Spooktober, Day 12: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

One of the themes that have come up repeatedly while writing these posts for Spooktober (“The Spooksiest Time Of The Year!tm”) is that great horror is not always about supernatural monstrosities invading our every day lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic thriller, Rebecca.

It’s a tale as old as time: girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl moves into boys expansive stately home in the country, girl finds herself haunted by the ongoing presence of boy’s impossibly glamorous ex-wife, girl is threatened by boy’s obsessive old housekeeper, boy’s house burns down. How often have we heard that tale?

It’s a novel about a haunting that doesn’t include a single (literal)  ghost. Rebecca herself is a presence and character despite her posthumous status:  Because so much of the action is going on in Mrs de Winter’s head, blurring the line between reality and imagination. She is a character in a constant state of anxiety, forever comparing herself to her predecessor and making assumptions about what other characters think about her. She is, in a sense, gaslighting herself, just as Mrs Danvers subtly undermines her self-confidence and keeps alive the memory of the former mistress. Du Maurier’s genius lies in her ability to build up this sense of unease into fear as the story progresses. Anyone looking to write horror or build tension would do well to read, study and absorb the lessons of Rebecca.

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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…

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…