The hero of Solo can’t be Han Solo

dmwqziuvoaut69--1038845.jpgI’m starting to worry about Solo: A Star Wars Story.

My fears are probably misplaced: Disney has so far had a strong batting average since it became the steward of Lucasfilm— to say nothing of its success shepherding Marvel. And to be honest, the thing that scares me isn’t the loss of the original directors, or complaints about Disney’s heavy-handed involvement, or concerns about the cast. The nagging doubt I have is that it may not be possible to do justice to the character of Han Solo in a prequel because Han Solo isn’t a hero yet.

The challenge that Solo faces is that it needs Han’s character needs to end up as we see him in A New Hope. And there’s no way around it, but Han Solo isn’t a hero at the start of Episode IV. He’s not even particularly nice: he’s a selfish, money-grubbing pirate. Han only offers passage to Alderaan to Luke and Obi-Wan to pay off his debts. He’s perfectly happy to sit out Luke’s plan to rescue Leia until he’s enticed with an offer of payment. And, yes, Han shoots Greedo in self-defence, despite the best efforts of George Lucas to make us forget.

The reason that the audience reacted poorly to Lucas’s retcon of Greedo’s murder is that it undermines Han’s character development. The whole point of his character arc is that he starts off as a despicable— if charming— scumbag, a low-life criminal, yet by the end of the film, enough of Luke’s idealism has worn off on the old smuggler that he’s inspired to risk his life to save his friends and destroy the Death Star. That’s the standard Hollywood formula: a flawed character learning to overcome their failings in the face of overwhelming difficulty.

The challenge, then, is how can Solo present Han becoming the unlikable cad he is in A New Hope in a way that doesn’t alienate him to the audience. Solo has to end with its lead character as the selfish murderer that Luke meets in the Mos Eisley cantina. There are plenty of examples in fiction of narratives that centre around unpleasant yet fascinating characters and their fall into darkness: one only needs to think of from Macbeth or Breaking Bad to realise that Lucasfilm could pull off this kind of narrative arc. The problem is that falls from grace are by definition tragic, and I doubt that Disney wants it’s second Star Wars anthology to leave the cinema feeling bummed out. This is going to be fun-filled, action-packed romp, full of knowing glances and memetic one-liners, not a heavy-handed character study about how a wide-eyed young pilot became the scruffy-looking nerf herder who fried Greedo on sight.

Maybe that’s why so many prequels disappoint. The resolution to great fiction should be “surprising yet inevitable:” that is, the ending should surprise the audience, but in a way that makes it clear that this was always the way things were going to go down. We’re surprised that Frodo cannot bring himself to destroy the ring, because the sheer weight of narrative causality would seem to compel the hero to fling the source of the villain’s power into the fire; yet somehow, it seems inevitable that the Ring would seduce Frodo, because we’ve seen its influence over the course of three books/movies. The problem with this is that it’s hard to surprise the audience when we know how the story is going to end. It’s an issue that Star Wars itself has faced more than once, most notably in the prequel trilogy where the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a foregone conclusion, yet it was difficult to square how the character went from petulant adolescent to cold-hearted space-tyrant. Even Rogue One, a film that sticks its landing with far more success than the earlier prequels, was a foregone conclusion: the rebels get the Death Star plans, and the only surprise was the gradual realisation that the film’s heroes were not going to make it out alive.

I’m going to see Solo whatever happens. I’m probably going to love it. I may end up taking back every word I’ve just written come May, like when I said I wasn’t going to watch Game of Thrones anymore. I just wonder if a film detailing the early life of Han Solo is necessarily the slam dunk it appears to be at first glance.

Maybe they should have just made the film about Lando?


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…

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 28: The Best of Creepypasta

Slender_playground.jpgSome of the best (and, it must be said, worst) horror stories that I’ve read in recent years have come from the Internet. They have a way of floating around on forums and message boards, spreading from user to user like the digital equivalent of campfire stories, primed to deliver a short gust of terror running down your back.

Creepypasta (so called because they are creepy copy-pastes) touches on the fear of the unknown and delights in perverting innocence. Since a lot of the work is anonymous (or at least pseudonymous), there’s a lot of ambiguity to them, a blurring between fiction and reality that adds to the fear. The best stories plant a seed of doubt, nurturing the possibility that they could be true after all. Like the stories of MR James, there’s a sense that these stories could happen to the reader if they were unlucky enough.

There’s an awful lot of material out there of uneven quality, so I’ve pulled together some of my favourites here. A word of advice, though: read them with the lights on…

Ben Drowned

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

There’s a lot (a LOT) of stories based on the idea of a haunted video game since they’re such a common generational touchstone, and because the Internet loves to pervert innocent pastimes, but I can’t think of any as notorious or effective as “Ben Drowned”.

Ben Drowned follows the narrator comes across a second-hand copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for the N64, only to discover that there is *something* lurking on the cartridge that wants him to suffer.  There’s also a much more extensive alternate reality game following up on the original story if you’re going to follow up on that. Naturally, the story works best if you’re familiar with Majora’s Mask (an excellent game to play for Halloween in its own right), but the original story is accompanied by videos of modded gameplay (at least, I hope it’s modded!) as “proof” that something strange is going on, so it doesn’t leave unfamiliar readers in the dark.

The Slender Man Mythos

“We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”

You might have heard of this one…

For some time now, the Internet has been haunted by a mysterious figure: an unnaturally thin figure with no face, often seen in the background of photographs or at the edges of an online video. No one knows what it is, or where it came from, or what it wants, but it traumatises anyone unfortunate enough to see it, and more than a few people who go looking for it have never come back…

The Slender Man mythos is pretty much ingrained into Internet folklore at this point. The creature has appeared in what seems like hundreds of online stories, vlogs and video games, and has been implicated in at least one real-life stabbing. While it’s probably appropriate that Slender Man has become an ungainly, many-tentacled monster, it does make it hard to pick a single place to start. Marble Hornets on Youtube is probably the best of the original “canon” that everyone can agree on, and there’s a couple of video games (Slender: The Eight Pages and Slender: The Arrival) that get the feel down pretty well.

The Red Room

“Do you like___?”

This one isn’t so much a creepypasta as a persistent urban legend from Japan. The story goes that there is as a pop-up that won’t go away, always asking the user “do you like__?” No matter how often you click away, the voice keeps asking, until it finally asks “do you like the Red Room?“ At that point, the unfortunate victim’s fate is sealed.

You can watch the video here if you’re feeling up to it. Or watch this for a little more context.

Tomino’s Hell

“Hell is wrapped in darkness and even the flowers don’t bloom”

This one beat me.

The story goes that there is a poem that when read aloud causes an unspecified disaster to befall the reader. No one knows where the poem came from, or who wrote it, but much like the legend that saying “Bloody Mary” into a mirror will summon a ghost, this one seems like a dare, the sort of thing that someone will wheel out at a party while drunk to show how brave they are. Maybe I’m just a cowardly custard, or perhaps I’ve seen too many horror movies that start this way, but I just can’t bring myself to read the poem, even silently, just in case.

But, if you’re feeling brave…

My Dead Girlfriend Keeps Messaging Me On Facebook

“Em had been dead for approaching 13 months when she first messaged me.”

This story is pretty self-explanatory: the narrator is haunted by his dead girlfriend, who uses social media to make her presence felt. It’s worth a look if you want to get paranoid about what you get up to on social media.

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 26: Halloween films for people who don’t like horror

Today I thought I’d do something different for Spooktober. I know horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I didn’t want anyone to feel left out because I think there’s enough magic in Halloween that it doesn’t just have to be about blood and suffering and that cold, pale hand resting on your shoulder…
So, just for a change (and not at all because I’m starting to run out of horror-related books to talk about), I thought I’d throw out a few ideas for films to watch for people who don’t like horror. Feel free to throw suggestions at me for any others, because I might be coming back to this later if I don’t read fast enough!

movieposter.jpgThe Cabin In The Woods

“Yes, you had “Zombies.” But this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.” They’re two entirely separate species. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

I’m going to start with a borderline case. Of all the films on this list, The Cabin in the Woods is the closest to actual horror, with strong, bloody violence and the occasional jump-scare. It also presupposes a familiarity with horror movies (or at least their tropes). But it’s also critical of many of the mean-spirited and pointless cliches that pop up again in horror— especially teen slasher movies— so it’s worth seeing even if you don’t like horror, so long as you’re okay with the grisly parts.
It’s similar in tone to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a surprise given the involvement of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard), full of wit and never really taking itself too seriously. It recognises how problematic horror can be, and the self-awareness helps cushion the blow.
There’s not really more I can say about it since explaining the film’s premise is basically a spoiler (seriously, even the trailer gave it away). Feel free to watch it with the lights one, because the joy of this film isn’t really in the scares. I’m willing to bet that by the end, you might even be cheering for the monsters…

Hotel TransylvaniaMV5BMTM3NjQyODI3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDM4NjM0OA@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_.jpg

“What is this place? It is a place I build for all those monsters out there lurking in the shadows, hiding from the persecution of human kind. A place for them and their families to come to and free themselves. A place void of torches, pitchforks and angry mobs! A place of peace, relaxation and tranquillity.”

“Cool, so it’s like a hotel for monsters?”

“Yes, exactly. A hotel for monsters. Way to sum it up.”
Part of me wishes I didn’t like Hotel Transylvania. It want’s to dismiss it as just another cookie-cutter CGI movie spat out for half-term, loaded with gratuitous celebrity voice actors and pop culture references. It even ends with a dance party to pop music. So why do I like it so much?
It’s fun, it’s harmless, and there are cameos from just about every classic movie monster I can think of. At its core, there’s also a lovely, touching, earnest performance from Adam Sandler as Dracula (yes, I’m as surprised as anyone). Sandler manages to play the Count as a sympathetic but misguided overprotective dad, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when we discover his motivation for wanting his daughter safe. It helps that Dracula is animated with such fluidity and comic timing, and the most heartwarming smile ever seen from an animated STD-metaphor.

06-dyk-nightmare.jpgThe Nightmare Before Christmas

“There’s children throwing snowballs
Instead of throwing heads.
They’re busy building toys
And absolutely no one’s dead!”
This one’s pretty obvious.
Which side do you fall down on? Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie?
I was a sensitive child. I screamed all the way through The Little Mermaid when I first saw it because I was terrified that a singing cephalopod might turn me into a polyp. But I never had a problem with The Nightmare Before Christmas. That might be because I was so traumatised by Tim Burton’s short film Vincent, which ran before Nightmare, so I had no terror left for Jack Skellington et al.
I suspect most people that are reading this know how good this film is. The stop-motion animation is excellent. The character designs are charming. The songs are memorable (they’re probably stuck in your head right now). Is there anything new to be said about The Nightmare Before Christmas?
Well, it’s possibly the most accessible allegory for the dangers of cultural appropriation

dracula1931.jpgDracula (1931)

“To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Quick experiment: imagine Dracula speaking. How does he sound? What accent does he use? I am willing to bet that ninety-nine point nine percent of people reading this are hearing Bela Lugosi.
Whether you like or not, for most of us Lugosi is the count. His performance has this strange, stilted pacing (“I neffer drink… vine”) that makes him feel eerie and inhuman. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch with the knowledge that his role as Dracula left Lugosi typecast for the rest of his career. He’s become so iconic, his role so often imitated, parodied and mocked, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Which is why I’m tempted to suggest that if you’re going to watch the original Universal adaptation of Dracula, treat it like a comedy.
Maybe it’s unfair to point out the flaws of a film whose leading man was born in the nineteenth century, but Dracula is pretty safe to watch now. If anything, its age has leant it a goofy charm and magnified. Why does is Castle Dracula infested with armadilloes? Was anyone really convinced by a rubber bat on a string hoisted outside the window? Why do all the Transylvanian peasants speak English? How does no one instantly grok that the sinister pale man in an opera cape might be up to something?
It’s not my favourite cinematic Dracula (I love the camped-up ham of the 90s version with Gary Oldman), but it’s probably the safest if you don’t want to get too scared. The central performance is mesmerising, and there’s a lot of fun to have from watching everyone else ham it up in response.


“But what about the people who hurt you? Don’t you ever want to make them suffer?

“Well, yeah, but what good would that do?”
I don’t get why Paranorman isn’t celebrated as a modern Halloween classic.
On paper it’s reasonably straightforward: young Norman is ostracised as a weirdo due to his ability to see and talk to the dead, until the day he is called upon to stop a witch’s curse from coming true. But what really gives Paranorman its soul is the way it’s prepared to tackle difficult themes in a way that doesn’t feel inappropriate for a family film.
Everything about it screams “Halloween,” from children who talk to the dead, to witches, to zombies, to ancient curses. Like all of Laika’s film, there’s a fundamental faith in the essential decency of mankind. No one in this movie is genuinely evil: the conflict comes from the prejudice and short-sightedness of the characters. It’s a necessary lesson for anyone to learn, whatever their age may be.

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


“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


“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


“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.