Archive for horror

Old vs New

Posted in Books, Film, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

A couple of blogs back, in my review of the final episode of BBC4’s A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, I intimated at the end of the first paragraph that my tastes in horror have changed over the years. Thinking about it since, I have come to realise just how much they’ve actually changed, more so than I thought. Which, I happen to think, is a very good thing.

Wind back about 20 – 25 years ago. Then, I wasn’t much of a horror film fan, although I loved reading horror – Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, TED Klein, HP Lovecraft, and Clive Barker were amongst my favourite authors. I absolutely revelled in the verbal bloodshed. Films, however, were a different matter. I was incredibly squeamish, and always had been. I remember a particular event, when I was around nine or ten, when one of the Sunday colour supplements ran a feature on open-heart surgery, accompanied by photographs of the operation. I distinctly remember feeling dizzy and nauseous after reading it, almost fainting in the process. My parents laughed, obviously thinking it was highly amusing.

Don’t get me wrong – I did watch horror films occasionally, but they were mostly the Universal/RKO Pictures ones. I loved all those oldies, principally because I owned all of the Aurora ‘Monsters’ model kits, with their glow-in-the-dark hands and faces. I was an avid collector of those things, much to the dismay of my parents, I should imagine. Even in my early twenties, my preferred horror-fare was print based, along with those fairly ‘safe’ b&w films.

Then, sometime in my mid-20s, a friend introduced me to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film, championed by no less a figure than Stephen King himself. That first time I barely made it though the first twenty minutes, in part because of the expectations I’d gained from reading the video cover hyperbole. A couple of months later, I rented it out, and got a little further in this time, but still bailed out way before the end. Third time, some months later still, and I got through it all, and you know what? I loved it.

Then, of course, I wanted more – much more. And the more horror films I saw, the more horror I wanted to see. After a time, simple scares were no longer enough. I started buying Fangoria magazine on a regular basis, and I learnt about all these films that were available over in the US, the stills of which seemed to imply that much bloodiness abounded in them. Some of these films, I discovered, were almost impossible to get over here because of censorship issues, or those that were available were heavily cut. I was adamant that I would only see the uncut versions. Eventually I found a video search service that not only found them for me, but also supplied me with many of the banned films (including the so-called ‘video nasties’).

And so, that was the pattern of my film viewing for years thereafter. I went looking for more and more extreme films, just to push my boundaries. Then, no more than a couple of years ago, I started to tire of it all – in fact, I got to the point where I could barely watch any kind of film ( something which occasionally still happens today). Over the last year especially, my horror reading tastes have also changed – mainly, I think, after having become a book-reviewer, where I’ve come across the more subtle and imaginative takes on what horror can be. Additionally, I’ve started reading older authors (older as in beginning of last century rather than anything to do with a writer’s age) and reading them has given me a greater appreciation of how they were able to imply horror effectively, without recourse to gory pyrotechnics.

I think it’s got something to do with age and growing up, this whole shifting of tastes thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still think there’s a place for the Saw-type films of this world, but I have to say that such things no longer have quite the same appeal for me as they once did. Certainly, in the wake of Mark Gatiss’s recent series, I am inclined to go back to all those old films and watch them again. I think it’s also got a lot to do with the peculiar atmosphere and ambience, qualities that appear to be better created through b&w films than colour (that’s not always the case , of course, and is an entirely subjective opinion). Plus, the cut-away at the very last second in some scenes suggests something more horrific than that which was probably intended. I like having to use my imagination, rather than having it served up on a platter to me.

I’ve no doubt a certain amount of nostalgia for the old-style of film-making plays its part, too. In these days of CGI and ultra-realistic effects, it’s far too easy to make things look so real that it could be a documentary. You know, however, that it’s all done very cleverly with computer trickery, and that knowledge often blunts the enjoyment. It takes the fun out of it. Those b&w films can be genuinely creepy and horrific in a way that’s missing from modern horror.

I realise that today’s horror films reflect current concerns and are extrapolations of them, and therefore most definitely have a place. But I can’t help thinking that, even given that, I get far more enjoyment and a lot more spooky thrills from the old ones. Plus, in some ways, the lack of ‘sophistication’  in those oldies (but only in comparison with modern films – many b&w films of yesteryear were very sophisticated in their own way) lends them a certain charm. Some of them worked very cleverly within the range of the restrictions placed on film studios back then, bypassing them in surprising and innovative ways. I sometimes feel that present-day audiences dismiss them too readily out of hand, simply because a) they’re old, b) they’re shot in b&w and c) they don’t show things explicitly enough. Perhaps modern horror films (or maybe cinema in general) has taken the edge off of our ability to bring something to the viewing experience.

This new-found appreciation of more subtle horror will manifest in ways other than just in my film-watching and reading tastes – I’ll be doing much more than that. If things go to plan, then I’ll be more than just reacting, I’ll be returning the pleasure that stories and films like those old b&w ones have given me. Keep your eye out on this blog for more information as and when it becomes available – good times are ahead….

TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #3”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Out of the three episodes, I was least fussed about seeing this one, as I’m not a particularly a fan of ‘modern’ horror films (although, as always, there are notable exceptions). If it had been broadcast a couple of years back, then the story would have been the opposite. Not so long ago, I loved all the slasher movies, the gory bloodbath films and the viscerally bloody cinematic spectacles that both the independents and Hollywood were dishing out. However, these days I am much more at home with the older, more suggestive movies, the ones where imagination plays as much a part of experience as anything that’s actually put on screen (and the reason why my tastes have changed is for another blog).

However, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It did show clips from a few particular ‘modern’ favourites of mine, like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, but even these are less reliant on viscerality than they are on implication and psychological horror. The same goes for David Cronenburg’s films, also discussed. Although his films are wetly disgusting, they still have an intellectual underpinning that elevates them above mere superficial gory viewing fare, an aspect that was well brought out by Gatiss.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, is where this episode started, as it helped to redefine the thinking of film-makers in the wake of its release – it was still a big studio production, though, with adequate financing to help it along. However, it also paved the way for the advent of the modern horror-shocker as we know today. Gatiss rightly then points to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the film, a thoroughly and unashamedly independent production, that truly encouraged imaginative film-makers to push things further and also make the point that you didn’t necessarily require a big budget to create something special. It also strongly emphasised that you didn’t need to be part of the studio system in order to make films that a) had impact and b) made money – all it required was creativity, imagination and ingenuity.

Fim-making is very different today – CGI has democratised the industry in such a way that the ingenuity displayed by the Romeros, Tobe Hoopers, William Friedkins, David Seltzers and John Carpenters of the world is no longer an essential prerequisite. And that has been to the detriment of the industry ( a view I believe that’s shared by Gatiss). Gatiss decided, then, that his history should end with 1978’s Halloween, although I think that’s jumping the gun a bit (see below). It’s undoubtedlyan influential film, but for all the wrong reasons. Even Carpenter was self-effacing enough to acknowledge that it spawned a legion of cheaply-made, unimaginative excuses to splash as much gore in pointless celluloid catalogues of murder and mayhem (and that self-effacement at least earned him a little bit of the respect back he lost after his comments about Val Lewton). As he said, Halloween was made cheaply and made money – but that formula doesn’t always work out, as many subsequent would-be Carpenters discovered.

Although not mentioned, but which nevertheless I think was very subtly implied, this trail ultimately lead to the infamous slew of ‘video-nasty’ films that emerged in the mid eighties. I’ve seen most of them in my time, uncut, and although many are laughably mediocre, some of them are informed with a mean-spirited nastiness that has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Certainly, even today, the pushing of the bounds of both taste and people’s nerves forces film-makers to enter into territories where there shoudn’t be any need to go.

Having said that, although the point at which Gatiss stopped his history was necessarily a personal choice and in some ways a correct one, as Stephen Volk rightly pointed out to me there have been excellent films [from that same era and*] since Halloween, such as Carrie and Hellraiser for example. Gatiss did reference some newer releases, such as the Ring films, The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, but these are all foreign-made, rather than either American or British. Just why that is, is anyone’s guess, but, for my part, I believe it’s because there’s less emphasis on cheap thrills and more on creativity and artistic sensibilities in these countries. I think that mentions at least of some of the better films of the last two or three decades would have been a good idea, rather than leave one with the impression that after Halloween nothing good has come out of horror cinema, when it undeniably has. Maybe this is where a fourth instalment would have been useful.

Despite  the many omissions, of either notable studios or films, this has indeed been both a meritorious and welcome series. It’s one of the drawbacks, I suppose, of the TV medium, limited by both time and budgetary constraints – there will always be something that will get left out. Overall, however, this has been a useful survey of genre cinema (with the two previous episodes my particular favouroites, on reflection) and I can only hope that somewhere along the line something deeper and more detailed will be attempted. And that it won’t just be commissioned in time for Hallowe’en either.

(*Text amended to reflect the comment made by Stephen Volk below – and my reply)

TV REVIEW: “Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women”, Wednesday, October 21st, BBC4, 9pm

Posted in Reviews, TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tragedy and great art appear to be well-acquainted bedfellows in the history of culture. People seem to harbour a notion that, in order to truly produce immortal prose, poetry or art, artists have to have suffered lives that know no happiness, to experience a deep grief of the soul –  and this is the fire in which that immortality is forged. If that is indeed the case, then the subject of this BBC4 documentary, Edgar Allan Poe, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of literary greats.

There’s absolutely no question that Poe endured a very hard life – in equal measure it was as a result of some events being completely outside of his ability to influence but also there was much where he lost conscious control. Alcoholism was a recurrent feature of his life and, indeed, played a major role in his death – it started in his teens, possibly as a result of his inferiority complex gained through his social circumstances and his relationship with his uncaring adopted father. When his adopted mother died, his father cut him off completely without any means of supporting himself.

In this programme, however, crime-writer Denise Mina explores the relationship that this tortured soul had with the women in his life, namely Eliza Poe (his mother), Virginia Clemm (his first, and only, wife), Frances Sargent Osgood (poet and darling of the New York literary scene), and Sarah Helen Whitman (eccentric poet, essayist, transcendentalist, and Spiritualist). Through his often damaged encounters with these women, his writing took on the dark and malign shapes it did, implying that had he NOT had them the Poe we would know today would have been very different, if we’d have known about him at all.

Mina makes a very strong case here – certainly all these women are separated from Poe either through tragedy or the strict social mores of the day. He first tasted death at just two years old, when his mother Eliza died of tuberculosis: she was an actress, a profession that was considered just a notch above prostitution. Not a great start in life then. To a small child, his mother constantly ‘dying’ on stage and yet miraculously coming back to life afterwards was normal. Consequently, reanimation of the dead is a frequent theme in his work, and it would be fair to say that his early theatrical experiences, tied in as they are with the first woman in his life, is where it all started. This notion appears to have bled into real-life – certainly, according to this programme, he did have trouble understanding why his mother never came back after she died for the final, and very real, time.

Another recurrent theme, which is also played out in real life, is loss. Poe loses his first (and only) wife, his cousin Virginia Clemm, to the same disease that took his mother – tuberculosis – after a long, five-year battle with it.  Her death was hastened, it appears, by revelations (through malicious letters sent to her by the noted poetess and love rival, Elizabeth Ellet) of his dalliance with another fêted poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Then, after the breaking-off with Osgood and Virginia’s death, there came Sarah Helen Whitman, a writer and poet, who was described as being full of ‘eccentricities and sorrows’, much like her erstwhile suitor himself.  However, bad luck was to dog Poe yet again in this potential match, as Whitman’s mother disapproved of the engagement, even threatening her daughter with disinheritance should she get married to him.

All powerful stuff, which coalesced and was funnelled into a rare literary talent. Poe was, in many ways, caught between the word and his weakness for the bottle – desperate expressions of needing to seek relief from the pressures that life brought with it, in particular his life. The atmosphere of 19th century America is well evoked, and the sense of poverty and struggle, for Poe personally and by extension the greater society around him, is palpable. Writing has never been a secure profession, and it was even less so back then. Effectively, Poe was the first professional Victorian writer, the advent of magazines in the 1830s allowing people to see the possibilities of being authors and getting paid for it. Ironically, despite Poe’s popularity, tapping as he did into the primal fears of his readers, he died penniless and in bizarre circumstances.

Poe has influenced an enormous catalogue of writers since, like Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Jules Verne and Denise Mina herself. He was a genuine literary pioneer, mining the veins of rich source material to be found in the deepest, darkest and blackest corners of the human mind. He brought the Gothic to the masses and made it popular. Mina strongly brought out those qualities which elevated him above many others digging in the same seam, and, furthermore, emphasised just why his writing is so powerful, by tying his disatrous relationships into the themes evident in his stories. Death and loss were constant themes in his own life; naturally, he sought to exorcise their influence on the written page. People responded, and shot him to fame. But fame can destroy as well as enrich: additionally one has to be prepared for it, no matter how much one craves it. Poe definitely craved it, but equally I think he was totally unprepared for what it brought him.

My only criticism: the soundtrack, composed mostly of long excerpts from 80s goth bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim. Okay, so I make no bones about being an ex-goth, even to admitting that I saw some of these bands myself – however, I felt that hearing the strains of the songs from my younger days jarred somewhat with the subject matter, in terms of the time period covered. It seemed like whoever edited it heard the word ‘Gothic’ and thought it would be clever idea (or perhaps ironic) to use them. Ultimately though, I guess it’s just a minor quibble, tied to personal taste.

After watching this I ended up wishing that the BBC would commission more of these type of programmes and not just for tHalloween. Horror is, for me and for many like me, a year-round interest, and I for one would love to indulge in watching documentaries about horror in general and horror-writers in particular. The quality of this programme just goes to show what can be done when producer’s and programme commissioner’s minds are put to it. Maybe we should give them a hint by showing our approval for these welcome efforts.

REVIEW-ESSAY: Pretty Little Dead Things, by Gary McMahon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Below is the first in what I hope will be some reviews I have written that will appear exclusively in this blog, either because they’ve already been reviewed on either of the other websites I write for or they could be seen as inappropriate for whatever reason. Hope you enjoy this first one – let me know what you think!

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I often spend my time wondering just what makes one author (or artist or musician) better than another. Perhaps quirkily, being a book reviewer, I happen to consider this an important part of the whole process. Also, being a proto-publisher, I am interested in what ‘makes’ a good story, those ungraspable aspects of the literary pursuit that marks something out as ‘good’ and something else as ‘rubbish’; it’s an essential pre-requisite for someone just about to embark on launching a new publishing imprint, I would think. Just what makes that particular tale or painting or piece of music lock into the intangible quality we call personal taste, that esoteric conglomeration of synaptic connections and sparking neurons in our brains that persuades us to say either yea or nay, when assessing something creative?

It’s a tricky business, you know. By its very nature, trying to pin down something so utterly elusive and unwilling to be concretely formulated is like searching for hen’s teeth or looking for pots of gold at the end of those rainbows. So, I thought I would attempt to explore the slippery little concepts involved in a definition of taste and what is to be considered either good or bad by writing a sideways review of Gary McMahon’s first novel for Angry Robot, due to published on November 4th 2010 – Pretty Little Dead Things.

I love this author’s work: let’s get that straight from the off. To stave off accusations of conflicts of interest that will inevitably be snapping at the heels of a review on somewhere like Beyond Fiction (considering that I’ll be publishing one of his stories next year in the very first Spectral Press chapbook), I’ll tackle this from the angle of why I like Gary’s work, using his latest novel as a way of looking at things – what it is about his storytelling that grabs me in particular, and why it gets my brain sparking so affirmatively.

Pretty Little Dead Things (or PLDT for short) introduces us to Thomas Usher, a man who sees the dead, a singular skill gained after he’s involved in an accident which takes the lives of his wife and daughter. More to the point, the dead are drawn to him, those that are lost and lonely, deliberately seeking him out, to help them to move on to wherever it is they’re meant to go. The thing is, he’s just as lost as the silent ghosts who appear to him and he is also unable to find a strong enough anchoring point in the world to tether himself to. He’s pathologically wracked by guilt: for being responsible for the deaths of Rebecca and Ally (his wife and daughter, respectively), for his amorous transgression with Ellen, and also for the ghosts he was unable to help. And now there’s a missing girl and he’s being drawn into something that could result in him heaping an even heavier weight of guilt upon his own shoulders, more than even he is capable of bearing.

One word I come across often in other reviews of Gary’s work is ‘dark’. There’s no doubting that this novel does plumb the depths of the deepest abyss and goes to cancerous places that few writers dare to venture, but readers should note that other word I used there – depth (singular). It’s not just about the darkness that dwells within the rotten core of the world, but also how those of us who live within this reality cope with that darkness. Most glide through life without ever really encountering it, and so they’re never really aware of its existence. If they are, it’s only because they see it in the newspapers or on the nightly television news broadcasts. Others quite simply lose themselves in one of the multifarious shades of that metaphorical darkness: alcohol, sex, drugs, or violence, or any combination thereof. Here, however, Gary paints a picture of a man, a very human man, who still struggles after fifteen years to get a handle on his unique ability (is it a gift or a curse?), and who also struggles to find ways of peeling away the layers of guilt that lie over his physical self. Gary pulls us into Usher’s unlit gulf with practised ease, as he also does with all the supporting cast of characters: Baz Singh, the businessman/gangster who hires Usher to keep tabs on his wayward daughter, Kareena; Detective Inspector Tebbit, a grouchy, put-upon man who is unknowingly suffering from a terminal brain tumour, who regularly calls upon Usher to bring clues to light that cannot be found by any other means; Ellen, the woman with whom Usher had the illicit liaison and who re-enters his life, and comes to symbolise his most realistic shot at redemption; and, most chillingly, the mysterious figure of Mr. Shiloh, a someone or something who appears to share the same inner darkness as Usher – and the latter is both intrigued and repelled by the man.

The gift that Gary has is to make his characters entirely believable – even those who share nothing of the reality of this world. Usher himself is a likeable and multilayered individual, complete with doubts, neuroses and the normal little worries of the everyday. The only difference between him and someone we might know is that he possesses that ‘talent’ of his – and yet, despite that, it’s easy to identify with him. Even Mr. Shiloh, an obviously supernatural creation, carries with him echoes of what we have come to think of as the epitome of the ‘evil’ man; hollow, empty, incapable of feeling any connection to the world and full of darkness. The same can also be said of the ‘hoodies’ (members of a notorious street gang, the MT), who are themselves not of this world – their mindless violence and their chosen attire is a commentary on the social disconnection of those we label ‘chavs’ and thugs, the disenfranchised and dispossessed of society. These particular characters are all-too-representative of that so-called ‘underclass’.

The social commentary doesn’t end there, however. One of my favourite segments of the novel involves a fake ‘spiritualist’ called Trevor Dove and Usher’s confrontation with him. Gary exposes the hypocrisy, the sham altruism and all the shamelessly cynical exploitation and preying on of the vulnerable. The observation is incisive, and the cutting open of the rotten pus-filled heart of this leech is performed with a lethally-honed precision. You’re left in no doubt as to where Usher stands on this one. Also, there’s a subtle comment on the sex trade: in the foyer of the hotel where Ellen is staying Usher notices a gang of Eastern European girls constantly sitting on the sofas. In one scene, one of them goes off with a hotel guest, implying they’re prostitutes. If you take that thought even further, perhaps these girls had been lured by the promise of a better life in the UK – instead they were sold into sexual slavery.

This is what appeals most here: the intricate nature of the novel (but it’s ‘only’ a horror novel you can just hear the detractors saying). Gary weaves complex webs with all the plot threads, with Mr. Shiloh right at the very centre, patiently waiting for Usher to get himself irreparably entangled. Everything leads back to that one man. This story itself may appear nihilistic, but that’s merely a superficial reading of it; look closely and you’ll discern that there is both humanity and hope in there as well. It’s about the search for personal redemption, a very human act, and Usher’s is the most human one of all. However, one gets the impression that, somehow, Usher has to learn the true meaning of that word redemption; it is isn’t just about seeing the ghosts of his loved ones and asking for their forgiveness – it’s also about forgiving himself before everything else will fall into place. The concept of redemption extends to all his characters, as none of them are ever completely lost; it’s just a question of when the revelation hits and, having done so, whether to act upon it or not.

The above is why I like this man’s writing; it has depth and complexity, as well as a solid heart, and it speaks resonantly to something deep within. It explores the deeper truths in life in just the same was as any of the ‘litfic’ books do; the only difference is that it looks at those aspects from a very primal and infinitely more human level. It continually questions our assumptions about the world around us and our reaction to, and our place, in it. Added to that is a broad imagination that embodies the trials and tribulations of Usher (and by extension those of people in real-life) in devastatingly appropriate metaphors. Plus Gary isn’t afraid of tempering the darkness with light or with the darkly humorous; in fact, his stories, even with the fantastic elements, reflect much of life as it really is. It’s a dangerous, unwelcoming world he delineates, but completely realistically depicted.

It would be fair to say then that my taste in horror leans toward the complex, the superficially horrific but when looked at more closely reveals nuances and subtexts that relate very near to the actualities of life outside the written page. Things are never as black and white as some would like to make out; there are grey no-man’s lands, areas that most of us fear to acknowledge, because to do so would be to remind us of our own human frailties and failings. Additionally, his characters have palpable dimension and are clothed in flesh, and they breathe the very same air we do and possess the very same blood, too. They may not strictly be like us – their acts are strangers to our way of thinking and being, but we have definitely heard of people like these or we may even know some. There is the element of fantasy, in terms of unreal things and situations, but those are there merely to heighten the story’s reality. While I, of necessity, cannot relate those to anything in my life, I can take the rest of it and fully empathise with what’s going on. On a purely superficial level, this was one of those rare books that engrossed me so completely that, on several occasions, I actually let my coffee get cold.

Pretty Little Dead Things is Gary’s first mass-market novel and it’s also the first in a couple of Thomas Usher novels (and yes, there are hints of a continuation at the end). Usher has many battles to fight, not just with the forces surrounding him but also all his inner demons too. It would be a mild understatement to say I am looking forward to the next instalment. On top of that, I am also excitedly anticipating his Concrete Grove series of novels for Solaris Books, the first of which I believe is due next year. And for you, dear readers and McMahon fans, there’s the additional prospect of the publication of What They Hear in the Dark, the first Spectral Press chapbook, which is also due out next year too.

(As an aside: there’s an incident alluded to in the main body of the book, about a screening of a film that Usher was invited to and its aftermath, that made me think ‘that would make a great story…’ – lo and behold, there’s a bonus short story about that very incident included at the end. Bargain!)

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication date: 4th November 2010

ISBN: 978 0 85766 069 5