It was Edgar Allan Poe who started me writing horror stories. A motherly lady in Croydon library gave me a copy of Tales Of Mystery And Imagination when I was nine years old and I loved every word of it.
What could have appealed to a boy of that age more than fiery dwarves and homicidal gorillas and collapsing castles and people being bricked up in walls? I had read Frankenstein, yes, but I had found that sad rather than frightening. I had yet to read Dracula, which I found entertaining when I got round to it, but the sting was always taken out of Dracula for me by the absurdity of a grown man deriving sufficient sustenance from the carotid artery of a quivering young maiden, not to mention the mess it must have made of her pillows.
Poe’s great talent was that his stories were absurd but so unusual that they suspended your disbelief, and they created an atmosphere of dread that made you forget about your everyday problems. When I started to write my own short horror stories I always tried to think up a terror so unexpected that my readers would be completely taken out of themselves.
I wrote a story about an abusive husband who eventually dismembered his wife and used her body parts to decorate the outside of his house. That story won me the school magazine prize. I wrote a story about a man who would kill you in the same way that your loved one had prematurely died, so that you could understand their suffering, for a fee. I wrote another story about a boy who burrowed under his bedclothes to pretend that he was a miner, but found himself being pursued by a monster that he found in the suffocating world beneath his blankets.
My first horror novel, The Manitou, was about a Native American medicine man who killed himself three hundred years ago so that he could be reborn in the modern era to take his revenge on the white colonists when they least expected it. It was a considerable success, selling half a million copies in six months and being adapted as a movie with Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg playing the lead roles.
There were several reasons why this seemingly ridiculous idea found such an appreciative audience. It was totally different from any other horror novel that had been written before. It didn’t deal with vampires or werewolves or zombies. It also dealt with the underlying guilt that many Americans felt about the way in which they had driven the Native Americans off their lands and slaughtered them in such large numbers.
It found an enthusiastic audience among Native Americans, too. Sitting Bull’s grand-daughter took us to lunch at the Russian Tea Room in New York in appreciation, and gave me a framed portrait of her grandfather with the caption ‘I shall see buffalo no more.’
I continued to search for extraordinary demons and frightening monsters, and I found that the world’s mythologies were crammed with more scary manifestations than you could shake a crucifix at. In Japan they have tengus and kappas, and I used them to write Tengu, which was about a demon looking to punish the United States for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In Bali they have leyaks, which are vampiric creatures who were once corrupt human beings, but who now fly around at night as detached heads, with their entrails dangling from their necks, looking to suck the blood of unborn babies.
The point about all of these demonic creatures is that they were created specifically to describe a particular terror that people harboured in the days before most of our fears were explained by science. Before viruses were isolated, many people still believed that plagues were caused by devils or witches breathing on us as we slept, and although the existence of viruses was postulated in 1881, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until 1931 and the invention of the electron microscope that we could actually see them.
So many other demons were invented to explain tragic events, like cot death and cattle fever and floods and heart attacks and sudden bouts of madness. Unexpected death was explained in Ireland by the appearance of the Dullahan, who drove a black carriage drawn by six black horses which he whipped with a human spine. Drownings were blamed on the kelpie, the seductive mermaids who pulled unsuspecting fishermen into the water.
Personally, I believe that many seemingly ghostly occurrences that we experience today can also be explained scientifically, but we have not yet got around to understanding them. I have a theory that walls can absorb dramatic human crises, like murders or relentless abuse, and that when we feel an atmosphere of dread in a house that we visit, the rooms are simply replaying what has happened in there. I visited a castle called Zamek Gorka in Poland, part of which used to be a 14th-century monastery, and I swear that when I pressed my hand flat against the stone wall, I could hear a monastic choir faintly singing.
Horror stories are finding a very eager market these days, and I am sure that is because of the variety of fears that readers are feeling because of the coronavirus pandemic. They have heard all of the latest information about Covid-19 and its variants on the TV news, but they are looking for stories which go beyond facts and understand their underlying dread and their uncertainty about the future. They want to be reassured that the demons in this world can be conquered if you have enough strength and you have enough belief in yourself.
For instance, my new horror novel The Children God Forgot deals with the difficult and stressful subject of miscarriage and abortion, but also brings in witchcraft to explain how to deal with it.
To horror writers, I would say look for the most unusual threats you can find, and particularly those threats which are manifestations of all the concerns that people are feeling these days, such as poverty and illness and death of a loved one. To horror readers, I am only too ready to assure you that, in my writing anyway, the worst is yet to come!