I love horror but it’s a genre that I find myself falling out of love with quite often. Many times it seems that even those producing it are aware of how silly it can be, so they forget to scare the audience and try to make the viewers laugh instead, and if even the filmmakers aren’t going to take it seriously, why should I suspend my disbelief for their work?
But there is nothing cheesy or fun in the slightest about Sinister. There’s very little to smile about here. It’s an oppressive and unremittingly dark movie – both visually and in tone; right down to the unforgiving way that it ends – and that’s what is so damn good about it.
Sinister was the last great horror movie that I saw at the cinema, and I’ve only seen it once. I bought it on disc a few years ago but still haven’t watched it again, because I remember how bleak and depressing it was the first time round. But bleak and depressing in a way that good horror is supposed to embrace.
Sinister leaves you with a pervasive feeling of dread that is almost palpable, and makes you want to find the nearest source of sunshine… because bad things don’t happen in the light, do they?
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – 1818
It’s Halloween weekend, so there’s no better novel to shine a spotlight on than Frankenstein – if not the grandaddy of the gothic horror genre, then it was certainly at the first family picnic. Not only is this story’s status as a dark masterpiece solid and well deserved, but it’s always up there in the discussion for one of the best novels I have ever read.
Mary Shelley published Frankenstein when she was twenty years old. Are you kidding me? Twenty. Just let that sink in. Completing a novel at that age is one thing; writing a very good novel at that age is another; and writing a very good novel in a genre that was still in its infancy when you sat down with your typewriter, is quite amazing!
Frankenstein is a morality tale that as well as being frightening, also has an unexpectedly good sense of humour, thanks to an extremely well developed central character who occasionally finds himself in completely inappropriate situations. The novel also possesses a surprising level of subtlety that I didn’t expect on the way in.
Shelley’s legacy would have been cemented right there, even if she had never written another word. Next year the novel will be two hundred years old, and if you can show me even half a dozen full length horror tales that are better, I’ll not only be very surprised – I’ll probably call you a liar as well.
And yes, we should all know by now…
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – 1845
The Raven is the most well known poem penned by Poe, and quite probably the most famous poem in all of horror. It’s quite a lengthy piece – certainly much longer than the five line limericks I was quite partial to writing when I was at school – but it has a good, consistent rhythm and quite the creepy atmosphere.
Now, hands up: I’m not much of a poetry professor. I know some of it rhymes and some of it doesn’t. But if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about iambic pentameter and the differences between a haiku and a tanka, you’ll likely have a better time talking to someone else.
Poe was one of the founding fathers of the horror genre – a guy you would be hard pressed not to put on your Mount Rushmore of that particular field – but as synonymous as his name is with the genre, Poe only completed one novel in his life. It’s very impressive to have made such a lasting impression based on short stories and poetry exclusively, and The Raven is a piece that will be talked about for years to come.
I’ve written hundreds of stories in my life, over a million words (you’ll have to trust me on that one). I’ve written comedies and thrillers. I’ve written romance and drama. I’ve written sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve written westerns and stuff for kids. I’ve even penned some erotica (much to my mother’s embarrassment), but what I’m writing now is possibly the first real monster story I’ve tried… well, ever.
I mention this only because for the longest time – in my head – I was a horror writer. I think somewhere in there I still am. I read horror and that’s what I wrote, or so I thought. But looking back over those hundreds of titles and those million words, it turns out that very little of it would actually fit in the boundaries of the genre. Maybe ten percent; fifteen at a push.
I’ve always wanted to write a pure, no-nonsense monster tale – one that doesn’t necessarily live in the real world, and doesn’t feel the need to apologise or explain itself either. Sometimes horror just is and creatures just are.
This may just be my first time.
The Jonah by James Herbert – 1981
Oddly, it was my dad – who I would never say was a big reader – who became my first point of contact with the works of James Herbert. He was possibly the only author my dad made any time for. Back in the mid eighties I was far too young to read anything by the dark master of British horror, but that always stuck with me and when I was old enough I got through a bunch of Herbert’s novels.
The Jonah is the last Herbert novel I read, but it’s unfortunately one of his lesser offerings. It’s about a detective who has had misfortune follow him throughout his life. Despite the author’s history, it’s a dark police thriller which can only very loosely be described as horror.
The writing is fine and the narrative is moderately entertaining, but Herbert’s penchant for shoehorning in an obligatory sex scene rears its head again in a somewhat unrealistic romantic sub-plot which is signposted from miles away. However, The Jonah – for its shortcomings – is quite a short novel, so it’s not something that you will have to wade through for too long.
James Herbert was absolutely capable of producing great stuff and he produced a number of classics throughout his career. The Jonah is certainly not bad, but a classic it is not. If you want a good entry-point to his work, there are far better places to jump into the water.
Dracula by Bram Stoker – 1897
Probably not Stoker’s original vision.
I have spent a fair portion of my life writing dark fiction, but somewhat surprisingly I was a little late to the party with this one, and I didn’t read Dracula – the grand-daddy of horror literature – until I was thirty. Perhaps it’s because vampires have never really done it for me as a sub-genre. Then again, if you want to be a film director, you watch Hitchcock movies. If you want a career in porn, Ron Jeremy’s your man… well, you know, so I’ve heard.
Literature of such vintage is often stigmatised by its stagnant use of language, but although Dracula is now one hundred and twenty years old, it still feels quite fresh and accessible. The narrative takes the non-traditional form of letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles, but despite this often clunky way of storytelling, it’s still a much easier read than you may expect going in – testament to how well the story is told.
Is it worthy of being held in such high regard? Possibly. It’s difficult to be objective with a property as ubiquitous as Dracula. It’s certainly not the greatest horror novel I have read – I’ve had more fun with stories published both before and after – but cinema has been in love with the character for decades, so there’s something to be said about the reach of the chilling and iconic Count.
The Ash-Tree by MR James – 1904
It’s very difficult to read stories of this vintage – even those written by a deity of the supernatural genre such as MR James – after spending any length of time with modern authors. It takes a while to acclimatise to the differences in language and the way that the story itself has been put together, but stick with it – it’s a worthwhile excursion.
In some regards it is an unfair comparison, because it’s apples and oranges. MR James was writing at a time when readers did not have the attention span of a gnat. The Ash-Tree – about an inherited English estate with a cursed history – is only 5400 words, but James, one of the most atmospheric writers of his generation, manages to pack more in to that word count than many twenty-first century authors could do with four times the length.
The Ash-Tree was published in 1904 in James’ first collection of shorts, Ghost Stories if an Antiquary, and the full text is available to read for free online here, if you want to give it a look.