Spooktober, Day 11: Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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“Are you OLD?”

“No. I’m only twelve. But I’ve been that for a long time.” 

It’s 1981. Young Oskar is living with his mother, bullied at school and faces visits from his alcoholic father. Then he meets, Eli, the girl who’s just moved in next door, and he’s finally found someone who understands him. There’s only one problem: Eli is a vampire, and the man claiming to be Eli’s “dad” may or may not be a child molester who provides Eli with the blood they need to survive.

Let the Right One In works because like the best vampire stories, it’s not really about vampires. There are monsters-a-plenty in Lindqvist’s world, all of them terrifyingly real: bullies, alcoholics, neglectful adults and child molesters, to name just a few. Honestly, the horrors in Oskar’s life are so unsettling that a centuries-old haemophage looks positively quaint in comparison.

Maybe that’s why Oskar’s relationship with Eli works so well, since Eli is, strangely enough, the warmest and most sympathetic character in Oskar’s life. It subverts our expectations on the innocence of childhood, yet somehow reinforces them at the same time. Their relationship may be unconventional, but its also genuinely sweet and tender, and you can’t help but hope that their friendship will somehow endure the carnage going on around it.

Let The Right One In is a masterpiece of Scandi noir, an extended meditation on the dark side of the human soul. It’s unrelentingly brutal, which only serves to make its moments of joy gleam all the brighter. It’s essential reading for anyone who thinks vampire fiction has gotten “soft,” or for a crossover thriller with light supernatural elements. After all, not all monsters have fangs…

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Spooktober, Day 10: The Ring, by Koji Suzuki

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‘Before you die, you see the ring…’

Today’s entry in our Spooktober marathon is going to be a little different because although The Ring was initially a novel by Koji Suzuki, I’m going to be talking mostly about the film adaptation(s). Why? Because The Ring is one of those rare anomalies where I honestly believe that the film adaptation is better than the original novel. Partly it’s because I’ve only read the book in translation; partly it’s because the films excise some of the more problematic aspects of the novel (including, the more sordid details of Sadako’s backstory, and Ryuji’s rather tasteless enthusiasm for sexual assault). Mostly I think it’s because this is a story that works better with a supernatural bent than a pseudo-scientific explanation: Sadako in the film is a ghost, in the Japanese tradition of vengeful onryo, rather than a combined electromagnetic/psychic manifestation of syphilis. But then, the first movie was directed by Suzuki himself, so it’s not like I’m downplaying his role by stating a preference for the film.

It’s also unusual in that the western remake is not only competent but arguably as good as the original. So whichever interpretation is your favourite is up to you.

In case you’re not familiar with it, The Ring is the story of a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and the desperate quest to find a way to stop it. Although it felt fresh and new to a Western audience, The Ring is actually working within a rich tradition of Japanese horror: ghoulish spirits seeking vengeance with power they never had in life; haunted, animated technology; the invasion of the everyday by the uncanny. It all reads like a subversion of the typical ghost story tropes, leading to an end that puts a genius (and savage) twist on the hope that appeasing the spirit will deflect its vengeance. Yet it’s also subtle: the Japanese film only features one horrifying moment towards the end, but I still had to stop and switch on the lights a couple of times while watching as the tension built but was never really allowed to deflate. It’s a work that lingers long after it’s over by playing on our paranoia, by stoking the fear that our everyday environment and all our technological comforts could be used against us.

Spooktober, Day 9: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

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“This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before: a novel with notorious murderer Lizzie Borden as the protagonist, fighting Lovecraftian monsters from the sea. How many times have we heard that old chestnut?

The premise of Maplecroft by Cherie Priest is that Lizzie Borden was mistakenly charged with axe-murdering her parents, who had begun to transform into Things That Cannot Be. Now, Lizzie has retreated to her new home, Maplecroft, along with her sickly sister, Emma, where they keep an eye on the sea and guard against the encroaching hoards of fish-monsters. But the story is rooted in human drama: in Lizzie’s growing fatigue from caring for her sister while fighting monsters at night when all she wants is to spend time with her girlfriend. Emma, meanwhile, is determined to prove her worth as a biologist by sending away a sample her sister finds on the beach…

I love Cherie Priest: she has such a knack for narrative voice, for nailing the feel and tone of a place and time. She takes a premise that sounds far out on paper and manages to inject it with gravitas, filling the story with a creeping sense of dread as madness descends on the Borden sisters. Maplecroft is a beautiful hybrid of historical crime thriller and cosmic horror, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a little bit more from their Lovecraftian fiction.

Spooktober, Day 8: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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People want to forget the impossible. It makes their world safer.

I have become convinced that Neil Gaiman is some a wizard. Because every story he writes somehow seems so effortless, so easy to read but jam-packed full of imagination. The Graveyard Book may not be my favourite of his novels (*coughs*American Gods*coughs*), but it’s definitely his most accessible.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who is orphaned in the intro by a serial killer and raised in a nearby cemetery by a family of ghosts and a reformed vampire. Most of the book is made up of a series of short stories and vignettes about Bod’s adventures growing up in the graveyard, encountering ghosts and witches and werewolves and a human girl who slowly tempts him to rejoin the world of the living. And if anyone of this sounds familiar: yes, it is based on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.

The Graveyard Book is a delight for all ages: it’s horror-themed without being too intense for young readers, while well-written and layered enough that it never feels “childish”. So if you’re looking for a break from all the terror of Halloween but still feel in the mood for something spooky, check it out.

Spooktober, Day 7: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

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“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”

Is there anything more that needs to be said about Dracula? Probably not: the Count’s presence in pop culture is so significant that even the parodies are old and cliched. Still, there’s good reason the old Count’s done as well as he has (besides looking fabulous in an opera cape), and if your only exposure to Dracula has been through his movies, you really owe it to yourself to read the original. And if you have read it, you should read it again.

Shorn of the crust that has accrued around him, the Count is far from his postmodern persona of the urbane gentleman; he may appear civilised, but at his core, he is little more than a sentient disease. Part of his ubiquity lies in the number of fears that he embodies: fear of contamination, of sex, of the other, of nature. Dracula is a boggart; he’s Pennywise; he represents all our worst fears. He is the wolf pack hiding in the forest, stalking us as we stray away from civilisation. He is the taint of madness and disease lurking in our blood He is syphilis, a walking STD, an idea that has lingered in horror ever since, linking sex and mortality in the most literal way I’ve seen until It Follows.

And yes, he’s xenophobia made flesh. At its heart, Dracula is still problematic: its chauvinistic, sexist and firmly in defence of the status quo. At its core, it’s a rallying cry against the Other, a warning about “bloody foreigners, coming over here, sucking the blood from our women!” It’s part of a broader genre of invasion fiction where the backwards and uncivilised foreigner is driven from the metropole back by the WASPy heroes. Its treatment of mental illness is regressive. The women in the book are idealised and victimised and never allowed to tell their own story.

It’s essential to place Dracula in the context of its time because it’s still a great read, still a masterpiece of pacing and perhaps the example par excellence of what can be done with an epistolary novel. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest…

Spooktober, Day 6: The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, by Max Brooks

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“Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War. Imagine if we had known then what we know now. Imagine if the undead virus had been as understood as, say, tuberculosis was. Imagine if the world’s citizens, or at least those charged with protecting those citizens, had known exactly what they were facing. Ignorance was the real enemy, and cold, hard facts were the weapons.”

Funnily enough, I’ve never been that crazy about zombies.
I love ghost stories because there’s an undercurrent of hope to them, a belief in a world after this one that I find comforting as well as disturbing. And I’m okay with vampires and werewolves, especially now that we’re past their glut in speculative fiction— they scared me when I was young, so I can’t help but think of them as a bit childish. But I’ve never really grokked zombies. Maybe it’s because they’re so often used poorly, as set decoration or comic relief or shock troops of the apocalypse. Or maybe its because when they’re used well, it’s because writers employ as social commentary: as a metaphor for consumerism or elite exploitation of the proletariat. Maybe it’s a quirk of my brain that I’ve read The Woman in Black three times and seen the stage play, but I can’t stand to watch a single episode of Black Mirror because while I’m okay with ghosts, actual human suffering freaks me out too much.
It’s telling, then, that I loved The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z so much.
I expected The Zombie Survival Guide to be a comedy, but it soon became clear that it was deadly serious: Brooks had obviously put a lot of thought (and no small amount of real-life research) into how to survive a zombie outbreak. And it’s not really funny, it’s terrifying because the demands are so high. How do you survive the zombiepocalypse? Get fit; learn martial arts; prep your cellar; buy a property in the highlands; drop out of school or work and get ready. To survive the hordes of the undead, you need to become a crazy survivalist. And you need to start yesterday.
The message of The Zombie Survival Guide is even more horrifying than the thought of the coming plague: the subtext of the book is that even if you were to give up everything you own and love, you are still not ready. Reading The Zombie Survival Guide feels like a personality test at the back of a lifestyle magazine: every page challenges you, asks if you’re prepared to do what’s necessary, and it becomes depressingly evident with each new chapter that the answer is always no. You’d better pray that the zombies never become real because you are royally screwed if they do.
The one consolation is that so is everyone else.
World War Z builds on the idea and scales it up: not only are you personally not ready for a zombie outbreak, but neither is society. World War Z is presented as an oral history of a hypothetical zombie outbreak, consisting of a series of first-person vignettes contributing to a bigger picture. They are more or less universally awful: examples include the US military’s woeful lack of preparation, Israel’s creation of a defensive wall to keep out refugees and South Africa’s adaptation of a horrific plan to curtail the population in case of a rebellion against apartheid into a cold-hearted but practical plan to curb the zombie flood. It presents humanity at its absolute worst, as vain, self-centred, paranoid and stupid, and time has only shown it to be eerily prescient.
There are moments of joy and success to be had that are all the better for feeling hard-fought: the Japanese otaku who becomes a ninja to survive; or the entirely too awesome way the US Army ultimately defeats the zombies with the power of The Trooper. But in the end, the world is still broken, the zombies are still there, lying in the permafrost and the whales are all dead from overfishing and the horde of zombies lurking under the waves…

Spooktober, Day 5: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is the haunted house story. Its influence echoes throughout every form of media,  in every story dealing with a haunted location. From The Shining to Silent Hill, entire generations of writers have taken influence from Jackson’s iconic locale, a house that is itself a character as much as a setting. It has been adapted for film twice, with a third coming to Netflix: the 1963 version, The Haunting, is recognised as one of the classics of horror cinema. The 1999 version… is not.

Jackson sets out her stall in the opening paragraph, cited by Stephen King as one of the best in English literature:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

The story centres around the four characters who dare to stay within the walls of Hill House: a paranormal investigator; a nervous recluse; a bohemian artist; and the duplicitous heir to the property. During their stay, they all experience strange events and begin to uncover the sordid history behind the house, and by the end, the reader is still left wondering how much is real and how much is imaginary.

The Haunting of Hill House is a touchstone of the horror tradition. It understands that nothing is more frightening than whatever the reader can imagine. Jackson’s gorgeous, literary prose gives away nothing: it’s never made explicit whether the events that the characters perceive are real or just products of the strain on their minds. Its genius is that it recognises that no horror on the page can ever match what we create ourselves. It’s a book that forms a psychic echo chamber around the reader, which allows our own worst fears to rattle around inside, becoming larger and more potent with every moment. It is a vital, compelling book that everyone who is interested in reading or writing horror should read.

And as luck would have it, it’s currently on sale for Kindle.

Spooktober, Day 4: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

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When you think about it, the Arctic is the perfect setting for a horror story: it’s pitch dark for half the year, it’s isolated, and just about everything out there will try and kill you.

Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter tells the story of an expedition to the Arctic island of Svalbard. The narrator, Jack Miller, jumps at the chance to prove himself by joining a pack of Oxford graduates on their adventure north, to Gruhuken Bay, despite his worries about the class divide. The expedition is struck by bad luck from the outset, and the misfortunes pile up until every member of the team is forced to leave, leaving Jack on his own to mind the camp and keep the mission going. As if the cold and the darkness wasn’t enough, Jack has to face the possibility that Gruhuken isn’t as abandoned as he thought.

Dark Matter is a superb psychological horror story, focusing consistently on Jack’s worsening mental state. As Jack’s situation deteriorates, there is a growing sense that there must be something out there, some malevolent presence that wishes him harm. It’s written in the best tradition of psychological horror, ratcheting up the tension that something might happen without ever deflating it by showing the monster in the flesh. Indeed, It’s left ambiguous exactly how much of the events that are going on is real and how much is going on in Jack’s imagination.

I read Dark Matter over the course of a single weekend last year, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a traditional ghost story, full of ignored warnings and the gradual reveal of buried secrets, but the Arctic setting makes it feel fresh and original. A word of advice, though: make sure you wrap up warm and keep a dog nearby if you have one…

I’d also recommend Paver’s follow-up novel, Thin Air, which has a similar premise and style but is based on a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas that left me dizzy with vertigo.

Spooktober, Day 3: “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James

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Ever since I was little, I’ve suffered from night terrors.

I have no idea why, but now and then I’ll wake up screaming in the middle of the night, filled with fear that sends me sprinting for the light switch to banish the unseen monster that I could have sworn I saw just a moment ago. For the most part, it’s an embarrassing foible that I have to explain to anyone else sleeping in the same room, just in case. I’ve noticed that the problem has been ameliorated now I’ve placed my teddy bear on guard duty over my bed, to keep a vigilant eye out for the nightmares.

It’s easy to scoff at the things that go bump in the night in the middle of the day, but it’s much harder to shake when your brain is half asleep. And that’s why “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M R James hits so close to home

The ghost stories of M R James follow a pretty standard pattern: a curious scholar pokes their nose where they don’t belong, and has an uncomfortably close encounter with some gribbly and unexplained horror. There’s physicality to his stories, a sense that the supernatural has a real presence, and all you have to do is reach out a little too far to wake it up…

“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” aside from having one of the most awkward titles imaginable, is a good example of James’ style. It tells the story of Parkins, a sceptical academic who visits the seaside and stumbles across a whistle covered in Latin inscriptions (always a good sign) and then dreams of a sinister presence following him. At the story’s climax, Parkins turns to see that his bedding has turned against him, animated by a malevolent force that all his scholarly reason cannot explain.

My experience with night terrors gives me some insight into Parkins’ situation. I can understand the conflict going on in Parkins’ mind, between his rational desire to explain away the visitation and the evidence of his eyes because I’ve felt the same way. I’ve felt the immense feeling of dread that wakes me up in the middle of the night and sends me darting to the door. And while still caught in the grip of REM sleep it’s easy for a half-dozing brain to pick out patterns in the darkness, shapes and faces. I’ve seen the faces of ghosts in shirts hanging from the cupboard, in the way a red electric light shimmers on the wall. The sleeping brain plays tricks on you, looks for patterns around you as it searches for threats around it.

Sleep well…

Read “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James here. You can watch the 2010 BBC adaptation starring the late John Hurt here.

Spooktober Day 1 and 2: Carrie and The Fall of the House of Usher

Welcome to Spooktober!

I love Halloween. There’s something about the way the light changes at this time of year that makes me feel like anything is possible, that there is still magic in the world: even if the magic isn’t always something you’d want to encounter.
Now that October is upon us, and since I’m not rational in my love for all things Halloween-y, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favourite scary stories over the next month. I’m hoping to cover one a day, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to allow examples from media besides prose fiction (so many video games…), so I guess we’ll have to see what happens.
Anyway, since we’re already two days in, I’ve got some catching up to do, so for today, I’ve jotted down some thoughts about two of my favourite horror stories. Let me know what you think!

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1. Carrie by Stephen King

Alfred Hitchcock once observed that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.“ Fear doesn’t come from jack-in-the-box jump scares, but from the effect that it has on our nerves, the fraying sense that at any moment Something Will Happen.
The beauty of Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, is that we can all see the tragedy coming.
Using a quasi-epistolary format— cribbed interviews and newspaper clippings that hint at an awful tragedy that hasn’t happened yet. The tension builds and builds as teenage outsider Carrie White is bullied by her peers, terrorised by her fundamentalist mother and neglected by her teachers, while at the same time developing her mysterious powers of telekinesis.
The book makes no secret of the fact that something terrible is going to happen at the prom. The story seems to unfold in slow-motion, like watching a car crash: we wish we could stop it, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Carrie is a novel that has only become more relevant in an age of cyberbullying and school shootings: one of King’s great strengths is his capacity to root horror in the mundane. His characters are real people, real specimens of the human condition: King roots horror in the human condition: no one is innocent, and most of his characters are despicable, yet relatable. It’s far too easy to see ourselves in Carries’s teachers and classmates, whether we want to admit it or not: the horror becomes all too personal when we have to ask ourselves if we would have behaved any differently.
It’s this mundanity that gives Carrie its edge. If you were to lift out the supernatural elements from Carrie and it still works as a terrifying object lesson in how not to treat people, a chilling account of a young woman finally snapping under pressure. After all, if the horror’s of today’s society have taught us anything, it’s that no one needs psychic powers to become a monster.

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2. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe

For the most part, Edgar Allen Poe eschews cheap scares in favour of tension and uncomfortable meditations on the dark side of the soul. There’s a lot to talk about in The Fall of the House of Usher, a remarkable feat given its short length: how Poe uses macrocosm and microcosm to reflect the mindset of his doomed characters, the metafictional elements, the subtext of psychological decay and hypochondria. But there’s something more specific that made the story stick in my head.
The Fall of the House of Usher is the first instance I can remember reading a jump scare in a book.
There is a moment towards the end of The Fall of the House of Usher that just clicks, where everything in the story comes together and the reader finds out exactly what is going on, and why Roderick Usher is so disturbed. I won’t give it away— it won’t take long to read, and it’s readily available in the public domain— but it’s always struck me as remarkable that Poe was somehow able to make me leap in my seat without all the tools that visual media like film has at its disposal
The scare feels all the better for feeling earned: it works because the author has built up to it, and understands that one good scare is all a story needs, that it’s enough to simply leave the reader in anticipation of the next fright without ever delivering a knockout blow.