Halloween Favourites.Oct 31, 2018
It’s my favourite holiday of the year, and not just in a jokey way, I genuinely love Halloween. I don’t usually dress up but seeing others, even many of the commercialised decorations and cash-ins, makes me happy. The whole spirit of it is wonderful; a mass celebration of storytelling, and as close to a feeling of a religious holiday as I get.
I’ve long loved getting carried away into the shadows by imaginations, fairy tales, ghosts (especially ghosts), witches, and monsters: Where the Wild Things Are, demons and shape-shifters in The Arabian Nights, the probably funny but too scary for me as a child Czech bestiary book we had, Jaws is probably the film I’ve seen more than any… Gazing into the dark water of The Thames today on my walk back home by London Bridge thinking something was going to jump out. Walking through parks at night and forests in the daytime imagining all kinds of other life.
I’ve released three / four Halloween records, have written “gothic” poetry ever since I was in my early teens scribbling it into exercise books (rhyming “life” with “knife” and all sorts of predictable teenage stuff. It got slightly better as the years went on).
I’m still in a bit of a creative pause, mostly due to running a business taking up most of my time and brain so I won’t be putting anything out today as I used to regularly. I have just come back from a music theory class I’m taking every Wednesday and have been practising piano a lot this year, so music will come. Just not yet. Stories also, I had two good ideas for Halloween story releases, but didn’t get round to them. They’ll come out eventually.
So instead I thought I’d share some art, music, films and stories by others that I can link to Halloween. I was just going to do a thread list on Twitter but will ramble through it for you here instead. I hope you discover something you like. If you know of anything you think I might like, please please please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though Halloween is often the focus of horror and violence, especially in cinema, I prefer the, awful as the word may seem, spooky, romantic and mysterious bits. The “not quite sure what it was” moments. The sudden shock of a zombie on the train and then realising it’s a party-goer because that’s the season. The darkness and beautiful sadness of an Edvard Munch painting that he claims isn’t about vampires but has to be. The drama and romance of Total Eclipse of the Heart (which is about vampires) and Jim Steinman’s musical adaptation (only in German for some reason) of the brilliant Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers. Gothic tragedy The Bride by Bat For Lashes is one of the best concept albums ever and I’d write about it here at length if I wasn’t already preparing a long essay on it that I’ll try to finally write up this year.
I’m not even sure I enjoy getting scared that much. But there are a few actually frightening ones I’ll mention before I get to the spooky inverted-life-reflecting fun stuff I love the most.
The Last Broadcast (1998 film) is often linked to The Blair Witch Project as it’s found footage documentary based and came out at the same time. I love both but didn’t find The Blair Witch Project scary though I loved it, probably more, especially the exchange about how filming something makes it feel “not quite the way it is”. It’s one of my favourite films, but The Last Broadcast? The Last Broadcast really terrified me. No idea if it would a second time but when I first caught it on TV it made quite an impact. As did the famous Ghostwatch BBC “documentary” which I have to get the DVD of to rewatch and which could prompt another long essay but there’s been a lot written about it (deservedly).
There’s also Häxan a 1922 Swedish-Danish film about witches that is billed as a horror but is actually basically a superb and way-ahead-of-its feminist documentary on mental health and violence against women. It’s long and silent but one of the greatest films of all time (I got it from a list of greatest films of all time as it often appears on them). It’s freely available with various soundtracks.
Side note while on witches (though not scary at all obviously) should probably mention Sabrina the Teenage Witch (haven’t got to the new one yet). Always found it funny how all the episodes basically revolve around her being better off not using magic. But there are many gems. Probably should mention my childhood love of Are You Afraid of the Dark? which also got my heart started on a lot of the themes here.
Scary music doesn’t seem like it’ll be a thing until you hear Frankie Teardrop by Suicide. That scared me so much when I first heard it I almost turned the CD player off but instead stared at it hoping it would finish soon. Nick Hornby wrote about it saying he never needs to hear it again. It’s truly horrible, one of the greatest statements of recorded music but, like many other people, I usually skip it when I play the (masterpiece even without it) album.
I remember reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black after seeing the superb play (one of the best, most creative adaptations of a book ever) on a school trip, convincing myself that books can’t be scary beforehand. I was obviously wrong. It’s a beautiful tribute to gothic horror fiction from a hundred years earlier and well worth reading. I’ve been cursed with a ludicrously detailed memory but even I’m surprised that I can completely picture my surroundings in my bedroom when I first read it and how it made me feel. Haven’t seen any of the film versions but am intrigued as it’s such a good story.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is another and proof that an ending can be terrifying even if you know it before you get there. You can’t spoil how good the last few pages of it are for anyone by revealing it. It’s the art of creative horror writing at an absolute peak.
When discussing written ghost stories, M.R James comes up a lot, with good reason. You can’t do much better and he pretty much defined the form. Like much of the old stuff I’ll mention they’re all public domain so head over to https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Montague_Rhodes_James and read some, or pick up a cheap paperback version like I have. My favourite thing about them, and this happens in a lot of the stories, is the fear that he gets out of the sensation that, although the protagonist survived, a few pages back they were in HUGE danger. Those scratches meant something, they just didn’t know it at the time. This psychological scarring is so much better storytelling than killing characters off (one of my favourite things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was how Joss Whedon did this). I watched a very well regarded recent horror film yesterday at a workplace screening and though it was good and a clever concept, a death I saw as pointless damaged it a bit for me.
There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff that seems to come up and one of my probably top five favourite books is Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (funnily enough the killer plants aren’t the scary thing here). It was adapted superbly (as creatively as The Woman in Black play) by Alex Garland in 28 Days Later. Shame he didn’t put a co-writing credit in. I was going to adapt it into a computer adventure game but will probably write my own story for that game now. Regardless, it’s going to get a big credit at the front. While on games, I should mention Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, one of the greatest story-driven games and home to a brilliantly scary haunted house scene where you can’t really get hurt but that doesn’t make it less scary.
There’s a wonderful little book I read many years ago called Women and Ghosts by Alison Lurie that has lots of good short stories in it. One genuinely uneasy-feeling ghost story about a child (I think at Halloween) and one of my favourite stories, about a piece of killer furniture seeking revenge that’s the type of thing I wish I could have written (and often try to in my own short stories).
In the same territory as M.R James, though probably more gothic than ghostly, is Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Edgar Allan Poe (who should also be here if I had more time to read him) was inspired by him it seems. You’ll know Bulwer-Lytton for “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “it was a dark and stormy night”. He was a huge celebrity, but seems to have been forgotten nowadays (there is a joke bad-metaphor literary prize named after him at least). He lived a pretty fascinating, event and scandal-filled life and I thoroughly recommend going down to Knebworth House to see his crystal ball and read about him. I bought a book of his gothic fiction there (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Haunted-Haunters-other-gothic-tales/dp/0953711625) and the first story (which I can’t seem to find anywhere online and I can’t find my book for the title) is one of the most over the top dark and ridiculous things I’ve ever read. I’ll update this when I find it.
Never really dived into Lovecraft enough though probably should.
On the more funny side is early 20th Century writer Saki whose short stories are hilarious and occasionally dabble in the supernatural. Monster story Gabriel-Ernest is a masterpiece of short story writing (http://www.online-literature.com/hh-munro/1821/). I stumbled across him through a blue plaque in London and am so happy I did. You’ll love him.
The original House on Haunted Hill starring Vincent Price has one jump-scare but the rest is funny and great Halloween watching. While on Vincent Price, I recently watched one of Tim Burton’s first short films (1982 stop motion), Vincent, a tribute to and starring Price. Tim Burton is pretty much the Patron Saint of Halloween to lots of people and watching this made me remember why I and others have loved him. There’s a very badly recorded version on YouTube but watch it somewhere. I’m glad Disney funded it before sacking him for scaring kids too much.
Back to music and tied hugely to the over the top monsters, strange things and spooky stuff is the most perfectly suitable Halloween listening: Bob Drake. Since I discovered 13 Songs and a Thing, and The Skull Mailbox (and other horrors) he’s been one of my biggest heroes and influences (not sure if it’s just that we love the same material or he’s influenced all my horror songs, if you like my horror songs, you’ll like him.) He should be one of the biggest cult acts around. He’s not on streaming services and his Bandcamp page (https://bobdrake.bandcamp.com/music) doesn’t have the best songs picked for free samples but the two albums just mentioned and The Shunned Country are hugely worth buying. Even just reading the lyrics as micro-fiction without the brilliant music. It’s funny, clever and you can even dance to some of it.
I haven’t listened to them in years, but I used to love “Witch House” stuff like Salem when it came out. Particularly driving around at night listening to it. Not sure if it’ll have aged at all well. The original Suspiria soundtrack by Goblin (and the whole film’s colours especially) are well worth checking out. Haven’t heard Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for the new one yet but the Goblin soundtrack is one of the most suitable and well-used film soundtracks I know of.
Which leads me to the whole reason I wrote this blog post and the main thing I wanted to share before I got distracted and thought I’d write about other things. My absolute favourite music video. It’s a Dusty Springfield cover by She & Him, the band of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward. Directed by famed video production group CANADA. You wouldn’t think it was a Halloween related song but the video is the most magical of all ghost films. It shows how ghost stories don’t have to be scary and how powerful the concept of ghosts is. Or maybe I’m just overanalysing it. It’s a wonderful music video.
OK, one more distraction…
… a penultimate one from The Onion. In an age when terrible satire and f… n… sites are everywhere, Clickhole and The Onion have remained spectacular. Especially when they turn to horror (which Clickhole especially does very often), I love them more than almost any other publication on the web. Here’s one of my favourites. Then Zooey, M. Ward and ghost.
Happy Halloween eveyone.