Friday 12 June 2015

KettFest and the horror writer

Back in April, through my friend Jane Isaac, I heard about an upcoming arts-crafts-entertainment event being organised by Jo Selby-Green called KettFest 2015.  I sent her an email, offering my services and she responded immediately, suggesting I hold a little writing workshop.  When I explained I wrote horror (a genre a lot of people tend to shy away from), she suggested I might like to give a few writing tips instead and I agreed.  Somehow, over the next month or so, those tips became a ‘history of horror’ but I took it in my stride (ie, I panicked) and when the programme was published in May, it all became very real.
Official photograph, by Liz Kearns (c) Kettfest 2015
One thing I should mention - this was to be my first reading on my own.  I’ve done a few literary evenings, I enjoy standing at the front of the room, I enjoy reading my work aloud, but I’ve never done it solo before.  Now I’d not only volunteered to do so, for a new festival in a venue I’d never seen before, but I was also supposed to encapsulate the history of a genre I love for a crowd who might not even like horror.  I like a challenge.

I wrote my piece.  It was about five pages long.  I edited it and suddenly it was nearer to ten.  I edited again, more ruthlessly this time and got it to twelve.  Oh dear.  I whittled away at it over a week or so, just trying to keep the key beats intact - a casual observer didn’t really need to know every work that Edgar Allen Poe produced, just knowing that he was part of the genre bedrock would be enough.  With that kind of thinking, I got it down to a little over a page (or five minutes reading time, unless I gabbled, in which case I could get it done in half that time).

Friday 5th June and KettFest 2015 kicked off.  I revised my piece, rehearsed my reading (I was doing a spooky section from my story “Fog On The Old Coast Road” since I knew some kids - including Dude - would be in the audience) and tried to calm my nerves.

We got into Kettering for 5pm and parked at the Cornmarket.  Alison & Dude went to get some tea and I went into the Kino Lounge where the event was happening.  I’d never been in there before - the building was originally built in 1853 as the Corn Exchange, then became Leo Vint’s electric theatre in 1909, the first cinema in Kettering - but it’s now a smart restaurant/bar that wears its shabby chic history proudly on its sleeve.  I liked it a lot and I liked the performance space too, a small-ish room (with interesting, hallucinogenic wallpaper)  that opened onto the old market square.  Caroline Watsham was entertaining in there when I arrived, playing her musical saw.

I met Russell John Morgan in the bar, it’s been ages since we last saw one another and we caught up before my friend Sue Moorcroft joined us.  Just after, old friend Matt Adams arrived and I introduced everyone and we chatted and I got more nervous.  Every now and again we’d catch some of Caroline’s performance and Russell said it’d make excellent accompaniment to my reading.

Alison & Dude arrived, everyone said hello and then it was 6pm and we were off to the reading room, where Jo introduced herself to me, then introduced me to the room (Sue reckoned I had an audience of 25 in there, plus more outside).  I didn’t sit in the offered, Gothic looking chair but chose to stand behind it instead.  I surveyed my audience, smiled at my motley fan club taking up the back row, took a deep breath and began.
photo by Russell Morgan
This is my “history of horror” speech (there may have been some ad-libs 'on the day' which aren't reflected in my notes).  I hope my fellow genre fans can forgive me for condensing so much history into so few words…

* * * * *
Let’s start with a question - don’t worry, you don’t need to put up your hands - what does horror, or supernatural, fiction mean to you?

To me, horror fiction is like the pesky little brother, the one who likes to prod and poke at things, to push them and see how far they’ll go, or when they break.  More respected genres - literary classics, that kind of thing - look down on us like a big brother or sister would but that just makes the little brother all the more determined.

Horror fiction, as Stephen King once said, is the “truth inside the lie” and it’s a broad field that ranges from the quietest of supernatural tales to all-out thud-and-blunder gore epics.  Horror fiction allows us to examine things we perhaps don’t really want to - death, destruction, awful things happening to good people - and do so by putting a monsters mask on the bad thing.  For example, it’s now a commonly held point of view that Dracula’s portrayal of vampirism was essentially a metaphor for sexuality in a repressed Victorian era.

Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined horror as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing".  Clearly a smart man.  

The genre of horror, in its broadest sense, has its roots firmly in ancient folklore and religious tradition.  It’s a fear of the dark, what’s out there, will it hurt me, why is it dark?  It was a way of dealing with death and evil, perhaps the concept of an afterlife or demonic activities.  Dante wrote about Satan in 1307 with the first volume of his Divine Comedy, “Inferno”.  John Milton dealt with him in “Paradise Lost” whilst Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is as horrific as they come (plus “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” both feature strong supernatural elements).

In the 18th and 19th Centuries Gothic horror flourished, Mary Shelley leading the charge with “Frankenstein” in 1818.  Other notable works of that era include the output of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson's “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” from 1886, Oscar Wilde's 1890 “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and, of course, “Dracula”, by Bram Stoker, from 1897.  Charles Dickens’ hardy perennial, “A Christmas Carol”, was published in 1843 and even though it’s not a horror story, it does use elements of the genre - like poor old Jacob Marley and the various ghosts that guide Scrooge.  Most of those have stood the test of time and they - and their descendents - can be found in Waterstones right now.

After the first World War, cheap periodicals flourished and with them, a new line of pulp horror - full of sex and violence and monsters.  The second wave of pulp writers, following World War 2, honed their craft, becoming the architects of what we now understand as modern horror - the likes of Richard Matheson with his wonderful “I Am Legend” from 1954 - vampires, end of the world! - and “Stir Of Echoes” from 1958.  In 1974, Stephen King - an avid fan of the pulps - published “Carrie” which kick-started the horror boom that lasted through to the early 90s and provided most writers of my generation with their role model.  It also opened the door to terrific writers like James Herbert, Robert McCammon, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell.

Sometimes, horror is just about sex, violence and monsters and that’s fine.  But if it’s done properly, horror fiction is a mainstream tale looking at people (you, me, our neighbours) and the world (especially the bad stuff that happens to decent, everyday people) through a slightly cracked glass, dressing up in metaphor and subterfuge what so many of us have to deal with in real terms.

When we, as readers, hear a sound in the dead of night as we’re about to drift off to sleep, we might be worried but know, deep down, that it’s the wind against the windows or a pile of Lego falling down in our sons room. The horror story takes that concept, grins widely and does a little dance, taking it a step over the line of reality – what if it wasn’t a pile of Lego, what if it was something creeping into your house? What if this thing was going to climb the stairs slowly, letting you hear every riser creak, every hiss as claws caught on the carpet and every *skrit* as long, sharp nails dragged on the bannister? What if this thing was going to come into your life and take it over, ruining you and making the future bleak for everyone who loved you? In other words, what if this horror novel – about ghouls and real people dealing with them – was actually about disease, or loss and showing us another way to deal with the blights that litter the human life?

* * * * *

Thankfully (nobody left or fell asleep) the history went down well - as Sue later said, I didn’t scare or revolt her, so that was a plus.

I then launched into my reading of "Fog On The Old Coast Road", a story I'm very proud of - it got me into a good anthology, a live reading event, a signing at Forbidden Planet in London and also received an honorable mention from Ellen Datlow.  For those who don't know it, Vincent Holland-Keen filmed it at the Hauntings evening in Mowsley in March 2012.  I blogged about it here and this is the YouTube video of my reading.

The audience seemed to enjoy the story and we moved smoothly into the Q&A portion.  I was very lucky, I got a couple of great questions - one of them from Mick Scrimshaw, a local coucillor who, it turns out, shares my love of old horror movies - that really set the ball rolling and I enjoyed myself immensely.  In fact, on reflection, the Q&A bit was my favourite of the event.
photo by The Dude
I finished up, slightly over time, at 6.45pm, chatted with some of the audience members for a while, then re-grouped with my motley band.  I was buzzing, they all seemed happy (especially Dude, who I’d introduced to everyone as he was the model for 6-year-old Jack in the story), it was a good feeling.

The event went well, I'm pleased to say, as did the rest of KettFest and it was wonderful to see so much creativity in the town.  I was honoured to be involved and I’m already looking forward to Kett Fest 2016 (though I'm not planning my talk yet…).

Thanks to Jo Selby-Green for agreeing to let a horror writer hold court, thanks to Liz Kearns for the wonderful photograph, my little band of supporters and the audience, who listened and got involved and made my 45 minutes go very quickly indeed.

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