Killer Clowns, Reading IT and Thoughts on Horror

So where has the past month gone?

I’ve been spending some time revising my Greek mythology eBook In the Beginning was Chaos, mostly expanding the text, doing some additional research, and also adding pictures in the form of copyright-free artwork illustrating the myths. I hope to have the book out in its perfected form within the next couple of weeks.

As far as reading goes, I was oddly inspired by skimming increasingly absurd media reports of the Killer Clown Craze to have a go at tackling Stephen King’s IT.

I remembered watching the TV serial when it was broaclown_feardcast in the ’90s and finding it entertaining, but not especially frightening. Since then, I’ve read other Stephen King novels, including the more recent (2011) 11/22/63 with its  gripping time-travel theme and his much earlier novel The Shining (1977) which I found darkly atmospheric and absorbing and remember later finding the film a little thin and disappointing in comparison.

I approached IT then with a reasonably positive expectation. As before, I was impressed by King’s ability to draw you into the story and make you care about the characters with some vivid brush-strokes. Each of the young protagonists had clearly delineated problems or issues which to some extent defined them. The prose was readable, fast paced and clever, shifting you in and out of past and present and immersing you in the small-town world of the book.

However, for the present at least, I have ended up putting the book aside at a little short of 200 pages of its 500+. Why? Ultimately, the horror itself didn’t convince me. The manifestations of the dark terror haunting the town of Derry were simply too over-the-top, in some cases to the point of absurdity. I found myself watching the mayhem unfold with a kind of distanced scepticism, rather than any remote feeling of disquiet. It was the fact that these things happened so comparatively early in the book that threw me, too, I think. If such horrific manifestations had been the climax after being built up to throughout the book, they might have felt in some sense earned; as it was, it just felt deeply unlikely.

Part of King’s talent, I think, is showing that the real horror, the real monsters are to be found in human guise. That I think is what made The Shining work so well. There were strong elements of that insight in IT, but they were overshadowed by the solid unsubtlety of a monstrous being that simply rips children apart or, indeed, causes them to float.

Horror is a very subjective genre, of course. What will elicit a shrug or a laugh from one person can be the cause of a disturbed night’s sleep to another. I find the idea of a sad shadowy ghost manifesting silently upon one in one’s solitude much more worrying than a big scary monster.

What gives you a genuine chill in a horror story?


Claire Tomalin’s Biography of Charles Dickens

charles_dickens_-_project_gutenberg_etext_13103I’ve been getting into Dickens the last couple of weeks, reading and rereading. I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities very much and am now some way through Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ last completed novel. The murky ancient river with its deathly secrets and the brittle manners and concerns of the arriviste bourgoisie are both compelling.

This enjoyment prompted me to want to read more about Dickens himself, so I gave Claire Tomalin’s biography  a try as it seemed to be the best recommended. I certainly found it very vivid and readable,  as it leads you quickly through the events of Dickens life  giving vivid glimpses of his personality along the way.

In Tomalin’s portrayal, Dickens came across ultimately as a very ambivalent figure.

On the one hand, he was capable of wonderful kindness and generosity to those stricken by misfortune, a man of radical politics though scathing of politicians generally and genuinely indignant and concerned on behalf of the marginalised of society. I was interested to learn of Dickens’ radicalism. For some reason I had always imagined him as some kind of One-Nation Tory. I suspect that this is because he has become a figure that seems to embody an idea of ‘Victorianism’ in itself in the public consciousness, even because of his scathing portrayal of much of what was wrong with it.

On the other hand, there was a sense that he could be cold, autocratic and rejecting to those closest to him. Nn particular,  there was the vile way Dickens treated his wife, not only rejecting her for his actress mistress but  justifying himself  by  attacking her publicly,questioning her love for her children and even her grip on sanity.

There is also the curiously cold way he related to most of his children. It is hard for most British people in the 21st century to imagine what it would be like to have ten children, even though we are only two or three generations from it being the norm. Interestingly, it seems the situation was hard for Charles Dickens to get his head round too. He favoured his first three children, but apparently treated the later additions to his family with a kind of distanced bafflement as though he simply couldn’t extend his love and attention far enough for them all to have their share. It is disquieting to learn that the author of  A Christmas Carol frequently left his own sons at boarding school over Christmas.

Tomalin’s biography brings across these ambivalencies very well. She also vividly conveys the sheer physical energy of the man, who combined a prodigious literary output with the need to undertake walks of many miles on a more or less daily basis. I found the clearly extrovert portrayal of Dickens who seemed to love to surround himself with people and to feed off the energy of an audience devouring his readings to be interesting. Writers are not always introverts, it seems.

What I would have liked to see more of in this biography is a slowing down of the narrative in places and time given to a discussion of questions such as Dickens’ own literary influences and inspirations “where did he get his ideas from…”.  He was a genius, but he wasn’t created out of thin air. What did he read? How much did he gain from his interrupted education? How did he come by his views on religion and politics? (He wasn’t conventionally religious either.)

I also felt there was a lack of insight into some of the people who surrounded him most closely. Catherine Dickens seems to be dismissed by the biographer as a nonentity about whom there is nothing much to be said rather as Dickens himself did. His children also remain shadowy figures though we hear something of how they lived out their lives after Dickens’ death – rather forlornly for the most part. We also got intriguing glimpses of his friendships with writers such as Carlyle and Thackeray and I would have liked to know more about those, about how the greatest writers of the age influenced and reacted to each other.  Of course, a biography cannot contain everything and this was an excellent introduction to the larger-than-life personage who bestrode his era like a Colossus.


Tarot Tuesdays: The Five of Cups

Five of Cups

I stare down at the gelatinous egg on its bed of thickly buttered glistening white toast. After a minute, I realise my sister, Pat is still hovering by the door. I look up at her from the bed.

“Maybe you’ll come down a bit later, Colin, if you’re feeling up to it?” Her tone is hopeful, artificially bright. “The kids would love to see you.”

I snort in response and she leaves the room, defeated for the moment, the door clicking to behind her.

I really can’t imagine that anyone would love to see me at the moment. All I can feel is the crushing weight of shame in my chest, the desperate need to hide myself away. These haven’t left me since last Monday morning, when I was called to the bosses’ office at about half past ten. One look at her face and that of the assistant manager sitting beside her, one glance at the pile of ledgers open on her desk and I knew it was all over. You’re lucky we didn’t get the police in, they told me, lucky you’re not looking at a prison sentence. I suppose they thought it would be bad publicity, more than anything. I was escorted from the building while my colleagues, people I’d known for ten years or more, men and women I’d drank in the pub with every Friday night, sat still as statues at their desks, just watching me in silence, as though what I had done was too low even to need comment. It would have been easier, somehow, to leave to boos and jeers.

The last thing I feel I can face just now is going down to my noisy inquisitive nephew and niece in the sitting room. Suppose they were to ask me questions about why I’m here? How much have Pat and Dave told them?

How much has Helen told our daughter, more to the point? No, I can’t think about that. The hardest thing was having, finally, to tell my wife the truth, tell her that the nice new car, the Edwardian-style conservatory we’d had put in last year, the holidays to Florida and Thailand weren’t the result of my hard work being rewarded with pay-rises, but from ten years of my systematically fiddling the books at the office. Now it would all have to be paid back, straight away if I wanted to avoid gaol.

She didn’t take it well and who could blame her? Not just losing all the nice stuff, but the shame she felt on my behalf, her own behalf. Helen has a responsible job at the Council; how will it affect her at work when it inevitably leaks out that her accountant husband was sacked for fraud and embezzlement? They’re both in Nottingham now, at Helen’s mam and dad’s. We communicate via solicitor’s letters.

So I’ve lost my wife, my kid, my good name, my house, my job, everything. I prod my cooling breakfast with my fork, wondering if I’ll ever feel like eating again. My sister has added a bright blob of tomato sauce to the edge of the plate for me to dip my egg in, which somehow makes things worse.

There’s a scratching at my bedroom door, low, imploring woofs. It’s my old terrier, Charlie; he knows I’m in here, but I can’t face getting up and going to the door to let him in. I know Pat or one of the kids will walk him later. Meanwhile, all I can do is lie back on these polyester sheets and face the fact that I’ve lost everything.


Tarot Tuesdays: The Knight of Wands

I am excited to be taking part in Tarot Tuesdays inaugurated by Jenn Moss over on her blog. The premise is simple, but effective; each Tuesday, Jenn draws a random Tarot card and the following week creates a story, poem, or whatever else inspires. Anyone who wishes to participate can write their own response to the card on their blog and post a comment linking back to it.

The first card to be drawn is the Knight of Wands and here is my response in the form of a rumination.


Knight of wands

The Knight of Wands

In the midst of the barren desert the Knight of Wands pulls up sharply, impetuously in mid-gallop, causing his horse to rear. He is bearing aloft a knobbly, burgeoning bough, bursting with green shoots. This is a quixotic fellow; there is something absurd about that great stick he’s brandishing in the place of a knight’s lance, a neat, honed weapon of destruction. What, one might ask, does he think he’s going to do with it, precisely?

I find myself imagining that this unlikely knight is on a quest to bring life and hope to the waterless places. Somehow, with that stick full of shoots like the hopeful eyes on a cupboard potato, our knight intends to turn that desert place into lush, green forest, living boughs sweeping the blue sky.

Heinrich_fueger_1817_prometheus_brings_fire_to_mankindHow might he achieve this? Perhaps in the same way as Prometheus brought fire to the whole of humanity, with only a few stolen, glowing coals concealed in a great stalk of fennel, held aloft in flight. Prometheus was another quixotic fellow who took sometimes unlovely humankind as his chosen Dulcinea. He would come to pay a high price for his chivalry in presenting his illicit gift of life and power to the naked, shivering apes who trembled before Zeus Omnipotent.

Behind our Knight, amongst the trackless sands, rear up the ancient tombs of the ancestors, sealed and immutable. In contrast, the brandished bough, pullulating with green shoots speaks of new ideas, new life, new energy. Our tree-planter of the desert wastes stands up against stone Ozymandias’ ‘sneer of cold command’ and goes gallantly forth on his absurd quest to foster green and flourishing life on the parched and waterless places of the world.


On Finishing Le Morte d’Arthur

I reached something of a personal milestone today.

I finished reading Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, having made my initial attempt in the last years of primary school and having stopped and started (again) at intervals over the ensuing thirty-ish years.


First page of Caxton’s 1485 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur

What possessed me to attempt an extended late-medieval prose narrative at so tender an age, you might ask? 

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Mr T.H. White. I first discovered The Sword in the Stone in the children’s section of Kentish Town Library. It was a stoutly-bound, hardbacked volume of respectable vintage. I have a feeling that I had seen and enjoyed the cartoon version of the story not long before and that this was what prompted me at the age of nine or so to select the book and bring it home.

I loved The Sword in the Stone out of measure. It offered me an education comparable to that  which Merlin provided the Wart – 

“The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about, but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talked down to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned. He had the glee of the porpoise then, pouring and leaping through strange seas.”

The words and phrases seared themselves in my brain. The ramblings of the confused King Pellinore were for me the height of hilarity, while episodes such as Wart among the bitter grandeur of the militaristic hawks blindfolded in the mews with their disturbing bloodthirsty ditties, or the medieval Christmas in the Great Hall followed by the blood and snow of the grim boar hunt formed memories as deep as any real-life experience and made me long for a reality so vivid and magical. 

I borrowed that book many times in succession from Kentish Town Library until a thoughtful adult gifted me not merely with The Sword in the Stone but with The Once and Future King, a volume containing not only that initial book of boyhood magic and transformation but the Arthurian novellas that succeeded it. 

As I approached adolescence in company with the damaged sons of Morgause and with the Ill-Made Knight and his tormented scruples I was drawn into a darker world of cruelty and guilt, anguished speculations on the rights and wrongs of violence and the damage done to children by the words of adults around them. I suspect I would have been an unhealthily introspective young person even without the help of T.H. White, but he certainly did help and for that I can only tender my gratitude.

These later books made it clear that behind White lurked the figure of Malory, rather as Malory himself alludes to ‘the book’ or ‘the French book’ and so ad infinitem, possibly.. Thus, with a visit to the Owl Bookshop, I secured Volume One of Le Morte d’Arthur and began to read.

I got through the first books all right, the drama of Igraine and Uther, which I would soon after reprise with my excitable thirteen year old perusal of The Mists of Avalon, the familiar tale of Excalibur, the setting up of the Table Round. Recklessly, I invested in Volume Two, in anticipation of finishing Volume One.

Yet I became discouraged. It wasn’t the language that formed a barrier; I enjoyed and absorbed the late medieval phrasing, especially with the aid of the glossary at the foot of the page. 

The campaign in Rome threw me first of all  – the bit where Arthur and his knights suddenly find themselves at war with the entire Roman Empire, despite the fact that Rome has certainly fallen by any foolish attempt at historical contextualising. It had nothing to do with my idea of what the King Arthur story was about – T.H. White either skipped it or alluded to it briefly and later retellings rarely mention such a thing so I felt somewhat lost. Somehow, at some point, I got through that part  with the reward of a horrible story of a cannibalistic giant who became part of the continental adventure. 

It was the mid point of the work I found really hard going, the last few books of Volume One and the first book of Volume Two. The obsession with jousting and tournaments, the surreal landscape in which knights rode around for no other purpose, seemingly, than to knock other knights off their horses and the weird peripatetic existence of the ‘damsels’ with their strange mixture of independence and victimhood, riding about on their palfreys, delivering messages, being rude and unpleasant to new knights, but then being captured and swapped around like tokens, with little apparent objection for the most part.

It was as though the British countryside became a checquered gameboard on which a peculiar game was being enacted a la Alice Through the Looking Glass. It began to seem unedifying, repetitious and rather dull like those films with the explosions and car chases that are just white noise to me. 

At various times over the years, then, I got to that middle point (having started from the beginning each time) and then retreated. 

A month or so ago however, as recorded in my previous post, I had the urge to immerse myself in things Arthurian as part of a project to write my own Tristan and Iseult. With new determination I pushed through the monster of book 10 with which vol 2 begins and then found that the second half of the work is wonderful. 

The impending tragedy of Launcelot and Guinevere gathers pace, there is the strangeness and mystery of the Grail Quest and the mindless knocking of people from their horses is exchanged for something like psychological subtlety and hints of depth of character as these noble, larger than life beings hurtle towards their doom.

At their holy and pitiful end, Launcelot and Guinevere remind me rather of Abelard and Heloise, which makes me wonder if their story was an inspiration for Malory, or whether it was part of a broader narrative trope.

So an ending of sorts has been reached of a considerable portion of my own life, but I like to think hopefully that this ending represents a beginning and that having achieved the Grail of Le Morte d’Arthur I do not expire upon my knees but am instead inspired to go galloping off on further quests.





New Project: Medieval Immersion

CEC128164 Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion, 1867 (mixed media) by Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Charles  (1828-82); 62.3x59.1 cm; The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, UK; ( intended for Isolde the Fair and King Mark of Cornwall;); English,  out of copyright
Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion, 1867  by Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Charles (1828-82);The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, UK

My new fiction project is a novelistic retelling of the Tristan and Iseult Romance.

This tragic and bitter-sweet tale, set in the Celtic lands of Cornwall, Brittany and Ireland is known from an array of medieval retellings, including a substantial precis in Malory. Originally seemingly separate from the Arthurian legend complex, it has been grafted in and made part of the story, so that Tristan becomes a knight to rival Sir Lancelot while his love for Iseult, wife of King Mark parallels and echoes Lancelot’s love for Queen Guinevere, wife of Arthur.

After an interlude of forgetfulness, 19th and 20th century authors took up the theme, with poems such as Swineburne’s Tristan of Lyonesse and artwork by the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, who immersed themselves in Arthurian lore to escape the ugliness of their industrialised present.

So, for the next while, I shall be immersing myself in things Celtic, Arthurian and medieval as my own retelling of this tale finds its shape and voice. In the process, I’ll share here interesting and useful websites, artwork, book musings, articles and perhaps the odd ficlet.

The Sunday School Prize

The Sunday School PrizeYesterday evening, I published a new short story The Sunday School Prize on kindle.

It is a dark fantasy set in a North London primary school in the 1980s and it concerns Sorcha, an eccentric nine year old girl who lives in her own private fantasy world fuelled by tales of myths and legends. The target of bullying and ridicule, Sorcha retreats ever further into her interior landscape until the fateful day when the dark world of Myths and Legends of the British Isles collides explosively with the everyday world of school life.

The background for this book drew on my own memories of school life such as the hated school dinners which you could be forced to finish, playground games and Carpet Time when we all sat cross-legged on a rectangle of carpet in a corner of the classroom to listen to a story.

Thirty years on, these memories have a gold-tinted glow of nostalgia of a time and age well and truly lost. It does seem though that one could pack in more joy and anguish in a single fifteen minute Play Time than a week of adult life.