Halloween column: The joy of horror

We have been telling stories about the things that terrify us since time immemorial.

We have done it in every medium ever invented, from oral campfire stories to religious illuminated manuscripts to wood etchings to cinema. There is no shortage of examples, and the beauty of horror (let’s just class it all as “horror fiction”) is that it is endlessly adaptable to the circumstances. Like science fiction, it’s a fantastic vehicle for social commentary, because you can make grotesque analogies with reality or real-life behaviours – Jordan Peele did this masterfully in Us and Get Out.

I can’t think of a single genre that’s been more influential on me than horror. It wasn’t just Stephen King, even though he was the first horror writer I was a fan of and for years he was the most numerous author in my own library (eventually match, then eclipsed by Terry Goodkind).

Although I’m also a big fan of science fiction, nothing can come close to horror for me really. The first book I can remember buying with my own money was a hardback Penguin Book of Horror Stories, now out of print, in a shop in Tralee, Co Kerry, which no longer exists (stop calling me old).

Penguin Book of Horror Stories, edited by JA Cuddon

I go back to this maybe every 18 months or so. It holds such a prominent place in my formative years that I’m always convinced one of my favourite stories – about somebody who only discovers they’re living dead at the end when catching sight of themselves in a mirror – is in it, and yet it is not. I’ve never been able to trace the story, and as far as I know it was anonymous. My wife, incidentally, has suggested that it may have been a story I wanted to write but never did… so in all likelihood I will.

I had always aimed to be a fantasy fiction author. I fell head over heels for David and Leigh Eddings’ works while a teenager (the first one part of the Belgariad bought secondhand on a whim… I’ve only recently discovered the darkness in their past, see the comments). I loved, and still love, the world building aspects, the adventure, the ability to break rules with magic. And yet while I wrote the genesis of a couple of novels in my youth, they never completed themselves. I even did a whole preparatory study for a fantasy universe, a la the Eddings’ Rivan Codex, which was a bit of a goldmine in terms of trying to understand how to put something like that together.

As I returned to writing recently, I worked out some fantasy-inspired stories, including one that’s paused in around the 17,000-word mark. But it turns out I have more of a flair for horror, and that I can use that genre to explore everything I have an interest in. A story of mine was recently published on 2RulesofWriting, and explores the idea of a ghost being haunted by himself. Other stories examine being trapped by pain of the past, while others dip back into the fantasy mythos.

The Guardian recently published a piece (and it’s really a rather interesting article) referring to the “horror fiction renaissance”, stating that horror “went away” in the 1990s to be replaced by other genres. Peele is quoted from a book on black horror that he views the genre “as catharsis through entertainment”.

This is actually not a new statement, though it captures the essence of it, and I remember it coming up as a theme in film studies while at university: The idea that a group can, communally, experience intense fear and emotions in a safe space (the cinema) with a defined end. A bit like a rollercoaster, which often is a good analogy for a horror film.

I’m not convinced by the article’s thesis that horror really went away. I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong, but rather that the genre has tended to just been reimagined. It blends easily with dystopian fiction (which itself goes back to Wollstonecraft Shelley’s The Last Man at least), science fiction, thrillers, pastoral scenes, whatever takes your fancy. Perhaps it is better to say that it became less visible, or less to the forefront culturally. Asian cinema has been producing horrors successfully, often remade for Western audiences (eg, Ring, The Grudge), and there is a superb range of anime horrors too.

Certainly, it is cyclical, like pretty much every other genre. Every now and again something comes out that breaks the conventions and establishes a new orthodoxy. Think the 1978 Halloween that more or less created the slasher genre. Think also of the Scream series, which resurrected the slasher genre but in a smart, self-referential sort of way. But while both of those series ended up prolific, they spawned innumerable imitators and the quality became diluted, as it typically does in every cultural mass movement.

The ability to self publish, and publish digitally first, has definitely allowed a flowering of newer subgenres in the last few years, and from a more diverse range of backgrounds, and there’s even a dedicated Irish publisher of science fiction and horror, Temple Dark Books. The vibrancy of #bookstagram and #booktok are also allowing new reads to get out in front of eyeballs faster than usual, even if it’s possible to drown in the sheer amount social media content (but it’s not just book-related). I follow a couple of horror-focused accounts on Instagram and I could easily (and gleefully) bankrupt myself buying up their recommendations.

Who knows what the future will hold? More cycles of innovation and stagnation, no doubt, but there will be constant innovation bubbling along in the background. I look forward to doing a better job of keeping in touch with it.

Happy Halloween!

Change through small simple steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a well-trotted out phrase at this stage, used in all sorts of contexts to illustrate that anything and everything takes time. You could apply the phrase to Rome the city or Rome the empire, it makes no difference.

In a world where we constantly need to have instant results it’s easy to forget the power of small changes and how they add up. It’s something I came across during lockdown, and it’s how I ended up in my 20 pages a day reading challenge (still haphazard, but it will overall hit the annual reading target).

I follow and learn from a wide variety of individuals representing a wide variety of backgrounds. One of these is the brain trainer and speed reading guru Jim Kwik. Kwik had a brain injury as a child and struggled with learning but has since retrained his brain to work efficiently and has a prodigious memory. Although he would complain that “prodigious” is the wrong word to use, arguing that there are only trained brains and untrained brains.

I recently watched an interview with him where he discussed limitations and how they are generally down to our own perceptions of ourselves. One quote stuck out for me: “If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them”. Meaning, if you say to yourself “I can’t do this, I’ll never be able to do this”, then you won’t because you’re programming yourself to think that you can’t.

I took a number of online courses since the onset of covid, including several on leadership, organisational design, and management styles as part of a programme offered by Australia’s Macquarie University. Some of these courses were focused on how to be a better, more effective leader, but they also dealt with coaching and supporting employees. One approach that was discussed and which repeatedly pays dividends is, for want of a better name, the power of positive thinking. This is a growth mindset. Believing you can improve is key, much like what Kwik was talking about. And by telling employees they can improve or do new tasks, the research shows they are more likely to actually be able to do them. Provided you ensure they feel supported and that you genuinely believe in them.

But what if the task you need to accomplish is a big one? Well the tried and trusted way of taking it on is to break it into more manageable chunks. So, you want to read more? Do 20 pages a day, it adds up to 7,300 a year. Or read 20 minutes a day. Need to write that novel? Well try 500 words a day and build from there. Stephen King writes six manuscript pages a day, every day. Six. That works out as a book every two months (eg, 360 manuscript pages). A whole project management approach revolves around increments, particularly for software projects.

Kwik, in that interview I watched recently, which was part of an online festival so I can’t link out to, had a formula for progress in which he advocated a variation on this sort of thing: Short Simple Steps.

Like many useful ideas, the simplicity is what makes it works. Think along the lines of what I’ve said above about reading: You might want to kick off by reading, say, 20 books a year and then burn yourself out putting yourself under pressure. Instead, set a manageable target and chances are you’ll find yourself coasting past it because the pressure isn’t there.

I’ve written “Short Simple Steps” on the whiteboard in our kitchen so I can break it out the next time my son is tangling himself up in knots overthinking or telling us he can’t do something.

History repeating

Picture: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

The humanities seem to always be under attack somewhere, whether through swingeing staff cutbacks in the UK or most emphatically now with Governor DeSantis’s “war on education” to enforce conformity of thinking across Florida universities that would actually reduce diversity and undermine academic freedoms.

It would be easy to simply state that both projects are driven by conservative authorities. It would be easy too to highlight that arts and humanities teach critical analytical and thinking skills that make for good dissidents, which historically, conservative authorities have not liked. So I won’t say that. I’ll say instead that the exposure to a wide range of philosophies (for want of a better word), critical approaches, and being trained in how to form arguments and spot bias are all huge and transferable assets that come with a humanities education.

Critical thinkers tend to suffer any time a government turns conservative and humanities subjects in universities take a hit if there’s a funding squeeze, as any academic working in a school of arts in this country can tell you from the last downturn.

I’m a historian, as well as a journalist and writer, and what’s happening in America alarms me greatly given how it is surely inevitable – particularly if DeSantis makes a serious run for the US presidency as anticipated – that a similar movement will bleed into Irish discourse,  One would like to think that it wouldn’t, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana said, sometimes misquoted as by Churchill as “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

History sometimes gets a bad rep as a subject that is difficult to study, full of dates and events. That’s an antiquated way of teaching and learning history. Dates are important, no doubt, but the emphasis long ago switched to how and why things happened more than simply when and who did them.

Some schools of thinking in history argue that the duty of a historian is to “tell it like it was”. EH Carr, back in the 1960s, argued that history (or history writing at least) was a sort of ongoing process between the events and the day of the historian. This is still an important point, because one’s understanding of and writing about the past can be shaped profoundly by one’s present, something which incidentally became a theme in my PhD. Other historians eschew that and focus on pure analysis. But there’s no point analysing something the reader (or listener) doesn’t know. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the converted and speaking into an echo chamber of perhaps a handful of people. Whatever the perspective, history is, rather than a dusty collection of ancient thoughts and events, a living, breathing thing that needs appreciation and even some nurturing.

Take a walk around and you’ll walk through history. If I walk through Cork city centre, for instance, I can see the house my philandering great great grandfather Michael Verling lived in with his first family, the quays where he loaded and unloaded cargo, the customs office where my (not philandering) great great grandfather Daniel Mahoney worked following his naval career. I can visit churches where my ancestors were baptised. For years I walked past all these things not knowing they were part of my own history. I’ve spent the last number of years reclaiming it, if that makes sense.

An extract from Daniel Mahoney’s naval record referring to his service in the coastguard from Hastings, England, after naval service in Crimea

They key point here is that, compared to four years ago, I actually know where my ancestors come from, and even that I have relatives hitherto unknown (and me to them) alive and well in Missouri. The analytical skills picked up from my training as a historian and journalist have helped me sift through the documentation. One might not immediately think of a genealogy project as history, but in this project alone I can show my family’s connection to the Crimean War, steam ferries up and down Cork Harbour, and the mining industry in Kansas and Missouri. These are parts of a wider story, a wider history, that of Ireland and its diaspora. Your family has its ties to history as well.

However, timelines and timespans can be lost on people (and to be fair it’s hard to visualise things). That said, a teacher of my acquaintance was recently tearing her hair out that so many of her students had no idea how long the human species had existed. The guesses ranged from 15,000 years to hundreds. Hundreds! It explains why my son, who is 9, asked me recently if we used horses to get around when I was a child. I’m not yet 40. I just feel old.

There isn’t a movement in history that hasn’t used, well, history to support itself one way or the other. There are sound reasons. Showing a tradition, for example. Drawing inspiration from the past is another. The problem is that a lack of historical literacy makes it difficult to understand when history is being co-opted for contemporary purposes – how some members of the current Sinn Féin lay claim to the anti-Treaty fighters who would not see them as successors? – and so don’t have the tools to challenge it. And it should be challenged as often as possible.

Column: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

As those who follow me on Twitter may know, for the past year or so I have set myself an annual reading challenge. This was originally an attempt to read 20 pages every day, but it sort of morphed into trying to read the equivalent of 20 pages a day over the course of a year, which works out at 7,300. Last year I managed to beat it, this year I’m slightly behind schedule. Such is life.

That preamble out of the way, I want to talk a bit about dystopias. Specifically Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the greatest works of science fiction. It seems apt that a book about a society that burns books floated into my reading at a time when there is a serious threat to books in parts of America.

I have always loved dystopic fiction, perhaps ultimately because it forces us to confront wholescale world changes and how we cope with them. I like apocalyptic movies as well, so it’s clearly a genre I find appealing (I wrote about medieval ideas of the apocalypse too, but they’re quite different). This is a classic work, extremely short but essential reading.

In the book, a fireman (who burns books), Guy Montag, starts to come to the realisation that the extreme censorship and what he does for a living is wrong, and that there are other ways of living. Ultimately he decides to spend his days preserving books. That is a very simple summary of a book that has plenty of nuances, but it does the trick.

Ray Bradbury‘s style and the liveliness of the prose – and perhaps that much of the then fantastical technology such as immersive television experiences is not that far ahead of us now – make it easy to forget that the book was written in the early 1950s, when there were book burnings in America, and that one of his concerns is effectively the dumbing down of a population by the growth of television. But he wrote amid real fears about nuclear war – Hiroshima and Nagasaki being recent memories – anti-communist paranoia in America, and mass purges of intelligentsia and dissidents in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Importantly, while it feels like a prophetic text, he himself would say it was about what might happen as opposed to what will happen. At its heart the book asks the question ‘what if people didn’t like books?’ and follows it through to its most extreme end to explore the sort of world that might result.

The most intriguing, and alarming, thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that the book-burning mandate didn’t come from the government or some autocracy. Rather, it grew organically because people felt they’d be better off. Montag is told, “Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” That said, because this is relayed to the reader through dialogue it’s entirely possible that this is a story which was fed out as propaganda in favour of the changes, because it’s made obvious that the government is making what it deems best use of the situation.

News, for instance, is heavily sanitised at a time of nuclear war when bombers regularly fly over the homes of Montag and other characters. In fact the reader could ask if indeed cities across the United States (it’s only confirmed to by the US late on in the book) have been bombed already, given that it’s not clear if these are bombers returning from attacks or if they are attackers. Men are called up to the army, but none of their wives are particularly worried – they tell each other that it’s other women’s husbands who get killed.

Dissent exists, but it’s crushed. This dissent can be passive, such as through the mere existence of Montag’s neighbour Clarisse’s mere existence. She, free thinking and from a family that spends considerable time talking and interacting with one another as opposed to just existing, is in all her actions and force of personality the rank opposite of the sterile world that has been created, and while Montag is later told she was killed by a speeding car there is a strong inference that she was in fact killed by his captain. Thinking for oneself is a de facto crime.

The effects of not thinking for oneself are made clear by how Montag’s memory is in many cases weak: For instance, it is only toward the end of the novel that he can remember where he met his wife, and when he asks her this question earlier in the text she cannot remember either (though she places little importance on this).

Interestingly, there is the strong inference that people, at some level, realise that this is not how things need to be. Montag’s wife, who liberally takes sleeping pills, overdoses and he has to call medics to pump her stomach. The medics say they have multiple cases of this every night, suggesting that subconsciously even people who won’t question their reality openly are looking for an escape (a very final escape, but one all the same).

Sport, in this world, is the opiate of the masses (keep people occupied and makes them too tired to think really). But the key point about knowledge, and this is something I had in the back of my head when writing about the edits to Roald Dahl’s books (a decision now partially reversed), is that we need some sort of challenge if we are to evolve as individuals. As we are told in Fahrenheit 451: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

This is not a new concept. In the sixth century, Gildas, who was a crusty old monk writing in post-Roman Britain, referred to how words, in his case vicious criticisms of power and hypocrisy, could be “darts” that lead to healing. He was writing about religious reform, but the point about using words to get under somebody’s skin (or simply into their heads) is the same.

This is Gildas. He is definitely judging you

It was, I’m sure, some subconscious filing quirk that had me put Fahrenheit 451 on top of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) on the shelves, given that my copies are not the same size (one of my usual filing systems). Both grim dystopias but in very different ways, with Orwell’s book putting more emphasis on the use of state surveillance and the abuse of overwhelming power, exemplified in particular by the re-editing of newspapers to match whatever current politics exists: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

I will explore dystopian fiction more in the coming weeks and months as I shake this website into shape.

Editing Roald Dahl’s books is wrong

To say the decision by Puffin Books to edit Roald Dahl’s books is perplexing to say the least. The intention is to make the language more inclusive, and to remove or replace more problematic words. As an intention this is actually meant well, but in practice it makes little sense. Some changes are baffling. Making the Oompa-Loompas gender neutral is one, because it’s completely unnecessary (how was their previous description problematic?).

Now, let’s be clear: Language matters and inclusive language matters a great deal. When I was writing up the Irish Examiner style guide, which dictates what terms and linguistic styles we use, I made a point that we should not refer to people who have a condition in such a way that that condition defines them. So, somebody with diabetes as opposed to diabetic. As a father whose son was diagnosed with autism in the years after writing up that document, I am more acutely aware of the need for such language when you do not have the issue referred to yourself.

But I digress slightly.

I don’t agree with the claims from some critics that the Dahl edits are “woke” or for “snowflakes”. The changes, some of which are highlighted here, are meant well. I see the point of the publisher and recognise that it worked with a group that focuses on inclusivity. But my first reaction to the Roald Dahl news was that it was absurd. These are books, not instruction manuals. Indeed, the French publisher is not going to follow suit. Works of fiction are, by their very nature, works of art and just as importantly works of their time. You don’t have to agree with what’s in them, and you certainly don’t have to agree with how the author expresses themself. Words carry an abundance of  meaning and nuance and it is impossible to avoid something objectionable to someone being written somewhere by any author.

My second reaction was more a question. Where does it end? One only has to look at the campaigns by conservatives in parts of the United States to restrict – sorry, vet – what’s available in school libraries, and in particular the targeting of texts with some LGBT content, to say that censorship on a wide scale has the potential for a very bleak future indeed. We as a species are already grappling with the seemingly endless tide of conspiracy theory and misinformation (as opposed to mistaken interpretation, which is different even though it can also be damaging). Do we really need to hide ideas instead of engage with them?

And logically, where would it end? How far back do you go in terms of sanitising? All of medieval literature would be in the bin, if that’s the case. I did a PhD on it, trust me. Most works considered “classics” would face redaction, some more extensively than others. The Bible endorses genocide and murder in some parts. Heart of Darkness is explicitly racist. Nietzsche is a misogynist. There is a short Marvel series where Captain America – Captain America! Supposedly all that’s good! – expresses disquiet about working with the X Men because “they’re not like us” (and X Men as a whole is a way of challenging racism and all its forms). Perhaps we should pay more attention to how adaptations take the essence of a story without the racism (eg, Apocalypse Now, the Chris Evans version of Captain America).

Decades ago, the Cork Examiner would have referred to women with jobs somewhat patronisingly as “girls” (eg, shop girls). I don’t propose to go back into the archives and change those. It makes me feel a bit too much like Winston Smith from 1984:Disney has taken to adding notes to some of its films, such as the original Jungle Book, to say they reflected older views which were wrong (and certainly the song at the end, where the girl dreams of a future “cooking in the home”, is extremely dated and I have repeatedly said this to my children, who love the rest of the film). I think this is reasonable enough, because it leaves the actual film intact as it was. And it’s a chance to explain to children what is or isn’t appropriate to say.

Some of Dahl’s phraseology is dated, and has been for years. He made antisemitic comments in real life. His work can be cruel toward overweight people – think Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where his weight is equated to his character as a human being. But then David Walliams is equally antagonistic when it comes to people’s differences, and I haven’t seen any campaigns to edit back his work, though the Telegraph claims it could happen. Elsewhere Dahl’s narrator betrays a certain patriarchal approach to the place of women and girls, like in Esio Trot, though some of it is kind of excused by the way he frames the narrator’s voice.

That voice in Matilda for example is very clearly somebody addressing the reader directly (including the interjection, during an extended riff on how it would be delightful to write caustic reviews of awful students, “but enough of that, we have to get on”). That somebody is not necessarily Roald Dahl, though on balance of probability it is. However, if you’re reading the book aloud to a child then that, in effect, makes you the narrator. It’s supposed to. They’re written as you would tell a story to a child, not just as a child would read them. And the way he plays with language and creates words in the BFG is masterful.

I have read a good number of the books to my sons, and we have listened to them in audiobook as well. I read some of them as a child in the early 1990s (or thereabouts) and at this remove can’t recall word for word any of them, let alone say a particular phrase influenced my thinking. What I can certainly say though, and it was only apparent while reading Matilda to my son, that Matilda instilled in my a lifelong hatred of bullying (and fascism) and an appreciation for kindred spirit bookworms (as I was at Matilda’s age and well beyond), as well as a warm affinity for teachers.

My approach, any time I came across something that I felt was wrong, was to simply tell the boys “you shouldn’t say stuff like this” or words of that ilk. They are not cruel and they understand this. But they do love the stories. And going back in to change the language changes those stories to some extent, and that is wrong.