What do I find scary?

CultAs someone whose writes horror stories, I often ask the question, what do people find scary? Of course, scariness is very much in the eye of the beholder. For some, the prospect of being stalked by a serial killer is terrifying. For others, the supernatural frightens. Others still shudder at demonic possession, sinister cults, witchcraft, axe-murderers, clowns, spiders, cold callers, people using mobile phones in cinemas, political opinions on Facebook… The latter three I find particularly alarming.

19ffa49c9d153e44c9d3891ff885b1e1I am not above writing variations on any of the above tropes. If done well, they can be very effective. However, what most gets under my skin is psychological horror and existential horror. The idea of going insane I find truly bone-chilling, whether as a result of grief, guilt, obsession, addiction, post-traumatic stress, mind altering drugs or any other factor. Equally unsettling is the nightmarish, Lynchian idea that you might become another person.

These ideas are explored in many horror tales in film and in print, and I have recently written a short story exploring the latter theme in some depth. Said story, tentatively titled Once in a Lifetime, was inspired by a surprisingly well-plotted recent nightmare. I shall soon submit this story to a horror anthology, and I hope that it will be accepted for publication. More news on that when I have it, so watch this space.

As to my long-awaited ghostly mystery The Spectre of Springwell Forest, I have also submitted that novel for mainstream publication, and await a response with bated breath. Sometimes waiting is the most frightening thing, even more than the afore-mentioned insanity and existential dread.

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Film Review – Hereditary

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Is Hereditary as terrifying as reviews are making it out to be? No. Quite honestly I can’t see what those lily-livered critics are blithering on about. I mean, yes if you’re unused to the horror genre, then you might find it scary (and the usual warnings apply for violence, gore, disturbing images, swearing and so on), but this generation’s The Exorcist? Not a chance.

On the plus side, writer/director Ari Aster’s debut is exceptionally well-directed, and features a first-rate central performance from Toni Collette as Annie, a miniature model artist whose mother has just passed away. Annie’s mother was a difficult and secretive woman, and whilst she is much missed by her granddaughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), Annie has a much harder time grieving for the mother she so often detested. Amid this bereavement, Charlie’s brother Peter (Alex Wolff) finds his already tense relationship with his mother is placed under pressure, whilst Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) ineffectually tries to hold the family together. Annie then finds occult artefacts amongst her late mother’s possessions. Weird things begin to happen, leading to a further shocking tragedy and the ensuing escalation of bad stuff.

From the admittedly superb opening shot – a masterful composition zooming into a model house which then seamlessly transitions into a scene where a character walks into a bedroom – Aster conjures a thick atmosphere of impending dread. Other neat techniques designed to heighten said dread, such a sudden exterior cuts to night or day, reveal shocking details in a clever way. He makes good use of dark spaces where things may or may not lurk in the shadows, and the oozing menace is enhanced by Colin Stetson’s unsettling music score and superb sound work. Performances are all spot-on, particularly from Toni Collette who I have always greatly admired. Milly Shapiro is quite a find too, and let’s just say you’ll never react to tongue-clicking in quite the same way again.

Yet despite all these good points, the film has undoubtedly been overpraised. I am still trying to work out quite why it didn’t scare me the way it has scared so many audiences. As a big horror fan, I went into it desperately wanting to love it, desperately wanting it to deliver that out-of-body-experience terror that I recently got from the likes of The Babadook and Under the Shadow. But in the end, I was disappointed on that score.

I think the main problem lies with the screenplay. It tells a coherent story, yet it feels as though it doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. It’s starts off very much in psychological horror territory, dealing with grief issues in provocative and potentially interesting ways (the idea that Annie feels guilty for not being adequately sad about the death her ghastly mother, for instance). However, it then ventures into Satanic panic territory, ultimately coming of as a half-baked cross between The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby with a dash of Don’t Look Now. I suppose it is still its own beast, yet the shift in focus from the earlier psychological elements feels oddly unsatisfying, meaning I cared less about the characters as the film progressed, which is never a good thing.

The other problem I have with this story is I kept asking, where is God? I don’t mean that the film has an anti-Christian worldview (arguable, but beside the point here). What I mean is that the presence of good in a horror tale makes the bad more frightening, because it provides appropriate contrast. The reason The Exorcist is so compelling is because that film is a gripping battle between good and evil, with deeply flawed characters whose ailing faith is put to the ultimate test.

Hereditary belongs to the journey-into-irreversible-darkness horror tradition, but still has very little in the way of contrast, which for me is an issue. In tales of this sort, where protagonists foolishly venture ever deeper into evil through getting involved in occult activity or probing questions best left unanswered, said protagonists are given opportunities, often delivered as warnings by priests or the like, to turn aside from their destructive path. However in Hereditary, the film seems to reference certain tales of Sophocles, whereby humans are helpless pawns of pagan gods and have no clear choice one way or the other. Again, if the fate of Annie and her family is inevitable, it becomes harder to actually care about what happens to them in the finale. By contrast, something like The Wicker Man or The Vanishing are far more compelling films, because again and again the protagonists are given chances to avoid their grisly fate.

Ultimately, Hereditary is an interesting, well-directed horror film with some fine performances, and certainly an arresting debut. However, for the reasons outlined above, I didn’t find it terrifying or entirely satisfying.

Simon Dillon, June 2018.

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In the shadow of Nineteen Eighty-Four: Writing my current novel

71Y5qibEolLI have recently re-read George Orwell’s dystopian milestone, Nineteen Eighty-Four. As ever, I came away from it stunned by the satirical and chilling narrative, and deeply alarmed at its prophetic insights. However, I also experienced something I hadn’t expected: intimidation. This book has been called one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and sometimes the greatest. The bar for this kind of fiction has been set very highly indeed, not just with Nineteen Eighty-Four but also other classic dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and so on. Therefore, what business does an upstart like me have trying to write a dystopian future shock novel? Can I really add anything of value in this genre?

Whatever moments of George McFly Syndrome I may experience along the way, I honestly believe I can. I am about two-thirds of the way through what has become one of the most challenging and exciting novels I have ever undertaken. I have no idea if the finished product will be brilliant, terrible or something in between, but nonetheless I am writing it with a passion unprecedented even by my standards.

The title remains a secret for now, but the story is set a little way into the future, in America. It is, broadly speaking, a dystopian drama about the so-called culture wars, satirising both sides and it’s various subcultures. The “religious right” and “liberal left” are equal targets of my ire, and common sense is utterly disregarded by both during the events of the story.

This makes it sound like I have an axe to grind, and perhaps, for once, I do. But I don’t intend to lash out at the reader in despair. Nor is this intended as a political statement of any kind (heaven forbid). What I hope for this book is that it will be gripping and dramatic; at times darkly comic, absurd, thoughtful, moving, tragic and perhaps yes, a little bit angry. But I hope the overall feeling the reader is left with is sympathy for the plight of the protagonist, rather than a sense that they are being preached at. After all, in the past I have been very vocal about what can happen when writing a story with a conscious agenda. The last thing I ever want to sound like is condescending, finger-wagging or preachy.

More on this novel once it is finished, polished and finally published. Watch this space.

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Film Review – Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

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None of the Jurassic Park sequels have ever matched the singular power and thrills of the ground-breaking, lightning-in-a-bottle original. Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, the latest in the franchise, is a curious beast. With JA Bayona at the helm, the director of horror gem The Orphanage brings a fun gothic sensibility to many of the set pieces. However, the overcooked plot doesn’t bear close examination, and too many intriguing threads are cynically left as sequel loose ends, including a potentially jaw-dropping twist in the final stretch which is then frustratingly ignored for the remainder of the running time.

An obviously up-to-no-good Rafe Spall hires Jurassic World alumni Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt) to rescue the volcano threatened dinosaurs who are rampaging free on the island, following the disaster of the previous film. That this is a really bad idea is obvious to the entire audience, but the only person with a lick of sense in the film is Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who seriously ought to consider changing his name to Cassandra. Joined by a pair of irritating young activist types, Claire and Owen head off to the island, but… Well, obviously things go wrong, many of them spoiled by the trailer.

On the plus side, Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt are appealing leads, and their banter is amusing. This is also a scarier offering than the previous film, though nothing matches the nerve-shredding thrills of the T-rex attack or raptors in the kitchen from the original. There are nods to everything from King Kong to Nosferatu, and fun turns from the likes of James Cromwell, Toby Jones and a weirdly Danvers-esque Geraldine Chaplin give this one an edge over most of the previous sequels. It may be nonsense, but at least Fallen Kingdom looks and feels a little different, particularly in the claustrophobic gothic mansion during the latter stages. Needless to say, visual effects are terrific, and Michael Giacchino contributes another fine music score (occasionally quoting from John Williams’s original themes).

All franchise cynicism aside, the true test of whether this film hits the target in a satisfying way is answered by observing one’s children. My nine-year old absolutely loved it, so really that’s recommendation enough to parents with monster obsessed children. The more seasoned cinemagoer is likely to be less impressed, but I recommend going with the flow whilst the film runs, as it is a lot of fun if you switch off your brain.

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Love vs Honour – Did I fail?

LvsHonour 1600 x 2400In 2006, I wrote Love vs Honour, which I then self-published nearly ten years later, in 2015. The novel is a sideways step outside of my usual world of thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy and children’s adventures. Teenage romance isn’t something I dabble in, but when the premise of Love vs Honour occurred to me whilst stuck in traffic during an interminable bus journey, I felt the story was too good to ignore.

A tale of star-crossed teenage lovers with a religious twist, Love vs Honour begins as a conventional romance, with a holiday attraction leading to something more serious. Then it takes an unusual turn, as protagonists Johnny and Sabina try to appease their religious parents by pretending to convert to Islam and Christianity respectively. A tangled web of deception ensues, building to a much darker final act.

Reviews have been mostly positive. However, at least a couple of people have told me there is a big, gaping flaw in the centre of the story: Johnny is not likeable enough.

Romantic fiction is not my area of expertise, and it seems this factor was a colossal oversight. The typical male lead in romantic fiction is handsome, dashing, charming, intelligent, perhaps roguish and flawed in some way, but above all he should be desirable. By contrast, I wrote Johnny as a realistically conflicted, angst-ridden teenager. He has a dark past that colours his view of the present, sometimes in negative ways. Like many teenagers he can be selfish, sulky and not entirely sympathetic. His statements are sometimes exaggerated, and are very much his side of the story (for example, he is quite scathing of his parents who, despite their more extreme religious viewpoints, are kind and generous people). Obviously he isn’t without redeeming features either, and as the novel gradually reveals dark elements from his past, he perhaps becomes a person with whom it is a bit easier to sympathise.

However, I think my critics might have a point. Even if Johnny is a realistic and believable character, he simply isn’t likeable enough as a conventional male romantic lead. By contrast, I think Sabina is far, far more appealing, and whilst it is plausible that intelligent girls like her would fall for someone like Johnny, in a romantic novel it can lead to a feeling of the story being unbalanced. I think in retrospect I was wrong to strive for realism, and should have erred more on the side of genre convention.

I’m still very proud of Love vs Honour as I think it does contain interesting characters and thought provoking scenarios. In that sense, it is best viewed as a drama rather than a romance. I also stand by my ending, which provoked a little controversy as well. However, if I were writing the book now, I would make Johnny a much more appealing character. Experience is a great teacher, and in the unlikely event I try my hand at teenage romance again, I will bear in mind what I have learned.

Check out Love vs Honour here, if you are curious.

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My Five Favourite Gothic Mysteries

As regular readers of this blog (and indeed my novels) will know, I absolutely love a good gothic brew of mystery, melodrama, thrills and horror. To date I have written five novels of this kind, including The Birds Began to Sing and The Thistlewood Curse, as well as The Spectre of Springwell Forest, which is the next book I intend to publish.

Here are five classic gothic mysteries that I return to endlessly, that have proved a huge inspiration and influence. NOTE: Although undoubted gothic classics, for this list I have deliberately ignored Dracula and Frankenstein, since those are less mysteries and more full-throttle horror.

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Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) – I adore Daphne Du Maurier, and this one remains top of my gothic influences list. For instance, how many other novels have their own variations on the manipulative, vindictive, psychopathic housekeeper Danvers? The central narrative is great too, with the famously unnamed, tormented protagonist living in the shadow of her husband’s dead wife. It also has one of the greatest gothic mystery plot twists of all time, and an appropriately fiery climax.

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Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) – This moody, brooding romance features one of the most iconic gothic subplots in the history of English literature (ie the classic, oft-imitated mad-woman-in-the-attic). A rich, melancholy, menacing work, brimming with vivid description, dangerous passions, and many other gothic touchstones (like Rebecca, this one ends in purging flames).

 

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The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle) – I tend to think of this Sherlock Holmes story as a spinoff into gothic horror, rather than belonging in the main Holmes crime fiction canon. The quality of the suspenseful prose remains unsurpassed, not just in obviously scary sections, but in little moments, such as Watson’s unsettling first night in Baskerville Hall. The oozing dread and menace drips from every page.

 

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The Woman in Black (Susan Hill) – Despite the popularity of the long-running stage show and a successful film adaptation, the source novel is still one of the finest, most bone-chilling ghost stories ever written. The superbly abrupt, genuinely shattering ending (significantly different from the film) has lost none of its ability to shock.

 

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Coma (Film) – I’m referring here to Michael Crichton’s superb film version of Robin Cook’s novel, rather than the novel itself. The premise – a possible conspiracy in a Boston hospital whereby patients are being deliberately placed in irreplaceable comas – is a masterclass in escalating unease and paranoia, building to full blown suspense set pieces that are pure modern gothic. Genevieve Bujold makes a fantastic imperiled heroine, and Michael Douglas is also good as her is-he-or-isn’t-he-in-on-it boyfriend. A real nail-biter.

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Film Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Have you ever wondered how Han Solo got his blaster? How he met Chewbacca? Or exactly how he made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs? Me neither. Yet Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us the answers to these not particularly pressing backstory questions in a film that is surprisingly entertaining, given its troubled production history.

The main problem in any film about Han Solo that doesn’t star Harrison Ford will be that it doesn’t star Harrison Ford. Like Clint Eastwood’s Man with no name, the role is so completely actor dependant that for anyone else to take the role risks tarnishing the screen legacy of an absolutely iconic character. It is therefore something of a miracle that Alden Ehrenreich is very appealing playing a younger iteration of Han, who we meet during his troubled early adult years on an industrial hellhole planet run by the Empire. Here he dreams of becoming a pilot, having a ship of his own and running away with the girl he loves, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). An early escapade separates them, and Han goes off to become an Imperial pilot, quickly flunking out of the Empire for “having a mind of his own”, whilst Qi’ra’s fate remains unknown. Along the way he falls in with a gang of mercenaries, convincing them he can help pull of a dangerous heist. And yes, we get to find out how he obtains the Millennium Falcon, meets Chewie, Lando Calrissian and so on.

Safe-pair-of-hands Ron Howard took over the production after original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired. He reshot around seventy percent of the film, and it is to his credit that the film doesn’t appear to be damaged goods. It zips along at a fair clip, thanks to a fun screenplay by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan which deliberately plays like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in space.

Supporting performances are decent, with Paul Bettany quite good on villain duties, Donald Glover proving a scene-stealing Lando, and Woody Harrelson’s sort-of mentor figure for Han adding a tiny bit of depth to a film that generally lacks the substance of the main Star Wars episodes. The relationship with Solo’s conscience Chewbacca (here played by Joonas Suotamo) is also nicely handled, and a scattering of other amusing elements stand out amid the melee of action scenes, aliens, monsters and visual effects. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid blithering on about equal rights, for instance. Oh, and John Powell collaborates with the legendary John Williams on music scoring duties, to largely satisfying effect.

All things considered, there is plenty for the eye and ear in Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s a fun space adventure for all the family – as long as you don’t go expecting too much from it, and can overlook one or two rather pointless surprise twists that are transparent sequel leads (should the film make enough money to warrant them).

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Why do I write?

Someone recently asked me why I write. It’s a fair question, and after stating the obvious reason (to silence the voices in my head by putting them on paper), I came up with three additional reasons, all of them beginning with C.

Comfort – I find it oddly comforting to write a certain kind of novel, specifically, gothic mystery thriller/horror. I have written five novels of this kind to date, including two I have already published (The Birds Began to Sing and The Thistlewood Curse), and three I have yet to publish (The Wormcutter, The Irresistible Summons, and The Spectre of Springwell Forest). Quite why I find this genre so appealing to write I am not sure, but whenever I return to it, I breathe a deep sigh of relief and feel like I am well and truly in my “comfort zone” (if you’ll forgive my use of an obscenity).

Challenge – The second reason for writing often comes when I want to try something new, or attempt something definitely outside of my happy place as detailed above. My motivations for doing this are often raw ambition, or simply wanting to resist typecasting as a certain kind of writer. But sometimes, this reason for writing arises simply because someone requested a particular kind of novel and then, wouldn’t you know, I get an idea and have to write the damn thing. Echo and the White Howl is a good recent example, as my youngest son wanted a novel about wolves and animal fiction is way outside what I would usually write. In fact, most of my children’s novels were very challenging to write.

Catharsis – The third reason I write is to exorcise the demons of my past, and sometimes my present. I don’t do this consciously and don’t even realise I am doing it until after the fact. The best example of this from my currently published works is Children of the Folded Valley, by far my most successful novel to date.

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Film Review – Beast

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Writer/director Michael Pearce makes a very strong debut with Beast, an eerie, atmospheric and wholly gripping gothic melodrama set on Jersey.

Troubled island girl Molly (Jessie Buckley) lives with her controlling mother (Geraldine James). Molly then meets and falls in love with the mysterious Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who may or may not be a serial killer. Things go a bit Cathy and Heathcliff, and the scene is set for their ill-advised but full-blooded affair to get tangled in the police investigation, to the chagrin of the local community.

Pearce makes brilliant use of island locations, with big open spaces, spectacular cliffs and sea vistas providing a great visual counterpoint to the incestuous, everyone-knows-everyone claustrophobia amongst the islanders. Performances are terrific, especially from Buckley. Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is beautiful, bleak and menacing, and Jim Williams contributes a fine music score.

The usual warnings are warranted for sex, violence and bad language, for those put off by such things. However, those who enjoy a heady brew of torrid passions, slow-burn suspense and teasing is-he/isn’t-he ambiguity will find themselves most satisfied. The drama twists, turns and shocks, right up to the very last frame. I loved it.

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My top five Alex Rider novels

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I’m a big fan of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Think teenage James Bond, but without any sex (though there is a hinted-at love interest in the character of Sabina Pleasure). In each novel, loads of globe-trotting action ensues, with memorable villains, cunning plots, fights, chases and gadgets galore. The prose is fast and furious, packed with surely-he’ll-never-get-out-of-this moments. What I most love about the stories is that they don’t patronise children at all. There is a real sense of danger throughout, with deadly consequences for many characters, and some surprisingly dark undercurrents, particularly in the later novels.

Here then is my Alex Rider top five (in chronological order, as opposed to order of merit):

Stormbreaker – The first novel sees Alex join MI6, following the death of his uncle. He is then sent undercover to investigate Herod Sayle, whose school computer giveaway scheme conceals a plan involving a deadly virus.

Eagle Strike – The one with the deranged pop star who wants to destroy drug-making countries by hijacking US nuclear missiles. Damian Cray is a particularly odious villain.

Scorpia – Disillusioned by MI6, Alex almost joins the dark side trying to discover the truth about his father, by joining evil organisation Scorpia. Recurring Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich plays a key role in this one.

Snakehead – Alex investigates people trafficking (amongst other things) in this grittier instalment which introduces his godfather Ash. Major Wu is another agreeably nasty adversary.

Never Say Die – The most recent novel is an absolutely cracking tale of Alex attempting to discover if someone he previously thought dead is in fact still alive, whilst thwarting a rich kids kidnap scheme in the process. The finale in an abandoned Welsh mine is a standout.

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