I didn’t read any horror fiction till I was about 16 or 17. The reason for this was simple. I’d had enough of nightmares.
In a sense, we’re all consumers of horror fiction, if only of the nocturnal, self-invented kind. And in an odd reversal of BBFC guidelines, we usually get the strongest dose in our youngest years. Never mind the sight of blood, violence, torture or mutilation, nothing compares to the experience of being alone in the dark with the weird creations of your own head, all perfectly tailored to terrorise you and only you. That’s 18-certificate stuff, but nature doles it out at 18 months, not 18 years. I still remember quite vividly nightmares I had when I was four, five or six, even though I now have difficulty remembering what it was I was dreaming when I woke up this morning.
When I was about five, we lived in part of a large house (now demolished, and turned, Nazareth Hill-style, into flats). The bedroom I shared with Garen at that time would have once been the servants’ quarters. It was on the first floor, but had its own staircase, with a rope bannister (which you could burn your hand on if you ran down too fast), and was isolated from all the other rooms on the first floor. I had repeated nightmares about that staircase, about being dragged up it, or down it, (whichever way the dream set up as being away from my mother and brother), by a host of ghouls, ghosts and goblins. Meanwhile, the bedroom itself had a cupboard which never closed, and from whose dark night-time interior I was sure a vampire was waiting to emerge. Each morning, with the dawn, a face appeared in the pattern of the curtain, which I always told myself was caused by a tree pressing close to the window outside, something I later realised was impossible for the tree that was actually there, because it was too far away. We only lived a short while in that house, but I came away from it with a host of remembered nightmares, and a number of fears, including such venerable classics as fear of the dark, but also some new, rather specific ones, such as fear of being upstairs on my own.
All excellent reasons, then, for not scaring myself silly reading horror fiction. I was, even without the nightmares, quite capable of scaring myself silly on my own. I remember, having once caught a glimpse of a trailer for a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, with its Nosferatu-like vampire, using that face to scare myself whenever I was in the house alone. For instance, I’d need to go to the bathroom, but as I was on my way there, I’d suddenly think: what if I opened the bathroom door and saw that vampire face on the other side? As I approached the bathroom, it started to seem all too possible. More than once I decided to wait till someone else came home before I went to the loo!
The odd thing was that, at the same time, I was lapping up Doctor Who, which was going through its most horror-inspired phase, with the likes of The Brain of Morbius, The Pyramids of Mars, and The Horror of Fang Rock. (All favourites still.)
I didn’t read any horror fiction until the latter part of my teens, when I started lapping it up. But that’s for another post. One thing about those early nightmares which has always struck me as odd, though: the monsters which infested them were all so cartoony. Ghosts that looked like white blobs of sheeting with black O’s for eyes; tiny little fellows more like garden gnomes than evil goblins; and muppets. Yes, muppets. I distinctly remember a dream in which I was terrified by muppets.
It went like this. We’d been on a school trip that day, to a ruined castle (which turned out to be nothing but a few fragments of walls). Somehow, in the dream, I found myself left behind, still at the site of the castle, with night coming on. As it got dark, I became aware of a light coming from a door in the ground. Thinking it was better to find some light than stay outside in the ruins all night, I opened the door and went down some steps into an underground chamber. It was a banquet hall, with a long table laden with food. Sitting at the table were muppets. Not Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the big, shaggy ones you always knew weren’t proper puppets but men in suits. As soon as I saw them, they all stopped eating and turned to look at me. They had a very hungry look.
And then, as they say, I woke up.