One of my earliest memories of being effected by horror was some time back in early 1980 with the original UK transmission of the Stephen King mini series ‘Salem’s Lot. As I was unwilling to go upstairs to bed on my own, and equally unwilling to sit and watch a scary programme about vampires (I was only 6 years old, remember) my mother hit up on an ingenious little plan. I would lie on the sofa, facing away from the TV, while my mother, my brother and my sister all sat along the length of the sofa (literally on the edge of their seats!) forming a human shield - an impenetrable wall of backs that would act as a defence against the terrifying images.
So, my family employed this method, over two consecutive nights, for 90 minutes a time. But it didn’t really work.
You see, I was an inquisitive little 6 year old boy, and, try as I might, I was unable to ignore the sounds of violence and terror that were ringing out of the family television set, a mere 8 foot away. And, inevitably, I peeped around my mother’s shoulders and I saw things that were guaranteed to keep me awake for at least the next month.
Back then I hated horror. Hated it. It truly scared the bejesus out of me. It seems silly now but the terror I felt every Tuesday at 8pm when the beginning credits to Thames Television’s anthology series Armchair Thriller would begin was almost unbearable. The programme itself never frightened me (it wasn’t strictly ‘horror’ but many of the stories did incorporate supernatural elements) only the opening credits. It was that vague human shadow and the sudden movement of it’s shadowy hands coupled with the crash-zoom at the end that really went to work on me. Those titles were only 20 seconds long, but to a four year old with an over-active imagination, it can seem like 20 minutes.
It was somewhere around the mid-80s that my fear of the horror genre slowly began to give way to morbid fascination - thanks, in no small part, to my mother’s impressive book collection. Here I had my first taste of the true horror masters, as well as new up and coming authors; Dracula by Bram Stoker, Gateway to Hell by Dennis Wheatley, The Survivor by James Herbert, Deathday by Shaun Hutson, Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews, Ghost Story by Peter Straub and horror anthologies such as the 24th Pan Book of Horror Stories and Roald Dahl‘s Tales of the Unexpected.
From the local mobile library I’d managed to find one of those famous St. Michaels hardback compilations, this time collecting together Stephen King’s first three published novels; Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining. Although I read all three of them it was ‘Salem’s Lot that made the greatest impact. Perhaps it was due to my experiences of (not) watching the mini series when I was six, but I found the novel absolutely terrifying and it immediately became one of my favourite books (and still is to this day!)
Around the same time my sister would frequently come home in the evenings from the local Youth Club with tantalising tales of how she had seen a group of teenagers in the Club’s television room watching pirate copies of banned films like The Evil Dead, The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I was usually both shocked and intrigued by these tiny scraps of local scandal. ‘How I’d love to watch those films too,’ I thought, ‘But so glad that I’m not,’ I would invariably add. For me watching or reading horror was like driving slowly past a bad car accident; not wanting to look at such a deeply upsetting scene, but not being able to tear my eyes away.
By the end of the 1980s horror was no longer having the same effect on me that it once did. In fact, the only book that had any real impact on me at all was Domain, the final instalment in James Herberts ‘Rats Trilogy’. Oddly, this had nothing to do with the actual rats themselves but the fact that it was set against the backdrop of nuclear war.
The threat of nuclear armageddon was the popular bogeyman of the era, its dark shadowy menace was cast over many a school playground conversation. With a new escalation in the Cold War following Ronald Reagan’s reversal from the policies of détente and his introduction of the ‘Star Wars’ defence initiative a brand new strain began to emerge within the horror genre. Stories that dealt with the true horror of a nuclear aftermath became popular, and very soon saw the arrival of such films as When The Wind Blows and TV programmes like Threads and The Day After.
For me it was an area of horror that I’d quickly decided that I didn’t like and, while everyone was in class one morning at school watching Barry Hines’ Sheffield based film Threads, I was allowed to sit in an adjoining room reading my copy of Stephen King’s Christine.
I remember being on a camping holiday in 1988 with my mum, dad and best friend at the time, sitting in the bedroom section of the trailer tent at 11 o’clock at night reading Domain, while my friend read his copy of Herbert’s Sepulchre, both of us absolutely terrified! One of the last books to truly scare the pants off me.
The only book that’s had a similar effect on me since is Whitley Strieber’s Communion. A supposedly ‘true’ account of the author’s abduction by alien beings and its personal impact upon his life and mental state. It’s not that I necessarily believe in the existence of aliens, more that I read it at 1am, alone, in a tiny one room attic flat, while I was living in York. At one point I’m sure I was sweating pure adrenalin.
Roughly around this time, while I was working as writer-in-residence with The Dreaming Theatre Company, I was down in Brighton with Lee Harris (he of Angry Robot fame) spending the weekend schmoozing, and generally getting drunk with, author Robert Rankin. We had optioned The Antipope, the first novel in his Brentford series, and had travelled down to sort out the details. After the pair of us had staggered back to our hotel at the end of the night we decided to stay up a bit longer, drinking cans of Coke and watching an episode of the early 80s anthology series Hammer House of Horror, that we’d brought with us on DVD.
The episode we chose was Children of the Full Moon, starring the late, great Diana Dors. Lee was unimpressed, to say the least (which struck me as slightly odd, as it was his DVD that we were watching), but I loved it. But this reaction didn’t surprise me in the least (neither his nor mine).
For me, this was exactly the sort of thing I’d grown up watching and reading. It had frightened me in the early years of my life, and delighted and entertained me as I’d moved into adulthood. You see, things like Hammer House of Horror were the television equivalent of that Pan Book of Horror Stories I’d read as a nipper, and contained many supernatural / occult elements that I’d so lovingly adored in the novels of Dennis Wheatley, H.P Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell. Programmes such as this, and Tales of the Unexpected, are a visual master class in understanding the essential tropes of 70s & 80s horror.
I still love watching and reading horror, although it doesn’t really scare me anymore. But there’s nothing quite like snuggling up in your favourite chair while sticking an old horror anthology series in the DVD player, or plunging into a good, well written horror novel or collection, with the fire on full and the curtains closed against a dark and drizzly night.
And occasionally, just occasionally, I find the odd novel or story that will still give me a sleepless night!