Friday, 29 October 2010

HYPNOBOBS 08 - Readings For Hallowe'en



Hallowe'en is here again, and the perfect time to indulge in a spot of weird fiction. So join Mr JIM MOON by the fireside for a reading of the classic Henry Kuttner tale of terror The Graveyard Rats. Plus there's a reading of a short weird verse for Samhain from the Old Gentleman himself, HP Lovecraft...

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Thursday, 28 October 2010

IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS III - The Films That Frightened Me

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Being a horror fan often raises many questions; for example why is it that the majority of us are actually perfectly nice people and not the blood-thirsty raving psychopaths that the tabloid media insists watching this stuff will turn you into. However flippancy aside, there is still the question of why we embrace this genre with such delight, especially as many horror films frankly aren’t actually very good.

Well, firstly we must acknowledge the truth embodied in Sturgeon’s Law – that 90% of anything is crap. Yes, there is a lot of old tat lurking in the horror canon but the genre can and does produce bona fide classics, and in precisely the same proportions as any other form of cinema. Now as I have remarked before, non horror fans can be roughly divided into two camps – the first is the group that simply can’t bear horror movies; they never watch them in case they get frightened, and are amazed anyone would pursue being scared as a leisure activity. Now the second group are somewhat better informed – this is the gang who don’t bother with horror because ‘they just aren’t scary’.

But as I have discussed in the previous two articles in this series, horror offers a variety of different movie experiences. But it’s fair to say that discovering the particular films that really terrify you; the films that haunt you long after the film’s close, and in Macbeth’s memorable phrase ‘murder sleep’, is part of the fun of being a horror fan. Maybe it is related to the obsessive collector gene that fans of any stripe possess; a modern manifestation of our primal hunter gatherer instincts, or perhaps it’s a home brew form of psychological exploration, but the questing through hours of footage to find a flick that delivers the fear,is, in some regards, as satisfying as watching the films themselves. It may be years in between finding a movie that freezes your blood and has you praying for the dawn, but when you do it’s like finding a personal Holy Grail.

Now with Hallowe’en approaching, that haunted time of the year when everyone’s looking for a good scare, I thought I’d share my personal gallery of terrors, the films that frightened me. Now before we begin, I must stress that this is a list of the movies that most gave me the fear rather than a countdown of the best horror films ever made. Rather the movies discussed below are the cream of Pure Terrors (see Part I for a definition) and therefore many great films I love and admire in the genre have not made it onto the list.

Now there are many movies that have given me the chills over the years, and an ‘honourable mentions’ section would include many of the expected classic names. However we aren’t just looking at the films that frightened while onscreen, but the crème de la crème, movies that after the credits rolled honestly had me too on edge to sleep and running up the old electrickery bill by having every light in the house on for most of the night.

Also I should point out that I’m not touting these films as the scariest movies of all time – fear is a subjective thing and therefore your mileage may vary... But as some of you may decide to give some of these titles a whirl this Hallowe’en, I’ll be keeping my remarks spoiler free.

Now from a quick glance down the featured films, you’ll note that most are ghost stories of one variety of another. Yes, it’s hauntings that get me most often, probably because of all the horror staples ghosts seem the most likely to actually exist. Non-supernatural menaces such as serial killers, psychopaths and cannibals I tend to find belong more to the realm of Disturbing Visions than Pure Terror, and evidence for vampires, werewolves, demons and the walking dead existing in the real world is thin on the ground, plus the silver screen has often radically altered these horrors from how they appear in folklore and legend.

Ghosts however seem to be a lot more commonly encountered. Now we could argue the toss over the evidence all night, but everybody, regardless of whether they believe or not, knows at least one spooky story, and we’ve all at some point or another visited a place that for no readily apparent reason gave us bad vibes.

Anyhow without further ado, here are the flicks that frightened me…


Poltergeist (1982)

To begin with, let’s journey back to the golden age of ye olde Video Shoppe. The rise of the home VCR back in the ‘80s was a revolution for movie fans both young and old, with thousands of old movies suddenly available to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. However for the budding horror fan, still too young to see fright flicks at the cinema, the unregulated video rental market meant you could now see modern horror films with ease.

And one of the first titles I rented was the then just released Poltergeist. Now looking at this unlikely team-up of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper, it seems more of an over the top special effects whirlwind that an exercise in inducing dread. And these days you can play the film buff game of trying to work out who actually directed what in the movie. Rumours abound to this day over the tussles for the directorial reins on this picture, but no one so far has come out with the truth. And when Poltergeist was released as a two disc special edition on DVD, a making of feature was suspiciously absent. But regardless of who actually was behind the camera, the collision of the minds produced a memorable haunted house movie.

It’s easily the mildest film on the list. But the kind of wall to wall visual wizardry that Poltergeist abounds with, and now comes fitted as standard for any blockbuster, back then was new and startling. More to the point though, Poltergeist well and truly got me by hitting several personal fear buttons with pinpoint accuracy – namely clowns, evil trees and looking the bathroom mirror at night. So if you are looking for a good solid Ghost Train that might rattle your cage a bit this Hallowe’en, give Poltergeist a spin.


[REC] (2007)

The most recent film on the list and something of a surprise as I don’t generally find zombies frightening - horrific yes, but scary no. However this little Spanish movie well and truly gave me the creeps. The premise is simplicity itself – a TV crew are filming a documentary following the local fire brigade as they go about their usual night shift when a call comes in which will bring them to an apartment building where all hell is going to break loose. It’s a found footage/faux documentary affair but unlike so many other low budget zombie shockers that use the same schtick, [REC] uses the shaky cam to impressive effect. It’s suspenseful and intense, often brutal but building up to a climax reeking in dread. And indeed it’s the last act which features some truly nightmarish images that ensured I stayed up very late reading that night until the shivers subsided.

Probably the best zombie flick in recent years and the sequel, produced by the same team, upholds the high standards set by the first for a change. [REC 2] picks up right from where the first film ends, making ideal for a double feature. Fair warning though, the sequel introduces some plot twists that may not sit well with everyone. However on the flipside, the direction this second film takes may make it a more frightening experience than the first for some of you...


The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Although it’s become somewhat fashionable in some quarters to look back and sneer at this one and mutter about hype over content, I still highly rate this little picture. And though some decry the movie for not showing you anything, personally I feel this was the right decision, as the story build ups the mythology surrounding the strange phenomena in the woods to such a degree that any shots of the eponymous witch would have been redundant, if not an outright let-down.

It’s a film that generates a remarkable atmosphere but to get the full effect, I think you really need to watch the short promo film Curse of the Blair Witch first. This faux TV special fleshes out the folklore and history of the movie and actually adds to the film’s fear factor. Indeed having watched this semi prequel before giving the movie a second watch when it appeared on DVD, I discovered that in one scene you’re actually seeing a lot more than you realise, which gave me a terrific jolt of fear that I didn’t get on the initial viewing in the theatre.

Although many of the iconic scenes have been parodied to death, I do think the film still holds up, and indeed now all the hype and the send-ups are fading from public memory, I suspect its critical star will rise once more and The Blair Witch Project will be delivering terror for a good while yet.

But not only does it grasp the nettle many found footage films avoid - i.e. why the hell are you still filming instead of legging it - all the dread and scares aside, the movie is actually an interesting essay on the process of film making itself.

Finally if you really want to scare some one with this movie, lash up one of those cross-meets-stickman arrangements of twigs seen in the film and leave it outside their door or on their bed! However I strongly advise not venturing into the local woods after dark in order to gather materials for this practical joke. I did and realised to the cost of my sanity how much the movie had really got to me… And the ear splitting shriek that ripped through the silence when my flatmate ventured out for a trip to loo in the wee small hours nearly scared me to death.


Dead of Night (1977)

Not the classic Ealing film that launched a thousand portmanteau pictures, nor the late Bob Clark’s 1974 Vietnam themed chiller of the same name. No, the Dead of Night to which I refer is a TV movie created by small screen genre favourite Dan Curtis. As well bringing the world the gothic soap Dark Shadows and the horror investigator Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Curtis also produced several anthology films, the first of which Trilogy of Terror (1975) is fondly remembered by horror buffs. However less well known is his second outing into the realm of portmanteau horror Dead of Night.

Like Trilogy of Terror, this little film consists of three tales all penned by genre maestro Richard Matheson. The first story ‘Second Chance’ is a quaint ghostly tale of a haunted car, which I’m willing to bet Robert Zemeckis has seen as it appears to share some common narrative DNA with Back To The Future. It’s reminiscent of the gentler Twilight Zone episodes, very pleasant but nothing too terrifying here.

The second story, ‘No Such Thing As A Vampire’ is your more usual twist in the tail affair. More solidly in horror territory than the whimsical opener, and featuring an entertaining performance from Patrick Macnee, this is a fun little tale. However the highlight of Dead of Night and the story that spooked me good and proper is the final offering ‘Bobby’.

This final tale really goes for the jugular. The premise may well just another spin on the old classic The Monkey’s Paw with a young mother turning to the black arts in order to bring back her dead child. However unlike WW Jacobs’ tale, the return of the deceased son is just the beginning. I can’t really say anymore but ‘Bobby’ plays out with heightening tension and suspense, and the final twist is a killer and what kept me from sleep the night I watched it!


The Haunting (1963)

Veteran director Robert Wise had a long and distinguished career, crafting cinema classics as diverse as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music. However a year before Wise unleashed the problem that was Maria on the world, he helmed this impressive screen version of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House.

The Haunting is one of the greatest haunted house movies, with Nelson Giddings turning out a very faithful adaptation of Jackson’s classic book. Throw in a strong cast, truly gorgeous cinematography and inspired sound design and you have a very frightening film with a solid dramatic core. Rather than the usual transparent dead people walking through walls, you never actually see a ghost in the The Haunting but you will feel their presence. Instead of wheeling out folks in shrouds, Wise makes Hill House a character in itself and leaves us in no doubt that this benighted dwelling is a very bad place indeed, not just deleterious for the nerves but your sanity and soul too.

Although it’s fair to say that the film is somewhat dated now, and for some viewers it may seem overly melodramatic in places and too talky for it’s own good. And another potential problem is that this movie has been so influential, indeed it has become something of a template for a whole slew of haunted house pictures, that many of the ghoulish tricks Wise springs on the audience, you will have seen done many times before. But if you can embrace the period stylings, The Haunting can still deliver the chills.


The Innocents (1961)

Often found fighting it out for best ghost story ever filmed is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, it tells the tale of a governess, Miss Giddens, tasked with the care and education of two children in a crumbling manor house. However the children are being stalked by the revenants of two former staff.

With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with stunning cinematography from the legendary Freddie Francis, and featuring a stellar performance from Deborah Kerr, The Innocents is truly a quality production. And for my money it does top The Haunting.

Certainly for those of you who like to see their horrors, Clayton does not hold back from showing us the restless dead – we have several long shot of the malevolent revenants as well as the usual fleeting glimpses. But even more impressive is that some of these manifestations occur during bright daylight, and are actually all the more eerie for it.

But the clincher for me, apart from delivering some very haunting spectral imagery that stayed in my mind’s eye far longer than was welcome, is the masterful way we are never sure whether the ghosts are actually real or just the product of Miss Giddens’ mind. However Jack Clayton has masterfully weighted the film so that one can read it both ways, and whichever interpretation you favour, it is equally chilling. Rather than the possible explanation for the hauntings diminishing the terror, if you take the psychological route you have a frightening journey into creeping insanity that is just as unsettling as taking the ghost story route.


The Woman In Black (1989)

In 1983, Susan Hill penned The Woman in Black, a novel inspired by the great English ghost stories of yesteryear. A few years later, her tale of a malevolent spectre was adapted for the stage, initially opening in Scarborough before moving to the West End where it still runs to this day.

Given the play’s meteoric rise from a provincial opening to the prestigious heart of English theatre and numerous tours of the country to boot, it’s perhaps no surprise that a film version was to follow. Produced for ITV, this television movie was quality through and through. Not only did it air on Christmas Eve, a traditional time for ghostly tales, but the screenplay was written by the great Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass quartet and a host of other genre favourites.

Beautifully shot in wintery colours by Herbert Wise, like its parent novel The Woman In Black is very much a modern day return to the classic ghost story, and with it’s period setting, East coast location and malevolent revenant there’s a definite echo of the works of M.R. James. And much like the work of the good doctor, The Woman In Black is gently paced, almost quaint but with the gloves coming off to deliver scenes of spectral terror. In Kneale’s capable hands, the story gradually builds up to delivering one of the great fright scenes of all time, one that will come back to haunt you once you turn out the light.


The Others (2001)

Now while I really enjoy a good period ghost story, it seems the general public do not share my tastes; for while The Sixth Sense cleaned up at the box office, a couple of years later a far superior tale of spooks and spectres failed to set the world alight in the same way. The Others is a quintessentially English tale of a haunting. Set in a fog bound Jersey just after the close of the Second World War, The Others tells the tale of Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children who gradually come to realise that they are sharing their home with some unquiet spirits.

Featuring some excellent performances all round, and beautifully shot and staged by Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is a quintessential English ghost story, and not only a fine addition to the canon of spectral fiction but a true modern classic. Like The Haunting and The Innocents there is a solid drama underpinning the ghostly action, but that’s not to sell the haunting depicted short, for Amenábar crafts some absolutely terrifying scenes. And we aren’t talking easy jump scares either; he carefully builds up the atmosphere and tension, and with some very elegant cinematography and evocative sound design really brings home the terror you would experience if you were to begin to suspect that invisible incorporeal beings have invaded your home.


Ghostwatch (1992)

Right then, this is the big one – the film that scared me most! This little made-for-TV feature is the stuff of legend. Now you’ve probably heard about the War of the Worlds radio adaption by Orson Welles which had many listeners at the time believing it was true and inspired outbreaks of panic. Now although scholars and historians have debated how much of the panics reported in the press actually occurred, a young writer called Stephen Volk, remembered Welles’ Martian wheeze and set about creating his own piece of hoax fiction.

Now around this time, the venerable BBC had been producing a series of live programmes with the ‘watch’ tag, the most popular being Foxwatch in which viewers were treated to an intimate portrait of vulpine life thanks to then the still new and shiny technologies of night vision cameras and live feeds. So then for Hallowe’en night ’92, Volk cooked up Ghostwatch, a faux ‘live’ broadcast from an allegedly real haunted house. The studio side was anchored by legendary chat show host Michael Parkinson, and with then prominent presenter Mike Smith manning the calls. Out in the field, at the troubled Foxhill Drive residence, was Smith’s wife and famous TV host Sarah Greene, veteran of Blue Peter and numerous other shows, and Craig Charles, best known for playing Lister in Red Dwarf.

Now although the programme began with the ident for Screen One, the BBC’s TV film strand at the time and there were full credits available in the Radio Times that revealed this production was a film and not a proper programme, many viewers it seemed were unaware that the events on screen weren’t real. And as the story unfolded, BBC phone lines went ballistic and Ghostwatch garnered a flood for complaints, and to this day holds the record for the most complained about programme ever screened on UK television. Thousands rang in or wrote angry letters and not because the show was bad, but simply because it had terrified the living daylights out of them. Part of the anger was undoubtedly due to the fact that viewers blamed the BBC for not making it clearer that the show was fiction, but largely it seemed many felt that old Auntie Beeb had gone too far in screening a programme that scared them out of their wits and in an early evening slot too.

The BBC were somewhat shocked by the response and Ghostwatch was never repeated. And it’s a measure of the unease the reaction to the show generated among the mandarins at Broadcasting House that they wouldn’t even release it on video. Eventually the show did surface on DVD a couple of years ago, but tellingly it was not released by BBC Enterprises but put out by the BFI.

Now sadly I missed the original broadcast, with Hallowe’en that year falling on a Saturday night and being a young man whose liver hadn’t yet filed for divorce, I was down the pub. Now back then the track record for TV producing anything remotely scary or horrific was very poor instead – although the ‘70s had seen a slew of frightening shows, in the ‘80s TV had become very sanitised and safe. So then when the furore blew up in the following days, I deeply regretted missing what sounded like a genuinely terrifying piece of TV.

And it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a chance to see it, courtesy of the BFI release. Being a fine midsummer evening, I had to wait until quite late before wrapping the case and slipping the disc in the player – after all you couldn’t watch Ghostwatch in daylight could you now? But on the upside, my housemates were away for the weekend so I had the place to myself and guaranteed no chatter or interruptions…

Obviously I knew going in that this was a fake broadcast, and that there had been much debate over the years as to how many times the ghost actually appeared - Ghostwatch you see, had been very cunning with its haunting, having the restless spirit of Foxhill Drive, the wonderfully named Mr Pipes appearing in the background of scenes and in reflections and the like. So when the last glow of sunset had been swallowed by inky black, I sharpened my eyes and hit play…

Now my initial impressions were that this was a very well done mockumentary, the famous faces from the gogglebox were all putting in great performances and I began to understand how if you missed the ident at the beginning you could easily believe that this was a real live broadcast. And for any viewers from outside these shores watching it these days, I can confirm that this was indeed exactly how such shows were done back in the early ‘90s on UK TV.

But as the show progresses, slowly unwrapping layer after layer of the history of the haunting and weird events in the house being to accumulate, my admiration was gradually replaced with a growing sense of dread. Volk and director Leslie Mann had captured the authentic chill you get from hearing real life accounts of hauntings, and their fiendishly clever approach to Pipes’ manifestations were really getting to me.

Now at this point, I should point out that we had only recently moved into this house, an old Victorian terrace, and at that time I wasn’t familiar with the quirks of this old pile. And being a venerable property it had quite a repertoire; the water system was somewhat eccentric and prone to making odd noises every now and then, there was a free standing wooden staircase that creaked in the night when the timbers cooled, and odd muffled bangs and crashes would emanate as bits of old mortar came loose and fell down in the wall cavities. And oh boy, the old place was in fine voice that night which only added to the creeping fear that was sweeping over me.

By just over the halfway mark, I don’t mind admitting I was bloody petrified. And hearing strange sounds coming from upstairs wasn’t helping either. However about over an hour in, when the haunting in the house is really coming to the boil and all hell is breaking loose, I did something I’ve never done before and the reason why Ghostwatch is my Number One Frightening Film – I had to turn the bastard off!

Now what precipitated this momentous event was that when the supernatural events at Foxhill Drive really kick off, you start to hear the sound of cats crying. Just after the yowling began, one of the neighbour moggies decided to hop up to the window sill a few feet from my sofa and join it. The sudden additional caterwauling coupled the noise of something at the window needless to say nearly had me on the ceiling. However then catching a glimpse of weird human shaped shadow flitting across the room seconds later sent me over the edge. The remote was scrambled for, the DVD turned off and every goddamn light in the house was turned on, and would remain on until morning!

Of course eventually the disc went back on and I watched the remaining twenty or so minutes. But man, was that a long night, jumping at every subsequent creak and crack! Yes, Ghostwatch got me good and proper and I can only imagine what it would have been like if you were watching this back in 1992 and thought it was real… And I totally understand why the BBC switchboard went into meltdown with viewers ringing in to echo that famous line from An American Werewolf in London - “you really scared me you shithead!”.

And I imagine I am not only the viewer who was catching glimpses of strange shapes afterwards. The genius of Ghostwatch is it’s unique approach to showing us its ghost; once you catch on to the fact that you need to be watching very closely – something the film sets up for the viewer early on with a review of some camera footage from the house – you actually end up essentially programming yourself to see things, which is why until the advent of the DVD release fans of the show were so uncertain as to how many times Pipes actually appears. And Volk did want to go further, he had wanted to include a tone at key points of the broadcast, which although would be undetectable by human ears, would have sent pets crazy.

All in all Ghostwatch is an excellent movie, and thoroughly deserving of its fearsome reputation. But not only was it a wonderfully realised ghost story, with the terror mounting as the many layers of the story are revealed, it was also a very prescient piece of television. As Mr Volk explains in this article on its origins, Ghostwatch is also a commentary on the nature of TV reportage; it’s a highly insightful piece that remarkably largely predates the rise of reality television.

Although the BFI DVD is now out of print, as well as taking a flight to the past courtesy of Bit Torrent Airways, you can watch Ghostwatch online here. There's also a retrospective documentary being made slated for release in 2012 to mark the twentieth anniversary of this uniquely terrifying piece of television history. So if you’re looking for a good scare this Hallowe’en night, dim the lights and give Ghostwatch a spin. Happy hauntings!


Monday, 25 October 2010

HYPNOBOBS 07 - PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2


HYPNOBOBS returns to the world of cinema with Mr Jim Moon braving the terrors of the night and low res footage in order to bring you gentle listener this review of Paranormal Activity 2...

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Friday, 22 October 2010

IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS Part II - The Art of Watching Horror


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Back in the Swinging Sixties, when hallucinogenic drugs were transforming respectable professors into counter culture gurus, Dr Timothy Leary published The Psychedelic Experience a sort of field guide for taking mind altering compounds. And in this tome, extracts of which formed the lyrics for the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows incidentally, Leary stressed the importance of what he referred to as ‘set’ and ‘setting’ upon the experience generated by drugs such as mescaline and LSD. The ‘set’ was the frame of mind the user began the session with and the ‘setting’ the specifics of the physical location and environment where it would take place. Basically a negative attitude and/or an unpleasant or anxious environment would result in a bad trip, whereas going into the psychedelic otherworld with a positive mindset and in a comfortable and safe location, surrounded by meaningful sounds and images, would allow the user to shape the hallucinogenic journey to a degree and hopefully be able to use the drug as a key to unlock mystical states of higher consciousness.

But the rights and wrongs of taking chemical shortcuts to enlightenment aside, there’s a lot to be said for applying Leary’s set and setting concepts to movie watching. After all the circumstances of how you first see a film can greatly sway your judgement – I’m sure you can all name a couple of films that now you rate highly but on the first viewing failed to make an impact, or had an initial impression of a movie ruined by being surrounded by terrible goblins who insist on flapping their idiot lips throughout the entire running time.

Now, all films deserve attention and silence, and I know I am not alone in my despair that so often these days, cinema going can highlight the fact that certain sections of society are completely ignorance to the etiquette of movie watching. And as I get older, the more annoyed I become that we ever accepted commercial breaks in television screenings. However the golden rules of film viewing are even more important for films that are striving to build atmosphere or absorb you into their world – nothing will negate a carefully crafted sense of building dread than some automotive porn that assures you that it is necessary to buy a car that costs more than your house, or assorted lizards and meerkats pimping insurance quotes.

However in order to properly appreciate a movie that is aiming for the lofty halls of Pure Terror (see Part I for details of this and other definitions I'll be using), there are some additional caveats. Firstly a home viewing of a horror movie really should be conducted in the dark, preferably in the dead the night. Now obviously the sunless hours are horror’s natural domain, and viewing between the hours of dawn and dusk undoubtedly instantly adds to the mood and watching without any lights on – although candles are permissible – only enhances this. However there is an additional benefit to this practice: during the dim watches of the night you are less likely to be taken out of the film by the local kids downing alcopops outside your window or suffer the unwelcome noises of your car obsessed neighbour molesting his vehicle.

And the second unofficial rule for watching scary films should be ‘Choose your company carefully’. Now while Ghoulish Delights and Ghost Trains play well in a packed living room where the beer is flowing freely and snack food shrapnel is being ground into the carpet, this is not the ideal scenario for cultivating a case of the chills. Aside from the possible distractions of a large group of people refilling glasses and emptying bladders, psychologically speaking the old rule of safety in numbers may well lessen the impact of what is unfolding on screen. Fear is a very intimate emotion and no matter how appreciative your viewing companions may be, there’s nothing to equal the experience of being mesmerised into a state of sheer fright by the flickering screen in the dead of night.

So as I think we have ‘setting’ covered, the remainder of these additional unofficial rules for horror watching should address ‘set’. Now whether as a reaction to hype or just plain natural temperament, you may find yourself settling down to watch a scary movie with a somewhat partisan attitude; saying to yourself ‘Go on then, but you won’t frighten me!’ and generally taking the film as a personal challenge to your valour. Now, although it’s sometimes hard to not to slip into this mental mode, particularly if the film in question is swathed in hyperbole of the ‘most underwear staining film ever!’, I’d argue that this combative attitude is not the right frame of mind.

Whereas excessive hype and buzz about most films set up expectations that a movie will find hard to satisfy, in the realm of the horror film, such pre-viewing baggage usually will have the inverse effect, particularly for the seasoned fright film aficionado. The more frightening a film is alleged to be, the more we tend think it will turn out to be the same old clichéd claptrap.

However the merits of the film in question aside, going into a flick with the emotional hatches battened and the shutters locked down will make it exceptionally difficult for a movie to do its job. Due to the nature of cinematic artifice, it’s very easy to pick apart any movie, even a gold plated classic, with logical quibbles. No matter how realistic it is shot, or how convincing the performances are, you can always shoot down almost any film with the twin complaints of ‘that wouldn’t happen in real life’ and ‘real people don’t talk like that’.

Now I am not making a case for special treatment for horror films here, but as the genre seems to be somewhat unusual in the fact that it can often precipitate donning emotional armouring, I would suggest taking extra care and doing a spot of mental housecleaning before sitting down to take in a frightening flick. After all, we don’t go into thrillers resolute on being bored or into a comedy determined not to laugh. So be open minded and relaxed when checking out a scary movie, willing to suspend your disbelief rather than shouting ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” as soon as the credits roll.

And sometimes if you feel a film is getting overly hyped up as ‘the most terrifying thing since last week!’, then it can pay to put off seeing it until all the fuss has died down and you can appreciate the movie on its own merits rather than measuring it against all the hyperbolic baggage.

I think watching a scary movie should savoured like a fine wine or listening to classical music. And like these two other aesthetic pleasures, subtlety is a key feature for the most frightening films. Therefore so you shouldn’t be expecting buckets of blood and a lightning storm of special effects. I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard the complaint “but you didn’t see anything” levelled at some frightening flicks but this is, I feel, missing the point; it’s like expecting power metal from a Debussy recital.

If you are looking long lingering shots of hideous monsters or stomach churning grue then generally you are better off delving into Ghost Trains or Disturbing Visions which will deliver the graphic imagery you are expecting. Now I have nothing against the genre being explicit, but there is a difference between being horrified and terrified. While such hardcore fare like Cannibal Holocaust may have you wincing in your seat, and polished Ghost Trains like Drag Me To Hell leaping right out of it, they are both different breeds of horror than the dread induced by a Pure Terror film, the haunting fear that has you glancing nervously behind you and scared to put out the lights afterwards.

The crucial thing here is the role of imagination. Often the most frightening things are those which you don’t clearly see, the terrors that are suggested rather then being explicitly shown. Now in a graphic film, the director aims to shock with his use of visuals and if he is doing his job correctly you may find that images and scenes are burned into your mind for days afterwards.

If we are in Ghost Train territory, then it could be a spectacular creature that takes the breath away, an elaborate kill like the classic decapitation from The Omen, or just an iconic villain like Pinhead, Jason or Freddy. And if we are in the grimy dungeons of the Disturbing Visions, what will linger in the mind is probably going to be searing scenes of violence and depravity, the kind of things you really wish you were able to unsee.

However when the terrors are generated by suggestion and fleeting glimpses, the director is trying to get your own imagination involved. And if a film can do this successfully, the imagination carries on playing the movie’s game long after the screen has gone dark, and this is when the sleepless nights comes and we find ourselves afraid of the dark once more.

Now I should make it clear here that I am not suggesting that Pure Terror films are a nobler breed than Disturbing Visions or Ghost Trains. Indeed among horror fans throughout the ages, there has been a long standing debate on which approach is superior - suggestion or explicitness. Now although most of the films that frightened me tend to suggest and hint rather than show and tell, I don’t think the two approaches are mutually exclusive and skilled film-makers can induce the fear and reveal all the horrors in their full glory. For example, The Exorcist is very graphic but has had generations of movie-goers sleeping with the lights on afterwards.

And neither am I claiming that a failure to grasp the subtleties of scary movies implies a dearth of imagination. Horror is a very broad church, and really it’s a case of different strokes for different strokes. However judging from the reactions to a pair of recent flicks that I rank high on the fear scale, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project I rather suspect that often when this two films fail to impress a viewer the problem is not a lack of imagination on their part but a more basic structural fact. Neither of these flicks are constructed with the typical tropes and props of a horror movie, the kind of things you normally get delivered by a typical Ghost Train. And the absence of thunderstorms, obviously spooky mood music, jump scares and the like throws some viewers as the films are not giving out the expected cultural cues that they are trying to be frightening.

And indeed perhaps we can conclude that the biggest obstacle any frightening film has to conquer is the audience’s own expectations. A common feature of all good horrors is that they deliver the unexpected – whether it’s a decent jump scare in a Ghost Train, breaking the rules of what is acceptable in a Disturbing Vision or the “Holy Hell, what is that!” moments in a Pure Terror. And the mark of a poor horror outing is that everything that happens has already been predicted by the audience.

All which neatly brings us back to where we began - set and setting. And like a psychedelic odyssey, when you discover a film that truly gives the fear, it is a transcendent experience. By some strange alchemy, the correct combinations of shots, performances, music and effects can make us forget that what we are watching is only a movie. As James Marriot notes in his introduction to his book Horror Films (Virgin Books 2004) “the genre throws up a kind of wild creativity that just isn’t seen anywhere else”. And indeed what other genre of film besides horror can absorb us so deeply that we forget, temporarily at least, where the boundaries of reality and artifice lie?

Coming in the next IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS – The Films That Frightened Me…

And you can find Part I of this series and other tomfoolery here

Sunday, 17 October 2010

IN SEARCH OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS Part I - The Varieties of Horror

The shadows are lengthening, and as another year begins to draw to a close, the nights come to call increasingly early. Yes, Autumn has come, shaking leaves from her golden crown, and green gives way to ochre and red. Mists haunt the skies and there always seems to be a hint of smoke in the air, the ghosts of lost bonfires and split candle wax. The season’s wheel is slowly turning and the veil between worlds grows thin…

And for the fans of horror and scholars of the weird, other strange metaphysical barriers are weakening also; with Halloween promising that for a brief time the rest of the populace will seem to share our love for the eerie and strange. This is the time of the year when for once our outré interests do not look out of place with the accepted standards of normality and the usual question of “why do you watch this stuff?” is replaced with another, more welcome enquiry – “So what’s a really good horror movie to watch?”

Now this is a somewhat dicey question as the label ‘horror’ covers a multitude of sins, and in order to give a useful answer you have to be able to identify what kind of horror the questioner is seeking. A common complaint/dismissal of horror films is the old chestnut “well they just are'nt scary” – and in all fairness many aren’t. However there is a reason for this other than just shoddy film making, for as paradoxical as it may seem, a great proportion of horror movies aren’t actually aiming to push the fear button and give you sleepless nights.

Now having been immersed in the genre all my life, it strikes me that all horror flicks could be classified into four different categories. And rather grouping films by common tropes and subgenres, this system concentrates on intent and effect. For example Lesbian Vampire Killers and Let The Right One In are both vampire movies but are so radically different it makes little sense to lump them together.

So then, first up is the Ghoulish Delights where comedy meets horror, and where action takes a macabre turn: these are films that may be filled with monsters, murder and mayhem but the focus is on plain old having fun. In this category you may find horror comedies, like Shaun of the Dead and American Werewolf in London, and so-bad-it’s-good schlock fests. But you’ll find also gothic adventures and spooky swashbucklers like Hammer’s Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. Also in this territory you’ll find thrillers and romance with a touch of the macabre or supernatural. There may be moments of suspense, splashes of gross-out gore and the odd frisson of fear but in the main flicks in this parish are seeking just to entertain us.

My second category would be the Ghost Train movie – films that are out to inspire fear but only the kind of cartoonish funhouse variety. These movies operate on the same level as a fairground ride in that you willingly go along with the clichés in order to experience the fun of being afraid. Here every castle is old and crumbling, every crypt swathed in cobwebs, thunder storms abound and the score shrieks with strings, groans with organs and generally screams like an uprooted mandrake “this is a horror film! Boo!”. It is the land of jump scares and gore that either inspires laughter or amazes with its invention and over the top execution. Here we happily go along for the ride; these films do not try to engender the willing suspension of disbelief, but more rely on the audience willingly suspending their valour just for the fun of seeing the vampire rise from the grave, the monster wreck the metropolis or the slasher lunge from the shadows.

Furthermore I’d say that the large majority of horror films fit into this category – they wheel out all the props and trimmings that scream horror and ask us to buy into the experience just for fun. They are happy to give a shock or two, show you scenes of splatter and even creep you out a bit – but they are doing it with your permission. Now this is not to say that Ghost Train movies may not be very effective; if they are particularly well crafted or are tapping into some of your own personal fears then they may indeed be terrifying. However like the childhood game of Murder in the Dark, they are a way to enjoy being afraid within agreed boundaries. However it is only in the last two of my proposed categories that the gloves come off…

Now our third category doesn’t inspire absolute fear necessarily either, but does pack a powerful emotional wallop, for this is the home of the Disturbing Visions. Here you will find material that may shock, stun and even sicken you with an all out visceral blitzkrieg. They may inspire terror and dread but their defining feature is that they disturb; forcible smashing the viewers’ preconceptions, shattering their peace of mind, and generally razing the boundaries of what is acceptable into the dust.

Here’s where the horror movie meets extreme cinema, and while films in this category may sink into bad taste and pure gore, they also can merge into art house cinema. This is the realm where films as diverse as Martyrs, Salo, Eraserhead and Cannibal Holocaust dwell – films that challenge the viewer on a variety of different levels. But also here’s where you find horror classics like Freaks, Night of the Living Dead, and Hellraiser; films that pushed the boundaries of the genre by tearing up the Ghost Train rulebook of the day.

Now if the Disturbing Visions are looking to smack you over the head and punch you right in the guts, my fourth and final group are aiming to seize your very soul, for this is the category is Pure Terrors. Here we have movies that are seeking to have you jumping at every creak and every looming shadow long after the film has finished and murder any hope of sleep. Now these are the films that really are scary, movies that aim to reduce you to a gibbering wreck. These films aren’t looking to deliver the fleeting thrills of jump scares but to elicit a phobic reaction to what’s occurring on screen, seeking to drench you in dread and inspire the purest fear.

Naturally as fear is such an individual thing, this last category is the most sparsely populated as its membership much more determined by personal taste than the other three – after all what frightens me is not necessarily the same as what frightens you. For example, The Exorcist is certainly still a Disturbing Vision even today, but for those of you for whom the satanic is particularly terrifying, it could well be in your own catalogue of Pure Terror films.

Study the tropes of horror closely enough and you can craft a Ghost Train or a Ghoulish Delight without too much trouble, throw enough blood, offal and depravity at the screen and you can easily waltz into the land of Disturbing Visions, but crafting a Pure Terror film takes a degree of skill, talent and flair that many directors just cannot muster. And indeed there’s many a Ghost Train that was aiming to join the hallowed ranks of Pure Terrors but failed to carefully build the creeping atmosphere of dread effectively enough. In the world of horror, there are always a few people who even the most ham fisted director can really frighten if they are hitting the common phobic buttons such as spiders, snakes or creepy dolls. But orchestrating your movie so it will absolutely frighten the pants off the majority of movie-goers is a rare achievement.

Now obviously all the categories are somewhat fluid; any given horror movie may step over the dividing lines in certain scenes. The better Ghost Trains may achieve scenes that reach Pure Terror, while the worst ones descend into the kind of silliness that is more in keeping with the spoofs in the kingdom of Ghoulish Delights. However a really gifted director may deliberately slide his movie through the different categories - for example, the original Dawn of the Dead artfully presents Disturbing Visions alongside more typical Ghost Train action sequences and even has moments of Ghoulish Delight with an outbreak of custard pies. And if the walking dead and/or cannibalism automatically raise the hairs on the back of your neck then Dawn of the Dead may qualify for Pure Terror too.

Equally as the years go by and cinematic tastes evolve, films that were down with the hardcore in Pure Terrors and Disturbing Visions will mellow into Ghost Trains and even end up as harmless Ghoulish Delights that you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in the slightest. For example, the classic Hammer versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, that originally were quite shocking with their pioneering use of gore, now seem well mannered, cosy and quaint today.

But as a working taxonomy for the horror film, these categories work well enough. Certainly it’s a good deal less messy than opening the Pandora’s box of subgenres to classify any given movie. And with regards to that common Halloween query to recommend a horror film for the uninitiated, I hope this quartet of classifications will help you narrow down the field in order to find something suitable…

COMING SOON - In SLEEPLESS NIGHTS Part II – we’ll have a look at the art of watching horror movies and take a tour through the movies that really scared me.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

AN ARTIST DID IT! Exit Through the Gift Shop: Bullshit or Not?




Modern art often gets something of a bum rap. And frankly with graduates from trendy art colleges getting bundles of cash that would choke a sperm whale for sticking a pair of melons on a chair and calling it a feminist statement, it’s not hard to understand why. However amid these new Brit Art sensationalists and their tired cracker joke “conceptual” art works, while Damien Hirst and co. where raiding Dewhursts the Butchers for artists’ materials and denting Saatchi’s bank balance, a new hot name emerged - Banksy.

Although sometimes lazily bundled in with the concept crowd Banksy, and other so called “street artists”, are a very different breed. Although his works may share a similar sense of subversion and provoke questions whether they are in actually art or just jokes, Banksy is literally streets ahead of most recent conceptual art. Firstly his work has gained critical kudos outside of the usual right art school to hip gallery route. Secondly through his rise from the grass roots he has gained popular appreciation too; with his art work appearing in public places he has brought art to the masses and built a following from ordinary people who normally have nothing to do with art exhibitions. And thirdly, his work shows real craft.

And this final point is not to be underestimated. As the astute reader can probably guess, I have limited time for conceptual art. And while some works such as the Chapman Brothers oeuvre is consistently interesting, many others strike me as lazy and one dimensional. To pick a famous example, Damien Hirst’s pickled shark is only vaguely qualifies as art because of the pretentious title it bears “The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living”. And that’s the sum of its artistic merit – some one had the balls to stick a museum exhibit in a gallery, whack on a massive price tag and faux intellectual title and call it art.

Now there is the old “I could have done that!/Ah but you didn’t!” argument but frankly to me, and indeed it would seem to many people outside the bubble universe of the modern art scene, this doesn’t really cut the mustard. So while no doubt some will award this endeavour more creative merit than I do, the problem is the art is purely in the concept - the physical object itself fails as art as you don’t need to see the piece in order to grasp said concept. And unfortunately the same goes for Tracey Emin’s bed and many similar works foisted on us by the Young British Artists and other conceptualists. Such works fail to create an striking image or merit a visit to see them in real life.

However Banksy’s work is doing far more than assembling any old tat and calling it art. Firstly there are proper old school creative skills on show – composition, draughtsmanship and brush work and secondly his concepts are far more intelligent and incisive and their placement adding further layers of complexity. Take for example this piece Naked Man -


On a surface level it’s a marvellously amusing piece of trompe l’oeil that delights passers-by. However the image is given additional weight when you discover the wall it adorns belongs to a sexual health clinic – suddenly Naked Man becomes more than just an archetypal scene from classic British farces but a commentary on our attitudes to sexuality.

Hence a Banksy piece not only looks good as a print or poster but it gains impact and value when you see it in situ – as all good art should. And the fact that this piece was painted in a pubic space only goes to further impress when one considers the time and trouble it took to create it. Whereas you could take Hirst’s title card and go round the Natural History Museum, or even down your local supermarket and create countless new works of ‘art’ that make exactly the same artistic statement, which demonstrates just how inherently vacuous many concept artworks really are.

And while much such pieces rely on the cult of personality, with the likes of Hirst and Emin notching up far more column inches through their hobnobbing with the celebs du jour than actual discussions of the art, Banksy remains an enigma; we know very little about him or who he really is. In an age where the media is clogged up with people famous for being famous, Banksy’s staunch avoidance of the spotlight leaves us only with the work itself to concentrate on.

So then when I heard that Banksy was making a documentary entitled Exit Through The Gift Shop, I was obviously highly intrigued. Would this be the big reveal of his true identity? A chance to hear the man himself talk about his work? Better than Damien bloody Hirst’s directorial debut, the embarrassing arsefest that was Blur’s ‘Country House’ video?

And the quick answers are – No, no and absolutely yes!

Now first off, let’s address the elephant in the room which we have actually noticed as it’s crapped on the carpet – obviously there was never much chance of him unmasking but this is a very Banksy light film - if you are coming to Exit Through The Gift Shop hoping to learn anything substantial about him and his art, forget it. Visit the Wiki page instead.

Although we get an overview of the whole street art scene and fascinating footage such as Banksy pulling off the Disney Incident, this film is only tangentially about the mystery artist himself. Essentially this is a documentary about Thierry Guetta, an obsessive camcordist who was originally making a film about street art. And after documenting the work of several other prominent street artists, Thierry eventually managed to get in touch with the elusive Banksy. But the aerosol wizard found Thierry’s own story to be much more fascinating, and so documentarian and subject ended up switched roles.


However it’s not a case of “this is not the Banksy film you are looking for… Move along now”, as you can understand why this reversal of roles occurred as Thierry’s story is truly remarkable. We follow Thierry’s story as he begins contacting street artists and filming them at work. And as the film progresses we get to witness his transformation into a guerrilla artist in his own right, becoming Mr Brainwash. It’s completely intriguing, often funny and in the end quite inspirational.

So then it’s a good solid if somewhat offbeat documentary, and if you can get over the disappointment of it not being focused on Banksy himself, is very rewarding viewing. However as this a Banksy production, it’s not quite that simple…

…As many have alleged that the whole thing is one massive hoax and that Thierry Guetta/Mr Brainwash himself is an invention of Banksy and his elves. Now the evidence of these claims largely seem to rest on the fact that this is a Banksy film, and indeed this interpretation is largely favoured by those of feel that the Bristolian Man of Mystery is more prankster than artist and Exit Through The Gift Shop is a leg pull too far.

Several have pointed out the “damning” evidence that in the shots where Thierry is being interviewed on camera there’s a reproduction of the Laughing Cavalier visible in the background and point out the derivative nature of Mr Brainwash’s art.

Hardly conclusive proof of hoaxing, I think you’ll agree. The appearance of Frans Hals’ famous portrait could just be a little joke in itself and considering some of the tired old bullshit art critics have been lapping up for years; conceptual pieces that are just lazily riffing on Duchamp’s urinal and Magritte’s Pipe, it seems a little unfair to suddenly be claiming that being derivate is a bad thing. You definitely get the feeling that perhaps the certain sectors of the arts world have taken umbrage to this piece by Banksy entitled “I Can’t Believe You Morons Buy This Shit”.

However as the film unfolds one does begin to wonder how much is actually true. There are several details and revelations that may start alarm bells ringing, but despite the received wisdom on the film being that it is a hoax, there’s nothing really solid to confirm the fake allegations. But does it really matter?

Just because Exit Through The Gift Shop may be deliberately messing with us, it doesn’t invalidate the film in the way some seem to think it does. Let’s consult an expert… But as this is a piece on Banksy we shan’t be consulting the likes of Brian Sewell, instead let’s see what Mr Nobody, the leader of The Brotherhood of Dada, a group of surrealist super villains, have to say on the matter of fakes…

click to embiggen

from Doom Patrol #51 script Grant Morrison, art by Richard Case

So then in the light of this expert testimony, it seems clear that the whole Mr Brainwash circus cannot strictly be said to be a hoax or a prank, for even if Mr Brainwash and his works are a fabrication, they are still all Banksys! And in the world of modern art where the viewer’s own reactions and interpretations are so often left to endow trite conceptual pieces with the veneer of art, Banksy’s own intentions are quite irrelevant.

Harold Pinter was once asked about the socio-political subtexts of his play The Caretaker, and he replied that it was written purely as he heard the characters speak in his head and the story unfolded form there, and tartly added that if wanted to make a political point he’d have written a manifesto not a drama.

And this same impulse spurs on artists – it’s the desire to capture a particular vision, to show the world in the light they see it, and to bring into the world the imagery their imaginations create. By its very nature, visual art, whether it be a painting, sculpture or indeed a piece of graffiti, is a wordless medium and therefore any work that needs to be explained by its artist, that needs a gloss of theory and to be elucidated with sound bites in order to be appreciated by the eye is failing.

Now I am quite sure that Banksy is aware of the multiple interpretations that many be inspired by his works, however I am equally sure that that when he creates a piece, it’s the image that is paramount not some species of theorising. All his works are marked by a playful attitude and a sense of fun, and although there are undoubtedly different levels of meaning to be interpolated from any given piece, the essential creative spark is that the image amuses him primarily.

And viewing Exit Through The Gift Shop in this light, I don’t think the object of the exercise is to purely poke fun at the art establishment. Considering how the film is weighted, if Mr Brainwash is just an avatar of Banksy, the purpose of creating a ‘fake’ artist is probably more a satire on Banksy’s own rise to prominence, that strange journey from the streets to the galleries, than setting up an Emperor’s new clothes sting for the art world. The way the film is structured appears to me to showcase Banksy’s own feelings about art – that is should appeal to the public, that it should enrich the lives of ordinary people, that is should be entertaining, and most importantly, anyone can find a form of creative expression and become an artist. Rather than mocking the elitism of the art world, this film is stressing the egalitarian aspects of art; that art is in the eye of the beholder, so why not get up and give it go yourself!

And finally, regardless of how factual Exit Through The Gift Shop is, on a cinematic level it still works as a film. It’s solidly structured and there’s definitely some truth in there, and whether you accept it as fact or as fiction, it is equally effective. And whatever the truth actually is, this documentary/mockumentary (delete as applicable) presents a host of inspiring questions on what actually constitutes art and what it means to be an artist. And even if you have no time for smart arse aesthetic discussions, the film still delivers an off beat and truly fascinating story. And hence regardless of its veracity Exit Through The Gift Shop is far from bullshit.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A TOUR OF YUGGOTH


The question of whether there is actually any form of continuity in HP Lovecraft’s sonnet cycle, Fungi From Yuggoth is a question that has perplexed both scholars and readers for many years. After the opening three sonnets which form a linked narrative, the cycle plunges from location to location, through different worlds and times, and crosses a plethora of genres. And as we saw in the first part of this article, while some have argued that there a thematic thread linking the poems, noted Lovecraft expert ST Joshi firmly believes there is not -

“thematic resonances within the cycle do not establish ‘continuity’ of plot or structure any more than the analogous resonances within Lovecraft’s stories make them one large novel”

If we were intended to interpret Fungi From Yuggoth as a poetic anthology, then this statement is perfectly logical. However Lovecraft had not previously assembled any of his poetry in a grab-bag manner; three poems written in 1918 ‘Oceanus’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Mother Earth’ were entitled A Cycle of Verse. Similarly the only other collection of verse in his poetic career was Poemata Minora Vol II written in 1902, and was a collection on five poems about Roman times which, as the dedication makes clear, are intended to be read as a series. Therefore there is no reason to assume that Lovecraft was merely anthologising disparate verses with Fungi FromYuggoth; this approach is simply too slapdash for the Old Gentleman. If he united these thirty sonnets under a single banner then he most likely had some design for this arrangement.

And hence Mr Joshi’s assertion is somewhat flawed, for surely the repetition and consistent exploration of the same themes within a single work does constitute a continuity of sorts.

But the question remains – what form does this possible continuity take? A major stumbling block and what perplexes many readers and critics is the way the cycle shifts through different genres; sonnets like XII – The Howler recalls Lovecraft’s New England horror tales such as The Picture in the House and In The Vault, others like XVIII – The Gardens of Yin feel like his Dreamlands tales such as Celephais and The White Ship, while yet others clearly belong to the Cthulhu Mythos.

However, perhaps approaching the cycle in terms of the genres Lovecraft wrote in is the problem. Generally readers generally know Lovecraft through his stories first and then discover his other literary works such as his poetry and his letters, and therefore we come to Fungi From Yuggoth with categories based upon his fiction in mind.

Typically a new reader coming to the Lovecraft canon will be reading his Cthulhu Mythos tales first, and given the tantalising nature of this created mythology the novice will then be scouring all his works for further references and allusions. And as one progresses though his body of work or delves into the work of Lovecraft criticism, you soon begin to pick up the idea that different tales fit into different schools of stories. And once you are well versed in all things HPL, then one can play the time honoured game of ‘Mythos or not’ as there is much debate over which stories count as Cthulhuvian tales. For example, should you ever wanted to stir up a nest of Lovecraft scholars simply ask whether The Colour Out Of Space belongs to the Mythos.

However it should be noted that Lovecraft himself did not acknowledge any such distinctions. Although in hindsight we may discern evolving trends in his fiction career, for example the series of Dreamlands stories he wrote in the early ‘20s after he discovered the works of Lord Dunsany, reading his fiction chronologically one can track such influences come and go and see his own approach developing. Lovecraft himself was merely trying with each successive work to create the perfect weird tale, and the creation of what we now refer to as the Cthulhu Mythos was just one of the literary devices he employed to evoke the feelings of fear and cosmic awe he was striving for.

Therefore when we read Fungi From Yuggoth and begin slotting the sonnets into different categories, we are in fact creating artificial divisions; build critical walls that obscure whatever continuity may be there in the complete cycle. And if we dispense with these literary classifications and concentrate on the content, tone and atmosphere of the verses, Fungi From Yuggoth begins to appear far more coherent.

To begin, if we survey the placement of the different varieties of verse, although the content and style may seem to be randomly jumping around, there is a distinct flow. It is telling that the more philosophical vignettes cluster around the close of the cycle, seeming to serve as conclusions to the motifs explored. Similarly other themes are found nestling close to each other.

However after taking a fresh look at the cycle, I believe the arrangement goes further than Lovecraft merely orchestrating recurring themes. Examining closely each verse, they appear to pick up on a specific element from their immediate predecessor. While some sonnets echo their predecessors’ dominant concepts or continue a theme, but other transitions are almost cinematic with verses sharing a similar location or geography.

Now if you have not read the cycle yet – now would be the time to do so as I’m going to get up close and personal with the text in order to illustrate my findings. Find it here.

Before we begin, I should point out that the following interpretation is just a tentative theory and make no claims that the continuity I have found is the correct reading Lovecraft intended. And indeed there aren’t perfect links between all the sonnets, however I think the following detailed examination of the verses does show that Fungi From Yuggoth is far from being as utterly random as some believe it is. As stated my first article, I do subscribe to the notion that after the introductory verses, the cycle represents a series of visions and/or occult journeys to other times, places and dimensions.

So then after the first three verses, whose links are explicit, Sonnet IV can be read as continuing the narrative. Sonnet III – The Key refers to visions the narrator has had of “sunset spires and twilight woods that brood/beyond this earth’s precisions”, while Sonnet IV – Recognition is set in a “hollow of old oaks” on the grey world of Yuggoth. Now I don’t think it is too much of stretch to suggest that this first vision from the book is of the afore mentioned “twilight woods”, which The Key implies have been haunting the narrator for years. Also it is worth noting at this point that Sonnet XXXIV – Recapture could well be a sequel to Recognition – featuring as it does a similar strange wilderness and ancient ruins – certainly it would explain the closing lines of Recapture.

Sonnet V – Homecoming has the narrator, having been horrified by the trip to Yuggoth, ‘the daemon’ – a figure that arguably reappears later – whisks him away to another time and place. And the next scene is viewing the panorama of a fantastic city – the “sunset spires” alluded to in The Key. Again we may infer from The Key that Sonnets III and IV are the book and its daemon revealing to the narrator the origin of these twin visions that have been haunting him.

The losing lines of IV come from the daemon “ ‘here was your home’ he mocked ‘when you had sight’ ”. And fittingly the next three entries in the cycle are themed around vision and perplexing sights - VI – The Lamp closes with “vast shapes” seen in “a mad flash”, and these maddening glimpses are echoed by the insane sight the mailman experiences in IV – Zaman’s Hill. Finally this ‘sight’ trilogy concludes with VIII – The Port where the verse’s narrator is troubled by the sight of darkness swallowing the streets of Innsmouth.

And from the sinister gloom of Lovecraft’s infamous seaport, IX – The Courtyard also takes place in an “ancient, leprous” city by the sea, with the narrator wandering through the dark lanes and alleys. If we visualise the poems, you can easily see how from the hill top view of Innsmouth the camera could zoom in or dissolve to the location of The Courtyard. It concludes with him being surrounded by a strange ritual throng. Also is it possible that ‘the man’ the narrator is going to meet is in fact the earlier mentioned daemon?

X – The Pigeon-Flyers again takes place in a strange dark city, opening with the lines ‘They took me slumming’, and again, I don’t think we are stretching a narrative point to interpret this as the narrator being swept away to darker places by “the mad revels of the dragging dead” of the previous verse.

Now there is more of a leap of faith required to connect the next verse. The horrors of The Pigeon-Flyers concludes upon certain things being unearthed from alien crypts, whereas XI – The Well has New England farmers delving deep into the bowels of the earth and discovering madness and death. Yes, this link may be subtle to the point of tenuousness but there is a faint accord here. Incidentally the Thog mentioned in this verse is, one of the twin moons of Yuggoth according Lovecraft.

However the next poem fits more comfortably; XII – The Howler is another micro weird tale set New England. It is almost as if the guiding force behind the visions is saying ‘and further down the road from Seth Atwood’s farm…. this happened’. Many commentators identify “the four pawed thing with human face” as a precursor to Brown Jenkin in Dreams in the Witch-House which Lovecraft would write two years later. However it could well be a reference to the ghasts featured in Zealia Bishop’s The Mound which HPL *ahem* revised i.e. heavily rewrote in the same period as penning Fungi From Yuggoth. Alternatively, more likely in my opinion, this mystery beast is a call back to Pickman’s Model which features Lovecraft’s conception of the legendary ghoul (the model for these beings in many RPGs and video games, fact fans). And this tale explicitly states these bestial beings can evolve from humans and have strong ties to the old witch cults – “One canvas shewed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs”.

Moving on, The Howler takes places at sunset, and the next verse XIII – Hesperia follows this with a truly cosmic vision inspired by “the winter sunset, flaming beyond spires/and chimneys”. Again this another visual dissolve with one sunset bleeding into another. And Lovecraft continues with another imagery based link, for after sunset comes twilight and according to Sonnet XIV the star winds blow, breathing strange dreams across the land.

So then XV Antarktos is a verse concerning oneiric visions; it begins “Deep in my dream”. Incidentally Mythos fans might like to know that the vast ice entombed horror is one of the Great Old Ones, Gol-goroth. This particular demon was first created by Robert E Howard and in The Fishers From Outside Lin Carter links Howard’s stories with this sonnet, claiming that Gol-goroth is entombed in the Antarctic beneath Mount Antarktos (for further elder lore on this eldritch monstrosity see here).

However from horrors buried beneath centuries of glaciers, XVI – The Window brings us more benign visions. While the two poems may seem unconnected, I suspect what Lovecraft is doing here is sticking with the motifs of hidden secrets and revealing dreams but is presenting a contrast – after all not all dreams are nightmares. Antarktos deals with dream visions that blast the sanity, whereas the curious aperture in The Window reveals wonders; it is a portal to “all the wild worlds of which my dreams had told”.

Again perhaps stretching a point but again if we imagine the cycle in visual terms, as a movie if you will, the exotic landscape of Sonnet XVII – A Memory conceivably is one of the “wild worlds” we reach by travelling through the window. On more certain ground however is XVIII – The Gardens of Yin which “old dreams had flung open the gate to that stone lantern maze” and concludes this quartet of dream related verse.

However overlapping into the next sonnet, XIX – The Bells, is the theme of questing for revelations (as seen in XVII and XVIII) – the narrator in this verse scours his “dreams and memories for a clue” to the persistent phantom peals. However The Bells also begins a quartet that explore the Cthulhu Mythos – firstly we have Innsmouth and once again this benighted town leads to alien locations in the nether world, hinting of the undersea horrors Lovecraft would later detail in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Next we have XX – Night-Gaunts whose narrator is swept away by the titular beings to encounter other aquatic horrors. The location of the Peaks of Thok (sometimes spelled ‘Throk’) is somewhat obscure; in his early fantasy novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath Lovecraft locates these titanic mountains in the Underworld of his Dreamlands, however other sources and writers have identified Thok as one of the moons of Yuggoth.

Incidentally this particular verse was inspired by HPL’s childhood nightmares and previously the Night-Gaunts had appeared in Dream-Quest, one of his tales centring on his recurring hero Randolph Carter who in this work sets out to find a sunset city seen in his dreams…

…And the main adversary in that curious tome is the star of Sonnet XXI – Nyarlathotep. Also like its predecessor this verse is based on a nightmare Lovecraft had, which incidentally Lovecraft had previously attempted to turn this dream into a short story back in 1920. This vision of the apocalypse closes with the line “the idiot Chaos blew earth’s dust away” and the next verse details this entity, the daemon sultan Azathoth, who incidentally also appeared in Dream–Quest and the afore mentioned peaks of Thok are colloquially named ‘Azathoth’s Teeth’. As Mythos scholars will know, Nyarlathotep serves the Other Gods, of whom Azathoth is chief, and hence “the daemon” mentioned in XXII is indubitably the same entity, and I’d argue, is the same daemon we met earlier in V- Homecoming

The sonnet Azathoth states this being, bubbling in the centre of all infinity creates all worlds and dimensions in the cosmos, and appropriately the next two poems concern strange worlds in hidden dimensions. XXIII – Mirage concerns a lost realm “floating dimly on Time’s stream” and XXIV – The Canal features an evil place “somewhere, in dream”. Now this isn’t as much as a stretch as it first seems as in Lovecraft’s fiction dreams are often visits to other dimensions. With its tolling bells and uncertain placement in time and space, Mirage echoes both sonnets XIX and XVII. The world of The Canal appears to be a dark counter part of the realm detailed in XIII, but also recalls the grim dead cities of IX and X.

And in a similar shift between IX and X, the dark deserted streets of The Canal dissolve into “the mad lanes” “south of the river” where the great black spire of St Toad’s lurks in Sonnet XXV. As Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price points out in his article on the mysterious St Toad, this sonnet possibly inspired one of the scenes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth where the protagonist Robert Olmstead stumbles across a not dissimilar church. Considering we have twice returned to this benighted town in the cycle, it is not difficult to believe that Innsmouth is the home to St Toad’s. Certainly it would appear we are back in our world, somewhere in Lovecraft’s haunted New England.

And both the geographical setting and the theme of blasphemous worship are continued in Sonnet XXVI – The Familiars. Another of the New England horrors, this verse tells the tale of an isolated farmer who becomes obsessed with hidden lore and after “he began those night howls” – presumably some form of ritual or worship – his neighbours who fear for his sanity discover him “talking to two crouching things that at their step flew off on great black wings” (note that possibly these beings could be the Night-Gaunts from XX). And this leads in neatly to XXVIII – The Elder Pharos, where another hermit, this time in Lovecraft’s mythical region Leng, talks “to chaos with the beat of drums”.

Incidentally Leng is frequently mentioned in Lovecraft’s fiction. However where exactly this mountain fastness is located is unclear – in some tales such as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath it appears to be on the edges of Lovecraft’s dream world, but in others such as The Hound and The Call Of Cthulhu it would appear to be located somewhere in the Himalayas, an evil counterpart to other unmapped realms like Shambhala or Shangri-la. Seemingly like the Peaks of Thok in XX, Leng would appear to exist in both the waking world and the dimension of the Dreamlands.

However as well as communication with eldritch entities, The Elder Pharos also features a mysterious light that shines out from the fantastic vistas of Leng, whose origin many “in man’s first youth” have sought out but have never returned. And the next verse, XXVIII – Expectancy, echoes this theme of questing into mysteries that can never be unravelled. Again this is a contrasting pair – The Elder Pharos contains a sinister mystery that dooms all who seek to unravel it, whereas Expectancy is about rewarding yet never quite grasped transcendent hints some things inspire in us. Like Antarktos and The Window, this pair highlights the fact that awe and terror are two side of the same revelatory coin.

XXXIX – Nostalgia also addresses the questing theme, and in this case we have both a lost legendary location, echoing The Elder Pharos and the mysterious inner hints of Expectancy. Here the birds fly out looking for a city “in some land their inner memories know” but which is now vanished beneath the waves. And aside from continuing a theme, tonally this sonnet has the same air of what I would term ‘magical melancholy’ as the preceding verse.

And this feeling, evoking nostalgia is its truest sense, continues in the next sonnet which explores a similar bonding with landscape and architecture. However in XXX – Background the narrator of this verse has discovered the key to his own transcendent visions – the historic townscape of his youth. However not all such ancient buildings are offer such delightful reveries, as the next sonnet reveals.

XXXI – The Dweller is another micro tale, telling of an expedition to excavate some curious ruins that were “old when Babylon was new”. And rather than a treasure left “from times of cautious leaven”, these antediluvian ruins hold a frightening secret that has the archaeologists (a Miskatonic University party I’d wager) fleeing in terror. While providing a contrast to XXX, The Dweller also reintroduces the theme of strange revelations which is picked up in the next verse.

XXXII – Alienation deals with the price of gaining outré knowledge. Like Gulliver in Swift’s famous novel, the narrator here discovered that his mystic voyages have destroyed his connections to his family and his ordinary life - indeed the final two lines of this sonnet are an apt epigraph for the finale of Gulliver’s Travels. Incidentally the Ghooric Zone is a region located on Yuggoth’s moon, Thog which we heard about in X- The Pigeon-Flyers, and later Cthulhu Mythos tales have identified as the location of the “foul lake where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep” in XX – Night-Gaunts. The “piping from the voids beyond” is a reference to XXII – evidently the dreamer in this verse unwittingly found his way to the centre of all infinity and beholding the blind nuclear madness of Azathoth “giving each frail cosmos it eternal law” has destroyed all perception of meaning in his life.

And the piping from the Daemon sultan’s court can be heard again in XXXIII – Harbour Whistles. Here combing notes form the ship’s whistles are “fused into one cosmic drone” that “echoes outer voids”. But also this naturally evolving sound recalls the transcendent hints contained in the “half-heard songs” of XXVIII and the occult keys to other realms the book itself contains.

And fittingly (if somewhat tenuously) XXXIV – Recapture appears to be almost a replay to the first vision from the book, IV- Recognition. As I remarked earlier, the imagery and setting is remarkably similar and the final lines would imply that the narrator has found himself once more in “that hollow of old oaks”. And if we interpret this sonnet as a return to that wooded altar on Yuggoth, then we could assume that this visit takes place before IV – note that the narrator claims he realises “what primal star and year” (my italics) has brought him back here. Combined with the title itself, Recapture, the implication appears to be that this is how the narrator ends up a “body spread on that dank stone”, an unclean feast for things that “were not men”.

And the cycle could have ended there, however two more sonnets remain. Throughout this series of verse, as we have seen Lovecraft has been alternately delivering poems that evoke terror and awe; for every dark benighted city where eldritch horrors dwell there is a fantastical place laden with beauty and inspiration. Hence XXXV is a bright reflection of Recapture – instead of the sinister dark woods and ruins, Evening Star has a rural meadow. And instead of some nameless fate in the hands of horrors from outside the stars, we have visions of the sunlit realms and magical landscapes evoked in earlier poems, such as the world beyond The Window, “the land where beauties meaning flowers” or The Gardens of Yin. And similar to its predecessor, this penultimate verse echoes an early vision from the book, V – Homecoming. However here we have the narrator himself experiencing the revelation rather than being informed by the mocking daemon, and reaching this inner knowledge provides an optimistic conclusion to all the other verses that detail well loved lands now lost and out of reach, and all curious vistas that have invoked dim impossible memories of previous visits.

The final sonnet, XXXVI, in the light of this article the somewhat ironically titled Continuity, is similarly conclusive; although exact nature of the secret hints, tantalising clues and hidden keys remain obscure here we find Lovecraft finding a balance and a purpose in these veiled signs. While other verses have been draped in melancholy and longing, Continuity sees the narrator finding that these mysterious impressions ultimately provide a connection to the cosmos, a sense of being part of “the fix’d mass whose sides the ages are”.

Perhaps very tellingly this verse strongly echoes Lovecraft’s own words on his writing which I shall quote again here –

“I’m simply casting about for better ways to crystallise and capture certain strong impressions (involving the elements of time, the unknown, cause and effect, fear, scenic and architectural beauty and other ill assorted things) which persist in clamouring for expression”

However Continuity gives us reasons why such impressions were so important to capture.

While some have brought madness and horror, others have revealed the wonders of the cosmos. And a handful are somewhat ambiguous - for example although his neighbours are horrified by what they discover John Whateley has summoned out of the nether world, is this rural occultist as terrified as them by his visitors? Similarly in The Window, the masons are horrified by the opening of the portal but the narrator is enraptured. And in The Bells, is the realisation that the phantom tolling is emanating from a sunken city beneath the waves a revelation of horror or wonder? If you are familiar with the goings-on in Innsmouth, then one may assume this is a dread realisation, but it is worth recalling how the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth plays out…

As I hope I have demonstrated, once you strip away the artificial categories we use to classify his fiction, the arrangement of sonnets in Fungi From Yuggoth actually contains a lot more links and continuity than has been previously noticed. And while Lovecraft uses a variety of different methods to establish a subtle flow throughout the cycle, striving and yearning for revelation have been are the dominant recurrent themes.

And therefore sonnets such as XXIII Mirage and XXXIV Recapture are not as different as at first they may seem – they may be written in different modes, employing dissimilar imagery but both detail a transcendent experience. As a devotee of weird fiction, Lovecraft understood the pleasure one gains from reading a tale that evokes a frisson of fear, and that such states “cut the moment’s thongs” in a similar way that a beautiful landscape may induce reveries - both fear and awe may be keys to transcendence.

When before beginning this epic tour of the Fungi From Yuggoth we alluded to the fact that structurally the placement of the poems is telling. And now having seen how Lovecraft has distributed the various different kinds of verse, wee see that there is a definite progressive pursuit of themes through the cycle. Wonder and terror play off each other as we tumble through his universe; though some of those who seek to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos may well fall foul of the vast horrors that populate the myriad dimensions and worlds, others will discover marvels to behold.

Taken together these twin strands ultimately resolve into the conclusion of Continuity – indeed if one ventures too far one may be confronted with the final truth of all things, which in Lovecraft’s fictional universe is the dread horror that is Azathoth. However what distinguishes Lovecraft from the hordes of imitators and indeed many other horror writers, is the fact that the terror isn’t simply due to discovering there’s a monster behind everything. The real horror is that there is a ‘god’ that created our reality but he is mindless and indifferent, and humanity’s fortunes is left to whims of Nyarlathotep.

Reflecting Lovecraft’s own rational beliefs, his devotion to science leaving no room for a benevolent god, the nuclear chaos that is the daemon sultan Azathoth is a symbol of the horror of realising we are adrift in a godless universe and our lives are not only cosmically insignificant but totally meaningless.

However despite his rationality, Lovecraft also clearly felt the lure of spiritual – although he could not countenance a belief in a god, mythology, legend and arcane still called to him. And in literature, in history and in his dreams he found a spiritual transcendence of his own devising. It may have been more aesthetic than religious in nature but in his reading of Machen, Blackwood, Dunsany and Poe, and in his travels to visit antiquarian buildings and historical trips opened these personal inner doors.

The close of the cycle seems to suggest that Lovecraft is saying that it is the taste of the mysteries and not their resolutions that matter. When speaking of these intimations of infinitude in XXVIII – Expectancy he remarks that “none gains or guesses what it hints at giving”, and as the cycle shows pursuing these strange hints and impressions may bring one to confront the shattering truth of Azathoth. However in the final two sonnets, we have arrived at a balance; one may not ever be able to discover the origin of these mystical impressions that haunt us, the land of lost dreams may remain out of reach, but approached in the right manner that fact that they do move us may provide an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

The guiding laws that govern our world may the creation of Azathoth’s whims but we still may meaningfully connect with the cosmos – not all realms are wastelands of horror, there is the bright world of dreams and vision where beauty and wonder flower. They may not be any cosmic salvation in Lovecraft’s cosmology but there is personal redemption in that through poetry, fiction, music and beauty we may step outside of ourselves and see a wider world of wonders, if only fleetingly.