Me & Horror: Proper Horror Novels At Last

The first proper horror novel I read was Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. By “proper horror novel”, I mean (a) one dealing with supernatural horror (because I’m not interested in serial killer novels, they’re just thrillers), (b) one with a modern-day setting (which isn’t to say I don’t like supernatural tales set in other eras, because I do — M R James’s Edwardian England, or Arthur Machen’s fin-de-siecle London, for instance — but really I like horror to be set in something as like the day-to-day world I know as possible) and (c) one that sets out to scare me stupid. Salem’s Lot did that in bucketfulls. (IT, the first King novel I bought when it came out, was far scarier, but the ending was a bit naff.)

The Influence by Ramsey CampbellAfter Salem’s Lot, I went to a local bookshop to find something with a British setting, and found, in the secondhand section, about half a shelf of Ramsey Campbell novels. I proceeded to devour them. (Not literally. That would have got me thrown out of the shop.) I mean, I just read one after the other. I think I got through The Nameless in about three days. Campbell is (rightly) thought of as on the more literary end of the horror scale, but some of his novels are nevertheless real page-turners. The Influence (which, alongside The House on Nazareth Hill and The Grin of the Dark makes up my three favourite Campbell novels, not to mention being three of my favourite reads of all time) is, I’d say, the best in terms of page-turning.

And from there, there was no turning back. Clive Barker (the big name in horror at the time, though I haven’t read anything by him for a while), Shirley Jackson (whose The Haunting of Hill House was the scariest book I’d ever read — and a recent re-reading has proved it still is), oodles of Weird Tales authors (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, whose Our Lady of Darkness is the most perfect novel from the old school), Theodore Roszack’s Flicker, T E D Klein’s Dark Gods, and nowadays Thomas Ligotti. My most recent discovery is Dan Simmons — The Terror and Drood are both terrific stuff (and completely give the lie to (b) above, because both take place in a historical setting). Plus of course films like Ring, Hellraiser, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Wicker Man, Dagon… So much stuff I might have missed if I’d never started reading horror.

I don’t quite know what switched me from avoiding the stuff like the plague to suddenly reading it. It’s all too easy to get into cod psychologising about the need to confront the darker recesses of one’s mind, but actually I really do think that’s what I needed, and got from, and no doubt still get, from horror fiction. It’s still in my dreams. Giger’s Alien, and the occasional horde of zombies, make the odd nocturnal appearance, but they’re no longer nightmares as such, just dreams. Perhaps that’s what horror fiction has done for me. If so, it’s certainly good enough!

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to the World Horror Convention for a long weekend of the stuff, something I think my five-year old self who opened this series of blog posts on Me & Horror would just be aghast at. “Why seek it out?” he’d say. “I’ve had enough!”

Well, just in case, this is the book I’m taking to read while I’m there:

Watership Down

Me & Horror: Three Attempts at Dennis Wheatley

In my last post I gave a few reasons why I didn’t think of Lovecraft, at first, as a horror writer — I mean, why I wasn’t scared by the idea of reading him. One reason I could have added was that Lovecraft’s monsters were obviously invented, obviously fictional, so they weren’t as immediately scary to me, as a kid, as were, for instance, vampires, ghosts and werewolves, all of which were real. (They were real because you could buy non-fiction books about them. Weird to think how, as a non-horror-reading kid, I nevertheless remember reading non-fiction books about ghosts, vampires and werewolves, and scaring myself silly that way.) Basically, there was less chance of my scaring myself with Lovecraft’s monsters — I wasn’t about to imagine opening the bathroom door and finding Yog-Sothoth on the other side. (What’s so scary, after all, about a “congeries of iridescent globes“? Nothing compared to the rat-toothed vampire from Salem’s Lot.)

But the next horror writer I tried to read — and I do mean tried, as in, didn’t succeed, at least at first — was Dennis Wheatley. Dennis Wheatley wrote about Black Magic, which, as far as I was concerned wasn’t invented, or at least there was the possibility that it wasn’t, which moved Wheatley (bizarre, not to say ludicrous, as it may seem) into a whole different league from H P Lovecraft. Black Magic, being a thing of the mind, might (I thought) conceivably have some power that could be transferred through the pages of a book, and that made the idea of reading about it all the more scary.

It was a friend at school who persuaded me to read Wheatley. (And would later persuade me to read Stephen King, which is the point at which I think of myself as finally reading proper horror fiction; but I’ll write about that in the next post.) This friend told me that Wheatley had scrupulously researched the subject of Black Magic, and prefaced all his books with a warning to his readers not to get involved in this dark and nefarious area, but to leave the facing of such dangers to Wheatley himself. This made the frisson of reading him, of course, all the more scary. The result of my friend’s persuasion was a three part comedy of misfortunes.

I started out by getting an audio tape of The Devil Rides Out from the school library. This was the first and only time I ever got an audio tape out from the school library, and I can only assume I did it because I thought it would make the potentially dangerous Black Magical effect of reading Wheatley a little less dangerous.

How wrong I was!

One evening after school I put the tape into my tape player (which was designed primarily to be plugged into a ZX Spectrum, and which would later serve as my first guitar amplifier, with a wonderfully fuzzy distortion sound I’ve never managed to reproduce) and tentatively — fearfully — pressed the play button. The narration started. Then — what was going on? Was the narrator’s voice going weird? It was slurring, then going suddenly deep and slow. At first, it was a subtle effect, subtle enough to make me wonder if it wasn’t my overly fearful imagination making me only think I was hearing it. Then it became too pronounced to ignore. Suddenly, the narrator’s voice was warping and growling like a man possessed. He actually started talking backwards. That did it! It was the voice of the Devil himself! I hit the stop button at stared at my little tape player like it was a Thing from Hell.

Of course, it was the tape getting caught in the player. When I popped it out, I had to extricate a crinkled yard of it from the rollers. My tape machine had occasionally done the like before, to old, slack or stretched tapes. It was all explainable. But one part of me thought that really it was a warning: I was not supposed to read Dennis Wheatley.

A little while later, once I’d recovered from that brush with Beelzebub, I decided to try again. This time with a book. A book, after all, couldn’t go weird on you. Surely. The Lion’s bookstall in Queens Walk had a secondhand copy of Wheatley’s To The Devil — A Daughter for 10p, so I bought it. But when I sat down to read it — and before the story itself had even started with the scary stuff — I started to feel a little bit sick. I gave up reading, then came back. The nausea returned. Was this Black Magic coming at me off the pages of the book? Some evil spell leaking from the pages? Then I realised the book stank. I usually like the smell of book mould (apparently, it can even have a light psychedelic effect from a long-enough exposure), but in this case the book just smelled rotten. I threw it away, but again there was a little voice in the back of my head saying: I was not supposed to read Dennis Wheatley.

I didn’t make my third attempt till a few years later, by which time I was reading Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell and had realised that Dennis Wheatley was just not going to be anywhere near as scary. I bought a (nice-smelling) copy of The Devil Rides Out and read it through. Wheatley is certainly a writer of his times. His villains are foreign; his damsels are often in distress; his heroes are resolutely upper class, wealthy, refined and accomplished. They fence, they yacht, they drink fine wines, and globetrot without a second thought. Still, at his best, Wheatley can be pacey. I remember being distinctly impressed by one brief chapter where Wheatley breaks into a series of short paragraphs, each headed by a precise time, as he cuts between several characters. The ending of the novel, though, was a bit of a disappointment. (It was all a dream, or, rather, it was all fought on the astral dream-plane, which is equally unsatisfying.)

Wheatley is, of course, in a different league to Lovecraft; just in a different direction to the one I at first assumed. But his tales are more meant to be thrillers than horror stories; even as occult thrillers, they’re about telling a compelling story in which good ultimately triumphs and the normal, civilised, often aristocratic values are restored to primacy.

This is, of course, not what horror is about. Real horror is about the opposite.

(There’s a page on the BBC’s site, with an audio clip of Wheatley talking about his interest in the occult. Unfortunately, the video clips on the page no longer seem to be there.)

Me & Horror: Lovecraft

The first horror author I read was H P Lovecraft. I’d heard about him because of Chaosium‘s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, which I may have bought before reading any of Lovecraft’s fiction, I’m not sure. (I remember having a long and inconclusive conversation with my karate teacher about whether the Necronomicon actually existed, largely because of the serious scholarly tone of the appendix notes to the Call of Cthulhu rulebook.) The first Lovecraft story I actually read, thanks to an anthology in the school library, was “The Outsider”. I was blown away.

“The Outsider” has a bit of a reputation as a gimmick tale, as nothing more than a story with an obvious twist. (I have to say that, however old I was when I read “The Outsider”, I didn’t see the twist coming, which was perhaps why I was so blown away by it.) But I’d like to defend “The Outsider”. Rereading it recently, I found it an extraordinarily moving story about alienation and emotional isolation. The twist at the end, which on a rereading of course you know is coming, then takes on the feel of something the narrator must know about himself, but is fervently trying to deny, which makes his desperate attempts to end his loneliness all the more affecting. The next Lovecraft tale I recall reading was “The Horror in the Museum”, which also, at the time, blew me away. A rereading of that hasn’t been as kind.

I said in the first of these “Me & Horror” posts that I didn’t read any horror fiction till I was 16 or 17, but looking back on it, I realise I must have first read Lovecraft when I was about 11 or 12. The thing is, I just didn’t think of him as a horror writer. Perhaps because I’d approached him via the gaming route; perhaps because his stories were set in the 1920s, and in America, and that had enough of a distancing effect to muffle the horror (as is true of most classic ghost story writers — their tales take place in a world of carriages, housemaids, leisured gentlemen and weekend stays at country houses — all part of their charm, but also what makes their fictional worlds so resolutely fictional to me, though nonetheless effective); perhaps because his fiction was sufficiently similar to the Doctor Who books I’d spent so much time reading (alien monsters at work among us — very Doctor Who). Or it could just be that Lovecraft’s horror is more conceptual than sensational. I mean, in a Lovecraft story, the horror resides in the ideas, in the ultimate significance of what’s going on, rather than the evocation of a few chills through some creepily-described scenes. To Lovecraft, the appearance of a monster was an affront to reason and scientific law, and that was the true horror; but to me, reading as a kid, I just wanted to know what the monsters looked like — the philosophical subtleties didn’t register. To “The Colour Out of Space”, for instance, my first reaction would have been, “But where’s the monster?” Reading it now, it’s the bleakness of its sheer cosmic indifference to human life that’s horrific. And “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which had monsters, took me years to start to appreciate. I at first thought it a bit too adventury, too much an “action” tale, to be satisfying on the level I expected of Lovecraft. Now, I think it’s Lovecraft’s fear of heredity madness that’s at the real root of the horror in that story. It’s become one of my favourite Lovecraft tales.

The one thing I do remember about my early encounters with Lovecraft was how they gained a tinge of excitement from just how difficult they were to find. (Odd, really, because Lovecraft was ubiquitous in the early 70s. I guess by the early 80s it was assumed everyone had read him.) Lovecraft’s writings seemed forbidden, Necronomicon-like, and it wasn’t till the big fat Granada paperbacks came out (around 1985, with those gory Tim White covers) that I actually managed to get a proper dose.

Me & Horror: My first horror story

I wrote my first horror story before I read any. When I was about 10 or 11, my English teacher gave us a lesson on M R James. He told us the plot of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You”, and followed this with a reading of his own Jamesian tale. Then we all had to write our own ghost story. Here’s mine:

The Mirror

He never really knew why he bought the mirror. Perhaps it was the interesting design round the edge. It was of human faces, but one was missing, probably that’s why he had bought it cheaply. The man who sold it, a very strange man, was in a hurry to sell it, he even offered it to him for a ridiculous price, five pounds! and it had a gold-plated frame.

The man was very nervous, and he would never show his face and looked at the ground all the time.
Anyway he had bought it now and he would keep it. It was hung in the sitting room, next to the old grandfather clock, and it would stay there.

Then the clock struck eleven. It was time he was going to bed, but he decided to stay down for a while longer, only for fifteen minutes…

He was woken by the clock at quarter to twelve. But something was wrong. The clock only struck once. There was a grinding inside and it stopped.

He got up and examined the clock. Inside the pendulum was blocked by something. He took it out. It was his daughter’s doll. But it’s face had been torn up by the pendulum.

He sat down and put the doll to one side. Then he wondered why the doll hadn’t blocked the pendulum before. He shrugged his shoulders and decided to go to bed now, then went over to the fireplace and put out the fire.

He decided to have one, last look at the mirror.

The faces looked different, he thought. Probably because he was tired, but there seemed to be a slight smile on each of their faces. He rubbed his eyes and looked at it again.

He was tired, so he turned to go. Then he heard a faint sound – a faint humming…or was it laughter? He turned to look again at the mirror — each face had an evil grin and their eyes were gleaming malevolently in the dim light.

His heart missed a beat — it must be his eyes playing him up. The mirror glass had steamed up, but he could still see his reflection. His face seemed to laugh back at him.

He wiped the mirror with his sleeve, but as he touched it he felt strange, his face felt as if it was grabbed by a hand and twisted, then he felt dizzy and fell back in his chair.

He woke up an hour later. The clock was still ticking and the room was dark. He lit one of the lamps and stared into the mirror. He screamed in horror and hid his face, then ran out of the room.

His wife came down calling for him. The room was empty. She went to turn the lamp off but then saw the mirror. Where there was a space there was now a carving of a face, and it looked strangely like her husband…

Which just goes to show that all horror fiction, at heart, has a moral. The moral here being, “Never buy a mirror from a guy who won’t show you his face!”

It’s pretty bad, of course, but I like the image of the doll with its face mangled by the clock pendulum. Not exactly original, but it always makes me wonder what was going on in my strange little 11-year old head when I wrote it.