Tuesday 16 February 2021

The Dark


I was so in the mood for this:

A blackness leaves its lair, and begins slowly to spread.

It came like a malignant shadow with seductive promises of power. Somewhere in the night, a small girl smiled as her mother burned, asylum inmates slaughtered their attendants, and in slimy tunnels once-human creatures gathered. Madness raged as the lights began to fade, and humanity was attacked by an ancient, unstoppable evil.

Every now an then, some old school 80s horror is exactly what you crave.

When I was in my teens, I used to travel from Northants to London every other weekend to go see my dad. It involved an underground change between Euston and Victoria. There was a magazine shop at Euston where I'd pick up a copy of Fortean Times, and I'd always have a book with me. 

I first tried to read It when I was visiting mum's friend in Germany as a kid, but it was a bit lost on me and I never made it far beyond the first chapter. In high school, me and all my female friends were into Point Horror, which we swapped between us each week. By my early teens I'd worked my way back up to adult horror, and me and dad bonded over gruesome classics. We used to go to Blockbuster and he'd let me choose. I think Pet Sematary was the first book-to-film adaptation I ever saw. 

The only book I think I never finished was Nemesis by Shaun Hutson. I got to the part where someone electrocutes themselves on the central rail of the underground - whilst I was standing in Euston Station underground, staring at the central rail. I think I pressed on, but not much further. 

My parents knew author Ian Watson  through the Labour party, and at a BBQ at his place one day he told us how he'd been at a writer's conference with Sean Hutson once and how, instead of hitting the booze, he'd ordered a weak cup of tea. Sort of amusing for a legend of horror.

Anyway, I developed a bit of an obsession with James Herbert's Haunted. I just absolutely loved that book so much. One of the best haunted house stories ever. 

They made a film out of it in 1995 with Kate Beckinsale as Christina and Aidan Quinn playing David Ash. It felt like an interminable wait for it to come out on VHS. Aiden Quinn did a good job, and Kate Beckinsale is great in everything she does (especially Shooting Fish), but the book just didn't really translate to the screen very well. 

It's very hard to please horror fans. Netflix keeps trying and falling flat. It's really hard to spook people out more than their own imaginations can. I remember watching Midnight Meat Train with dad and both just sitting there with appreciative nods as that commuter's eye pops out of his head. Very decent blend of special effects and CGI. But mostly it's hard to get that psychological thrill from film. Every now and then it works, but not often. 

I hadn't read proper old school horror in a really long time and I just fancied it. 

Herbert just has a lovely mixture of poignant and humour:

"Okay, I shouldn't be flippant. I agree, a man cutting his sleeping wife's throat with an electric hedge trimmer, then cutting the legs off his dog, isn't a joke. Running out of cable before he could attack the two policemen outside is mildly funny, though."


That's one of the nice things about old age. You have less of a future to worry about.


He had discovered his own original sin and decided it wasn't as evil as the Church had always taught him. Satan has now become a source of ridicule, or entertainment, even, a comical myth, a bogeyman, and evil came from man alone. 


[He] was an astonishing man, you see. His very wickedness made him attractive. Do you understand that, Chris? How a malignant thing can be attractive?... I found him fascinating. At first I didn't see the deepness of his corruption, the depravity that was not just part of him, but was him. His very being.

As with most of the best horror, this plays on a really simple, primal concept: fear of the dark. That sense that the dark is alive, sentient and malevolent.

The genius of this is, Herbert simply hops from house to house, describing every conceivable manor of gruesome execution. The context is simply: everyone's gone mad. There is an absolute bloodbath of a mass suicide at the beginning. I think the most graphic image is one of a woman straddling a shotgun that goes off. Then there's Animal, who manages to electrocute 600 people at a football stadium, and the obligatory scene in a mental hospital where all the inmates escape and the place burns down.

It is so old school. Every trope in the book.

I loved it.

And I also lamented, as I was listening, that horror like that has maybe seen its day?

Accepting the masters: King, Hutson, Herbert... could a newcomer find a publisher for that nowadays? 

The thing that struck me was that it doesn't work in today's world - not the same as it did when I was a kid. I was checking my phone during the story, I put it down to answer a text message, I took a break to play online scrabble. 

Horror works best when you're alone. When it's just you and a book. These kind of stories held such clout back in the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone age. They feel less scary now that we're never alone. Now that there's always a distraction. How can darkness compete with the blue glow of a phone screen?

Or maybe it's just that I'm older, and very little scares me anymore, because I've watched it all, and read it all, before?

I definitely felt like I was reading it in the wrong time period. Almost like a classic work feels as though it's transporting you to the time in which it should have been read.

I don't know. I wonder what the future of horror will be.

Anyway, it was a lovely, nostalgic experience.

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