Sunday, 22 April 2012

On Horror

I finished the second novel, tentatively titled In My Time Of Dying (after the song, of course) This one took just over two months, it's nearly a third longer, and it's the longest thing I've ever written-- including The Chain-- so, wow. I was surprised to end to learn that. It just kind of happened. I work toward a 75,000 word goal because everything else seems rubbish, and this one just got away from itself... and I think I've missed out a load of necessary stuff too. So I've sent it to Sam for a story-check, then he'll say-- fingers crossed-- "this, this, this and this don't work. The rest is awful" and I'll go back and hack. So it may very well be 119,462 words at this point, but it might be necessary to hack a lot away. Which would be a shame after all the work went into it, but it has to work, doesn't it? So if it doesn't work now then I'll make it work. That's the only way.

I want to get some ideas and thoughts down about what I've written so far, just for posterities sake, just so I'm not pulling bullshit, or what looks to be bullshit, out of my arse down the line. People say that you should write to evoke a reaction, you should write toward a theme, you should have deeper meaning to your work than just... LOOK AT THIS! LOOK! LOOK HERE!... and I'm not sure that's entirely true. But as I went, I started thinking about how I wanted to tell a love story, this epic love story that's taken place over a century, and about two lovers who have been separated for decades. How love conquers all, perhaps? I know it's a cliché, but I wanted to tell a scary story, one that might stay with you, and one that also subverts expectation. Did I achieve that? I'm not sure. But here's me rationalising a few things:

Richard Faraday, Ghost Detective (click here to buy!) was about building a world. Building some foundations, constructing a world on a framework, and telling a story within that framework. Things made sense (I hope? I think?) and there were rules. You know the kind of things I'm talking about... old chestnuts like "vampires can't be exposed to sunlight, vampires can only be killed by a stake or a beheading, vampires are repulsed by garlic and crucifixes", those kinds of things. This Is The Way The World Works. So for me it meant... ghosts wear white and only a few people can see them. Which is a over-generalisation and steals a few tricks from Dennis Spooner's Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), *wink wink*.

So the world was established as... I don't know. The idea was that magic exists. That much is obvious. It exists just under the surface of ours. There are places where magic and the real world can interact. Place of power. There are places where the magical communities come together, "Under Worlds", as they're called. Everything you've ever heard about or read about exists. A quote that I love, and have slipped into a lot of my works, is this ditty from John Lennon: "I believe in everything until it's disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?" If you've read the novel you know that a character says it because it's true. I think so, anyway. Every god, every demon, every devil and every monster, every fairy and black dog and thing you ever dreamt up is real. Just because you haven't seen them yet doesn't mean they're not real in this world.

So anyway, the first novel was building the world, invest time in the characters, make the reader care. Again, else what's the point? I also made a point of not letting the reader into Richard Faraday's head until the end few chapters. I wanted his character to be quite ambiguous because there are some actions of his that are really questionable. Is he good or is he bad? What lengths will he go to get what he needs? You never know because he's being filtered through the other characters, mainly Marie Ann Tarrant, the POV character. At the end of the Part Two the POV character shifts to someone else and the ambiguity, I hope, increases, because of what takes place. But with the new POV character comes some reveals about Richard, who he is and why he does what he does, so you're rewarded (fingers crossed!) for sticking with the change. So the first novel is this brand new world, through the eyes of someone who has no idea what's waiting for her. You're coming into this world with this woman, you're learning as she does. There are characters in the world who know more than you, but as a reader you're never at a disadvantage to the characters. You know as much as Marie, she won't get things and not share. You might figure it out before her, but that's because you're smart. So there was a plan, there was a structure.

The second novel, In My Time Of Dying, is still going through the revision stages. This book is about taking the world you're used to and breaking it down into pieces. That's the plan, anyway. The world is opened up, you're shown more and more of the magical realm, but the rulebook is thrown out of the window. Sam [Miller, one of the editors] said that the best thing for sequels is to expand upon the world and we're doing just that. We're going to entirely new places, we're introducing brand new characters. The core casts doubles-- perhaps triples-- and characters you've met in Ghost Detective get more of the spotlight, and now we're viewing the world through Richard's eyes. He knows a lot but because the rules have changed he's at a disadvantage. I wanted the story to be filtered through characters. The first novel does that with a laser focus, it's always on Marie, it's always her until it's not possible to be her. The second book has a lot of characters, a lot of balls in the air, and I hope they're all served well. We'll see soon enough.


The original idea with the sequel was to write it a pastiche of styles, a homage to horror through the years. Each Part was going to be in the style of a horror decade. I'll briefly go over each and give you an idea of what was coming, and who knows, maybe this will happen, but In My Time Of Dying took on an epic tone that I didn't want to scupper with an inappropriate writing style. These posts are inevitably going to get longer the later I go, because the later I go the more the films resonate me, as I am the generation they were made for. Those were the films I stayed up late watching every Halloween at Karl's as we had our annual Halloween horror film marathon... these were what made me afraid of the dark again and again and again. So let's get on with this.

I wanted to keep quite focused but you'll have to excuse me for breaking my own rules straight away. For me, from the 1920s right through to the 1940s, horror was all about Universal; those classy, gothic stories that re-established the genre as something that is profitable and has a potential more so than ever before.  I could have started earlier with the silent horrors of earlier decades but I thought this was the best place to start. Film-makers were feeling out the genre, thinking were could they start. And where best but the literary classics? We got Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Wolfman... I know that Universal started their horror dominance in the late 20s, but for the sake of my own sanity, I think their heyday was with these films, so bear with me. Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi... and one of the greatest horror directors of all time, James Whale? You can't go wrong, can you? They set the trend, and they're to blame-- for better or for worse!-- for horror as we know it today. Greatness.

1950s were all about the b-movie, zany, massive scale stories about invasion and change and a fear of the unknown. Of course, horror is all about the fear of the unknown, but never has a decade captured an atmosphere as well as the Red Scare that started in the late forties and ended, kind of, in the late fifties. Damned Commies! Better dead than red! I don't have much to say about this era. It feels like, from the films I've seen with Lugosi and Karloff really coasting, that it was more of the same, and more of the same doesn't make for good writing, but the 1950s were about discomfort at the norm, and science fiction encapsulated that amazingly. Plus, we got Steve McQueen fighting The Blob in 1958, so who are we to complain?

Of course the 1960s were all about Hammer Horror. Any horror fan worth tier salt knows that Dracula with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing was a 1958 affair but for succinctness' sake I'm going with the 1960s as a whole. Lee/Cushing was a partnership to be reckoned with and they took their dynamite chemistry and took it to the next level with a twist on their original formula with Hammer's Frankenstein with Lee as the monster and Cushing as something even worse, the creator of the monster, so how can you hate on that? Hammer was the youth revolution, the beautiful counter-culture horror that instilled in me an almighty fear when I started watching as a child. They introduced sex and death in equal measure, and if Universal showed the potential, Hammer took it to the next level. You couldn't get enough of Lee's Dracula, dripping with sexuality and suaveness. And Cushing was so damned British that if you don't enjoy these films you're not a patriot. During the 50s Universal retired their line of 'classics' and introduced a glut of Abbott and Costello films, so Hammer had a coup on their hands, and what a coup. Hammer became one of the greatest franchises-- British or otherwise-- to rule cinema. Of course, as the films went on sensationalism took over... blood and gore and breasts and sex and all that was rife, but the beginning... those classics... you can't go wrong. And sure, if you're in the mood for it, go watch The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971). Lesbiansss!

In the 1970s the first of the 'gory' horrors started happening. After having parallel success to the Hammer productions in the 1960s Vincent Price took it to the next level with almost farcical levels of blood and gore, and I love him for it. His Thibes two parter and then a year or so later, Theatre of Blood was a later effort for the horror dynamo but it was golden, dramatic and camp, the 1960s spirit with 1970s production value. A theme throughout this piece is the fact that each decade builds on what came before, and I'll go deeper into that later. But Price was debonair, suave, just like his predecessors in the genre... His Roger Corman collaborations introduced the work of Edgar Allan Poe to the general public, and we also had the first hint of the slasher flick with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the late seventies. Again, I have to reiterate that the distinctions I'm making are naturally going to be flawed, that great films fall on the either side of the chunks I'm dividing them up into, but I don't care. The seventies took everything that came before, the  tension, the horror, the fear, and turned it up to eleven. Brilliant. This was also the start of the "masked killer" era, that really took off in the 1980s, but had a massive resurgence in the 1990s. But before we can get to the 90s we have to discuss the 1980s, once of my favourite, absolute favourite decades of horror.

The 1980s sophistication was the key, I think. Taking ideas and evolving them to the next level. Alien (1979!), An American Werewolf In Paris, The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Gremlims, Henry: Potrait of a Serial Killer, My Bloody Valentine, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, The Shining-- all films that captured the imaginations of those who watched them and shaped a generation of film makers and creative folk. This was the era of the monster as commodity, as pop culture icon. Sure, we had Lugosi from the 40s making a career off Universal's Dracula, the same could be said for every iconic actor in a role like that. Cushing was Van Helsing from the first Hammer Dracula. And don't get me started on Christopher Lee! But this was the era of sophistication, of more than just what's come before. The genre was subverted by exuberant film makers like Raimi with Evil Dead, we had more experimental fare with the likes of Henry... people were now taking risks and tearing audiences a new one with their work. But not only were we getting truly scary, experimental films, we were also being drowned in the slasher flick, with every serial killer having a gimmick and every serial killer having... a sequel. Yes, this was also the decade of the sequel. the decade that led to the downfall of horror as a franchise. The law of diminishing returns meant that sure, people would still go see Jason and Freddy slaughter their victims, but less of them every time, and with each film that came, the closer we came to the Direct-To-DVD era, the deluge that drowned the 90s until...

...Scream. Which I know was from 1996 but come on, can you name any good horror films from the early/mid-nineties? I'll give it a shot in a bit but the 1990s took everything-- and I know I keep saying this, but the great thing about horror is that it kept building and building and building on what came before, until the eventual deconstruction--and repackaged it to bring the audiences back into theatres. The Faculty. I Know What You Did Last Summer. Scream. Urban Legend. The teenager-as-only-hope. The-authority-figure-as-the-last-person-you-can-trust. We've all seen these films. I know that you might think that 1997 is a bit late in the decade  to really count as a great trend of films, but I've done my research, and I swear to go... have you seen the films that came out during this decade? Basket Case 2, Bride of Re-Animator, Child's Play 2, The Exorcist III, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, House 5, Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, Psycho IV: The Beginning, Slumber Party Massacre III, Sorority House Massacre II, Witchcraft II and Witchcraft III-- and that was just in 1990 itself! The 90s were the decade of the sequel, and that's not good for anyone. I mean honestly, House 5?! Has anyone even seen the first four? (Witchcraft IX: Bitter Flesh came out in 1996 by the way... have you seen the first one? I thought not. Me neither. And that's not even the last sequel!!) There were some exceptions to the rule. We got Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), but that's taking a cultural touch point and reintroducing it to the general populace. I don't think you can define a decade off one film, either. I guess you could say the 1990s were the decade of the adaptation. Stephen King's work was glutting the market, we had a few Frankensteins, some HP Lovecraft bits and pieces here and there, but nothing truly new. 1997 was the year the 90s needed. We had Anaconda, Devil's Advocate, Event Horizon, Mimic, Nightwatch, The Relic... and sure we still had the proliferation of sequels, but I think the fact that we're getting fare less based on an established property and more-- cough-- original-- cough-- storytelling, is the most important thing. We also got Halloween H20: 20 Years Later in 1998-- an attempt at taking an established property and "reboot" it with a modern twist. Sure, it didn't exactly work, but I think this was the first film that showed film companies that there was still hope  for old properties. A proliferation of sequels and also a reboot...then soon after in 1999 came The Faculty, Ring, Audition, Deep Blue Sea, End of Days, The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, Lake Placid, The Mummy, Ravenous, Sleepy Hollow... a mix of remakes and revamps, and the start of a new trend... the dread remake.

But for me, that's not what the 2000s is for me. It's a horrible mess of trends in this decade. We have the torture porn invasion. The Asian Invasion that was first started in the late 90s and then twisted into a neutered direction with the dreaded continuance of the remake trend (so we are still seeing it there) as bastardised versions of The Ring came out, then The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse, One Missed Call... American production companies took these modern classics and made them into hollow versions of themselves, and that's why I have a massive problem, most of the time, with remakes. That said, we had Halloween from the mind of Rob Zombie, we had another Texas Chainsaw Massacre-- which is a mess of gore and takes away from the fact that the original had next to no gore and was all about suggestion-- we had Freddy Kruger re-imagined as a paedophile (he wasn't in the original films! He just killed kids, he didn't fiddle them. A very sound distinction!). Rob Zombie got his foot in the door via House of a 1000 Corpses, which was just... horrible. Then The Devils Rejects, which was less good. But Rob Zombie's Halloween was a psychological mind screw of a film, taking everything we knew about Michael Myers and making even more sense of it, sapping away the supernatural and making him a tour de force of murder. I loved what he did with that film. I had originally thought that the 2000s was the decade of sophistication but I don't think that's the case any more. I thought they broke down tropes and reinvented them, but no. I realise now that the 2000s was the decade of torture and I'm not entirely sure what to make of that. Films were horrible. They were scary-- at times-- but they were also horrible. Suddenly people didn't have a hope of escaping. They were locked in abandoned toilets with their ankles chained to pipes (Hello, Saw I-VII!) Characters didn't have a chance at winning and for me that's breaking the golden rule of horror. There have to be rules and if you stick to the rules you can survive. But then characters start getting raped and beaten and tortured and locked up and buried and cremated and it's just... not fair. Even if you escape you don't have a hope. Saw, Cabin Fever, the remake of Texas Chainsaw. You're broken inside,. That never was the case before! Sure, you survived, but you got on with your life. I guess this trend of the horror taking over your life started with Laurie in Halloween or Nancy in Elm Street, then taken to its logical next step with Sidney in Scream (Scream 2 genuinely still creeps me out more so than any sequel, and you know she's not the same person any more, not after what happened to her)...

But anyway. I wanted to tell a section of my second novel in the above styles... which I don't think I've clearly outlined, but you understand where I'm coming from, right? I wanted to pay homage to everything that ever inspired me, and I think I would have done a good job too, but as mentioned previously I think that the story wouldn't have worked within those parameters. Which is a shame, but it gives me a chance down the line to tell those stories at a later date, I just need to find the right project. Looking forward to it!


After I finished Richard Faraday, Ghost Detective, around early February, I asked my friends what I thought to be a very simple question. 

"In three sentences or less (and some took liberties with that), what defines the Horror genre for you?" 

For me personally, it's a story that takes the everyday and makes it Not Quite Right. Slowly at first, the everyday begins to shift, and you're there, in the middle, and the world around you is changing, really slowly, building to this... reveal of the cause of the change. I think if you apply that template to a horror story you'll have a success, and it's the mindset I'm in when I write the genre. I wanted to see if people shared this thought process, and also I wanted to make sure that when I wrote in future, I wrote with what terrified others in mind.

"It's only truly horrifying when something convinces you it could happen, no matter how unrealistic it is. Even ghosts or vampires can be scary when the story's grounded in realism." - Elizabeth Kinports

"Quite literally the first thing that I think of when someone mentions 'horror' is you...!" - Naomi Hannon (I think this is the best response to the question, to be honest)

"Psychology is what makes the horror genre. There is nothing more frightening than helplessly watching a character unravel through their own eyes. Vampires and zombies become silly when pit against the exposure of every day fear we all experience." - Adam Messinger (creator/writer of The Amazing Fist)

"Anything that scares the shit out of me." - Hannah Tadd

"I'm not going to tell you outright. Instead I am going to enter your home, the very rooms where you feel most safe, and make subtle changes that put you on edge. Once you have searched around thoroughly and convinced yourself that there is no reason to worry, I will wait in the shadows until you have begun to drift off to sleep, and in hoarse whispers an inch away from your ear I'll tell you what defines THE HORROR GENRE for me. Before your panicking mind manages to rally you from slumber, I'll have left, stealing your favourite snack food from the cupboard on the way out. (That last bit is less to do with THE HORROR GENRE and more to do with me being a dick)" - Dave Billington

"I guess the horror genre for me would be something that pulls me so far in it starts to take over my life, where I will always have the feeling that it is happening or could happen at any time. Something that will continue feeding my paranoia even when I am not provoked by the original source, would make me second guess every move I make in case the worst would happen." - Karl Stevens

"One word, six letters, begins with a H, ends with an R. It usually starts with the familiar, luring you in, but then  your imagination takes over, the suspense increases as you try to guess what will happen next, and then the unexpected happens, some twist, some surprise, subverting your beliefs - sometimes an anti-climax, but sometimes something  that latches onto the fears in your mind, transmuting them into a different form, enabling you to face them. How effective it all is depends on the storyteller, the content, the rhythms, the timing; sometimes it sticks in your mind and will never go away. That's my definition of horror and yet also my definition of humour. Is it any wonder people find clowns so scary?" - Mark Bowers

"Horror is more than blood and guts; it’s a genre that is supposed to unsettle you, leaving a last impression on you. It’s supposed to be everything that terrified you as a child personified in fiction, not just an excuse to decapitate and deform individuals in some pornographic manner." - Adam Gibson


I think that's enough for today. It's good to get the ideas down for future reference, and I hope you got something out of it. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

In My Time Of Dying - A Richard Faraday Adventure [excerpt]

“Let me tell you of the swords you search for. The metal you have is yours alone. But this story… if for all to hear. "An impossible legend has it that the two swordsmiths agreed to create the greatest weapon known to man. For seven days and seven nights they worked with the finest materials, they put all their skills to the test and when they were done they journeyed to a river that was positioned between two warring towns. The towns fought over the river, because they believed that only one town could survive off its life giving waters. Muramasa had created the blade Ten Thousand Cold Nights, and it cut and sliced everything that went against it. Leaves that drifted against the blade split into two. The air hissed and cracked as it was cut by the razor-sharpness of the weapon. Trees were felled and the ground trembled in fear of the weapon. That was the nature of the sword. To destroy.” Yebisu paused and stroked his long beard. “Some might say that is the way of every sword, but that is not for us to decide over fish and dreams. Masamune’s blade, Tender Hands, was slowly lowered tip first into a river. The water flowed past it. The air glided past. Leaves that fell against it simply drifted into the river, and floated away. Nothing was cut. No damage was done. Muramasa laughed and mocked his contemporary, but when the sword was removed from the river a miraculous event occurred—the river had split into two. One part of the river flowed next to one town, and the other part of the river flowed to the second. Masamune created a sword that could create. That could end wars without blood being spilled. How you use the weapon you are given will dictate the world after. Remember that.”