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Have you ever met someone so beautiful it scared you a little?
This is not the fear of failing to impress, or the nervousness you feel on approaching someone you like. Talking to this person is easy, all too easy.
This person seems perfect for you; and yet, headily mixed with the excitement, is a distant terror. Is it rooted in helplessness, or inner conflict, in knowing self-deception? Haven’t you glimpsed it, this subtle dread walking hand in hand with exceptional beauty?
“The first impression I had of Alma Mobley…I felt an odd mixture of attraction and revulsion…The straight blond hair glowed. So did her pale eyes: in them I saw a kaleidoscope of shattered light and colours…She seemed beautiful in a nearly mythic way.” 1
Why are the pages of horror populated not only by monsters but also by gorgeous, perfect, alluring creatures: beauties as well as beasts. And which is more dangerous? With a monster, all you have to do is outrun it.
“Did I say she was beautiful? I was wrong. Beauty is too tame a notion…I cannot do it justice with words. Suffice it to say that it would break your heart to see her, and it would mend what was broken in the same moment…” 2
This is no modern invention. The potency of an Edward Cullen or an Alma Mobley draws on ancient archetypes. The Succubus, the Incubus, the Siren. The notion of frightening, unearthly, predatory beauty is as old as culture.
But surely the heroes and good guys are the good-looking ones! The terrifying things are those which you cannot bear to look at – the unspeakable face of the demon, the vision of torture and horror, the bogeyman.
Yes, but our relationship with the beast is a simple one, our response unambiguous – psychologists call it fight or flight. What’s far more perilous is standing mesmerised before someone so beautiful it makes you ache inside, wanting more than anything not to leave their presence, while a distant, un-heeded voice in your head is screaming, Run for your life!
You are a sailor, heading inexorably for the rocks, and loving every second of the journey.
1 Peter Straub Ghost Story.
2 Description of Caesaria Barbarossa from Clive Barker’s Galilee.
If you’re a horror fan like myself you will probably have spent a fair bit of time rooting out Facebook pages and groups that fit in with your…’unusual’ tastes. But all too often they turn out to be lightweight, disappointing, and about as scary as Barney the Dinosaur.
Where are the real horror pages, the really nasty stuff, that you wouldn’t want your Aunt Jessica to see?
Look no further… you have a taste for the macabre, the horrific and the downright disturbing, this is the page for you…
In the last days of the 1970s, in dark corners of England, something strange began to happen. In suburban houses across the country, young people were putting on dark clothes, listening to sombre post-punk music, and trying to persuade their parents to let them paint their bedrooms black. I was one of them, and it astounds me that, over 30 years later, gothic subculture is not only still alive and kicking but has gone global.
Even more surprising is that it all started in Bromley. This sprawling, non-descript suburb of London is not a likely setting for…well for anything.
The ‘Bromley contingent’ were a punk clique, followers of the Sex Pistols. Among them was Susan Ballion, later and better known to the world as Siouxsie Sioux. With her band, the Banshees, she would unleash the first truly gothic records on the world – Staircase and Playground Twist. She would also be the first person to use the term ‘gothic’ to describe the burgeoning music and fashion scene she was spearheading.
Well, at least, that’s one version of events. Others will tell you that, rather than being the dark offspring of punk, goth had its ancestry in the New Romantic movement. Furthermore, they will claim that goth culture as we know it today was spawned not in Bromley but in the appropriately gloomy northern city of Leeds. And they will pronounce the Bauhaus single Bela Lugosi’s Dead as the first goth record, and ascribe the first use of ‘gothic’ to that late, dark genius Tony Wilson, when referring to the music of Joy Division.
Another person will tell you a different story again. That’s fine. It’s perfectly appropriate that the origins of goth are arcane and lost in the shadows.
My own first sight of someone who looked distinctly gothic was, predictably, at a gig. Less predictably, it was at a cricket club in a small town in Kent. Sitting in a shadowy corner that night were two girls in long black dresses, with long black hair, and deathly pale faces painted with spiders webs. But they were referred to as ‘gothic punks’. I didn’t encounter the word goth until much later…and it wasn’t exactly being used as a compliment.
Was I a goth myself? Well, I wore a lot of black clothes, dabbled occasionally with eye-liner, had a painting of the grim reaper on my bedroom wall, and had declared Joy Division’s Closer to be the greatest album of all time. I suppose it’s an open and shut case.
But would I have called myself a goth? No. Because what tends to get forgotten today is that, in those early years, it was often used as a derogatory term. The bands themselves were at best uncomfortable with the label. Why? In my view, as the genre expanded and new bands started up, gothic rock just wasn’t taken seriously. Songs about horror, death and the occult? Guys dressed in pixie boots and big black hats? These were painfully earnest times, and goth was dismissed by many as absurd. It wasn’t political or socially progressive; it was about emotion, drama, atmosphere, imagery.
These were qualities that some derided, but others embraced. They’d been waiting for a music that didn’t have to be taken too seriously for a long time. And once it had cut its self-conscious umbilical with punk, goth could become unashamedly, gloriously itself.
And so the way was clear for goth to become established as the internationally recognisable subculture we see today, with its own visual codes, uniforms and attitudes. These days the word goth is a badge worn by many with pride. And why not? It’s been around for a long time, and shows no signs of fading away. Goth’s not dead! Like Bela Lugosi, it’s undead, and therefore immortal.
Where would get your vote for the greatest horror novel setting of all time? Castle Dracula? The Overlook Hotel? There are many possibilities, but there’s a good chance your answer would fall into the category of ‘old, scary building’. Buildings, as containers for fear, are absolutely crucial to the darker side of literature.
Recently, I read the book that started it all. And it’s not Frankenstein or Dracula. It was written more than 80 years before Bram Stoker was born. And its author was, of all people, a Member of Parliament. Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto gave us the prototype for every old, scary building that came after.
From page one, its inhabitants are terrified by surreal goings on in its shadowy chambers. The dark corridors and echoing crypts are full of whispers and shrieks of alarm. The castle is not only a setting for inexplicable and disturbing events but almost seems to be an accomplice to them.
The Castle of Otranto caused a sensation and this one short book launched an entire genre – the gothic novel, the forerunner of all horror and paranormal fiction. The gothic castle would remain the preferred setting for this kind of macabre entertainment well into the 19th century. And it’s still a powerful archetype today, even if sometimes in a tamer, friendlier form; isn’t Hogwarts just the Castle of Otranto echoing to the shouts of a rowdy school party?
Over time, the action moved into more modest, domestic surroundings. Which was lucky for writers in countries like America, where the only castles are the concrete and fibreglass ones belonging to Mr Disney. The vampires, spectres and monsters deigned to slum it in houses – as long as they were large, old and rambling. In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King places the Marsten House at the absolute heart of his narrative. It becomes almost a character in its own right, influencing events. This “beacon of evil” is not just the place where the vampire Barlow happens to end up – he has been drawn there, attracted by this powerful magnet of darkness.
So by the late 20th century horror had largely move out of the castle. Terror had down-sized. That’s perhaps because while the writers (and many of the readers) of 18th and 19th century gothic novels had occupied the upper echelons of society, modern writers tended to be ordinary people, living in ordinary houses, in ordinary towns.
This democratising of dark fiction had one very important and powerful side-effect: it brought it closer to us all; it brought it to streets and houses like our own, to our doorstep. And any psychologist will tell you that fictional narratives have a much greater impact on audiences if they happen against familiar backdrops.
Ancient battlements and secret passageways are all very well but they are not part of everyday experience for most of us. The horror that dwells in that empty house on the edge of your town is much more potent, relevant and harder to forget.
My debut novel, Elsham’s End is now available on Smashwords.com
Smashwords converts e-books into multiple formats, so you can download it to all devices and for reading on PCs.
You can also see a large sample of the book before you buy.
Recently, I blew an American’s mind.
I didn’t mean to. The lady in question was visiting some friends of mine and the conversation had turned to our school days, and all I did was mention that our school was founded in 1676. She made a flabbergasted noise and exclaimed, “That’s a century before my country was founded!”
But astonishing Americans isn’t hard in this part of Britain. You’re virtually tripping over history around here. Napoleonic, Medieval, Roman, it is everywhere.
I’m very fortunate to live in an area where the history is as rich as any place in Britain and longer than most. The Roman invasion landed here in Kent and that, for us Brits, is when recorded history started.
Not long after the Roman Empire fell, in the year 449, some guys stepped off a boat onto the Kentish shore about 20 miles from where I live. They were Anglo-Saxons, and they were the very first ancestors of the English (and of every person of English decent in the US, Canada and Australia and any other English-speaking country you care to mention). That’s always been Kent’s role – an ancient gateway, for traders, for travelers, for invaders.
Above my kitchen sink is a copy of a map of Kent, dated 1616, that my partner gave me. There are two ways of looking at this map. The first is to see it as something very old. It’s smothered in old place names – some bizarre, some beautiful, some lost without trace: Blackbourne, Selbrightenden, Shamel. Others are familiar names but with weird, archaic spellings.
The next thing that strikes you is how very small everywhere was back then. Only the ancient cities of Canterbury and Rochester are shown as settlements of any size. My partner pointed out her home town, Ashford, now rapidly growing with a population of 60,000, mapped as a tiny cluster of houses around a bridge.
Most of that town’s growth has been since WWII, so the majority of people there live in neighbourhoods which, only 60 years ago, were rural communities. You know the phrase: “I remember when all this was just fields!”
Except it wasn’t just fields. It was a landscape where people lived their lives, and had experiences, where things happened. And not all of them good.
Most of Kent has been occupied for a very long time and, due to fertile soils, has been relatively well populated. Almost every part of it is densely layered with history. The past is piled high and you are always walking in someone else’s footsteps. And my map, lovely though it is, does not by any means capture all of this long history. That’s the other way to look at the map – as something not really very old at all, but a relatively recent snapshot. It may look ancient next to the mod cons of my kitchen, but if you set it against the entire span of Kent’s past, it may as well have been drawn last week.
The question is, when you explore a landscape so rich in the past, so imbued with what has gone before, are you just walking through the ‘now’ landscape, or are you, in some way, also setting foot in all the landscapes that preceded it?
Those past times are most evident in the countryside – in Saxon place names, Roman roads and Bronze Age tombs. But when you go home to your modern house in your brand new suburb, do you completely leave that past behind, just because the urban environment has obscured it more opaquely? That land has a story too. What happened where your house now stands? Was all of it good?
Visit a Norman castle or a Roman villa and you will expect to feel the presence of the people who have gone before, sense that so much has happened there. But, in those parts of the world where history is thick on the ground, the same could be just as true of your garden, or your living room. Or of that spot in the kitchen where you stand and stare at that fascinating old map.