Odds and DEAD Ends: Shutter – A curse defined by it’s country

I think we often assume such concepts as ‘curses’ or ‘evil’, and their representations in media, to be generic and similar wherever we go. I’d like to challenge that notion here.

Just under two years ago I was completing a module for my course entitled ‘Film Genre’, the focus example being horror. Due to a mix-up in my head and getting the date wrong, I went to submit my second assignment two days late. I had to resit the assignment (an essay eventually completed about Takashi Miike’s film As The Gods Will), but I’ve always wondered what my work on the original assignment would have garnered.

And so, in time for the finale of HorrorAddicts.net’s examination of curses in all their various guises, I’ve decided to bring out that original essay, redraft it, give it a little touch up, and present it to you for your enjoyment and, hopefully, education. It’s about one of my favourite horror films of all time, Shutter, and the direct influence of Thailand on its presentation, creation, construction, and identity. If you take nothing away from this article than an increased awareness of how a country can create a unique, different experience, perhaps a differing viewpoint and perspective than a western film might show, then that’ll suit me fine.

Enjoy.

“National specificity is often what is being ‘sold’ as a distinguishing quality in any film being offered for export in a world market.” (Knee, 2008, p. 125).

Thailand may seem an unlikely place for a healthy horror tradition, given western audiences’ tendencies to associate the genre with the USA and UK, from the Technicolor castles of Hammer Horror to the 1980’s American slasher era, but it thrives nonetheless. As Adam Knee notes, “Over the course of several months from late 2001 into early 2002, no fewer than four Thai horror films were released in Thai cinemas – a substantial enough phenomenon (given the dozen or so Thai films being produced annually in recent years)” (Knee, 2005, p. 141). The rich past of Thailand, with its prevalence of Theravada Buddhism, history of trading and cultural exchanges with neighbouring nations, and relatively accelerated technological advances and recent urbanisation, make it a perfect setting for horror. I shall discuss the influences of many of these aspects of Thai life and history on its horror films, focusing on the film Shutter from 2004, and the many influences that Thailand has had on its themes and formal construction.

The premise of Shutter is a simple one. A photographer, Tun, and his girlfriend, Jane, hit a young girl whilst driving home one night after meeting with the photographer’s friends, and drive off without checking to see if she’s alive. The girl’s spirit, Natre, haunts the pair, mostly Tun and his photographs, unlocking the secrets of Tun’s past, and the dark connection between himself, the ghostly spirit and the cameras he loves so much. Whilst this premise could seemingly be picked up and placed in any country, Shutter is nevertheless distinctly Thai.

I’ll begin with the fear of technology in the film as a symbol for the evils of Thailand’s rapidly developing urban areas. Thailand, and more specifically Bangkok, is one of the most quickly developed areas in the world. As noted in A History of Thailand, “In 1998, the economy shrank 11 percent – a dramatic end to the 40 year ‘development’ era during which the Thai economy had averaged 7 percent growth and never fallen below 4 percent,” and when discussing a man who had visited rural Thailand in the latter half of the 20th century in one decade and returned the next, he said that “Villagers who had described the local rituals to him only a decade ago now exclaimed that ‘the rice spirit is no match for chemical fertiliser.’” (Baker & Phongpaichit, 2010, pp. 259, 160). As Knee notes, “Bangkok, a city that, in an architectural sense, is haunted indeed – with the old and the new, the disused and the thriving often crammed into the same spaces,” (Knee, 2005, p. 147). This all illustrates that Thailand has changed dramatically over the past few decades leading to Shutter’s production and release, becoming almost unrecognisable from what it once was, complete with the invasion of technology into the home, including television; “By the mid-1990s, over 90 percent of households had one,” (Baker & Phongpaichit, 2010, p. 223).

This chaotic eruption of advancement gives the film the perfect backdrop to use technology, a symbol of advancement and modernity, as a vehicle for Natre’s spirit to conduct herself. Although not confined to the camera, it is photography, and the technology associated with it, that is her main medium of choice for her haunting. Not only does she use the camera to present herself (such as Tun seeing her through the viewfinder), or uses the photographs (she turns her head in a developed photograph in another scene), but she actively uses this medium to manifest as a physical presence. In the scene with Jane in the development room, Natre’s spirit manifests itself inside a sink covered with photographs, rising slowly out of it, as if emerging from the photographs themselves. Natre’s use of the camera therefore may not only be seen as a narrative link between her and Tun, but also as a warning of the dislocation from reality that technology can provide in a new and thriving Bangkok. “Bangkok, as an emblem or instantiation of modernity, is a key reference point… and often appears to engender an anxiety over foreign influence and the loss of traditional mores,” (Knee, 2005, p. 157)

This unease around technology is expressed as unreality, which the film discusses in Jane’s University lecture, “photography does not produce reality.” Tun’s obsession with this ability to capture an unreality means he is more easily pressured into photographing Natre’s rape; he is able to detach himself from the scene because in his mind photography doesn’t replicate reality, only an unreality. He is able to forget these events after Natre’s departure from Bangkok, to the ‘real’ world, until Tonn mentions it again; the Bangkok he lives in has become to him, through the influence of his photography, an unreality, the world of his photographs even more so, easily dealt with because they are not the true reality.

It is perhaps impossible to lead on from the evils of Thailand than to go to its religious good, and its prevalent religious beliefs in Theravada Buddhism. One of the key ways in which Shutter creates its terror can be seen in both the grounding, and eventual perversion, of this particular strand of Buddhism’s treatment of malevolent spirits.

In Buddhism, “Villagers view abnormal death with great fear, because the winjan may become a malevolent phi called a phii tai hoeng”, (winjan being a form of consciousness, phii  a spirit, and phii tai hoeng a vengeful and restless spirit of one who has come to an abnormal death) (Tambiah, 1975, p. 189). Suicide falls into this category of abnormal death, and so it may be correct to classify Natre’s vengeful ghost as a phii tai hoeng, according to Buddhist tradition, perhaps not too dissimilar to Japanese Onryō. Natre isn’t disconnected from Buddhist teachings either, as is displayed by the Buddhist funeral held for her. A Buddhist view and understanding of her spirit is a decent idea therefore, with Buddhist rules to follow in our understanding of the film.

When her mother initially denies the village’s wish to bury her, the villagers treat her afterward like an outcast; “All the villagers were scared. No one wanted to socialise with her.” Natre’s spirit is unable to rest, as she hasn’t been given a proper burial, and will return as a phii tai hoeng in due course. Her mother, however, may hold a clue as to why she did not return immediately. A short booklet called Thailand Society & Culture Complete Report, when discussing the belief of evil spirits arising from suicide, remarks that “the music and presence of loved ones generally keep the spirits at bay,” (Press, World Trade, 2010, p. 12). By this logic, the presence of her mother, living in the same house as her corpse, should have kept Natre’s spirit at bay, despite the lack of a funeral. However, several events may have led to Natre’s sudden appearance again at the beginning of the film.

At the house, as Tun and Jane proceed to Natre’s room to discover her body, they pass hundreds of bottles of liquid. On the DVD commentary, Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, who plays Jane, says that “some people didn’t know what those bottles were,” to which director Parkpoom Wongpoom replies “the drunken mum.” (Shutter (DVD Commentary), 2004). This excessive drinking, an evil no doubt symbolically returning with Natre from Bangkok, would surely have an effect on the restraining of Natre’s spirit to her corpse, allowing her to escape at the right moment more easily.

Along with this, Tun, her former lover, is now with a new partner, and taking her on nights out with the group that raped her. It seems no coincidence then that she first materialises after Tun looks at Jane and remarks “beautiful you.” With no mother able to hold her back (she acts as if Natre is alive, and goes away when she says she will fetch Natre upstairs, proof she is in no fit mental state to able to contain Natre’s spirit), along with Tun’s display of affection for Jane, we see that the immoral, violent world of modern, Bangkok society overrides the Buddhist teachings and traditions that would hold Natre at bay. It is, of course, at a great hospital (probably in an urbanised area, maybe Bangkok), that Natre jumps from and commits suicide, and inside a Bangkok University where she is raped. Natre has become a product of the evils of the allure of the technological advancement of Bangkok, which might prevent the Buddhist teachings from keeping hold of her, and hold of morality as a whole.

In terms of the possible perversion of Buddhist traditions mentioned, it could be possible to understand Tun’s camera as a symbolic form of amulet. According to the World Trade Press, “The Thai people widely use amulets called khawng-khlong, which literally means ‘sacred potent objects’”, and “Amulet-wearers usually seek protection from diseases, witchcraft and accidents.” (Press, World Trade, 2010). The image of Tun using his camera as a means of profession, hanging by a strap around his neck, warding off the evils of poverty and illegal money-making, could be taken as symbolism for a Buddhist amulet. If we adopt this theory, we can see that Natre’s usage of this symbol of protection for her haunting is a direct attack on Buddhist traditions and beliefs. Even her eventual cremation and Buddhist funereal rites can’t stop her, with Natre manifesting at her own funeral by putting a hand on Tun’s shoulder, perhaps the biggest insult to Buddhism one could imagine.

As mentioned before, the Buddhist elements in the film are mainly associated with the rural areas outside Bangkok, which adds further reasoning to Bangkok being an immoral place removed from righteous, religious teachings. It is only in the rural areas that we see evidence of Buddhism, with the monks at the roadside as Tun and Jane are asking about Natre’s mother, and then again at the funeral and subsequent cremation. Whilst in Bangkok, nothing of these traditions are seen or mentioned. Instead we have the drunken ‘gang’ of Tonn’s raping a young woman in one of the city’s Universities, and the eventual madness and chaos brought about by her revenge. This can be no accident. Buddhism is firmly planted in the rural, whereas the urbanisation represents evil, both in life and after it.

Another key thing to note is the context of other Thai film in relation to Shutter, especially Nang Nak, released five years earlier in 1999. It tells a traditional Thai folk story of a woman who died during childbirth whilst her husband is away at war, whose spirit continues to dwell in their home and live with him after he returns, eventually being discovered by her husband, Mak, and exorcised and set to rest by the Buddhist monks. This film became a box office hit in Thailand, winning over a dozen awards. In considering Shutter, it is important to also consider the links to Nang Nak and the influence it had on the creation of the film.

Aside from the concept of a departed woman not being able to rest without her significant other, there are several places where the two films bear a striking resemblance to one another. The opening title sequence of Nang Nak has the titles appearing over paintings and murals depicting Thai history, as a way to enhance the film’s setting. This is not too dissimilar from Shutter’s opening sequence of what could almost be described as a photographic mural, a montage of images showing the main character’s past. Having the titles over images of the past, with the film so closely following Nang Nak, can’t be coincidence. Along with this, the sequence where Natre walks towards Tun outside his apartment along the ceiling is strikingly similar to a scene in Nang Nak where Nak stands on the roof of the Buddhist temple (this image being frightening and representative of an inversion and perversion of Buddhism, such as Natre’s spirit represents). Nak’s spirit is eventually contained inside a fragment of her skull made into a broach, just as Natre is contained initially inside the camera, and eventually in the hospital room with Tun at the very end. Added to all of these resemblances is the fact that Chatchai Pongrapaphan, who composed for Nang Nak, also composed the music for Shutter, providing yet another link between the two. Without a doubt, Shutter took inspiration from the 1999 film and, as the tale of Nak is a well-known legend in Thailand with dozens of adaptations, it is possible that Natre herself was even inspired by Nak.

The influences on Shutter however, are not merely restricted to Thailand. Many international considerations need to be made in order to understand it, perhaps the most important one being the emergence of the cycle of Japanese horror films kick-started by the release of Ringu, a 1998 adaptation of the 1991 novel of the same name. The film’s main antagonist, the vengeful spirit or onryō of Sadako Yamamura, became a cultural icon when the film hit theatres, becoming one of Japan’s top box-office hits of all time. The USA would commission a remake, The Ring, to be released four years later. In the wake of Ringu’s immense success, the image of a vengeful ghostly female character with long black hair became prevalent in films such as Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), One Missed Call (2003) and Dark Water (2002).

It wasn’t long before word got around that this was an almost sure-fire method to get people into cinemas, along with international interest. This is noted perhaps humorously in a blog post by Grady Hendrix on Kaiju Shakedown, “after The Ring, The Ring Two, The Ring Virus, Nightmare, Scissors, Ju-On 1 & 2, A Tale of Two Sisters, Dark Water, Kakashi, The Phone, Shutter, Unborn but forgotten, Into The Mirror, Wicked Ghost, Shikoku, One Missed Call, Horror Hotline… Big Head Monster, Pulse, R-Point, Three Extremes and on and on, this whole ‘long-haired-dead-wet-chick’ trope is dead.” (McRoy, 2008, p. 173) His association of numerous films on his list, including Shutter, with ‘J-Horror’, even when they aren’t from Japan, is perhaps telling of the cycle’s influence on Asian cinema. Everyone wanted to have their own ghost-girl film that was more terrifying than the others.

On a horror revival, with western eyes turning towards Asia for ghostly women to see on their screens, it’s not hard to see that Shutter took influences from Ringu and the like for its character of Natre, similarly a vengeful female ghost with long black hair. Thailand had been looking to Japan for influences for decades, especially when it comes to film; “the first permanent exhibition space for films in Thailand was built by a Japanese promoter in 1905,” (Ruh, 2008, p. 143). Added to this, Davis and Yeh state that “Japanese horror films have a long history, tapping ghost tales and Buddhist sermons in the Edo period,” similar to Shutter’s usage of Buddhist influences, as well as noting that, in their discussion of Ringu, “In this story, some of our most trusted devices inexplicably turn against us”, similar to Natre turning the camera on Tun (Davis & Yeh, 2008, p. 119). Also to note is in the DVD commentary, when Tun walks into the room before seeing Tonn jump to his death, remarking about the static on the television, Pisanthanakun remarks that “on the website they said we’d copied this scene from The Ring,” This remark clearly indicates that the filmmakers are aware of Ringu/The Ring and its influence on current Asian cinema, and whilst this is a denial that the scene is explicitly referencing the Japanese film, the general motifs and iconography of the film are so similar to the cycle that they cannot be ignored.

The cycle of horror at that time, especially the original J-horror as well, also loved to use technology as a means of manifesting the malevolent entity involved. In Ringu it is a videotape, Pulse (2001) uses computers, Suicide Club (2002) uses the radio and television broadcasting. Shutter, then, follows a long line of films in Japanese cinema by using technology as a focus point for its malevolence and evil, but added the influence of Bangkok for this technological evil.

A final point to note might be the inclusion of the number 4 in the staircase scene with Tun running away from Natre. On the DVD commentary, Wongpoom states that “Foreigners say that they know the number four means death for the Chinese… I was surprised they knew that,” and when asked if it was intentional, both he and Pisanthanakun replied “yes”. This use of numbers in Chinese culture and tradition specifically for foreshadowing events and themes of the action taking place shows a very nice cross-cultural connection between the Thai filmmakers and the neighbouring country that has had so much connection with Thailand in the past centuries through to the present day, with many millions of Chinese residents living in the country.

In conclusion, Thailand’s social and cultural history has led to its films becoming rich with remnants and depictions of its setting in both formal construction and through its themes and symbolism. In Shutter, Buddhism and its traditions are invoked and subverted in an attempt to portray the rural countryside as a place of tranquillity and peace, with the city of Bangkok a thriving haven of rape, alcohol abuse and evil. Bangkok’s malevolence includes its rapid industrialisation and technological advancement which can further enhance and continue to spread the evil, in a similar fashion (but different meaning) to Asia’s cycle of horror films inspired by the kaidan tales of Japan, with Thailand’s own film history in Nang Nak influencing its construction. China also shows its influence in its superstitions appearing in the film, knowledge of which is acquired via close national connections with the country. Shutter then, despite first appearing to be a standard ghostly horror movie, is in fact layered deeply with the social concerns and cultural influences of Thailand, with other Asian nations helping to create a rich, transnational horror film.

 

 

Bibliography

Baker, C. & Phongpaichit, P., 2010. A History of Thailand. Second Edition ed. China: Cambridge University Press.

Dark Water. 2002. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Oz.

Davis, D. W. & Yeh, E. Y.-Y., 2008. East Asian Screen Industries. London: British Film Institute.

Ju-On: The Grudge. 2002. [Film] Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Japan: Pioneer LDC.

Knee, A., 2005. Thailand Haunted: The Power of the Past in the Contemporary Thai Horror Film.. In: S. J. Schneider & T. Williams, eds. Horror International. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 141 – 159.

Knee, A., 2008. Suriyothai becomes Legend: National Identity and Global Currency. In: L. Hunt & W. Leung, eds. East Asian Cineams, Exploring Transnational Connections on Film. London: I.B Tauris, pp. 123 – 137.

Nang Nak. 1999. [Film] Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Thailand: Tai Entertainment.

One Missed Call. 2003. [Film] Directed by Takashi Miike. Japan: Kadokawa Pictures.

Press, World Trade, 2010. Thailand Society and Culture Complete Report: An All-Inclusive Profile Containing All Of Our Society & Culture Reports, s.l.: World Trade Press.

Pulse. 2001. [Film] Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Japan: Toho Company.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Ruh, B., 2008. Last Life in the Universe: Nationality, Technologies and Authorship. In: L. Hunt & L. Wing-Fai, eds. East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film. New York: I.B Tauris + Co Ltd., pp. 138 – 152.

Shutter (DVD Commentary). 2004. [Film] Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom, Banjong Pisanthanakun. Thailand: Contender Films.

Shutter. 2004. [Film] Directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom, Banjong Pisanthanakun. Thailand: GMM Pictures.

Suicide Club. 2002. [Film] Directed by Sion Sono. Japan: Earthrise.

Suzuki, K., 1991. Ringu. Tokyo: Kodakawa Shoten.

Tambiah, S., 1975. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand. Cabridge: Cabridge University Press.

The Ring. 2002. [Film] Directed by Gore Verbinski. USA: Dreamworks Pictures.

 

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Interview with Artist Luke Spooner


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Carrion House is the online domain of England artist and illustrator Luke Spooner, whose work has appeared in projects featuring stories by horror masters Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Stephen King.

“I have a First Class degree in illustration from the University of Portsmouth,” Spooner says on his website. “My current projects and commissions include illustrations and covers for books, magazines, graphic novels, books aimed at children, conceptual design and business branding.”

Spooner’s projects include the interior artwork for Crystal Lake Publishing anthology “Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories” and the interior artwork for Bram Stoker Award-winning Crystal Lake Publishing anthology “Behold: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders.” Both feature stories by horror masters Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Ramsey Campbell.

Spooner’s illustrations are also featured in the anthology “You, Human,” which includes the short story “I Am the Doorway” by Stephen King, and in “The Dead Song Legend Dodecology” by Jay Wilburn.

 

In an exclusive interview with HorrorAddicts.net, Spooner discusses his career.

 


THE INTERVIEW

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HORROR ADDICTS: Where did your artistic eye and talent originate? Any artists, books, or movies inspire your style?

SPOONER: I was doodling from the moment I discovered pencils and things to scribble on. In those early formative years, it was just a way of emulating what I loved; I used to draw my favourite characters from television shows, books – even imaginary characters that I’d make up and try to explain to others and write stories about. In hindsight; the desire to communicate ideas through visual means actually developed earlier than my attempts at communicating through spoken language. I’m not saying I was any good at it – I’m just saying it was my first port of call once I realized there were things I needed to get out of my head, but gradually, over time, it became a tap – a leaky faucet that you really had to put your back into if you were to have any hope of turning off. It never occurred to me that some people just didn’t do it. It seemed so important and instinctive but as with most things in life; once you arrive at school and find peers of your own age staring back at you, you notice people and they notice you, the things that separate you from them start to become clearer and more definitive.

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HA: How long have you been a cover designer? What compelled you to start your own business in this field?

SPOONER: When I reached the age of 18 I had gathered enough understanding of the world to know that there was a chance I could do something creative, something that involved creating images to convey meaning, for a living – a way of making money to allow me to create images for as long as possible with no interruptions. It was suggested by my art teacher that I undertake a Foundation Degree at the Wimbledon College of Art in London.  Following this suggestion and applying myself to getting accepted was a confirmation that I was indeed going to do something creative as a profession; I’d sat across tables from other students with artistic prowess far greater than my own for years by this point and despite this I still felt very strongly that I could find a niche for myself that they couldn’t fit into. That degree, in total, lasted a year and was essentially, what became known in retrospect, as an ‘options year,’ a term suitably vague and confusing. I ended up in a scary umbrella option called ‘visual communication,’ which basically meant commercial imagery in the broadest and (sadly) vaguest sense. I was trapped in a room, right on the edge of Wimbledon like a dirty secret, shoulder to shoulder with photographers, graphic designers, typographers, traditional illustrators, children’s book illustrators and even a couple of fine artists who had severely lost their way but decided that it couldn’t have possibly been there fault. I barely made it out of that year purely through the department’s constant need to try and cover every discipline’s needs on a daily basis. We were essentially a broth with too many chefs and I lost any sort of direction or idea of what I truly wanted to be. However, I did survive it and based on the few tethers I’d managed to grasp over the course of a year under the degree’s instruction I decided to sign up to The University of Portsmouth’s illustration degree.

When I got to Portsmouth everything was confirmed. I was reminded of what I truly enjoyed and what I wanted to do more of in the future. The degree provided the perfect platform for me to start from and presented the bare bones truth of what the world I was trying to install myself into was and would be like, so any second thoughts I would have had were put aside fairly early on. The unofficial mantra that got passed down by the lecturers, and made frequent appearances in our group tutorials like a support meetings code of conduct was “what you put in – you will get out,” and while that obviously sounds like common sense, I can assure you that you’d be amazed at how many people decided to sit back, put in minimum effort and just assume the work would find them both during University and out in the big wide world of work. I heard from one of my friends at a London based art degree while I was Portsmouth that her department’s stock phrase was “nobody wants you,” which although incredibly depressing is an unfortunate truth.

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When I left University in 2012 I had finished my illustration degree; handed in work, filled 14 sketchbooks, written a dissertation on film noir, even wall mounted my work for an exhibition to be looked over by a horde of complete strangers – all over the course of the final third year. What I didn’t realise was that we although the work was handed in on 11tth May – we didn’t officially graduate until the 23rd July. This meant that we effectively had two whole months of not having a clue who we were supposed to be; were we students? Were we graduates? Could we start working without knowing whether we’d passed or not? The list of open-ended questions goes on and on but when you’re talking about a department full of potential freelancers you knew you weren’t going to get any answers – even the lecturers gave the impression that they now saw you as competition as opposed to the subordinates they were teaching a week previous.

There was absolutely no hope of turning to your fellow artists and finding out what they had planned because competition was verging on blood thirsty, so rather than dwelling on it I decided that I didn’t need to know what grade I got, or even whether I’d passed, to be a practicing freelancer. I had a portfolio to my name and a desire to work and seek out potential projects so, for those two months, I emailed and searched, rinsed and repeated, sending upwards of fifty emails a day until eventually one client, just as fresh and new to ‘the game’ as I was, said they wanted me on board for their new project and were willing to pay me actual money in return for my services. That was six years ago, and I haven’t stopped since

HA: You call your online domain, CARRION HOUSE. Why that name? Does it have a special meaning?

SPOONER: I didn’t actually live in the city I studied in when I was at University. I lived forty miles away and was working two part-time jobs, so I didn’t really socialise much with other students outside of the formal lessons and group tutorials attended at the University. I used to commute via bus and train and when you couple that with the fact that our schedule, especially towards the end of the course, was pretty lax it meant that not a lot of people actually knew me beyond being able to recognise me in passing me in a corridor. However, during the second year of the course there was a big emphasis placed on creating an online identity for ourselves as prospective illustrators through online portfolios, social media, blogs etc. We were encouraged to represent ourselves as more of a brand than a person, where possible, and so for two weeks I went through all sorts of names that I thought would highlight the dark work I was creating, and hoping to create, for other people.

There were some truly awful names amongst the list of potentials and some downright laughable, so I eventually decided to take stock of how people already viewed me within the course as they were, to a point, pretty unbiased and probably a good indicator of how people would view my work having not really known me personally. In the first year we had done a project where we were set the task of researching and illustrating an animal of our choice over the course of a month and producing some sort of ‘end result’ based on our research and development. I had chosen a crow as my subject and had jumped head first into my research almost gratuitously. The end result was a series of illustrations based on ‘The Crow’ by Ted Hughes and when it came time to present the research and final product to my teachers, alongside everyone else, the other students were slightly taken aback by how ‘into it’ I had become when they saw the bulging sketchbooks and development folders. Subsequently people started referring to me as ‘the crow guy,’ not in a negative capacity (as far as I know) but simply as a convenient moniker based on simple fact — I did nothing to dissuade this.

So, knowing that I was already known as ‘the crow guy’ I took the word ‘Carrion’ and coupled it with the word ‘House,’ because I liked the idea of appearing as a professional house, or style of illustration as opposed to just some guy who could colour in really well and that’s how the name came about. It may also interest you to know that I also work on children’s books under the name of ‘Hoodwink House,’ a name chosen because I don’t feel that the child friendly style of illustration I utilise under that name is an honest representation of my artistic self, therefore I feel like I’m tricking/hoodwinking both customers and myself when I put on that particular hat style.

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HA: I read your website where you have worked on projects that include works by Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. That’s impressive. Can you talk about how those projects developed for you? Do you feel more pressure when creating covers for high-profile projects with big-name talent attached?

SPOONER: All of those stories have come to me as parts of anthologies, so they are packaged alongside other stories, by other authors and therefore it diffuses that pressure by normalising those particular names and reminding the elated fan in you that they are just people. I try to make a point of going through anthologies avoiding any knowledge as to who has authored what as it’s the story I’m illustrating – not the writer. It also prevents me from trying to mimic any sort of aesthetic that they or their publications are synonymous with and in turn raise the chance of me coming up with something genuinely original and honest.

HA: In the age of Amazon and ebook readers, are covers as important in this digital age as they were in the days when hardcovers and paperbacks ruled?

SPOONER: Yes, of course. Covers are very important for conveying a theme or the essence of a book, ultimately providing an insight into what you might stand to gain or experience should you decide to have a look inside. On a simpler level; humans are sensory creatures so if you can appeal to someone’s imagination simply through the power of sight and image then you’ve already enriched their experience of a publication before they’ve even opened it. I would almost suggest that ebook covers need to be more illustrative than that of a physical copy as they are at a sensory disadvantage by not having that physicality and appeal to touch that humans enjoy so much.

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HA: What’s the key to a successful collaboration with authors and publishers in creating cover designs? Do most authors and publishers have a specific cover in mind or do they give you a lot of latitude in your design?

SPOONER: I think a successful collaboration comes from a mutual understanding and respect between the client and the illustrator. The writer should never see themselves as some sort of divine benefactor that has stooped to the illustrator’s level and offered them work that they are lucky to get – even if that is the case, and the illustrator should never be tempted to hold their skills to ransom and demand inordinate sums of compensation. Writer’s should realize that illustrators are a key part to making their body of work, not just a marketable and interesting package, but a complete and fully realized one with multiple layers. Illustrators should also realize that; yes, they are artists, they should never work for free because it undermines the entire profession, but they should also be open to the needs of the writer and understand that just because they are talented does not mean they are entirely right when it comes to understanding a writer or publishers’ vision. Working in tandem with each other towards the same goal, making all criticism fair and constructive from both parties – they seem like common sense things to keep in check, but they are often the first things to suffer when a collaborative effort starts to break down.

HA: I see your art incorporates visceral colors but also you have black-and-white illustrations. Which do you prefer and why?

SPOONER: I genuinely don’t know. I spent a long time simply sketching in standard pencil, sticks of charcoal and standard black ink so colour rarely made an appearance in my work during my infant to early teenage years. Around seventeen/eighteen years of age I had access to my A Level college’s entire art department, pretty much whenever I wanted, so I took the opportunity to explore the use of colour in my free time (lunch breaks etc.) and did so quite sporadically. The result was that colour would tend to explode within my images, as if the fact they were no longer repressed was reflecting a sort of violent display of annoyance at me personally through the very paper or canvas I’d set myself to. So I don’t know which of the two I prefer but I’m very happy that they are both present and hope I treat both equally well.

HA: On your website, you have a section for your illustration work. You also have a section titled “Self Directed Work.” What is the difference?

SPOONER: That simply refers to the work I make out of sheer impulse and self direction. None of it is commissioned by a third-party, they are simply the things I create because I have to create. Therefore, there are a few slightly weird pieces up there as well as a few canvas pieces, which is a medium I don’t advertise as a service to anyone. As you can probably imagine; there is a massive amount of work that I’ve produced for myself that isn’t on that page and is instead going completely unseen by anyone other than me.

Spooner 7.jpg

HA: What scares you?

SPOONER: The idea of not being able to create or be creative in my pursuits or hobbies scares me tremendously. Once, while in a group tutorial at University, after summer holidays through which we’d been told to maintain a visual diary, a teacher asked to see what I’d amassed. Upon opening my book and flicking through it she went very quiet, looked back over everything and asked me if I had produced as much as I had because I was perhaps scared of not being able to one day. That question caught me completely off guard with how direct it had been but also provided me with the quickest, most uninhibited ‘yes’ I had ever given in my life.

Odds and DEAD Ends: Watching from below: Voyeurism in ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Voyeurism in The Cabin in the Woods

Released in 2012, The Cabin in the Woods struck a chord in a genre dominated by ‘torture-porn’ and remakes of paranormal horror from Asia. By taking the formula of The Evil Dead film and using the codes and conventions as part of its narrative construction, it seemed to revitalise a genre that many felt had gone astray. I’m going to discuss the film’s use of cameras and the theme of voyeurism, to heighten the film’s tension by subtly shifting our allegiances and questioning our morality.

By default, massive spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.

The film is uniquely structured in that it follows two sets of characters. We have the teenagers on the ‘top floor’, unknown sacrifices to the gods below, and the crew on the ‘bottom floor’ to ensure their demise. Whedon and Goddard state on the DVD commentary that they were going to keep the second floor a secret until a way into the film, but eventually decided against it. This way, they set us up from the beginning with the fear of being watched.

By giving us this knowledge, we place ourselves in a position of power, having information that the main quintet of the piece doesn’t. This aligns us with Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense; that the audience must know something that the characters don’t, be this a wallet about to fall from someone’s jacket or a killer in the closet, to create tension. You can watch Sir Alfred himself explain it in the video below.

Being watched is always powerful in creating paranoia and fear because it is an invasion of our privacy, someone forcing their way into our innermost thoughts and deeds. When Marty says that the idea of the trip is to ‘get off the grid’, he highlights this need for privacy, which we know to be nothing but an illusion. If a metaphor is needed for this invasion of privacy, it is embodied by the two-way mirror in the cabin.

One of the ways this voyeurism is used is through its desensitisation those working below must undergo in order to protect the world. Consider the scene before Jules’ murder and the way in which she must be ‘the whore’ before she can be killed. Kirk says to her “‘we’re all alone’”, followed by a shot of everyone watching it happen. Though this is played for laughs, it’s a real fear that they will be discovered, something every teen couple fears. Later, when asked if Jules showing herself is necessary, we are told “‘we’re not the only ones watching’”, and that they “‘need to keep the customers satisfied’”. The teens are produce, goods to be shown, approved of, and then sold, and it requires such an extreme degree of desensitisation, of dehumanisation, that they must force themselves to do, that we begin to side with those below.

The teenagers are being spied upon from a functional point of view: people need to know what they’re doing in order to do their job right. The comedy Goddard extracts from the workforce means that we align our morals with them. This comes to a climax when the group is heading to the bridge and we get the call that it’s still intact. Who do we support here? Do we support the victims, trying to survive? Or do we support the men trying to kill them, trying to save the world? We are put in a moral quandary here which only adds to our tension.

As another note, not only is the floor below watching the top through their cameras and monitors, but they themselves are also being watched by their boss and the gods. Layers upon layers of voyeurism and the need to look over your shoulder are piled up here in a single film. We cannot get away from eyes everywhere, watching us, wanting us to kill or be killed.

Viewing them through the cameras perhaps helps those below deal with the situation. They don’t have to meet the victims; they can deal with the situation as if they were playing a video game. They are test subjects in a Saw-like game. And one shouldn’t think that this emphasis on viewing as a theme is coincidental. After all, co-writer and director, Drew Goddard, also wrote Cloverfield, one of the movies that re-vitalised the found footage genre along with REC and Paranormal Activity, a genre that emphasizes horror viewed from a first-person perspective.

The desensitisation that the workers go through in order to do their job is passed onto us. This presents us with questions of morality that arise with the film’s conclusion. We side with the heroes and yet also need them to fail. This places us in a tricky situation. Who do we support? The final act’s big dilemma would not resonate so much if we simply sided with the victims, and so we must watch them suffer, with as much black humour as we can get from it so that we also want those trying to keep the gods happy to succeed. It’s the only conclusion we can come to. But is this the right decision? What is the right decision?

In conclusion, the voyeurism displayed throughout the film aids the shift in our empathy just from the side of the victims into the centre of the two sides. We find ourselves in a world of moral greyness, where we aren’t sure who we should root for. We are between Scylla and Charybdis, with the pressure mounting, the clock ticking down, and no clue how to feel. Horror is comprised, at its core, of choices. Whether to run or fight, go up the stairs or out the front door, cut our leg off or not, we have to deal with choices. Goddard puts us in that point where we don’t want to have to choose, but we must. And that’s what makes The Cabin in the Woods, through its theme of voyeurism, just that little bit special.

Article by Kieran Judge (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

Bibliography

Cloverfield. 2007. [Film] Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Bad Robot.

Institute, A. F., 2008. Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E
[Accessed 20 09 2018].

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA: Blumhouse Productions.

REC. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax International.

The Cabin in the Woods. 2012. [Film] Directed by Drew Goddard. USA: Mutant Enemy.

The Evil Dead. 1981. [Film] Directed by Sam Raimi. USA: Renaissance Pictures.

 

Interview with Author Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis is a busy woman of horror.

Based in Southampton, United Kingdom, Ellis divides her time as a writer of dark, speculative fiction; as editor of Horror Tree’s weekly ezine, Trembling With Fear; and as co-curator and contributor of The Infernal Clock anthologies.

Her latest project, Dark is my Playground, is her solo debut, a collection of dark verse and twisted nursery rhymes released on July 24.

Visit https://stephellis.weebly.com/ for more about Ellis and her writing.

In an exclusive interview with HorrorAddicts.net, Ellis discusses her new book and the other hats she wears.

THE LIGHTNING ROUND

  1. A favorite movie? The Rocky Horror Picture Show
  2. Favorite binge-watching series on Netflix? Being Human
  3. A favorite author? Terry Pratchett
  4. A favorite book? The Stand
  5. A favorite visual artist? J.M.W. Turner
  6. A favorite musical artist? Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails
  7. Any song stuck your head? Soultaker, “Blutengel” (this classical version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_sNkmGgF8o)
  8. A favorite website? Horror Tree!
  9. Pet peeve? Writing to a deadline and missing out on real life events only for the deadline to be extended when you’ve bust a gut to submit in time.
  10. You have one last meal. What do you want to see on that plate? My eldest, Bethan’s, Chilli Mac (vegetarian).

THE REAL INTERVIEW

Q1: You released Dark is My Playground in July, a collection of dark verse and twisted nursery rhymes. What draws you to the horror genre?

ELLIS: The atmosphere and emotion it generates. I’ve never been one for romance novels. I read most of my mum’s Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson books when I was about 11 years old, but found I didn’t have the patience for the ‘heroines’ in such books. I like stories with a bit more meat on them, a serious problem to overcome and usually that means something dark. Horror for me is darkness, not gore or gratuitous violence, and I like to read (and write) about what someone would do when confronted with some of their worst fears. How far would a person go to save themselves or someone else? I think horror allows you to explore human emotions and motivation at a deeper level, our baser instincts if you like.

Q2: You’re a talented writer who’s been published in numerous anthologies and collections, yet you indicated in your blog that there was a bit of trepidation in releasing Dark is My Playground, your first major solo project. You said that being among a list of other writers in anthologies was a “comfort blanket,” giving you something to hide behind. What were you hiding from?

ELLIS: Thank you, that’s kind of you to say but the answer’s easy – fear of failure. Like all writers I have huge bouts of self-doubt, fighting that old ‘imposter syndrome’ on a regular basis. It’s also partly because this is self-published and this means it’s me thinking they’re good enough to be read more widely – but what if I am deluded? I also hate promoting myself and my work, a very British trait.

Q3: You obviously love words. In Dark is My Playground, the poems are so beautifully written. I’ve already expressed my admiration for the phrase “bark-womb of the bellied tree,” which you said was inspired by an image. How important are visual prompts to your poetry?

ELLIS: Very. I’m one of those people who spent their childhood seeing images in clouds, something I still do and something my own children (now adults) also indulge in. The visual provides a more immediate trigger to an idea and allows my writing to almost become a stream of consciousness without having to think about it. Visual Verse where The Deceiver was first published only allows one hour to write 50 to 500 words and that allows a freedom in writing. No pretence or trying to be clever, I just play with the words. That particular poem is actually my own personal favourite. I look at it sometimes and still can’t believe I wrote it. Old flash competitions, sadly no longer with us, such as Flash Friday and The Angry Hourglass, would use images, and I think what I enjoyed the most was the personification of the inanimate. There was a house in one picture which had one window closed and immediately it brought ideas of eyes and watching to mind, giving me the introduction ‘I have a house. It sleeps with one eye open. Watchful in the wilderness, it keeps me safe.’ The picture gives me the ‘way in’ to a poem or story.

Q4: You are also the editor for one of my favorite online features on Horror Tree website called Trembling With Fear, which publishes short stories and drabbles (100-word shorts). With time always being an issue for writers, why do you wear that editorial hat, which must cut in to your writing time?

ELLIS: Firstly, because Stuart Conover, editor at Horror Tree, asked for help and as I had achieved much of my publishing success as a result of his submission calls, I figured it was a way of saying thank you. The other part was due to me assessing my future in writing. This last year or so, I decided was the time I was going to take it seriously and not just in terms of trying to get a novel published or extra short stories out there but by becoming more involved in the horror community. Writing is very isolating and with no community as such in my part of the world, it does not feel ‘real.’ By becoming involved with TWF, I’ve made contact with a lot of great writers – yourself included – and I now feel like a ‘proper writer’; I’ve even met a couple of other writers in real life recently and turned online friendships into real ones. In terms of time, I had not expected it to take up as much as it has done, but that’s a result of TWF growing and becoming more well-known. What I also enjoy is coming into contact with writers who say TWF is the first time they’ve ever subbed for publication and I like being able to give feedback and encouragement even if they don’t get selected – pulling them into the ‘family’ if you like, removing a little bit of that isolation we all experience. It’s also great when I see them being published for the first time, and they’re over the moon about it. Actually, a knock-on effect of these demands is a greater focus on my writing time. If I have free time I procrastinate; a deadline or limited time forces me to concentrate … mostly. Editing is something I’ve done a lot of in the past, although as a tech writer/project manager in a technical publications company has also made this aspect easier for me.

Q5: Speaking of time, you’re also a co-curator for the time-themed anthologies of The Infernal Clock. Why the time themes and why the passion for this particular project, which is yet another time-consuming demand?

ELLIS: The Infernal Clock is something born very much out of friendship, going back to my roots in the FlashDog community. The FlashDogs are a looser pack these days as we are all doing different things but it was effectively an online group of people who competed against each other on flash fiction sites such as FlashFriday, Angry Hourglass, MicroBookends and other places. David Shakes was one of the original members of this group. I became part of it about a year later and we became online friends (and again have met in real life). He had the idea for the first Infernal Clock project, which a large number of FlashDogs submitted to – and then asked for help getting it out. Do you see a pattern forming here? So, I stepped up, we got the first book published (The Infernal Clock) and had some good reviews and then before I knew it we were discussing a follow-up (CalenDark) and now we are in the process of finalising DeadCades, which is due for publication October 1st. This latest anthology includes a number of writers from Horror Tree’s TWF as well as old FlashDog friends, each writing a story set in a particular decade from 1880 to 2020. We have been amazingly lucky to get writer-of-the-moment Vox author Christina Dalcher (who also wrote us a story for CalenDark) to write our foreword and our first long story in the collection is from award-winning author Deborah Sheldon. We also have some great stories from the other contributors, so I have high hopes for this book. The time theme was in keeping with the Infernal Clock name. Shakes muttered something about centuries, but I said no … DeadCades is the last of the time-themed anthologies. It won’t end there though. We have plans for a magazine, but some research and planning is required. We want to make this a paying market, so will be taking our time in sorting out exactly what we want to do with it. Glutton for punishment.

Q6: I follow you on Twitter, and I see you are constantly writing, or reading and editing other writers’ submissions, or helping with publication of anthologies … I’m tired just thinking about it. Where does this passion for the written word come from?

ELLIS: I have just loved reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve had piles of books around the place. I remember going to town as a child with my Dad to visit the library and being able to leave with a pile of books was wonderful. Growing up in an isolated country pub when your parents work pretty much all day leaves you on your own a lot of the time. I had sisters but you still had to find ways to entertain yourself – no 24-hour or satellite TV or internet then. So reading became my escape. They became movies in my head, and I was able to experience a different reality if only for a while. I still love to read, and sometimes I have to put everything on hold and just read a book from cover-to-cover; it’s almost a physical need in a way. I can’t imagine not reading. Words are amazing; they have so much power whether triggering wars, providing a religious code or instilling an emotion. History can turn on what has been said or written.

Q7: How does your family feel about your writing? Outside of advice on fonts, how do they influence or inspire your writing?

ELLIS: In the past, I always called my writing ‘scribbling,’ as if it wasn’t something I took seriously, so they didn’t pay too much attention to it. Once I started getting published they took a bit more notice but not too much. Now they are all very supportive, even if they don’t always read what I write! My daughters now give me advice, including what to write about and the range of merchandise it could generate, not to mention being a box set on Netflix. I remember when they read the poem ‘The Darkness is my Playground.’ they were shocked at the violence implied in it. Not something they’ve ever associated with me. I’m the most harmless person you could imagine – but it is nice to shock people sometimes, deliver the unexpected.

Q8: You’re from the United Kingdom, but in your role as an editor, you read stories from authors all around the world. Do you notice any differences in style or tone between UK writers and writers from the USA? Have you noticed any writing trends in any countries or regions?

ELLIS: Apart from the spellings, I don’t see any real differences. The same topics and tropes appear, and I never approach reading or writing with the idea that we are somehow separate. I think it’s because we are all ‘Westerners’ so we have a lot of common ground. I do have to try and avoid correcting U.S. English at Horror Tree, although I standardise to UK English for Infernal Clock.  I have been invited to write a flash piece for an anthology edited by Oleg Hasanov (Russian). This particular publication will include many writers from across the globe including those from Eastern European and Asia, and I’ll be really interested to see what the authors from those areas come up with. Which reminds me, I must get to work on it – and I do have an idea, based on a picture I saw on a van.

Q9: What defines success for you as a writer? Is it enough to be published or is success something more?

ELLIS: It changes as I go on, e.g., first publication, first contract, first invitation to write, but ultimately success is validation of my writing, knowing that people genuinely enjoy what I write and aren’t just being nice. And yes, I’d love to get my novel published.

Q10: What scares you?

ELLIS: On a mundane level – daddy long legs. Otherwise it’s water. In my first-ever swimming lesson, I think I must’ve been about 5 or 6, we lined up by the pool and one of the other kids pushed me in the deep end. I can still picture myself underwater and hearing the teacher say, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll get herself out.’ And I did. But lessons from then on saw me down on the shallow end and even now water over my face makes me remember that feeling of suffocation and panic.

Odds and DEAD Ends: Fiction in John Carpenter’s ‘In The Mouth Of Madness’

John Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness was released in 1994, and completes his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Drawing heavily on H. P. Lovecraft, Mouth of Madness is a unique, self-reflexive film in a similar vein to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (also 1994). The film follows insurance investigator John Trent, as he tracks down missing horror novelist, Sutter Cane. This article will focus on film’s use of fiction and stories to blur previously thought-of binary oppositions, such as fantasy/reality, human/inhuman, and even day/night, to try and disturb and unsettle the viewer.

The idea behind fiction in Mouth of Madness is, if enough people believe in stories, the stories gain power, and through that power the Old Ones can return. Cane explains this to Trent like this:

“It takes its power from new readers and new believers. That’s the point. Belief! When people begin to lose their ability to know the difference between fantasy and reality the old ones can begin their journey back. The more people who believe the faster the journey. And with the way the other books have sold, this one is bound to be very popular.”

In Paul Cobley’s book Narrative, he states that “The most familiar, most primitive, most ancient and seemingly straightforward of stories reveal depths that we might have hitherto failed to anticipate.” (Cobley, 2001, p. 2). Cane, controlled by the Old Ones, uses horror fiction as a universal storytelling medium to connect with readers on a primal level, using common tropes and ideas to make it easier for readers to believe. Cobley’s discussion of signs in literature, or “what humans interpret as signs, therefore stand in for something else in the real world” (p. 9), illuminates why a horror writer is the best medium for the Old Ones to use to prepare humanity for their arrival. Coding themselves with signs they people understand makes them more believable, understandable, acceptable, even.

Fiction, therefore, is an illumination of truth, a coded way to our understanding of knowledge. With this in mind, the filmmakers use the audience’s understanding of this concept (though perhaps the audience isn’t consciously aware of it) to turn truth on its head and destabilise them. Slowly, picking up pace at the finale, the boundary between fantasy and reality erodes away.

This happens in many ways, from Cane’s whispering “Did I ever tell you my favourite colour was blue?” followed by Trent waking up with the world blue, to the constant cyclist returning over and over again. There are also more subtle details which hint the fictional nature of Trent’s story. The room Trent stays in at Pickman’s Hotel is 9, the same cell number that Trent is in at the asylum. Similarly, the number of the motel room Trent stays in after his world has been turned ‘upside down’, is 6. 6 is also the number of novels that Sutter Cane has written before In The Mouth Of Madness.

Note that the world Cane inhabits is malleable, and reflects, is, his fiction. “You are what I write. Like this town. It wasn’t here before I wrote it. And neither were you.” He later writes Trent’s actions perfectly, the passage that Linda reads from the novel. Cane alters what is real and not real because he lives inside his own fiction, an avatar, for his real self. This is made evident when Trent explains to Harglow that the reason he doesn’t remember Linda is “Well, that’s easy, she was written out.” He is a proxy god for the Old Ones.

The breakdown of reality and fantasy is not the only division that collapses. French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss theorised that stories were, at their core, thematically comprised sets of binary oppositions, such as good and evil, rural and urban, men and women. Carpenter’s film systematically deconstructs this simple division and thereby prove the illusory nature of Trent’s reality and, to an extent, our own, assisting our discomfort.

Reality and fantasy is a clear example; the whole narrative is a deconstruction of its fictional self, but another is the opposition of human and inhuman. Several times we see characters (such as Mrs. Pickman) change to monsters throughout the film, and others such as Linda have the ability to move from human to inhuman. The anthropomorphic qualities attached to monstrous forms unsettles us, we should be allowed to remain clean and whole, but also the monstrous elements given to humans is just as disturbing. Even the painting at the hotel morphs throughout the film. Paintings themselves lie between truth and fiction, a definite image but a representation only, a topic Andre Bazin discusses in The Ontology of the Photographic Image (pdf link below). This distortion brings several oppositions into question in one broad stroke. Carpenter knew what he was doing.

Additionally, that even Cane has a monstrous form on the back of his head, is a startling revelation. When Cane was completely human (though one controlled by other beings), it was still essentially human, and so defeatable. If Carpenter were to show that Cane was an Old One, we would be more comfortable with even this; he would fall on one side of the human vs inhuman opposition. However it is in the middle, a blurred, distorted place we can’t understand, which is more frightening than his being either side.

A smaller example is day and night. Several times throughout the film, such as the arrival at Hobbs’ End, the film jumps straight from night to day. The editing that would usually show a passage of time is inverted, breaking even filmmaking conventions. Here, no time has passed at all. Time is breaking down, the regular cycle of solar bodies that extends beyond this world, is collapsing.

Literary theory states that our understanding of reality is dictated by language, that we experience the world through words and the connections between them. We know a door is a door, in any shape or size, because we associate it with the word ‘door’; the word is what tells us two doors are similar. As Bennett and Royle discuss, “We cannot in any meaningful way, escape the fact that we are subject to language.” (Bennett & Royle, 2009, p. 131). Carpenter’s film is a perfect exploration of the ways in which we are subject to words, to fiction and stories, and the confusion and discomfort if this were to be consciously manipulated by a malevolent force, dissolving oppositions and boundaries we expect and have built into our world, into language itself. The film is not about the destruction of the world, but a destruction of a human perception of the world.

Bibliography

Bazin, A., 2007. The Ontology of the Photographic Image. [Online]
Available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf
[Accessed 08 08 2018].

Bennett, A. & Royle, N., 2009. An Introduction to Literature. Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow: Pearson.

Cobley, P., 2001. Narrative. UK: Routledge.

In the Mouth of Madness. 1994. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: New Line Cinema.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Universal Studios.

Prince of Darkness. 1987. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. USA: Alive Films.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. 1994. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. USA: New Line Cinema.

 

 

Article by Kieran Judge

Odds and DEAD Ends: Analysis of Casting the Runes and Ring.

M. R. James’ classic ghost story, Casting the Runes, is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time. It follows Mr. Dunning, uncovering a plot by Dr. Karswell to kill him via a series of ancient runic symbols. Similarly, for the modern age, Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, (thanks largely to Hideo Nakata’s film adaptation), changed the face of Japanese horror films, much in the way that Scream did for the slasher genre. Examined in this article is the concept of infecting a victim with a deadline, by which, if the deadline isn’t passed on, the victim will die. This concept is, in both texts, a product of history and the past, which can infiltrate the modern day to scare the reader.

CASTING THE RUNES

James’ story is rooted in folklore of witches and magic. James himself was a noted historian of folklore and mythology, writing many papers on medieval manuscripts and other texts. It’s not surprising, therefore, that this interest seeps through in Casting the Runes, his uncovering of ancient texts mirroring the discovery of the slip of paper with the runes.

The main conflict I perceive in the text is the tension between the modernity presented by Dunning and Harrington, and the history and past presented by Karswell, fighting for power. Karswell, a man who has “…invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites” (p.238), has cast a hex on Dunning for shunning his new book. The past, in its runes and legends, is here the antagonistic force presented through Karswell, his book described simply as ‘an evil book’ (p.242), the mythic past’s main point of origin. Karswell’s magic lantern show presents the darker side of children’s myths and fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, which bleed through into the modern world:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn into horrible pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.” (p.239)

Not only do we see the past colliding with the modern present through this passage, but after this, showing slimy creatures on the slides, “…somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience” (p.240). Dunning and Harrington, on the other hand, are modernity’s flag-bearers. Dunning investigates the noise in the night, “…for he knew he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk” (p.252), proving a logical, empirical mind, later reinforced here: “It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could eased by the phrase “hypnotic suggestion” (p.255). Dunning even suggests that Karswell was “…mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of to-day…” (p.258), showing a scholarly knowledge of the subject matter.

Therefore, the strange atmosphere about Dunning, the mysterious death of Harrington’s brother, the strange wind, “I supposed the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust – a warm gust it was – came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it into the fire” (p.258), only increases our fear and trepidation, especially with the three month deadline hanging over our heads before Dunning’s eventual demise, for they can only be supernatural, against Dunning’s core beliefs. We try to decipher it rationally, following our protagonist’s example, but are unable to. Modern science cannot fight back against the curse of the runes. When Dunning and Harrington resort to deception and return the slip to Karswell, we slip into the past, so to speak, presented with the evil past that the characters have tried to deny for so long. We want to see evil banished back to where it belongs, away from Dunning’s modern day, back into the history books.

This brings us to the final moral dilemma. We are asked at the tale’s conclusion, “Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least?” (p.266). They have become like Karswell, dispensing an ancient, malevolent death upon those they deem a threat. Though they justify this by claiming Karswell deserved it, and that Dunning would be dead otherwise, it is an unnerving note to end with, asking if they should have asked the darkness of history to prove itself, or descended to the old ways as they do, dispensing justice in, what is for them, a “new rite”, much like Karswell created for himself.

RING

Suzuki’s novel, Ring, adopts a similar structure in terms of its narrative. A malevolent force (the spirit of Sadako Yamamura) has given a victim (Asakawa) a time limit (seven days) to find what mysterious instructions he needs to follow in order to save his life (copying the cursed tape and passing it on). The runes have been replaced by the video tape, and it is here that we see one of the key, fundamental differences to James’ story. Sadako is built upon the myths and folklore of Japan, but her embodiment of ‘the past’ is intertwined with modern technology. The distinct opposition inherent in James’ tale is no longer as easy to see in Suzuki’s novel.

The female ghost with long hair avenging their death is a well-established trait in Japanese folklore. These stories are called kaidan; the vengeful ghost termed an onryō. Theatre Group Soaring, in the novel, would no doubt have practiced traditional Japanese kabuki theatre, itself one of the main vehicles through which kaidan tales were passed throughout the centuries. Even in the film adaptation, the strange, contorted movements of Sadako (as played by Rie Inō) is directly inspired by stereotypical movements of onryō from kabuki theatre, and Rie Inō herself was apparently trained in kabuki. The story of the spirit in the well has also been around for centuries, the story of Okiku and the plates, being a potent example.

Sadako is therefore very much rooted in Japan’s past, in more ways than just being dead. Asakawa, on the other hand, is very much the modern man, constantly carrying around a word processor, saving files to floppy disks, phoning Yoshino from the island to help his investigation. Ryuji is a professor of philosophy, a discipline which “…as a field of inquiry had drawn ever closer to science,” (p.88). These two men are built of the modern world. They even live in Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. When arriving at Pacific Land, Asakawa notes that “Faced with this proof that the modern power of science functioned here, too, he felt somewhat reassured, strengthened.” (p.61).

Suzuki uses technology, the statement of the future and urbanity, to steer his antagonistic force, striking at civilisation’s heart. Sadako’s wrath and anger takes over the videotape, itself situated in a cabin complete with “A hundred-watt bulb lit a spacious living room. Papered walls, carpet, four-person sofa, television, dinette set: everything was new, everything was functionally arranged.” (p.63). Asakawa, despite his hesitations and fear of what the tape might show him, ‘No matter what sort of horrific images he might be shown, he felt confident he wouldn’t regret watching” (p.73). Why would his regret watching? It wouldn’t be as if anything could happen to him, constrained as it were by the (very much Western) technology before him.

Just like Karswell’s magic lantern show, however, the images on the tape have their own weight and reality, “Startled, he pulled back his hands. He had felt something. Something warm and wet – like amniotic fluid, or blood – and the weight of flesh.” (p.77). When Asakawa answers the phone, it is described that:

“There was no reply. Something was swirling around in a dark, cramped place. There was a deep rumble, as if the earth were resounding, and the damp smell of soil. There was a chill at his ear, and the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. The pressure on his chest increased, and bugs from the bowls of the earth were crawling on his ankles and his spine, clinging to him. Unspeakable thoughts and long-ripened hatred almost reached to him through the receiver. Asakawa slammed down the receiver.” (p.81).

That silence from the other end of a telephone gives this impression, this startlingly sensory imagery, showcases Sadako’s reach and wrath, without her saying a word.

In the finale, Asakawa, realising why he survived and Ryuji did not, agrees to wager the entirety of humanity by spreading the virus to his parents-in-law. Whereas James simply had the characters return the curse to Karswell, he the price for Dunning’s survival, here, Suzuki has entire the world be the price for saving Asakawa’s family. Whereas Casting the Runes ends with a definite confirmation of Karswell’s demise, Ring ends with the ominous passage, “Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil.” (p.284). Asakawa has become accomplice to Sadako’s malice, the past in control of modern technology and, through that, the modern man. “In order to protect my family, I am about to let loose on the world a plague which could destroy all mankind.” (p.283).

CONCLUSION

Both James’ short story and Suzuki’s novel present characters eagerly, desperately trying to beat the deadlines they are faced with, wished upon them by people that want them dead. Through their representations of an evil, malevolent past, embodied by Karswell and Sadako, both authors present us with a moral choice of who we save, and who we kill in exchange. What is different about their endings is the level of intimacy and scope we are presented with. Casting the Runes is a story of personal vengeance, where the battle is between Karswell on one side and Dunning and Harrington on the other, with the evil-doer getting their just desserts, like a boxing match. Ring’s evil is much more impersonal, and the apocalyptic ending shows the sheer magnitude of what must happen for someone to live. You don’t end the curse; you just pass the buck and hope someone else will do it for you. The ending’s bleak tone implies that there is no hope, that nobody will sacrifice themselves to stop the bleeding, and that the virus will move from one soul to another, runes forever being cast.

Written by Kieran Judge

Bibliography

James, M. R., 1994. Casting the Runes. In: Collected Ghost Stories. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, pp. 235 – 267.

Ringu. 1998. [Film] Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan: Ringu/Rasen Production Company.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

Suzuki, K., 2004. Ring. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

 

 

Interview with Book Cover Designer Fiona Jayde

Fiona Jayde is the owner, art director, and award-winning designer of Fiona Jayde Media, a company that offers book cover design, editorial, and marketing services to authors.

Book cover designer Fiona Jayde creates images for all genres, including horror. Jayde said her cover for William W. Johnstone’s Carnival “creeped the heck out of me.”

Jayde won 2013 RONE Awards for Fantasy and Best Contemporary Romance covers, melding her creativity with a business-like marketing approach to create beautiful book covers.

Jayde agreed to a fun and in-depth email interview with HorrorAddicts.net.

We started off with a quick ten-question lightning round before jumping into the real ten-question interview.

THE LIGHTNING ROUND

  1. A favorite movie? The Cutting Edge (from the 90s)
  1. Favorite binge-watching series on Netflix? Hmm … Tough question. I rewatch Dick Van Dyke, Star Trek TNG, and Star Trek Voyager on a regular basis.
  1. A favorite author? Nalini Singh and JR Ward
  1. A favorite book? Three Musketeers
  1. A favorite visual artist? Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Luis Royo
  1. A favorite musical artist? Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, Etta James
  1. Any song stuck your head? At the moment? “It’s always best to match your tea and cake. Look at all the colors. What matches can you make.” I bet you can’t get that out of your head either.
  1. A favorite website? Lifehacker.com
  1. Pet peeve? When people use “i” or “u” when emailing. Texting I can live with although I don’t like it, but in an email? Also, spitting in public. Gross.
  1. You have one last meal. What do you want to see on that plate? Ukrainian Potato Salad, Hubs oven-baked chicken, and Grandma’s Napoleon cake.

    Fiona Jayde’s book cover design for William W. Johnstone’s The Uninvited buzzes with a nightmarish insect motif.

THE REAL INTERVIEW

Q1: Where are you from and where did your artistic eye and talent originate? Any artists, books, or movies inspire your style?

FJ: I’m originally from Old Europe, the part of Romania that was annexed by Soviet Union. My artistic journey started when I discovered internet in college and spent hours browsing through fantasy artwork. This is how I fell in love with fantasy artists like Luis Royo, Michael Whelan, and Boris Vallejo. The funny part is I couldn’t draw – and still really can’t, despite going to art school. Somehow, I always had a knack for all things digital and when I learned Photoshop, it was love at first sight. (Okay second sight, because it took me a bit to figure out that sucker.)

Q2: You’ve been a book cover designer for 10 years. What compelled you to start your own business in this field?

FJ: Funny story there: just like many writers who start out by throwing a poorly written book at a wall and declaring “I can do better”, I started out as an author who got a truly … shall we say … remarkable book cover and swore I could do better. Now, anybody with rudimentary skills in image editing can say that, but it took me years to figure out just knowing Photoshop isn’t going to cut it. What you see – the end product – is the execution. The unseen underlying factors fuse together marketing studies with compositional and graphic design to create a mouthwatering product package. (How’s that for a mouthful?)

I hadn’t planned on this being my career. I was working as a full-time web developer/project manager and doing covers on the side, but when I came back from maternity leave, my company laid me off. Best kick in the pants ever. I went into cover design and packaging design full time and haven’t looked back.

Q3: In the age of Amazon and ebook readers, are book covers as important in this digital age as they were in the days when hardcovers and paperbacks ruled? If so, why?

FJ: Book covers are just as important, but a much more “faster” scale.  People browse the same digitally and physically: a book cover catches their eye, they pick up or click on the book to see it close up, then read the blurb/cover copy. In the digital age, that process is a hundred times faster – instead of walking past books that may or may not catch your eye, you’re scrolling past tens and hundreds of books, and clicking on a select few that pop. The importance of the cover is the same, but the ratio of “what gets attention” is that much smaller now due to the sheer volume of things competing for that attention. It’s that much more vital to connect to your audience and make the best use of the tiny thumbnail you’re afforded when readers are browsing.

Q4: You use a “go big or go home marketing approach” for your book cover designs. How may this marketing approach differ from the author’s vision?

Fiona Jayde’s book cover design for William W. Johnstone’s A Crying Shame inserts the mysterious image of a bloody body amid the haunting mist of a secluded swamp.

FJ: For the most part, it’s literally about making the most marketable aspect of the cover as big as possible, and reminding the authors that readers haven’t read the book. For example, an author I recently worked with had a series where the heroine could throw blue fire. Marketable? HUGE! The heroine also happened to turn that fire into blue flaming raccoons. The author LOVES raccoons. Cute? Yes. Marketable? Not for the genre she was targeting. Therefore, Chick with Blue Fire=Big. Raccoons got 86ed.

Q5: You do book cover design for all genres, including horror and fantasy. Do you have a favorite genre? If so, why?

FJ: I don’t know if I have a favorite genre, since most of the work I do all boils down to “pop” factor. As long as I can add “pop” somewhere, I’m happy, regardless of genre. Plus multiple genres ensure I don’t “phone it in” and get too comfortable. This way I can offer fresh takes on existing genre visual “tropes.”

Q6: What’s the key in a successful collaboration with authors in creating book cover designs? Do most authors have a specific cover in mind or do they give you a lot of latitude in your design?

FJ: Successful collaboration works best with clear communication, zero ego and the same goal: a marketable book cover. I like to fuse together an author’s unique premise with what is marketable, and as long as the author works from the “readers haven’t read the book yet” we work exceptionally well together.

For example, an author can request their name to be huge on the cover. That request could be a marketing thing if they have a lot of followers and their name alone can draw a reader. On the other hand, if they are just starting out, a huge name will be an “empty” focal point, covering up something that could be much more marketable for the genre. And if we go back to that small thumbnail, a reader who sees a giant name that they don’t recognize will easily move on to a book with a smaller just as unrecognizable name with a huge visual que for the genre. As long as both the author and I communicate on that level – cold hard marketing being the goal, we will collaborate beautifully and produce a marketable cover.

Q7: Which book was the easiest to create a cover for and why? Which book was the most difficult and why? Or do all covers take about the same amount of time and creative energy?

FJ: The easiest covers boil down to how visual/descriptive and “grounded” an author’s world is. For example, I just had completed a series where the heroine is a witch and had very specific objects/symbols prevalent in each book. That series flowed very well visually because all those symbols existed already, we just needed to “bring them out.” On the other hand, I had a recent horror book with a very existential/internal theme and the author and I had several in-depth discussions about the book and symbols depicted there.

Q8: You won 2013 RONE Awards for Best Fantasy and Best Contemporary Romance covers. How important were those awards to your business and to you personally?

FJ: I’m going to sound like a jaded know-it-all, but in reality, the awards – while great for my ego – don’t really mean that much since the authors of those books didn’t exactly rake in accolades and royalties. Cover design awards aren’t considering the most important function of a book cover – to get click-throughs and sales. I didn’t learn to draw in art school, but the one concept I always carry with me is “function before aesthetics.”  If a cover doesn’t get sales, no matter how beautiful, it’s a fail. And a beautiful cover can easily be a fail if it doesn’t communicate to the target market – aka, the reader of that genre.

Q9: Since this interview is for HorrorAddicts.net, I wanted to ask about your horror covers. They are impressive, particularly the ones for The Uninvited, Carnival, and A Crying Shame, all authored by William W. Johnstone. What inspires you to create such unsettling yet beautiful horror book covers?

FJ: Thank you! That clown in Carnival creeped the heck out of me 🙂 Horror is a chance to play for me because the job here is to BE unbalanced and unsettled, to convey that feeling. Most covers are about white space and balance of elements, but horror puts those rules on their ears. Plus, it’s an opportunity for me to bust out the photoshop blood brushes.

Q10: What scares you?

FJ: Although I’m not a writer anymore, I have an incredibly active imagination and ability to spin a plot from the most minute events. Then I end up scaring myself building scenarios in the sand. But in terms of less existential and more real answer, I am terrified of getting lost. I have a terrible time following directions – with GPS no less – and regardless of logically knowing I have a cellphone and can stop for directions, I have an irrational fear of getting lost when trying to drive someplace new.


Check out Fiona Jayde’s book cover designs and services for authors on her website: http://fionajaydemedia.com/