Guest-blog: PAUL BRADSHAW

Paul Bradshaw, today’s esteemed guest-blogger, was once editor of the small press magazine of bizarre fiction entitled The Dream Zone. He also has had around 80 short stories published in various independent magazines and anthologies. These days he squanders his time by sleeping and eating and reading stuff in between. Here, Paul writes about what constitutes true horror, in every sense of the word: in other words, the horror that is brought into our living rooms on a daily basis…

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When I was about nine or ten years old I remember watching a news programme on the television, it was during the time of the Vietnam war and the news item showed a South Vietnamese colonel standing next to a captured Vietcong man. The one thing that I recall vividly is the officer taking out his handgun and shooting the prisoner in the head. It is an image that has been in my memory for all that time. I think about it sometimes, perhaps more times than I ought to, as over the years it comes back into focus inside my head for no apparent reason, just when my mind is wandering I reckon. It’s surprising exactly how much I do remember about it. The event lasted less than ten seconds, yet I still recall the Vietcong man’s hands were tied behind his back, and although he was standing beside the officer he seemed to be ignoring him, staring off into the distance, as if in defiance of the situation. The officer takes out his gun and in one motion raises it to the prisoner’s head and presses the trigger. He does not do it slowly nor quickly, it is done at normal speed. As soon as the gun was fired the prisoner must have been killed instantly, he just collapses awkwardly to the ground in a heap, and with his arms not free it looks even more awkward. The clip then finishes. I am not glad that I saw this image, nor do I regret seeing it, it is just something that I have seen in my past and I accept it as that. However the most striking and memorable thing about it is the fact that it really happened… it was a slice of real life.

Over the years I have watched horror films and slasher films and all that stuff, and even though I am not a big fan of this kind of movie I find myself unmoved by them. I can’t recall a single image from any of these movies that has lingered in my brain like the scene from Vietnam has. Even classics such as The Omen and The Exorcist, all the Frankenstein and Dracula films, the Hammer movies, Dawn of the Dead and other zombie flicks, the cheesy 70s foreign remakes such as Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula. I don’t remember anything from them at all… simply because I know in my mind that whatever happens in them is not real.

Real horror is the one thing that truly terrifies. No doubt the scene from Vietnam can now be viewed somewhere on the internet, probably in a place like Ogrish or Rotten, together with modern horrors like terrorist beheadings and horrible accidents and the like. Watching genuine horrors is so simple nowadays, too simple to be healthy I reckon. Before the days of camcorders and mobile phones and other handheld devices this kind of thing was quite rare and could only be seen up close and in the flesh, and only occasionally in the case of the Vietnam execution. Yet what I find equally as terrible as viewing these horrors is actually trying to place yourself into one of those horrific situations. This can really and truly do your head in if you’re not careful.

In the 70s there were a lot of planes being hijacked if one can remember, particularly in Middle Eastern countries, and I recall that one of the first things the terrorists would do is seek out an American passenger and shoot him before dumping his body out of the aeroplane. Not in mid flight, it was usually at the airport when the hijacking took place, or the plane would be hijacked in mid flight and the pilot ordered to land at an airport of the terrorists’ choice. It was there that they would ask the passengers for their passports and the first American one they found they would execute the owner of it on the spot. How horrible that must have been for the passengers. If you were an American on that plane what would you do? What could you do? Pretend you had borrowed your mate’s passport, and that your mate looked exactly like you did? Tell them you couldn’t find it anywhere? In your heart you knew that as soon as you handed over that passport your life would end. Try to imagine what that must have been like. It’s too horrible to even think about.

When I was about twelve years old there was a serious traffic accident at the top of our street that involved fatalities. The usual rumours spread about what took place, and one rumour that I recall more than any other was the fact that the impact had been so tremendous that one of the victims, a woman, had had her teeth knocked right up into her brain. This haunted me for weeks on end after I had heard it. What an absolutely terrible thing to happen to someone, I couldn’t think of anything more terrible than that. I have read fiction since then in which more horrid things happen to people, but at the end of the day I realise that this is only fiction… what happened to the woman in the accident had been real.

About ten years ago there was a small press publication called Nasty Piece of Work. This was one of the most popular and respected magazines of that time. The appearance and quality of the publication was excellent, A5 in size and printed on fine glossy paper, and inside you got what it said on the tin… short fiction of a nasty and horrific nature. Everyone wanted to be in this magazine, including myself. I got a heap of rejections before having a tale accepted for issue seven. My tale was entitled The Decapitation Party. The story fitted perfectly into the nuance of Nasty Piece of Work. It was ghastly, included lots of blood-letting, and involved decapitation and depraved sexual practises. However it did not horrify me one bit, as I wrote it, or as I re-read it, as I edited it, never did it horrify me… because it was fiction. It was not real. I have seen the clips of terrorist beheadings and I realise that the real thing is something that is genuinely appallingly terrible in both its premise and its execution (excuse the pun).

Recently I have finished reading With The Old Breed by Eugene Sledge, one of the books that inspired the HBO series The Pacific. It is Sledge’s true account of the World War Two assault on two Pacific islands by American marines against the Japanese forces that held them. Obviously Sledge survived, but many didn’t, and his story of what took place there is quite harrowing to read. As I was reading about the atrocities in the book I kept repeating to myself inside my head that this was real… this actually happened. It is not made-up fiction, these marines suffered alarmingly. Young men lost their lives, on both sides. Both the Americans and the Japanese did atrocious things to each other. Reading this kind of thing is definitely more horrific than reading some tale by Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell, simply because it actually happened. Some things you just can’t get your head around. True horror is one of them.

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Many thanks to Paul for writing this thought-provoking piece. In these days of easy and instant access to just about anything courtesy of the internet, it is sometimes essential to remind ourselves that mankind is still a barbaric species, in spite of our supposed ‘civilised ways’ and ‘higher intelligence’. The fact is that, due to the ubiquity of the information superhighway and its contents, we have all become quickly inured to the violence and barbarity around us, and because the monitor on which we see it acts as a species of prophylactic, it enables us to distance ourselves from the action. Many fail to empathise with what they’re seeing. These people are REAL and they have families. THAT’S what we often forget.

Which brings me back to something I said in an earlier blog: there is nothing that a horror writer, sitting in front of a computer and typing words, could ever come up with that would surpass the raw hatred and brutality that humanity itself hasn’t already perpetrated on itself. THAT is a truly scary thought.

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3 Responses to “Guest-blog: PAUL BRADSHAW”

  1. Excellent guest blog. Very thought provoking stuff and a good explanation of what differentiates horror fiction from what Paul terms ‘true horror’.

    • Yes indeed, Sue…. and I think it goves the lie to those who make out that violence in films, games and books are solely responsible for contributing to a violent and decadent society – we, as a species, have always had a propensity to inflict torture and death on others, without being prompted by the media…

  2. Sefton Disney Says:

    I think Paul’s comments also emphasise the value – necessity, even – of horror fiction. Given the horrific events we see on the news, the only way one can sometimes get through the day is by becoming somewhat inured to real horror. Some horrors are just so terrible that it’s almost impossible to consciously engage with them. The stress reaction causes our minds to shut down and back away.

    By using the tropes of fiction, the supernatural, and so on, horror fiction allows us to confront these horrors in a way we can cope with – they filter the horror, in the same way as a dark glass filters sunlight and allows us to look at the scenery around us. Also, by introducing us to characters we empathise with, who then suffer these ordeals, horror fiction reminds us that, in real life, the victim is always a real human being. Perhaps fiction is the only way we can deal with such painful and disturbing truths.

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