Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-night’s stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .”
The above passage is from The October Country by Ray Bradbury. Odds are you may well have heard it before. But if you heard it any other way than read aloud by lamplight on a hill, somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, with the night wind howling just beyond the thin walls of your tent… you heard it wrong.
As a child, when my father took me camping, The October Country was the book he brought to read from. It’s an interesting choice for children’s bedtime reading. It’s not Clive Barker or Richard Laymon, but nor is it Goosebumps. I can’t imagine his intention was to lull me into a sound, peaceful sleep with its unnerving tales of skeleton-sucking surgeons, murderous infants and things in jars. I’m sure he was hoping to creep me out. What he may not have expected was that this would be the foundation of my ongoing obsession with horror stories.
The October Country is a beautiful book. Setting aside the actual content, the book itself – our edition, at least – was a hardback marvel, filled with extraordinary illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini (who also painted the cover) that I studied at least as much as the words. The stories themselves are expertly crafted and wildly varied, but a world away from standard monster fare.
Bradbury is rightly hailed as one of the greatest science fiction writers who ever lived and notable, in a field of cynics, for his joyful optimism and unashamed sentimentality. But he was a horror writer too. And a merciless one.
There is something quietly upsetting about the world in which his characters live. Where a dwarf can be driven to the brink by the calculated deployment of a fun-house mirror; where a humble farmer can cause the massacre of millions simply by picking up a scythe and nothing about a car accident is so terrifying as the crowd of people that comes to assist.
Suicide. Murder. Madness. These are the fates of most protagonists in The October Country. Strangeness abounds. Cruelty too, though there is warmth and humour to be found. Even when he tried, Bradbury could never be mean-spirited, and though my reading has broadened since to include writers much bloodier, cruder and extreme, this is still what I’m looking for. It’s still what I want to write. Horror with a heart.
I published my first horror story, Bebbel, in 2010 and my first horror novel, Prince of Nightmares, this year. The intervening years have seen a marked change in my reading habits. It would be wrong to say I no longer read for pleasure. I do. But I’m mostly reading new books by contemporary, ‘up-and-coming’ authors. The occasional big name, but no huge ones. I stay away from the mass market and focus on small presses and indies. I guess the simplest way to put it is I’m checking out the competition. I want to get a feel for what state horror is in right now.
What I’ve found is some good stuff, some flawed but entertaining stuff and a fair amount of crap. But ask me to name a book from this period that has had a marked influence on me and one stands out – Population Zero by Wrath James White.
Right now there are two types of ‘extreme horror’. One is the gleeful gross-out kind, the kind you know was written by an author with a big grin on his face as he devised ingenious scenarios to make their readers gag. The other is thoughtful, brutal, get-you-where-you-live horror designed to leave readers genuinely psychologically scarred. It’s the latter that I’m most interested in. The stuff that goes for your brain, rather than your gut.
Population Zero is a book with brains. Its protagonist is a man so consumed with the very relevant fear of over-population that he begins targeting women for forced abortions. It’s a blood-spattered thesis on population control. A hyper-violent dissertation on conservation taken to its logical extreme. It’s a slim read that’s a little light on characterization and stumbles at the ending, but it is thought provoking and utterly fearless. White’s other books have turned similar tricks with subjects like theology and race. It’s horror with something to say. And it might not always be successful, but it’s definitely something to be admired.
Anyone can write about blood, gore and severed body parts. But political extreme horror? That takes guts.
After Prince of Nightmares, I now feel like I’m in the ‘difficult second album’ phase of my career. I’m not sure what my next horror novel will look like, never mind what I could be writing twenty years from now.
I’m not short of ideas. I have a big list, including about four or five fairly detailed ideas for books. But at this stage, I’m concerned my skills might not meet my ambitions. There are ideas in my head that I don’t feel I can adequately translate to the written word. Yet. But I also don’t want to rest on my laurels. If you want to evolve, you have to challenge yourself. You have to be fearless.
I want to be fearless, but I also want to be good.
I’d like to write books that combine the horror with a heart of Bradbury with the visceral, political horror of Wrath James White (shouldn’t be hard, right?) And I’d like to do it without veering into epic six hundred page novels, fantasy or YA territory.
What I envisage is a series of short, sharp novels. Horror that takes itself seriously. Each one a stepping stone in an evolutionary process. Not a formula, but a distillation.
In twenty years, I’d like my best, most horrifying work to still be ahead of me.
You can buy Prince of Nightmares here:
John McNee is the writer of numerous strange and disturbing horror stories, published in a variety of strange and disturbing anthologies, as well as the novel ‘Prince of Nightmares’.
He is also the creator of Grudgehaven and the author of ‘Grudge Punk’, a collection of short stories detailing the lives and deaths of its gruesome inhabitants.
He lives on the west coast of Scotland, where he works for a trade magazine.
And for more about John, visit his site or find him on social media: