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.

Halloween Readings!

So since Halloween for me is basically a month-long national holiday, I’ve got a couple of readings coming, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear me read a spooky story, now’s your chance!

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First up is The  Visitation at Old Low Light, which will be at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre in North Shields this Saturday (the 29th). Tickets are available here— they’re just under £6.

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Next is After Dark at Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade in North Shields on November 5th at 7pm. Tickets are £3.

I hope you guys can make it: it would mean the world to me and all the others performing.

Happy Halloween. Don’t look too fast over your shoulder…

 

Read “The Black Oracle” now at Inside the Bell Jar

(Trigger warning for discussion of depression)

The second issue of Inside the Bell Jar has been released, and it features my flash-fiction piece, “The Black Oracle“!

I honestly never thought I’d do much with this piece. I wrote it into my journal after a particularly difficult day, mostly for my own benefit to work through how I was feeling. I didn’t think much of it until Vic shared the call for submissions on the subject of mental health.

In the story I tried to personify that voice in my head that tells me I’m going to fail, that always seems to know the future. Depression is an ugly thing, but part of the reason that it works is due to how it presents itself as fair and reasonable, like it’s got out best interests at heart. I suppose the lesson to take to heart is to remind myself that the Black Oracle is not my friend, and it’s certainly not as infallible as it thinks it is.

I honestly couldn’t more thrilled to be featured in the new issue. It’s still a little strange seeing my own work on a website that I didn’t copy-paste myself, complete with a bio and a headshot! And I really love the photo they chose to go with it: lonely and oppressive, yet ambiguous enough to be the Oracle itself.

Anyway, if you liked the story (or appreciated it, at any rate), please feel free to leave a comment and share it around. And please check out the other stuff that Inside the Bell Jar is putting out: they’re doing good work.

Episode 5 of I’m Not Watching That: Penny Arcade’s Strip Search

I’ve been recording a podcast with my buddy Tom, where we talk (and occasionally argue) about stuff we like. I’ve really enjoyed getting an opportunity to think critically about the media I consume, and getting to grips with the techy side of editing a podcast.

The fifth episode is up: in it, we talk about Penny Arcade‘s  reality series, Strip Search. I hope you like it!

Noir At The Bar

Well, this was a lot of fun.

 

To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about reading my stuff alongside… y’know, actual published writers, but everyone was kind enough to say positive things about my offering!

Many thanks and gratitude to those who made it and showed their support. Well done Vic for one hell of a show.

Blood From The Quill ebook now available

So I’m in a book.

The digital edition of Blood From The Quill is now available. You can read my own humble contribution, “Her Voice In The Rain,” here, but you should totally buy the book, because books are the best.

Big thanks to V for putting the whole thing together

Take care of yourselves.

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Fight or Flight

Yesterday I nearly broke.

The body can only hold so much fear before it snaps. I found myself wishing that yes, finally, I was having a full-on panic attack, that I would finally run screaming out of the room, or break down crying, or throw up, so that at least I would have an excuse to go home. I held on, as I always do—though whether through professionalism or masochism, I couldn’t say. I kept on breathing. Kept walking. Didn’t let them see me bleed.

In a way, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve gone this long, since a perverse part of me thinks that enduring pain makes me morally superior to those who dish it out.

When I got home I could barely stand. Barely think. That’s the scariest thing of all: the way I can feel parts of my brain—my greatest asset, the thing I’ve spent my entire life developing– shutting down, all non-essential functions closed to power the survival instinct. Memory, creativity, empathy, motivation: all cut off by the root need to run of fight.

Today I woke with a headache from nowhere: usually I might get a few a year, but these days it’s always there, like someone wrapped my brain in barbed wire. My energy had not returned. I made myself run—I hadn’t gone for a run for three weeks due to a pain in my ankle, but I had no choice: I could no longer stand the feel of cold adrenaline coagulating in my veins, and I had to burn it away. My cardio was shot to hell, and I only completed half my usual route, but I felt better. My ankle is still screaming it’s protest, but there it is: hurting my body because my mind has to heal.

I’m scared to go to sleep. Not because I’m afraid I won’t, but because tomorrow I have to do it all over again.

This season of Game of Thrones is the last one I’m going to watch.

This season of Game of Thrones is the last one I’m going to watch.

[Spoilers for Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Vague spoilers for the books. Trigger warnings for rape and sexual assault]

It’s not (just) because of its problematic treatment of female characters, though I can’t say that’s something I’ll miss. It’s becoming grim to watch while wondering which female character is going to be threatened with assault this week. There were hints of how gross it was getting last season, first with Jaime and Cersei’s encounter, where the question of consent was left up to the viewer and the utterly disgusting and unnecessary side-plot with the Nights Watch (we get it, we’re not supposed to like the dude drinking from a human skull while he monologues. We didn’t need to see a woman being raped behind him to underline that). But the last, universally reviled scene in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” was the first scene in the series that I actually had to skip. It’s gratuitous, it’s exploitative, it’s not in the books, and it’s unnecessary. It’s reached a point where my first thought on seeing a Dothraki horde encircling Dany was “how long will it be before someone tries to rape her?” I don’t know who the showrunners are writing this for: do they honestly believe that people want to watch beloved female characters risk—and endure—assault at every opportunity? There are other, better ways to create conflict.

(At some point, I’ll have to write about my “no rape” policy when it comes to writing fiction. Gosh, that’ll be cheery.)

But the main reason I’m going to skip the next season of Thrones is that we have now, to all intents and purposes, caught up with the books. Bran, Dany, Cersei and Jon (sighs) have reached the same place where their book equivalents now linger. Arya’s pretty much there. Sansa, Tyrion and Brienne have gone in completely different directions. Nobody cares about Sam. Dorne is a hot mess. Faegon, the Greyjoy Party Boat and Lady Stoneheart are AWOL. Stannis’s plot looks like it has been prematurely spoiled, or at least radically deviated from where it was due to go in the books. Jojen Reed; Mance Rayder; Barristan effing Selmy, characters I knew—knew, in my heart—were going to survive have been killed, bumped off like chumps.

Put simply, I don’t know what’s going to happen anymore.

This season, the Night’s King showed up in person. Shireen burned. Stannis Baratheon, The King Westeros Deserves, has apparently been knocked out the Game. Tyrion and Dany are bros. We’ve reached the point where those who’ve read the books and those who’ve seen the shows are in the same place.

Maybe it’s cowardice on my part, but I’m scared for what’s going to happen next. The knowledge of what was going to happen has always been my defence against the overwhelming tide of grimdark in the show. True, the trade-off was that I knew the Red Wedding was coming, and thinking about it as it approached tied my stomachs into knots. But at least I knew who was going to survive, and if, for example, Talisa died where Jeyne Westerling survived, well, that added a little spice, a frisson of surprise, but at least the broad strokes remained the same. I don’t have that anymore, and yeah, it scares me. It makes Thrones a very different show for me: it’s no longer an adaptation of my favourite books that I had to champion. It’s a media juggernaut, careening off the rails, in a direction I can’t predict.

That may be a good thing, or a bad thing. There’s no harm in being surprised, after all. And it may benefit the show now that it no longer has to pad out episodes or slam the breaks on plotlines for fear of overtaking the books. Nor is it that I’ve fallen out of love with the series: This adaptation is more than I could have asked for. It’s been amazing, from day one. True, some of the sheen has come of it this year, with the gross sexual politics, the derailing of favourite characters and the clusterfudge that was the Dorne plotline. But all that means is that the choice I have to make has become easier.

I’m choosing the books. The books I fell in love with nine years ago. The books I read through three times, all five, at 800 pages apiece.

I don’t know if I’m going to stay the course, though. Ideally, GRRM will at least complete The Winds of Winter by the time the next season rolls around. But since I have to live in the real world, where toast always falls face down and the next ASOIAF novel likely won’t be seen on this side of the next ice age, I may end up cracking and jumping in for season six along with everyone else. Spoilers for this season have been unavoidable, and I can only imagine they’ll get worse when every clickbait pop culture website starts running articles on how I won’t believe what happens at the wedding of Daenerys Targaryen and Hodor or something. So I’m reserving the right to change my mind, arbitrarily, without warning or reason.

We’ll have to see how this plays out. Because for the first time in four years, I really haven’t a clue.

I’ve got a theory about how Stannis is gonna win this thing, though…