Baudelaire. I posted this quote on Twitter this morning in response to last night’s terrible violence in Paris.
In times of darkness, art reminds us that humans have always been capable of wonderful things, regardless of war, oppression, or sickness. Sometimes more so for the suffering, if you look at the poems and paintings of the early twentieth century. Art, like heroism, shows its colours more brightly when the world is bleak.
And art can bring people together in strange, synchronistic ways. Now there’s the Internet, people who might never encounter each other in the flesh can link up and enthuse together – something unimaginable just a few decades ago.
The 15th of November is #PRBday, when Pre-Raphaelite devotees raise the group’s profile, shine a light on their legacy, and welcome new friends into the online circle. I’ve met so many fabulous people thanks to these mid-Victorian “boys who couldn’t draw”, as Rossetti called himself and the other PR Brothers.
I was going to write something else today, but none of it seems appropriate. I think what I instinctively want to do is share some hopeful Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Joan of Arc
Edward Burne-Jones – Love Among The Ruins
Ford Madox Brown – The Last of England
Frank Cadogan Cowper – St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Found
William Holman Hunt – The Light of The World
Evelyn De Morgan – Field of The Slain
We’ve got art, and we can make more. We’ve got friends, and we can make more of those, too. There’s inspiration in that. There always has been. And where there’s inspiration, life prevails.
Two days until Halloween! Which means there’s still time to acquire some 100% natural dark circles around your eyes. Maybe she’s born with it; maybe she’s too scared to sleep. I’ve been meaning to do a book recommendation post for a while, so here are some scary stories to give your cheeks that desirable rosy glow. White roses. Dead ones.
Susan Hill is one of our finest living ghost story writers, and Dolly is the tale of what happens when children go bad. Brief enough to be read in one sitting, Dolly takes the old spooky doll trope and shakes it by the shoulders.
I love Peter Ackroyd. I love hulking London churches. And I love a nice occult murder conspiracy. Ackroyd has a way of presenting jump-scare moments so coolly, the reader is totally taken by surprise. He’s still one of the few horror-esque authors who can genuinely thrill me.
Photographs of abandoned Arctic whaling stations are terrifying, let alone having to live in one, alone, when you know the sun isn’t coming up for months. Part paranormal horror, part solitude survival story, Dark Matter is a genuinely refreshing, tense book with a vivid sense of place.
A Good and Happy Child
We were all lonely children, right? And we all wished for a friend. George Davies lived to wish he never had.
The Quick is for vampire lovers. ‘Enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England’. I want more from The Quick’s universe – it feels a natural springboard for short stories and sequels.
The Haunting of Hill House
“No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”. Shirley Jackson is the master of the haunted house story. It’s a classic. Go and read it.
Have a pleasurably traumatic happy Halloween, friends! And recommend me some books in the comments.
I know, too early for snow. But my short, nasty, and very cold story, The Frost of Heaven, will be included in Fox Spirit Books’ Winter Tales anthology coming early next year. Fox Spirit won Best Independent Press at the British Fantasy Awards today. Well done, guys!
This post is brought to you by a cocktail of painkillers, hypnotics, and anxiolytics, administered by a lovely NHS anaesthetist whose name I can’t remember – only the sight of her leaning over me with a smile: “You’re going to forget my name.”
Just some routine Marfans stuff. But two days later, I’m still swimming through dreams. I like to think the lingering hypnotics are giving me the authentic Rossetti experience, minus the raccoon hiding in the wardrobe. And the genius.
Hanging onto the tail of this wooziness, I want to talk about childhood, but also about Jan Švankmajer’s gorgeously surreal 1988 film, Alice: “A film for children… perhaps.”
Years ago, a counsellor complimented my socks. They were pale blue and white striped, up to the knee, and they were perfect, she said, “because you’re Alice in Wonderland.”
This probably wasn’t wise of her.
Like a lot of only children travelling with military parents, I was prone to dissociation. That’s the psychology term for intense daydreaming. And I mean intense – to the point that reality was almost entirely blocked out for the majority of every waking day. Mostly, it was paradise, but there were snags. Teachers found they had to full-on yell to catch my attention. I once kicked a cannonball-sized hole through a porter cabin wall without noticing.
Dissociation is a creative coping mechanism for when life is unstable or lonely. It’s very much like the intravenous sedative experience – a protective measure that picks you up and whisks you away. Eventually, children who habitually dissociate grow up to remember more about their dream worlds than the reality of the past. Some of them become writers. Ahem.
Onto Alice. As a chronically fantastical child, I was rankled by the Disney version of Alice In Wonderland. It was all so very pastel, so very clean. Nothing pristine, I knew, could ever be magical. Childhood is frightening, and nonsensical, and inappropriately hilarious – much like the original Wonderland tales.
Children inhabit another planet. Lewis Carol knew that.
So on the other hand, you have Jan Švankmajer’s Alice. A film for children… but probably not for parents. The White Rabbit is taxidermy, leaking sawdust. Socks have teeth and the jam is full of drawing pins. Wonderland itself is a wreck of broken china and splinters, pickled specimens, potted tongue (prone to slithering), and other Victorian relics. Alice – the only living person in the film – has a way of turning into a decidedly spooky china doll and back again, tearing off the chrysalis of painted skin and making a run for it. Like the doll, her facial expression never changes. She never smiles or frowns. Those are things you do for others, and this Alice is content to be alone with her imagination.
Drowsy and doped as I am, it strikes me how strangely authentic Švankmajer’s vision of childhood imagination was.
In 1989, the year after Švankmajer released Alice, I was three. The Navy posted Dad to Scotland, and we ended up living on a dismal estate near a submarine base. Someone had spray-painted a peace symbol on the garden fence for our arrival. I wasn’t ready for school, and we never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends. I think I tried, on a few sparse occasions, but it was so much effort for so little return when inside was infinitely better than outside.
Perhaps it was the jerky stop-motion animation, or the twisted quality – lurking on the indistinct border between dreams and nightmares – but watching Švankmajer’s Alice for the first time a few weeks ago, I began to spontaneously remember scraps of day-to-day surrealism from that time in Scotland.
Someone – I forget who – told me bubbles were living things, and that when you popped them, they died.
There was a nearby play park where a boy knocked himself out trying to make the swings turn full circle. I saw his body in a red tracksuit, face down on the ground. ‘Cracked his head open’, I thought for years, was literal. Bash the hinge hard enough and the skull pops open like a spring-loaded box.
That play park was an island of concrete amongst hillocks of unkempt greenery. One day, some other children took my doll, so I wandered off to where you could see the Forth Rail Bridge, muddy-bloody coloured, in the distance. Over a hill, I found the skull of a ram, picked clean. The coiled horns looked like the fossils in my dinosaur books. I can’t recall the doll.
From the spare bedroom, if the light was good (by Scottish standards), you could see dark cylinders moving slowly through the cold seawater. I’ve never grown out of the fear of submarines, but the house held hidden dangers of its own. I was playing in the garden. Making a pile of gravel. The house had been arsoned before we moved in, so the gutters full of gravel also contained all the glass from the shattered windows. Not that I noticed. I was grabbing handfuls, piling it up, until I registered I was bleeding from dozens of tiny cuts. I took myself up to my parents’ bedroom and triumphantly held out my hands to them. It didn’t hurt.
A fisherman on a jetty shouted at me for dropping a stone in the sea and disturbing the fish.
“I want to cut him in half,” I said, and I can still clearly see the satisfying image in my mind, of a man sliced in two like a pink salmon.
Sugar, spice, and murder fantasies. There’s a whimsical grotesquery to childhood I think we’re programmed to erase. Perhaps it’s only free to come out when we’ve been dosed up by friendly anaesthetists without names.
I have gone out, a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves, closets, silks, innumerable goods; fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: whining, rearranging the disaligned. A woman like that is misunderstood. I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver, waved my nude arms at villages going by, learning the last bright routes, survivor where your flames still bite my thigh and my ribs crack where your wheels wind. A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind.
I was in Bury St Edmunds this week, taking a breather from writing The Mighty Healer. I’m immersed in research about Bedlam lately, and there’s only so many times one can read the phrase ‘urine-soaked straw bedding’ before depression sets in. So I thought I’d take a break and return to my comfort zone:hideously brutal martyrdoms.
I photographed this statue of Saint Edmund outside Bury cathedral. In recent years, the interior has been restored to its colourful medieval self, all sky blues and reds and golds, like something a child might paint. The nearby abbey was badly hit during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – only a few romantic ruins remain – but the site was once a popular pilgrim destination: the shrine of Saint Edmund, martyr king of England.
Edmund was the king of East Anglia during the 9th century. Now the patron saint of wolves, pandemics, and victims of torture, Edmund’s feast day – the 20th of November – marks his death at the hands of Ivar The Boneless during the Viking invasion of England. He is considered by some to be the true patron saint of England. In fact, he was until 1348 when he was officially replaced by St George, presumably because an armour-clad hunk thrusting a spear through a dragon is a more respectable national emblem than a weed with a bowl-cut meekly accepting a beating from a gang of Danes.
St George being of Greek/Palestinian blood, he doesn’t make an awful lot of sense as Patron saint of England beyond the ‘slaying things is wicked cool’ angle. There’s a campaign to reinstate St Edmund; I met a few of the supporters in 2006, just before Parliament rejected their petition to bring him back. They’re still going, if you’re interested.
After killing Edmund, the Vikings managed to erase almost all contemporary evidence of his reign. We really know very little about the man, but Anglo-Saxons being Anglo-Saxons, we have some nice accounts of his death…
Saint Edmund the Martyr King of England – Luc Olivier Merson
“King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. Lo! the impious one then bound Edmund and insulted him ignominiously, and beat him with rods, and afterwards led the devout king to a firm living tree, and tied him there with strong bonds, and beat him with whips. In between the whip lashes, Edmund called out with true belief in the Saviour Christ. Because of his belief, because he called to Christ to aid him, the heathens became furiously angry. They then shot spears at him, as if it was a game, until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog (just like St. Sebastian was).
When Ivar the impious pirate saw that the noble king would not forsake Christ, but with resolute faith called after Him, he ordered Edmund beheaded, and the heathens did so. While Edmund still called out to Christ, the heathen dragged the holy man to his death, and with one stroke struck off his head, and his soul journeyed happily to Christ.”
– Ælfric of Eynsham, Old English paraphrase of Abbo of Fleury, ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’.
Ivar had Edmund’s severed head thrown into the woods. Edmund’s followers searched for him, calling out “Where are you, friend?” the head answered, “Here, here,” until they found it, clasped gently between a wolf’s paws. The villagers then praised God and the wolf that did His work. It walked tamely beside them before vanishing back into the forest.
Wolf Guarding the Head of St Edmund by Doris Clare Zinkeisen
The 14th century poet John Lydgate called the “precious charboncle of martirs alle”. If you believe Lydgate, Edmund performed dozens of miracles after his death, including setting fire to an uncharitable priest’s house, materialising before the Danish King Sweyn and stabbing him with a spear (because you would, really, wouldn’t you?), and my favourite, catching a Flemish pilgrim in the act of stealing jewels from his shrine whilst pretending to kiss it. Edmund miraculously glued the pilgrim’s lips to the shrine until he apologised.
I used to be able to dream lucidly. It took practise. I had a notebook covered in Chinese silk that I kept beside my bed. Whenever I woke from a dream, I’d turn on the light and immediately write every detail down. After several weeks of this, I was an active player in my subconscious world. I could choose where to walk, what to look at, when to fight and when to run away. I wouldn’t call it fun – to be inside and outside one’s body simultaneously – but it made me aware that the world of dreams is as real and as valid as the waking one. You can find answers there that you can’t in daylight.
That’s the premise of Horsehead, a 2014 horror film directed by Romaine Basset. Jessica, a young woman studying the psychology of dreams, travels to her mother’s home in France for the funeral of the grandmother she never really knew. Relations with her mother aren’t any better, and when Jessica goes down the with flu, dreams are her only escape from their bickering. The fever, coupled with the bottle of ether she keeps sniffing, makes for some horrifying dreams, and she is quickly confronted by a horse-headed priest-beast called The Cardinal. When it emerges that her grandmother committed suicide, Jessica must follow her spirit deep into the subconscious mind to discover the secret The Cardinal is guarding with his scythe.
Firstly, this film pushes all my aesthetic buttons. Everyone will recognise the Fuseli Nightmare painting above, and most scenes are shot in that kind of amniotic red darkness suggestive of opiates and deviance. It’s all very consciously Angela Carter-esque, with shades of The Company of Wolves in the costumes and the inventive gore. (Mild spoiler: it’s not a gory film, per say, but if pregnancy-related violence is too much for you, you might want to give Horsehead a miss.) Jessica’s mother lives in the kind of pretty, cobbled French village no normal human being could ever afford a house in, but by night it descends into medieval darkness. The quaint, winding streets take on a haunted quality as Jessica roams them in her penitent robes and Riding Hood cape.
There’s a constant sense of unreality which might annoy some viewers. Everyone speaks in an overly-deliberate way, even when Jessica is awake. George, the baritone caretaker, verges on something from The Dark Crystal, though the echoing industrial soundtrack (free of jump scares) keeps the film from becoming ridiculous. I liked that about Horsehead. If you’re going to have a literal horse-headed monster lumbering about, unreality is something you need to embrace with enthusiasm. Though the family do keep the dead grandmother upstairs for an awfully long time.
If you enjoy visually-striking, thought-provoking horror or fantasy, you’ll likely love Horsehead. If you prefer quests and defeatable demons, however, there’s likely more reading between lines than you’ll have patience for. Horsehead belongs thoroughly in the realms of the subconscious.
Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs – my peculiar little novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish – goes out into the world today. Thank you to everyone who’s already pre-ordered the paperback. Help yourself to cake.
My novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish is now available to pre-order in paperback all over the show.
Get it from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, or scare the living daylights out of your local bookseller by walking in and actually buying something. Alternatively, get your local library to order it in.
If you end up liking it, it’d be lovely if you left a short review somewhere or told your fantastically-minded friends.