I love it when writers whose work I have enjoyed chip in with a guest post. Today, John McNee, author of ‘Prince of Nightmares’ (Blood Bound Books) which I reviewed here talks about Shaun Hutson and crap horror, in general, highlighting the value it provided him as an aspiring writer. John is the author of the before-mentioned ‘Prince of Nightmares’ as well as ‘Grudge Punk’ and ‘Petroleum Precinct: Grudge Punk 2’.
Before we progress with this great piece, please listen to this snippet from ‘Prince of Nightmares’, read by John McNee by clicking the link below. This book is great nightmare fuel and should be on everybody’s Halloween reading list! Thanks heaps to John for contributing this great article.
INHERITANCE, HUTSON, HUNGER AND THE VALUE OF CRAP HORROR
As writers, as readers, as human beings, as a society, we perpetually underestimate the importance of crap horror. I don’t mean so-bad-it’s-good entertainments like ‘Troll 2’ that manage to endear through their own ineptitude and provide a few laughs along the way. That stuff works, just not the way it’s supposed to. I’m talking about the stuff that doesn’t work. The books, films and TV shows that are just a bit shit. The kind of stuff that’s neither good enough nor bad enough to be treasured by anyone. But it can still be worth something.
Ask an author or film-maker in the horror community about their influences and you’re going to see a lot of the same names and titles listed (especially around this time of year). There are authors and film-makers we aspire towards. There are works we long to equal. But inspiration doesn’t work so logically and to pretend it’s only great books and great films that get the our creative juices flowing is totally false. The artists of the world owe a debt of gratitude to a lot more trash than they’re letting on.
To give an example that I know will outrage some people…
As a kid, I used to read a fair bit of Shaun Hutson, not because his books were good, but because I thought they were crap. Novels like ‘Captives’ and ‘Breeding Ground’ had more than enough sex and violence to keep an adolescent mind interested, but even that didn’t make up for the woeful plots, cardboard characters and dreadful dialogue, in my eyes. Yet the local charity shop was full of his books every time I walked in. I thought they were embarrassingly bad, but I couldn’t deny that Hutson was a hugely successful author. And to a young kid who aspired towards a career in writing fiction, this was tremendously encouraging. “If someone as shit as this can not only be published, but amass a huge fan base,” I thought, “Then there is hope for me.”
I didn’t get that same sense of hope from reading Clive Barker or Ray Bradbury or Kathe Koja. These were geniuses, working at a level that I could never aspire to. Reading them was a privilege but a pain, because when I compared their writing to mine all I wanted to do was give up.
When I read Hutson, the message I got was: “Oh relax, it ain’t so tough.”
And that, I found, really helped to lift the psychological pressure – a gift that shouldn’t be underestimated.
I’ve since developed a more genuine fondness for Hutson’s work (his remarkable enthusiasm and influence defies criticism) but back then it was his worst writing that gave me hope.
By way of another example, let me ask you a question: Did you notice how nobody ever seems to talk about the 1978 horror feature ‘The Legacy’? Did you notice that?
If people do talk about it, it’s usually only because it’s the film on which Hollywood couple Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott first hooked up. It might also ring a bell to fans of the film work of The Who’s Roger Daltry, who meets a particularly gruesome end via the combo of chicken bone and amateur tracheotomy.
But the film itself does not have much of a reputation. Among those who’ve seen it, it is not commonly regarded as a good horror film. Which it is not. Not really.
And I don’t know what age I was when I first saw it. Nine? Ten years old? Either way: It absolutely terrified me. It wasn’t the chicken bone scene that did it (not just that), or the death by drowning one character endures when she goes swimming in a pool that suddenly freezes over (though that left its mark) or the villainous nurse’s creepy habit of turning into a cat.
It was the clean room. To give you a quick run-down of the plot – almost all of the characters are distant relatives called to a mansion where the elderly owner is dying and looking to pass on his ‘legacy’. This is explained to the guests as they sit on one side of a glass wall, their would-be benefactor on the other side, in a hospital bed hidden by white curtains, whispering instructions in a voice so distorted it barely sounds human.
Late in the film, Katharine Ross finally breaks into the clean room and approaches the bed. In a scene scored only by the hidden patient’s raspy breaths she reaches out a hand to pull back the curtain and finally expose his face…
…and I turned off the television. I went up to bed. And I didn’t sleep.
To this day, I’ve never seen the end of the film or what lay in that bed, rasping in that clean room. But when I think about it, I can still taste that same feeling of dread. It’s the kind of sensation a horror fan craves. It’s what we search high and low for. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of horror movies and less than a handful can claim to have shaken me up so badly.
And the film isn’t even very good! Try watching it now, in the cold light of adulthood, even a trailer, and you can easily recognise it for the hokum that it is. But it got me. Right place, right time. It scared the hell out of me.
Which is a lot more than can be said for all-but-forgotten late-90’s TV series ‘The Hunger’ (we’re onto my final example now). A production that utilised the sexy horror branding of 1983 Tony Scott film, but none of the characters, ‘The Hunger’ was an erotic horror anthology series that ran for two seasons between 1997 and 2000.
I first saw it 10 years ago when it made its debut on DVD. I wouldn’t say I had high hopes, but I was desperate for something. This was 2006, remember, in a time when horror was effectively absent from TV screens. ‘The X-Files’, ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’ were over and our current glut of horror shows was many years away from getting started.
I needed something. I’d never heard of ‘The Hunger’ and decided to give it a go. With talent like Tony Scott behind the camera and actors like Terrence Stamp, Balthazar Getty, Jamie Foreman, Timothy Spall, Lena Headey, Karen Black and Daniel Craig in front of it (and that’s just the first two episodes) you’d think people would talk about ‘The Hunger’ more, but they don’t.
And, truth be told, they shouldn’t. It is (bringing us back to the theme of this article) a bit crap. Light on scares (and very light on sex) it quickly devolved from a half-decent first episode (‘The Swords’) into a ‘Red Diaries’ knock-off with less nudity and bucket-loads more pretension.
But was it worthless? No. Far from it. I have ‘The Hunger’ to thank for three things.
1. Terrence Stamp as The Host, playing a variation on the Crypt Keeper, delivering nonsensical monologues about love and greed while wandering around a decrepit mansion (replaced by David Bowie in season two, their introductions were always the best part of the episode).
2. ‘The Swords’ introduced me to The Tiger Lillies, a great band which in turn got me into the musical genre of dark cabaret – half the score to my writing life.
3. It inspired me to create a horror anthology series of my own.
That’s right. So frustrated was I by the generally underwhelming nature of ‘The Hunger’ and the fact there was literally NO other horror on television I decided that it was up to me, a student with far too much time on his hands, to create a new horror anthology series, write all the scripts and pitch it to some television executives.
You’ll be surprised to learn that the idea never quite got off the ground. I never pitched to anyone. The furthest I got was coming up with a list of episode titles. The stories didn’t matter, I thought. Not at that point. But a solid list of evocative titles was a good start and would give me something to build from. While my energy was up and the creative juices were flowing, I got to work. Over the course of one evening back in 2006, I made a list.
And though the show I planned never made it to development, script or even pitch stage, I’ve held on to the list of titles. I’ve kept them with me through the years. Some of them have even become stories. One, ‘Slaughterhouse Sweetheart’, was published in ‘Sex and Murder Magazine’ and reprinted in ‘Gospels of Blood, Psalms of Despair’. Another, ‘The Lullaby Man’, was eventually printed in the Blood Bound Books anthology ‘Blood Rites’.
One was ‘Prince of Nightmares’.
Visit John McNee at his website.
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