There’ve been a fair few enquiries about this lately. I would just like to report that the matter of ebooks is in hand, and steps are being taken. Plans are in development, and preparations are in an active mode. Talks are said to be ‘at an advanced stage’, emails have been sent (and, indeed, received), and there is generally an increasing sense that further progress can be expected.
Sheep is likely to be the first title, followed by Virgins and Martyrs, A Sickness of the Soul and Methods of Confinement. Sheep should, all things being well, be available by March 2012.
A study by psychologist Adah Maurer in 1965* showed that childhood fear of ‘wild animals and spooks and the supernatural’ peaks at age 6, and has largely disappeared by age 11 and 12, to be replaced with a fear of ‘people’ (ie, bad people). The study suggests that what we fear as young children is improbable, fanciful events, such as being mauled by a bear or seeing a ghost. What we fear as older children is starting to reflect our more adult understanding of the world: there probably isn’t really a bear outside, or a monster under the bed, but there could easily be a bad man nearby. The six year old fears live on in masquerade form as Halloween.
Mainstream horror – vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts – puts these six year old fantasies centre stage. Far from being an attempt to scare us, it is an attempt to soothe us, to tell us that everything is alright. By deliberately relocating the object of fear from a real life possibility (such as, for instance, lonely death), to a carnival of grotesques, familiar since early childhood, it seeks to persuade us that our fears, really, have no validity. We are playing with our outgrown terrors, inventing colourful and exotic versions of fears we have long since overcome. Practising, perhaps. Pretending.
Recently, horror has embraced simpler, gorier, sillier scenarios: the Saw franchise for instance, and The Human Centipede. But again, these are pantomimes of fear, tongue firmly in cheek (literally, in the case of The Human Centipede). Horror fiction, no matter how extreme it strives to be, cannot of course compete with the visceral, sickening jolt of real life – what you can see on the news any day of the week – and makes no attempt to do so. Most of the time it is content to stay in safe, comfortable territory, with clearly defined, clearly identifiable monsters, and rules for how they can be defeated. These monsters have become set, made rigid and inflexible and harmless through constant re-use. They are nursery figures, unchanging, well-understood, unthreatening. If we fear what we don’t understand, then we have nothing to fear from this kind of horror fiction, because we understand it all too well. We should do: we lived it (when we were six). Mainstream horror doggedly lumbers on, preferring to become a kind of heritage spectacle of creaky old tropes.
This is perhaps why it is so easy, and so tempting, to parody it. The history of horror parodies is as long and respectable as the genre itself: as early as 1824, a mere 6 years after the original, a spoof called Frankenstitch was a popular hit in London. Jane Austen parodied Gothic romance, the 18th Century’s version of horror, in Northanger Abbey (1818). Horror has danced uneasily hand in hand with parodies of itself since its inception. Southpark: The Ungrounded, a spoof of the Twilight franchise, is a notable recent example. The teen slasher phenomenon has always had a knowing sense of its own absurdity, and is happy to parody itself.
I would hope it doesn’t need saying that some horror fiction is excellent, and is the result of a serious-minded attempt to grapple with fundamental human issues: fear of contagion, shame, defeat, disgrace, loss of status, loneliness. Spend any time at all in the genre and you will find work of depth, brilliance, daring and originality. But such writing will always be marginal to the genre, and for the most part mainstream horror fiction is content to be unreflective, undemanding and uninvolving. Everyone will have authors and stories they champion: for the record, I would defend Stephen King’s Apt Pupil to my last breath as a great piece of writing, of any kind. But it would be hard to claim, on current evidence (Human Centipede, Twilight, The Walking Dead) that this is a genre that is currently in robust good health, bursting with new ideas. Box office may be great: creatively, though, what you hear is the sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped, again and again. In troubled times, people seek the familiar, and that’s what these old stories deliver. Not fear, but actually the opposite of fear: certainty.
The fundamental problem, I think, is one of shape. A monster story really only has one way to go. It doesn’t matter whether vampire, mutated lizard or psychotic torturer: a monster is a monster is a monster. They will attempt to harm us, we will be partially defeated by them, then we will mount some kind of fightback. We will succeed, but they will come back in the final frame. Ready for their sequel. There just isn’t much else a monster story can give you, because monsters, by definition, are not human and so do not share human characteristics. They remain stubbornly ‘other’, unavailable for psychological inspection, in much the same way that a plank of wood is. What motivates a zombie? What motivates a psychopathic torturer? Questions in fiction are always ‘why’ questions: why did he do that, why did she think this? But mainstream horror fiction takes away the possibility of these ‘why’ questions by removing the very quality that would make them germane: psychology. A ghoul or a vampire or a psychopath hasn’t got any psychology, because if they had they would become human, and if they were human they would be messy, complicated, unpredictable. Real. Horrifying, in fact.
If you have only got one story shape at your disposal, things are going to get repetitive fast. Once you’ve been on one ghost train, the next one is not likely to hold too much in the way of surprise. Mainstream horror fiction is, seemingly, condemned to endlessly re-enact the same few tattered nursery fantasies, never quite being able to render them as anything other than fancy dress outfits, put on in a spirit either of nostalgia or kitsch or affectionate mockery. But what any of this has got to do with fear – real fear, the kind of incapacitating, debilitating anguish that grips us all sometimes in the middle of the night – is far from obvious. For that, you will need to look outside of the genre. Because mainstream horror fiction doesn’t appear to want to scare us at all, but rather to reassure us.
Unless you’re six, of course, in which case you probably shouldn’t be watching it.
(*Maurer, A: What Children Fear, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 106, pp265-277)
‘I, Vampiryirya, have come to collect my dry cleaning.’
‘Okie dokie then. Have you got your ticket poppet?’
‘Ticket? I have no ticket! I, Vampiryirya…’
‘No problem, I’ll just have a look on the computer. When did you bring it in?’
‘It was when the moon was at its apogee, when the owls filled the darkling vault of the sky, when the…’
‘Was it within the last fourteen days? Cos if it was longer than that it’ll have gone off the system. If it’s not collected within fourteen days it’ll have been put in the back.’
‘It was a day of tempest, a day of torment, a day of ecstasy…’
‘What, when we had that really heavy rain? That was, hold on, last time it really pissed down was Monday before last, I remember because I was booking my holiday on my lunch hour and all my brochures got soaked.’
‘Monday? All days are days of sorrow. For I am Vamp…’
‘So that’d be the 8th then. I’ll have a look for you. Could I just have that name again?’
‘My name is Va…’
‘Hold on, I have a Ms. V. Ampiryirya.’
‘Ms?’ She laughed scorn at the assistant, swirling her raven tresses, thick as blood, black as night. ‘Do you not see the bloodstone on my finger? I am the bride of darkness, the bethrothed of pain…’
‘Oh sorry, he must have taken it down wrong. So it says here it was three tartan wool skirts, and a floral duvet cover, yeah?’
‘You would mock me!’ Vampiryirya flashed her eyes, those pools of molten pitch, like the tarns at the gates of hell, like the pits of endless night that await the souls of those begotten in damnation’s fire. ‘Tartan! Floral! I, Vampiryirya…’
‘Was that not it?’
‘My gowns are of midnight’s hue, my cloaks like the moonlit backs of ravens!’
‘Right. See, it would be so much easier if you’d kept your ticket. Cos what it says here is tartan skirts, three, and floral duvet cover, one. I can’t see any raven’s hue or, what was the other thing you said?’
‘Midnight! When the souls of the lost dance, when the antic musicke of longing creeps upon the tarry waters of the…’
‘Yup. No, sorry but it just isn’t in the system. You sure it wasn’t the tartan…?’
‘Be silent! Your chatter is distasteful to me!’ She turned, and addressed the queue that was building up behind her. ‘I am not mocked! Be warned! Cower before me! For I, Vampiryirya, will return!’
The girl behind the counter smiled and nodded.
‘With your ticket, yeah?’
Vampiryirya, Acting Queen of the Damned.
She flung her magnificent hair back and stood, her black eyes flashing as the moon rose, blood red, behind her.
‘I, Vampiryirya, Acting Queen of all the Creatures of the Night, I speak!’
The crowd behind her murmured and seethed.
‘She speaks, she speaks. Vampiryirya speaks.’
Many of them stumbled on the name, and the effect was somewhat dampened.
‘For now is the hour of Magicke,’ she called, her cloak billowing in the occult wind that had sprung up out of nowhere. The final ‘ke’ of magicke needed a slight emphasis to differentiate it from just ordinary magic, of which she was, naturally, superbly contemptuous.
‘Magicke,’ murmured the crowd of vampires, whose raven hair and jet cloaks were also billowing in the occult wind, but somehow not quite as convincingly as hers. ‘It is the hour of magicke.’
‘Friends!’ she called, and the word echoed around her. ‘Gather, for we have much to do. Soon, oh soon, I will summon the great Magus, of whom we are all daughters. Sons, also,’ she added hastily.
‘We await,’ they called back in ragged unison.
Her eyes became darker still, darker than night, darker than darkness itself, as dark as the shadows that creep in the netherest regions of the pits of the damned. Darker than that, even.
‘Now, oh now,’ she called. ‘Oh great Magus, whose bosom has suckled us, whose tears have cleansed us, whose, er…’
‘Blood,’ someone prompted quietly.
‘Blood!’ she yelled, sending waves of delirium into the crowd. ‘Whose blood is our food, our life, our passion and our despair!’
The vampires were an unquiet presence behind her, hungry, tumultuous, rapt.
‘I summons you! In the name of Osiris and Isis, Temperegrath and Bewilderwind, Peregor and Kallingernacht, oh hear me!’
‘Hear her! Hear Vampiryirya.’ Again the name proved troublesome for many.
‘From your timeless slumber! From the depths of your agony and delirium, your endless captivity in the caverns of damnation. Come forth!’
The crowd wept and swayed, all eyes on the great door before her, encrusted with ancient wisdom and antic runes. A moment passed. An antic rune fell off.
‘Come oh great one! Your servants await you!’
And another moment.
The moon was gibbous, hectic, and at the fullest. The time was the most propitious, the hour was at hand, the crowd wept and sang and surged, a great hunger driving them to beat themselves with whips and chains, the blood crawling over their pallid flesh like monstrous black worms.
Some more moments passed. No Magus.
‘Ah,’ she said.
‘Right, let’s have a look at this then,’ said Belloc, pushing through the demented hoard of hellish creatures. ‘Scuse me, ta.’ He stood, a man of little over five feet with wispy ginger hair and thick glasses. ‘Right well, you see what your problem is here love?’
‘Speak, oh Belloc!’
‘Yeah. Well it’s your Portal to the Netherest Regions of the Damned, sweetheart,’ he said, scrutinising the great door with a little torch on a keyring. ‘See, it wasn’t put in right.’
‘Not right?’ she called.
‘Dear or dear. What comedian put this in for you? See the render? No, sorry darling but it’s all going to have to come out.’ He scraped at it with a little blade. ‘I mean, call this a Portal? Dear oh Lord. The soonest I could have a look at is Thursday.’
‘Thursday? Is that the propitious day?’ she demanded.
‘Yeah, have to be PM love cos I’m all backed up at the mo. I’ll just take some details.’ He produced a small duplicate book and a pen. ‘Name?’
‘My name,’ she announced magisterially, ‘is Vampiryirya, Acting Queen of…’
‘Yeah could you just spell that out for me my darling? Bit of a mouthful isn’t it? OK. Daytime phone?’
‘Daytime? Phone? I, Vampiryirya, have no phone! I communicate by the winds, by the owls, by the fleet messengers of the underworld…’
‘Yes, I understand all that my love, but I will be needing a daytime phone,’ Belloc said with somewhat strained patience. ‘And I’ll be needing a deposit.’
To Be Continued…
But where were the toilets?
Over four days, and with a strict emphasis on drinking, it is not difficult to imagine the number of visits required. And the hotel is labyrinthine. My launch is in ten minutes. But first, I need to find the toilet.
I have a spatial incapacity: most journeys are guessed at, in a kind of optimistic panic. I am unable to imagine one space connecting to another, and so am more or less permanently spatially baffled. And this is a hotel that, as it happens, I have been coming to for twenty years. I danced here with a debutante at a wedding. I have been drunk here a great many times. And I still can’t find the toilets.
There is someone ahead of me: we get chatting, and then someone else is suddenly lurching in front of us. He is standing at the top of a few steps, and he is tremendously drunk. ‘I’m supposed to be on a panel,’ he attempts to say, several times. ‘I’m supposed…’ Then he is falling, pinwheeling – big fellow, hefty – I grab at his tee-shirt and we stabilise him. Wandering, I find an art exhibition, on a floor the existence of which would have never have occurred to me, had I not got lost on the way to…
The art is wonderful. I flirt with a print, £60! But no, sanity prevails, thank God. I am walking faster and faster, I really could do with finding… I find myself back at Reception and start again. There are signs, but they don’t convince, somehow. They are faint, gold-coloured, they look evasive, hand-painted, untrustworthy. I prefer to trust to instinct. I have a recurring dream of a building that becomes monstrous, limitless, partially ruined. The dream journey becomes harrowing, calamitous. Sometimes I am leading a group, who are depending on me to get them out. (Good luck with that one, guys.) And every journey I make in real life, in this incomprehensible hotel, is a faint echo of the dream.
Then there’s the return journey. I wander for miles, hallway after hallway, thinking, was it this far? Surely it wasn’t this far. Then getting back to where I went wrong. Starting again. Relaxed now, but proceeding with a sense of fury, futility, defiance. Bugger it, I know it’s not this way, but I’m going this way anyway. Bugger it. The right passageway is found, the stairs, I curse them for sitting here the whole time, hidden, mocking me. Smug.
But I make it to my launch. Finally.
And after that, all I have to do is work out how to get out of the building…
In 1991, I went to stay with a friend who was renovating a dilapidated farmhouse in Wales. It was a mammoth task, overwhelming, and he was floundering. Leaking septic tank, internal walls literally running with water, busted roof: it was basically falling down, a terrible mess inside and out. Poor man, he told me how some days he just sat with his head in his hands and was aghast at what he had taken on. The house was called Ty-Gwyneth, and for complicated family reasons his mother had bought it on the understanding that he would bring it up to a saleable condition over the winter, a decision everyone involved in was starting to regret.
The landscape was astonishing: cliffs like the edge of the world, fields as far as the eye could see, and sheep (of course) meandering about everywhere, blank and indifferent and alien.
There was a neighbour to the property, a sheep farmer. He was a handsome man in his fifties (at a guess), polite, but oddly unknowable. I had one brief conversation with him: he was off, he said, to visit his brother who lived nearby. He visited every Sunday and they had dinner together. Apart from this, my friend told me, he had no social contacts of any kind. No wife, no other family. He had no radio or television, read no newspapers: he was, essentially, from another era altogether. And I was absolutely fascinated by him.
Some distant scandal attached to the farmhouse my friend was doing up: a policeman had committed suicide there some time ago. Everything just started to click together in my head.
I had wanted for some time to write a book like The Shining, but different. I knew more about what I didn’t want than what I did: I didn’t want any kind of supernatural events, I didn’t want monsters or werewolves or vampires or ghosts. I wanted to write a book about fear, what it feels like, how it corrodes reason, how it drives people mad. As it turned out, I needed one vaguely supernatural thing to happen: a character needed to have some kind of equivocal communication with the dead ex-resident of the house, but this didn’t bother me too much – it could just as easily have been a hallucination. Every other element in the story was explicable in ordinary human terms and did not require any supernatural thing to occur.
I had read a fair bit of horror by this time, and I was amazed at how ineffective much of it was. Is anyone truly frightened of vampires, werewolves, giant crabs? The books I read seemed like elaborate fairy stories, grotesque and fanciful to be sure, but not remotely frightening: a million miles away from the real fears that I and everyone I knew had – fear of the dark, of failure, of loneliness, fear of ruin and shame, and strongest of all, for me anyway, fear of madness, my own and that of others. Fear of the self. The same fears, of course, that drive The Shining.
The other thing I was preoccupied with at this time (I still am) was religion. I was brought up Roman Catholic by devout parents: I remember a school chemistry lesson in which we were shown a short film that explained that the water molecule, H20, was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. My father had lapsed: my parents had had five children closely spaced and, on a teacher’s salary, more would have been ruinous. The Vatican had recently published a Papal Encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’, which forcefully restated the church’s stance on the evils of contraception. My father lost his faith, and it tormented him until he died.
My initial impulse was to write a sort of satire on religious belief, but the satire morphed into something else. Without giving away too much of the story, I wanted one of my characters to create a completely new religion, with new rituals, but based wholly on Biblical texts. I wanted to show up the selective nature of Christianity, how it picks and chooses the bits of The Bible that suit its agenda, and ignores the rest. My character would do the same, but with different bits of text, creating a monstrous and murderous new rite.
All of these things fused together to create Sheep. I wrote parts of it in a caravan in a field in Wales, with the sheep blundering about outside all day and night. To this day, I don’t like to get too close to them. (Not that I’m scared of them or anything…)