The Most Unsettling Thing I’ve Ever Read

I’ve lost a little bit of my writing mojo of late, probably for a few reasons – I’m working in two different jobs so it’s harder to get into a routine of writing; my commute has changed and is less conducive to writing; I’ve been learning Japanese which has taken up a part of my brain that I think writing used to take up… and there are probably more reasons besides. Anyway, to try and get back in the groove I bought a couple of books on esoteric subjects. Most of my stories revolve around magickal goings on in an otherwise ordinary setting, and there’s nothing like having a read of people actually doing (or thinking they’re doing) that stuff to help get inspired. But I discovered something really horrible.

Previous contenders for ickiest things I’ve read are probably sections of Timothy Taylor’s incredible The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (well worth reading as long as you have a strong constitution) and, in fiction, Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (less worth reading). I used to keep a copy of the latter in my bag at school and try to get my friend Barry to read a section where a serial killer scoops out the lungs of a victim described in erotic detail.

For the new batch of books I went to Treadwell’s, an esoteric bookshop near the British Museum (so close to where John Dee’s scrying mirror, amongst other things, resides).  I came out with two slim volumes: a primer on chaos magic rituals, and a sort of autobiography of a ghost healer. It’s the latter that has caused me concern.

Autobiography isn’t quite accurate, it’s actually a series of short recountings of times the author investigated or healed ghosts. He was a man of the cloth, and his healings involve performing a Eucharist.

Some of the healings are on the vague side – in one case the author sits down in a cottage that keeps having its electrics turned off, and thinks with the homeowner about who might have lived there in the past. Maybe someone used to sit out the front (where the electrics are), and maybe they were an elderly woman and maybe people thought she was a witch. Just to be clear, this wasn’t researched, they just thought about it and extrapolated. And then performed a Eucharist for the imagined witch, and lo, all was resolved. Others are more detailed though and based on reportings of historic happenings.

And then I came to the anecdote in question. A military base. Some Satanic goings on. The chaplain had been arrested because two young girls had reported him for spanking them. What then follows is, in a nutshell, a confession from one of the girls that she was sexually abused by her father and the Chaplain. And the author smugly recounts how he was able to quash her story as a fabrication.

It’s told so briefly that there’s next to no reasoning given for the outcome. Simply that the second girl couldn’t corroborate her story. Given that the perpetrators would be likely to try and cover their tracks, that’s not the sturdiest reasoning. The anecdote ends by saying that the Chaplain in question was moved elsewhere 6 months later because of all the ‘tittle tattle’ about the case. Moved on, covered up, and free to continue.

And that’s it. There are no horrendous details of what went on. Just the impression that the author helped abuse continue. It’s really shaken me up. Perhaps at some point it’ll provide the basis of a villain in something I write, but to be honest I’d rather not have it in my brain at all.

The book is Healing the Haunted by Dr Kenneth McAll, and based on my experience with it I would strongly recommend not buying it.

 

Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.

@BornToPootle

Scary Games Vs Scary Films

Scaredface

Such scare. So fear.

I’m a big horror fan.

That’s a meaningless statement really. You might reasonably think that I have seen all the Saw films, beaten a path to anything Wes Craven and have a stack of Stephen King novels on the bookshelves. Only one of those is actually the case (King – what a writer!).

Instead, I went through the obligatory video nasty phase as a teenager/early 20-something, got caught up on Japanese and Korean horror films and have fallen in love with more recent(ish) efforts like Kill List and The Babadook. The horror genre is a varied thing, with much to offer. Including games.

I’ve tried my hand at a couple of horror games of late, and I’m not sure what to think. Not because I didn’t find them scary. Quite the opposite, actually. Possibly they’re too scary. Or is it something else?

The only film I have ever left because I was too scared was Return To Oz. I was 4. Jesus, that scared me. I finally watched the whole thing just a couple of years ago, and was pleased to find that it’s still creepy as all hell. But since then, I’ve never left a horror film unfinished, be it Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead (though I should have left part way through the turgid remake) or A Tale Of Two Sisters. But the two games I’ve played recently? I don’t think I can finish them.

Which games am I actually talking about? Alien Isolation and Soma. Both sci-fi horror, both high production values, both really high on my must-play list last year. And I really like both of them, to a point.

Warning – there are some spoilers ahead, more for Alien Isolation as I really haven’t got that far in Soma

Alien Isolation looks great. It sounds great. And for a long time it’s a fun horror experience. Being stalked through a (sort of) empty space station by a seldom-glimpsed iconic monster is a real thrill. It’s pretty much exactly what I hoped for, even if a lot of my playing time was spent looking out from cupboards.

AlienIsolation

Cupboard simulator 2014

But, as in the film Alien, there are androids. Not one bumbling-then-oh-shit-he’s-evil android, but a whole load of them. And the hero, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, starts to pick up a few weapons to deal with them. Never much ammo though. And that’s when things started to go downhill.

The alien isn’t killable. Not with the weapons, at least. You can drive it off with a flamethrower, but it’ll keep coming back. Fine. The androids though, them you can kill. It takes a bit of off effort, but they go down eventually. And so the grind began. Sometimes I killed the androids, sometimes they killed me. And suddenly all sense of fear has gone, replaced with something different: stress.

By the time I’d stop-started and died-killed my way through a room full of androids and dropped down into an alien hive I felt exasperated rather than exhilarated. And now here’s something new – killable little facehuggers. And the grind continues. I’d trade all my weapons for a good cupboard to hide in…

So far in Soma it’s a similar-ish experience to early Alien: Isolation. No weapons whatsoever and unknowable beasties patrolling desolate corridors. I’m in. I’m hooked. And then suddenly I’m more stressed than scared and the illusion gently crumbles. My character is perhaps forever stuck hiding around a corner as a monster traipses back and forth ahead. My character isn’t too scared to move, he just can’t be bothered. He’ll stay listening to the creepy sound effects and having a good time that way.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s something about being able to die and retry that spoils horror games for me. In a film you’re stuck. It’s going to carry on no matter how scared you get, it has a momentum that you can’t stop.

The last chunk of Kill List for example, down in the tunnels in the dark, disoriented and being chased by people neither the audience or main characters quite understand, is thrilling. What about Pulse? There’s a ghost woman walking in ghastly slow motion towards the main character, stumbling in slow-mo. It’s weird and horrible and unnerving as holy hell. But what if the character bungled their escape, and instead of the film ending they had to try it again. And again. And again. The fear would dissipate. It would become stressful. Then annoying.

There are alternatives though. Bioshock managed its horrors brilliantly – there are moments of the first game that I remember as clearly as any great film scare. It’s certainly more action-centric than Alien or Soma, so a slightly different vibe I suppose. I enjoyed Until Dawn recently – the idea that there was no do-over, no reloading if a character dies worked well, adding to in-the-moment tension without becoming merely stressful.

So what horror games can you recommend that don’t trade fear for stress? Layers of Fear looks intriguing…

Maybe I should just get better at games. That’s probably the best answer.

@BornToPootle

 

Link

Due to that all-too-frequent excuse of life getting in the way, my writing has taken a back seat for a couple of months. On the plus side, both me and my wife have nifty new jobs that involve writing and analysing others’ writing respectively.

Now that’s all settled I’ve been trying to get back into a writing rhythm but struggling. The main reason is that I’m at a bit of an impasse with a couple of projects and at the early stages of another where it’s hard to pick it back up  again just like that – it’s not ingrained in my brain enough yet.

Fortunately I received an email from some newsletter or other I’d signed up to about a short story competition and something sparked in my head. Check out Create50 – they’ve got a horror comp on at the mo and it’s a variation on the usual. While I’ve submitted a short story (max 2000 words) they’re also open to creepy music and art. The panel, and they seem like a high profile one, will pick their top 50 and that amalgamation will be published together. Quite how that works with music too I’m not sure, but I like the idea.

In addition to being open to other media, there’s a great community vibe going on. As part of entering you have to pay (a fiver) but you also have to provide feedback on at least 3 other entries. This feedback can then be used by the author to redraft their submission once or twice if desired.

It’s a cool system that seems like a good way to build a community around the Create50 projects. So far I’ve received two bits of feedback on my story, both of which are really positive but highlight the same element as a weakness – that of course gives me a great idea for how to redraft and resubmit.

There is the potential, as there is in any crowd-based idea, for things not to work out. If many people highlight the same weakness then how can you be sure they all read the piece rather than copied an earlier review? 2000 words is pretty short which should encourage people to do it properly, and I get a supportive vibe from looking through profiles and the like.

Also, what if someone’s mean about my story? Well, the likelihood is they’re also a creator themselves so it’s more likely there’ll be some kind of constructiveness in there… right? We’ll see!

Another odd thing is the star ratings – when leaving feedback you have to give the piece a star rating out of five. I’ve received two 4s so far, which is nice, but it’s hard to know what they really mean. According to the competition blurb, the judging panel disregard these ratings which is good – otherwise it could turn into a popularity contest with social media campaigns trying to get chums to block vote. The idea of the star ratings is under discussion by the Create50 team at the mo, so perhaps they’ll disappear.

I’m going to take a look at a few submissions tonight and give feedback, so hopefully I’ll discover some nifty new horror.

The comp is open until November so there’s plenty more time for submissions and redrafts – I’ll let you know how I get on. If you’ve entered then let me know and I’ll have a read of your submission. Or a listen. Mine’s called The Cut if you fancy taking a gander.

Alternatively, if you’ve entered this kind of thing before let me know of any great or terrible experiences in a comment below.

@BornToPootle