Showing posts with label horror fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror fiction. Show all posts

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Japanese Mushroom People and Ghost Ships: The story of how I rediscovered William Hope Hodgson

I was a voracious reader as a child.  My school had a small library and I devoured all the horror, fantasy and science fiction I could find.  I loved (and still love) scary short story collections.  There were two stories I remember as really scaring the bejeebers out of me.

The first featured a remote part of rural America being slowly corrupted by a blight that came from a meteorite.  This blight took the form of a strange colour and caused plants and animals to grow in bizarre and horrifying ways.  I remember the plight of the hapless farming family, unable to leave despite knowing the colour is slowly consuming them from the inside.  The ending is unsettling as well.  On one hand it seems like it’s over—having eaten its fill, the colour shoots back off into space—but on the other the narrator reports seeing a residue still present at the bottom of the well.  Worse, the whole area is going to be flooded and turned into a reservoir, potentially spreading the contamination further.  For a child used to ghost stories with nice neat endings, an ending that implies it might not be over, that it might, in fact, get much much worse, gave me shivers.

Most horror aficionados will immediately recognise that as HP Lovecraft’s classic: “The Colour out of Space.”  I didn’t know who Lovecraft was at the time, but when I bumped into his work—and the Cthulhu mythos—again later, it was no great surprise to learn he was the writer responsible for a story that had left a mark on me.

The second story was about a group of sailors that found a queer abandoned boat.  The boat is floating in a patch of scum and covered all over in strange fungal growth.  As the sailors climb aboard, the sense of something being wrong deepens.  Below the decks they think they hear what sounds like the pumping of a great heart.  Then the fungus starts to move.  One man is gruesomely consumed and the others barely escape with their lives.  Worse, this is not a story that ends with the monster meeting a final and fiery end.  The narrator ends his story and the reader is left with the knowledge that the fungal ship is still out there.

Trying to identify this story was more of a puzzle.  Sadly, back then I was too young and stupid to actually pay attention to the names of the writers who provided me with these wondrous stories.  Or in this case even the title.  I knew it was a story about a creepy boat covered in man-eating fungus, but as I couldn’t remember either the writer or title, and had not come across it since, I figured this was going to be one of those pieces of nostalgia forever lost to the mists of time.

And so time passed...

Recently I watched the cult Japanese film “Matango.”  Fans of Kenkou Cross’s Monster Girl Encyclopedia will recognise that name.  It’s used for this entry:

No, not that Matango...

I don’t know if KC took the name from the film or both have the same roots in Japanese mythology.  (On a tangential note, Alraune, another frequently appearing monster girl, comes from German myth, and the Hanns Heinz Ewers novel of the same name has also spawned a few films)

Matango is an odd 1963 Japanese film where a bunch of characters get ship-wrecked on an island.  The interior of the island contains lots of strange mushrooms and they find the wreck of a research boat covered in strange fungal growth.  They avoid eating the mushrooms at first, but then food supplies run low and the horror kicks in when they discover eating the mushrooms turns you into a mushroom person (with appropriately icky slow transformation)

So far so Japanese.

Except it isn’t.  The plot is based on the short story “The Voice in the Night”, written by the English writer William Hope Hodgson.

“...boat covered in strange fungal growth.”  Could this be the mystery author of the mystery story that scared the bejeebers out of me as a child?

And indeed it is.  After a little digging through Hodgson’s bibliography and the wonders of out-of-copyright work being made available on the internet, I was able to rediscover “The Derelict.”

You can read it here.

“All about him the mould was in active movement. His feet had sunk out of sight. The stuff appeared to be lapping at his legs and abruptly his bare flesh showed. The hideous stuff had rent his trouser-leg away as if it were paper. He gave out a simply sickening scream, and, with a vast effort, wrenched one leg free. It was partly destroyed. The next instant he pitched face downward, and the stuff heaped itself upon him, as if it were actually alive, with a dreadful, severe life. It was simply infernal. The man had gone from sight. Where he had fallen was now a writhing, elongated mound, in constant and horrible increase, as the mould appeared to move towards it in strange ripples from all sides.”

Brrr.  Yep, still as creepy as I remember.

Hodgson came before HP Lovecraft and while his work lacks the core cosmic bleakness saturating Lovecraft’s works, he’s worth checking out if you like old weird horror.  His books can be found for free at the Gutenberg project here.  He also created the supernatural detective Thomas Carnacki.

And that, through a rather convoluted path, is how I rediscovered the stories of William Hope Hodgson, a writer who scared the bejeebers out of me as a child.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Book Review: Adam Nevill - Apartment 16

This fella appears to be picking up a bit of buzz recently.  His most recent book, The Ritual, was one of the winners at this year’s British Fantasy Society awards and this one was nominated last year.  He’s also the first new horror (proper horror, not sparkly vamp’n’woof romance) writer I’ve seen appear in the horror section of my local Waterstones in what seems like forever.  He’s also good.  Apartment 16 is a cracker of a book.  A modern ghost story might be a close enough description, but Nevill never allows the book to get bogged down and doesn’t shirk from describing graphic and disturbing imagery.

The plot follows the converging paths of two characters.  Apryl is a young woman over from the States to claim an inheritance from a previously unknown great aunt.  While going through her aunt’s belonging she uncovers a disturbing history to the ancient apartment complex her aunt lived in.  Seth is a failed artist working as the night-shift guard at the same building and slowly falling under the influence of the evil that permeates the building.  Don’t be put off if that sounds uninspiring.  Nevill’s vivid descriptions and concept of an afterlife as black and as cold as a distant dead star elevates what could have been a humdrum, staid idea into a highly effective chiller.  Definitely one for when the nights grow longer and colder.  I’ll definitely be adding more of Mr Nevill’s books to my reading list.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: AJ Kirby - Paint This Town Red

Time for another book review.

AJ Kirby’s Paint This Town Red came to my attention after it made the shortlist of The Guardian Books not-entirely-serious Not The Booker awards.  It surprised me because the synopsis was clearly of a horror novel and horror novels are normally greeted with the same enthusiasm as finding dog shit on an expensive shoe in literary circles.  I picked it up because it sounded interesting from the reader reviews: population cut off on an island, man-eating panthers and a shark that makes Jaws look like a minnow.

Those reader reviews—total bullshit.

The book is best described as if Stephen King went to Lindisfarne, where it’s wet, miserable and everyone has shit sex lives.  It wants to be a Koontz or King epic, but everybody’s a bit British and incompetent.  The source of supernatural evil is a bit crap.  It sends a shark (whoops, can’t swim on land), a sick panther (that doesn’t eat anyone) and a giant vulture that manages at best a score draw with a light aircraft.  Overall it’s more Fawlty Towers than The Overlook.

The Guardian's Sam Jordison gave the book a complete shellacking.

It’s not quite as bad as all that.  Despite the large cast of characters and extensive back story, it never felt a drag to read and I raced through it in a couple of days.  The book does have that important ‘page turner’ quality.  I also enjoyed how Kirby slowly revealed fragments of a past tragedy involving a mysterious doomsday cult through the recollections of his diverse cast.

Sadly, after an interesting setup, the book doesn’t maintain the early promise.  It doesn’t really come together.  The characters are well-drawn but remain static.  The supernatural threats turn out to be rather ineffectual and purposeless.  Eventually the book peters out in one of those annoying some-weird-shit-happens-and-that’s-it endings that are always a letdown.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Horror doesn’t need to be literary, but it needs to be horror.

I’ve been ruffling a few feathers again.

This Guardian article, “Horror: a genre doomed to literary hell?”, is exactly the sort of bunkum that gets written when literary types point their condescending noses at those horrible plebby “genres”.  It’s a nonsense argument.  Asking why horror isn’t more “literary” is like asking why Slayer don’t sound more like Coldplay.  They’re different beasts, with different aims.  Horror works best when it’s hitting the senses at a visceral level.  Sometimes it’s raw and not very pretty, but that’s fine so long as it evokes the right response in the reader.

That’s about as much of a rebuttal as needs to be written and it wasn’t the article but the clip-clopping of comments beneath it that dragged me out from under my bridge.  People offered up their lists of talented writers and argued this as evidence of horror fiction being in rude health.

I’m sorry, but this isn’t true.

It’s closed bubble thinking.  It’s one of the perversities of modern technology.  While the whole world is opened up to anyone with a keyboard, it’s easy to fall into little circles where shared thoughts and opinions are bounced around, amplified and magnified out of all proportion to their relevance to the rest of the world.

Step outside the bubble.  Who’s reading?  Who’s commenting?  Who’s reviewing?  Who’s recommending?

Who cares?

On my last visit to England I popped into my local branch of Waterstones.  Next to several shelves full of Twilight clones was the horror section.  The only books I saw by writers that hadn’t been fixtures on the horror shelves for at least two decades were Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Adam Nevill’s Apartment 16.

This is not a sign of health.

Step outside of the usual writer’s haunts and go clip-clopping into the tangled jungle of the World Wide Web.  Look for the places regular(ish) people hang out.  Look at how much is written about films, music, TV shows, computer games, anime.  Look at how little is written about books.

Even in The Guardian’s own book section.  Take a look at this thread recommending horror books to read for Halloween.  Spot a work that was written this century.

This is not a sign of health.

It’s not a mainstream thing either.  I have a fairly esoteric taste in music, yet if I want to find the best new death metal and black metal albums released there are plenty of online resources I can use to help me discover brilliant new bands.  Ditto for games and movies.  For horror books the best I’ve been able to manage is to slum around articles like this and see what gets recommended in the comments section.

That’s not to say there aren’t online resources.  Nick Cato and his team do a wonderful job with The Horror Fiction Review, there’s plenty of interesting stuff on the VanderMeer’s Weird Fiction Review, and there are also the websites of award givers like the HWA and BFS.  The crucial difference is these horror fiction resources are (mostly) written by writers, for other writers, while the others are written by fans, for other fans.  It’s crucial because the other media reviews don’t require me to disentangle the tainted web of who knows who to determine whether the recommendation/review/award is unbiased enough to be trustworthy.

This is not a sign of health.

We have a finite amount of leisure time and there are plenty of competing activities to devour it.  If we want people to read horror fiction we have to give them a compelling reason do so, otherwise they’re going to spend that time watching TV, going to see films or blowing zombie’s heads off on their Playstation.

Talk of horror becoming more “literary” raises the hairs on the back of my hands.  Trying to appease literary critics is a trap that has swallowed many a promising horror writer.  For me, the problem with a lot of modern horror is the writers are trying to court a literary audience that will never like, appreciate or understand them.  It’s like the hapless nerd of a teen movie trying to impress the prettiest, most popular girl in class when it’s obvious she’s a bitch and the right girl for him is the one hiding behind glasses and mousey hair.

This doesn’t mean horror fiction has to be shit, but first and foremost it needs to be aware of what it’s trying to do.  It’s a rollercoaster.  It’s a way for people to confront their fears from a position of safety.  It’s a spike in the heart rate, a prickle on the back on the neck, a lurking miasma of dread, a bowl of ice in the pit of the stomach—all from the comfort of the reader’s armchair.  The very good modern horror films and computer games know and provide this.

Horror fiction doesn’t need to become more literary, it needs to find and re-engage with an audience that, neglected, has turned to other genres and media for its thrills.  It needs to burst out of the bubble clique, grab readers by the throat and shout “Read Me!  Put down that remote and Read Me!  Put down that controller and Read Me!  Then go and tell all your friends to Read Me!  Because I’m the scariest, spookiest, creepiest, eeriest, most spine-tingling muthafucka you’ll ever spend an evening with.”