Ginger Nuts of Horror
1980. I didn’t consider myself to be a reader of any particular genre. In fact, I’m not even sure we used that word at that time. I read everything I could lay my hands on. One day it might be Virginia Woolf, the next Agatha Christie or Stephen King, followed by Boris Pasternak and a generous helping of Jean-Paul Sartre. In common with many people in those pre-Amazon/Kindle days, I belonged to a monthly mail order book club called World Books and eagerly awaited their ‘Book of the Month’ recommendation.
One month they did things differently. Instead of one book, they offered a series – Riverworld – and the offer was based on all four books. The subject intrigued me. The famous explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton has died and somehow ended up in a strange new world, with new challenges and adventures. I sat back and waited for it to arrive. The first in the series was ‘To Your Scattered Bodies Go’ and I opened it, eager to get started. On the cover, I read:
He remembered his death. It had come as a blackness…a nothingness: he had not even been aware that his heart had stopped. Then his eyes opened…
I was hooked. Today, all these years later, I still am.
I was always ‘that one’ as a child. The one who had no interest in sports, or cars, or wrestling or any of the other crap I was ‘expected’ to be interested in. However, I was always very much into books. Couldn’t get enough of them. I was above my ‘reading age’, whatever the Hell that concept was about, and constantly being given more and more to read from teachers eager to nurture whatever they thought they were nurturing. Except they always gave me stuff I hated. Stories about kids catching smugglers or going for picnics with their dog? Seriously? Even at six years old, I couldn’t have given less of a shit if I’d had chronic constipation.
Then one day, my mom bought me the book pictured above. The kind that, back in the 80s, you could pick up from one of those swivelling book racks for about two quid. As I recall we got this from either the post office or a chemist. I can’t actually recall which. But I was draw to it and my mom, never one to put me off anything I showed genuine interest in, bought it right away. I must have read it about fifty times as a child. It was just the perfect book for me. It was eerie, thought-provoking, and most importantly of all: it didn't feel as though it was written for children. Even at six years old I hated the patronising voices of things that were done ‘for children’. It just used to aggravate me.
See what I did there? I cheated, I went for the plural rather than the singular and expect Big Jim to cuff me around the lughole for the temerity of it… but really it’s just gonna be about the one book, but there are a few I want to touch on in passing before I get to the ‘big one’ – so pop pickers… I’m gonna cheat. You knew I would… Right, so, the portrait of the writer as a young man, just rediscovering the joy of reading. My folks had gone away for a couple of weeks over the summer, I had the house to myself, and I blew most of the money mum left me for food on books. Yeah, err, feed the mind and invent a brand new horror-and-fantasy driven diet. I could probably talk about Mort, by Terry Pratchett, which just completely changed my ideas of storytelling, or could pick any of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels. I read them one-a-night for the six weeks around my finals at uni, doing anything other than study. Then there’s Stephen Lawhead’s Paradise War books, which caused me to write the most incredible series of fan letters to Stephen discussing how we could (or couldn’t) see the workings of God in the world around us, and if it was possible that He might reach out to us through a medium we could understand, like, say, a favourite novel. There was a slew of young British novelists, Stephen Laws, whose novel Frighteners still stands out as one of my favourites of all time, Mark Morris, Stephen Gallagher, Steve Harris, all building on an excitement that seemed to be swelling in the genre at the time. And then there was Clive Barker, who has already been named by several of the writers here as the writer of the book that made them. Weaveworld was the book that made me realise I wanted to be a writer.
It’s 1989. I’m in my second year of High School. Clive Barker, HP Lovecraft, and a highly-underrated writer named William Kotzwinkle (See Doctor Rat especially) are my favourite authors. Mr. Barker’s most recent book is The Great and Secret Show; William Kotzwinkle has just published The Hot Jazz Trio collection; and HP Lovecraft is safe and sound in a bunch of yellowing Del Rey paperbacks on my bedroom dresser. There is no Internet, and one of my continual quests for the obscure is to procure Lovecraft’s story The Reanimator, which isn’t in those Del Rey volumes (Fashion sense wasn't the only thing hard to find in 1989).
There are, it seems, milestones in every writer's evolution; those experiences that obliterate the parameters and presumptions under which their imaginations operate, allowing them to swell into fresh contexts; become more both as writers and as human beings.
I could cite any number of times this has happened to me -the first time I encountered The Lord of the Rings at the age of 6, reading Stephen King's short story The Mist at age 8-, but one in particular stands out, its resonance still shuddering my soul, still shaping thought and inspiration; manipulating perception and providing new and wonderful vistas to appreciate:
So, I’m going to begin this piece with a little personal history…purely for context, I’m sure you understand..?
Abiding memories from my childhood are the times at my grandmother’s house, spending time with my cousins, who were always around Gran’s place and generally larking about. They were great days. This would be around 86/7, making me about 5 years old. In those days of vhs there was something called the Britania Movie Club, a kind of mail order video rental which would send out a quarterly- catalogue. In the catalogue there would be pictures of all the videos that were available for sale or rent and my cousins and I would spend hours flicking through and looking at all the artwork. At the back there was a horror section and there were three covers that would mesmerise me every time the magazine arrived; House, Nightmare On Elm Street and Hellraiser. Of those three I mentioned it was that iconic picture of the man with nails in his head that had me staring longest. It stuck with me for life.
I have always been a writer, I guess. I was able to read by the time I was three and I could write a little when I started first grade, thanks to my grandmother. And I’ve always loved scary stuff; ghost stories, the supernatural – anything that would keep me up at night, the overhead light on, eyes and ears on full alert for any sound or movement. The problem was that all that deliciously scary stuff was forbidden in my house. My father, a Hoboken police officer and ex-Marine (although according to him, there is no such thing as an ex-Marine,) despised any talk of ghosts, ghoulies, zombies and other morbid subjects, so I had to keep that kind of reading material under the table.
Though I will constantly make reference to the late great Richard Laymon as being the chief influence and inspiration on my writing, indeed the man whose work altered and honed the way I write, after I first read ‘Darkness, Tell Us’ back in the early 90’s, it was a little earlier than that when I became hooked on horror and there were myriad motivators prior to Laymon the king.
Hutson, early Koontz, McCammon and old King were pivotal to me, but when it comes down to specific books that played a massive part in entrenching me in a lifelong love with the genre, in all its mediums. Three novels in particular spring immediately to mind, because they’ve stuck with me from the moment I’ve read them, been re-read over and over again, and never lose any of the horrific charm that first obsessed me with them.
They are Graham Masterton’s ‘Walker’s, Thomas Page’s ‘The Spirit’ and Clive Barker’s ‘Cabal’.
Since this is the book that made me, singular, I will have to narrow that down to just one and in that event I’m going to run with ‘Cabal.’
CHRISTOPHER TEAGUE ON THE WONDERFUL STORY OF HENRY SUGAR & SIX MORE BY ROALD DAHL
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl
When I were a lad, I was never a book worm – I liked reading, but I was more interested in making my computer do stuff, not to mention frentic joystick waggling (I blame Daley Thompson for a weak wrist) and slaying those goblins among other beasties in the Fighting Fantasy game books.
But, checking out the school library one day I happened across this collection. I had read Dahl’s two Charlie books (Chocolate Factory and Glass Elevator) but what made me pick up the book was that it contained the original story “The Boy Who Talked with Animals” which I remembered from Tales of the Unexpected. Although the short stories were okay it was the main tale, a novella, which really hooked me.
I re-read it fairly recently, older though not necessarily wiser, and what really amazed me was how easy Dahl crafted a triple flashback tale, concerning a very wealthy man who reminisces about the time he discovers a medical journal written by a doctor visiting India, who met a gentleman who could ‘see’ without his eyes.
You discover how this wealthy man, a playboy in his youth, was so taken with this account that he sets about trying to see if it is indeed possible. As his pursuit continues, you the reader begin to ponder: is it really possible? Can you really ‘see’ without eyes? Through ups and downs, you are unashamedly hoodwinked by this man and his gift and marvel at what he does with it.
Finishing Henry Sugar definitely opened my eyes to fiction: I joined the school’s book club, and even though I continued to read the gamebooks I became hungry for ‘proper’ novels (not that Livingstone or Jackson weren’t real writers you understand, far from it).
It wasn’t until I was 16, though, and leaving school that I really caught the reading bug, especially horror when a friend of mine lent me a couple of James Herbert books.
So, to recap, if it weren’t for Roald Dahl and specifically Henry Sugar then it is doubtful I’d be reading for pleasure as an adult.
Now you know who to blame.
Chris Teague founded Pendragon Press in 2000, and the company's first release was Nasty Snips, a collection of flash fiction, with contributors that included Simon Clark and Tim Lebbon.
Over the following years the company has had a busy chedule, with between fifteen and twenty books launched onto the market. Writers in the Pendragon back catalogue include Tony Richards, Paul Finch, Lavie Tidhar, Gary McMahon and Rhys Hughes, with the novella form a particular strength. Pendragon and their books have often been in contention for the British Fantasy Awards, and in 2006 Stuart Young's novella The Mask Behind the Face carried the day, a feat that was repeated the following year with Kid by Paul Finch from the Choices collection.
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FILE UNDER HORROR NOVEL REVIEW