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.

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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.

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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.

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Coming Up Roses

I submitted a story a while ago to an anthology I was very keen to get in. The Spectral Book of Horror Stories was superb and has garnered great reviews and award recommendations, with Alison Littlewood’s story ‘The Dog’s Home’ recently winning the Shirley Jackson Award. It is with tremendous pleasure, then, that I can announce I’ll be in the second volume of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories with a piece called ‘Mary, Mary’. It’s about gardening. Sort of. It’s about nature, and nurture, and how the things we dig up are often the same things we buried in the first place. I was overjoyed when editor Mark Morris told me he wanted it for the book, especially as he’d had 800 or so stories submitted, and especially as the first volume had been so bloody good. It’ll be launched at this year’s British Fantasy Convention, with a signing as well I believe. As you can see from the table of contents below, book two will have me sitting and scribbling in some damn fine company. And check out that gorgeous cover by Vincent Chong.

HOUSE OF THE HAG – Paul Finch

FLOTSAM – Tim Lebbon

TOYS FROM THE GINGERBREAD COUNTRY – Richard Jay Goldstein

SUGARED HEAT – Lisa L. Hannett

A GIRL AND HER DOLLS – Adrian Cole

THE LARDER – Nicholas Royle

THE VEILS – Ian Rogers

JOE IS A BARBER – Paul Meloy

LITTLE TRAVELLER – Simon Kurt Unsworth

BEHIND THE WALL – Thana Niveau

MARY, MARY – Ray Cluley

THE MEANTIME – Alison Moore

MARROWVALE – Kurt Fawver

SCRAPING BY – Gary Fry

WHERE THE FOREST ENDS – Sean Logan

WRONG – Stephen Volk

LUMP IN YOUR THROAT – Robert Shearman

HORN OF THE HUNTER – Simon Bestwick

WHO WILL STOP ME NOW? – Cliff McNish

spectral-horror-2_design

You can get hold of volume one (and pre-order volume two) at the Spectral Press site, here.

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On the Edge(-Lit)

Just a quick shout out to say that the recent Edge-Lit event held in Derby was terrific fun – many thanks to Alex Davies for organising such a packed and entertaining day and all the sponsors and helpers who made it happen. It was great to catch up with old friends, speak in person to many I only ‘see’ on Facebook, and to meet new people. It was great to hear Stephen Volk, Mark Morris, and Cate Gardener each read from their newest work, launched by Spectral Press at the event. It was also great to attend a couple of panels and to listen to guest speaker John Connolly who, rather than do a reading or interview, gave a talk about his career and the genre, which was interesting and entertaining (the perfect combo). A particular joy for me was getting some great news from Mark Morris (see the next blog post) and having beers and food with friends, talking throughout about writery horror things. I sold a few books, too, which is always a good thing, but most of all it was about the people. The horror genre is in good shape, with a warm welcoming crowd working in the field or supporting with much enthusiasm those who do. I thoroughly recommend next year’s Edge-Lit – this one sold out, and next year is likely to go the same way, so book early.

If you can’t wait until then, there’s a Christmassy version coming soon. You can get tickets for Sledge-Lit (I know, I know) here.

Jess

Jess with her John Connolly signed Black Static. (I’m in there too, but apparently my autograph means NOTHING to some people…)

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Devil’s Due

I just received a sneak-peek at the art for my next story, ‘When the Devil’s Driving’, which will appear in July’s Black Static. Thanks go to David Senecal who has done a fantastic job with this.

When the Devils Driving

I also owe my gratitude to Steven Dines who was good enough to read an early version of this story. His feedback stopped me from being lazy with the story and the piece is much stronger for his comments, so thanks Steve.

Peter Tennant is reviewing Probably Monsters in this issue as well, along with Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow, and my Curse of the Zombie story, ‘Bone Dry’. Thanks Pete. He’s asked me some great questions in an interview, too, so I’m kind of hogging a lot of the magazine this time.

You can buy the current issue by clicking here, and I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again – it’s well worth subscribing. Black Static publishes some of the best horror stories around. I consider myself very lucky every time I get in.

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Interzone Readers’ Poll

With Suzanne Palmer announced recently via social media as the winner of Interzone Readers’ Poll 2014, and the full results available imminently as the latest issue rolls out, I thought I’d post my votes here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Interzone is a fantastic magazine. If you like speculative fiction in all its forms but don’t already subscribe you should give it a go. Click here to check it out and follow the links for subscription options.

Anyway, my favourites from last year…

Issue 250

Lilacs and Daffodils, by Rebecca Campbell

A beautiful story about memory that isn’t memory, fragmented but linked in that associative way our minds work, emotive yet calculating, human and artificial and everything all at once. I loved this and read it again immediately upon finishing. This particular issue of Interzone had a few stories that played around with memory and perception but ‘Lilacs and Daffodils’ has a warmth to it that resonated with me more than the others, a quietly understated and very evocative piece and just the sort of thing that keeps me buying this magazine.

Issue 251

Ghost Story, by John Grant

Wonderfully intriguing from the outset, and a beautiful portrayal of a strong relationship. What could have been a frustrating domestic story focussing on trust is quickly bypassed so that we can focus on a different relationship and the story’s oddity, a situation involving past love and the passage of years with just a dash of skewed timeline and/or parallel universe. I love the concept here, the universe rewriting itself, but most of all I love its bitter-sweet poignancy.

Issue 252

The Posset Pot, by Neil Williamson

One of the best apocalypses I’ve read in a while. Parallel universes passing, fizzing with the friction, the bubbles giving and taking. The taking is what gives this story a sharp sense of loss, the narrator’s loneliness painful to read but compelling thanks to a small degree of hope. I loved this.

Two Truths and a Lie, by Oliver Buckram 

Wow, where to start? This is a fantastic story, using a narrative technique that surpasses the gimmicky so that the reader plays a very active part in the story-telling, which is exactly the sort of fiction I adore. The first person perspective with its direct address of a specific intended reader provides an effective voyeuristic pleasure and its brevity, with ambiguous absences, makes it all the more striking. Weird and wonderful and original, and bloody brilliant.

Issue 253

Chasmata, by E. Catherine Tobler

A very personal, intimate story (with bracketed asides to make it more so, drawing attention to necessary half-truths and ambiguities) with some erotically-charged language that blurs the alien landscape with the physical bodies of the characters. This explores both the mysteries and the appeal of a different planet and a different person. There’s a lot of desire, not just of the physical but the desire to explore, move, leave, break away, with much of the focus on distance and fracture, still mixing planets and people with a prose style that is often poetic. A beautiful story.

Beside the Dammed River, by D. J. Cockburn 

Beautifully effective in its casual tone, with a touch of the exotic in its foreign (to me) locale and culture, the mystery of what lies under the tarpaulins is revealed with little fanfare so that the focus is on the human story. Petty rivalries are made dramatic yet remain understated, though they can easily be extended to global bureaucracies. The characters are wonderfully full for such a short piece, thanks in part to the observations of the narrator but also the roadside conversations. He has the wisdom of an older man but faces the same temptations of one with youth, making him all the more believable. There’s a deceptive simplicity to this story, the random, somewhat mundane, encounter loaded with much more so that the theft of a set of tools can reflect the theft of millions carried out by an entire country. This won the James White Award, and I’m not surprised. It’s brilliant.

Issue 254

Songs Like Freight Trains, by Sam J. Miller 

An incredibly relatable story dealing with the magic of music and how it can take you back, both metaphorically and literally. The relationships are presented convincingly, be it that of marriage, friendship, or the one between mother and daughter, with the claim that “time takes so much away from us” counterbalanced by how much it gives as well. It’s a story about growing up, about change, and is as much about the future as it is the past. The distances between the two are perhaps best represented in the mother daughter dynamic: as a dancer, the daughter is fully immersed in a world the mother has given up or lost, and yet music allows the mother to live again as a teenager. There’s a longing here but not necessarily regret, and the story is all the sweeter for it.

Issue 255

The Calling of Night’s Ocean, by Thana Niveau

An awesome story. Sections told from a dolphin’s perspective are convincingly ‘alien’ yet familiar enough to remain recognisable. The relationship between the dolphin and the human is endearing but this is really a story about our relationships with each other as humans, or rather it’s about how poor those relationships are, as the Vietnam war context highlights. We are so eager to communicate with animals, with aliens even, yet we remain unable to communicate effectively with ourselves, our inability to ‘feel’ each other very much the point of the story. “Existence is joy” the dolphin tries to teach us but we can’t hear the message. In fact, as the dolphin learns, we seem intent on making the opposite true, a realisation so distressing that the dolphins call to a darkness between and behind the stars to give the story a terrifying Lovecraftian finale, at least for this reader. Absolutely wonderful stuff, and I hope it gets picked up for various ‘best of’ anthologies.

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Nowhere is safe – zombies in the desert

My story ‘Bone Dry’ is now available as ‘Curse of the Zombie’ as part of Hersham Horror’s ‘The Cursed’ series. Here’s the blurb:

“Louisa is in Algeria to cover a celebrity wedding for the BBC, but an encounter with a strange American in a hotel bar reveals there are far more interesting stories out there, in the Sahara, waiting to be unearthed. Stories about the lost ones, the tenere medden, desert men cursed with an undying thirst… The fourth in a series of six novelettes reviving the golden age of the monster from Hersham Horror Books.”

I wanted to do something a bit different to the usual zombie story, and I’m thankful to the ever-wonderful National Geographic for inspiring me as to how to go about that. In particular, articles relating to oil mining in Algeria and the Tuareg (pictured below).

tuareg-sahara

You can grab a copy of ‘Bone Dry’ aka ‘The Curse of the Zombie’ from Amazon by clicking here. Another click once you’re there should take you to the kindle version.

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