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.


Me & Horror: Why I didn’t read it

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.


Conspiracy ’87

This year, for the first time ever, the World Horror Convention comes to the UK. In two weeks’ time, in fact. Also for the first time ever, I am going to the World Horror Convention. One of these events, obviously, is more momentous than the other. Anyway, I thought I’d prepare by writing my next few blog posts on Me & Horror — why I at first didn’t read it, why I started reading it, and why I still sometimes do read it. But before that, a blog post on SF. On one particular SF convention in fact.

Like this year’s WHC2010 (not to be confused with the World Hovercraft Championships 2010, which jostles for top billing on a Google search), Conspiracy ’87 was held in Brighton. Unless Games Day ’86 counts as a convention (I’m not sure on that point), Conspiracy ’87 was the first con I went to. It is also, up to now, the only con I’ve been to, meaning there’s been a gap of 23 years between going to my first con and going to my second. This isn’t at all a measure of how I felt about Conspiracy ’87, because I enjoyed it very much. It’s more a measure of the fact that I’ve never really got round to going to another one till now. (The only reason I went to Conspiracy was because Garen wanted to go, so I went along — for which I’m extremely grateful.)

So, here’s me outside the main conference centre in Brighton, wearing my Fantasy Archives t-shirt, with a just-visible Hannes Bok illustration (for Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model), which I must have bought at the con dealer’s room:

That dealer’s room was massive, to my eyes anyway, and like nothing I’d seen before in terms of sheer range of SF & fantasy books. I recall seeing the cover of some comic I’d never heard of, called Watchmen, on a dealer’s table, and hearing that this comic was beginning to generate something of a buzz at the time. I bought (and got signed) Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, and also bought Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove’s Trillion Year Spree. I must have bought more than that, but those are the only two I remember. Both important books for me, as they led to me reading a lot of other books mentioned between their covers. I’ve re-read both several times.

My main memory of the con itself is of masses of people milling about, and huge halls filled with people listening to SF authors. I don’t remember anyone really being in costume, though I do remember a fully-functioning radio-controlled K9 someone had brought along. I don’t have many photographs, as I’m not great at taking photos. Here’s one from a talk panel on the launch of the Tales from the Forbidden Planet anthology. The chap with the mic is Ramsey Campbell; not sure about the lady next to him, but after her there’s Iain Banks (or I suppose that should be Iain M Banks), then Tanith Lee, then I think it’s Roz Kaveney (the editor of TFTFP), and Harry Harrison on the end:

I also remember Terry Pratchett, at a panel on “SF clichés”, where someone stood up and complained about SF stories where people have normal Earth names, till it was pointed out that there’s no reason why Earth people shouldn’t still be called Mark, Paul and David and so on in a couple of thousand years’ time, as we’ve had those names for at least that length of time ourselves. Then there was an interview with William Gibson, where someone with, I think, a French accent, asked me, pointing at the stage, “Excuse me, zis is William Jibson?”

But the main panel I remember, and the main reason I’ll always be grateful for Garen getting me to go to Conspiracy ’87 was one called “So You Wanna Be A Writer” (or something similar). The only author I remember being on the panel was Robert Silverberg, and the only advice I remember him giving was “There’s two sorts of wannabe writers. Those who say, ‘I wannabe a writer’, and those who sit down and actually do it.” That made me realise I had to sit down and actually do it, and it remains the best bit of advice I’ve ever heard with regards to writing.

My only regret about Conspiracy ’87 was not going to the Hawkwind concert, where they did a reprise of their Chronicle of the Black Sword show. Ah well. I’ve seen them a couple of times, since. I also recall my first experience of that post-con gap you get in the days afterwards, where you feel as though ordinary life is lacking something important in contrast to those few intense days of being surrounded by like-minded souls. I plugged that gap, of course, by buying books by the authors I’d seen, or (in the case of Alfred Bester, who was either too ill to come to the con or had just died, but was a Guest of Honour) almost seen. Many of them remain favourites to this day: Mythago Wood, The Demolished Man, Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination).

Mmm, must go to another SF con sometime.