Tuesday 22 September 2015

Grim tales from the darker end of the year

Okay ... it's THAT time of year again. Summer is finally over. The vibrant greens and yellows of the August leafage transform to red and orange. The mornings turns fresher and cooler, the nights arrive earlier and earlier - soon they are intruding into the very afternoon. Mist starts to linger on our woodland paths. And our thoughts turn slowly but surely to the darker side of the human experience ...

It's amazing how many tellers of sinister tales have taken inspiration from the autumn months. I'm sure this harks back to those centuries-old traditions, our Norse, Saxon and Celtic ancestors having gathered the harvest and, finding themselves with nothing else to do for the next few months, crowding around the longhouse hearth, drinking ale and mead and filling each other's heads with lurid tales about the evil beings cavorting in the icy darkness outside.

The waning of the year has always exerted an eerie fascination on the minds of men. It's quite understandable given that we were once exclusively an agrarian society. In those days, the return of autumn to our land, with its cold nights, tumbling leaves and grey fogs, foreshadowing the onset of winter, during which time everything seemed to die, was in itself a terrifying prospect. In an age minus gas fires and electric lighting, when no medication was available with which to treat those innumerable cold weather ailments, just surviving the season could be a real challenge. For a superstitious people, it was easy to believe that this new harsh regime was the natural abode of goblins, ghouls and other evil spirits.

This folk memory clearly lingers in our modern tradition for autumn and winter spook stories.

Some of the best scary fiction I've ever read has mined this exact seam. One little-known tale, Hannah of the Fields by Carey Curtis Smith, made a lasting impression on me; after I'd read it, I knew I'd never look at the Harvest Festival the same way again. Meanwhile, one of the truly best horror stories ever written, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, pits young Jim Nightshade against the 'Autumn People', who, under the guidance of the malevolent Mr. Dark, seem to encompass everything magical, mysterious and menacing about those shortening, gloomy days at the end of the year.

At the same time, Ramsey Campbell's exquisite little suburban horror story, The Guy, perfectly captures the haunting atmosphere on November 5, when British kids, for some reason never completely understood abroad, are permitted to make effigies of human beings and gleefully burn them on bonfires (though this version of the annual event is augmented with several of Campbell's own typically grotesque innovations). Likewise, Halloween - the big daddy of all autumn festivals - has provided the backdrop to some nightmarish stories, not least another of the finest ever written, Casting The Runes by M.R. James, which was eventually adapted as an equally memorable Halloween-set movie, Night of the Demon.

Of course, as these twin-subjects of Bonfire Night and Halloween testify, autumn wouldn't be autum without its special days and customs.

And yet, how many of these twisted occasions actually are there?

A couple of years ago, to mark the publication of my novel SACRIFICE, in which DS Mark Heckenburg pursues a gang of killers who are 'honouring' special days and customs with sadistic and yet very appropriate human sacrifices, I wrote a piece for this blog about the rites of spring, and how there were so many strange and uncanny traditions during March, April and May that that was by far the best time of year in which to set such a book. Consquently, it didn't come as a complete surprise to me to discover that the atumn - which gets most people's vote as the spookiest time of year - is not quite so well-endowed.

In actual fact, I'd first realised this back in 2009, when writing my novella, Season of Mist, which at this time is no longer in print, though it may still be possible to find copies of WALKERS IN THE DARK - the ASH-TREE PRESS collection in which it first appeared - available online (I do intend to put this right, by the way - hopefully there'll be an e-release sometime soon). Season of Mist concerned a bunch of school-age children in the industrial North of England, and how they became convinced that the crimes of a local serial killer were the work of a demon inadvertantly released from a derelict coalmine. It was set during the September, October and November of 1974, and my original intent was to utilise as many eerie autumn customs as I could. But ultimately, with the exception of one or two curiosties - Braughing Old Man's Day on October 2, Old Michaelmas Day (or Dog-Whipping Day!!!) on October 10, and a few modern inventions like Punkie Night, Mischief Night and Devil's Night, all in late October - I ended up falling back on the the main two occasions, which, as you'd expect, were Halloween on October 31 and Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) on November 5.

Halloween, of course, speaks for itself. Though it's a misunderstood festival, owing mainly to the Eve of Hallowtime, a medieval Christian feast on which the dead were religiously honoured, rather than a witches' sabbath, it did coincide with Samhain, an ancient Irish feast marking the end of the Harvest season and one which most likely had pre-Christian roots, so it still deserves its esoteric reputation. When the customs of these feasts are brought together - the lighting of jack-o-lanterns, the bobbing for apples, the ghoulish masquerade, the trick or treat, the telling of ghost stories - you have an event that has rightly served as an inspiration to thriller and horror writers since time immemorial, A well as those tales already mentioned, and just off the top of my head, The Samhain Feis by Peter Tremayne, The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz, Boo by Richard Laymon, Hollow Eyes by Guy N. Smith, The Candle In The Skull by Basil Copper, and All Souls' by Edith Wharton are all among my favourite ghost and horror stories, while Hollywood indulges itself too, seemingly every year, recent movies like Sleepy Hollow and Trick 'r' Treat going overboard in their efforts to recreate the Halloween horror experience.

And yet, Bonfire Night, which is only really celebrated here in the UK, has more recent origins and is in several ways a much darker and crueller occasion. At one time it was illegal in England not to commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic gunpowder plotters on November 5 1605 and the subsequent foiling of their plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament and murder King James I. None of those convicted were executed by burning - they were hanged, drawn and quartered instead, but the immolation of Guy Fawkes effigies all over the UK each November 5 still invokes memories of a sectarian British Isles in which religious and political differences could incur draconian punishments. That said, it's largely a fun and harmless occasion these days, sadly diminishing in my view, as health and safety regulations prohibit the impromptu lighting of bonfires outside private premises, and the use of fireworks has become quite common on special occasions all year round. However, as well as Ramsey Campbell's great tale, I can easily think of several other Bonfire Night-themed short stories: Funeral March Of A Marionette by John Metcalfe, and at least three that first appeared in the legendary Pan Horror series - Guy Fawkes Night by Richard Davis, Bonfire by C.A. Cooper, and Firework Night by St. John Bird. so clearly the spirit of the occasion still lingers in those darker imaginations.

But for all these quirky traditions - wearing pumpkin heads for God's sake, burning mannequins at the stake - it's still the ambience of this time of year that does it for me. We've no sooner got used to the light and warmth of summer when suddenly it's turned cold and dark again. All at once there's a smell of fungus and mildew in the air; rich pastures become desokate wastes; trees wither before our eyes. This is surely the ideal season in which to write and set scary stories - and you don't even have to use the meaning of the special dates. Look at the iconic movie,  Halloween. It's actually nothing to do with the festival of All Hallows Eve - it's a tale of a mass murder which just happens to be set on October 31, and yet it works so well. Hey, it doesn't even have to be genuinely scary. Check out that comedy/horror masterpiece of stage and screen, Arsensic and Old Lace. I swear, you'll be screaming with laughter, not terror, but it's another Halloween classic all the same.

So go on, take the darkening of the year on the chin. Immerse yourself in its dreariness and gloom, and in the eeriness and downright weirdness of its customs, and let it carry you away on a tide of imaginary menace. And get bloody writing.



A new and ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

THE TERROR by Dan Simmons (2007)

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.

What actually happened will never be known, but in his blockbusting horror opus, The Terror, US author Dan Simmons gives us his own unique version of events – and it is one of the most enthralling and chilling stories you are ever likely to read.

As if the ravages of hypothermia, frostbite, scurvy and lead poisoning aren’t enough, the ships’ crews, who are already icebound when we join them, must also deal with a ferocious and unstoppable monster drawn straight from the darkest corner of Inuit mythology and now intent upon hunting them to the last man …

But, whatever you do, don’t come at this book under the impression that it’s simply a creature feature. Yes, the monster is relentless and terrifying and one of the main characters in the book – and its attacks are truly horrific, but there is so much more to The Terror than this.

To begin with, Simmons gives us a detail-crammed account of a hugely complex and heroic undertaking, leaving nothing out as he constructs in our mind’s eye the image of an invincible force, the best the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service can offer – the cream of its officers, the pick of its men, and the finest two ships in the fleet, both driven by new-fangled steam engines and ploughing the ice with their armour plated hulls – and then, slowly and sadistically deconstructs it, hitting us blow by blow with its gradual deteoriation in the White Hell of the Arctic wilderness, one thing after another going wrong from the mundane to the unbelievably disastrous … until all that remains is annihilation. Even without the monster, this would be an orgy of hardship, the participants constantly called on to use every scrap of strength and ingenuity they have just to survive for one day more, and so often failing.

It’s an epic of endurance, a saga of suffering. And as such, the book is massive – its prodigious length (an amazing 944 pages!) has supposedly put some punters off. But it’s so well-written and so readable that – for all its colossal length there is scarely no padding, and despite the fact so much of it is spent on the desolate ice-floes or deep in the nauseating dungeons below decks – its pace just bounces along. 

And as I say, it’s more than just a litany of horrors. Before its huge cast of characters gets whittled down, Dan Simmons creates a vivid cross-section of 19th century sea-faring life, from tough, professional seamen to damned rankers, from captains courageous to traitors and mutineers. The life-and-death intricacies of Arctic navigation are also laid out in minute and fascinating detail. It’s a wonder of research. You’d almost believe Simmons had been there himself and experienced it.

And then we have the set-pieces, which are among the best and most savage I’ve ever read. The battles with the ice-beast, the brutal flogging of the seditious, the cannibalisation of slain comrades, and most startling of all, a grand and crazy masquerade on the ice – men driven mad by cold and starvation cavorting in lurid costmes, performing profane rituals from the world of Grand Guignol in temperatures of a hundred below …

I can’t say anymore, except that The Terror is a historical horror masterpiece and must be read to be believed. Whatever you do, don’t let its size put you off. This is a page-turner of the first order.

And now, as usual just for fun, a bit of fantasy casting. My picks for who should play the leads if The Terror were ever to make it to the screen (my latest understanding is that a TV series is in development – probably not enough masked superheroes for it to get the big screen treatment):

Captain Francis Crozier – Michael Fassbender
Doctor Harry Goodsir – Timothy Spall
Lieutenant John Irving – Eddie Redmayne
Cornelius Hickey – Andy Serkis
Thomas Blanky – Robson Green
Lady Silence – Roseanne Supernault
Sir John Franklin – Anthony Hopkins

(This week's pictures, are, from the top down: Autumn Woods by 221 Bbakerbabe; the original cover for Something Wicked This Way Comes, Niall McGuinness in Night of the Demon; Sacrifice; Walkers In The Dark; a still from Trick 'r' Treat Bonfire Night at Billiecray by William Warby, Cary Grant in Arsenic And Old Lace, and The Terror.

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