The Books That Shaped My Life – #1

Not long ago I did an interview for The Gingernuts of Horror, a wonderful site for those of a horror persuasion with book reviews added almost daily. There is also a plethora of interviews with various horror authors (I provide them with a dip in quality here).

But this isn’t some self-aggrandising vanity post, imploring you to read things I have said (well, actually it is but seeing as you’re here you might as well keep on, eh?)

No, what intrigued me about doing this interview was another feature of the Gingernuts site called ‘The Books That Matter‘; a section of the website where authors and others wax lyrical about the books that ‘made’ them, the books that wedged themselves between the folds of the brain, carved out their own little nest and laid their young. It is the cry of these young that you never really stop hearing all your life, if the book mattered that much.

It was difficult for me to choose one, but I wrote about a book that was pivotal in my development as a reader as well as a writer (you can find it here). But, as is the case with these things, the moment after I had submitted the piece, the writhing young inside eggs laid long ago inside my brain began clamouring.

What about me? What about me?

And as the time went by their voices were joined by more and more and more…

Well, I thought, I can’t start spamming poor old Gingernuts of Horror with any more of my drivel, this is what I’ve got a blog for, right?  So, with gratitude and a doff of the cap to Gingernuts of Horror, I am going to use this platform for a spot of self-indulgence (not that sort you filthy beast!) and talk about the books that shaped me, that awoke something in me, that inner spark that gave me this need to write, that made me who I am today.

I will do this on a month-by-month basis and attempt to work in some sort of chronological order but will skip early childhood (with massive props to Where the Wild Things Are and everything by Michael Rosen)

So this month’s post without further ado.

The Books That Shaped My Life #1

Nothing to be Afraid of… By Jan Mark

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I was quite a solitary child. My problem was that I didn’t really like other children, they scared me. Other children were unpredictable, they broke stuff, made loud noises, needed your attention when all I really wanted to do was get on with my own thing.

To be fair, I haven’t changed much.

One of my favourite things to do as a child (and this is going to sound a little odd but bear with me) was to sit in my room, listening to audio books and playing board games (yes, me against me, the battle of the great mind…!).

My parents were early pirates of the audio industry and for my 8th or 9th birthday had borrowed a a load of audio books from the local library and copied them onto TDK cassettes.  They also cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines to create their own tape-covers; that sort of budget innovation is something to be admired!

By that age, I was on my way to becoming fully-fledged horror fanatic. My bedroom was filled with skulls and various macabre ornaments I’d acquired from junk shops and jumble sales. ‘Nothing to Be Afraid Of’ was a worthy addition.

I swear to you, though, I have no idea where my father found a drawing of a child tucked up in bed with some sort of demon made from black smog peering out from the corner of the room, but that picture haunted me for years.

The thing is with Mark’s stories, the majority of them aren’t strictly ‘horror’, they are about perception, written with aplomb from a child’s perspective from the sometimes terrifying but very real adult world around them.

A good example of this is ‘The Choice is Yours’ a story about a schoolgirl going back and forth relaying increasingly complicated and hostile messages between two teachers. Whilst in no way a horror story as such,  what is does capture, exquisitely, I may add, is that feeling of powerlessness and confusion that children feel when trapped by the stark and unrelenting rules of school.

Horror enough I’ll say.

Many of the others, however, are immersed in the sometimes baffling world of children themselves

‘How Anthony Made a Friend’ is a crookedly charming story about a strange little boy constructing a strange multi-limbed guy for Guy Fawkes night. Another, whose title escapes me is about a slightly sinister next-door neighbour and her batty little sister who charms warts using potions she makes in her garden shed.. again, not horror in the strictest, but these tales are all about perception, how as children we still have one foot in the imagined world and that there is still magic tingling in our toes.

The title story is a smart piece of perception-tinkering; following  a journey though a park with a small, mollycoddled boy and his older cousin. The cousin mischievously distorts everything around them, to terrify the youngster; they are being tracked by a leopard they can only escape by walking on their heels, they must run down a path called ‘poison alley’ “because that poison will burn right through your hat, right into your brains psssst.” But ultimately the experience opens the child’s eyes to imagination. The last line is the boy’s remark to his distraught mother who has chastisted the cousin for telling him such horrible things.

“I want to go to the park!”

When Mark does full-on horror, that’s when things get dark. ‘Nothing to be Afraid Of’ is remembered by many for ‘Nule’ a genuinely terrifying and clever story where some children personify their new house’s newel post with a hat and coat, gradually allowing their imaginations to take over. The power of this story is what you don’t see, but what the children’s minds conjure up at night when they hear the stairs creak…

I must have listened to these stories hundreds and hundreds of times over because as I am writing this more than twenty years later, having never read or heard them since, I can still recall some of the lines.

Some of the tales may read a little dated nowadays but what Jan Mark has done with this book is what many other authors have tried and failed to do and that is tap right in to the very root of childhood itself.

Whilst writing this, I have ordered the book again to read to my own son when he is old enough (but hopefully less of a strange loner than I was!) but doing a bit of digging i have found something else remarkable about ‘Nothing to be Afraid of’.

According to a comment on a blog post about ‘Nule’ (I found it after a google search of the book to jog my memory), the book was conceived after a long telephone conversation between Jan mark and her brother where they both recalled incidents from their shared childhoods in Ashford, Kent. Apparently all the stories have some basis in reality…including ‘Nule’ – unfortunately the house in which it was et was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a ring road.

But this just goes to show sometimes clichés are correct and the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Submission call (of sorts)

I would like to invite any followers/readers to send me a guest post about the books that made them who they are or influenced them in some profound way. Horror doesn’t have to enter into it and you don’t have to try and find the most high-brow book on your shelf; just give me 1000 words or so about a book, any book that has helped make you who you are. I will post the on the blog with any images you would like.

Drop me an email: bothersomedirtchild@gmail.com and put ‘The Books That Shaped My Life’ in the subject line.

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The Legacy of ‘The Doll’

I’ve never been into comics.

I’m sorry, I know, it’s not cool is it?

I’ve tried.  When I was a teenager, I collected Roman Dirge‘s ‘Lenore’ series;  I enjoy the Marvel adaptations of Stephen King’s Dark Tower and Talisman as well as Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell‘ but that’s about it.

Collecting comics should appeal to my slight OCD and hoarding personality (settle down ladies, I’m taken.)  yet for some reason they just…don’t.

I imagine there’s plenty of comics I’d like, I imagine that you’re probably grimacing at the screen thinking ‘you just need to read…so-and-so’, but it’s not going to happen. Sorry.

Perhaps it’s because I never liked superheroes. I still don’t. In fact, my view of superheroes is mostly indifferent, maybe a little contemptuous. It was the same as when I a kid. Superman, Captain America, Batman; whatever the darkness in their personalities, I just found them smug, slightly self-righteous goody-two-shoes who remind me of the clever, good-looking people I always knew I would never be anything like.

What I liked when I was young was the bad guys – Skeletor and Hordak, General Kael from ‘Willow’ – the guys dressed in bones and skulls, the guys who dwelled in lairs; they were my guys.

I think comics never appealed to me because in them, good always prevailed, my guys were always thwarted in the end. I imagine there are comics where the bad guys win, but when I was seven, I had no idea where to find them and really didn’t have the impetuous to try.

Or I just preferred books.

Then a comic came along and scared me in a way that I had never been scared before. It was a pivotal moment in my development into a fan and a creator of horror.

It was a comic you’ve probably never even heard of, a story by a writer whose name is lost to time (or to my limited detective skills). It was called ‘The Doll’.

Okay, a bit of backstory: In the late 1980s, there was a short-lived series of toys made by the Tonka company called ‘Supernaturals’.

I wont bore you with a lengthy description but in the advert below, you’ll see why they appealed to a seven year old me…

I had a few of them, they were ok, not a patch on Modulock, but pretty cool.

Then came the Supernaturals comic. At seven, i only ever really read the Beano, so the artwork of Dave D’Antiquis and Antony Williams was a welcome change. Plus, it was the Supernatural baddies who hosted the comic. I liked that.

I don’t recall the stories of the Supernaturals in those comics. Alongside them, a letters page and a centre spread poster was a totally unrelated comic strip.

The Doll..

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The Doll was the most terrifying thing I had ever read in my life.

The Doll was a dark story, something that certainly would not be deemed remotely suitable for children today.

Here’s a synopsis:

A boy (Simon Wickham) moves in with foster parents who are still grieving over the death of their own child.

Simon, staying in the dead boy’s bedroom (of course!)  finds an old trunk on top of the wardrobe that contains a creepy old ventriloquist’s doll.

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Simon shows his find to foster parents whereupon dad takes it from him to put in the bin.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes next – dad returns to the house from the dustbin and declares he’s sure the doll scratched him.

I will never forget that final panel in that first episode – an image of thedoll rising from the dustbin (remember this was a year before the first ‘Child’s Play was released)

As the subsequent 40p episodes of the comic was released, I found myself flicking past the Supernaturals strips with a morbid fascination for this terrible story that trilled and terrified me in equal amounts. Simon and his family try many times to destroy the Doll, yet like Michael Myers, always manages to come back.

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As the Doll story progressed the Doll terrorised Simon, strangling him, burning him, biting him and finally taking possession of his brother.

In the final episode of the Supernaturals comic (episode 9 – the only one I still own today)., the Doll made the front cover. This was perhaps testament to its power.

When I tried to sleep, I saw that face. felt the presence of that relentless, indestructible creature. The terror that comic strip induced in me has never truly left me. When I am writing and need to summon something from that bubbling, black pit at the depths of my imagination; it is the Doll’s face that leers up at me from those dark waters. It is that fear that I strive to induce in my readers.

The last episode of The Doll finishes in a suitably horrific way (below), yet there were, to my knowledge, no more ever published.

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Digging about online, even contacting the Egmont Publishing Group has revealed no credit for the writer or even the artist of The Doll. This creates a suitable aura of mystery around it; even today, that thing’s face sends a chill through me. Whoever drew it managed to capture a cruel malevolence, a sneering horror I have never seen replicated in a visual form.

The Doll’s place in the dark recesses of my nightmares will take something monumental to usurp.

Maybe I should read more superheroes?


Books that Matter – The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

Originally posted on Gingernuts of Horror

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THE BUTCHER BOY BY PATRICK McCABE

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


The first thing I noticed about Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy was its voice; McCabe’s Irish-ness is distinct and his narrative unrelenting; a psychotic stream of consciousness that, whilst for some may be blindingly caustic, drew me in to a blurry and distorted world of a boy’s descent into madness in the backdrop of small-town Ireland. Ms. McCormack-John knew instinctively that my current state of mind at the time would be a perfect dance partner for McCabe’s dark-hearted novel.
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The Butcher Boy tells the story of Francie Brady, son of a violent, alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother. To escape this grim reality, Francie retreats into his own mind, a place of comic books and westerns.

Much of the Irish literature in our English lessons held a darkness in their hearts yet the stark sorrow Doyle and Tóbín paled when I read McCabe. This was the under-the-counter Irish stuff they didn’t warn you about; Frank McCourt after some botched electro-convulsive therapy. I had never been fully blown away by literature before the moment I finished the Butcher Boy.

As a wayward teenage boy, I identified with Francie Brady, his state of mind as he felt his grip on life begin to tremble. Francie begins to lose everyone close to him; his family are labelled ‘Pigs’ by a local woman whose son, in turn, takes away Francie’s best friend, the deeper he slips into his psychosis. We finish with Francie returning home from institutionalisation of sorts, his mind in tatters, fixated upon old memories and the people who are gone. It’s never going to end well…

The wonderful thing about this book, is just how entrenched you get into its protagonist’s head. After putting it down, I found my thought rattling, jangling around the inside of my skull as if dictated by McCabe himself. You pity Francie, you laugh with him (and believe me, there are many laughs to be had!), you feel his loss, his desperation, you are on his side as his world crumbles beneath him and most of all, you fall with him into the whirling, black pit of insanity, you do it together. Your hearts break in perfect synchronicity.

The Butcher Boy showed me how to break the rules of literature, to mix the normal and the absurd, the conscious and unconscious, to pour out undiluted hope, loss and heartbreak in an unrelenting tide of pitch-black water, punctuated with music, comic books, films in a sort of maniacal poetry. McCabe has even coined his own genre – ‘Bog Gothic’ (an affectionate term!). bb2

I have, so far in my life never read a book that has resonated so strongly with me. I think I have owned at least ten copies of this book, pressing it into bewildered people’s hands at parties, imploring them to just read it. In fact, just looking for a copy now, to find a quote has proved fruitless. I love this book so much, I cannot own it.

The Butcher Boy undoubtedly lit a rocket under my arse and pushed me forward in my want to write, my need to write. This book feels like it has come from somewhere dark, some untapped vessel somewhere deep and buried. Whilst not autobiographical, McCabe has used much of his early experience as inspiration for this novel and it shows.

It showed me that, as a writer, especially of horror, crime and other unsavoury subjects, that tapping into the grimness of real life is essential to make a story believable, to give it undiluted authenticity. That’s not to say that every horror writer must have had bad experiences to be legitimate, far from it; but to truly experience horror is to look in the dark places within humanity, to be able to look upon that whirling pit of insanity and to draw from it, to tap it and splay that blackness into words. Anyone can look into that place.

I know I haven’t spoken too much about the plot of The Butcher Boy but I don’t want to spoil it and a great many of you will be wondering what exactly is so good about a grim account of young boy’s descent into madness?

Everything I tell, you everything. Because life is not pretty, there aren’t many happy endings and more often than not, the darkness of the human soul prevails.

“…one day you looked and the person you knew was gone. And instead there was a half-ghost sitting there who had only one thing to say: All the beautiful things of this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end.”

 


Don’t Go Near the Water…

Cautionary tales to protect children are a cross-cultural phenomenon. From stepping over pavement cracks to prevent an immediate attack of the ursidae variety or the immediate shattering of your own mother’s spine to the cannibalistic ‘Basket Woman’ of Native American Folklore who will hit you in the head with a stick and boil you should you dare to venture out past bedtime; the use of fear to quell rebellion in children is universal.

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Some might argue that this oral tradition has been lost; that a more appropriate story for today’s generation is the one about that kid who used so many hashtags, they disappeared into their own ego. It is entirely possible that in today’s society the lure of the outdoors, the wild places of the world is not as prevalent as it was years ago, that children are aware of the very real and present dangers facing them, that the trolls, ogres and goblins have been relegated back behind the trees of time.

Is this really true? We’ve seen with the tulpa phenomena that is Slenderman, that storytelling has moved with the times…whether there is a cautionary sentiment or indeed, a moral of sorts remains to be seen, especially in light the tragic case of the attempted murder case in 2014 in which the lurking malevolence of ‘the internet’ was widely blamed. I am not in a position to comment either way, what is significant here is that stories are being told, stories which wield a degree of power.

Cautionary folktales and their monsters have always held a particular fascination for me. As a child, rivers, woods and ponds held wildlife rather than the dark creatures of myth. In the mid 1980s,  stranger danger was a much more relevant story than being snatched by an ogre.  When the huge television on its metal legs was wheeled out into the assembly hall of my primary school, it was the pylons and substations with the terrifying ‘jumping’ electricity

As well as getting your plimsolls caught in train lines!!

People older than I will no doubt recall Donald Pleasance’s mellifluous voiceover  in the 1973 rather Eldritch public information video ‘Lonely Water ‘

a film that still stays with many to this day. What is interesting about this is in contrast to the gritty realism of its contemporaries, it instead purveys an air of mysticism about water…

In doing some research for a current novel, I came across the Inuit story of Qalupalik; a cautionary tale that tells of a green skinned, long-haired and fearsome water spirit that prays on disobedient children. You can watch an animated version of the story here.

Almost serendipitously, I was listening to a radio programme about folkloric tales from my own neck of the woods (North East England) and came across an almost identical creature by the name Peg Powler, a ‘river hag’ (The differentiation from a witch must be noticed here) a type of spirit with green skin, long hair and sinewy arms that pulls naughty children into the River Tees. The similarity of this Teesside demon to the Inuit Qalupalik is striking. What’s more, Peg Powler and Qalupalik are not limited to places north…

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In Lancashire, lurking beneath the stagnant waters of ponds, there is a creature known as Jinny Greenteeth (in Cheshire and Shropshire she is known as Ginny, Jeanie, Jenny and, perhaps significantly Peg O’Nell)

This old woman who lurks in the waters of stagnant ponds also has green skin, long hair and arms; her modus operandi again, is to reach and snatch the disobedient young from the waters’ edge. A few Jinny Greenteeth stories are cautionary tales aimed at children don’t clean their teeth (which is a bit rich to be fair!)

Crossing the divide between Lancashire and into Yorkshire, there is the Grindylow; again, a long-armed, green creature that dwells in bogs and lakes and drags in children who stray too close to the waters’ edge.

I most certainly not in a position to be able to explain the link between these regional amphibious horrors, nor less to explain  this idea of creatures, specifically female, that guard water. What I can do, however, is marvel at what seems to be a worldwide trend. There are, however some slight variations on a theme:

The Scottish ‘Maighdean Vaine’ or ‘Green Lady’ a blood-drinking water-seductress is seen as both malevolent or benevolent, more often than not though, a mischievous friend and companion to children who encounter her.

Nigeria has ‘Mommy-water’, a bereaved spirit wailing from beneath the waters of canals and lakes for her lost child. ‘Mommy-water’, like her western and Arctic contemporaries will reach out and pull you down if you get too close.  The Jamaican ‘River-Mumma’ who guards the source of rivers is  rather less predatory, instead, a more mermaid or siren type creature that sits combing her hair in the river and lures her victims to join her beneath the waves.

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Scandinavian Näcken and German Nix or Nixie (There are variations of the spelling) are, again, siren-like water nymphs who lure their pray (mostly women and children) with song and music played on their fiddles.

It is in Slavic folklore that these seductive water-spirits are perhaps revered as much as they are feared. The Rusalka, water demons that vary in descriptions from naked maidens to hairy creatures are often seen as the spirits of murdered girls or suicides. They are also sometimes seen as spinners of fate and even had their own festival . ‘Rusalka Week’ or ‘Green Week’  in early June was the time when Rusalka rose from their watery depths and swing on the branches of the willow and birch trees; to swim during this time would be your death. To banish these spirits, there are variations of ritualistic fertility offerings that banish the Rusalka back below the waters from whence they came. In Belarus, an elaborate ceremony was performed; eggs were left at the foot of a birch tree, with wreaths woven into its branches and women swore eternal friendship to each other to weather the fickleness of men and prevent more suicides which would, in turn, create more Rusalka. Sometimes these trees, seen as symbols of femininity were hurled into the lakes to warn the Rusalka to leave the men alone.

There are of course, hundreds more variants of predatory water-entities in folklore across the world as well as aquatic deities (some of which are male) but there is not enough room to include all of them here. I have merely touched on what is clearly a very ancient and spiritual

Our world is around 70% water, a great percentage of our own being is water; our physicality and mind is affected, like the seas, by the pull of the moon. Much of what lies beneath the seas that surround us, has never been seen by human eyes. It has been suggested that the Celts and pre-Celtic aborigines were water-worshippers; a plethora of water-cults prevailed through Europe. Born of the seas, we evolved to sever our bind to water and perhaps, as we and our beliefs evolved, we look back over our shoulders at this ancient mother of ours with a certain trepidation.

As well we might.

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“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind-of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.”

HP Lovecraft – Dagon


The Vampire Rabbit of Amen Corner

There’s nothing more galvanising to the intrigue than a local idiosyncrasy, a mystery. This particular mystery leers down, eldritch, grotesque and unashamedly real. Cast in stone, tenebrous in essence, red in tooth and claw (in this case, literally); its purpose shrouded to the aeons of time.

No one knows why, perched, bold as Poe’s raven, above the ornate doorway of the buildings that snake around the rear of the ancient Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne known as Amen Corner, hangs the snarling gargoyle of a monstrous, fanged rabbit.

Vamp Rabbit

The building where the rabbit resides is, in comparison to the Cathedral, relatively new; currently officers of solicitors, built in 1901, yet the site itself dates back to the Roman era and was known as Pons Aelius, the fort that guarded the first crossing of the river Tyne. The oldest surviving fragment of the cathedral  it frames, dates back to 1175.

Before the son of William the Conqueror built the castle keep, Amen Corner was a Saxon cemetery; before becoming a burial ground for Newcastle’s elite until the 18th century. These days, the headstones are mostly gone, the remaining few built into the surrounding wall and paths.

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I used to work in a restaurant down Newcastle’s quayside, five minutes walk from Amen corner and in the summer, I would spend the fleeting hours before my shift started reading books beneath the trees of the small cemetery. During those dappled afternoons, I was always aware of the presence of the rabbit, from its perch on the doorway ten meters or so behind me.

I would occasionally skirt the alley at the edge of the cemetery and stare up at it, gaze at those bulging, furious eyes and savage teeth, wondering…’what are you? Why are you here?’

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Unfortunately there’s no answer to that question; not a conclusive one anyway. One of the theories is that the rabbit was created by the architect (William H Wood 1889-1939) as a tribute, or to mock  Sir George Hare Philipson, professor of medicine at Durham University and a physician at Newcastle Royal Infirmary.

However, older photos show that the creature’s ears were originally shorter; giving the creature a more rabbit-y appearance until the late 1980s when they were extended and became more ‘hare’ like.

Wood, the architect of the building also founded University of Durham Masonic lodge; I am by no means a scholar of Masonic iconography, however, it is possible for a link to be construed:

Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, (fertility in the pre-Dynastic period) is an important deity in Freemasonry;  often depicted with black skin (just like the rabbit) or a shroud. In the Masonic system, the symbol of the hare represents Osiris and has been adopted as the symbol of light, or the ‘moral illumination’.

The symbol of the hare appears again in Anglo- Saxon mythology (remember Amen corner is a former Saxon cemetery); in the form the shape-shifter Ostara, another fertility deity who took the form of a hare beneath the full moon. (In Native American folklore, Manabozho, another shape-shifter is known as ‘The Great Hare’)

The symbol meaning ‘hare’ is the Egyptian  hieroglyphic of open eyes. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Hare (arnebet) is compounded using nabat – ‘to see’ (Portal, 1990, Les Symbols des Egyptiens, 69).  Osiris has been equated with Ra, a single god self-fertilising  creation deity  (according to the Book of the Dead)

“It is Osiris. Others, however, say that his name is Ra, and that the god who dwelleth in Amentet is the phallus of Ra, wherewith he had union with himself.”

This idea of self-fertilisation is also attributed to Amen who was fused with Ra to create a solar creator god Amen-Ra.

The vampire rabbit stares with open eyes over ‘Amen Corner’ – coincidence or tenuous link?

However, the association between the hare and the Egyptian deities could just be a massive mistake; the link is thought to be a 19th century error in Egyptologists understanding of ancient Egyptian epithets (IE. Hare- wn, with Osiris Wennefer, a high priest of Osiris who carries the same epithet –wn which alludes to the power of Osiris but is not related, semantically to the animal.)

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 If indeed, Wood was paying tribute to Masonic divinity;  a wide-eyed is as good a symbol as any (presumably before this error was discovered)but that begs one more question about the rabbit…why the fangs…the claws?

One explanation could be the creative way in which Christianity likes to demonise the belief of others – the pagan celebration of Ostara, (Ēostre in Northumbrian dialect) the spring equinox where eggs (a symbol of fertility) were given as gifts, presided over by the hare goddess Ostara – was changed to ‘Easter’ and the myth perpetuated that rabbits and hares were to be feared. However, according to some, the entire Ostara and rabbit connection is just a myth perpetuated by modern pagans

So really, there’s nothing we can conclude for certain about the vampire rabbit of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. A tenuous tribute, a Masonic mistake or a two-fingered salute to the Cathedral and its clergy whose procession would end around this side of the building?

Or maybe William H Wood just fancied sticking a vampire rabbit on a doorway?


Books of 2014

In no particular order, the following books published in 2014 are the ones that have moved me, excited me or inspired me in some way. The stand-outs amongst many, so I make apologies for the following notable exceptions (as those authors are going to be desperately upset they didn’t make an arbitrary list on a nobody’s blog.)

The Ice Palace‘ Tarjei Vesaas (1963), ‘Niceville‘ Carsten Stroud (2012) ‘The Silence of the Sea‘, Yrsa Sigurdadottir (2011) ‘Under the Skin‘  Michael Faber (2000) and everything by Gillian Flynn (including the magnificent screenplay of ‘Gone Girl’.

Should my opinion on books mean anything whatsoever to you (why it would is anyone’s guess), please read on…

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The Troop – Nick Cutter

When Stephen King recommends a book, it’s hard for a fan of horror not to be intrigued. I have to also say that without King’s recommendation, I would never have heard of this, so saturated the horror market has become by tired zombie stories and ‘erotic’ vampire novels. Cutter’s story of a scout troop abandoned on an island with something terrible is pleasantly original without being wary of a b-movie style ‘scare’.  The Troop is one of those stories you find yourself drawn instantly into its midst; the characterisation is rich and the guts and gore don’t feel gratuitous or unnecessary. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of what happens to Cutter’s scout troop; but those looking for a contemporary and fresh voice in the genre couldn’t do much better than this.

There have been comparisons drawn with Lord of the Flies and whilst The Troop shares some of the themes of Golding (boys abandoned on an island, power struggles in a group dynamic), this is where the comparison ends. The Troop, as is described by Stephen King is old-school style horror and unashamedly so.

What sets The Troop apart from its contemporaries, however, is its strength in characterisation. When you care about the characters in a book; the implausibility of their situation matters less than how they deal with it. I found myself easily immersed in this novel; allowing myself ‘one more chapter’ before I stopped, as tea remained uncooked and washing remained unfolded. That’s got to be a good sign!

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

What can I say? This could possibly be my favourite book of 2014. Lauren Beukes, author of ‘The Shining Girls’, a best-selling crime-noir about a time-shifting serial killer (Dr. Who with an story worth following?) but with Broken Monsters, Beukes takes us to a whole new level of gritty reality. In the exhaust-clogged, shell of Detroit City, Detective Gabriella Versado is called to the scene of  what the police are calling ‘Bambi’, a dead boy whose top half has been fused to the hind quarters of a fawn. This is just the beginning of Versado’s terrible pursuit of a serial killer who believes they can find the thin place between the worlds in the realisation of their dream; carving their victims into hideous parodies of underground art.

Much of the narrative is told through the online world form; Reddit posts, Tumblr, text and social media. It’s an ultra-smart and contemporary way to portray not only the younger generation, but the huge part streaming news and social media plays in our lives that Beukes pulls off with aplomb. If traditionally told stories is your thing, I don’t expect this novel will appeal.

Beukes pulls no punches and there is gore and grimness aplenty but splatterpunk this aint. This is a dark tale told with no glamour yet ultimately one of the most exciting crime publications of 2014. Beukes’ sparse use of the paranormal will, no doubt polarise the opinions of those who like their crime noir ‘pure’, however, this side of the story is sparse, lending just enough to accentuate an already gloomy premise.

The plot itself is an intelligent crime story that’s intrigue does not abate. Reading Broken Monsters, I found myself having to put it down as I was enjoying it that much and didn’t want it to end too quickly.

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The Girl With All the Gifts – MR Carey

If there’s a theme in contemporary fiction that’s been done to death; done so much to death that its bloated corpse is palpably shuddering with every half-hearted thud of a spade blade on its shattered coffin lid, it’s the zombie apocalypse. Even the idea of ‘zombies’ as ruthless and predatory ‘infected’ rather than the shambling figure of Haitian folklore is a weary cliché we’ve all seen a million times.

By all accounts, therefore, The Girl with all the Gifts should be one to avoided like the plague (see what I did there?) but making an assumption like that (which I very nearly did) is a big mistake to make.

M.R. Carey’s 2014 novel, though dealing with the last survivors of a global pandemic, a deadly fungal virus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis –that’s the one that makes ants climb to the top of plants to be eaten by predators, as if you didn’t know!) which turns humans to flesh-eating ‘hungries’, feels fresh, despite itself.

In fact, the concept in essence is remarkably similar to the equally enthralling game, Naughty Dog’s 2013 ‘The Last of Us’. Coincidence? To be honest, it really doesn’t matter and to be fair, this genre has limited options.

The Girl with all the Gifts’ style is immediately accessible and grasps the reader from the start with cold, dead fingers. Rather than extensive exposition and philosophising on the end of the world as we know it; Carey’s narrative  fluctuates between just a few characters – Melanie, a small girl who spends her days (when she is not muzzled and restrained) at school; Melanie’s teacher, Miss Justineau; Sergeant Parks and scientist Caroline Caldwell. It is the relationship between these four that drives the novel forward. Melanie and Miss Justinaeu’s pseudo parent-daughter dynamic is instantly relatable and in such tragic circumstances establishes itself as the heart of the novel from the beginning. The two others by contrast represent the ‘establishment’; they that dehumanise the ‘infected’ and think nothing of destroying them or indeed locking up 10 year old children for scientific research into a cure.

This is a human story rather than a ‘zombie’ one as such. While the scientist would like to literally delve inside Melanie’s brains, the teacher recognises her as a person in her own right. This tension as the four of them escape from Sergeant Parks’ base that the ‘hungries’ have overrun is the crux of the story and such strongly established characterization carries the reader all the way to the superbly bleak ending.

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Bird Box – Josh Malerman

Another fresh voice in the horror genre, Bird Box tells a highly original tale of the end of days; something has happened in the world, people are boarding up their windows, people are wearing blindfolds, people are killing themselves, killing each other.

They have all seen something.

When Malorie’s sister looks out of the window and kills herself, Malorie is alone. Pregnant and desperate, she answers an ad in a newspaper; sanctuary.

The strength of this story is it is largely told in the dark; the characters wear blindfolds at all times; their skin becomes sallow, their only sight is the gloom of the inside of the house. Malerman never makes this darkness seem clunky or awkward; in fact, the tension created by the inability of the characters to see is this story’s strength. The reader is desperate to know what could possibly be out there, yet at the same time you desperately don’t. More often than not, the things that scare us the most are the things we cannot see; an homage to Lovecraft’s idea of sights that are simply too much for the frailty of the human mind.

And there emerges the question of whether an already warped mind can be immune to the terror.

This atmosphere in Bird Box is palpable from beginning to end and that’s before you even consider its originality in terms of story. I found myself having to take breathers from this novel, such was the tension and that’s in no way a criticism. Tension, atmosphere and originality; all welcome elements of a triumphant horror novel.

Horror has never been a ‘cool’ genre but Bird Box is undoubtedly that slick kid with the leather jacket and the brylcreem who you want to offer a light, even though you don’t smoke. There’s a lot to be said for having the brevity to leave the reader to imagine what is too horrible to even imagine and believe me, there’s no ‘Night of the Demon’-esque let down here.

The end of days is a recurrent theme in much dark fiction and a tired one at that. With Bird Box, Josh Malerman managed to make it cool again.


Books on Tyne Festival

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I am pleased to announce I shall be doing a reading of my short horror story ‘Ellie Hill’ as part of this year’s literary festival ‘Books on Tyne‘, which has a huge series of events including discussions and workshops including appearances by north east based authors and publishers. If you live in the area and have an interest in literature or writing, this is really worth checking out.

The loose theme of the festival is ‘on the edge’ and I am personally very excited to be attending a crime writing discussion with not only Ann Cleeves and Mari Hannah, but one of my favourite authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

My story will appear in an anthology published collaboratively by Iron Press, Red Squirrel Press and Tyne Bridge Publishing which resulted from a workshop with several up and coming North East authors, led by the inimitable Peter Mortimer. Tickets to the reading are available here.

The title of the anthology is ‘Short not Sweet’.

A bit like this blog post.