Spooktober, Day 31: The Woman In Black, by Susan Hill

thewomaninblack.jpg“She had a ghostly pallor and a dreadful expression, she wore clothes that were out of keeping with the styles of the present-day; she had kept her distance from me and she had not spoken. Something emanating from her still, silent presence, in each case by a grave, had communicated itself to me so strongly that I had felt indescribable repulsion and fear. And she had appeared and then vanished in a way that surely no real, living, fleshly human being could possibly manage to do.”

Spooktober is nearly over! But I’ve saved the best for last.

The first time I read The Woman in Black was standing in a line at the Edinburgh Fringe, in the middle of the Student’s Union. Surrounded by hundreds of people, with music and laughter and drunken revelry all around me, this book chilled me to the bone. I had difficulty sleeping that night. Sometimes, when it’s dark, and the lights are all out, I still picture a woman dressed all in black, just on the periphery of my vision, and it scares me so hard that I either have to turn on the light or just stay perfectly still until the feeling goes away. It doesn’t really help.

The Woman in Black is a neo-gothic ghost story that tells the tale of Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor who is tasked with sorting out the affairs of a deceased client who happens to live in an old, decaying house on a tidal island in the middle of nowhere that is regularly shrouded in sea frets. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it soon becomes clear that the people of the local town don’t want him going there, and that the old house is haunted by a malevolent presence, an echo of a personal and painful family tragedy whose curse still lingers on anyone who sees the woman in black…

Unlike many of the stories I’ve covered for Spooktober, it’s hard to say that The Woman in Black would work without the supernatural element. Remove the ghost, and the story makes no sense: it’s just about a solicitor stumbling around an old house. In fact, part of the genius of The Woman in Black is that, on paper, nothing really much happens. For all her malice, the ghost of Jennet Humfrye never really seems to do anything until the final page besides stand around menacingly and knock about an old rocking chair.

The horror comes not from the presence of the ghost but from Kipps reaction to it— far more detailed and yet far more nuanced than just stating “I was scared”— and from the tight-lipped disquiet of the people of Crythin Gifford, who are apparently hiding something but insist on staying mum about the specifics.

The fact that Jennet never does more than stand beside tombstones and make eerie noises mean that the tension is never allowed to dissipate, only to build, until the final, terrible reveal that closes the book. Hill has the sense to realise that jump-scares are inherently self-defeating (and challenging to pull off in prose) because although they lead to a spike in fear, they also allow tension to deflate immediately after, so the stress melts away like letting go of a rubber band.

The Woman In Black is the exception that proves the rule for most horror stories. Kipps himself is a non-entity, a cypher for the audience who doesn’t really commit any stock horror “sin” deserving of punishment besides ignoring the warnings of the locals. In fact, Kipps has had nothing to do with Jennet Humfrye or her quest for revenge. 

This only reinforces the horrific realisation that Kipps’s fate could befall anyone, that ordeal isn’t a punishment for his past crimes or karmic justice executed with a meat cleaver. He’s merely in the ghost’s way. Jennet is, in essence, an occidental onryo: she’s Sadako in a bonnet, a psychic landmine that goes off whenever anyone treads on her territory and doesn’t care who she hurts. Her rage is so powerful that all of humanity is her enemy.

I really don’t think there’s much more I can say to sing the praises of The Woman in Black. Suffice to say it is one of my favourite books, even if it still scares the bejeezus out of me every time I read it. It’s a book that I routinely reread it when I want to remind myself how to write good horror, and I’ve even ripped it off wholesale more than once. It’s not much more than a novella, so it’s easy enough to read.

And if you get the chance, go see the stage play. Even the movie’s pretty good, with a lot of the book’s psychological buildup in place and a grounded central performance from Daniel Radcliffe. It’s littered with jump scares, but they’re generally inoffensive and in service to the greater terror, and I’ve still never managed to get past the third act without turning on the lights and doing something else while it’s on.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Sleep well…

Advertisements

Spooktober, Day 30: Hellblazer

538b2a99c267bfdec836a153741ed0ad--constantine-comic-constantine-hellblazer.jpg“I’m the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and cigarette and arrogance, ready to deal with the madness. Oh, I’ve got it all sewn up. I can save you. If it takes the last drop of your blood, I’ll drive your demons away. I’ll kick them in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down and then I’ll be gone back into darkness, leaving only a nod and a wink and a wisecrack. I walk my path alone… who would walk with me?”

When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, do yourself a favour: don’t call John Constantine. It rarely ends well.

Hellblazer (sometimes known as Constantine, John Constantine, John Constantine: Hellblazer and Johnny Hellblazer’s Satanic Slip and Slide*) is an ongoing comic series by DC, released under the Vertigo label. John Constantine himself is probably the last person you’d think of as heroic. He smokes, he swears, he makes pacts with the devil, he’s incurably working-class is a con man with no problem committing a lesser evil if it benefits the greater good. He fights evil because he’s addicted to the high, rather than because he has any developed sense of right and wrong, though to his credit he doesn’t flinch from the fact that he’s done some pretty bad things in the past. He’s the most powerful sorcerer in the world and doesn’t use magic if he can help it because he knows there’s always a price. Although he’s technically in the same continuity as Batman, you won’t see Constantine throw around any fireballs or even throw a punch. Instead, he uses his wits, his charm and his formidable ability to lie through his back teeth to get his way. One of the persistent factors of his life is that the use of his powers has a price: Constantine’s friends and associates have a nasty habit of dying when the proverbial hits the fan, and for the most part, evil is only delayed, never destroyed.

He looks nothing like Keanu Reeves: in fact, he was initially modelled on Sting (the musician, not the wrestler).

Hellblazer has been written by several writers over the years, including Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis and Spooktober’s secret MVP, Neil Gaiman. It’s still going, and it’s easy enough to pick up any story arc and read it as a stand-alone story. It’s a dark-as-sin, adults-only freak-show, and worth looking for anyone who likes competent anti-heroes, high stakes and an excessive amount of flies.

Don’t watch the movie, but do watch the TV series.

* I may have made some of those up

Spooktober, Day 29: The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood

TheWillows565A1.jpg“The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.”

Two friends decide to spend their summer canoeing down the Danube. While at first, they have a jolly time of it, it isn’t long before they start to feel that something is amiss. Masses of densely-packed willow trees lurk along the banks, moving as if they have a will of their own.  At night, the pair catch glimpses of dark figures scurrying on the shore and hear strange sounds outside their tent. The river itself seems to have a vast, alien intelligence of its own and appears at times to call to the pair, to demand some unholy sacrifice from them if they want to survive their journey.

The Willows was a favourite of Lovecraft’s, and it’s easy to see why. It contrasts a world of outstanding natural beauty with a sense of uneasy malaise, a feeling that there is another, darker, world, just beyond the everyday. The landscape, the trees and the river all feel like characters in their own right, menacing the two men in their canoe but never manifesting as anything solid that can be easily dismissed or fought off. The language is full and descriptive, if verbose by modern standards. Check it out if you’re looking for an old-fashioned weird story, full of psychological horror and grandiose prose.

You can read The Willows here, or listen to an audio version here.

Spooktober, Day 27: Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn

KittyandtheMindightHour_cover.jpg“I’m a werewolf trapped in a human body.”

“Well, yeah, that’s kind of the definition.”

“No, really. I’m trapped.”

“Oh? When was the last time you shape-shifted?”

“That’s just it – I’ve never shape-shifted.”

“So you’re not really a werewolf.”

“Not yet. But I was meant to be one, I just know it. How do I get a werewolf to attack me?”

“Stand in the middle of a forest under a full moon with a raw steak tied to your face, holding a sign that says, ‘Eat me; I’m stupid’?”

Kitty Norville is a radio DJ in Denver who runs the graveyard shift at midnight, where she gives phone-in advice for the lonely and the isolated, and anyone who happens to wind up needing help with strange and supernatural goings-on. She offers advice to vampires who want to attend church, gossips about which celebrities may or may not be monsters, and dispenses relationship notes for anyone whose schedule gets interrupted by the full moon. The show is an instant hit, but it puts Kitty in the firing line from all kinds of supernatural politics since most of the creepier things in town don’t want her blabbing to the rest of the world. It doesn’t help that Kitty has to keep the fact that she’s a werewolf herself under wraps…

Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy series distinguishes itself through its examination of how the supernatural would work in practice. It raises questions about how mythical creatures would work in reality, examining in detail all the little inconveniences that monsters might face. The whole thing is done with a nudge and a wink, and it’s worth looking into if you want a light-hearted romp through modern-day fantasy.

Spooktober, Day 25: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

32301955-1.jpg

“By the power of Phil Collins, I rebuke you!” she said. “By the power of Phil Collins, who knows that you coming back to me is against all odds, in his name I command you to leave this servant of Genesis alone.”

Unlike most of the books on this list, I finished reading My Best Friend’s Exorcism recently. I’ll admit that this is one of those books I got solely based on the title, which in some ways is in some ways quite misleading. True, the protagonist has a best friend and true, said friend undergoes an exorcism, but the title put me more in mind of a light-hearted comedy— a bit like Good Omens, maybe— instead of the sweet but often quite dark horror novel I got instead.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is set in the late 80s and wears its love for the 80s with pride: from the fashions to the musical references, to the word choices is like, totally radical. Abby and Gretchen have been friends since they were little, even though they come from very different backgrounds. Until one summer day when, during a drug-induced bender, Gretchen goes missing and comes back… different. As Gretchen’s personality changes and her health deteriorates, strange misfortunes begin to afflict the pair and their friends. Slowly, Abby begins to suspect the impossible: that Gretchen’s body has been taken over by a demon.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism wears its influences on its sleeves, from The Exorcist to The Breakfast Club. At its core is a tender story about friendship against adversity, spiced at times with jet-dark horror and a cynical take on the grown-up world around our young heroines. It’s an easy, fun read that makes me picture neon wallpaper and boy-band posters and a world where every child had a landline phone in their bedroom. And like a lot of the books we’ve encountered during Spooktober, it’s not really about the exorcism, but about two friends who are struggling to cope with an impossible situation. It’s worth looking into if you’re nostalgic for roller blades and the Go-Gos, or if you want something that puts a fun spin on traditional horror tropes.

Spooktober, Day 24: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

51r78VLgcfL.jpg

“He understood that the ghost existed first and foremost within his own head. That maybe ghosts always haunted minds, not places. If he wanted to take a shot at it, he’d have to turn the barrel against his own temple.”

Like father, like son.

Judas Coyne is a burned-out rock star with a macabre collection of strange and morbid artefacts, like a hangman’s noose and a genuine Mexican snuff tape. So it doesn’t take much to convince him to buy a dead man’s suit on an online auction, even if it is haunted. But once the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box, it isn’t long before Jude realises that the ghost inside has a very sinister and personal vendetta against him, and they won’t stop until Jude pays for what he’s done.

It’s hard to talk about Hill’s work without reference to his father, Stephen King. They have a lot in common. Hill has inherited King’s understanding of the darkness within people and uses it in a way that strangely makes them more sympathetic. Our nominal hero, Jude, is unquestionably a self-centred butthole who treats women as disposable and insulates himself from others through his privilege, he’s not unsympathetic, and it turns out he has good reasons for why he is the way he is. Like many great horror protagonists, Jude really has no one to blame but himself for the mess he’s in, and he at least has the decency to try and keep those close to him safe.

I find Joe Hill’s writing style easier than King’s: it’s lighter, leaner and with just enough humour to accent the darkness. It helps that Hill references pop-culture touchstones and musical trends that strike a chord with me as a nannied millennial raised on a diet of postmodern trash, I suppose.

Feel free to take a guess about which rock star Jude most resembles (I’ve got my own ideas).

Spooktober, Day 23: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

547094-1.jpg

“The world’s gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it.
The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it.”

A deadly pandemic has laid civilisation low. Robert Neville is the last man left alive on earth, but he is not alone. By day, he does what he can to survive in Los Angeles and hunts the monsters roaming the world. By night, he barricades himself inside and prepares to fend off the creatures that were once his neighbours, holding them at bay by garlic and holy symbols while he works on a cure the disease that took his family from him.

I Am Legend is a vampire novel that isn’t really about vampires. Instead, it’s about survival in a world gone mad. The monsters themselves are almost laughably pathetic and easily vanquished in daylight, and their vulnerabilities limit what harm they can bring to Robert beyond mild taunting. It’s implied that Robert could hold the creatures off indefinitely, but the real danger is what is going on in his mind. Robert is unravelling, slowly, clinging desperately to any fragment of hope. He researches a possible cure for vampirism because it gives him something to do. He obsesses over befriending a dog, the first living creature he has seen in years. He is so ecstatic to meet another living human being that he doesn’t stop to think that it’s just a little bit strange. By the novel’s climax, it becomes clear that it’s Robert who is the tormented monster that can’t function in this brave new world, not the vampires who have begun to rebuild society.

Six decades after it’s initial publication, I Am Legend still reads like a fresh take on vampires. It deconstructs a lot of vampiric folklore, tries to explain it rationally instead of giving it a supernatural impetus. By rooting the cause of the vampirism biological warfare and mutation, Matheson presents vampirism as a disease rooted in science instead of a mystical curse. Most of the folklore concerning vampires— in particular, their vulnerability to garlic or mirrors— is explained as a psychosomatic product of cultural osmosis.

I Am Legend turns post-apocalyptic horror by asking who’s the real monster: the people who’ve adapted to change or the crazy survivalist trying to recreate the old world? It did a lot to reclaim vampires from the crypts of gothic churches and directly inspired the zombie apocalypse genre by presenting the undead as a mass wave of infected corpses in the wake of society’s collapse. It’s an impeccably written and vital book for anyone who wants to understand the psychology of horror, and how to subvert genre conventions.

Spooktober, Day 22: Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson.

9306570c-7ed0-458e-89eb-c38320bfa5f7.jpg

Hexed is a spinoff of Michael Alan Nelson’s comic series for Boom! Studios, Fall of Cthulhu. It centres around the escapades of Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, AKA “Lucifer,” (yes, that is her name), a thief-for-hire and occasional witch who is technically apprenticed to an immoral sorceress from another dimension. Lucifer works for a gallery owner and uses her supernatural thieving skills to make sure the weird and unspeakable artefacts that are so beloved of Lovecraft’s monsters don’t end up in the wrong hands.

The series ran for two volumes, in 2008-9 and 2014-15 and they’re both worth looking into. Hexed has a lot going for it: Dan Mora’s fantastic line art; a badass yet likeable female lead; an urban fantasy setting with a darker underside; and a colourful supporting cast of strange eldritch creatures. It feels a lot like Buffy, in a way: the same youthful wit in the face of unimaginable horror. Both series are pretty short and self-contained, and worth checking out.

8dfdc-hexed_001_press-4.jpg

Nelson also wrote a young adult novel about Lucifer’s early years called Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown. It’s full of YA tropeyness (cute boiz and high school angst), but it’s an easy and less hardcore intro to the series for those who prefer prose to sequential art.

Spooktober, Day 21: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

 

61YDlzTiFQL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg“ ‘Were you aware,’ began Lord Ruthven, ‘that there are people in these isles whose sole objection to the marriage of our dear Queen – Victoria Regina, Empress of India, et cetera – to Vlad Dracula – known as Tepes, quondam Prince of Wallachia – is that the happy bridegroom happened once to be, in a fashion I shan’t pretend to understand, a Roman Catholic?’ “

When I was younger and still had the time and the money to dedicate to Warhammer, I sometimes dipped into the supplementary fiction. A lot of it was functional, if unremarkable tie-in fiction, with all the good and bad that the term implies. But one of the books that stood out to me was The Vampire Genevieve, an anthology by Jack Yeovil’s about the misadventures of a Bretonnian (think French with Arthurian touches) vampire named Genevieve Dieudonne. They struck me because they weren’t particularly “Warhammer-y”: that is, they didn’t rely in particular on Games Workshop’s intellectual property as a crutch, so much as used it as set-dressing for the tales of a badass lady vampire adventuress.

Years later, I bought Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula on Kindle during a sale, thinking I’d get around to it at some point because the premise sounded cool. It only became an absolute must read when I discovered that “Jack Yeovil” was Newman’s pen name, and that Genevieve was in Anno Dracula. Somehow, someone had snuck a tabletop wargaming character into their vampire novel.

That’s the kind of offbeat craziness you can expect in Anno Dracula, a novel where Queen Victoria has remarried a charming Wallachian count named Vlad who institutes a new authoritarian regime under the blood-drinking aristocracy of the night. It’s 1988, and our heroine Genevieve (still a vampire, still French, still awesome) teams up with an agent of the Diogenes Club to hunt down Jack The Ripper.

The cast of Anno Dracula is drawn from across literature and history, including characters from Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Oscar Wilde and just about any and every literary vampire you can think of. It’s littered with in-jokes and barely-there references to vampire lore and obscure pop culture. It’s like a blood-themed League of Extraordinary Gentleman that works as satire, mystery, alternate history and horror. It’s the vampirest vampire story that ever vampired. It’s the perfect antidote for anyone who worries that vampires have lost their way lately, a celebration and a reminder of how awesome and how terrifying the lords of the night can still be.

Spooktober, Day 20: Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

29939089.jpg

We saw last time for all of HP Lovecraft’s lasting influence it can be difficult to see past his racist views. That’s why today I wanted to take a look at Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys.

Winter Tide is, in essence, an unofficial follow-up and deconstruction of The Shadow over Innsmouth. The backstory hypothesises that after the 1928 raid on Innsmouth described by Lovecraft, the inhabitants were carted away to the Arizona desert and held in internment camps where they were treated as enemies of the United States. Their libraries of sacred texts and priceless artefacts were raided and their treasures carted off to be studied by academics and intelligence services, in an apparent parallel with historical imperialism

The story picks up in the 1950s, with Aphra Marsh, the granddaughter of the same Obed Marsh that brought the Deep Ones to Innsmouth. She lives in San Francisco with the Japanese family that adopted her in an Arizona internment camp (just to drive home the Deep Ones=interred aliens metaphor). When the FBI approach Aphra to learn if the magical secrets of her ancestors might fall into the hands of communist spies, she sees the opportunity to return home to Innsmouth and reclaim the heritage of her people.

Winter Tide deals deftly with the more problematic themes of Lovecraft’s work. Emrys recontextualises the Deep Ones that inhabited Innsmouth not as savage alien invaders, but the peaceful heirs to a vibrant culture who the government unfairly targeted for discrimination. It also makes up for the relative paucity of women in Lovecraft’s story by including several capable female leads.

Winter Tide is not strictly-speaking horror, but it presupposes the reader is familiar with Lovecraft’s work. It’s a genuinely sweet and warm-hearted fantasy novel about finding your family even when you think you’ve lost them. It’s about perseverance in the face of persecution. It’s also incredibly relevant to the state of the world today: letting the monsters of Lovecraft’s world speak for themselves it provides commentary on how we are still tempted to hate and fear anything different from ourselves.