I’m 11 years old when I first step into the Marsten House.
But this is the day before that and, on my way home from school, I’ve stepped into Liverpool’s Wavertree Library. I’m bringing back... I don’t remember, but probably a Doctor Who book and an Armada or Fontana Book of Ghost Stories, something edited by Mary Danby or Christine Bernard or Robert Aickman, with stories by Algernon Blackwood or William Hope Hodgson or Walter de la Mare.
I hand my books into the librarian. Time has made her matronly in my memory but, in all honesty, I can’t really remember what she looks like. She takes the books and gives me back my library tickets...
John Wyndham performs a couple of sleights of hand in setting up the scenario of The Day of the Triffids. Firstly, he avoids the fiddly task of detailing the downfall of society. Bill Masen is one of the few people not to be blinded by the sight of a green comet shower – he ends his temporary blindness by removing his hospital bandages, only to find that the rest of the population is permanently blind. (Incidentally, this scene is my earliest memory of being terrified by a novel, for months after reading it.) Masen discovers a society already collapsed, with many of the blind suicidal or frantically looting food from abandoned shops.
A young couple ride their station wagon through the streets of their sleepy, home town in suburban Connecticut. Talk of infertility quiets between them. As they turn to take the bridge home, a dog dashes in front of their car, and forces them to swerve off the deck, and then crash into the river.
Adam and Barbara Maitland appear cold and dripping back in their home. But something’s changed. They feel different. They have no memory of how they got back. Barbara notices their reflections no longer cast on mirrors. A hardbound copy of a strange manual that reads more like stereo instructions sits near the fire, The Handbook of the Recently Deceased. The Maitlands slowly come to realize that they didn’t survive the crash. They are dead. Ghosts. Their spirits are trapped in their old home, a gothic revival looming over the idyllic village of Winter River.
The Books That Matter : Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
In the back of my second-grade classroom, tucked in between books about dinosaurs and dragons, I found the little black book that would influence my writing twenty-five years later.
It’s hard to describe how I felt about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Alvin Schwartz’s book seemed benign while sitting on the shelf, but as soon as I picked it up, I knew that this book was different. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations set a tone darker than any I had seen in my short life.
Everyone had that one teacher. You know, the one that really got you, the one that you actually learned things from, the one that was effortlessly cool and despite their age, managed to engage an entire class of listless teenagers with their sheer force of personality.
Mine was a fearsome Irish English teacher called Ms. McCormack-John. When she first walked into that classroom in her shiny red Doc Martens and silenced a bully who was busy calling me names for having the temerity to be a lad with long hair, I knew we'd get along.
Ms. McCormack-John liked Irish literature; she took us through Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (which made me long for a cigarette every time the protagonist lit up).
Ms. McCormack-John gave me As for my short stories and when I left school in a mess, half way through sixth form she slipped a note into my hand.
"Read this." She said.
The note was the title of a book. This book.
This book changed my life
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the book that made me. The classic film version with Bela Lugosi lured me toward arguably the greatest horror novel ever written and the blueprint for all that followed in the genre.
When I was ten years old, my mother allowed me to stay up late Friday nights to watch the eleven-thirty horror movie with the cheesy local television ghoul host. The black-and-white Universal horror classics from the thirties and science fiction movies from the fifties profoundly warped and influenced me. Struggling through a rough childhood, I found these movies cathartic because they externalized my internal terrors and ended with intrepid heroes defeating the monsters.
In terms of horror, and my respect for it, the only book that mattered was Stephen King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, first published in 1978. I turned eleven that year, and the other boys in my class had a mass market paperback copy of Night Shift, with far too many eyes on the front cover. The story they kept daring all the other boys to read was “Graveyard Shift,” in which a repair crew stumbles on (and gets devoured by) a colony of mutant rats.
I read it.
It was scary.
I kept reading.
I spent some time considering the book that made me the writer I am – so many to choose from, how could I narrow it down to one in particular? Should I choose a film instead, as film has been so hugely influential on my creative development? Then again, so has music. Perhaps I should go for an album?
After a few days reflecting on these questions, I realised the answer to all of them was staring me in the face. The work that made the writer I am today is the book Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl.
I'll be honest-- I'm more than a little embarrassed about my teenage love of Piers Anthony's Xanth series. But I still think the man doesn't get enough credit for inventing paranormal romance. At least three of the Xanth books that I can think of (Castle Roogna, Ogre, Ogre, and Golem in the Gears) are about a romance between a gorgeous woman and a monster-- and they all end with a classic, romance-novel HEA. Anthony would probably have called these books a fantasy update of Beauty and the Beast-- but I see them as an ancestor of the many, many books about a girl and the thing that doesn't know whether to love her or eat her.
What's still great about the Xanth books is that Anthony's monsters are really monsters. They don't sparkle benignly at the heroine for six books and then give her a surprise C-section with their teeth. Take Jonathan the Zombie in Castle Roogna. This is what he looks like: "He shuffled into the kitchen, dripping the usual clods of dirt and mold. No matter how much fell, a zombie always had more; it was part of the enchantment. His body was skeletal, his eyes rotten sockets, and the nauseating odor of putrefaction was about him."
That's the romantic lead, folks!
Where I wish Anthony had been more influential was his willingness to accept the body horror inherent in having a monster as your hero. It's just flat out nasty to have the hero crave the taste of the heroine's blood-- but that's a good thing. Why would you want to make your real, live monster an angsty boy in a Halloween costume?
After all, don't we all feel like a rotting corpse sometimes? And don't even monsters deserve a happy ending?
Body horror romance: the next big thing.
Nora Fleischer specializes in writing about funny monsters. You can find her novel Zombies in Love and her novella Over Her Head on Amazon. She lives in Minneapolis with her lovable husband Sven and children Wolfgang and Anastasia. She blogs at norafleischer.livejournal.com and tweets at @zombinanora.
During my years spent in education I studied English with great interest so it was no surprise to me that I eventually wrote a book. At school I did well at my English GCSE so followed that with an A-Level and then a Degree. Throughout these years spent reading thousands of pages of prose I studied many highly regarded pieces: Hamlet, Lord of the Flies, Dubliners, Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, Great Expectations…the list goes on. And whilst I enjoyed reading and dissecting them all (admittedly some more than others) my experience after university was not one of eagerness to write my masterpiece, but one of fatigue. Whilst the careful consideration of these works of art was intriguing and the pleasure to read each one’s differing style in sentence structure and turn of phrase was fun, the entertainment value was strangled through over analysis.
The book that influenced me to write, and the style within which I would adopt was a more grimy affair than the exulted masterpieces endlessly listed by exam boards. The book was the break through novel by a master of pulp horror, Guy N Smith. That book being Night of the Crabs.