Saturday, October 31, 2015


Its Halloween, and I'm up early as my time clock is a bit out after a busy few days with work in Rome. I don't really "do" Halloween, guess a legacy of not being around kids much, and never having much of a penchant for dressing up. A bit surprising really as I was a horror nut as a kid. I had a great little book called The Beaver Book of Horror (still got it somewhere) which was like a compendium of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like. I see online that it came out in 1977 so I'd have been about ten years old or slightly older. I probably got it from W.H. Smiths rather than the school book club. It wasn't long after that I read "Dracula" for the first time. I guess horror was part of the everyday culture through cartoons mostly. Remember we had Scooby Doo, which still trades in it, but there were also some great little children's TV shows like "Rentaghost" and quite a few Disney cartoons had horror motifs. Then of course there was "Carry On Screaming", one of the high spots of the series, re-runs of "The Addams Family" and the Haunted House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and other places.

But if we didn't do much Halloween it was probably because Bonfire Night was the great autumn occasion. My grandad's farm had a spare field which was underutilised in the autumn after the hay had been mown. From then onwards, a big pile of wood and other junk would slowly be put together for a big bonfire night special, usually as a fundraiser for the local historical society. This was probably earlier - I can't quite remember when the last one was, but as a small boy I was often cold, tired, and somewhat non-plussed by all the noise and fire. I think I used to prefer the before and after - going around the following day and seeing the smoldering embers, the burnt out rockets and catherine wheels. I certainly don't remember Halloween been celebrated at school in anyway, but our comp had a downer on anything that was remotely creative - and I guess there was always something a little "other" about Halloween.

Its surprising perhaps how mainstream its all become. I guess its the dressing up - an early form of cosplay - and trick or treat seems a bit of an odd thing nowadays on streets where we are all strangers, and a knock on the door by a teenager could be misinterpreted by a terrified pensioner. But we do like a bit of horror in the autumn months. The clocks have changed giving us long dark nights in return for slightly lighter mornings. The leaves are on the ground, all crispy russet-reds, before rain turns them to mulch. There will be the haze of fireworks in the air for the next ten days or so I guess, a slight peppery smell in the air, and next weekend in particular every cat and dog scurrying fearfully under a cupboard at every large bang.

I've noticed a bit of a resurgence in horror literature - particularly "spooky tales" - and an appreciation for the ghost story. The schlock horror of my teenage viewing - the so-called video nasty - was always as kitsch as it was scary, and Troma films like Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High can be picked up on DVD. I wonder how today's teens, sophisticated consumers of SFX will find them?

When people talk to me about "young adult" or YA literature I always think its some unfortunate follow on from the Harry Potter phenomenon, a kind of lifelong infantilisation of our cultural matter.  YA is aimed at "up to 25" by which time I'd bought and sold a house, lived in four cities, held down two full time jobs and had a pension... I felt old at 25! What I was reading when I was a young adult - i.e. 14, 15 - was horror. I tried James Herbert's "Rats" which went round the school like a plague of them, but it was too domestic in its setting, too pointlessly gratuitous - I could tell that you were ripping through the workmanlike prose to get to the shocking bits, and it wasn't worth the effort. Stephen King was different. I probably had seen "Carrie" or the TV version of "Salem's Lot" before I read the books, most of which I picked up second hand. The first "new" one I bought, and one of his masterpieces, was 1983's "Pet Sematary" but I'd pretty much read all the horror ones before then. I didn't actually much like his non-horror work, the Bachman books and the shorts, at the time. I liked the full on stuff. I also read "The Exorcist" around this time, staying up late to finish it one night and being unable to sleep, truly one of the few books to have genuinely terrified me. "The Exorcist," and particularly "The Omen" were a better class of horror movie than those I picked up at the video shop. The historical background and religious underpinning made them both highly fascinating. Yet the best of the lot, was a book which has only recently been reissued (by Valancourt books), Michael McDowell's "The Elementals". This was the best horror novel I'd ever read, a book about an unseen assailant that inhabited the very fabric of the environment, the sands around an old house absorbing it and conquering it. A classic piece of southern gothic, I must have read it half a dozen times. His other books - the serial novel "Blackwater" and "The Amulet" were good, but this was the masterpiece.

At some point, I stopped reading much horror. My love of the gothic went into the dark music of Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and others; and I'd become less susceptible to the strange twist in more contemporary horror films. But its Halloween, so maybe time to indulge, at least for one day....

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