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.

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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