Ginger Nuts of Horror
My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 25 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
It's Just A Phase I Was Going Through.
13 or 14 – I can be no more precise. Dad had – has still, if I know my old man – a collection of the non- M paperbacks. Beautiful black covers with white artwork and words. That he had a whole set, eight or ten titles at that point, clearly boded well – my Dad reads a ton, but he's not what Mr. King refers to as much of a constant reader – he likes finding new things, new stories, new writing. Very rare that my dad will buy everything someone puts out. I remember too this being one of the few books I borrowed from my dad that was a real loan, and not a 'borrow' that ended up living with me on a more permanent basis. He explicitly asked for the book back when I was done. That was another sign, looking back.
How had the name come to my attention? Playground gossip? It seems vanishingly unlikely, given where I went to school and my peer group, but it feels like that was the source. I have a strong sense that I was aware of the book prior to seeing it on my father's shelf, that it held some legendary status of twisted, fucked up writing far worse than the King or Koontz or Herbert catalogue I'd thus far been exposed to. I approached the book with trepidation, is what I'm trying to say here, and I think that came from outside. Though Dad will probably have let me know, casually, that it was dark, or scary.
Many of you will have heard such hype as a kid, about a book or movie. I think one of the principle experiences of growing up is the first time you sit and watch something that has been hyped and find yourself underwhelmed. It's a rite of passage in some ways – the moment you first look at a piece of art (defined in its broadest possible term) that someone else has professed love, admiration or fear about, and found yourself, upon experiencing it for yourself, asking 'is this it?' I'm not sure I can pinpoint when that first happened for me.
This sure as shit was not that day.
Because The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks did not merely live up to the hype. It exceeded it in every conceivable way. It transcended it. It blew the fucking doors off.
And listen: There's a spoiler warning up top, but I'm going to double down on that now: If you're a fan of horror or dark fiction – I mean any kind of fan at all of this genre – and you haven't yet read this book, you need to stop reading right fucking now, go away and get it, and read it, and then come back. I am not kidding. I am going to talk about this book in detail, and... look, it's like Fight Club, or The Sting, or The Sixth Sense, or The Crying Game. Nothing can recreate that first time you experience the story, get to THAT moment, and go 'holy fucking HELL!' The Wasp Factory is that good. Maybe better. And I don't want to be responsible for spoiling it for anyone. So sincerely, go and read this goddamn book. Thank me later.
This book is terrifying. It grossed me out on a visceral level, at points, but more importantly, it really went after me where I lived. The protagonist is deranged. As the story winds out, you discover just how deranged, but even from fairly early on, it's clear he's a messed up individual. There's something very sinister about having a story told to you by a young man who is clearly bright, articulate, intelligent, and deeply horrible. None of this 'save the cat' bullshit here – Frank is unpleasant from the get-go, and by the third or fourth chapter, it's clear he's an outright monster. I remember a clammy, claustrophobic feeling to reading the book – like being trapped in a bar with a drunk man you gradually realise is also unhinged and dangerous, who has decided that you are to be his audience for the evening. You are afraid of him, and what he will tell you... but you are also too scared to walk away.
It's a very powerful memory – that sense of dread that propelled me through the entire story. It's a lesson that's stuck with me as a writer – all that stuff about having to have a sympathetic protagonist – well, here's a debut novel from a young to-that-point sci-fi writer that deliberately, almost surgically, cuts against that premise, presenting instead a character who only becomes more frightening the more layers you peel away, and compels your attention by, in effect, daring you to look away.
I couldn't. I couldn't as he discussed his divination device – The Wasp Factory – a device that he feeds wasps into, which contains a series of death traps for the creatures, and by which death he seeks to understand the future and how he should act. I couldn't as he calmly discussed the childhood accident that robbed him of his genitals – a savage dog attack. I couldn’t as he calmly discussed his brother, recently escaped from an insane asylum, on his way back to the remote Scottish island Frank lives on with his father.
I couldn’t as he calmly tells us of the murders Frank committed as a child.
He describes the murders of two other children. The first I have no memory of, beyond the fact of it, though I feel afraid just trying to remember. The second, though, haunts me to this day, primarily because of its clinical cruelty. Simply put, he contrives to tie a young girl (7? 8? no older) to a giant kite, and simply sails it off a cliff and out over the sea. While she is fully awake and aware. To float until she lands in the sea, there to sink and drown. The story is told from Frank's perspective, so we never learn the specifics of her ending (Frank himself couldn't care less, only glad to be rid of the annoyance, and if I recall the body is never found), and we are left instead to imagine the horror of her predicament, as she is carried beyond all possible safety, into a cold, terrifying and painful death.
And there is worse to come. Far worse. Frank's brother has a nasty habit, you see; a habit of trying to force younger children to eat worms. It is this habit that finally lands him in the institution he escapes from at the start of the book. As the book evolves, we find out the cause of this derangement. It's one of the most horrific passages of prose I can recall, and even at this distance of twenty years, I find myself reeling in fear, disgust... and worst of all, a bleak darkness, a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world, something broken and diseased at its centre. That there are things that can happen that are so awful that not only can there not be a loving God, but there may in fact only be his dark mirror. Some bleak, vicious jester. Not simply because of some particular piece of gross out imagery - though that is part of it, and a spectacularly imaginative image it is too - but rather because of the notion of blissful unawareness, even pleasure that accompanies said image. This does not merely gross out the stomach – it grosses out the mind.
And yes, it's a work of fiction, something Iain Banks made up. But you know that thing about how good fiction is a lie told in service to the truth? Well, this is one of those. I've thought about this a lot, because I'm conscious that if you haven't read the book (and seriously, if that’s you and you’ve got this far, I love you, but FUCK OFF and read it, okay?) you may not get what I got – my reaction may not be your own. You may have read enough other heinous shit that it doesn't resonate in the same way, or your mind may just not have the same triggers that mine does. In other words, I am acutely aware that I may be, in point of fact, setting you up for the kind of disappointment I talked about up top.
Well okay. And if that is the case for you, I apologise. But I have to say for me, this book redefined what horror could be. With not a single ghost, monster, killer clown or vampire or satanic ritual, it disturbed me more than any work of fiction had to that point. And honestly, casting my mind over what I've read since, with the possible exception of 'Sleepers' (which cheats by being based on a true story) I think it still holds that crown.
And I just can’t do it. I can't bring myself to write the spoiler filled discussion I usually would in these columns. For two reasons. One, because I know damn well that somebody ignored my last two warnings and is still gleefully reading in ignorance of the text – and fuck you, go and read the fucking book. But far more importantly, two, I can't do it justice. Taken from context, quoted out of a twenty year memory rather than expressed word for word, as part of the surrounding story, it just won't have the pile-driving, life changing impact on you that it had on me. If you've read it, you know exactly what it is I'm talking about. If you haven't, well, did I mention fuck you? But also, I can't do it justice.
I am not as good a writer as Iain Banks. And it's a near certainly that you aren't either.
Banks was a singular talent. The Wasp Factory is one of the greatest horror novels of the 80's. In fact, I'd argue it's one of the greatest horror novels ever written full stop. Proof positive that you don't need to have monsters to write heart stopping, gut churning horror. Proof positive that you can rip up the rule book about likeable, sympathetic, relatable narrators, as long as you're capable of writing prose so fucking compelling that people are too scared to look away. Living, seething proof that horror doesn't need to be dumb, or lowest common denominator, or any of that shit that gets flung at it; more, proof that the best horror is amongst the best writing in print, no qualifier needed – fierce, whip smart, unflinching, gripping, compelling, and sure, terrifying. Banks went on to write a lot of what was called 'literary fiction' in between his sci-fi novels, and some of them I'd similarly label as non-supernatural horror (A Song Of Stone being a particularly bleak and fine example). The fact that we don't talk about The Wasp Factory as a great horror novel is entirely a failure of us as a genre – a lack of confidence, maybe, or just a too-blind acceptance of the categories we're given by publishers scared of being labelled as horror. If Cormac McCarthy is horror (and he fucking is) then so is Iain Banks – or at least, The Wasp Factory is. I'll say it again – The Wasp Factory is one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th Century. Full stop.
Look, I'll do you a deal; go read this book if you haven't already. Then we'll have that spoiler filled discussion in the comments, okay? We can talk about all those lovely twists, that heart stopping reason behind Frank's brothers illness, the truth regarding Frank’s father, the murders, all of it. I want to, believe me. This book did some damage to my mind, frankly – showed me the limits of what I thought fiction could do, could talk about, and could effect, were entirely a failure of my own imagination – that, in point of fact, fiction could open your eyes to not just darker alternate realities, but darker corners of this actual, shared reality – the world we live and breathe in. It is a monumental, monstrous, marvellous book, and I really think it may change your life.
Go read it. Then we'll talk.