A DIP INTO MEMORY’S BUCKET OF WHELKS
So history is all in the past? Traditions are venerable crustaceans sheltering within their shells for fear of modern world scoffing? Nonsense! We live and read history daily, in our books, on the Internet and newspapers and in our ordinary lives. We create traditions each time we find a new writer we like and who becomes elevated to those who are admired by more than a couple of readers.
Any time we read a Wakefield or a Benson we are picking the flesh from the shell of history. Each time an Ash Tree or an independent publishes a “forgotten” writer of the genre they are helping build the traditions that sustain the genre.
People who scorn the past generations of writers and dismiss their work as dated and irrelevant are missing the point completely. There is no finer literary tapestry than that woven by the crafts-people of years gone by. The stories they unfolded give the foundations to the master builders of today who can plunder ever-richer seams of ideas because of the solid footings left for them.
As a youngster growing up in the exciting 60’s and 70’s there was a huge shell of books scuttling crab-like around in the myriad of pools that were the bookshops and markets of the day. The Pan series of horror books were a staple diet for the budding reader. It was the Hitchcock “edited” books that first caught some people’s eye, with their purple and black covers promising thunderstorms of terror. They were of course frowned on by parents brought up with something slightly more genteel – but then parental disapproval only added to the pre-punk attitude of rebellion that was prevalent in those heady days of spin before spin and hype before hype.
The slower paced stories that were represented by the Fontana ghost series and the books by James, and others, that were added to the ever-growing collection on top of the wardrobe were almost reverentially approached as though they were somehow more literary than their more lurid cousins. They seemed part of history whereas the stories of blunt cutting and thrusting and the Birkins were now and happening.
That is until the novels began to appear. The Exorcist, Carrie, Hell House, Burnt Offerings, Mephisto waltz, Rosemary’s Baby – all added to the burgeoning atmosphere of a rich vein of fictional supernatural talent and range of ideas that could not fail to inspire eager young writers. Yes, a woman was physically sick at a screening of The Exorcist we saw in London. We know someone who had four versions of the pirate video, as well as the handsome official issue. We do still have the album, long playing vinyl, of the Mephisto Waltz by Liszt. We can remember the evening, the seats, and the circumstances in which we saw the Hell House film.
So keen were we to add to the size of our collection that we began to blur the edges of what we termed supernatural. We found fantasy creeping in, the odd borderline SF, and some thrillers that had a particularly enticing blurb. Then we purged the books, the magazines – Weird Tales, Famous Monsters, and so many more – and concentrated on the ones we felt added to the type of stories we wanted to write. Then of course, as we had no real appreciation at that time of the history or traditions of the genre we were trying to write in, we found we were blurring the edges of what we were writing. After a while we found we quite liked that, and like many writers today we found we were creating our own very small slice of history and creating our own blend of traditions. We did it by using our appreciation of the classical standards of technical skill with a modern freedom that gives free rein to expression when needed.
And then there were the anthologies that grew like urchins on the bookshelves, swaying and enticing as each new publication filtered through. Haining, Singer, Dalby, Derleth, and of course Hugh Lamb. Mixtures of new writers and reprinted classics, themed and open anthologies; a true melting pot of history and today, of tradition and innovation.
Today the market is as alive and as dead as you want to believe. There isn’t the proliferation of anthologies that there once were from the major publishers, but in their place are the marvellously inventive creations from the independent press; a case of artists making their own market to fill the vacuum. There are novels published with confident regularity from majors and small presses alike, not to mention the self publishing tidal wave. There are the reprinted classics of yesteryear from the marvellous specialist presses that bring unobtainable books to our table like never before. Some professional looking outfits are bringing out even single author collections, those beasts considered untameable by some big publishers.
The outlets have changed though. Now one can be on the mailing lists of one or two excellent specialists; receive the catalogues of four or five first class booksellers; scan the Internet for websites, or Amazon, even order via credit card online – whatever next. There are still a few quality bookshops. There are still the market stalls that occasionally allow a treasure to pop up as sure as if it had been thrown up by a tidal wave from a restless sea.
Then, twenty, thirty years ago it seems, there were a myriad of sources. A day’s trip to London would yield dusty bookshops along Charing Cross Road, Dark They Were, Hatchards, Foyles, all worth a visit. Lunch in the churchyard along Regent Street, then on to the markets at Berwick Street, Leather Lane, before venturing back to the cinema bookshop near Tottenham Court Road. Carrier bags full to the brim with hardbacks, paperbacks and magazines. The Saturday market in Enfield Town Market Square was a shipwrecked oasis in a desert with its damp boxes of books picked over by wide-eyed beachcombers all looking for the next rarity.
Now the bookshelves are an eclectic mix of history and tradition. The old books rub spines with the new, the classical writers with the modern. Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair next to the Terry Lamsley; Arkham House’s Lovecraft books leaning against A Century Of Ghost Stories; R L Stine tangoing with Marjorie Bowen; Ligotti arm in arm with Dracula. Samhain swims with Akham House.
Let history live, and traditions breathe. There is room at the top table for both of them. Room also, if we squeeze our chairs together, for all manner of modern ideals and theories to expound and add, layer upon rich layer, yet more ripples of richness to the supernatural fiction genre.
THE SOUND OF HIS PAST
(In search of the lost anorak)
The young man’s eyes scanned the books laid out on the stalls of the street market. He had already collected a pile of them, now wedged firmly under his arm – some books he had been after for ages, new titles by new authors he thought might be worth a look. When he saw the slim grey cloth-bound volume his heart skipped a beat. The Sound of his Horn, “Sarban”, Peter Davies, the faded lettering on the spine proclaimed. He had read the book as a Sphere paperback with a gaudy, uninviting cover. He never thought he would ever find the hardback version.
He reached out and closed his hand over the spine. He pulled it from the pile and opened it. Inscribed on the endpaper was “To Frank, Regards, JWW”. As he read it a man’s hand reached out and made a grab for the book.
‘Hey,’ the young man said. ‘I saw it first.’
‘I think not,’ the man said.
The young man looked up at the man’s face. As he stared into the man’s eyes he was hit with a jolt of recognition. He felt a tingling in his fingertips and his head started to swim. The man’s face drifted out of focus and the young man felt himself falling, tumbling over and over in space, books spinning about his head, pages flapping, dust-wrappers fluttering, creating a kaleidoscope of swirling colour.
He was brought back to reality as the book was snatched from his grasp. Gradually he re-focussed his eyes and looked about him. The rank of market stalls had gone to be replaced by a few rows of battered books, placed on the pavement in no particular order. The old man who ran the book market had gone. The person who was now overseeing the remnants of what had once been a London institution sat in the open back of a blue Ford Transit, smoking a cigarette. His face was familiar and the young man realised with a shock that it was the stallholder’s son now running the much-diminished show.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ said the man who had snatched the “Sarban” book from him.
‘I don’t understand,’ the young man said, then for the first time noticed the cars that were passing by. The unfamiliar makes, the futuristic designs. His jaw dropped open.
‘Welcome to the year 2014,’ the man said with a smile.
‘Rubbish,’ the young man said. ‘It’s 1976. July the first, 1976.’ But then he looked about him again and knew he was wrong.
‘I think you could use a drink.’
The young man looked flustered and confused. ‘I have to pay for these first,’ he said, indicating the books wedged firmly under his arm.
‘You can’t afford them,’ the man said.
‘Rubbish. I’ve got a pound in my pocket,’ the young man said indignantly.
The man smiled indulgently and called to the stallholder. ‘How much for these, George?’
‘How many has he got?’
The man counted the books quickly. ‘Twelve.’
‘Twelve quid then.’
The young man took the crumpled one-pound note from his pocket and stared at it forlornly.
‘It’s okay. Have these on me. Then we’ll go to the pub.’
The young man nodded dumbly.
Almost everything about the pub was alien to the young man. From the huge flat TV screen hanging in the corner to the name of the beers on display.
‘What will you have?’ the man asked him.
‘Pint of Red Barrel,’ the young man said distractedly, gazing at the sights inside the pub with awe-struck eyes. He was watching a girl sitting in the corner. She had a stud in the side of her nose and a tattoo on her shoulder. She noticed his attention and stared back at him incuriously. He averted his eyes, focussing instead on the flashing lights of a strange looking machine in the corner. It was only after he had studied it for a while that he realised it was a type of one-armed bandit. He shook his head in disbelief.
The man was speaking to him. ‘…I said they don’t do Red Barrel anymore. Will any bitter do?’
‘Yeah, fine,’ he said, barely able to comprehend that Watney’s Red Barrel was now a thing of the past.
Once the beers were bought they settled themselves at a table in the corner.
‘Right,’ the older man said. ‘Let’s have a look at your horde,’ and picked up a slim book with dark brown cover. ‘The Rats, James Herbert,’ he said neutrally.
‘Yeah, well, it’s horror isn’t it? I know he’s a new writer and he’s come in for a lot of stick, but I really fancied reading this one. It’s the same with this guy.’ The young man pulled a book from the pile and held it out. ‘A friend of mine said he’s going to be huge one day. Can’t see it myself, but I read one of his called Salem’s Lot and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d give this one a try.’
‘I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, though you may be in some his later books. As for Herbert, he’s now the best selling horror writer in the country… actually one of the best selling writers full stop. The Rats is a modern classic, and people study its sociological subtext for their university courses. And by the way, he’s sadly passed away now, far too young.’
The young man looked stunned.
‘Don’t look so surprised. Stephen King is now incredibly famous. They make films of his work. They started with that one there, Carrie. And you would do well to hang onto those two books. At their peak on the second-hand market you could sell them and buy yourself a week’s holiday in the Bahamas.’ He took a long pull on his beer. ‘Now this one,’ he said, pointing to a book supporting the weight of the others. ‘This one will always be a classic,’ He pulled the book from the bottom of the pile and ran his hands lovingly over the faded red cloth. Have you read William Hope Hodgson before?’
‘I read The House on the Borderland. Those are short stories, aren’t they.’
‘Men of The Deep Waters. Yes, indeed they are. And you must treasure this book. It’s very scarce and the stories in there are wonderful; very much of a time sadly long forgotten. Tell me, do you know what book radar is?’
‘It’s a term used by a book dealer friend of mine. It’s the ability to know when there is a desirable book about. One can sense it. I go to auctions a lot, and I can look at a tea chest of books, and I can tell more often than not when it contains a book I want. It’s not infallible of course, but it works more times than it doesn’t.’
The young man was nodding. ‘I remember last year I was out for the day with my aunt and uncle and we were driving through Norfolk. We were passing through a small village, Yoxford, I think it was, and I noticed a small bookshop. It looked very run down, almost derelict, but I made them stop the car so I could have a look inside. I had a gut feeling that there was something I would want. Charles Birkin’s Devil’s Spawn, what a find! Phillip Allan, 1936, and in such good condition. I only paid ten pence for it.’
‘There you are, you see. Book Radar.’
‘I put it down to luck.’
The older man smiled. ‘Do you buy books through dealers?’
‘Used to, sometimes. Fantasy Centre in London, G. Ken Chapman in Kent.’
‘Vernon Lay in Whetstone?’
‘Yes, the young man said excitedly. I’ve only just discovered him. He’s got some great stuff.’
‘Dead now, of course, as is Ken Chapman, but in their time they were really useful source. The Fantasy Centre is gone. It’s all Internet now. Cold Tonnage – that’s a good one. Abe Books – search it, you’ll love it. What’s this?’ He took another book from the pile. ‘The Doll That Ate Its Mother?’
‘Ramsey Campbell. It’s his first novel. I read Demons By Daylight and loved it. Thought I’d give the novel a try. Bit of a find really. Only came out this year.’
‘Of course he’s now regarded as our finest dark fiction story writer. But then I’m not really surprised; Ramsey has ploughed his own unique furrow. His novels aren’t as popular as some lesser writers, but his short stories always hit the mark.’ The older man drained the last of his beer from the glass. ‘Come on; drink up. We can continue this back at my place. I’ll be interested to see what you make of my library.’
The young man smiled and drained his glass.
‘My God!’ the young man said as he walked into the dimly lit room at the back of a 1930’s semi. ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven.
The room was lined with books, from floor to ceiling. ‘Those EF Benson’s they’re all first editions. And you’ve got The Smoking Leg by John Metcalfe. I’ve been after that myself for the last few years.’ He crouched down to scan the books on the bottom shelf. Now some of these names I recognise. Bradbury, Bloch, Joseph Payne Brennan, Henry S. Whitehead, and of course Derleth and Lovecraft. They’re all the Arkham House originals, aren’t they?’
‘They are indeed.’
‘But what about these?’ The young man was almost beside himself with excitement and looking now at a series of books, decorated with fine dust wrappers and bearing titles that had been on his “wants” list for years. ‘Munby, Burrage, Benson, Wakefield. Who on earth are Ash Tree Press?’
‘Another speciality publisher, like Arkham House in a way. They performed an invaluable service to book collectors and serious students of supernatural literature, by bringing these titles back into print.’
Something else had attracted the young man’s attention. It was something that made his heart race faster in his chest. With shaking hands he took the book from the shelf, turning it over and over in his hands, looking at the dust wrapper; a representation of a water mill drawn by an artist called ionicus. He flipped open the book and looked at the contents. ‘But we’ve only just written…’
The older man took the book from him gently, closed it and set it back on the shelf. ‘You weren’t meant to see that.’
‘What was the title again? Shadows At…’
‘Enough. Look at some of the other books in the collection. There’s Hodgson, James, Vivian Meik… now there’s a name from the past. Jasper John, Amyas Northcote, RH Malden, LTC Rolt.’
‘You haven’t got Carrie… or The Rats,’ the young man said critically.
‘No you’re right, I haven’t. I used to have periodic moments of madness, when I would cull the collection. Carrie ended up at Enfield Town Market. Got fifty pence for it, I seem to recall. The Rats? Well that’s a long story, and involves a girl I used to love and a holiday she desperately wanted to go on. I’ll say no more.’
‘And do you have “Sarban”?’
‘Oh yes, I have “Sarban”. Ringstones, The Doll Maker, and of course The Sound Of His Horn.’
‘I’ve just written to him, actually,’ the young man said. ‘His real name is John W. Wall. I wrote care of his bank to ask him whether he would mind me writing an article about him for the British Fantasy Society.’
‘He was a very private man. He’d give you short shrift I’m afraid. Look, there they are.’
The young man reached up to the top shelf and pulled a slim grey cloth-bound book from the shelf, opened it and read the inscription on the end paper “To Frank…”, ‘But that’s impossible…’ Then his vision clouded and he was falling, back through time, back through a thousand collected books, a thousand dusty memories.
‘Do you want those books, son, only I’m about to close up.’
The young man blinked and looked around at George, the elderly grey haired proprietor of Farringdon Road book market, then he looked down at the book in his hands: the first edition of “Sarban’s” The Sound of His Horn. He flipped it open and on the endpaper was inscribed “To Frank, Regards, JWW.”
‘How many you got? Twelve. That’s sixty pee.”
In another place and another time a portly middle-aged man pulled a book from one of the many shelves in his library. He turned the book over and over in his hands, studying the ionicus illustration of the water mill in the minutest detail. It was a good many years since he had done that. With a rueful smile he slipped it back on the shelf and pondered lost innocence.
DO FAMOUS FIRST LINES FUND FAME
DO FAMOUS FINAL LINES FULFILL MORE?
We all think we know some famous first lines that we wished we had written ourselves. The clock striking thirteen at the opening of 1984, the last night of dreams from Daphne Du Maurier, The Old Man And The Sea. How have opening lines changed over the years? Do they have to grab the attention quite as dramatically as the “how to” books would suggest? Do they have to engage the reader more now than in the past, and if so why?
And what about the closing line of a story? Does it have to wrap it all up neatly, or can it be enigmatic? Can it be happy or sad, relevant to what has gone before, or can it suggest another possibly different avenue?
‘“I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,” said a person not in the story…’ That ‘ a person not in the story’ is a wonderful way for a traditional ghost story like “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad.” to begin, and the easy, seemingly casual, commencement of a story with dialogue, immediately puts us amongst the characters, thus giving such stories as the M R James classic its bedrock in characterisation, which, if given sufficient room to move and breathe, in other words a decent word length, allows this form of the genre to be so successful. Does it grab the attention, this first line, or was that perhaps not the intention in those days when Dr Johnson’s, “The public are the ultimate judges; if they are pleased, it is well; if not, it is no use to tell them why they ought to be have been pleased.” was, possibly rightly, regarded as the common critic.
‘His nerves, too, have suffered: he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.’ The conclusion to Parkins’ tale is a fine summing up, as though we are truly listening to the words spoken whilst seated in a leather chair, in an oak panelled room, and with a fine Macanudo cigar and a vintage Port for company. The line encompasses what had gone before, and should we perversely have glanced at it before beginning the story, as we all do on occasion, we should have been more than tempted to read the story in full.
A fine modern exponent of the ghost story, Terry Lamsley, often favoured more direct openings that tempt the reader into his world by a statement. ‘Nathan was on the lookout for the woman most of the time now.’ This line from the story Back In The Dunes from his third collection Dark Matters from Ash Tree Press is a variant on the Hamlet opening. Without meeting her we want to know who the woman is and why Nathan is keeping watch for her. It draws us in through curiosity, making us want to read on to satisfy what killed the cat, but which itch we can only scratch be learning more about these characters.
Here the ending, ‘They sounded genuinely happy now, and were obviously eager to begin the anniversary celebration.’ will not mean much without the story having been read as a whole. It is an example of the explaining/summing up last line that acts as a full stop without adding further mystery to the piece. It works well because it serves to underline the story and bring down the final curtain neatly and effectively.
Our own ‘The silver helicopter flowed with insistent noise through the lazy tropical air.’ taken from Ashushma, the opening novella from our collection Echoes Of Darkness, Sarob Press May 2000, is an attempt at a descriptive opening that uses the language to paint a picture – here of a tropical island and visitors approaching it – to set up an atmosphere from which the characters and action will develop. It is a long story, 19000 words, and the reader knows that before they start reading. That may make a difference with the opening line, as longer stories sometimes tell their tale at a slower pace, usually in a more complex manner as well. A short, punchy opening line may not always work. Although with novels we are told the opening line, and indeed the first page, must grab the attention.
‘It was difficult to see in the full darkness, with the sea struggling around and over the stones, but it seemed as if the shapes merged into one huge misshapen mass that swallowed Sybella, leaving the storm to rant in futile rage.’ The finale of our story continues the theme of using atmosphere as one of the characters in the story, and concludes the telling of the story by focussing on one of the main characters, Sybella, who has, hopefully, become sympathetic to the reader, so that her fate affects us as we learn of it.
Over the years opening lines have changed from the occasionally slow, deliberate preambles into the body of the story, to almost an art form of their own. The intention now must be to engage the readers (or editors/publishers/agents etc.) quickly so that the story is not cast aside and another selected instead. There is fierce competition for acceptance; there is a plethora of other preoccupations that divert attention away from the telling of a story. There are intense pressures in daily life, as everything gets faster, more instant, and much of our entertainment becomes increasingly visual. The luxury of starting a story in slow time, with the pace of a waltz rather than a frenetic break dance is becoming ever more dangerous.
Yet, ‘“He had heart trouble,” the woman was telling Carella.’ Is how Ed McBain chose to begin The Last Dance, the fiftieth novel in the 87th Precinct series of crime novels that began in 1956. The books have consistently featured several city cops who, if one has read all the books, have grown and developed over the years. Because the books are so well established, and work so well, we know that Carella, the “main” character, and the one closest to the authors voice in the stories, is investigating a death; and because the suggestion is natural causes we know it will turn out to be murder, just as we know that the policemen will go through various stages to establish this, and they will be slightly changed by events as they unfold. Just as with a familiar friend we can relax and forgo certain formalities, so with an author we know and respect we can accept some leniency.
The ending displays this even more than the beginning, with its, ‘At last, Kling said, “Wanna dance?”’ So casual, so informal, we feel privileged to be amongst people so comfortable with themselves. They have just been through so much, in which we have shared, and the last line allows us a small smile with them.
‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House Of Usher.’ Who else could it be? Atmosphere, menace, some action, the introduction of the main character (well, two main characters – the man and the house), and an all-pervading sense of dread. Already we don’t want to enter the house, but then again of course we do, but we know we’ll be scared every step of the way. As potent now as when first written, here is respectable pace yet attention grabbing of the highest order.
The ending is equally fierce. ‘While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened – there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind – the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight – my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder – there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters – and the deep and dank tern at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of The House Of Usher.’ Fantastic stuff that completes a circle from the opening line, and rounds off the intervening story with an atmospheric and chilling conclusion.
There could be the argument that the opening and ending of any story are the two defining moments that dictate whether it will find favour with the reader or pass into obscurity in their memory. Certainly when writing stories these are often the two lines most thought about; the two lines most revised. We often find, speaking as writers now, we write a story, and upon revision lose the original beginning (sometimes the opening paragraphs), as its purpose has been served; it has got us into the meat of the tale and overcome our initial shyness at meeting the new characters. Occasionally we start a story with only the opening line, a thread of an idea that has insinuated itself in our sub-conscious and from which the rest follows. Rarely do we revise the last line, because by that stage we know our characters, know what they will do – not always, as they can be independent little beggars – and the ending evolves from the plot. Always, though, the ending has to match the beginning, so that there is symmetry to the story telling, a roundness that acts as a final farewell.
‘Outside the walls of the Crimson Cabaret was a world of rain and darkness.’ Instantly we want to be inside those walls, out of the rain and the dark, somewhere that sounds safe. Gas Station Carnivals from The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti won’t be safe, and somehow we know that even as we enter, but still the words used, and their context, entice us in. By the time the last line, ‘Perhaps then I will discover what it was I did – what any of us did – to deserve this fate.’ we know, like the character Quisser, that safety was the least appealing aspect of that opening, and again the ending brings us neatly and very effectively to that conclusion, although we were well aware of it throughout our journey.
Which is more important – a good opening or a good finale? Starter or dessert? Well, can we have one without the other? Each performs a very different function. An opening can set up mystery, atmosphere, action, characters, mood. It can hook, grab, entice, cajole, bully sometimes – ‘So you think you know pain?’ from Jack Ketchum is fairly provocative – anything it needs to make one read on. What follows then must stand on its own two feet, but the opening line is like a parents guiding hands, showing the way, finally letting go of the bicycle before the child goes wobbling off on its own first solo ride.
Having survived the journey of the whole story, having read on from the first line, and enjoyed, to whatever degree, the intervening story we come to the last line. The final memory we will have of the story. Will it please or disappoint? Satisfy or frustrate? Without a superb last line a story is like sex without an orgasm – pleasing and exciting, but ultimately frustrating. The last line is like a comforting embrace in the dark of night, something we all need on occasion.
Before you go back to the top of this essay and check out our first line again – a quiz. Whose first lines, and a few last lines too, are these? Answers on a postcard () although a clue – we have told you…
Here’s some firsts –
‘When a traveller in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.’ HPL – The Dunwich Horror
‘Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.’
Ray Bradbury – The Small Assassin
‘Mr Baxter sauntered out of his office in the Dormy House at Duncaster Golf Club, just as the sun was setting one perfect evening late in September, 19-, his meagre labours finished for the day.’ HRW – 17th Hole
‘You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.’ Frankenstein
And in conclusion –
‘”Merry Christmas,”’ he repeated softly.’ Hell House
‘In forgetting, they were trying to remember.’ The Exorcist.
‘The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and, “Oh, God,” he thought, “What a bloody silly way to die…”’ Don’t Look Now
‘In those previous seconds Gerald had become aware of something dividing them which neither of them would ever mention or ever forget.’ Ringing The Changes
‘Subsequently the body was again secretly dug up, and the coffin was found to be full of blood.’ The Room In The Tower.
THE EMOTION OF FANTASY
“Fantasy: ph.n. Faculty of imagination, esp. when extravagant; mental images fanciful design, speculation, fantasia, fantastic: musical or other composition in which form is subservient to fancy. Fantast: visionary dreamer. Fantastic: extravagantly fanciful, eccentric, grotesque, quaint.”
Within the bounds of artistic fantasy many diverse and often doubtful tangents are created in what seems to be an all-embracing desire to call everything marginally surrealistic, fantasy; this desire if all-suffocating.
Human taste, coupled so necessarily with individualistic preference, is a precious thing, and who is to say that what one person considers to be fantasy should be strictly ruled not so because another finds its inclusion to be unjustifiable. When one is dealing with facts it is far easier to reach a definite conclusion than when the subject for discussion is art, or concerns the artistic in any sense. Fantasy in art appears in as many guises as there are people interested enough in the subject to hold forth with their views. Similarly the particular art form can be divided into separate realms within the same subject. This is particularly true of literature and cinema the two fields where the fantastic is at its most recognisable. To complete the quartet of art forms would be to add painting, coupled with sculpture, and music; these four being the most readily receptive media for the fantastic. Perhaps a fifth may be added, not forgetting the effect the 1927 Broadway production of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi had on Tod Browning’s excellent 1931 film version, and that is the live theatre, although the live play does not lend itself so readily to the dictionary definition. Whilst not intending to decry live theatre, it is difficult to create the correct atmosphere of fantasy from a stage play, and to an audience, coughing and sweet unwrapping at every turn. Although it is certainly true that many excellent examples of good theatre are still being produced – Ghost Stories for one – not to mention the readings and performances of ghost stories, such as those by M R James.
Fantasy in Art, meaning here the facility of painting, sculpture, and companion “high brow” forms, is a little appreciated, or publicised translator of the fantastic. Possibly because art is less widely available on such a mass scale as books and films, and because it does not hold such a universal appeal, it is often excluded from discussion on the subject of fantasy. Books and films can appeal on more than one level, whilst paintings are often a blank canvass to many viewers. Clark Ashton Smith was a fine sculptor, yet he is known for his poems and stories. Artists such as Coye and Bok are known for their illustrations for books but seldom hailed in their own right. At certain times books are available on the subject, such as The Artists of Fantasy in the 1970’s; and magazines used to feature advertisements for colour prints depicting scenes for Robert Howard’s Conan adventures, alongside prints from scenes from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery TV series. Further examples from this era were the album sleeve designs of Roger Dean, although the intention behind these works seemed not to stem from the basic emotion of fantasy. The most widely seen and accessible form of fantastic art is on the covers of books, especially paperbacks. This works well for the form as it complements the fiction within, as well as standing in its own right. Fantasy that is essentially static, as paintings and most sculpture must inevitably be, is always going to be less satisfying, for the elements of fantasy, than the other mediums into which so much more can be woven. While the painting can be discussed on a technical level, and whilst the emotion evoked from it is personal to each mind viewing it, the painting remains for all that merely an object to be viewed, for some an adornment for the wall upon which it is hung, which can at different times provoke different moods. Obviously a painter would think differently, and possibly consider painting the most important medium for fantastic emotion. The subject cannot be set aside without a mention of the wonderful artists that are currently at work within the fantasy genre, both mainstream, but especially in the small press where some marvellous work is being done.
With the inclusion of music in any discussion of fantasy brings in the fundamental question of what we mean by fantasy. Music it would seem is on the fringe of the colloquial term fantasy, and yet the dictionary dictates otherwise. The first factor would seem to be the intention behind the act, or art. If an artist, in the general sense, intends their work to be accepted as pure fantasy that is one matter. What too often happens is that the person receiving the work considers it to be fantasy when that is not the intention. The strict term of fantasy encompasses a far wider field than the raw emotion of fantasy. With the medium of music it is hard to believe that however imaginative a musician, rock band or orchestra may be, the intention behind their music is the fantastic emotion. When listening for example to groups such as Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd or Hawkwind, to name only one facet of music, it is easy to conjure in the mind images related to the emotion of fantasy. How often though was that the intention of the musicians? The images conjured are but a shallow reflection of the real emotions to be wrung from a truly weird work. Similar ephemeral emotions after all may be attained from the pleasures of sex, and stimulants such as drink, tobacco or drugs. Listen to any piece of valid music under such influences and note the different mental images thus conjured by the stimulated brain as opposed to those of a sober one. Did the musicians intend such stimulants to be included in the appreciation of their work? The intention behind the fantasy is an important factor in its relevance and effect. Musical scores play a large part in the creation of mood within a film, and here it seems is one true place where fantasy and musical art can meet, with the music being the instigator of emotion behind the visual image on screen. Music in its own right though can only add to, rather than create its own, emotion of fantasy.
The fantastic cinema demands a great deal from its audience. People come in from the street to sit in a darkened room where they watch moving images upon a white screen. The fact that they can see the images makes the fact that they are weird or unreal all the more difficult to believe. A horror is all the more frightening when we cannot see it, in the main, and for most people. It is the unseen horror that might happen that truly grips the imagination. The fantasy film therefore demands from the outset a belief from its audience, a belief in the unbelievable that, because they will see it, becomes believable. The modern, cynical, cinema audience is less willing to believe, or even to suspend disbelief, than their predecessors. It is often the fashion to sneer at fantasy films with the retort that it has all been seen before. Sadly too many films are guilty of repetition and even plagiarism, while the great majority are guilty of merely being too obvious, and far too many show their horror, at the same time lessening the emotional effect.
Horror has always been a good gross earner, with even small budget films, accompanied by excellent hype, getting good ratings. And we are, it seems, ever more seeking a journey into the unknown. For emotions rather than thrill alone, the good fantasy films perhaps are in the past, with the modern special effects replacements a poor substitute. In a materialistic society, the fantasy form can be sadly neglected, which clearly is more than a pity, because as we learn so much, we realise how little we, as a species actually knows. We also need fantasy as a release from the daily horrors of simply living. The film as an art form also tends to lessen the emotion of fantasy by the fact that the whole audience shares the images simultaneously. How more scaring it is to watch a late night horror film in your own home than in the communal setting of the cinema? When you switch off the television, computer, tablet, or DVD, to leave the room in total darkness, and the house is making those creaking noises they all do at night. Even the firmest cynic and disbeliever can become scared in a dark, not quite silent room. Silence or near silence is as important to the emotions as the darkness. Interesting though fantasy films undoubtedly are, they are not aided by their visual and communal form. Occasional additions of light or comic relief in a film also often, if not always, work against the creation of mood, and to the detriment of the film. Though light relief in the manner of the two old boozers in Stuart Walker’s Werewolf Of London and the wit of James Whale, nowadays seems to have been replaced by erotic relief or gratuitous nudity. Blatant sex, like blatant humour, rarely mixes with fantasy emotions.
Fantastic fiction is primarily a private occupation for the reader in that they sit alone reading and it is their brain alone that absorbs the meanings behind the printed words. Therefore from the outset it performs one of the fundamental and necessary functions of fantasy and its emotions in that it creates its effects upon one individual who is made to feel that they alone are experiencing the horrors created by the power of the writing. A mood shared can be a mood lessened so far as fantasy is concerned. Books as marketed today are categorised by the publishers so that even without reading them the reader is told what to expect. This is basically a failing because in the broad field of fantasy in general there is a thin dividing line between the different forms of writing. Terms used include Science fiction, Fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and yet the dividing line between them all is less than often imagined. One essential difference could be that some deal mainly with experiences of the mind while possibly encompassing the spirit, while others deal with the body, the natural emotions. All however stem from the same womb, in many respects. Some look forward while some look back; some are concerned with the advancement of mankind and some with its downfall. Some are considered a higher art form than others? Sometimes, though the SF writers and readers would not believe they were favoured above Fantasy, and they above horror. Few horror writers are held in high esteem in the public regard and possibly this is due to the rigidity of the human mind in not wishing to believe in things or events that are unwelcome; they used to shoot the messenger didn’t they? Horror as an art form has been equated by analysts with the natural human desire to injure ones fellow. Note the crowds that gather around a car crash, not from sympathy, or even a desire to help. It is the rubberneck desire to watch, to see if anyone has been hurt, the staple element even in slapstick humour. A release of this desire in fiction is welcome, and it could be a day in the not too distant future when books are made available on the NHS, on prescription, almost a Fahrenheit 451 in reverse.
With fiction, as with musical fantasy, the intention behind the writing is important, but to a lesser extent which creates a vital difference. Not only has the reader to interpret the writer’s intentions, but also because the medium is again visual, though more restrained, the reader can to a certain extent and with greater validity put their own interpretation to the printed words. The ability to “read between the lines” enables greater depth to be applied to the story form; while only in the work of written fiction can true subtlety of the emotion of fantasy be achieved. Only with words can the meaning be so well hidden from view. The emotion is developed by subtle hints, which upon canvas or celluloid or on CD or Internet source, can only be caught in part. With words the writer can create pictures; to the receptive mind they can also produce sounds. The emotion of fantasy is captured upon the printed page, or on the e-zine electronic pages, in so many different ways that the very diversity alone allows the story form to ensnare a wider audience into its mood, while at the same time keeping it a private experience. One reader may like the plot, another the style, another the story, but the result is the same; the emotion of fantasy has been recreated.
The term fantasy is wide as the dictionary definition shows. The term fantasy to mean the weird in art is also widely interpreted but to such an extent that its natural impact is lessened. The unique quality of the true emotion of fantasy is lost when equated with so many diverse and doubtful elements. The final judge will be individual taste, yet the emotion of fantasy is a far more rare experience than is imagined. Everyone loves to be safely scared, fear is a primary emotion, but that does not mean that everyone has an appreciation of the emotion, and certainly not an appreciation of the genre. Similarly a mere love or even appreciation of the emotion is not by itself enough when possessed apart from the basic emotion itself. Individual taste of style or of a medium is not so important as this elusive quality, so that the true possessor of the emotion of fantasy may understand most forms of the artistic presentation.
IT’S THAT OLD ‘BIG BROTHER’ THEME AGAIN
It should be no surprise to fans of horror and sf that TV’s Big Brother has become such a phenomena.
Take a handful of disparate types, enclose them in a house, shut them off from the outside world, give them an incentive to stay in the house, and gradually pick them off, one at a time. And all the while their every move is watched.
That is the general idea behind the TV show, and behind some of the scariest books and films ever produced. No wonder the nation’s hooked.
The scenario has been proven to work over and over again. One of the best examples of this type of story is Richard Matheson’s Hell House.
Published in 1971 (the same year as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist) Hell House gives us another take on the same idea as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House twelve years previously.
A group of experts in psychic phenomena shut themselves up at the old and very haunted Belasco mansion in Maine; the ‘Mount Everest of haunted houses.’ There is a financial incentive for them to stay there. Publishing magnate Deutsch is old and close to death and wants to take away the uncertainty of that certain fate. The experts can expect to receive one hundred thousand dollars apiece if they can either prove or disprove the theory of life after death.
Our group of housemates consists of Lionel Barrett, a physicist, and a non-believer in the afterlife, Florence Tanner, a mental medium, who wants to use the money to build a Spiritualist church, and Benjamin Fischer Franklin, a physical medium, in fact one of the best physical mediums of his or any other generation. Franklin is the only sane survivor of an attempt to investigate the house thirty years previously. The fourth member of the group is Edith, Barrett’s much younger wife, and probably the most vulnerable of the quartet.
The pace of the book is fast. No sooner do the group arrive than the ghostly happenings begin, and from then on the reader is taken on a roller coaster ride of manifestations and psychic shenanigans that made the readers of 1971 sit up and take notice.
What separated Matheson’s book from Rosemary’s Baby and others of the period was the graphic use of sex as a weapon used against the group.
It’s hard to believe now what an impact such scenes of necrophilia and graphic seduction had at the time, but one reviewer was prompted to write that Matheson had written ‘a dirty book’.
What Matheson was actually doing was to use this ‘closed environment’ narrative device to give himself and the reader the opportunity to study their characters in depth without outside distractions.
The most revealing case study in Hell House is the relationship of Barrett and his much younger wife. Crippled by polio and feigning impotence, Barrett cannot cope when the house gets to work on Edith, turning her from a placid repressed little wife, to a man-hungry vamp who forces herself on her husband in a graphic scene set in a steam room, and then tries to seduce Fischer.
When dealing with an isolated group such as this the interplay between them all is put under a microscope. The reader/viewer becomes Big Brother, watching this group of people ripping each other apart. It is in fact the human condition in microcosm. Often in this type of story, the cruelty and pain inflicted on certain characters by their colleagues is more horrific than any malign outside force; and sometimes, because of the insularity of the situation, there is much more opportunity for soul searching. We find characters torn apart by their personal demons, as they struggle to cope with the intense introspection.
Florence examines and tries to come to terms with the death of her brother, transferring her guilt and the love for her brother to Daniel, the ‘son’ of Emeric Belasco. Fischer remains for most of the book shut off from the malign influences as he tries to convince himself he’s only there for the money.
The overall feeling of the book is claustrophobic, haunting and truly scary. Compared to what the occupants of Hell House have to endure, Nasty Nick and his colleagues had it fairly cushy. The nastiest manifestations to plague the Big Brother housemates were two unpleasantly large spiders, and even these met a rapid end.
Whereas the film of The Exorcist added to the reputation of the book, lifting it completely out of genre and into the mainstream, the film of Hell House had precisely the reverse effect.
Saddled with the lumbering title, The Legend of Hell House, and hopelessly miscast, the film misses on so many levels that for those of us who went to see it on its release, it came as a huge disappointment. The fact that Matheson wrote the script only compounded the disappointment. One can only assume that he handed in the script and then had nothing more to do with the film, because the sure touch he demonstrated with the book is sadly missing here.
Pamela Franklin, beautiful and talented as she was – and a wonderful ‘screamer’ – (in fact few people have screamed as well on film either before or since, with perhaps the exception of Fay Wray!), was far too young to play the middle-aged ex-actress Florence Tanner. The key to Tanner’s character was that, considering her age (43) and previous life style she is incredibly naive and gullible when confronted by the house. Her conviction she is right about Belasco’s son being the major haunting influence, and the way she sets about proving it works wonderfully in the book. But because of Franklin’s youth the same character in the film comes across as slightly dense and faintly arrogant.
Clive Revill sleepwalks through his part as Lionel Barrett. The New Zealand actor, so good in a number of films, seems slightly embarrassed about having the beautiful Gayle Hunnicut play his wife. And so he should be! The character of Edith Barrett in the book is petite, boyish, sexually repressed, and when she tries to seduce Benjamin Franklin Fischer, the reader is embarrassed for her, and for Fischer. The same scene played in the film with Hunnicut vamping it up leaves one with impression that she could have Roddy McDowell’s Fischer for dinner, and take on the rest of the cast and crew for desert.
Only McDowell shines. In what is considered to be one of the highlights of his long career, he is Ben Fischer. He inhabits the character so well, and brings the book’s hero to life so successfully, one can only regret that the finished film wasn’t worthy of his talents.
But the most awful piece of casting, and without doubt the major flaw of the entire film, was that of Michael Gough as the corpse of Emeric Belasco.
In the book Belasco is describe as frightening of visage, ‘the face of a demon who has taken on a human aspect.’ The urbane Gough is as about as frightening as Charlie Drake (diminutive British comedian, popular at the time). The casting – obviously intended as an in-joke by director John Hough, falls flat and only serves to destroy any tension and drama that has been built up before it. Which is a shame, because up until that point, despite the casting, the film had been quite effective.
So without the blockbuster film to swell its fortunes Hell House quickly joined the ranks of ‘just another horror book’, to the point that when Bantam reprinted in 1973 they repackaged it as ‘A novel of demonic possession’ and saddled it with a cover of a young girl in a floaty dress/nightdress carrying a candlestick, obviously hoping to cash in on the success of Blatty’s book.
Which is a shame, because with Hell House, Richard Matheson, along with Blatty and before them Ira Levin, can take credit in taking the supernatural novel to new heights and paving the way for the Kings and Koontzes who were to follow.
a huge and far-ranging interview with the excellent Jim McLeod where we bare our souls – well you wouldn’t want anything else to be bared.
Now And Then?
One aspect for consideration when reading a supernatural tale is the circumstances under which the story was written. Should we involve ourselves in thoughts of what the writers’ life might have been like when they were toiling away at the PC, word processor, electric typewriter, manual typewriter, pen and ink, quill, cave wall, tablet of stone…? Do the life and times of writers present and past affect our enjoyment of a piece of fiction?
Clearly the influences on a writer, the minutia of their life, may have a great bearing on the style of their work. It can be of no little importance to wonder whether a change of life style would have meant a change in artistic direction. Was the writer married or single? Professional or amateur? Sad or happy? City, village; young, old; ill or in good health? Did they have all day to write or were they forced into writing in snatched moments? It is to no special advantage to have to spend all day at work then to come home and immediately place oneself in the frame of mind conducive to good writing. Even worse, horrors of responsibility; if there is a spouse who expects attention, concentration on conversation, help with washing up, children to entertain and put to bed.
There can be little doubt that the influences on the life of a writer such as Poe coloured his writing. No matter how great his natural tendency for the darker side of life, no matter how much a love of the night was born in him, the poverty and grief, which he knew, allowed his gift of eloquent woe to find its voice with deeper depths of agony and genius.
The life pattern of a modern person can be thought in itself to be alien to the emotive force of dark fiction. For the most part living in clean, bright, centrally heated homes, with human companionship so near, even through such devices as the telephone, e-mail, mobiles, pagers, Internet and more. It becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the feeling of ‘living your work’ that writers of old may have experienced. Perhaps it is over-romantic to imagine the writer of the past huddled over the light of a flickering candle in an otherwise darkened room. Alone with their imagination, with no electronic stimuli, no diversions from the mood of their creation, sheltered from outside influences. By living the horror of the ghost story mood, or the atmosphere of it, could the same be more easily transmitted to the written page? The writer of today must first think themselves into the mood of their fiction by, to a large extent, ignoring the normality of their surroundings, rather than being able to feed from, and upon it, as might be ideal.
Then there is television; the numbing of the senses, the intruding into imagination, the believing in the banal. Where does it provide the creative stimulus for the supernatural tale? It tells when it should cloak, it reveals when it should mask, it explains when it should be enticing. No extension of the creative framework here; rather a bland catch-all formula that drapes a cloud of easy viewing that batters at imagination and its defences until the wall crashes and true creation is lost.
Leaving the sterile atmosphere of modern life to one side, one of the least advantageous influences on today’s writers must be the media of film; cinema and admittedly to a lesser extent with regard to supernatural fiction, the demon television. To say that all the best stories were written before the advent of screen horror would be wholly inaccurate but it cannot be ignored that the ability to see on the screen that which previously could only have been imagined from the written word has an immense affect on the modern reader, and therefore by extension the modern writer.
To take just one example, that of the vampire story, one of the most basic, and finest of horror vehicles. No matter how subtle the writer is, once it becomes obvious we are reading a vampire story then the images conjured are invariably not those intended by the writer but those of Schreck, Lugosi, Lee, or whichever cinematic character the story reminds us of – even Twilight. The force behind the writing is diminished because the vital ingredient of imagination on the part of the reader has been dulled by memories of film, or worse of the circumstances under which we went to see the film. So the writer of a vampire story may today be faced with a reader who does not pale at thoughts of the blood-sucking monster but rather one whose mind is busy recalling the delights of sitting in the back row of the cinema.
The basic and still much respected ingredients of the genre have been over-exposed by the film world so that their power does not work so deeply on today’s audiences as they might have done a century ago. It might be offered that horror films have not only had an adverse affect on writing but also on the enjoyment of reading a good horror story. The words more often conjure cinematic images rather than the private images that they would have done previously.
The reader of The Seventeenth Hole At Duncaster today cannot experience the same atmosphere that the first reader knew in the 1920’s. Their lives are vastly different. Their knowledge is different; therefore their senses absorb the words differently and appreciate the meaning and the moods in different ways.
There is sometimes the temptation to consider works of old as being superior in some way, purely because they have the competency of longevity. Even allowing for the sentimental regard with which stories of the past are held today, there is a stylistic difference between them and their modern counterparts, and this cannot be ignored when discussing the influences on writing. While a story may have been effective in 1900 it may not satisfy today, may be inaccessible due to style, rather than content, because its message may already be over-familiar through cinema, television, and other works of fiction. What convinced a century ago now appears merely dated and mundane. Creaking doors, and draughty ghosts, do not convince us as modern readers. Where our ancestors dreaded their intrusion, we merely wait for the bigger terror, the higher fix of horror.
Each age has had its share of true horrors, the reality of which brings us to book when we worry about the fictional versions. Since the raw carnage of 1914-18 and World War Two we cannot look with the same concerned expression upon fictional fright. Add to that the daily horrors now so freely reported in an increasingly sensationalist media and we have a wall growing ever thicker through which the suspension of disbelief must break. The narrative drive must reach wrap speed these days before it engages a gear high enough for our attention to be provoked. So de-sensitised have we become to stories of children killing each other, to mindless violence, sex, drugs, corruption, infidelity and genocide, that the fictional terrors we create in our imaginations must be more subtle, more inventive than ever to jolt the reader out of their de-humanised veil of disbelief.
There are of course two ways to look at criticism. Many people would argue that art must live by today’s standards, so that a film made fifty years ago must stand up to the techniques of today before it can be considered valid. This seems too easy an option. It places no importance upon circumstance, and indeed it seems to ignore the influences, surrounding the making of the film, or the writing of the story if considering fiction. This is not to suggest that excuses should be made for the writer if the story was written under difficult circumstances. If a wife has just left a husband should we excuse a poor story written as a result? Hardly. But if a work of art was considered valid when it was first created then it cannot be accurate if thirty years later it is deemed poor if it does not affect a modern audience in the same way. Is the modern audience a keener critic because a few years have passed? We may have become familiar with the style or the theme, but that is not the fault or responsibility of the writer. The art has not changed, merely the opinions and sophistication of the audience. Their views and tastes have changed but the words written remain exactly the same. It can surely only be accurate to take historical perspective into account when reading an old story. If a story fails to ignite us today we must look for a better reason than merely to suggest it has lost its spark along the way.
Would it be wholly valid to explore the avenue of thought that an influence on writing today is the greater availability of fiction to the mass market? After all it is within everyone’s grasp today to buy a book on the Internet, or at any one of dwindling bookshops, or even to borrow it from the Public Library. This availability was not always the case. A second rate work of fiction today may well reach a far wider audience than a better book years ago simply because the distribution channels are so much more diverse these days. The Internet has increased this phenomenon with its ability to access fiction on the web sites as an addition to the printed page. The proliferation of self publishing has only added to the myriad of books available at far lower prices than used to be the case. Another medium available now but not previously is the talking tape where stories and novels can be abridged and spoken without the need even for the effort of lifting a book in leisure. Allowing for his distaste for the general public, and that it was not his intention to write for critical acclaim, it is interesting to ponder how the writing of H P Lovecraft might have altered if fed to a wider audience, and the difference it might have made if subject to a publishers deadlines.
Trends can sometimes be seen in current fiction that suggest a deliberate attempt to fool the voracious appetite of the reading public, sated as they are by these diverse images. Stories whose every intention is vagueness; over-explored themes deserted for stories of minimum plotline but maximum exploration of the mind of modern man. Then there are the stories of excess gore and sexual athletics. The intention of many modern stories seems to be to place Man as the monster, his way of life as the creator, and his mind as the catalyst that sparks the horror. To do this exclusively suggests that the writers believe the terrors of old are ineffective in today’s society and that new and less traditional horrors are required. New approaches are always welcome but we should not ignore the classical in the pursuit of the wholly different just for its own sake. The meaning behind the words should not always be so obscure as to leave the vagueness so clearly worked for as to give any feeling, emotion of atmosphere, no chance of survival as the puzzle develops.
Stories that are obvious are never satisfactory be they one day or one hundred years old. The converse is equally true in that stories that baffle to deceive are simply infuriating. From what viewpoint should a work of fiction be judged? Some good stories are poorly told, others well written but clichéd in plot. In all probability the only true way to judge a story is objectively and yet that disavows the emotional pull that should exist if a work of fiction is to engage our full attention. It is possibly because many critics take the subjective path that arguments about merit develop. The only true way is to read with a subjective eye whilst the objective mind can sort the poor craft from the well-meaning ideas. Merits to one are defects to another.
In terms of fiction the influences upon a writer are many and varied. This was always true and is more so today. The electronic stimuli, the modern stresses and pressures, the familiarity the reader has with themes and ideas, all conspire now to make the storywriter perform to their best if they are to emulate, let alone exceed, the writers of old. Because a story is decades old does not mean it should not be read and enjoyed today; though it should be treated with respect of age and not expected to perform as though a teenager in the prime of youth – make allowances for style, pace and even content – please.
A writer draws on many influences in the pursuance of their craft; their life style, their past, their aims when writing, their known audience, their publisher’s wishes. Our modern emphasis on bodily comforts seems to spare the writer of horror the chance to experience the terrors at first hand, and yet each day carries with it some new nightmare from which to draw ideas. Dark fiction remains now as then, a valid release valve from the horrors of the real world, and a reminder that despite modern sophistication of living we should never get too complacent.
IT’S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL… OR IS IT?
It’s 1956. At a small club in New York the lights dim. The crowd shifts uncomfortably with nervous anticipation. There’s a small gasp as Screaming Jay Hawkins makes his entrance – carried on stage in a flaming coffin. The flames are extinguished and Hawkins, dressed like a voodoo Loa, launches into a blistering version of Nina Simone’s I Put A Spell On You. The effect is electrifying.
A few years later in a small smoky club in the Kings Cross area of London the lights dim, funereal music is played and another coffin is carried onto a stage. This one isn’t alight. The occupant has more sense. But he has watched Hawkins’ stage act and has borrowed from it shamelessly.
Screaming Lord Sutch – David to his friends, and not a member of the peerage – launches into a raucous stream of songs, backed by a band called The Savages who at one time or another will feature such rock icons as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and Nicky Hopkins. Like Hawkins, Sutch’s on-stage shenanigans will earn him many column inches in the popular press and a notoriety that will upset the moral majority and lead to his concerts being cancelled and public vilification. And the irony of the situation is that such infamy will not translate into record sales, and in fact apart from a few semi-memorable songs, their recordings will remain as just a footnote to the history of popular music.
But horror will top the charts a couple of years later when an enterprising mimic called Bobby Picket will take his affectionate impersonation of Boris Karloff to the top of the charts with The Monster Mash, an altogether more digestible form of musical horror.
By the late sixties and the beginning of the seventies things had taken on a demonic aspect in the hit parade. In 1968 their Satanic Majesties, the Rolling Stones asked for Sympathy For The Devil, and Old Nick himself was haring up the charts courtesy of The Gun’s Race with the Devil, a speedy, riff driven song replete with demonic laughter. Actually it could have been just a phase of demonic laughter as the Crazy World’s Arthur Brown had cackled himself silly just months before. He had also stuck a flaming colander on his head and proclaimed himself the God of Hellfire. The keyboard player of Arthur Brown’s fiery hit was Vincent Crane who went on to form Atomic Rooster and have a top ten hit with The Devil’s Answer and if that wasn’t enough in the way of supernatural syncopation, German one hit wonders The Rattles had their moment of glory with The Witch complete with another bout of demonic chortling.
Black Sabbath. The name says it all really. Named after the 1963 Mario Bava film and not, as it has been widely reported, after a Dennis Wheatley novel, their exploits have been well documented, as have the bat-biting exploits of their erstwhile front man Ozzy Osbourne. They were at the forefront of the heavy metal movement. Dark and menacing lyrics, sung over a heavy, riff-laden, but melodic, instrumentation, they influenced countless bands who were to follow, including Iron Maiden, who in the best traditions named themselves after a medieval instrument of torture, and had an emaciated corpse, affectionately known as Eddy, on stage with them.
Less well known, but contemporaries of the early Sabbath and, if possible, more notorious, were Black Widow whose stage act had all the trappings of a black mass complete with mock-sacrifice. Songs like Come To The Sabbat had tabloid journalists reaching for their epithets of outrage, but they need not have feared. Black magic had a limited hold on the nation’s pop-buying market, and after three increasingly unsuccessful albums Black Widow soon disbanded and went their separate ways. Most notably drummer Romeo Challenger went on to join Showaddywaddy, with whom he still plays today. A sharp lesson to those who dabble in the Black Arts.
And then there was Alice Cooper!
Few have equalled Alice for using elements of graphic horror on stage. Fake blood, a guillotine, and a hangman’s noose were all elements of this supreme showman. Once again the public were outraged, but at least his records sold – the anarchic School’s Out topping the charts being the first of many hits.
Hard on his heels in the shock-horror stakes were Kiss whose use of make-up exceeded Cooper, but whose music was fairly crude. They were and are seen as something of a horror comic and have never really been taken seriously.
The use of horror elements in music is not the exclusive territory of rock/heavy metal bands, although those are in the majority. In 1973 10CC who were to go on to be one of the world’s most popular groups, released their first album. Along with Rubber Bullets and Donna, tucked away on the second side of the album was a joyous homage to the horror “b” movie, Ships Don’t Just Disappear In The Night, written by band members Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman and giving name checks to Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price. The pair repeated the trick on the next album with a voodoo song about the Loa of death, Baron Samedi.
The same year another entry into the sub-genre came from a surprising source. Helen Reddy, an Australian singer who was best known for her feminist paean I Am Woman and her reading of Alex Harvey’s Delta Dawn, had a hit worldwide with a chilling ghost story in song, Angie Baby.
The mid -seventies saw Edgar Allan Poe’s work being plundered.
Alan Ross, an old school friend of ours, brought to the ears of the unsuspecting public The Pit And The Pendulum. It would be nice to report the album was an unmitigated success, but reviews were less than enthusiastic and the album soon found its way into the bargain bins.
Rather more luck was had by Abbey Road engineer Alan Parsons whose Project released Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, a much superior record than Ross’s, featuring tiles like The Raven and The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and the vocal talents of John Miles and Arthur Brown (yes him again, sans flaming colander).
Another band that adopted elements of the genre in both their image and their songs were Blue Oyster Cult. Taking as their logo the sign of Cronos, the Titan god who ate his son The Grim Reaper, they made a major contribution to the sub-genre with the superb and suitably titled Don’t Fear The Reaper and later with the sprightly Joan Crawford (has risen from the grave). Later they would go on to compose the soundtrack for the horror film Bad Channels in 1992. But basically they were a biker band that adopted occult nuances on occasion as well as plundering the science fiction genre with equal success, signing up Michael Moorcock as lyricist.
Blue Oyster Cult’s other claim to fame was that they also joined the ranks of the artists who have found inspiration for their songs in some classic horror films. Their contribution was the heavy rocking Godzilla. Before them there was Edgar Winter with Frankenstein and after them Warren Zeavon’s Werewolves of London.
Punk was the musical movement of the mid-seventies that was going to sweep aside all that had gone before – burying the dinosaurs of rock. So why was Dave Vanian of The Damned dressing up like Dracula and borrowing much of his shtick from an old rocker who by this time had given up trying to shock with his music and instead had turned his attention to trying to get himself elected into the House of Commons? Answers on a postcard please.
Punk spawned the Goth movement, lots of boys with pale faces wearing black and girls with long lank hair and whiny voices, but the gloomy music had more to do with adolescent angst than had any real relationship to horror – although the were a few poseurs who claimed they were vampires, nobody took them seriously and they went back to their day jobs as insurance salesmen and Body Shop staff.
The merging of horror and music reached its defining moment in 1982. Despite all the headway made in the heavy metal and hard rock fields, the hero of the hour had made his name singing the kind of exuberant soul that had been the byword for the Tamla Motown label.
Michael Jackson’s first flirtation with horror had come a few years earlier when he had sung a love song to a rat in the title theme to Ben the film sequel to Willard. Unfortunately not even Michael Jackson’s emotional trilling could save an absolute turkey of a movie.
But in ‘82, with a smash album burning up the charts across the world, Jackson contributed a storming contribution to the sub-genre.
With an interlude spoken by Vincent Price (him again) and a tale of the undead the track that gave its name to the Thriller album was a sensation. But what really stood this apart from anything that had come before was the video.
Directed by John Landis, and utilising state of the art SFX make-up, the long-form video was an electrifying piece of cinema, with a narrative envelope wrapping the song and stunning zombie dance sequence. There was also a follow-up stand-alone video, ‘The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller’, which sold in huge numbers.
There must have been great gnashing of teeth in the heavy rock fraternity. Michael Jackson had not only merged music and horror in a stunning record and video, and not only had his horror song/flick sold millions, but he had made the sub-genre cool.
The influence of Thriller could be seen in videos to come. Meatloaf would don fangs and make-up in a future video and Bonnie Tyler’s shoot for Total Eclipse of the Heart featured a gothic mansion and strange children with glowing eyes and an altogether spooky atmosphere.
On the heavy metal scene things were becoming more extreme with the onslaught of Death Metal, basically satanic or horrific lyrics over a thrash metal backing. Purveyors of this new twist on an old theme were bands like Venom, Slayer, White Zombie and, from Denmark, Mercyful Fate. Fate’s lead singer, King Diamond soon broke away to form his own eponymous band. With his Alice Cooper styled face makeup, and supernatural lyrics, he became for a while, the mainstay of this branch of the metal tree, although for Diamond and the others their popularity was limited to a hard core fan following.
The tradition continued with bands like Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and Amen pushing the boundaries of outrage to new levels, and with all of them the line can be drawn back nearly fifty years to an R&B singer climbing from a burning coffin and mesmerising his audience with tales of magic and voodoo.
It is said that Stephen King is a pretty good guitarist, and rock music certainly forms a soundtrack to his work, the lyrics punctuating the text of many of his books. Shaun Hutson had links with Iron Maiden, and James Herbert had his own music room and was known to strum a bit. Musical horror writers… perhaps best left to another article!
As a footnote it’s worth mentioning two bands that didn’t so much use horror in their act, but took their names from horror icons.
Bram Stoker were a UK band, very much in the Uriah Heep mould, but their music was nowhere near as accomplished. They trod the boards briefly in 1972 but quickly vanished without so much as an album to their name.
H.P. Lovecraft on the other hand did record and the albums have become collectors’ items today. Unfortunately despite having songs called At the Mountains of Madness and The Time Machine (a slight case of author mis-identification here we suspect) the music for the most part is bland sixties American pop with thin production and jarring harmonies. One of the albums does though contain the song That’s The Bag I’m In, a truly horrific piece of music, but for all the wrong reasons.
Still Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps one day some enterprising band will name itself L.H. Maynard or then M.P.N. Sims… but then again, maybe not.