I’ll start off with a frank admission: when Michael first approached me about getting involved with Read Horror, I wasn’t entirely sure what I could contribute to the mix. I am but a reader, after all. However, as much as I respect the existing RH columnists, I soon came to the realisation that I placed as much importance on the feedback below the columns as I did on the actual columns themselves. I would never read an opinion piece by Simon Marshall Jones or BC Furtney, for example, without reading the accompanying comments. From this, an idea was born: giving us, the humble readers, our own column, as it were.
This first offering is very different to those that will follow in its wake – in format, at least. The idea is that I will write features about you, my fellow readers, though I will merely be shepherding the column, providing a backdrop and contextualisation for you and your opinions.
I’m not going to bang on about credentials and try to justify why I’m the right person for the job because that goes against the whole ethos/point behind this column – i.e. you don’t need any! I studied English Literature and Journalism at University, but beyond that, I am simply a horror fan. Here, within the confines of this column, that is literally all you need – some books and an opinion (oh, and maybe a camera). If you have those, then I’m interested in hearing from you.
Many people are happy to buy a book on the recommendation of a random, faceless person’s Amazon list or equivalent, rather than from somebody they actually know anything about. So, let’s inject more of a human element into it – think of this column as a virtual book group, if you like. The accompanying photos will allow us to peek inside people’s homes, as if we were collectively traipsing round from one to another (all, er, several thousand of us…). Though, bizarrely, we are all reading and talking about different books and, no, there won’t be nibbles…
Before I launch into things, let’s get one thing out the way: I don’t want to get bogged down with the definition of horror literature. What horrifies one person may do very little for others. To try and illustrate this point, and for the sake of making it interesting, let’s jump back a few centuries… For most people, the name Jonathan Swift probably doesn’t conjure up horror connotations, what with Gulliver’s Travels being his best-known work. My favourite writing by him, however, is a pamphlet entitled A Modest Proposal, published anonymously by him in 1729. Here, he put forth a suggestion for addressing the famine problem in Ireland. His solution? Simple – he proposed that they eat their children. He announces this with the following statement: ‘I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout’.
He describes how to prepare the meat, with psychological realism being achieved through the use of fine details (‘when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day’). He also suggests that you ‘flay the carcass’ and use the child’s skin to make ‘admirable gloves for ladies’ and ‘summer boots for fine gentlemen’.
If you hadn’t already guessed, these do not represent Swift’s actual beliefs, and he does not intend this as a genuine solution! Instead, he created a persona and published this pamphlet to get people to think about the desperate situation in Ireland. If the reader didn’t grasp this from the idea alone, he dropped in a small number of other clues to indicate that the proposer’s methods were suspect. The proposer is fictional, but the real collaborators (Irish landlords, English politicians, etc.) were not – Swift considered them to be devouring the poor and eating up the nation. They were the targets of the piece: it essentially involves a literal treatment of the metaphorical truth.
When A Modest Proposal was published, the only people it actually fooled were fools to begin with! Though, had you been one of those fools, and thought that the anonymous author was in fact being serious, you would’ve been pretty repulsed and outraged. For them, it must truly have been a work of (real) horror. Alternatively, for those who got it and saw it in the ridiculous and over-the-top manner it was intended, it may actually have got a laugh out of them! For them, the work would surely not be considered horror (despite the tips for budding cannibals) as the absurdity overrides the grotesqueness.
However, Swift employed a complex and daring use of irony in the piece – it’s not simply a case of saying one thing and meaning another. He clearly anticipated (and intended) most readers’ initial, automatic rejection of the proposal but, in doing that, it encouraged his readers to consider what solutions might actually work. Some may have surprised themselves by contemplating ideas that are not so far from those of the proposer, with death almost beginning to seem like a solution. So, some readers may not have been horrified by the writing itself but, instead, horrified at themselves and the thinking it inspired (or revealed) in them: Swift effectively held up a mirror to reflect, and exaggerate, something in ourselves. Does this mean it is a work of horror? That one is up for debate, but hopefully this shows that it’s all subjective and definitely, by no means, clear-cut.
Hopefully that will pre-empt any categorisation debates – I don’t feel that this column is the place for such arguments. The idea is that this will be just as much about the individual as the books in their collection and, therefore, what they say goes. I welcome any debates over the merits of any given work, of course, but not their inclusion or validity in relation to the Read Horror site. It’s all subjective and I think we all need to be respectful as far as that’s concerned. If a book is capable of eliciting a certain reaction from the reader, then it has rightfully earnt its place on these pages.
Such emotional responses, the ones I’ve been chasing nearly all my life, are actually something my parents always tried their very best to protect me from. I had a tough time watching horror films when I was little (if up to about age fifteen counts as little?), so I turned to literature, as this couldn’t be policed quite as heavily as my film-watching! If something is forbidden, I am bound to want it, and horror was definitely forbidden… As a genre, be it reading a book or watching a film, even now, it still feels like glorious victory (Mum, I’m telling you, this really is all your fault!).
“You can get your horror fix anytime, anywhere, in the company of whoever, right under people’s noses, and nobody but you will know the terrors that are circulating through your cerebral cortex.”
I used to live in a small village, where the most interesting thing was, most definitely, the graveyard directly across the road from our house (yes, other RH columnists have written about graveyards, and now I’m about to as well!). I used to take my secret hoard of literary treasure across the road, where I’d find a quiet spot, with the likes of fictional ghouls and monsters to keep me company. It was here that I got acquainted with a genre that would later become my favourite, for me, nothing even approaches it. It was also in that graveyard, years and years before I actually started reading there, where I fell into an open grave. It’s one of my earliest memories, in fact, and I think this may have contributed to, if not set, the tone that seems to have pervaded throughout my life. Cheesy, maybe, but true. I think that was why I later took my books over there with me – it was (and still is) my overriding association with the place. The fall wasn’t an experience I actually wanted to repeat, of course, but it has always held a fascination for me. Besides the obvious convenience factor of the graveyard being just across the road, I think that’s ultimately what kept drawing me back. I moved away a long time ago now, but, one day, I’ll go back, on a nostalgic pilgrimage, and take a paperback friend or two with me for company, so it’s just like old times…
The fact that I had to develop secretive tendencies where my horror habit was concerned (to prevent the books being taken away!) meant that I unfortunately missed out on part of the real beauty of horror literature – the ability to indulge in plain sight! You can get your horror fix anytime, anywhere, in the company of whoever, right under people’s noses, and nobody but you will know the terrors that are circulating through your cerebral cortex. Sure, you could watch a horror film on your iPhone, but come on, that’s hardly the rich immersive experience that a film should be. Members of the public can peek, and you’ll often glance behind you only to see a small child watching over your shoulder, wide-eyed and dumbstruck, and the parents may end up giving you grief for it (like the time I tried to watch Battle Royale on my laptop on a plane and somebody complained…).
Like reading literature, watching film was once a solitary act: back in the early days of the kinetoscope, you looked through a peephole to view film individually. That then evolved into the film projector and, of course, cinema, and became an inherently shared experience. Literature, on the other hand, technically began as a shared experience, in the form of verbal storytelling, but has become primarily a very solitary experience, where it’s just you and the book. So, with this column, I’m aiming to build upon what Michael has already initiated with the RH site overall – turning a typically-solitary act into more of a shared experience. In other words: we all do it, so why not talk about it?
Nowadays, my favourite genre authors include H P Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, to name but a few. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made a big impression on me, as did Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a number of the other greats. Beyond that, I love genre-benders and I’m happy to argue the case for their inclusion on this site, as I hope many of you are too. I particularly love dystopian-future books – 1984 and A Clockwork Orange being two good examples. The former, in particular, always horrified me. I’m sure the idea of condensing and destroying language won’t bother everybody (outside the realm of Read Horror, anyway?) – after all, text speak is rampant. Sometimes it has its uses, but I avoid it like the plague, wherever possible. I see it as a breakdown in communication – ideas cannot be conveyed effectively. It puts barriers between us, isolating us from each other, and I, for one, think that’s pretty fucking scary! Then there’s the Thought Police – truly the stuff of nightmares…
Right, introduction (and some form of explanation) over, now we can begin – would you like to be featured here in Meet The Reader? As far as your book collection is concerned, it’s all about quality not quantity, and you don’t necessarily have to own a book to talk about it. I’m interested in your reading habits, how you organise the books that adorn your shelves, and, of course, your thoughts on why any given title worked for you. So, if you’d like to tell the RH community about your literary tastes and your collection – how it came to be, what it means to you – then please get in touch.
If you want to be featured in Meet The Reader, please e-mail Emma to be in with a chance of becoming one of the lucky ones.