Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 25 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
My Brief Career As An Eleven Year Old Slave Trader
It’s my final summer of primary school. And depending on when it fell, I’m either ten or eleven. But it’s been elevens all round so far, so let’s suppose that’s right for this too. At a certain point it seems like synchronicity has its own gravitational pull, and the notion that my biggest formative intellectual and artistic experiences all came within a couple of months of turning eleven pleases me. And anyway, like it says up top – this isn’t history......
So I’m eleven, waiting out my final year of primary school, and looking forward with a naivety that is still heartbreaking even this far out to secondary school, where I am assured by adults who should really have known differently that there things will be taken Much More Seriously, where I will be Appropriately Stretched, and where they do not tolerate Mucking About in any way, shape, or form. And yes of course that last should have given me pause, but these were trusted adult voices, people whose words I trusted implicitly, so I assumed that ‘mucking about’ meant ‘bullying’ and not, say, ‘having fun’.
Oh to be eleven again.
So the slow tick-tock of the dog days of the summer term (prior to the start of summer proper) grind down, slow and sure and fine. That’s how it should have gone.
Instead, something actually happens.
That something is a new trainee teacher, who is specialising in drama (the subject, she didn’t create emotional strife wherever she went, or at least not in the classroom). Somehow this poor lady had drawn the shortest possible straw, and been sent out to the ass end of North Devon to try and teach Drama to a bunch of yokels and farmers sons and daughters, for most of whom the height of sophisticated performance art is doing impersonations of what they imagine people of Indian or Pakistani descent must sound like,
which are so shockingly poor and horrendously racist that even Spike ‘put it in the curry’ Milligan would have probably shook his head and muttered something about taking it too far and ruining it for everyone. And if that sounds like a fun time, I assure you, I’m telling it wrong.
This poor woman, exactly who within the department for education she’d pissed off enough to get this assignment, I cannot imagine. Nor can I adequately picture what offence can possibly have led to such a dire assignment. But luckily for me, she didn’t seem to give a single solitary shit about any of that. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and dove in with both feet (meaning she got her boots wet, and if you spotted that, award yourself an invisible calorie free doughnut, on me).
Current topic for our history classes was the slave trade. The head of the school who also ran the 9, 10 and 11 year olds classroom (yup, two years of teaching in a single classroom, and still less than 30 kids total), and about whom I have spoken before, loved teaching history. It made sense. After all, if your prime source of pleasure comes from instilling terror into the minds of your young pupils and torturing them psychologically from a position of authority, you can scarcely conceive of a more perfect subject to do it with than the history of our species.
In the 18 months since I’d joined the class, I’d learned about the various torture and execution regimes of kings and queens past (being hung, drawn and quartered seemed particularly and spectacularly gruesome, although it occurred to me even then that there was a good chance that unless you had some truly exceptional fortitude, you were unlikely to make it very far into the actual quartering stage, what with the pain and blood loss). We’d had the rack and the wheel, we’d had burnings and beheadings (did you know that kings had to be executed with a sword rather than an axe because it was a ‘noble’ weapon? Maybe, but I’m betting less of you knew because you were taught, at eleven years old, that this was one of the few times nobility was a bit of a bummer, because the curved blade of an axe would normally remove a head with one clean stroke, whereas a even the sharpest of swords wielded by the strongest of men would take several hacking strokes to fully remove the head. You’d be alive through the entire process and feel each blow. Yes, that level of detail. The younger members of the class were nine years old). We’d learned about how certain medieval kings would force people who displeased them into iron cages small enough that they had to crouch, then simply hang them outside the castle walls and let nature take its course. Birds would often eat their eyes before they died, I was informed. The bodies would be left there as they rotted to skeletons. As a warning to others.
Anything else? Oh, indeed. The Dark Ages were a particularly rich source of data, what with the many lethal trials that would either kill an innocent woman or identify a witch (that particular Python sketch never quite rocked my world the way it did many of my contemporaries, I suspect, but that’s the power of teaching for you). It wasn’t just women who got a raw deal though. Can’t decide if you’re telling the truth? Plunge your hand into the boiling water to retrieve the stone at the bottom. Assuming you don’t either drop the stone or pass out from the pain (both clear and unarguable signifiers of guilt, of course) your arm is bandaged for a week before bringing unwrapped and examined. If you’re healing normally, congrats, you were telling the truth, you get to live, albeit with a scarred and damaged arm and hand. Show any sign of infection though, and oh dear, you fibber, time to have a body part amputated.
I’ve looked none of this up to check it – I’m on a boat and the internet is £300 a minute and crap, and I don’t fucking need to. It’s burned into my brain, horror upon horror, brutality and sadism and mass cruelty. All true, all real, no werewolves or vampires required. Just people, doing unto others whatever the hell they want with no consequence – indeed, with the full approval and mark of authority, which I think is what scared me the most – insanity and brutality was not just tolerated, it was fucking mandated. Good as 1984 is, I think the reason it didn’t quite have the universe shifting impact on me that it did on many young minds was the simple fact that by the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already fully absorbed and internalised the idea
that unchecked authority would very quickly lead to scarily high levels of violence, sadism and insanity. It’s one of the most basic and disturbing truths about our species, one I struggle with and fear and write about to this day
You want to know what hell looks like? Check out North Korea, check out Nazi Germany, check out Soviet Russia, check out Ghengis Kahn sometime, check out medieval Europe. Take a good long hard look at what we do to each other when we let might and might alone be the arbiter of right and wrong. Look it up.
While you’re there, check out the slave trade.
As you may imagine from the above, fertile ground for our head teacher. His particular delight was, of course, lurid descriptions of the conditions on board: we were given the photocopied diagrams that showed the number of people per deck, impossible totals, stick figures arranged like jigsaw pieces, but of course that did little to convey the visceral horror of the conditions on board. But lucky old us, because we had Sir, and Sir was more than equal to the task of transmitting that terror into our minds. The smells, of vomit and shit, all evacuations left where they fell, the decks washed down maybe once a week with sea water. Women crying, men calling out for loved ones. The chains and manacles, biting into flesh, raw wounds which the sea water would attack, inflame, sometimes infect. Exposure to white mans diseases, which would often prove fatal on the voyage. Truly meagre rations of food and water, many more dying of starvation or more commonly dehydration. Massive brutality and violence meted out at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. The raw terror of minute to minute existence, ripped away from everything you could call home, family, tribe, society. Anything you knew or could count on. Chained and floating towards an unknown destination, the only clue as to your final fate being your bonds and the cruelty of your captors.
“Some of them just gave up. They just willed themselves to die on the boat.”
I’ll say this for the vicious, brutal, sadistic old fuck – I never got the slightest whiff of racism from him in any of this. Certainly my abiding and overriding memory of the lessons is a sense of gut level revulsion at the awfulness of the experience of being chained in that hold, and he did nothing to try alleviate or mitigate that. Which may mean nothing more than his enjoying our discomfort, but it’s still not nothing, given the time and place. I contextualize that because of what follows, which those familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman will already be familiar with, but which again had a much more blunted impact on me when I read it at 17, because I’d been told it in school when I was fucking eleven.
Because as improbable as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the period and process, there was actually a grotesque punch line to the above, a truly macabre kicker, which was this: All the slaves in each deck were chained to each other in one continuous link. Because for the British fleets, slave trading was illegal, and if they got caught with a cargo full of contraband, things were apt to get sticky. So at the other end of the interlinked chains was a huge stone weight. At the first sign of customs boats, the weight would simply be dropped overboard, dragging the entire contents of the boat – that would be several hundred human beings – down to the sea bed.
Profit margins on illegal slave trading were so huge that they could afford to dump six out of every seven ‘shipments’ and still make a tidy profit, I was informed.
I don’t know about sleepless nights, exactly, but I think it’s fair to say it haunted me, and haunts me still, given the level of recall on a subject I’ve ostensibly not thought about for years, if not decades. It’s a cliché, but some knowledge, some information really does feel to carry emotional weight, to have a heaviness. It’s in my nature to want to know, to seek out and to learn and digest and try to make sense of things, and it’s been an enriching journey so far, but every now and again, you will come across something like this, and just be sat firmly on your arse for a while.
Enter our trainee drama teacher.
Because there’s a ton you could do, given the subject matter. And let’s face facts, most of it would be pretty shit. Luckily for us, we got sent a genius.
“On Friday afternoon, instead of normal lessons, we’re going to do a special project on the slave trade. We’re going to enact an international court trying to make a decision about whether or not the slave trade should be made illegal.”
To say my ears pricked up would be an understatement. I was mesmerised.
“You’ll each be assigned roles, based on the different historical interests involved, and have to give testimony and argue for or against the trade. At the end will be a vote to decide if the trade should be ended.”
I don’t know if it was Tuesday or Wednesday. I just know the week couldn’t go by soon enough. I was stoked. I think even at eleven I knew I was pretty good at marshalling and sustaining an argument, but what an opportunity I had here! I started making plans, rehearsing rhetoric. I was going to wax lyrical about injustice, about the cruelty of the conditions, I was going to invoke biblical quotes, I was going to kick ass. By the time I was done talking, the slave trade would be abolished by unanimous consent. Probably we’d all get sent home early.
Following lunch, we all lined up to go back to class, my tummy fluttering with more than just the effects of toffee sponge and pink custard. The classroom had been rearranged, one huge long table with the trainee sat at one end, playing the judge, and cards with our names on so we knew where to sit. I remember being close to the judge, and sat next to Sir, who was also participating in the event, but can recall not a single warning bell as I sat down in my place, all but cracking my knuckles in anticipation.
“Blah blah, international court blah blah, gathered here blah blah, interested parties blah blah, resolve whether or not slavery should be abolished.”
“Now, turn over your name cards to see the role you’ve been assigned.”
I’m not even kidding, I read the word ‘Slave’, and actually had time to feel a swell of pride before I read the second word. Which was, of course, ‘Trader’.
I remember looking up at the trainee, not quite tears in the eyes, but definitely with no small measure of hurt. Why would she do this to me? How could she not know how I felt? Miss, why d’ya do me like this?
Wise woman. She knew exactly what she was doing. “I know it’ll be hard, Kit, but try.”
There was a final twist of the knife, of course. We were seated by role, so the fact that I was sat next to Sir meant he was the other assigned trader.
It was crushing. At first. Then, as the opening testimonies began, I started to see... possibilities. It dawned on me, quite quickly, that it was possible I could have an enormous amount of fun with this. Because, dig it: I knew where I actually stood morally, but I also knew the now-opposing argument like the back of my hand. As the weight of the emotion of the whole horror show dropped from me, as I confronted the scenario not as articulating a passionately held belief but simply putting forward the strongest possible argument for a position, I realised this was something I could not just do, but actually enjoy doing. In the process, I hit upon one of the great truths of acting, and maybe even of make believe and fiction in general.
It’s always more fun to play the bad guy.
And I played it to the hilt. I talked about civilizing influence, the gainful employment of the ship crews, the appalling conditions we were rescuing these people from and the relatively prosperous circumstances they were being transported to, even as slaves. I flat-out denied the cruelties of the voyage, blaming any losses as a weakness within an inferior species, and you’d better believe I quoted biblical justification for slavery. By the time I’d finished, the girl who’d set herself up as chief spokesperson for the slaves was damn near in tears of anger and outrage at the mendacious eloquence coming out of me (we were friends afterwards though, once the heat of battle had died away – she got theatre too).
I had a ball. I had a blast. I rocked it and socked it. For one glorious afternoon, I was an eleven year old slave trader, and it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a classroom.
POSTSCRIPT(or, what have we learned?):
Because obviously, as a human being with a conscience, I can’t leave it there. Even with two and a half thousand words of context, that last is still a pretty shocking statement. There’s two things I want to talk about – one general, one personal.
Starting with the general, I think part of what we are talking about here is the power of play, right? For all that the teacher delighted in traumatising me with the horror of the industry, the one insight that couldn’t give me, the one perspective I could never grasp, was that of the men who plied and profited from this trade. It was incomprehensible to me that someone would be responsible for such cruelty... until I came to inhabit that person, in play.
Then, the scales fell very quickly. Because of course, if you profit from a system , you’ll find a way to justify its perpetuation. Of course, you’ll find a way to render the status quo not merely legal, but ethical, even righteous. Of course you’ll minimise, deflect, deny and obfuscate any sense of fallout or human consequences of what you do.
Because that’s what power does.
It would be a long time before the concept of ‘privilege’ would cross my radar, in the context of gender and ethnicity debates, but I had zero problems with conceptualising it as soon as it came along, because I’d felt the power of it. Aged eleven, in a classroom of my peers, I donned the mantle of privilege and used it to justify horrific barbarity.
That alone made it worth the price of admission. To this day, whenever I find myself reading the news, or studying some history and I find myself saying/thinking ‘I just can’t imagine how a person could...’ I stop again. Because thanks to that lesson, I often find that with just a bit of thought, I can. It’s one of the reasons I write the kind of fiction that I write: Because, with some effort, I can imagine why or how a person could... and I feel like those stories are worth telling. Also, because I think the biggest disservice we do ourselves as a species is to monster the bad people, to claim them as other, as not human. Because not matter how vile the person and how offensive the crime, the hard truth is they ARE always human. We ignore or forget that at our peril, I think, because I’m pretty sure that the only way to truly contend with and ultimately defeat evil in the world is to understand it.
Know thine enemy.
And here’s the personal reason for telling this one: Over the next few months here, I’m going to talk a lot of shit about a lot of things. Often, as we’ve seen, I will be enthusiastic, but there will no doubt be moments when I become critical, even derisory. Not all the things we loved as children were worthy of that love – it’s a painful lesson, but again one well worth learning, I think (yes, The A-Team, I’m looking at you). Additionally, well hell, sometimes I just like to cut loose and have fun. Sometimes that might include advocating for a position to the hilt that I don’t entirely believe. Because having discovered that I possess a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ muscle, it would feel remiss not to stretch it from time to time, in service of having fun and stirring the pot. It’s unlikely to be anything as extreme as the above, but if I’m saying your favourite horror film is the worst movie ever made, well... just keep this post in mind. Fair warning: from here on out, you may read the odd opinion that will raise an eyebrow or two. If you disagree, I urge you to say so, and say why. I’ll argue back just as hard, and because it’s the internet, no-one but me will see the twinkle in my eye when I do so.
But at least you’ll be aware it could be there. I hope that’ll be enough for us to still be friends when the dust settles. Because I want this to be a safe environment where we can enjoy the tussle of ideas for its own sake, when the mood takes us.
PPS – We lost the debate handily, by 7 votes to 21, and slavery was abolished (the aboriginal land rights vote a month later went right down to the wire, but that’s a story for another day). All the boat crews voted against the trade, doing themselves out of jobs in the process. Which has a kind of nobility at this distance, though I remember felling pissed about it at the time...
Kit Power lives in Milton Keynes, England, and insists he’s fine with that. His short fiction has been published by Burnt Offering Books and MonkeyKettle Books, and his debut e-novella ‘The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife’ (plus short story ‘The Debt’) was published by Black Beacon Books in January 2014. E-novella ‘Lifeline’, a thematic sequel to those tales, will be released on August 16th, and his debut novel (currently called ‘The God Issue’, but that may well change) is due out in Autumn 2014. Those of you who enjoy near-professional levels of prevarication are invited to check out his blog at http://kitpowerwriter.blogspot.co.uk/
He is also the lead singer and chief lyricist for legendary rock band The Disciples Of Gonzo, who have thus far managed to avoid world-conquering fame and fortune, though it’s clearly only a matter of time. They lurk online at http://disciplesofgonzo.com/
Kit will be contributing a brilliant monthly column entitled My Life In Horror where he will talk about the movies, books and music that warped his mind as a youth For a taste of Kit's great writing here are his previous fantastic guest posts