Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Dark Season

This week marked the official beginning of autumn in the UK. I love all the different seasons of the year, although if I had to do without one of them, it would probably be winter. But then, I wouldn’t love the spring as much, as there’s something even more wonderful about warmth and colour and light returning to the world after those long cold months of darkness.

And I love the summer too. But if I had to pick one favourite, out of all the seasons of the year, it would be autumn. It’s the beauty of the leaves turning and falling, even lovelier for its transience; it’s the slow cooling of the year, that hearty feeling of walking in air that isn’t freezing, but holds some slight hint of chill, that necessitates a thick jumper or a coat. It’s those rich autumn evenings where the night comes slow but deep. It’s those mists you sometimes get; there’s something quintessentially English about autumn here, something that brings back memories of my childhood in the ‘70s and ‘80s and something, above all, about ghosts.

October, of course, is the heart of autumn; it’s the month that sums it all up. And of course it’s the
month of Halloween, as well, which has changed a lot since my childhood. When I was little, trick-or-treating was unknown; I’ve seen the American version of Halloween become more and more emulated over here. When I were a lad (said the grumpy old bore) Halloween would consist of bobbing for apples, or maybe a game of murder in the dark.

And, of course, you’d turn off the lights and watch a horror movie – on TV, or if you had such luxuries, a VCR. That’s still pretty much how we spend Halloween at Castle Bestwick, albeit now the VHS cassettes have given way to DVDs.

But the best thing of all, at Halloween, is to read, or listen to, a ghost story.

My late friend Joel Lane once said that horror is a very difficult genre to leave behind. I think his exact words were: “Horror has a habit of turning up on your doorstep, pregnant and crying, five months after you thought you’d finished with it for good.” A slight exaggeration, but there’s a grain of truth in it.

While I’m not repudiating Horror wholesale, my thoughts have turned increasingly over the last couple of years to writing outside the genre; Hell’s Ditch is SF/Fantasy, the novel I wrote on spec earlier this year is crime, and Redman’s Hill owes more to the – again, very English – brand of fantasy produced by the late Graham Joyce and Robert Holdstock, or by Alan Garner, than to M.R. James or Stephen King.

And yet I can’t deny the hold that Horror has on me, and on my work. There’s a decidedly Lovecraftian element woven into Hell’s Ditch and the other, forthcoming novels in The Black Road; my crime novel revolves around the activities of a cult that wouldn’t be out of place in any tale of supernatural terror. And there are ghosts in Redman’s Hill, writing about whom creeped me out. So hopefully they’ll do the same to you.
Maybe that’s because Horror exists at something of a crossroads: it overlaps into crime, into science fiction, in fantasy and into mainstream literature – because, again and again, Horror tells us how things fall apart.

Thomas Ligotti uses the metaphor of a car accident to explicate his concept of the field: one moment you’re travelling along in your vehicle, secure in the illusion that your life is basically safe and that you are in control. In fact, none of these things have been true: the whole time, there have been any number of things that could go horribly wrong, but it’s not until your car goes out of control and slews wildly across the lanes of oncoming traffic that the illusion is shattered and you become aware of all the terrifying possibilities that exist.

Those possibilities are infinite: there’s a wide gamut in crime fiction, for instance. Sometimes they exist in one’s own psyche and the flaws and weaknesses there, or in that of another human being, wounded or twisted by nature or nurture. Or the nature of the crime can be a conspiracy, criminal or otherwise, to profit from misery or hide an unwanted truth, or the kind of petty, meaningless, barely motivated violence behind which we see the fundamentally random and absurd nature of a Universe ruled by blind chance. Any number of ways to shatter the illusion and show us, in Montague Summers’ words, “the monstrous things that lie only just beneath the surface of our cracking civilisation.” It’s certainly no accident that a number of skilled writers of the macabre, such as Paul Finch, Graham Masterton and most recently Tim Lebbon, have found commercial success writing dark, unflinching, often brutal novels of crime.

Science fiction is another, because we do not know where the future will take us, be it technology (as in the fiction of – for instance – Pat Cadigan) or social trends (1984, or the strange dark literary dreams of J.G. Ballard.)

And in fantasy, we can encounter the very stuff of our nightmares: they may be our own very personal ghosts and demons – our moral failings, our psychological scars – given physical form (as was the case in much of Joel’s fiction) or they may be horrendous things that exist simply because they do. As for literary fiction (however we define that), Horror – if it’s at its best – tackles the same themes and concerns, but with other (perhaps even a wider range of?) tools.

The traditional ghost story, though, has a particular something to it. The ghost story is one very particular branch of Horror, but it’s one of the finest, most subtle – many have described as the most difficult kind of story to write well. It begins with the world we know, or think we know, and ends by showing us that world is much more than we think. Which can be a frightening prospect, but can also be far more. It’s been argued, for instance, that the ghost story is inherently optimistic, as it implies that death is not the end. Then again, some stories – I’m thinking, once more, of several of Joel Lane’s, among others – proffer posthumous existence to which oblivion would be entirely preferable.

I’ve only named a few authors, and I’m painfully aware that all but one of them is male, and all of them are white. But there are many more.

But to go back to the beginning of this: Autumn is coming upon us, and with that the appeal of the ghost story is stronger than ever. It’s a good time, as the nights draw in and the air is full of rustling from the trees with their falling leaves, for what M.R. James called ‘a pleasing terror.’ And it’s a rare year when I don’t write at least one tale of the spectral and supernatural over the course of the dark season. If I can do so, and if I can get the hang of the requisite technology, I might record a reading and post it on the blog as a treat to the loyal readers (both of you!) We shall see.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favourite actors reading one of my favourite stories: Tom Baker, with Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Enjoy.

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