been the downfall of the Roman Empire. Thus Roman tyranny became identified with the Catholic Church and the writers of protestant northern Europe laced their Gothic novels with anti-Catholic subtexts. This was a place I could inhabit with pleasure.
Another of my neighbours was a retired haulier and had travelled the length and breadth of Italy. His retirement job was landscape gardening and he tootled about in an Ape three-wheeler. He used to puff out his chest and proudly tell me how he would never believe in old wives’ tales and superstition. He was a man of the modern world. One day he dropped by and I saw a red ribbon hanging from the wing mirror of the Ape. I couldn’t believe it was anything to do with Aids day so enquired. It is, he said, tapping the side of his nose, to keep away the malocchio, the evil eye. Superstition, fear of the church – perfect for my needs.
I had my setting, as I’ve said, on the doorstep. The lands and castles of Trasimeno – an area with a rich history, landscape littered with medieval ruins, battle scarred, invaded, ruled. That all fell nicely in to place, and it provided an opportunity to use the contrast between the beauty of the place and the horror of the narrative – but what about a contemporary concern? That element always present in the traditional Gothic novel? At the time Berlusconi was PM again. I’d lived through his times before and I saw xenophobia and intolerance on the rise. You will all have heard on the news about the clearing of the gypsy camps and the scuffles on the island of Lampedusa with boat people as they were called. Just weeks after Berlusconi took power in 2001 there was the heavy handed police response to the G8 protesters in Genoa resulting in the shooting dead of a 23 year old by the carabinieri. Living in Britain where the arming of police is a sensitive issue, it’s easy to forget that in Italy the paramilitary armed forces are everywhere and many live in fear of them. Under Berlusconi there was a tangible and ever tightening grip across the country, and even though Italy had been part of me for most of my adult life, even though I only ever felt truly at home when I was there, even then, I began to fear the knock on the door. Why? Not for being Albanian or Moroccan or one of the Roma, no, but just for being gay.
So I had all my ingredients including the modern theme. I wanted to use the contrast between the beauty of the place and the horror of what was happening to build my story, and as one reviewer said, ‘I doubt that the Italian Tourist Board will use Diavolino for advertising’. If you read Diavolino, you’ll find goodness and beauty everywhere, always on the surface, skin deep if you like, just like the piety of the country. But evil lurks in every turn of the page, ready to grab you when you least expect it.
I begin the story with a very short Prologue which, like the first chapter that follows it, is set in the past. In the first chapter I introduce straight away the antagonist, Clavelli, a priest who has been a bit of a wicked old devil, and with the character he meets I link to an even more distant and darker past.
I had intended to read you that opening – but I’m not going to. Thing is, I have an obsession with editing out extraneous speech tags, and that’s fine when you’re reading something, but for you to make sense of what I’d be saying I would have to give distinct accents to the characters. Pelor is from the east somewhere, and I found that I couldn’t master it – and I really don’t think it would work if I made him a Brummy or a Glaswegian.
So, since I’m not Bernard Cribbins I’m going to jump forward and read you Chapter Seven which doesn’t put such demands on my dramatic abilities.
After the first chapter the story moves to modern times and, as I begin to open up the plot I write in a more cinematic way with relatively short scenes chopping from character to character, and from relatively benign situations to darker ones.
At this point, Sima, Tom Lupton’s assistant, has been out to dinner with their local fixer, Paolo, and has met the headmistress, Annamaria, and bumped into Paolo’s sinister mother. Tom and his wife Elspeth are at the house – this one is modern but serves as the old decaying castle of traditional Gothic horror – sitting outside having a nightcap. They’ve been disturbed by a noise in the forest.
“What the hell is it?” Elspeth’s fingernails pierced Tom’s arm.
“No idea.” He stood on the edge of the platform and leaned forward, peering into the darkness. “Hey, who’s there?”
“It’s me, who do you think it is? The creature from the black lagoon?”
“Sima! Christ, we didn’t expect to see you again tonight,” said Tom. “Not go so well?” He swept his hair back off his forehead as he regained composure.
Sima staggered onto the terrace, panting. “Jesus, I need to get into shape,” she coughed. “No, actually it went fine. But his mother turned up. Have you met her?”
“His mother?” said Tom. “You’ve only known him a few hours and he introduces you to his mother?”
“No, not like that. Gimme a minute.” She bent over, hands on knees, breathing deeply, a sickly smell of alcohol and garlic rising around her. Tom held up the bottle of grappa; Sima nodded and he slipped inside to fetch another glass.
“Hurry, Tom,” called Elspeth. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
Sima took the glass and knocked back the shot of grappa in one. She shook her head and stretched to full height, filling her lungs.
“It was all going so well. Then we bumped into Annamaria, the headmistress from the school, very nice woman I have to say. She asked us to sit with her for dinner, which was very kind, but it rather played havoc with my plans.”
“I bet it did,” said Tom.
“Anyway, back to her later. We’d just about finished eating when this awful woman burst into the pizzeria. Dressed in black, with hair the color of fire. But it was her face, her eyes…she had an expression like a gorgon. Her skin looked like a snake’s, and I looked away from her stare for fear of being turned to stone!”
“Paolo’s mother, this was?”
“Tom, stop interrupting,” said Elspeth. “Go on Sima, sorry.”
“She reminded me of Regan in The Exorcist. You know, when she’s tied to the bed and possessed by the Devil? Anyway, I went cold when I saw her. And then she marched over to us, totally ignored Annamaria and me and started yelling at Paolo.”
“Charming. I know Italian mothers can be possessive but he’s how old, midtwenties?” asked Tom.
“Twenty-four, yes. Anyway, I said I’d see myself back if he wanted to go, but he managed to persuade her to return home and wait for him. She wasn’t pleased to say the least. She kept saying ‘He knows, he knows.’”
“Who knows what?” asked Elspeth.
“On the way back in the boat I managed to get him to talk about her a bit. He says she’s very religious, always has been, and somewhere along the line she got involved with some sort of secret society. It’s run by an old priest, pretty important by all accounts, who claims to have been chosen by God.”
“Chosen for what?” asked Tom.
“Don’t know. Or at least he wasn’t saying. She’s roped him into helping them with something or other. Anyway, point is, she’s not keen on foreigners. Something to do with her being able to trace her family back into the dim and distant history of the area. So you can imagine how she approves of Paolo working for Roger.”
“But what did she mean by ‘he knows’?” asked Elspeth.
“The priest, he knows what you are thinking. Paolo says she’s always saying it. He seems to think that she’s actually afraid of him.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s been scared of a priest—though she’s probably a bit old,” said Tom, catching the look of disapproval on Elspeth’s face. “So anyway, you didn’t take to her,” he went on. “She’s probably just trying to save her son from the clutches of the foreign floozie.”
“No. It was more than that. She told Paolo that she’d been looking all over for him. Something must have got into her to make her go out and find him—and it wasn’t me.”
“I’m going to spend the day being Miss Marple tomorrow,” said Elspeth. “I’ll see if I can find anything out. Small towns like Poggio usually harbor a few willing gossips. Did you get her name by any chance?”
“Clara, I think. Yes, Clara.”
“OK. I’ll see if I can unearth anything.”
“Good idea,” said Tom. “Now, I think we should all try to get some sleep. Work starts in earnest in the morning. You’ll soon be as fit as a flea.” He gave Sima a playful slap on the back, sliding back the door and ushering them in before the insects had a chance.
* * *
Clara was fretting in the kitchen, lights out, working her way through the rosary she fed between her bony fingers. “Hail Mary, full of Grace…pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.”
“Mamma, why do you sit in the dark?” Paolo thundered through the door and flicked the light switch.
“I have nothing to fear from the dark, my son.”
“I never said you did. I asked why you sit in it when there are lights in the house.”
“The Light of God in my soul is all I need.”
Paolo didn’t bother to respond. He was sick and tired of her piety. The house was like a morgue since his father died. Not just because of his mother’s mourning but because there was no longer his father’s laughter, his singing, his incessant cheer. How they’d stayed together for so many years he would never know. As far as he could tell, they’d had nothing in common, and according to the locals who’d grown up with them, they never had.
“When Clara said she was getting married to Giulietto we couldn’t believe it,” his grandmother had told him. “He was such a lively, happy young man, always worked hard and always played hard. Full of joy no matter how difficult life might be. Your mother was always introverted, a bit of a misery all round. Some of the girls used to avoid her. What he saw in her I will never know.”
“So, Mamma. What’s so important that you had to go raking all over the town to find me?” asked Paolo, lighting a Winston. “Can’t I have any time to myself?”
“You shouldn’t mix with those types. That Annamaria is as bad as those foreigners,” said Clara, making a point of opening the window.
“Oh, come on. Don’t give me that. Annamaria is Italian, just like you and me.”
“She is not the same. Her family isn’t from here. What does she care if Poggio is ruined?”
“Why do you have to be so dramatic, Mamma? She isn’t out to ruin Poggio. No one is. Times change. You can’t make things stand still.”
“Stand still, no. No one wants that. But when something terrible is going to happen it is our duty to stop it.”
“And you really think that Sir Roger is going to make something terrible happen, do you?”
“He doesn’t know it, of course not. And I’m not saying he’s doing it on purpose. But that idiot Palmerin. He should know better. Selling it off like that.”
“Diavolino, Mamma. Why can you never say its name?”
“I will not. Cannot. Just the mention of it can invoke such evil.”
“Oh, please spare me the dramatics.” Paolo was tiring of the conversation. He knew her tales of misery and woe by heart. He took a last drag on his cigarette before running it under the tap and tossing it into the can. “Come on. What did you want me for?”
Diavolino is available as an eBook and paperback
Not long ago an older friend of mine revealed that his even older brother once struck up a friendship with the ageing Dennis Wheatley. My friend’s brother maintained that despite his warnings and claims of innocence, Wheatley had, in the name of ‘research’, got rather too close to the Black Art and ‘paid the penalty’. But I’m puzzled by one thing, and I will leave you with this thought. We all agree, do we not, that dabbling in the occult is dangerous? Even the master Rollo Ahmed warned us. Let me remind you of his words:
‘There is nothing of true value to gain, and everything to lose. It does not matter how light-heartedly it may be entered into as an intriguing pastime, with a tempting spice of the forbidden, the penalty is the same.’
Now what do you make of that? I bet if I ask for a show of hands as to who believes in demons and ghosts, the non-believers will have it by far. And I bet if I asked who believes it is dangerous, or at least foolhardy, to dabble in the Dark Art the majority would be overwhelming. And I would then have to ask why? Does it mean, in fact, that the devil, demons, ghosts, supernatural evil are all real? Because if not, if they are purely fiction and superstition, how on earth could it possibly harm us if we did give in to curiosity – just once?