Delving into Hell’s Ditch with Simon Bestwick

Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned.

I caught up with Simon to ask him about his new book, Hell’s Ditch, which is already generating a great deal of praise and excitement. But first, here’s the cover and blurb.

Hell's Ditch Cover (2)

The dream never changes: a moonless, starless night without end. The road she walks is black, bordered with round, white pebbles or nubs of polished bone; she can’t tell which but they’re the only white in the darkness, marking her way through the night.

In dreams and nightmares, Helen walks the Black Road. It leads her back from the grave, back from madness, back towards the man who caused the deaths of her family: Tereus Winterborn, Regional Commander for the Reapers, who rule the ruins of a devastated Britain.

On her journey, she gathers her allies: her old mentor Darrow, the cocky young fighter Danny, emotionally-scarred intelligence officer Alannah and Gevaudan Shoal, last of the genetically-engineered Grendelwolves.

Winterborn will stop at nothing to become the Reapers’ Supreme Commander; more than anything he seeks the advantage that will help him achieve that goal. And in the experiments of the obsessed scientist Dr Mordake, he thinks he has found it.

To Winterborn, Project Tindalos is a means to ultimate power; to Mordake, it’s a means to roll back the devastation of the War and restore his beloved wife to the living. But neither Winterborn nor Mordake understand the true nature of the forces they are about to unleash. Forces that threaten to destroy everything that survived the War, unless Helen and her allies can find and stop Project Tindalos in time.

  1. Okay, so “Helen walks the Black Road”. Do you have a favourite road trip memory, and is there a road trip you would love to take?

I’m horrendously not-well-travelled, largely due to having been broke a lot of the time. I want to remedy both of those things as soon as I can… I grew up and studied in the Manchester area, and my Dad comes from Barmouth in North Wales, so I know those places and places in easy reach of them by bus very well, which is why they appear in my stuff a lot! Of course, now I’ve added Liverpool and the Wirral to my list of residences, so there’s room for some new locations.

I’d love to take a road trip all around Britain, starting to get to know the place as well as I know the places I grew up. Then, of course, I’d cross the Channel and meander my way around Europe. All I need are a couple of years and the ability to drive.

  1. The road Helen walks leads her back from madness. Do you think this a journey that can ever end? What are you views on ‘madness’ in both the real world and its use in fiction?

I suppose ‘madness’ is a pretty outdated word these days; it’s been used as a catch-all term for any number of forms of mental illness, and we’re starting to understand – in mainstream society, I mean – what that means much better. It can be something triggered by a chemical or a genetic cause, like some form of schizophrenia, or it can be caused by some form of trauma – that tends to be the kind of ‘madness’ I write about. RD Laing believed insanity was a response to living in an insane world, and I think there’s something to that. A lot of shell-shock cases in World War One involved hysterical paralysis or mutism – psychosomatic reactions that resulted from the soldiers being placed in the psychologically intolerable situations that arose from trench warfare; it was their psyche trying to give them an out.

In a much, much milder example, I did a stressful call centre job for five years, until one day something just went, and I couldn’t pick up a phone and talk to a customer without turning into a gibbering wreck. Partly, I think, that was something in me giving way under the pressure, but I also think I was trying to get myself out of that situation – which I ultimately did. ‘Madness’ can be one of the ways we try to cope with things that would, otherwise, be unendurable, and as a writer that interests me. I’m interested in how people survive.

Helen’s ‘madness’ is a reaction to the deaths of her family at the hands of the Reapers – her family, her friends, many of those who fought with and depended on her – for which she blames herself. She’s been in a sort of non-stop fugue state, which she’s finally come out of – it’s been a coping mechanism of sorts.

At the same time, she often ‘ghostlights’: that is, her dead loved ones appear to her, even talk to her. But in this world – twenty years after a devastating nuclear attack – it’s something that happens to most people who’ve survived. Reminders of what’s been lost – the people, the whole way of life – are everywhere, all around you. You literally cannot get away from it, there are a hundred things, every day, to trigger a flashback of some kind. Everyone’s in a semi-permanent state of PTSD – another kind of ‘madness’. (Of course, that’s the rational explanation; you could just as easily say that everyone is haunted. From a subjective point of view, there isn’t much difference.) So to that extent, it’s hard to see how the journey can ever end: maybe that’s what the books are about!

  1. In gathering her allies, it seems Helen is making Hell’s Ditch something of an ensemble piece, or are the other characters more of a supporting cast? How difficult was it to create the necessary different voices?

Hell’s Ditch went through a lot of changes over the years: when I was nineteen it was going to be a screenplay, then a few years later I tried it as a novel. Neither worked and I forgot about the whole thing until about 2009, when I picked up the basic concept to rework it as a radio play. I changed nearly everything about it, gender-swapping some parts, creating a bunch of new characters and pretty much throwing any loose idea I hadn’t found a story for into the mix. A lot of them were shaped by the actors we’d likely be able to work with, and these being radio scripts, the characters are their voices – you have to be able to recognise Helen, Gevaudan, Alannah, Danny and Winterborn as soon as they open their mouths. The radio play never happened, but by then I was excited enough about the story to keep going and turn it into a novel – and by then, of course, the individual characters’ voices were already there, waiting to be picked up. But yes, it’s become more of an ensemble, although Helen’s quest for revolution and revenge is what triggers and drives the action.

  1. Er, “genetically-engineered Grendelwolves”… What the hell?

You know when I said I threw pretty much any loose story idea into the mix? The Grendelwolves were one of them; I was interested in the idea of that SF staple, a human being who’s been turned into a monster, to be used as the bad guys’ shock troops. I was interested in what would happen if you made such a being a protagonist – after all, why should a physiological change like that make you less human psychologically? As I went on and wrote it, I also realised I could use it to write a character who was old enough to remember the world before the War very well, while still being physically able to take part in the action part of things. I’d formed an idea at the outset of the kind of character Gevaudan (the Grendelwolf in Hell’s Ditch) had to be – he’s pretty sardonic and dry, but there’s more to him than that – and so it was a case of working out how he got there. Great fun to write.

  1. “Project Tindalos” set my Cthulhu mythos senses tingling, reminding me of a wonderful story by Frank Belknap Long. Are my senses right to tingle?

Oh yes, there’s a definite touch of the Lovecrafts, but not your straightforward Cthulhu Mythos stuff – hopefully I’ve done something a bit different with it. And there’s a strong dash of Nigel Kneale in the mix there too.

  1. This is a project you’ve been working on for some time, and I’m sorry to hear its development was interrupted by a death in the family. Do you think this had an impact on the work that followed, other than to derail its progress for a short time?

Yes and no. What happened was that, about halfway through the first draft, my grandmother, whom I was very close to, died. I tried to carry on with the book – I probably would have found a way to continue if I’d been writing to a commission, but I wasn’t – but I just ran out of steam. I never doubted I’d come back to it, but I needed to write something else. As it happened, I had a chance to pitch some story ideas to Jon Oliver at Solaris immediately after, and one of them was a novel then called Ghosts Of War. It became The Faceless, and my grandmother’s actually in there, as Myfanwy Griffiths. I dealt with a lot of the grief there, rather than in Hell’s Ditch – but when I came back to Hell’s Ditch I felt I’d learned a lot of new lessons about writing a novel, so I applied them, so I think Hell’s Ditch is a much better book because of that.

  1. You’re a prolific writer, with various projects coming to fruition lately. How much of an impact do you see this new four-part series having on your productivity? Do you intend to focus entirely on The Black Road or will you still publish other things?

Well, I’ll hopefully publish other stuff! I’ve just written a crime novel, and signed with a major literary agency on the back of that – and that’s part of a series too! (Just call me a glutton for punishment.) On top of that, I have a novel I’ve already written that I’m rewriting into shape, plus several other novel ideas I want to do. But the Black Road is calling and my next project is going to be The Devil’s Highway, the second book in the series: if all goes well, that’ll be out in October next year. Beyond that, we’ll have to see.

Thank you, Simon.

I heartily recommend Simon’s work. You can grab a copy of Hell’s Ditch by clicking here.

And for more about Simon Bestwick’s writing, he blogs here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Two reviews

Black Static 47

Here are a couple of reviews of Black Static 47 that popped up.

The first is from Gareth Jones at Dread Central and he has some very positive things to say about my story, ‘When the Devil’s Driving’. Click here to read the whole review.

The second comes from The Horror Fiction Review, courtesy of Nick Cato. Click here and scroll to the bottom for the Black Static review, though why not take a look at some of the others while you’re there?

When the Devils Driving

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A dark discussion

One of my favourite horror writers interviews another of my favourite horror writers. More precisely, head over to The Cosmicomicon to read Ted Grau’s interview with Adam Nevill about things dark and literary.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Long stories short

You may know by now that Water For Drowning has been nominated for a British Fantasy Award for Best Novella. That’s pretty damn awesome and obviously I’m thrilled.

Something else that’s awesome is the list of other titles in that short list. I’m lucky enough to consider each of the nominated writers a friend and will be genuinely happy to see any of them win. No, really. And if you haven’t read their stories yet then here, let me tempt you…

Newspaper Heart by Stephen Volk

Not only has this story been nominated for a British Fantasy Award but it was short-listed for a Shirley Jackson award earlier in the year as well. It’s about a young boy’s relationship with a Guy Fawkes effigy but it’s a Stephen Volk story so of course it’s about more than that. And it’s a horror story, so any penny you give for the Guy might only be to make it go away. You can read what Stephen has said about the story here and here.

I was privileged to get an early read of Newspaper Heart and I remember admiring the ‘slow burn’ (pun fully intended) which gives the characters the attention they deserve and need in such an affecting story. It also gives the ending all the more impact, and it really is quite an ending – I didn’t see it coming until very late, and then it was in a deliciously tense ‘surely not…’ kind of way. It’s brilliant. I loved it.

Newspaper Heart originally appeared in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, edited by Mark Morris, which is itself nominated for a British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. I thoroughly recommend this book and copies are available here.


Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

All Raym wants to do is give up smoking. So why is his entire life falling apart? Why are new mistakes and old terrors conspiring against him? Why is he being plagued by the very worst spectre from his childhood? And why does giving up suddenly – horrifyingly – feel much, much more like giving in?

So goes the blurb. And here’s a taster:

“I saw him Mr Munroe.” A sly look lit up Jimmy’s blinking eyes. “He’s always chasing you.”

Raym’s hand froze in front of his chest, creeping back up towards his throat again. “What?”

“In a funny square van.” The kid blinked, blinked, blinked. He wooshed his hands either side of his body like he was starting a drag race, and Raym flinched again. “It’s got black tails – really, really looong ones, like party streamers!”

Again, I was lucky in that I was allowed to read this one early and was even given the chance to give a cover quote. This is what I said:

Cold Turkey is rich with nightmarish invention.  Johnstone has created a very distinctive villain with the sinister top-hatted tally-van man, yet knows when to hold him back to let other horrors take centre stage.  There’s an addictive quality to the well-paced prose that makes reading Johnstone’s stories a habit you’ll never want to kick, and this one’s so good it’s probably bad for you.”

This is a TTA publication and if you’re quick you can still grab a copy here. Carole’s also up for an award for Best Collection and you can grab a copy of The Bright Day is Done from Gray Friar Press here. Judging by the stories I’ve read so far I can fully recommend it.


Drive by Mark West

When David sees Nat alone, late at night, she accepts his offer of a lift home. But, the streets at night are also alive with a gang intent on hurt and mayhem…

I read Mark’s novella in one sitting. It’s gloriously fast-paced and full of tension, its horror all too real and all too believable. There are characters and events here that are very recognisable and relatable and the story is stronger for all of that. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it become a film.

A lot of other people have said a lot of great things about it, which you can read here.

This is a Pendragon Press novella and you can buy yourself a copy here.

drive cover finalbfs

So, there you go. If you want to put Water For Drowning in context, check out those novellas above. Likewise if you just fancy a damn good read. Each is well worth your time and money, I promise.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Devil’s in the Details

In an effort to avoid using this blog simply as a space for self-promotion, I thought I’d start keeping a writing diary of sorts. I’m too private (paranoid) about current works in progress, though, so I thought maybe the occasional retrospective regarding a recently published piece with some comment on where the ideas came from, the redrafting process, some analysis, that kinda thing.

First up? ‘When The Devil’s Driving’. There will be spoilers though, so if you haven’t read it yet then perhaps consider this post an example of self-promotion after all and come back once you’ve read the story…

When the Devils Driving

‘When The Devil’s Driving’ was published in issue 47 of Black Static, which you can order direct from the TTA Press website, here. So far it’s been reviewed positively here, here, and here.

This story began as a (slightly longer) title scribbled in one of my notebooks, ‘Only When The Devil’s Driving’ which came to me while watching some crappy crime film (because if I’m not enjoying a film, or anything else for that matter, I’ll disappear into my own head for a bit and think about stories). The title might have been inspired by an onscreen visual – a bad guy in a car or something – but the phrase suggested something more psychological, the idea of acting against your usual character, and I left it at that. Just a few words, jotted down.

Next came the setting. I was daydreaming (again), thinking of different places to set a story, any story, and I thought of a wrecked car, a burnt out wreck, half submerged in a filthy pool or marsh. The Devil’s Basin. Why might it be called that? Well, I had a few ideas (I used all of them). I didn’t write anything about the place, not yet, but before that daydreaming session was done I’d also gained a teenage girl sitting there, beside the car, lost in thought.

The story itself began one day after flicking through my notebooks and noticing that Devil Driving title. It brought back the image of the car and the girl at the Devil’s Basin.

I started writing.

I barely planned any of this one. Sometimes it’s like that for me. I’ll just write and write and tidy up whatever I get later on. I described the place, put a girl there who quickly became Lucy, and waited to see what she’d do. Another girl came along and although in the first draft I gave her a name, a separate identity, I actually intended for her to be a reflection of Lucy in some way, a younger unspoiled version of her. She lost the name in redrafting to make this a clearer possibility. (By the way, regarding the redrafting process, thanks are due to Stephen Dines who was kind enough to read an early version and offered some useful criticism. I don’t often let others read work before it’s published but occasionally something needs checking or there’s something not quite right that I can’t quite see. Steven Dines is one of my go-to guys for this. He’s very honest and understands how stories work.)

So anyway, I made it up as I went along, that first draft. I mentioned earlier that sometimes it’s like that for me. Well, I think I have to do it that way sometimes, just because it feels so liberating. I love writing, every aspect of it, but some days feel more like hard work than others. It’s good once in a while to just throw consideration to the wind and let the words come. See where they take you instead of the other way around.

Speaking of which, Lucy murdering the young girl surprised me (though a psychologist might talk about conscious and subconscious levels of writing…). Until that moment I thought the story was going to be a conversation, maybe a confessional tale in which the young girl helps the older one come to terms with something she’d done. But the devil was well and truly driving by this point and Lucy did what she wanted, which was kill the girl.

On the surface, ‘When the Devil’s Driving’ is a murder story with a horror finish. You can read it like that if you want. Lucy kills a girl at the Devil’s Basin, hides her in the boot of a dumped car, and the devil comes for her at the end as a result of her actions (though perhaps her actions had been his all along). If you don’t like the idea of actual devils, well then he can easily be metaphorical, a suggestion that all of Lucy’s actions from this point forward will be coloured by what she did at the Devil’s Basin. It’s a nasty enough story either way.

But there’s another story as well. It’s like that car, half hidden beneath the foul surface of that devil pool, a victim hidden inside.

In this story, the victim is Lucy. She’s the victim of a childhood trauma, something I sometimes emphasised, sometimes understated, in the redraft. For example, when Lucy’s mother asks, “What car? When? When are you talking about sweetheart?” it’s easy to dismiss as just part of her parental concern, but by asking when (twice) she’s also suggesting there might have been a car some time before the timeline of this particular story.

Young girl, mystery car – these are enough (I hope) to suggest the trauma, one that was most likely sexual. In this version of the story, Lucy murdering the young girl at the burnt-out car is actually her re-enacting her own death, a metaphorical death regarding her innocence. So in a way, that girl is helping Lucy come to terms with something after all. Lucy wielding that fatal rock is a manifestation of the guilt and shame she feels for her own culpability in getting into a stranger’s car (or for going along with what happened in the car). The young girl Lucy ‘kills’ has no name because she doesn’t need one, the girl is Lucy. Lucy doesn’t want to know the girl’s name because she doesn’t want to face it. She doesn’t need to know the girl’s name because she already knows. And she doesn’t like that silly girl much. The girl who started her period early, same as her. The one with the absent father, same as her. The one who knows when Lucy lies but likes her stories anyway.

Because stories can hide things.

Like the bad thing that happened to Lucy and made her the withdrawn lonely (possibly murderous) girl she is today.

You don’t need to tell the reader everything. I don’t go into details as to what happened to Lucy (though that line about how to smoke a cigarette is pretty suggestive) and I don’t tell the reader who did it to her (maybe daddy, maybe not, depends how you read the Nick Cave stuff) because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about how the event shaped Lucy afterwards. It’s about how memory can be a place, a dirty place, a place Lucy can’t seem to leave.

Or it’s just about one girl killing another. One girl going bad, going to hell. Whatever.

Or, more accurately – and this is one of my favourite things about writing – it’s all of those stories, all at the same time.

It’s up to the reader in the end. Like I said, there’s no need to tell them everything. A writer builds a car. Gives it a shape, puts an engine in it. The reader can drive it wherever the hell they want.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Bedtime reading – Gerald’s Game

Mark West has been running a very interesting project called King For A Year, which you can read about here. This week it’s my turn to offer a view on one of King’s works, namely Gerald’s Game which is one of my favourites. I get a bit heavy with the analysis rather than offering a straight forward review, but if that sounds like your cup of tea you can read it here.


I blogged about another of King’s novels a while back, back when I intended to do one for each season, so if you’re interested in what I have to say about The Shining, click here.

Both pieces were adapted from my undergraduate dissertation which was titled (rather pretentiously!) The House[hold] of Horror: Locating the Monstrous in the Works of Stephen King. It focussed on three novels, and so hopefully some day soon I’ll adapt the third for this blog (it’ll be Cujo).

Feel free to add your own views and/or interpretations in the comments below.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Here Be Monsters: A Personal History of Fear

Recently, at the Edge-Lit convention, I attended an interesting panel on the role of monsters in genre fiction. It mainly focussed on the usual suspects, namely vampires and zombies, and how saturated the market (particularly self-publishing) has become with such fare. I enjoyed it, I’m a big fan of monsters (even the overused dead ones that just, won’t, die) and I’m really particularly interested in the way monsters are used, the function they serve within the narrative. Sometimes they’re just the bad thing with which a writer can threaten the characters, and that’s okay, I like those monsters, but sometimes they’re so much more than that and those ones tend to be the best ones. For me.

I’ve been meaning to blog about monsters for a while now. It would have tied in well with the competition I ran a while ago – what’s your favourite monster – and it could have served as a pretty decent plug for my collection (Probably Monsters, by the way, available now from ChiZine and other dark places). I return to the topic now because of that Edge-Lit panel and because during the Q & A at the end Stephen Volk asked what it was like to try to invent a ‘new’ monster, citing Giger’s Alien as a recent example. It’s a question I wished could have been explored at length because it’s something I think about often (unsurprisingly).

My feelings are that if ever I was going to create a ‘new’ monster I’d have to first look at the ones that really affected me personally. Not because I could then take bits from each Frankenstyle – it doesn’t work that way – but because by examining each I might come to identify why it scared me. Only then would I be able to think of different ways (maybe!) in which to represent that fear and thus make my new monster…

This is just a personal list, though. It’s not a ‘top five best monsters ever’ list or anything (though do feel free to add your own to the comments below). I won’t be going all secondary-reading on it either, you might be glad to know, quoting from various texts and getting heavy with the analysis. It’s just a bit of light-hearted bloggage, my thoughts on the very special monsters that scared, and in some cases still scare, the hell out of me.

The chances of anything coming from Mars…

My introduction to horror, my first experience of being scared and liking it, occurred when I was around five or six, and it came courtesy of Jeff Wayne’s version of The War of the Worlds. I was in the bath at the time, my mother playing the double album (vinyl) in the next room, and, oh man. Terrifying doesn’t cover it. I didn’t fully understand the narrative, but I was pulled along by Richard Burton’s powerful voice and the evocative music – that heartbeat, those drilling sounds, the alien cry of ullaaa – to such an extent that I genuinely feared seeing a Martian at the small bathroom window (and for better or worse, it would have been all distorted by that special bobbled glass). I was disturbed by that horrid image of a “huge rounded bulk, larger than a bear” as it “rose up slowly, glistening like wet leather” while “its lipless mouth quivered and slathered and snake-like tentacles writhed as the clumsy body heaved and pulsated”. I was terrified by the “fighting machines, picking up men and bashing them against trees”. I was completely and utterly traumatised by the idea that aliens would come and end, well, everything.

Something else I did understand was that this was something utterly and quite literally alien. Human beings, and more precisely adults, did not know what the hell was going on. “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one” says the astronomer, “but still they come.” And to my mind that either meant adults could be wrong, which was very frightening, or it meant bad shit happens however safe you might think you are. The fact that the adults were scared is probably what scared me most, though, with glorious artwork accompanying the album to show people fleeing in terror. The disbelief in that line, “They wiped us out,” was clear enough, even if I couldn’t understand the magnitude of “hundreds, maybe thousands, dead”. Older now, I can appreciate how H.G. Wells used a Martian invasion to reflect the many human ones. I can see a fear of colonisation. You can even see the Martians as a type of cosmic vampire considering how they use our blood, a wonderful way to represent exploitation (and maybe, considering how the story ends, even the fears of miscegenation?). For me, though, it was simply the fear of my world order being blasted away by heat rays to a soundtrack of exultant Martians crying Ulla!.

So thanks mum. Sincerely. I still love that album.

Smile, you son of a bitch!

Another fear that grew out of my childhood experience is a fear of the sea. This is due, in part, to living in Australia as a child and being told that the nice man in the tower on the beach was on the lookout for sharks. It might not have been true, the guy might have been a lifeguard or something, but the idea that there might be a creature out in the sea that would eat me, the idea that swimming was a kind of deadly lottery (there might be a shark, there might not, it might be hungry, it might not, the guy in the tower might see it, etc), well, that terrified me. I never swam in the sea as a kid. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the next monster to make a lasting impression on me was the great white shark from Jaws.

The shark’s giant proportions were perfectly representative of the fear I had already attributed to such animals but think about how often you don’t see the shark… scary, huh? That first night swimmer, the fishermen on the jetty, the poor boy on his inflatable – none of them saw what was coming for them. The sea concealed it. There are other fears in the film, such as our inability to control all of the world we live in, for example, and there are economic concerns as well (even more so in the book where the shark is a parallel for a town-troubling loan shark – get it?). I’ve even read a psycho-sexual analysis of the film in which the shark is somehow both a phallic symbol and vagina dentata. But for me it was the fear of being eaten alive. A primitive fear, a universal fear, and a fear I still have to this day. However far we advance, however developed our intellect, there will always be something savage higher on the food chain. And you won’t always see it coming.

Fee, fie, foe, fum

For the next ‘monster’ that had a massive impact on me, thanks go to that man I mentioned earlier, Mr Stephen Volk. I’m not alone with this one, either – loads of people were deeply affected by the phenomenon that was Ghostwatch. People complained, that’s how good it was. Scary? Yes, just a bit. Well, more than a bit, to be honest. I can’t even blame my age because I wasn’t that young, about sixteen, I think. Presented as a seemingly live television broadcast investigating a haunted house, the programme gave us Pipes, a particularly malevolent ghost that managed to fool and/or terrify most of an entire nation (just as Orson Welles did in the late 30s with his radio version of The War of the Worlds, funnily enough). It was precisely the apparent reality of Ghostwatch that scared me. Sarah Greene (my childhood crush) was on site to report, her husband Mike Smith was in the studio phone room, hell, it even had Michael Parkinson hosting and how can you not trust Parky? There was just enough cynicism at the beginning, too, courtesy of Craig Charles, to make it all the more convincing so that by the time the studio is being torn apart by supernatural forces you’re fully immersed in the fiction-as-fact aspect of this mockumentary. At least, I was. I had the same sense of order being broken down as I had with The War of the Worlds, only with the Martians I still knew it was a record playing whereas, oh my God, Ghostwatch was fucking real.

(It wasn’t.)

And for me, personally, the fear did not end when the programme did. That night, in bed, I couldn’t sleep for staring into the shadows in the corners of the room and the darkness at the end of my bed. Pipes had taken all of the ghost stories I knew and condensed them into something that could be real. So imagine how scared I was when one of my walls started thump-thump-thumping, just like in Ghostwatch! I mean, holy shit, it was really really real.

It wasn’t.

My sister, in her bedroom next door, had also been psychologically scarred frightened by the programme and, convinced that Pipes was in her room, was throwing her toys at him. And those toys struck the wall, my wall, thump-thump-thump! I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep until the sun came up.

It’s funny, but I’m friends with Stephen Volk now and though I’ve been meaning to tell him that story for ages I’ve only just admitted to it. So cheers, Stephen, you scared the hell out of me (and my sister) and influenced my love for the genre. I sincerely appreciate that. (And thanks go to you as well, sis. The only time you scared me more was when you put that knife in the toaster when the bread got stuck.)

…Three, four, better lock your door…

For a smooth segue into my next landmark monster/fear, other sleepless nights can be attributed to Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. One of my first 18 certificate films, this moved quickly from titillating my interest with swearing, nudity, and sex, to becoming something very disturbing. I revisited the film and its sequels not so long ago and found that almost all of any impact it once had was now lost but at the time I was scared all right. I mean, we all dream, and you can’t control them, and most of us have experienced that feeling of powerlessness that comes with dreaming – running slowly, punches that don’t connect with any force, even paralysis – so throw in a bad guy like Freddy “with knives for finger nails”, and make him a paedophile driven by vengeance and sadism, and you’ve got quite a monster. I remember thinking there was a lot of blood in that first film, and it may have been one of the first horror films I saw that suggested so much pain, especially with that first death. Clive Barker did it as well with Hellraiser, but there was something strangely appealing about the pain in that film, whereas Freddy did not offer the same pleasure.

So, powerlessness and pain: those are part of my monster-fear genetic make up.

Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility

And finally, the last monster to have truly scared me… it’s Giger’s Alien creature. Which brings us back full circle as it was one of the monsters Stephen Volk cited as being a new monster in that Edge-Lit Q&A, something more than just a vampire or zombie or one of their other bump-in-the-night buddies. It scared the hell out of me. It still scares the hell out of me. I used to play an Xbox game called Alien vs Predator and though I completed it as both the Alien and the Predator characters I just could not do it as a marine. Not because it was difficult but because I was fucking terrified. Of a game. To be fair, I do tend to fully immerse myself in the atmosphere when I play, and I’ve quite an imagination, but the hissing sound they make and their speed and dexterity, scuttling on limbs designed to pull you apart, that retractable snapping mouth…

And lets not be coy, this is a monster that frightens because it represents, as well, a fear of rape. I don’t just mean that penetrative phallic mouth, that retractable penis with teeth, but consider as well the face-hugger monster, forcing its seed into your body, seed that will grow and then burst out of your body. It’s a full violation of the body, in fact, a horrific rape and birth and death, and it’s one of the reasons I’ll always class Alien as a horror film rather than science fiction. It’s body horror, it’s psychological horror, it’s even a haunted house horror of sorts, only with a spaceship instead of a building. The science fiction is just setting, really, a place where the horror can happen. As the tag line says: In space, no one can hear you scream.

The monster mash

So there you go. The five monsters that scared (and scarred?) me most. There seems to be quite a lot of crossover as to what it is about each that scares me. For example, Giger’s Alien brings the same terror and sense of ‘other’ as the Martians from The War of the Worlds (it even “glistens like wet leather”, and not in a good way) while like the shark from Jaws it’s a formidable, perfectly evolved, killing thing. Any sexual fear it represents mirrors some of the anxiety provided by Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (and maybe even the great white shark, depending how far you’re willing to go with a Freudian analysis). Each is somehow more powerful than us, a physical danger to us, and is either mindless of our destruction or actively seeks it out. Like Pipes from Ghostwatch, each seems to breaks the laws of nature as we know them. So the monstrous, to me, is very much supernatural. Beyond nature, or beyond our understanding of it anyway. Even the scariest people are the ones whose nature we just can’t seem to understand. “How could s/he do such a thing?” we ask.

And as Parky demonstrates from the studio as the show draws to a close, nowhere is safe from monsters, whatever or whoever they might be.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments