Since this week is Friday the 13th, we're very lucky to have a guestpost from William Hill, author of the terrifying Department 19 and its sequel, The Rising. Department 19 is a secret branch of the British government that protects its citizens from vampires--and if you've been looking for real, gruesome monsters then these books are for you!
He's here to tell us why he writes those "horrible" things he does. (And also to give me traumatic flashbacks to reading Stephen King's It.) Welcome, Mr. Hill!
WHY I LIKE READING (AND WRITING) SCARY BOOKSWhen I was about 12 I was so scared by Stephen King’s It that I slept with the light on, having placed the book itself, a beautiful old library hardback with a terrifying oil-painted amusement park clown on the cover, in the middle of my bedroom floor, so that I could keep an eye on it.
It was the prologue that did it.
George Denbrough chases a paper boat down the flooded streets of his home town, until he loses it down an overflowing drain. A drain in which he finds a friendly, charming clown. A clown that suddenly changes shape and pulls George’s arm off at the shoulder, leaving him to bleed to death in the rain and the rushing water.
That was it for me.
Not only was it the moment when I closed the book and asked my mum to take it back to the library for me, as I was too scared to even touch the thing, but it was also the moment when I first understood the power that books can have. The power to make you scared.
I wrote Department 19 because I wanted to tell Jamie’s story, the story of an ordinary boy thrown into an extraordinary world, where he has to sink or swim, where he finds out who he really is. But I’ll be totally honest – I wanted to scare readers as well. Not because I’m mean, or vicious, or some kind of sadist, but because I think that books have a unique quality; how scary they are is limited only to the power of the reader’s imagination.
I can describe the vampires in Department 19 in as much detail as I choose, but the picture of them that appears in one reader’s head is still going to be very different to that of another. In films and TV, the monsters, the villains, the frightening and scary things, are fully formed and shown, the decisions that the director and the makeup department have made, presented to you. That doesn’t mean they can’t be scary, not at all – The Exorcist, The Omen, the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, all scared me silly when I was younger than I am now. But they’re a communal experience, where everyone who sees them sees the same thing.
Books are different. With books, it’s just the words on the page and the power of your own imagination. It’s personal.
When I was a teenager, I went straight from reading children’s books to reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert etc. and my mother, who always encouraged me to read, and would bring me horror paperbacks home from the second-hand shops near where we lived, even though she didn’t really approve of them, would often ask me “Why do you read all that horrible stuff?” She still asks me that question, but now she also asks me “How can you think of the horrible stuff you write?” I didn’t have an answer for her when I was younger, but I think I understand it a bit better now.
I loved (and still love) horror because nothing makes you feel more alive than having looked into the darkness.
It’s placing yourself in harm’s way, without actually taking any physical risk. It’s like being on a rollercoaster – you know full well that it’s safe, you know that nothing genuinely bad is going to happen to you, but your heart is pounding, your palms are clammy, you’re doing that slightly hysterical grin that is meant to show you’re not scared, but in fact gives you away completely. And while the ride may be horrible, it may be an ordeal, it may not be something you ever want to do again, when you get off at the other end, your legs wobbling, your face pale, the sensation of being alive, of having survived, is wonderful. It’s adrenaline and it’s endorphins but it’s ultimately the primal, joyous sense of being alive.
That’s what scary books did for me.
You can confront terrible things, evils both great and small, violence and pain and anguish, and you can do it all from the comfort of your favourite chair, or lying in bed with a small lamp on, the one that’s light doesn’t quite reach the corners of the room, the dark corners where things can hide, and wait. And if it gets too much, you can simply close the book, and come back to the real world for a while.
For whatever reason, the human brain seems to have a bit that has a tendency towards the masochistic; it’s the bit that looks at the rollercoaster tracks and thinks it can see cracks in the metal, that looks at the dog being walked innocently in the park and imagines it suddenly accelerating towards you, it’s jaws wide, foam frothing from its mouth. This is the bit of our brains that give horror its power. And that’s why I write scary books, and why I still read them. Because I love tapping into something primal, experiencing something visceral. Because being scared is good.
It’s one of the ways that you know you’re alive.
A Dance with Dragons, by George R.R. Martin. The long-awaited fifth instalment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, from the man dubbed the American Tolkien. Follow our blogger's progress through his books and watch this space for an exclusive interview.
The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan. Attention fans of True Blood and The Passage: we’ve found your next read. Just when you’re had enough of vampire books, here comes Glen Duncan with his bawdy, bloody tale of The Last Werewolf. Duncan’s novel is narrated by Jake Marlowe, the world’s last living lycanthrope. Two hundred years is a long time to be living under a curse, and make no mistake: a curse is just what being a werewolf is. Making matters worse, werewolves have been hunted practically to extinction. Besides the sex, cancer-free smoking and the scotch, not much to live for; so Jake has decided to end it all at the next full moon … but fate has other plans for him. Dark and funny, graphic (both in terms of sex and violence, sometimes simultaneously), and that rare thing—a literary horror novel that doubles as a page-turner.
The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. This new novel follows two boys on an ocean liner bound for England in the early 1950s. Early supposition is that this work is somewhat biographical; it has been compared to an earlier Ondaatje work, the mix of memoir and fiction that is Running in the Family.
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson. In the tradition of Stephenson’s works, this is a big one, at 960 pages. Perhaps the best description one can use about Stephenson is that there’s nobody out there writing like him right now (a customer once described him to me as Thomas Pynchon as written by William Gibson)—if you’re interested in technology, history, conspiracy and alternate history, this is the man for you. This novel is being described as a thriller concerning a tech entrepreneur getting caught up in his own online war game.
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. The second instalment in the Ibis Trilogy, following Sea of Poppies. A novel of the Opium Wars, this title has been highlighted in an earlier instalment of the Indigo Fiction Blog— in an interview with Amitav Ghosh, here.
The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay. The followup novel to the critically and commercially acclaimed Heather’s Pick The Birth House, this novel centers around an orphan—a daughter abandoned by her father and sold by her mother—negotiating the New York slums of 1871.
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain was a critical (and a personal) favourite, and it’s follow-up was not as well received. Nightwoods has the potential to be another winner: the description makes it sound like Night of the Hunter, which puts it right in Southern Gothic territory. Taking place in 1960’s North Carolina, a woman who is a virtual hermit is forced to take care of her sister’s twin children after that sister is murdered by her husband. After a quick acquittal, the father comes looking for the children.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s been a long time since the Oprah selected Middlesex, and Eugenides’ new novel looks to be a book about love, and books, and the love of books. An earlier instalment of the Indigo Fiction Blog provided a teaser, here.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. Being called Murakami’s Magnum Opus (which I thought I already read—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—but Murakami doesn’t do small very much anymore), an ode to Orwell’s 1984, but I’d bet my house this is more of a mind-bender. A massive seller in Japan, when released in three volumes, the American version weighs in at 928 pages, is being called an essential Japanese novel (and check out that Chip Kidd cover! Looks like a transparent plastic book jacket to me).
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead. If someone had to write the postmodern zombie novel, I’m glad it’s Whitehead, and I hope it gets him the recognition he deserves. An essential New York writer, this new book sounds like World War Z in that it’s a different spin on the zombie novel, with a little more focus on how the world has changed after a cataclysmic event, rather than the blood and guts. When he unveiled it on Twitter, he described it as being about the “rehabilitation of NYC after the apocalypse.”
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman. Five years in the making and being called Hoffman’s masterpiece, a historical novel about women in ancient Israel.
11-22-63—Under the Dome was called King’s best work in years, & his first novel since is certainly intriguing. I’ve been calling this ‘Back to the Future meets Don DeLillo’s Libra,’ and thematically, it seems to hearken back to his own work The Dead Zone. King’s novel centers around a protagonist who finds a time portal in his small-town Maine diner that takes him back to 1958. He goes through, works to discover the nature of the JFK assassination, finds a way to stop it, and waits. After successfully thwarting the assassination, he returns to our present, and in a Twilight Zone twist, he finds a nuclear wasteland. He’s left with one choice: to undo his own actions, before radiation poisoning kills him. King has been talking about writing a time-travel book for years, and now it's here—check out the back cover above, for a taste of alternate history from Stephen King.
The Huffington Post has been running a reader survey of movies that were better than the books they were based on. On November 4th, they ran the top 7 with video embellishments.
It’s an interesting list and one open to debate, one person’s bad book being another’s favourite. And the dubious winners are
What do you think? Are these movies better than their books? Are there others you would add to the list?
(or, Horror for those of a Nervous Disposition)
I’m an unrepentant scaredy cat who can’t read or watch anything too spooky. I literally ran screaming from the cinema when I saw my first horror film, and I still dream about that movie now and again, the hands of the strangler going around the throat of the victim in my nightmare. Needless to say I haven’t been back for more. TV programmes are the same; as soon as the music gets spooky I’m off into the kitchen for something or other that I don’t need. Books have the same effect though I can at least flip a few pages when the going gets tough.
I certainly can’t be the only one who feels this way so here are a few books which have a good edge but which I managed to get through unscathed and admire. To my mind one of the best at this type of writing is Susan Hill. When not writing mysteries she’s done some very good gothic ghost stories. The most famous is The Woman in Black, but my favourite is The Mist in the Mirror, a chilling story about a traveller who returns to England after years abroad, literally on a dark and stormy night, and is pulled into very chilling events because of his obsession with explorer Conrad Vane. He’s warned not to pursue it—but of course he does, with bad results. This is book makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, makes you uneasy, and makes you want to lock doors twice at night. It’s very short but power-packed, even for those who regularly read ghost stories.
Another "lock the doors carefully” book is Andrew Pyper’s Killing Circle. Again, this is just scary enough for moments of disquiet, a very well-crafted psychological thriller. Patrick, a widower and failed novelist, joins a writers’ group around the time a serial killer is murdering people in his neighbourhood. The group read their work and one member in particular reads about an abductor, the Sandman . Soon Patrick is unable to distinguish real life from fantasy and thinks the Sandman is the real murderer. When his son is abducted he has to put aside his fears in order to save his child. This is a real nail biter and an excellent edgy chiller.
I haven’t been able to read much Stephen King but his Bachman Books are classics of the horror genre. Thinner in particular stands out. Billy, an overweight lawyer and drunk driver, kills a Gypsy woman in a road accident, and his pals the judge and the police chief get him off the charge. The dead woman’s father puts a curse on them; the lawyer loses enough weight to become gaunt, the police chief is covered with acne and the judge develops scales. Eventually Billy tracks down the old man and begs him to reverse the curse. He does, but you just know this will end very badly. I dream about those scales fairly regularly too.
Many books by Patricia Highsmith fit the bill for spookiness, particularly the Ripley stories. She’s a wonderful writer and excellent at getting just far enough under the skin for the nervous.
Enjoy these few suggestions, be careful out there, and happy Halloween.
I’d almost lost hope in the modern-day vampire.
He was really letting the team down. He’d given up his ghoulish visage for an updated, gel-haired, pretty boy look. He brooded in guilt over having to take the lives of others to sustain his, in having to make cattle of the humans around him. He was melancholy and sad, and perpetually falling in love with human girls with stupid names (Bella, Buffy, Sookie… I mean, come on). He paid penance for his existence by playing gumshoe and solving crimes. And sure, he liked blood… but he found the liking of blood just plain icky. He felt really bad about it, and about the whole being-a-monster thing. He was doe-eyed. He was emo. He was a complete and utter bore.
And then Scott Snyder came along, and saved the whole genre.
Earlier this year he debuted a new comic book called American Vampire, and on October 5th the first five editions of the comic book were published together by DC/Vertigo in one hardcover graphic novel. And it’s brilliant. The story behind the series has garnered as much attention as the comic itself: one fine day, a relatively unknown Snyder asked his buddy Joe Hill’s dad if he might provide a blurb for the cover of his new comic book. Joe Hill’s dad loved the concept and Snyder’s enthusiasm for the project, and begged the young man to let him co-write the comic. Turns out that Joe Hill’s old man is Stephen King – and Snyder wholeheartedly agreed, natch.
The story is split up into two time periods, each being written by one of the two authors. The first, penned by Snyder, takes place in 1920’s Hollywood, where we meet pretty little struggling actress Pearl Jones as she does her best to hold down three jobs while trying to get her big break into show business. An unfortunate incident occurs at a flapper party she attends, but luckily she is saved (if that’s the right word) by a strange drifter who goes by the name of Skinner Sweet. I’d recommend remembering that name. Skinner may just become one of the most beloved anti-heroes in modern comics.
The second story, written by King, is the origin story of Skinner Sweet. The story itself was conceived by Snyder, of course, but King is left to his own devices to flesh out the characters and have some fun. And that he does. We learn how Skinner, the book’s protagonist, was a Billy the Kid-style outlaw in the American West, running down trains and taking banks for sport with his gang while the authorities did their best to catch him. As it turns out, some of his targets happen to belong to a cadre of Old World vampires, and they’re less than impressed with his antics. So they hire the best of the best of marshals to track him down and stretch his neck out on the gallows of US law.
The story is based on the idea that these vamps are the only kind of vamps out there – the classic no-sun, Nosferatu vamps of legend – and they run the show in the young America as tycoons with enormous wealth, power, and influence. They are gentlemen, in their way, wearing the finest suits, riding in the finest carriages, living in the finest houses. They see the humans around them as lesser beings whose only purpose is to make them rich and fill their bellies. They are monsters, certainly. Just refined. Vampires with top hats and waistcoats.
And then one fine day, one of them accidentally makes a vampire out of Skinner Sweet.
He is the first American ever turned into a vamp, and this is really the crux of the story – the evolution of the vampire. The animal that he turns into diverges greatly from his European counterparts. His powers differ from theirs entirely, and in his favour (he can freely walk in the sun, for example), and in some of his first days walking the earth in his new life, Skinner and Snyder single-handedly make up for all of the whiny, lovelorn mistakes that today’s vamps have made in modern media. There’s no longing for mortal love here. No mooning after pretty students, no Bieber-styled haircuts, and no sulking in the shadows lamenting their crimes against mankind.
What there is instead is carnage, and lots of it. Skinner is consumed by the thought of revenge, and he revels in his new powers by not just using the humans around him as puppets, but by ripping them to shreds after doing so. He’s a walking bogeyman, haunting those who did him wrong in a past life with the viciousness of a rabid wolf. Every comic frame he’s in is intoxicating, and as a reader I found myself wondering just what atrocity Skinner was going to inflict on the next page.
American Vampire was King’s debut in comics – he’s had other comic books with his name on the covers, but he was never directly involved in the writing process until AMVAMP. He notes in the forward that he was grateful for having been given the chance by Snyder to take part in giving vamps their fangs back, in “making them scary again”, and in reminding us all that vampires are not supposed to be longed-after objects of young love – they’re bloodthirsty monsters who mean us nothing but terrifying harm.