Nightmare Jack and Other Stories by John Metcalfe

If you read Julia Briggs’ 1977 history of the English ghost story, Night Visitors, it’s easy to believe that the ghostly or supernatural tale had a brief, M R James-inspired flourish in the early twentieth century, before becoming moribund — nothing but, as she puts it, “a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere”. But it’s writers like John Metcalfe (1891–1965), whose output bridged the classic (M R James) with the more thoroughly modern (Robert Aickman) eras of the British weird, who give the lie to this. Judging by the sixteen stories and one novella collected in Nightmare Jack and Other Stories (Ash Tree Press, 1998), Metcalfe was no pasticheur of M R James or any other writer, and certainly no indulger in the nostalgic, as his tales were, in the main, set in modern times (his modern times), and betray clear signs not only of that modernity — references to psychoanalysis, aeroplanes, the World Wars — but perhaps also of the modernistic. (It’s true he included some time-worn, even clichéd elements, such as two early stories where the supernatural is tied to the stolen jewelled eye of a foreign idol. But nobody could accuse either “Nightmare Jack” or the so-insanely-funny-it’s-not-funny-at-all “The Smoking Leg” — which TED Klein quite wonderfully calls “jocularly bloody-minded” — of being in any other way traditional.)

But, I don’t want to make it sound as though this is something I’ve always known. I’ve only recently been prompted (thank you, Peter!) to read Metcalfe, and it’s doing so which got me thinking how little I know of the between-and-post-World-Wars British weird. It’s those same World Wars that Briggs gave as the reason the British ghost story (in its broadest sense) declined. As she says:

“The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors… it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore.”

But, through the lens of Metcalfe’s fiction, it’s easy to see why this explanation — that the Great War achieved a surfeit of real-world horrors thus ending the demand for them as entertainment, and that the loss of religious attitudes made the supernatural ridiculous to the general reader — are inadequate, if not about-face wrong. The very surfeit of horror, combined with an inability to channel it through traditional beliefs which might have ameliorated its force, left the writers of the World War generations (and Metcalfe served in both conflicts) with a massive psychic load to deal with, and no ready-made form with which to do so. The world had gone insane — not once, but twice — and while some people no doubt returned to their lives as though nothing had happened, some were left reeling. The ghost story as nostalgic/formalistic exercise may have been dead, but the tale of the outright weird was very much a live issue.

US HB of The Smoking Leg, 1926

Nightmare Jack contains stories from across Metcalfe’s career, starting with his first collection, The Smoking Leg, which came out in 1925. The story “The Smoking Leg” shows how far we are from the air of amateur antiquarians and bachelor academics, as here we’re dealing with not one but two alcoholic doctors, plus an unfortunate Burmese boy, as main characters. The first doctor engages in what’s either a cruel prank or a desperate attempt at smuggling, using the poor boy as his unwitting surgical mule. The artefact — the inevitably cursed eye of a idol — proceeds to not only smoke, but causes ships and people to burst into flames. There’s something about the tale, a teetering on the edge between being very darkly funny and barely holding onto any semblance of sanity, that characteristically marks some of these early Metcalfe stories. I get the feeling there was a certain amount of turbulence going on beneath the surface (certainly, Metcalfe’s mental health suffered during his lifetime), of a writer riding the wave of material he just didn’t know what else to do with except craft into these barely-contained eruptions of the dark and strange.

Others from the same era defy any resolution into either a supernatural or psychological explanation, such as “The Double Admiral”, where a retired admiral is haunted by what at first seems like nothing but a distant smudge on the horizon. Resolved to confront this irrationality, he summons two friends to row out to sea and face it. The smudge, in turn, comes towards them, revealing itself to be their doubles… But then, does the admiral die, to be replaced by his double, or is he somehow restored to life and health, only changed in some way? The story, evidently, isn’t about answers, but about a sheer, haunting strangeness that has no answer.

There’s a lot of haunted individuals in these stories, most of them driven to face the source of their obsessions, only to be rewarded with oblivion. One man is haunted by the mostly missing memory of an experience he had at a certain house, which he strives to find once more; another is haunted by his attempt to escape from a prison by digging a tunnel, a moment he constantly relives; a third is haunted by the sense of evil he gets from a remote location, and which may in fact be down to his straying into an entirely different dimension.

1931 cover of Judas

There’s more edge-of-the-razor humour in at least one of the stories from Metcalfe’s 1931 collection, Judas. “Mr Meldrum’s Mania”, like “The Smoking Leg”, might be intended as a joke — it certainly seems to be satirising psychoanalysis, as the only explanation given for what occurs to its protagonist is a wildly over-specific memory of seeing a particular illustration on a particular page of a book as a child — but it’s so loaded with the distress of its main character, it’s hard to read as anything but horror. (It recalls, to me, Daphne du Maurier’s “The Blue Lenses”, in its depiction of the isolation caused by a horror only perceptible to one person.)

With “Mortmain”, from the same collection, it can seem at first we’re in more traditional ghost story territory, with a newly-married couple honeymooning on a boat trip around the English coast, apparently pursued by the wife’s (dead) former husband’s boat. But it’s the nature of that husband which takes the story into a very un-traditional sense of wild irrationality:

“Humphrey must plainly have been mad. He had taken to affronting everybody by getting himself up in a sort of parody of female attire—had let his hair grow long, his beard as well, and had affected a shirt-blouse and skirt.”

And it’s not just eccentricity: the man also drenched a dog in paraffin and set it on fire. Not the sort of thing you’d find in M R James.

“Mortmain” brings to the fore Metcalfe’s relish for language — particularly when evoking the repulsive:

“Something was happening, impending, in the clouds. Above a bloodshot wrack piled banks of rutilous vapour were slowly moving—wreathing and twisting into flaming whorls and spirals and strange convoluted forms. Dark, ragged clots converged upon a festered core, showing a ruddy glow. The scene had a malignant and yet tawdry splendour, a sordid glory which was that of a lost world. Swollen, faeculent masses discharged tardily into a crimson vortex. It was as if the heavens themselves were rancid and dissolved—displayed the specious beauty of corruption.”

One of my favourite tales in this collection, for sheer strangeness, is “Brenner’s Boy” (first published in 1932). It starts with an ex-navy man struggling to recall exactly what he agreed to when he bumped into an old admiral he’d previously served under. Did he really say he’d look after the man’s troublesome boy for a bit? Then the youngster turns up, though with the strange air of having done so on his own steam, and proceeds to be rude, wilful, and obnoxious to everyone, breaking things and constantly straying beyond the bounds of social acceptability. For a while, the protagonist feels too constrained by his inability to recall how much he’d agreed to, and not knowing how to deal with the social aspects of this very awkward situation. The feeling is very much like the sort of tangles of polite constraint and supernatural effrontery in Robert Aickman’s stories. In fact, I’d say, it’s having read Metcalfe that Aickman’s oddities start to make a little more sense — not in terms of resolving into sense, but from pointing to, perhaps, something of a common origin. (Quite what that origin might be, though, is another thing altogether…)

Arkham House cover for The Feasting Dead, 1954

The longest story collected here (and which has recently been published on its own, by Valancourt Books, in the US) is the Turn of the Screw-esque novella, The Feasting Dead (first published in 1954). The narrator’s boy Denis starts spending time in France with distant relations, until things are suddenly broken off. The thing Denis most seems to miss about his overseas visits is an odd “friend” he made — they used to go out and “catch moles” and do other boyish things — only, this is an old man, a gardener or servant, who suddenly appears in England one day and ensconces himself in the narrator’s home. From this point, the narrator finds Denis growing more distant, and the mystery around this unprepossessing “friend” only growing deeper — the man, whose name is Raoul, comes across as so much of a nothing. Strange noises are heard from the boy’s room at night, poltergeist-like sounds (“nightly thumpings, hummings and (a new ingredient) derisive hootings”). When the narrator confronts Raoul, it turns into a struggle, and the man seems to disappear from underneath him. Denis runs away, and the narrator heads out to France, sure that’s where his boy has gone. There, he learns something of the nature of this creature that’s preying on his son:

“They called these—these preposterousnesses, or the cast of mind that fostered and engendered them, ‘sans noms’—simply that. The ‘nameless’. . . .”

Obviously some sort of vampire, it’s the very opposite of the aristocratic, darkly charismatic Count Dracula. It’s here Metcalfe’s love of language comes to the fore again, in the words his narrator struggles to find to describe this thing: “This lay-figure—this fantôche, this hollow puppet”, “this most supreme and consummate nuisance”, “this kind of molestation, or superstition of a molestation”, or best of all, this “eerie lummox” — exactly the sort of floundering for understanding caused by the “totally materialistic philosophies” that, as Briggs would have it, put paid to the ghost story. As the narrator himself admits:

“You might suppose a recent world-war would have knocked such nonsense out of [the superstitious locals] but—suddenly, and wryly, I laughed at myself—though it wasn’t at all funny. Yes, that was rich! Talk of the pot and kettle. . . .! For I was equally in thrall to a grotesque myth with any of the folk I was deriding.”

That Metcalfe’s fiction is deliberately exploring the overlap between the supernatural and the psychological is evident, here — even to his narrator, who says, “The case is fairer game I fancy for a psychical researching bloke, or a psychiatrist.” Those two being pretty much the same, as far as he’s concerned.

Illustration for Metcalfe’s story “Funeral March of a Marionette”, published in The Reynolds Newspaper (6th Nov 1932) as “A Guy Fawkes Adventure”

But perhaps the key thing here is those noises in the boy’s bedroom. Of them, the narrator says:

“Poltergeists, I had heard, were regarded as the prankish play of a surplus vital force or energy; and it was just after this force’s flow, from Denis, had been stimulated but yet deprived, temporarily, of its accustomed receptacle in Raoul that the impish manifestations, centering round my boy, were commonest.”

Poltergeists, as I said in my review of The Haunting of Alma Fielding, are that peculiarly modernistic eruption of the supernatural, a wilfully irrational upwelling of the suppressed into nonsensical violence, more like psychic grenades lobbed into the world of the living than the work of reasonable ghosts.

That poltergeist-like irrationality — even if poltergeists themselves don’t actually appear — seems like a marked characteristic of Robert Aickman’s fiction, and of Metcalfe’s, too. It’s the sense that, only a very short distance beneath daily life, there’s a bubbling away of violent, irrational, and overwhelming forces that we’ve only avoided this far through chance. A very cosmic, even Lovecraftian idea — “The Colour Out of Space” might well have been a Metcalfe tale, if written with an alcoholic haze to its prose style. Metcalfe’s tale, “The Bad Lands”, makes a close companion to Lovecraft’s. And, what do you know, Lovecraft commented on this very story in Supernatural Horror in Literature, saying it contains “graduations of horror that strongly savour of genius.”


The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Hogg prepared the way for the publication of his 1824 novel with a letter in the August 1823 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine entitled “A Scots Mummy”, about the supposed discovery of a suicide’s corpse, buried in a shallow grave for over a hundred years, yet somehow perfectly preserved. When the novel came out the following year, it quoted the letter in its concluding “Editor’s Narrative”, explaining how the main portion of the narrative, the “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner”, was discovered as a damp but still legible manuscript unearthed on a subsequent visit to the grave. To perhaps make the whole thing a little bit more authentic, Hogg published the novel anonymously, and even included a passage in which the book’s “Editor” goes to see the writer of the letter — Hogg himself — hoping to be guided to the grave, only to be rebuffed, as Hogg (famously, a poet who found his literary calling whilst working as a shepherd) is too busy trying to sell some sheep. Hogg (the real one, not the one in the novel) then asked his literary friends to put about the rumour the book’s anonymous writer came from Glasgow, while he himself lived in the Edinburgh area.

This may have been playfulness on Hogg’s part, but could also have been him protecting himself from potential criticisms over the novel’s religious aspects. (When it was republished as part of his collected works in 1837 — two years after his death — these parts of the novel were extensively bowdlerised. It wasn’t until 1895 that Confessions was published again in its original form — though under the title The Suicide’s Grave — leaving it to become something of a 20th century rediscovery.)

Retitled 1895 edition

The story opens in 1687, with the instantly-disastrous marriage of George Colwin and Rabina Orde. George is a fun-loving Laird, who makes a point of dancing with all the women at his wedding; Rabina, on the other hand, is dedicated to the extreme Calvinistic teachings of one Mr Wringhim, and immediately removes herself from the celebrations. The couple’s first son, also named George, takes after the father in enjoying the company of friends, games of tennis and cricket, and the occasional trip to a bordello. Their second son, Robert, is very much in his mother’s mould, though. George Colwin even denies the boy is his. His wife had been spending all her time with the preacher Wringhim, and though Wringhim is indignant anyone would think he’d fathered a child, he takes Rabina in when she leaves the Colwin household, and becomes the young boy’s ward (who henceforth is known as Robert Colwin Wringhim). The brothers only meet for the first time as young men, when Robert decides to stand so close to George while he’s playing tennis that he obstructs his game, and the two get into a fight over his refusal to move. When George realises this is his brother he apologies, but Robert refuses the apology, and proceeds to follow George everywhere, making himself as much of a nuisance as he can, till George’s friends start to avoid him.

Robert becomes, to George, something like the monkey in Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, always present wherever he goes, staring at him with a deep and spiteful bitterness, driving him to distraction. The two clash again and George is arrested for threatening to kill Robert (Mr Wringhim’s many worthy friends come to his ward’s defence), and although this comes to nothing, shortly afterwards George is killed in what appears to be an unrelated duel. The father dies of grief, and Robert inherits the lands, house, and wealth.

Illustration from the 1895 edition, by Robert Easton Stuart

The main portion of the novel, the “Confessions”, are Robert’s narrative, retelling the same events from this young man’s perspective. Robert has been brought up to believe in the extreme “predestinarian” teachings of Mr Wringhim, which claim that some people — the Elect — have already been chosen by God to be saved, while others are already consigned to Hell. Mr Wringhim, who “knew the elect as it were by instinct”, spends some time trying to decide if young Robert is one of them, and the moment he does, Robert meets a mysterious new friend. This man, who at first refuses to give his name (but later allows himself to be called Gil-Martin, a Gaelic nickname for a fox), has the supposedly “natural peculiarity” of being able to change his face just by thinking about it:

“My countenance changes with my studies and sensations… And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness, but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well.”

He drops a number of mysterious hints as to who or what he is, including the fact that he has “no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge”, and “subjects and servants more than I can number”. Robert comes to the conclusion he is Peter the Great of Russia, rumoured to be travelling Europe incognito. The reader will already have other suspicions.

Gil-Martin agrees with every word of Mr Wringhim’s teachings, and pushes them to a further extreme: one of the Elect can, he says, commit any crime — anything that might otherwise be deemed a sin — with impunity, because God has already declared them bound for heaven. This means they’re free, for instance, to rid the earth of sinners — and it would in fact be a good deed to do so, for though these sinners would go straight to Hell (where they were bound anyway), they’d at least do so that little bit less burdened by the sins they would otherwise have committed. Gil-Martin persuades Robert to begin by murdering old Mr Blanchard, whose main sin is to warn the young man against religious extremism. He then directs Robert’s attention to his brother George.

1978 Folio Society edition

Justified Sinner brings in some traditional, folklorish elements, such as the deal with the Devil, along with others that, though no doubt old as Faerie lore, came to the fore around this time in literature, in the theme of the doppelgänger or double, as in Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839) and Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846). In the first section of the novel, happy-go-lucky George is haunted by what seems his double or shadow, the surly, combative and religiously over-serious Robert; in the second section, it’s Robert who’s haunted, by Gil-Martin — not his opposite, in this case, but an intensification of all that’s extreme about his own beliefs. And Gil-Martin himself claims to have a dual nature, in a passage that makes it pretty clear — to all but the self-blinded Robert — that he’s the fallen angel Lucifer:

“We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way. The spirit that now directs my energies is not that with which I was endowed at my creation. It is changed within me, and so is my whole nature. My former days were those of grandeur and felicity. But would you believe? I was not then a Christian. Now I am.”

(I take his claim to not have then been a Christian then, to be because his fall from Heaven occurred before Christ’s incarnation — typical Devil’s equivocation.)

But, to me, the thing that makes Justified Sinner a piece of weird fiction, when deals-with-the-devil don’t usually fall into that category, is that Gil-Martin never feels entirely like the caricature Satan you’d find in, say, Doctor Faustus or The Monk. Gil-Martin isn’t the “Lord of this World” type of Devil, but one who needs human beings to do his work for him. He seems, in fact, rooted in Robert:

“I am wedded to you so closely, that I feel as if I were the same person. Our essences are one, our bodies and spirits being united, so, that I am drawn towards you as by magnetism, and wherever you are, there must my presence be with you.”

Although Gil-Martin claims he’s entirely willing to carry out the murders he’s urging Robert to commit, when it comes to it he can’t land a blow, but needs Robert to do the deed. There’s never any doubt that Gil-Martin exists as a separate person, because other characters in the novel see him, but his power over Robert is entirely psychological, and in the latter stages of the story, he seems to be actually inhabiting Robert’s very body and mind, and committing further crimes an increasingly fevered Robert has no memory of. He may be Satan, but he might just as well be some Faerie creature.

James Hogg, painted in 1830 by Sir John Watson Gordon (original at the National Portrait Gallery)

Robert Louis Stevenson called Hogg’s novel “without doubt a real work of imagination”, saying it “haunted and puzzled me”, and some commentators have found echoes of Justified Sinner’s structure in Jekyll and Hyde as well as its evident thematic links. I first heard about it thanks to Kim Newman and Stephen Jones’s Horror: 100 Best Books, and it has gained slow but sure literary ground throughout the last decades of the 20th century, particularly as a work of the Scottish fantastic. (Which makes me wonder if David Lindsay ever read it — both Krag and Gangnet from A Voyage to Arcturus have something of the air of Gil-Martin, as god-like beings who appear to be normal people, and who work entirely by persuasion; and Nightspore, meanwhile, feels like he has a similar nature, too, in being an external embodiment of a refined or distilled aspect of Maskull.)

What perhaps makes the book just as live a narrative today is the point it makes about how the Devil achieves his ends — not merely by being a tempter of the flesh, but as one who can work upon the pride of the most self-righteous, turning any view, the moment it strays towards the extreme, into a pathway to damnation and evil deeds. Hogg’s own attitude, meanwhile, is expressed by the critic J B Pick, who says in his study of Scottish mystical writers, The Great Shadow House:

“[Hogg] did not accept that any single mind or any single system of thought can encompass all the complexities of life, and was content to carry a variety of incompatible parcels in his luggage, and to accept the burden cheerfully… Hogg’s counterweight to the diabolical sublime is what I can best describe as the good nature and good sense of the common man.”

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of those 19th century landmarks on the way to modern horror, not widely-enough known to be lumped with the core classics such as Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, but like the latter belonging to that post-Romantic Gothic entangling of the supernatural with the psychological. To me it feels like it most naturally belongs with the demonic weirdness of Wuthering Heights, and the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu. Perhaps the only thing keeping it from being more widely appreciated is its being rooted in what might now seem to be the abstruse theological teachings of Calvinism, but the idea of elites who feel themselves to be free from morality, and its warning against the perils of extreme beliefs, are, surely, timeless.


The Walking Dead

Earlier this year I started working my way through The Walking Dead, after only being vaguely aware of the show up to that point. I’m now a little over the halfway point of its entire eleven season run. It has obvious affinities with some of the post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve covered on this blog, such as Day of the Triffids and The Death of Grass — the opening, with Rick Grimes waking up in hospital to find the world has ended being straight from Wyndham, while the brutality and descent into ruthless survivalism is John Christopher cubed — even though neither of those is about zombies. It also has a lot in common with Game of Thrones: both shows started in 2010; both had some pretty addictive storytelling, with ensemble casts and multi-episode subplots; and both had a penchant for killing off major characters with little or no warning. At its height, The Walking Dead attracted an audience of 17 million. Downtown Abbey, another massively popular show that also started in 2010 and which seems (though I’ve never seen it) the opposite to The Walking Dead in every respect, only got 13 million. There’s probably some sociological lesson to be drawn from that, but I’m not going to attempt it.

For the first season and a half, I wasn’t really gripped. The characters — who you need to care about in this sort of story — were mostly dominated by a group of emotionally inarticulate and self-destructive men, shouty and confrontational one moment, lacerating themselves with self-blame the next, while the women in the main did the cooking and cleaning and reminded each other that things like guard duty, expeditions, and making decisions were best left to the men. Then a plot twist arrived midway through season 2 that — perhaps because I wasn’t 100% engaged by this point — was so unexpected, and so brutal, I was suddenly and totally hooked. (It involved zombies in a barn, if you’ve seen the show.)

It still took till about season 4 before I began to feel interested in any of the characters, as they’d finally developed beyond the soap opera level of emotional immaturity (self-blame alternating with self-righteousness, in constant rotation), but the show has been pretty consistently gripping ever since.

I don’t binge watch it, though. However moreish the plot, or cliffhanging an ending, to watch more than one episode a day — or even one a day for an entire week — just feels too much. The show is almost constantly brutal and gruelling. (And gruesome. Every episode or two there’s a reminder of just how disgusting it must be to deal with the half-rotten dead on a day-to-day basis.) Which left me asking, at its worst moments, why do I keep watching it? Game of Thrones at least balanced its brutality with a sort of Sword & Sorcery joie de vivre and a dark sense of humour. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has virtually no sense of humour, and the closest its characters get to the joy of being alive is a sense of relief they’re not yet dead.

One thing the show has, though, is an engagement with the idea of what it means to be “good people”. People keep telling Rick & co.’s group of survivors they’re “good people” — certainly they are, compared to some of the other groups we meet, who are militaristic, fascistic, opportunistic, or even cannibalistic. But each time someone says this, the latest story arc would end with a moment that seemed to say, “Do you still think they’re good people?”

A formula began to emerge. Rick’s group would encounter another group, and that group would either be actively hostile (one group, for instance, had commandeered a tank, and used it) or apparently friendly but secretly up to some serious nastiness (the aforementioned cannibals). Rick & co. would fight their way back to freedom, and (mostly) survive, but only at the cost of having to sink to new levels of brutality. At one point, Rick — having pointed out that as long as they’re not like the “walkers”, the zombies, they’re not entirely a lost cause — finds himself having to bite a chunk out of his opponents’ neck to win a desperate fight. Just like the zombies do. By the end of a storyline, the group are often so covered in blood — mostly other people’s — that they’re barely distinguishable from zombies anyway. Finally, Rick says: “This is how we survive… We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead…”

With the fifth season, the group arrive at a community that has managed to stave off the worst of this sorely-changed world’s ravages, and suddenly they find themselves in something like the civilised world they used to inhabit — but so battle-scarred and toughened by a series of utterly traumatising and degrading backs-to-the-wall experiences that they’re like homecoming veterans, totally incapable of sleeping because the quiet is too quiet, the calm too calm. At the same time, they don’t see this as an invitation to relax. Rather, they fear losing the edge the constant fight to survive has given them… But don’t worry, Rick & co., something terrible is bound to happen soon to bring those survival skills to the fore once more!

Another thing I like about the show — if like is the right word — is a quality it shares with a lot of the darker types of fiction and film I like, and which I’ve come to think of as bleakness. Bleakness is there, quietly, in the opening scenes of Alien, in the cold whiteness of the Nostromo’s interior and the getting-up-too-early feel of the crew waking from hypersleep, just as it’s there in the round-the-dining-table discussions about how they’re going to survive this killer alien out here in space; it’s there in the unforgiving landscapes of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Thing; it’s there in the all-encompassing labyrinth of love, lies and deception in Vertigo; it’s there in the disconnection between even the closest of people in The Silence; it’s there in the harshness of a fascist regime in Pan’s Labyrinth and the helplessness of children in The Institute; it’s there in the fragmented psyches of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition stories; it’s there in the cosmicism of Lovecraft. It’s pretty fair to say, where this blog is concerned, it’s never far away.

This bleakness is perhaps best summed up as a disjunction between the humanity of the characters and the hostile, or simply uncaring world they inhabit. The Walking Dead has it to a particularly harsh degree, and the question, for me, is always: can they, these characters, hang on to their humanity in the face of such a dehumanising world?

With The Walking Dead, it’s a constantly uphill struggle. There’s no rest, no respite, otherwise there’s no show, and the characters will only be worn down by each loss, each set-back, each moral compromise. (Unless the final episode of season 11 has a happy ending!) And that’s perhaps the thing that has led to me slowing down my watching of the show: it’s just too relentless, at times, in its bleakness. (I confess, I’ve recently started to check Wikipedia to see when long-standing characters meet their inevitable demise, just so I’ve got some warning.) In a world where everyone is forced to be at least a little bit wicked, there’s never going to be any rest…