Sunday, 30 June 2013

I died once...

It's a weird thing, knowing that you once died. Like properly. No messing. Gone. But now back again.

It was way back when I was around seven or eight years old I think. I was at a swimming pool. I think it was a party or something. Anyway, that doesn't matter. What does matter is that I was there. If I hadn't been, IT wouldn't have happened. And by IT, I mean THIS:


This is not something I did on purpose. I did not actively seek out the experience of drowning. And I would advise anyone against doing so. But I did it. Drowned. Properly.

Somehow (pushed, slipped, not sure) I ended up in the pool out of my depth. I was, by all accounts, dragged out by a life guard, pumped of water, and given the kiss of life. Brought back to the land of the living I guess.

I have no recollection of this event. I know what happened because of witnesses, a notable one being my aunt, who's lovely and also crazy. I asked her a few months ago what it was like, what actually happened. I'm never asking again: it was clearly terrifying. Oh, my mother was there, too. But she can't remember it at all. I guess seeing your child dragged out of a pool and given mouth-to-mouth is something most folk would want to blank from their memory.

Suffice to say, from that moment onwards, I hated water. I had a serious phobia. I would panic entering leisure centres. Not the pool itself - just the place in which it was contained. At school I would do anything to get out of swimming lessons, more often than not spending an hour in the observer deck watching everyone else have a great time.

I didn't learn to swim properly until I was 29. Yeah, you read that right: 29. I was married. I would be a dad sooner rather than later. And I wasn't going to be the weirdo father who couldn't go swimming with his kids. So, by way of motivation, I gave myself a target: join the Royal Marine Reserves. And it worked. I learnt to swim. Within a couple of months, I went from abject terror to swimming a mile, fully clothed. I didn't get into the RMR, but I did learn to swim.

I look back on this and wonder if my love of horror is linked to this event in my life. I come from a church background. I struggle with what I do and don't believe. And I have, it seems, done something few people ever have - died and come back again.

I wish I had a tale to tell of that moment of death. One that contained within it tales of tunnels and spirits and entities and messages from the long dead to the living. But I don't. I have nothing. Just what I've been told and a crazy water phobia. I have wondered about investigating it further, doing some kind of regression therapy to find out what happened, but I might just leave it well alone.

Horror changes us. Through events that can be anything from mildly troubling to truly, abnormally horrific, we as people change. By engaging with what horror fiction and film has to offer, we explore all the possibilities available. We put humanity to the test, push it to the limit and beyond. We see what happens when things don't go to plan, when bad things happen to good people, when evil wins. Not because we're sick and twisted, but because we are fascinated by human nature, and amazed by its endless courage and strength in the face of impossible odds.

I died once, and that in itself is an astonishing thing. My whole life from that point on changed because I survived. I touched the void, went to the darkness and returned. Occasionally though, just occasionally, I do wonder if I brought something back with me...


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Video Shop

Having just posted on FB/Twitter the cover for 80s horror flick, 'House', I've found myself going all nostalgic. Why? Simple: getting into horror is, for me, tied up with going to The Video Shop.

A movie that has a very special place in my horror-loving heart...

Remember them? Little dust-covered shelves of huge plastic boxes, all fitted with gloriously lurid and idiotically fabulous covers? Dark corners at the backs of garages, sweet shops, newsagents, the local 7/11? We didn't have a Block Busters. We had the Texaco down the road, run by a bloke in his 30s with a pony tail, who looked like he wanted to sell you something illegal, and his dad, who looked like he was always monumentally surprised to be alive at all.

Hallowed ground...

I remember vividly, going in there with my dad to pay for petrol, and gazing longingly at those shelves. I knew the names of some of the classics, the ones spoken of in hushed tones round the playground ('Have you seen The Exterminator? It's AMAZING! This bloke goes through a MINCER!' 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre is BRILLIANT!') We knew we shouldn't watch them. How could we not? They were 'X-RATED'. And we all knew that X meant BAD. Which to us meant good.

Looking back, and having checked up on a lot of those movies that I dove into back then, most of them don't hold a match to what's on the screen now, certainly not in terms of gore and effects. I'm not talking about the classics, like DOTD, Chainsaw or whatever, but that vast sea of other movies that filled the shelves. But without them, the stuff we have now probably wouldn't exist.

The video format was made for horror. It allowed the film makers to go crazy with their covers. And there's something still so wondrously - dangerously - exciting, about opening up an old video cover. Then there were the trailers you HAD to watch, unless you wanted to risk actually using the fast-forward lever (levers, remember, not buttons!) and chewing up the tape, while at the same time breaking a finger.

I miss going to the video shop. I lament that Block Buster has gone from my local high street. I buy DVDs. I use Netflix (woeful selection though. Is it EVER updated?), Love Film, and all the rest. But nothing compares to the whole event of doing a video night. Because, from start to finish, it was an event.

Renting a video involved a trip out, to begin with. Not a download. You had to get out of the house, and walk or bike to the local shop. There you'd be for at least half an hour finding the most insane cover you could. Video rented (noting the due back date and the possible fine), you'd then have to sort snacks, supplies, the readies necessary to survive The Horror. Anything from crisps, to more crisps, perhaps some pop corn, more crisps, and definitely some Coke. Oh, and when we got a microwave, how our video evenings changed! Chips and burgers in an instant! It was like we were actually living inside a movie about american teenagers with everything right there whenever you wanted! The luxury! Then back home to black out the lounge and sit down to whatever hellish monstrousness was about to fall out of the TV and into your face...

I love DVD. I love being able to download. I love the quality and the convenience and the fact it doesn't mess too much with my day because it's all so instant and easy and ace. But you know what? A little part of me, that odd corner of my psyche that is still a teenager looking for the next best thing in horror, would swap all that quality and convenience for a walk to that Texaco garage all those years ago.

Friday, 21 June 2013

'It wasn't scary enough'

I, like anyone who grew up in the 70s/80s, and who was in to horror, knows Evil Dead. and by knows,  I mean this film, and at least the first of the two sequels, has a very special place in our hearts. It's essential viewing for anyone who wants to be a horror hound. When I bought a projector a couple of years back, this was the first film I watched on it. Quickly followed (in no particular order) by Suspiria, Mad Max, The Crow, Andromeda Strain, House on Haunted Hill, and so on (I was there for quite some time...) Of course, I then had to watch at least Evil Dead 2, but I still love that first film.

Evil Dead is something to love for its brilliance as well as its creakiness. It was made on a tiny budget. Essentially, by a bunch of kids. And it was made with no rules, no restrictions. They just did everything they could with the little they had to make the best damned film they could. And they did.

Evil Dead shocked. Evil Dead disgusted. Evil Dead was banned. Looking at it now, perhaps it was that  infamous scene where the girl gets strung up by the very woods themselves. But that in itself is such a moment of brilliant horror that without it the film would be missing a few teeth. As for the rest of the film, there are points, and many, where the make-up looks like little more than dyed, mashed up cornflakes, felt tip pen and paint. The acting isn't brilliant, but neither is it terrible, something which to my mind adds to it all. It's not in the vein of Blair Witch, where they (apparently) had no idea what was going on. But the actors themselves do feel as though they really are a little unsure about what to expect next. Another thing - it's pretty much a period piece. The style, the fashion, the way it's shot, the vehicle, the cabin, the colours. It takes me back to those early 80s days and I love that.

So anyway, I was chatting to someone who told me they'd seen the new Evil Dead and hated it. I asked why. Their response was 'It wasn't scary'. I asked what they meant. Their response was simply to state, again, that it wasn't scary, with a few additions like, 'it was silly', 'it wasn't realistic', and 'it made me laugh'.

I wonder now what folk want from a horror movie. For me, the Evil Dead remake was nothing short of utterly superb. I loved it. It was a Hollywood horror, and I had a blast! No way? Yes way! Woohoo! It was one of the best 80 minutes I've ever spent in a theatre. Yes, I was nervous about seeing a remake, but I had to give it a go, just had to. And for me, it didn't disappoint. It really didn't. Drag Me To Hell - now that REALLY disappointed. But this was a joy. I could be picky, I could give you things I didn't like, but then that's the same with all movies. No point though. This was a blast of a horror movie. Possibly one of the best to come out of Hollywood, period. And each and every scene bled pretty much literally with such a love for the source material and horror itself that the grin on my face didn't budge once.

Horror isn't just a one trick pony. It's not simply 101 Ways To Die Horribly. It is also suspense, weirdness, pushing boundaries, taking risks, having fun, going a bit too far, making you wince, belly laughs, screams, dread, disgust...

So was Evil Dead scary or not? I'm not sure that's the point. I don't find - and neither do I seek to - all horror films or books scary. Suspiria doesn't scare me, but I love each and every frame of that movie. House on Haunted Hill is genuinely creepy, but that it's black and white would probably rule it out for those who only see horror as an experience in getting sliced and diced. Hit List is still one I struggle with because on the one hand it was brilliant, and on the other I just didn't enjoy it. Martyrs is one of the best horrors I've ever seen. It is equally one of the most violent, disturbing and bleak films I've ever witnessed. Then there's books. The scariest book I've ever read is probably Susan Hill's The Woman In Black, a wondrous piece of creepy, haunted prose that I adore. Then there's The Hell Bound Heart by Clive Barker, a violent trip to hell written with such an annoying command of the English language that ever time I read it I learn something new. There's a chapter in Neil Shusterman's Unwind, a teen book, that to this day is the most disturbing, upsetting pieces of work I've ever survived. Let The Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist was so beautiful I read it in two days. Stephen King's Full Dark No Stars contained some absolute gems. And pretty much anything by Jack Ketchum is enough to keep me interested.

Horror is not just about being scared. It is not just about blood. It is not just about vampires or werewolves or chainsaws or ghosts or murderers or psychos or insane children or cults or cannibals or any other of a thousand things. It is all of these and none of them. It is, above all, a genre that at its heart can speak to all people, wherever they are, show them what real darkness is, take them down paths they never thought even existed, hold their hand through the strange and the weird, make them think, make them question, and ultimately change them, even if only in a small way, and also allow them to survive.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

It's not just about the words

Read, read, read…

That's what I’ve been told all my life (it’s also what I tell anyone who asks me how they can write better) if I want to improve my writing: read, read, read, and I take this advice so seriously that I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because frankly I'd rather be reading than proofing. Don't get me wrong, proofing is vital, but that comes later. First, love what you do, love the words, then later spare a little time to get the mechanics right. Odds are, if you've read enough (and written enough), you've probably got it nailed anyway. But it's always nice to be able to sound like you know what you're talking about, right?

So, the whole 'read, read, read' thing. It makes sense. Take musical instruments. If you want to learn to play the guitar, it’s not just about practicing every day, learning to read tab or music or both. It’s about listening to other guitarists, exploring different styles, getting to know everything from jazz to blues to metal to folk. It’s about falling in love with the way certain people play, trying to emulate a Peter Green lick, or something by Joe Satriani.

Writing’s like this. You get better at it by reading how other people do it. You learn new turns of phrase, unique styles, descriptions. And by trying different genres you find out more about what you can do with words, how to use them. But there’s something else I’m going to start saying now, too…

Watch… watch… watch…

Some of the best (and some of the worst) writing around is on the screen, big or small. It’s a world where words become visual. Where they stand up, shout out, and beg to be seen. Which is what we want our writing to do too, right?

I love horror (no surprise there). But it’s not just from the books I read that I learn and develop. It’s from the films I love, too. Horror is a genre I just can’t escape from. Most other types of film don’t really do it for me. I’ve never enjoyed gangster movies. Thrillers are okay, but only if they tread a dark path. Comedies are rarely that funny. I could go on, but I don’t need to. Horror is my go-to choice, book or film. Hell, even music (check out ‘Doomed’ on!)

The stuff that slips into my subconscious can be anything from the haunting simplicity of House on Haunted Hill (Vincent Price!), through the surreal technicolour fairytale brilliance of Suspiria, on past the devastatingly bleak ending of The Beyond, and into the ferocious visceral assault of Frontiers and Martyrs.

So that’s my advice I guess. Yes, read. Read like books are dying, and the more you read, the more you save. But watch also. Dive headfirst into film, in to TV, and immerse yourself in dialogue, in how writers’ visions have been made real. Then use that to fuel your own writing, to turn it into something so dangerously volatile that it explodes in the mind of your reader and never lets them forget the journey they had down the path your words led them.