On Being a Clive Barker Virgin

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I’ve been saying for a while that if loving horror is an orientation, I’ve only just come out of the closet. I denied myself a lot of wonderful horror writing for years because of this and I’m only now catching up.

First came Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House, which I've blogged about here.

Then I was preparing for my YouTube show Title Fright 10: Curious Cruelty, which pits Hellraiser against Candyman. I felt I should at least read The Hellbound Heart and The Forbidden, on which they are based respectively. So I opened my first ever Clive Barker book.

Clear, cool and lyrical, with riveting and stunningly relevant plots, they could have been written yesterday, or even in ten years time.

They were also much more frightening than I expected. When I got to that famous line in The Forbidden....

‘I am rumour,’ he sang in her ear. ‘It’s a blessed condition, believe me. To live in people’s dreams; to be whispered at street-corners; but not have to be. Do you understand?’

…it bowled me over. It was as if Candyman was transcending his fictional status by owning it as his chief characteristic. It was as if he had stepped off the page into my reality, and I got a tremor in my gut that is the absolute holy grail of any horror fan.

Good as the film Candyman is, it doesn’t quite manage that.

It’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to get into Barker, but I’m seeing my glass as half full - there can’t be many horror fans at my age who can jump in fresh to his oeuvre.

As they say, it’s never as good as the first time.

Dead Corpse by Nuzo Onoh

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Nuzo Onoh caught my eye when I saw a blog about Dead Corpse, her latest novel. When I read that she calls herself the Queen of African Horror I was intrigued. I went to Amazon, looked inside the book, and found myself on a smooth, irresistible narrative conveyor belt with no going back.

Onoh is a British writer of Igbo heritage. She grew up in what was formerly the Republic of Biafra and is now part of Nigeria. Her books are all famously steeped in African folklore and traditions.  

Dead Corpse is one hell of a story, about three generations of medicine-women who battle with the evil in gods, men and in themselves to find happiness. It’s also about revenge, and the struggle to define the right way to live in the complex and divided world of modern Africa.

The story begins with Xikora, a powerful and somewhat malevolent albino medicine woman, dying in childbirth along with her infant son. Her daughter Owa - also albino and destined to inherit Xikora’s powers - is left motherless and vulnerable in a community that disdains light-skinned people.

We return to Owa some years later, when she’s established as the medicine-woman in the village. Although she’s just as powerful as her late mother, she’s much more timid and merciful. She has a daughter called Aku, also albino. But Aku’s academic talent has led her to attend a Catholic school and convert to Christianity.

I was already fascinated to see how this fight between old and new gods would play out. But then enter “the fat man”, one of the most upsetting villains I’ve ever come across. His plans for Aku are grotesque but the detail of his petty ambition makes him believable:

“…As I told you, I’m the deputy local government chairman and very soon, I shall become the chairman,” he paused, looking her over as if she were a bowl of assorted meats.

Occasionally Onoh uses too many adjectives for my taste - it might be more powerful to talk about some of the crimes that have been committed without mentioning that they are “heinous” for example.

But her language is mostly vivid and compelling. Take this passage where Owa and Aku communes with a goddess:

The earth cracked and the flies spewed out in their ferocious, deafening flight; the celestial flies, the forbearers of the great Earth Goddess. The swarm coalesced by the entrance of the shrine, whirling like a black tornado, sculpturing themselves in the smoky gloom till a dark figure emerged, a body formed from flies, a figure shaped like a woman, a towering, terrifying, night-black woman. The figure was so colossal it filled the shrine, seeming to extend beyond the dry, thatched roof. The fly-body swelled and rolled, whirled and surged as it undulated its terrible walk towards the black blood-coated statue. Aku’s head expanded and contracted. Millions of hard glittering fly-eyes blinded her sight as the great goddess drew closer.

Onoh's writing also has a consistent pace and clarity that draws you in and makes you forget time – the ‘narrative conveyor belt’ I mentioned in the introduction.

The plot of Dead Corpse is harrowing but that’s how horror works – tapping into deep anxieties and worst-case scenarios to sort out fairly ordinary dilemmas we’d all recognize. For example, is it better to think like ruthless Xikora or merciful Owa?

Xikora tells Owa:

“I make my own destiny. Haven’t you heard a word I said? Those who wait instead of taking action achieve nothing in life, like yourself, who’ve let your powers go to the dogs.”

By the end of the book you feel like you – along with Owa and the rest of her village - are walking a very thin tightrope of goodness between the values of Xikora and those of the fat man. But you’ve made it.

An exciting, satisfying read that will make you shudder and think - highly recommended!

The Haunting of Hill House

It was as if Shirley Jackson's classic novel had been haunting me from the future.

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I read about it some decades ago in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, and was desperate to get my hands on it, but it wasn't available anywhere in the UK at the time.

At some point I saw film of the book - 1963's The Haunting - and was reminded again of this maddening original text that was so acclaimed and yet unavailable.

Now, finally reading it in midlife, it's lived up to expectation. It really is that good.

A group of people gather in a haunted house to explore paranormal events. One member of the party, unstable Eleanor, gets sucked in deeper than she expected.

The Haunting of Hill House is so powerful I'm - almost - glad I didn't read it when I was an impressionable young woman. It would have been just one more reason to fear growing up... It would have made me see Eleanors all around me... and even worse I'd have seen Eleanor inside me. There's always one inside and that's why we find these characters so interesting.

But I also missed out one of the most compelling characters in literature and for that I'm sorry. As a writer of horror fiction, I'm particularly sorry. I'm intrigued that apparently Stephen King's iconic character Carrie was in part inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor, Carrie - so maladjusted young women make good horror? Hmmm.... now do I know anybody like that? Have I got any stories in that vein? <scratches head emoticon>

Sour and sad and yet exhilarating in its mastery, The Haunting of Hill House is everything it's said to be.

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher

Maynard's House by Herman Raucher is a beautifully-written haunted house story which plumbs incredible depths of creepiness.
It's about Austin, a young Vietnam veteran. He's inherited the house of Maynard, his best friend in the war, after he died in battle. The book begins with Austin travelling to Maine in the depths of winter to claim his inheritance.
An old edition of  Maynard's House  by Herman Raucher.

An old edition of Maynard's House by Herman Raucher.

The creeps takes a long time to get going, but once they begin they're powerful. The house is beautiful but oddly unnerving. There's a dead tree nearby from which a witch was hanged some centuries ago, and it casts no shadow. The rocking chair creaks at night. A carved plank records how for decades every inhabitant has fled the house or died. But there's a snowstorm outside and Austin cannot leave.
Two young Minnawickies - whether this refers to a Native American tribe or a supernatural sprite is never made clear - seem to offer comfort with their youthful shenanigans. But they turn out to be extremely troubling, especially as one of them is an attractive young girl who seems like a child one minute and a seductive adult the next.
This anxiety about the girl's age infects the reader, dragging you right inside Austin's unravelling mind. It's clear that he's been traumatised by combat, and it's as if everything now is untrustworthy, anything good or hopeful - such as his desire for a beautiful girl - may hide a horror.
But the book offers more than just creeps. There are a couple of awkward sexual scenes with animals of all things - a deer tries to eat Austin's 'odd carrot' while he's in the outhouse, and a randy squirrel mistakes him for another squirrel . These manage at once to be funny, and to work with the darker elements of the book.
The writing is something else, too. Take this description of the house as Austin first approaches it, for example:
A long, tapering roof, sweeping down almost to the snow—facing north, the better to deflect the wind, causing that invisible beast to spend its strength riding the roof, arriving in the trees beyond with nothing to show for all its muscle but an echoing whistle.
From what I can gather Maynard's House was first published in 1981. Despite the centrality of the Vietnam war to the plot, the book feels timeless, as if it could be set in any period after railways were invented. Maine is a character in its own right, cold and remote, sparsely populated by enigmatic locals who talk in riddles.
Maynard's House is slow and dreamy but repays the time taken to read it with a genuinely frightening story.If you like superbly written horror, and don't mind a slow build-up for a great payoff, this book is recommended.

Northern gothic - The Loney

I've just finished The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, a gothic novel about religion dashing itself to pieces on the implacable landscape of the North of England.

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The story follows a group of devout Catholics visiting a shrine on the Lancashire coast in the hope of curing a mute boy, Hanny. It is told through the eyes of Hanny's protective younger brother Smith.

Published in 2016, The Loney was rapturously received by critics. It won the Costa First Book Award and the British Book Industry Awards Book of the Year.

Hurley's writing is beautiful - it reminds me of Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes whilst also having its own unique quality. You can almost taste each word.

Each characters is brilliantly drawn. Mummer, a passive-aggressive mother devoted to her disabled child and clinging to her religious certainties, is a masterpiece.

The plot is simple, but there's another more tangled plot beneath it which is only ever glimpsed. There are repeated suggestions a revelation is imminent, but it never arrives.

At first I was frustrated by the ambiguity, but by the end I began to enjoy it. It forced me to think like one of the characters. I wasn't sure how things joined together, I grasped for an explanation.

Some readers said The Loney is not particularly frightening. I disagree. I did not want to go down into that basement and when the narrative took me there I was genuinely distressed.

Others have complained that the end is unsatisfying. Although the whole story is about the unraveling of neat endings, I confess felt this too.

But after putting the book down I'm still thinking about it. So maybe Hurley knows exactly what he's doing.

If you've got to the end and you're puzzled too, there is a great discussion here (warning: SPOILERS).

Scary mountains - Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I am a BIG fan of Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Not much frightens me but even years after reading it, the central image still gets me in the viscera.

So I was delighted to discover she'd written a new novel in the same vein, Thin Air. Another period ghost story satirising the rigid masculinity, class prejudices and colonial superiority of 1930s British explorers.

Except this time it's about a team of mountaineers scaling a peak in Nepal, rather than a scientific expedition to the Arctic.

Paver writes brilliantly about extreme physical conditions, and about groups of men living on the edge of their nerves. The atmosphere of dread forms with crystalline and ineluctable clarity, like an icicle.

I loved the central relationship between the brothers on the climbing expedition. My only complaints would be that I would have liked a deeper exploration of this relationship.

Reading Thin Air, I was reminded of a film called the Dyatlov Pass Incident. I had it on my watchlist for a long time but ultimately it got away from me. It's about the true story of nine Russian hikers who were found frozen to death on Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain) after inexplicably fleeing their tents. I found the idea hauntingly sad and maybe that's why in the end I never watched the film.

But there's a whole sub-genre out there on those mountains. I hope Paver goes back to it, and others follow.

Zombies & fine writing - Colson Whitehead's Zone One

When I first set out to write a zombie novel I decided not to read any to avoid accidentally copying them.

The exception was Colson Whitehead's Zone One - I just couldn't resist reading the first few pages.

I nearly closed my computer and gave up there and then. I thought if that's a typical zombie novel I might as well not bother! The genre is well and truly catered for.

After I'd done with my book I finally read Zone One all the way through, and one thing became clear - it is not a typical zombie novel.

It does not skimp on the familiar elements - there's the first day of the outbreak, the lone survivor on the run, the satisfying violence against the (denatured) human form, the post-apocalytic society. But it uses these to craft what is almost a prose-poem. Whitehead's sentences are up there with the greatest writers the US has ever produced.

The main character is nicknamed Mark Spitz. He is a mediocrity by his own admission who has paradoxically flourished in the era of the 'skels', as the zombies are called. He provides a mournful, meandering account of how the world has changed.

This slow narrative is punctuated by powerful shocks however, as he recalls the old world - our world - through the lense of the post-apocalypse.

In places it's sharply funny - Mark Spitz gets into a spot of bother with the zombies in the Human Resources department of an office he is clearing as part of his job with the recovery effort. In others it is tragic. Mark Spitz can't forget a woman called Mim, and I couldn't either.

Whitehead's plague creates a social class cohered by trauma, which again speaks to our present. At the same time he shows the old power structures still gasping and wheezing and try to resurrect themselves.

Once I finished Zone One I sighed with relief. It isn't the final word on zombies. It's actually a symptom of the genre's ongoing health.

 

 

Horror writing - it lives!

I am MV Clark, and I'm about to join the maniacally rammed but seethingly alive world of horror writing with my novel The Splits. I hope there's room for one more.

I'll use this blog to write short articles on all kinds of horror films, books, short stories. I can't call these articles reviews as not all the material I write about will be new. I'm just going to follow my interests and the vagaries of my video streaming services.

Coming up soon my thoughts on Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a stunning literary zombie novel.

If you want a taste of what to expect, you can look at my old blog here.