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.

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.