Relationships in horror

Horror might seem an unlikely source of touching, memorable romantic relationships but it ceartinly is.

Critics who deride the romantic relationships in horror are generally working off assumptions and stereotypes. Working on this blog, I realised there are far, far more examples of relationships done well in horror than done badly.

I think the worst offender for shallow, pointless romances are action movies and novels, not horror. Usually there is little chemistry between the characters, no reason for them to end up together and no depth at all. That is awful, unbearable to watch or read, but doesn’t seem to attract the same ire.

Let’s consider what does and doesn’t work when it comes to couples in horror.

Relationships done well in horror

Relationships are well done if they serve an important point in the plot, are believable and make you care about the characters. A nameless victim being chased through the forest by a machete wielding maniac can be exciting in an adrenaline filled sort of way. However, if you care about the character, the scene becomes more filled with dread. You know her boyfriend is desperately trying to get to her in time but he might not make it. Also, most of us have someone in our life we care about, so you can’t help but project them into the situation. Now that’s real horror!

A good, well written relationship is different from a good relationship as in a positive one.

Even if the relationship is toxic and destructive, as long as it makes you care and pulls you in, great. It would be rather dull if every relationship was a sickly sweet union of loving partners.

Examples

Wendy and Jack Torrance in The Shinning: Their dysfunctional relationship both in terms of Wendy fearing that she is becoming like her mother, her jealously over Danny and Jack’s relationship,  Jack’s alcoholism. It is a messed up relationship but crucial to the plot.

The Fly: Seth Brundle and Veronica had an interesting relationship, loving and caring at the start but it rapidly falls apart as he becomes the fly. We care about the relationships which makes the end when he becomes a full monster and kidnaps her all the more horrifying.

Crimson Peak: The romantic relationship is at the heart of this film, it is not tacked on, and the shift from charming to sinister is handled very well.

Warm bodies: The romance isn’t incidental, it is vital, helping the undead rediscover their humanity.

I could go on and on, these are just the ones I remembered sitting here on a Sunday morning.

Relationships done badly

If you look at the bargain basement of horror movies, there are plenty of relationships that really serve no purpose. Think of the Friday the 13th series, I have watched the entire series more than once and there was not a single memorable relationship in the entire franchise.

Lazy writers also see relationships as a cheap way to make us care.

“You need to be worried about her, she has a husband”

Not really. You have to earn that, making one of your characters care about the other does not mean the audience will.

If the relationship doesn’t matter at all, perhaps don’t include it. The Thing is about a bunch of guys in an Antarctic research station. No romantic relationships because it wouldn’t work and wasn’t necessary.

 

There are other relationships horror does equally well, parent and child, best friends, and I will be discussing those in the future.

Edinburgh, horror and fond memories

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Edinburgh and I think I always will. I was actually born on the West Coast of Scotland in a pretty small down, Edinburgh was the first city I ever lived in, moving here after I had finished university.

There are so many fond memories, some of the biggest decisions in my entire life happened in this city. Starting my career in banking, proposing to my then girlfriend and soon to be wife outside the Scottish Parliament where she worked at the time. Meeting some great friends. Experiencing the New Year’s street party, Hogmanay. When it comes to Hogmanay, one of the things I remember with crystal clarity is handing a fiver over for a tiny bag of chips and getting back some coppers in change! Ooft pricey. Still, good fun.

Our favourite restaurants can take us round the world. Omar Khayam (Indian), near Haymarket is superb. Writing this right now, my mouth is watering about the idea of going there, damn. Chicken pakora to start, madras as the main with garlic bread, two bottles of wine without fail. On Dalry Road is Mia, the restaurant we went to our first night living in the city and where we went to after I proposed. The family run Italian is worth a look in whenever you are in Edinburgh.

We both clicked with the city and never looked back. If she had been unhappy or I had been unhappy, we wouldn’t have stayed but we found our home.

Despite all my fond memories of the city though, Edinburgh is an amazing setting for horror. Given that I write horror, I couldn’t ask for better surroundings.

Looming over the entire city is the colossal Edinburgh Castle. Normally it is packed with tourists but at night it has a gothic, ominous look to it. You can imagine during all the strife in Scottish history, like when the Jacobites tried to take the city, soldiers trying to attack that fortress and dying in droves. It is hard to get writers block for horror with that castle casting a shadow over you.

There is the undercity, that walled off area that has some of the most popular ghost tours in the world through it. Dark, unnerving, even the name sounds like it is out of a Lovecraft story, the undercity, or the under vaults. No doubt some nameless evil slumbers below.

Moving away from the buildings to the people, infamous serial killers Burke and Hare stalked the city, murdering anyone out late and night and even worse selling their bodies to the medical school at Edinburgh University. I’ve walked down the old cobbled streets where their victims would have met their end and you can imagine it so clearly having seen it.

I was living in Edinburgh when I started writing and I owe the city a lot for giving me ample inspiration.

In a few months I am moving to London, an even bigger city which will pose new challenges, both professionally and personally. I’m excited but I will always remember Edinburgh.

Onward and upward.

 

Cults as a horror trope

When I was younger, one of the books I got was “The Most Evil Men and Women in the World”

I always remember it, blue cover, photos of a few infamous dictators on the front, also a guy I didn’t recognise. He was a grim looking figure, hands held up high and wearing black sunglasses. I knew my history, it was the only subject apart from English I was any good at, so I was surprised to have not the faintest idea of who he was. Even more than the goose-stepping Hitler or snarling Stalin, it was an unnerving picture.

As I read the book, I came to him, and found out he was the Reverend Jim Jones.

The name meant nothing to me, so I read on.

This deranged Reverend got his followers to sell all their possessions and move with him to a compound in South America. Here, he ruled over them as a petty tyrant, having brutal punishments for anyone who doubted him. When the US government investigated, as stories leaked of torture and people being held captive, he murdered the investigators then had his flock commit mass suicide. Anyone too scared or not wanting to was executed.

Insane, he more than deserved his place in that book.

Cults are common place in horror films, they are almost a trope at this point. Generally, it is not the monstrous gods that unnerve us, but the all too human cultists. The reason I think is when we see the face of a wide eyed cultist, in flowing black robes, dagger in hand and shouting out prayers to the dark powers, we see someone who has abandoned reason.

The loss of reasoning via Alzheimer’s or dementia is the stuff of nightmares as it is but to see a person almost voluntarily abandon it, allowing a belief system to override everything else, is even worse.

If you look at all the rioters at the G20, with their black masks and promise of violence, it is unnerving to most of us who are peaceful. When you hear about those anti-fascist people assaulting anyone they deem not sufficiently in line with their own ideals, it can be frightening. When the news reports the latest horrors perpetrated by ISIS in its death throes, we can’t believe people would do that. Westboro Church members crashing soldiers’ funerals to tell their family members that their sons and daughters are in hell, right to their face, boggles the mind. The state cult in North Korea which has successfully cut its citizens off from the rest of the world can baffle most of us living in the west.

Extreme views scare us, I do believe at heart most people are rational and reasonable. They can change their mind on issues, vote for different parties at different times, be persuaded if the arguments are good enough.

Horror wants to tap into our fears and the deranged fanatic, regardless of what it is they serve, still scares us and I think, they always will.

Short Story: Tired

My new book The Vermin Anthology will be out soon, a collection of horror short stories with one central theme, spiders, insects, bugs, rats and other vermin!

Here is the first story, enjoy.

 

Tired

A crushing pressure on her chest.

The life leaving her, on the cusp of passing into oblivion.

Something alien against her, growing fat, warm slime against her skin.

Then it stops.

The dark shape moves away from her.

 

Mary woke up in a cold sweat, breathing heavily, running a trembling pale hand over her brow. The pale green glowing digits of the alarm clock let her know she would have to start getting up soon.

She had forgot what rested felt like, it was like this every other night. She turned in her clammy sheets to see Mathew next to her. Mary knew that she looked like a corpse clinging to a healthy man.

When she had a terrible night, he looked fine. Vice versa, when he woke up feeling like shit, she was actually not bad. It was as if they had divided their horrendous sleeps into shifts. They had always said their relationship was a partnership but this wasn’t exactly what she intended.

He seemed to know she was looking at him and his eyes fluttered open.

“You okay?” he asked.

She tried to smile as best she could.  Her smile was at odds with the bags under her eyes.

If they spent their nights smacking back coke in a blur of self-serving hedonism, that would be okay and explain how exhausted they looked, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, they were a fairly dull couple according to most their friends. They didn’t consider themselves unadventurous, rather they could enjoy the little joys in life, they didn’t need to be hitting clubs or travelling to the other side of the world.

Instead their energies that others used for partying or holidays were directed solely at their careers.

Mary was slowly but surely working her way up through the vast bureaucracy that was Edinburgh City Council, a competitive and demanding position for a young woman only in her twenties. Ensuring meetings were held and the business of the city continued despite the colossal egos of the elected councillors and friction between different parties was never easy.

Mathew, a bit older and hitting thirty, was a manager on Scotrail’s most important line, the Edinburgh Glasgow connection. That invaluable link, that allowed workers in either city to commute to the other. It served as a lifeline between the entrepreneurial, exciting, trade union and night life city of Glasgow and the capital, with law firms, banks, the Parliament, a little London almost. The constant flow between the two opposing cities was vital and Matthew, who had started his job walking up and down trains checking tickets, was now a senior administrator.

Mary had been so proud of him the day he was promoted, she still remembered that, back when a simple night’s sleep hadn’t been a luxury.

They worked hard, harder than most, drank on occasion, enjoyed long walks around town but apart from that were a typical, upwardly mobile Edinburgh couple.

“I don’t feel too bad,” she lied, moving her hand to hold his as they lay in bed together. There was nothing else to be said, they both felt so tired but couldn’t work out why. She rubbed her chest, soaked in sweat, aching almost.

It was like shift work, he felt genuinely okay today but tomorrow he would be awful. Matthew hated seeing Mary like this, ill, pale but they had tried everything. This all happened a few months ago when they had moved into their new flat so that had assumed it was a problem with the property. Gas leaks? Nope. Asbestos poisoning maybe? Nope.

If it wasn’t external, it had to be internal they concluded.

Did they have the flu or a disease? Nope. Maybe this was diabetes, he had heard feeling sluggish was part of that? Nope. He was afraid to ask, but was it cancer? Not at all, also the odds of two separate people developing cancer at almost the exact same time unless they lived in a nuclear power plant seemed very unlikely.

“You both need to be less stressed, eat more fruit and get more exercise.”

Two disinterested doctors had said that, gave them a pat on the back and sent them off. Months had passed with no improvement, eating an inhuman amount of fruit didn’t seem to matter.

Mary dragged herself out of bed, joints aching, head pounding and got dressed, putting her black hair in a ponytail and swiftly putting her suit on. When she looked in the mirror though, she didn’t see a confident woman who liaised with some of the most influential figures in local government. Instead there was an exhausted looking figure, barely able to stand in her suits.

She leaned in and kissed Matthew, “see you tonight.”

He started later but worked later as well, not coming home until after the five to six rush hour was over.

“Love you babe,” he called after her as she left.

She managed a smile to herself despite the exhaustion.

***

At the meeting, Mary sat behind the councillors, watching the proceedings.

The room itself was overly grandiose for the dreary work ahead of them, an oversized, executive style desk, an actual suit of armour in a glass case next to it. The table had the crest of the city printed on it, the ominous black castle with the three red flags, although usually it was buried under the mounds of notes and folders the councillors brought with them.

It was a top down philosophy that ruled the council, the men and women around the table thought they kept the city ticking over and prosperous rather than the citizens within. That had always bristled Mary but she knew there were a handful of decent councillors who really wanted to help.

She found herself particularly unsympathetic to the crowd today but was aware that was probably more to do with her own fatigue than anything else.

Why do I feel like this? she thought to herself.

There had been initial relief it wasn’t that the flat was poisoning them or that they had some terrible disease. Part of her become especially worried that she might be pregnant but then that wouldn’t explain why Matthew was so ill. She had nothing against kids but they weren’t for her right now, not by a long shot.

The two doctors they had seen insisted it was most likely stress but she couldn’t believe that. It wasn’t that her job was a piece of cake, it could be hellish, so could Matthew’s, but recently her work had been better. With the local election in full swing, it was a comparatively quiet for the council workers, a period of calm for about two to three weeks before the bedlam of new councillors starting- then it would be horrendous. Until that dark day though most councillors were far more interested in getting elected than trying to make a dent in their workload. After all, if they lost, it would be someone else’s problem. If the councillors weren’t going to break their backs over this stuff, then the workers ceartinly weren’t going to.

Mary agreed, there was no point starting much until the election had concluded. Unfortunately, keeping an eye on this meeting was unavoidable, Mary had drawn the short straw on this one.

One of the councillors was droning on and on about a cracked kerb in some street that was apparently an eyesore to tourists, how this was an emergency more dire than Brexit or Indyref2. His misplaced passion was a sight to behold. Maybe he had been told that this street was critical to him getting re-elected and was pouring all his effort into it? She couldn’t think of any other explanation why a kerb was keeping this man up at night.

Her eyes were physically aching, she pretended to read her paper while propping her head up with one hand.

Her blinks were getting longer and slower. She was pretty sure she could feel drool pooling in her mouth.

“…the cracked kerb poses not only a threat to the disabled, like Mrs Adler in her wheelchair on nine, but even to able bodied…”

I need to rest my eyes.

Just one second.

One second.  

BANG.

She was dazed, panicked, every head in the room turned to look at her.

She had fell asleep, her head had slipped and she had faceplanted the desk, sending her glass of water rolling off and all the notes crashing to the ground.

A few of the men stood up to come over and help her but they were intercepted by another figure, who was quickly apologising.

She would know that brown suit and ugly purple shirt anywhere.

Mr Mack.

“So sorry ladies and gentlemen, please continue with your meeting.”

He put an oversized hand on her shoulder and guided her out the meeting room and into his office in a few bounds.

Mr Mack was a bloated old man who vowed to retire every year but couldn’t seem to part with the pay cheque. The pictures that were plastered over his office testified to a lifetime spent in the service of the city, which was admirable. On the other hand, refusing to stand down and allow others a shot at his job which he could barely perform anymore was less admirable.

He crossed his arms, proof he was serious. Or at least that he wanted to be taken seriously. She could almost smell the brylcreem and old spice from across the room.

“I know when councillors get going, it can be tedious,” he said, “but that was outright unprofessional Mary.”

Mary was bracing herself for the worst, he wasn’t going to make this easy.

Mack hated her, she knew it, and he was always looking for a reason to make her day a little worse. She was too tired to pretend there was anything bordering respect between them and simply glowered at him.

It could all be traced back to the office party two years ago. She was hammered, no two ways about it, and her deferential façade she kept on around Mack was nowhere to be found. Mack voiced his opinion that it would hopefully be a strong return for the SNP. Any other idea, she would smile and nod her head in agreement but not with all the liquid courage in her veins. She pointed out after the threat of Indyref2, she was more than happy to be voting conservative to give “those fucking arrogant nationalists a kick.”

Ooft, the whole night was a blur almost but she remembered Mack slamming his fist on the table and walking off, he refused to talk to her for the rest of the night. Bridges burned.

Matthew had laughed at the story and shrugged, “he was the one who started it though, he went around telling everyone how the election was going to pan out. Don’t blast your opinion everywhere if you can’t handle hearing other peoples.”

“Matthew, he won’t let this go.”

“Guy is ancient, he will probably retire or be dead in a year or two.”

That had made her chuckle.

As bureaucrats, political opinions were usually the most closely guarded secret you had. You were meant to be neutral in your work and if word got around you had blatant sympathies, all your work was suspicious. Sexuality, religion, your hobbies, that was all fine but your political allegiances had to be kept under lock and key. Despite that fact the whole team was on the frontlines of civic government, she didn’t know how any of them had voted. All of them, apart from Mack. Maybe it was because he was near the end of his career but he voiced his political views at every opportunity.

Mack huffed and puffed, more annoyed by her refusal to be intimated than what had happened in the meeting. Her patience was zero, she had no desire to humour this old fool.

“Take tomorrow off, gather yourself, and be back the next day with a better attitude.

“Oh,” she said, genuinely surprised by the act of kindness, “I’ll head off than. Thanks.”

“It’s okay,” he said, still shaking his head.

“It’s unpaid leave by the way,” he said, peering over his glasses.

Of course.

***

Tonight would be her good night’s sleep and Matthew would have the hellish night.

Given that she had the next day off though, maybe it would be different. She hadn’t had a day off since they had moved into the flat, maybe that would help reset the equilibrium. Still, she couldn’t believe this was all stress and a psychosomatic illness.

They had dinner together, gave each other a reason to laugh, trying their best to ignore the physical issues that pained them so much. They ate a healthy dinner of whole wheat pasta, extra healthy sauce, not that it seemed to make any difference but they pretended it would.

Soon enough they were in bed together. It was going to be Matthew’s rough night and her respite. He knew it as well, she could tell from the grim expression on his face as he closed his eyes.

Hours passed but Mary lay awake, the recent humiliation still on her mind helped with that.

She lay in bed but stubbornly refused to give in to her exhaustion. She could feel the sleep trying to ensnare her but would squeeze her hand or pinch herself to stay awake. She had a purpose tonight.

Mary watched Matthew sleep, intently, waiting, anticipating if she could see the switch from healthy, smiling Mathew to the exhausted corpse she would wake up with.

He seemed totally fine, in a deep slumber, breathing rhythmically.

Like her, he would wake up caked in sweat and gasping for breath but there was no sign of that now. He seemed like he was in the midst of a peaceful night’s sleep.

She heard a sound from the closet, a squelching sound, like someone sucking on a sweet.

Laying perfectly still, she peered into the open cupboard, really more of a sliding mirror door attached to a hole in the wall. There was movement in it, amongst all the jackets and dresses hanging out.

A shape seemed to squelch from the small vent at the top and slither down to the carpet.

Mary couldn’t believe it.

The fat, worm like creature, the size of a dog, dragged itself across towards the bed, body pulsating with the effort it took to do that. It was glistening in a thick slime, smelling of sweet, rotten fruit.

Frozen in terror, she watched as it hoisted itself onto the bed. The creature was featureless, a long tube of red and black flesh, the tip of it was inches from Matthew’s leg. The leech like creature clamped its toothless mouth on his leg.

Before, Matthew had been enjoying a deep sleep but now he seemed to be put under, as if he was drugged. Head lolling and going completely limp.

Now the thing pushed itself on his chest, sitting atop her boyfriend.

The crushing pain in my chest.

Now it latched onto the side of his chest.

There was a dreadful sound as it gorged itself on him, gulping away, the blood passing into itself. After several agonizing minutes, it seemed to smear a slimy mucus over the puncture point, appearing to heal it almost instantly.

Well fed, the fat leach pulled itself off him and went back towards the cupboard, crawling up into the vent.

Mary was too afraid to scream until the next morning.

 

Why books and blogs are great (in my opinion…)

As movies, games, virtual reality become ever more impressive, I feel that the written word will always have a magic they can’t rival. Rather than leave that statement hanging there, I wanted to try and explain this. To clarify, I enjoy films, games and all that, this isn’t dumping on those forms of entertainment but rather drawing attention to a specific medium I get so much pleasure from.

The reason I love reading books and blogs is that one to one connection between the writer and the reader. Someone sat down, typed their thoughts and feelings, formed this into art which we can all enjoy.

The connection is far more direct than other forms of entertainment.

Films for example are collaborative efforts. The actors, writers, directors all bring their own unique contribution to the project. They are not the work of a single person, so while it is good to see the ideas smash off each other, each individual view is diluted.

Mainstream games are the same. The last few years have seen an explosion in indie gaming, it is possible for one person to sit and design a game but even that is collaborative as it is dependent on systems others have made like RPG maker or the like.

When someone writes a blog or novel, there is no team behind them, they are putting their thoughts in stories (fictional, true or whatever) out there, directly to you. There is no actor to explain the words, no director trying to create the scenes, 100% the person writing it and their vision.

I for one really enjoy reading the works of so many talented authors, that is why I read so many blogs and books, you really get a sense of a person through work that is totally their own.

We live in exciting times, big budget movies, new games consoles, virtual reality  but the written word will always have a place.