So it’s 1990 and I’m sitting in the back of a car in Castletown. My parents are in the bank, I later realize negotiating with the bank so they can continue to slowly dig their way out of debt and carry on with our more than slightly odd existence on the Isle of Man.
I am 14. The worst haircut I will ever have is still a couple of years in my future.
And I can’t stop turning the pages of the comic in front of me.
It’s one of several collections of mature comics material that, because the ‘90s were one of those decades where no one had ANY idea what they were doing, was sold through newsagents. Even 6’0 250 pound rugby player me who still has the squeaky helium vocal chords of a child and even I know that this probably isn’t something I should be reading.
It’s Grant Morrison’s work on Hellblazer. A story about a pagan ritual that gets cross-wired with the nuclear missiles that officially aren’t at the listening post up the road.
I know that listening post. We drive past it on the way to York when we go on holiday.
I scour every page, entranced and horrified by turns. I buy the next issue and the next. I get lucky, the story finishes before the reprint company’s money runs out.
The words ‘Ravenscar Mental Institute’ become part of my fictional vocabulary forever. I learn to give a shape to the nameless, amorphous fear of nuclear destruction that hung over the first part of my life.
I learn everyone else is scared too.
Later that same year, it happens again. Marvel publish Knights of Pendragon, an astonishingly bizarre ecological horror series that sort of stars Captain Britain. The lead character is an overweight, bad haired police inspector. I’m overweight, the bad hair’s coming in.
I kind of like him.
The horror is ancient, baked into the land like the dry stone walls that define my universe. Something ancient and angry is rampaging across the UK, and the UK is just over the sea. So close we can see it on clear days. It’s the land where I will finish my education, where I’ll move into my first home.
I learn that England is strange and beautiful and horrible. I learn the alien planet my tiny island moon orbits is full of good people, who aren’t all models, and who want to do the right thing in bad situations. I learn that ancient doesn’t mean irrelevant. I learn that ancient doesn’t mean safe.
It’s 1994 and I’m watching The Crow with a group of friends. One of us is waiting on his blood test results. He’s convinced the leukemia he’s had twice is back. He is, it turns out, right. It’s the last time we’ll see a movie together.
I don’t know that as I’m watching the movie. I’m caught up in the raw emotional honesty of the story, Brandon Lee’s astounding talents and how brutally unfair it is that he died so young. Later I’ll wonder if that’s why this film is so tied up in my memories of my friend.
I learn, sitting there halfway between the horror about what might happen and the trust that it won’t, to escape. I learn that I can lose myself in the film regardless of how awful its world is. I learn that by taking myself out of my head for two hours I can get a better handle on things when I’m back.
I learn, in the weeks before my life becomes uncontrollable due to imminent tragedy, imminent exams, imminent life changes, to steer it. I learn to hang on. I learn to endure.
It’s 1995 and I’m watching the credits for Se7en roll backwards down the screen. I’m distantly aware of the fact that I’ve just been rope-a-doped. I went in expecting the film the trailer promised me; ‘Detective William Somerset is looking for a way out. Detective David Mills is looking for a way IN.’ and I got a descent into the urban circles of Hell. I am disturbed, unsettled. Bluntly, frightened.
I want to see it again immediately.
To understand it. To defend myself from it. To track it’s trajectory as it screams around the corner from detective thriller into metafictional dissection of evil and religious allegory. I learn that this is exactly what I’m at University for. To understand and discuss texts like this. I learn that I can do this. I learn I’m good at it.
I learn that Somerset’s philosophy, that any problem can be understood, could save my life. It does.
It’s 2006 and I’m reading an email from Steve Eley. Sitting in a house whose back wall was so badly drained that it was perennially wet, hunched in front of a green imac plugged into a dialup connection, downloading the first episodes of Pseudopod. I can’t save them but I listen to them over and over, patiently waiting for the grey bar to fill.
I learn, as I read the email that I was right to do something I’ve never done before and that terrified me when I did it. I learn that sometimes when I stick my hand up and volunteer it’s for good reasons. I am qualified. I am good enough. I learn I have a LOT of work to do.
I learn that I need a microphone.
It’s 2014 and I’m watching The Voices. It’s a movie about a charming guy played by Ryan Reynolds who is quietly irrevocably and murderously insane. Other aspects of his personality are embodied in his good, kind dog and his murderous Scottish sociopath cat. Both voiced by Reynolds.
I am having an awful day in an awful week. Professional frustration on every front has crested and landed a series of problems in my lap that are not going to be solved by anything pleasant. I feel let down and angry, at myself far more than anyone else. I feel useless. I feel like a waste of space and time.
I sit in that theatre and let the tears the frustration is pushing up go. I HATE this. I HATE when I feel this way and I hate most of all how it used to feel; that awareness of this situation would only gain me a one way ticket on a downward spiral into crippling apathy and indecision.
I learn that the word ‘used’ wasn’t always part of that last thought. I learn that the terror of failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I learn that hoping for the best is only half the solution. The rest is rolling up your sleeves and dealing with what you’ve got, not what you’re telling yourself you’ve got.
I learn that taking a few bad hits isn’t the same as losing.
I learn I’m still in the fight.
I also learn Ryan Reynolds’ Scottish accent is better than mine.
It’s 2016 and I’ve finished Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw. It’s a focused, controlled blow of a novella about a PI who isn’t quite human, a world that’s more and so much less than it seems, Croydon and the simple, unfathomable horrors that we pass every day. Rage and invention jostle for position on every page with an immaculate phrase or a haunting image.
As I read, something crystallizes out in the complex, ambiguous grey areas the novella lives in. The foggy side of town where horror becomes crime, crime becomes horror and both become the truth. I learn about the fragile suits of armour that society and occupation give us and on occasion weld us into, unwilling bricks built into uneven walls.
I learn about the natural defences that we all have as children and what happens when those are taken away or worse, upgraded. I learn that it’s not an angel and a devil on our shoulders but control and release. Follow the polite lies and get stuff done or smash the door in and get stuff DONE.
I learn there’s no easy answers. I learn that sometimes that’s okay. Or at least, okay enough.
I learn that Cassandra needs to write more books.
So many lessons. So much time. And one final conclusion; horror teaches us. Where science fiction and fantasy are aspirational, horror is pragmatic. It’s the one that always knows where the door is. The one that’s seen the worst and the best of what could happen and is prepared for both.
Horror is an education. A suit of armour. Horror is the genre that teaches you that it’s okay to be scared and that you can push your boundaries if you want to. When you go too far, it shows you. When you don’t go far enough, it pushes you.
Horror terrifies. Horror teaches.
Welcome to Pseudopod Towers.
Welcome to Horror’s home.
The journey to episode 1000 starts here.