Journey into Darkness
by Alyson Faye
I didn’t spring fully formed into writing for the horror genre; it’s been a gradual slither in that direction with side detours including children’s stories (albeit supernatural in plot) and poetry. However, the seeds were sown early on, for I was a voracious reader as an only child and trips to the local library where a highlight for me. I can recall vividly the covers of those Alfred Hitchcock Mystery compilation books and the Pan Horror paperbacks, which I consumed in vast quantities in my teens. Even now the mere sight or touch of one of those paperbacks makes the years roll back. Books are powerful. Portals to alien lands – including your own past.
Robert Westall’s oeuvre was raced through; two particularly stick in my mind:- ‘Scarecrows’ which sparked a real terror of the straw men in my heart, and his ‘The Watch Tower’ set in his own seaside hometown, Tynemouth in the UK. The creepy messages written in the dust really gripped my imagination. Another Northern British writer for teens was Robert Swindells, who doesn’t just write horror but when he does like his ‘Room 13’, it sticks with you.
I managed to trace a much-loved book (long lost to me) through the internet – joy!- It’s another time slip, supernatural haunting tale – ‘The Snowstorm’ by Beryl Netherclift, which I must have borrowed five times from the library. The children’s door to the past is via the snow globe in the library- hence the title.
No reading journey for a horror writer isn’t complete without nods to Stephen King and James Herbert. I read all of King’s early books, (particular faves ‘Cujo’ and ‘Carrie’). I did have a pet dog at the time which gave me concern whilst reading Cujo. With King of course the books were linked to the films/TV- so in 1979 the US TV movie of ‘Salem’s Lot’ starring a post- ‘Starsky and Hutch’ David Soul had me hooked and freaked out, especially the scene where the vampire boy comes a-tapping at Mark’s window to be let in. Will he or won’t he gain admission? I slept all summer with my bedroom windows closed. Better to suffocate than be turned into one of the undead.
Let me not forget a nod in the direction of that TV staple, ‘Dr Who’. For me it was all about the Tom Baker years, which got surprisingly dark considering the show’s early screening time of 6pm ish. Monsters abounded in some cracking yarns:- ‘Image of the Fendhal’ and ‘The Pyramids of Mars,’ especially influential though for me, was the classic show, ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’. I’ve watched it several times as an adult and it still gives me the creeps. That frisson of nostalgia and anticipation- I just love it. I relished the Gothic London Victorian setting and the demonic ventriloquist’s dummy equipped with the pig’s brain, which was in 1977, to an 11-year-old me, a real shocker.
Books and films have been my dual touchstones for all of my life; the two often being intertwined. The one leading to and feeding back to the other. I watched a lot of late night Hammer horrors on BBC2 growing up. Well, I watched a lot of movies, not just horror, period. I even used to review them in my diary and keep scrapbooks of cuttings and go to film memorabilia fairs.
In the days pre VHS and setting record on your TV- I know hard to imagine a world like that – you had to stay up late to catch something unusual- like John Barrymore in the silent 1920 version of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and although special effects have come on a million light years since then there still is something visceral and feral in Barrymore’s transformation into the evil Hyde.
Lon Chaney’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) mainly black and white but surprisingly for the year, with some sequences in two strip colour, was another stay-up till the early hours job. But oh the moment where the phantom’s mask is stripped away has stayed with me for 40 years. Chaney, in one silent close up, showed the pain behind the mask and the man within the monster. Brilliant. I’d watch him in anything.
One year BBC2 dedicated a whole season to the films produced by Val Lewton at RKO in the 1940’s- so in succession you could watch, 1942’s ‘Cat People’, then on the next night, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ and so on through his film career. These were all low budget B films, short of cash but rich on ideas, photography and story. You never see the big cat attack the girl in the swimming pool in ‘Cat People’, it’s all shot with shadows and clever soundtrack effects, but it is scary as heck and put me off swimming alone for years. True story- I refused to swim in a basement pool in a hotel in Norfolk,UK until someone else got in- I was about 13 years old though.
I wrote an article on Lewton’s career which is up at https://womeninhorrorblog.wordpress.com/?s=alyson+faye. (Thank you to Claire Fitzpatrick for encouraging me to write this piece and posting it).
In the second phase of my writing life, post-40ish, I have turned my hand to writing flash fiction for the first time as well as writing longer stories. My natural tendency, it became clear to me, is to write dark, weird and haunted. So I people my tales with feral children, demons, ghosts, assassins, abused women, mermaids, killer teens and the occasional vampire (often for some reason called Vinnie). My début flash fiction collection came out in January this year from indie publisher Chapel Town Books and is called appropriately, ‘Badlands’. A title, inspired, yes you guessed it, by the Terrence Malick 1973 film, (another memorable late night TV viewing where Martin Sheen made quite an impact and I never looked at relationships the same way again.)
I kept writing and always kept reading horror/supernatural writers, following their stories through the small horror mags – folk like Alison Littlewood (her first novel ‘A Cold Season’ takes some beating but probably her latest ‘The Crow Garden’ is her Victorian Gothic tour de force), Simon Avery and Mark Valentine, whilst avidly consuming Susan Hill’s ghost stories and everything by Sarah Rayne.
I read all of Rayne’s back catalogue in less than a year; her novels are a mix of psychological terror/horror/history. Try ‘Ghost Song’, if you want to dip in, its one of her best. I even wrote her a (rare for me fan email) and she kindly replied. Happily I will be interviewing Sarah Rayne about her latest book, ‘Song of the Damned’ and her writing career, after I approached her publishers and she agreed, (hurrah) and the interview will go out on the Horror Tree site. I should mention that through another interview I conducted for Horror Tree a new name in horror came my way, Australian writer, Deborah Sheldon, whose prize winning short story collection ‘Perfect Little Stitches’, is very scary, original and well worth seeking out.
Currently I am reading Laura Purcell’s début Gothic chiller ‘The Silent Companions’ and I am happily revelling in the oh so familiar Victorian landscape of widows, diaries, mysterious deaths, creepy servants, attics, diamonds and those ‘Companions’ of the title.
Much of my own horror fiction, like ‘Mother Love’ is Victorian Gothic (Women in Horror Annual 2), https://www.amazon.co.uk/Women-Horror-Annual-Rachel-Katz/ and my latest story, all 6000 words of it, ‘Mr Dandy’ which I’ve written, on request, for an upcoming anthology, ‘DeadCades’ (to be published in October this year, by The Infernal Clock press, an indie co-run by Steph Ellis and David Shakes), http://infernalclock.blogspot.com/ has been influenced by many of the writers I’ve mentioned. ‘Mr Dandy,’ the ventriloquist’s dummy, is inspired both by Dr Who’s Weng Chiang and Ealing’s 1945 portmanteau horror/supernatural film ‘Dead of Night’ and the segment starring Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist.
Tim Lebbon (especially his ‘The Silence’) and F. G. Cottam’s books require a mention too as significant influences. Cottam’s ‘The Colony’ trilogy are so well written you think it’s a real story happening to real people. Cottam is described, rightly as ‘one of the finest contemporary writers of supernatural horror.’ (Jan Olandese) I’d agree with that. He also writes real page turners.
One of the sites which published my horror drabbles and longer pieces regularly and thereby gave me encouragement, was The Horror Tree – https://horrortree.com/. It is co-run by Stuart Conover (its founder) and the aforementioned horror writer Steph Ellis. https://stephellis.weebly.com/ It is a useful one- stop resource site for both reading horror fiction and for listing the many mags where you can submit. Lately the site has expanded into interviews with horror writers and book reviews.
I have watched a lot of horror films –some were seminal for me, like my first viewing of ‘Halloween’ and the 1980 version of ‘The Fog’ best watched at night, with drawn curtains in winter- I find. Remember Neil Marshall’s 2005’s ‘The Descent? where that foolhardy group of women cavers go down into the earth’s depths and you just know it will go pear shaped, they had no idea did they? I love the moment in a film/book where you know the characters’ world is going to topple into chaos, terror and death. It’s a hold your breath and feel the shivers creep up your spine time.
My top three films, probably, which I’ve watched in the last couple of years:- 2017’s ‘Get Out’/ 2018’s ‘A Quiet Place’/ 2017’s ‘Annabelle: Creation’. I often write about dolls in my stories, and have a habit of going to Museums of Dolls and Dolls houses in my spare time. I never liked them as a child, and I still don’t. Some girls do not play with dolls, ‘cos they know the dolls are watching!
I am a huge Guillermo del Toro fan, but it is a TV series he co-created, more than his movies which gripped me for 4 seasons – if you haven’t seen ‘The Strain’ ? Well you’ve not seen the best ever vampires/zombies post apocalyptic thrill ride of a show. So rush out and buy those DVDs now! Like I did. I was hooked. There were human characters to root for and others to hate- each episode is in itself a mini movie (the supermarket zombie siege while just doing some grocery shopping is the best ever)- you’ll never late night shop at Asda alone again. Each episode had a horrifying jump scare every 10 minutes.
When I’m asked what I do – I say I write, and folk go ‘oh that’ s nice’ etc etc but when they ask what I write? That’s a different scenario- say horror, and their eyebrows go up and that look of surprise tinged with distaste creeps in. Know that look? For every horror fan out there and there are millions, there are just as many folk who really don’t like it. Yes my fiction might disturb or raise shivers, great! I want it to, but it is fiction, a story and a way I think of putting our fears out there and then putting them to bed in a story box. I think it is a genre which calls to you, why write it otherwise? You’ve got to love it to want to put in the hours, sweat and blood. Creatively speaking, not literally.
Badlands by Alyson Faye is up on amazon :- https://www.amazon.co.uk/Badlands-Alyson-Faye/dp/1910542253
My blog:- www.alysonfayewordpress.wordpress.com