Ginger Nuts of Horror
I read a lot as a kid and there was often a supernatural tinge to what I enjoyed. One of my favourites was a series of books about The Three Investigators, with part of the appeal being that they often had spooky sequences or ghosts in them (Scooby Doo was also a big favourite) and I loved TV shows like “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World”. When I was about 10 or 11, BBC2 started showing old Universal horror films at teatime and I watched each and every one of them - not too fussed about “Dracula”, but I loved “The Phantom Of The Opera” and “Creature From The Black Lagoon” - and at about the same time, I began to notice books with gaudy spines on my Dad’s bookcase. Names like James Herbert and Stephen King began to have a resonance, though one glance at “The Fog” cover (the hand holding the decapitated woman’s head) put me off for a while.
In the early 80s, the BBC showed the Tobe Hooper version of “Salem’s Lot” and although I didn’t see it, plenty of my friends at school did and they were full of it. It was, I decided, time to investigate Stephen King. Some time later, we were in Wellingborough (for reasons I can’t remember) and my Dad took me and my sister into a 2nd hand bookshop and I found a beaten up copy of “Salem’s Lot” (the NEL one with the blue cover) and snatched it up. I still have that copy today and even though I haven’t read it for a long, long time, I raced through it back then and loved it, determined to get hold of as much of King’s work as I possibly could.
That led me to his non-fiction exploration of the horror genre, “Danse Macabre”, which was originally published (based on a university course he was teaching at the time) in 1981. As a formative fan of horror, who wanted to explore its many avenues (I was a year or two off discovering Clive Barker), the book - which I read very quickly - soon became an essential resource for me.
Essentially, it’s King’s guide to horror as he understood it at the time (the book runs up to 1980), often linking back the entertainment to happenings in the real world but it’s really much more than that. Much, much more.
He runs through the horror/sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s (a lot of which, featuring ‘bug eyed monsters’ I had only seen as pictures in books), radio and ground-breaking TV shows like ‘Twilight Zone’, “The Outer Limits” and “Thriller”, whilst including dashes of autobiography (his account of watching “Robot Monster” made me laugh and want to watch the film, all at the same time). He writes intelligently (but with a fannish air) of horror films, references pop culture where it helps (I knew of The Ramones through my love of Blondie, but it was still cool to see them in a King book) and isn’t scared to say when something is really terrible. But what really helped me was that he wasn’t at all snobbish about what he watched and read - if it worked, it worked and it didn’t matter to him if Joyce Carol Oates had written it or Roger Corman had dashed it off in a couple of days. That tolerance, that ability to see good work even if it might be slightly cheesy to people who don’t ‘get it’, is something that I co-opted and still manage to maintain (though it does get strained at times).
As entertaining as the book is - and it really is, any serious fan of the genre should read it - what really made it for me is that I used it as a tool of exploration. The list of writers he introduced me to (and would continue to do so over the years, including the aforementioned Barker) was long and thorough and is still being explored - Harlan Ellison, Peter Straub, Jack Finney, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Matheson, Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rivers Siddons (I finally found her “The House Next Door” last year) and more. But best of all were the two appendices King presents at the end, one for horror films and the other for horror fiction from the 50s on. The book is worth it, to my mind, just for those items and although I haven’t read the whole thing in a years, there are bits that I do still dip into from time-to-time.
Before wrapping this up though, honourable mention must be made to Dennis Etchison’s wonderful, ground-breaking and - for me - perception changing anthology “Cutting Edge”, which I read in 1986 and still maintain is one of the all-time greatest collections I’ve ever read. At WFC this year, I was lucky enough to speak to R. C. Matheson and tell him how much his short story “Vampire” meant to me and that was a true highlight of the Con for me.
About Mark West
A fan of horror and the supernatural for as long as I can remember, I began writing when I was about eight and have been publishing in the small press since 1999.
My main writing influence, certainly in the 80s, was Stephen King and his “Joyland” was one of my books of last year. I try to read widely across the horror spectrum (to my mind, the wonderful (vaguely supernatural) realism of Graham Joyce at one end sits quite comfortably with my fondness for sleazy, 80s paperback originals at the other) and also across genres (mainly crime, contemporary drama, biography and film).
My latest publication is the collection “ill at ease 2”, an anthology with six other writers and PenMan Press recently relaunched my “Strange Tales” collection in print and digital editions.
For more information on Mark and his books (plus loads of articles and essays that often don’t have anything to do with writing or horror), his blog can be found at www.markwest.org.uk
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