Badvent Calendar Day 14

The wren, the wren, the king of the birds…

It’s the 14th, so just over half way to the Feast of Stephen. I thought I’d mark this with an extract from a tale about this day — ‘The Cutty Wren’. If you want to read the whole of the story, it’s in my collection Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking.

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Badvent Calendar Day 13

Number Thirteen

My writing has had a difficult relationship with the number thirteen. My seasonal folk horror tale, ‘How I Learned the Truth About Krampus’, was originally supposed to appear in the follow-up volume to the Spectral Press anthology The Thirteen Ghosts of Christmas. For various reasons it didn’t end up doing so, but eventually it came out as a chapbook published by Eibonvale Press. Another story made it into the thirteenth volume of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series. But I’ve never experienced anything like what happens to the protagonist of M.R. James’s spine-chiller, ‘Number 13’.

Find out here:

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Badvent Calendar Day 12

The twelve slays of Christmas

If you’re looking for Christmas horror movies, you could do worse than taking out a subscription to Shudder. There’s a fine array of films to suit all tastes and all seasons — vintage gialli, seventies folk horror, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Alejandro Jodorowsky, George A. Romero and contemporary horror under their own banner, but here’s a selection of their yuletide treats…

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Badvent Calendar Day 11

A pleasing terror, a devilfish delight

Between them, The League of Gentlemen have all bases covered in the BBC Christmas TV supernatural horror schedule, with Inside No. 9‘s Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith exhuming ‘The Bones of Saint Nicholas’, and Mark Gatiss, also of Doctor Who and Sherlock fame, now firmly in charge of the revival of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Last year’s version of ‘The Mezzotint’ on Christmas Eve boasted the excellent Rory Kinnear, and this year we have an adaptation of ‘Count Magnus’, with Jason Watkins and Myanna Buring, to look forward to on December 23rd at 10pm, BBC2.

I hope Gatiss does justice to this, perhaps one of M.R. James’s most terrifying tales. When it comes to fictional Counts, Magnus de la Gardie outdoes Dracula by a country mile: a cruel feudal tyrant who brought back a hideous cloaked familiar, whose main distinguishing feature was “the tentacle of a devil-fish”, from a black pilgrimage to Chorazin. And this is what happens to a couple of peasants who cross him:

“Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands — pushing something away from which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones.”

Count Dracula just sucks your blood. Count Magnus sucks the flesh clean off your face!

If you can’t wait for the TV version and you’re in Preston, it’s possible there might still be tickets left for this:

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Badvent Calendar Day 10

Violent Night

Hailed as the prototype of Halloween, Scream and the rest of the ‘stalk and slash’ sub-genre, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) superficially has many of its elements: a besieged sorority house full of potential female victims, an unseen killer lurking in the shadows, killer-eye-view camerawork, household objects opportunistically used as weapons, a holiday or saint’s day providing the pretext for the killing spree, threatening phone calls whose provenance is fatally misplaced.

Perhaps more interesting is the ways in which it diverges from the tropes it helped to establish. For example, the typical ‘slasher’ takes place on an annual holiday, during which a traumatic event once happened to provide the killer with his — and it’s usually ‘his’, with notable exceptions, taking their cue from the giallo, where it’s a huge, startling twist that the killer is female — motive, often revenge, but sometimes as in Halloween, the desire to reprise his own original killing spree to complete unfinished business.

There is no obvious link to the season in the killer’s behaviour, no dressing him up as a Bad Santa as in subsequent yuletide slasher films. More chilling perhaps is the hider-in-the-house infiltration, beginning with a climb up the trellis-work through a window then a sojourn in a dark, toy-strewn attic, which obliquely parodies Father Christmas’s activities. Unlike subsequent slashers, who have become icons of popular horror culture as recognisable as the Universal monsters of old with their masks and knives, this killer remains for the most part entirely anonymous, almost invisible but for a glimpse of a hand or a staring eye in close-up, which is far more terrifying.

One of the most frightening things about Black Christmas is its murderer’s lack of any clear motive. There’s no origin story giving the killer a formative trauma that will trigger his or her murderous activities. Unlike the sardonic movie buff who calls up Drew Barrymore in Scream to quiz her on horror cinema, Black Christmas‘s obscene phone caller is barely coherent, and uses multiple voices, possibly within the same person, but given what sometimes sounds like overlapping dialogue between them, it could be more than one speaker and therefore murderer. I’ve seen this film several times since I first saw it on a late night horror slot on BBC2 or something in the Eighties, and even after re-watching it on DVD a couple of times in the past few years, I still mistakenly thought I knew the identity of the serial killer, until another re-watch last night.

So does Jess (Olivia Hussey), when the caller makes a comment about wart removal that recalls her obsessive, controlling boyfriend’s rant against her plan to have an abortion. The film’s take on this subject is daring and timely, both then, the year after the original Roe Vs. Wade ruling, and now, in the year when the Supreme Court overturned it. Jess calmly asserts her own autonomy against Peter (Keir Dullea), who seems frankly unhinged enough to be the killer, especially when he starts smashing up a piano and abandons his musical career to dump an entirely unilateral declaration of marriage on her. His unstable, coercive behaviour hardly frames his ‘pro-life’ sentiments in a positive light, especially given that this grievance makes him a possible suspect in the multiple murder case and in the campaign of terror against Jess.

The slasher sub-genre has acquired a reputation for propagandising misogynistic conservative sexual morality, where pre-marital sex often earns usually female victims grisly fates, while ‘final girls’ survive because of their virtuous, even virginal, qualities. Sexually active women are often portrayed as shallow vixens or callous bitches, courting death with their risky sexual behaviour. In Black Christmas by contrast, the first victim is someone described as “a professional virgin” by the worldly-wise Barb (Margot Kidder), while the eventual final girl hardly fits the stereotypical profile usually assigned to her role either. Black Christmas may be the earliest slasher movie. It may also be the most pro-feminist one too, pitting its heroine against both extremes of misogyny, the kind that screams sexual obscenities down a phone and reduces women to their genitals, and the kind that plays the ‘nice guy’ and offers a lifetime of cloying domesticity, both of which may sometimes be embodied in the same person.

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Badvent Calendar Day 9

Come in, number 9!

Inside No. 9 is a psychological horror comedy series that reminds me of an advent calendar stuck on the same number, which is the starting point for a different story co-written and co-starring League of Gentlemen alumni Reece Sheersmith and Steve Pemberton, often disguised by a variety of grotesque hairstyles. The number nine is the hook for each tale, which could be anything from the door to a hotel room or a suburban house to the number on a pedalo boat, so it’s fitting that this ninth post in this Badvent Calendar is dedicated to this wonderful series.

Two of the show’s best episodes have had a winter holiday theme — ‘The Twelve Days of Christine’, with its mind-bending, time-bending tragedy set on New Year’s Eve and its tour-de-force from Sheridan Smith, and also ‘The Devil of Christmas’, set on Krampusnacht 1977, a beautifully well-observed parody of nineteen seventies TV, an era when drama programmes were often referred to as ‘plays’, with good reason. Many took place in the confines of a studio set, and this gave them a stagey feel that, while stilted, could be surprisingly effective. When the drama switched between interiors shot on video and filmed exteriors, as was often the case, it was almost like watching two different types of visual story-telling bolted together. But ‘The Devil of Christmas’ is styled after the kind of claustrophobic chamber piece videoed on a single set, of which the 1973 Dead of Night episode ‘The Exorcism’ is a prime example.

I noticed that Graeme Harper was the director of this episode: an inspired choice, as a veteran director who worked on Doctor Who both in the Eighties and in its post-2005 revival, so he must have remembered how to run a studio the old three-camera way, and it shows! In fact, with its faux DVD commentary from Derek Jacobi as an aging director, it was rather like watching one of the extras on the DVD of the Harper-directed 1983 Who serial ‘The Caves of Androzani’. But the director’s asides, while they add to the humour at first, pointing out errors and shortcomings in his own rushed production to begin with, take a more sinister turn as the story progresses…

‘The Devil of Christmas’ is currently on i-player, along with all the rest of the Inside No. 9 series, but there is another Inside No. 9 Christmas Special coming up, ‘The Bones of Saint Nicholas’, hitting BBC2 on Thursday 22nd December, 9pm…

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Badvent Calendar Day 8

Santa Scabby, don’t hurry down the chimney to me!

This little ditty went down quite well when I played it on the picket-line outside Brighton sorting office a week or so ago, and the pickets suggested I record it.

So here it is, on the eve of the next strike day, ‘Man in Red’, my tale of a strike-breaking Santa, an attempt to counter the propaganda portraying postal workers — or anyone else defending their pay and working conditions for that matter — as monsters intent on ruining Christmas!

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Badvent Calendar Day 7

The middle classes under siege in winter

Two Christmases ago, I briefly discussed Don Taylor’s ‘The Exorcism’ (1972), from the classic anthology series Dead of Night, whose study of people trapped in a house by unknown forces seemed particularly resonant during those lockdown days. A few days ago, I also mentioned The Children, a more recent horror drama about a pair of smug middle class couples facing terrors literally of their own making in an isolated frozen location.

In ‘The Exorcism’, two couples staying in a cottage where an executed agricultural labourer’s family starved to death find their Yuletide celebrations disrupted by the former occupants: They find themselves unable to eat their lavish Christmas dinner due to “griping pains” in their stomach, but also powerless to leave the house. In many ways, it’s an English folk horror take on Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel in its skewering of bourgeois pomposity.

The skewering is rather more literal in The Children, where the noughties couples in question have moved into an isolated house to see in a snowy New Year with their various children, who succumb to a mysterious virus that leaves them with sadistic homicidal urges directed at their elders. Only Casey (Hannah Tointon) the teenage daughter of Elaine (Eva Birthistle) seems to be immune to the disease, though she despises her stepfather, Jonah (Stephen Campbell Moore).

She doesn’t think much of the younger siblings she’s acquired via the new relationship either…

“Ever heard of contraception?”

Later she reveals to Robbie, her slimy uncle (Jeremy Sheffield), that she was “the abortion that got away.” Like ‘The Exorcism’, The Children leavens its terrors with acid commentary on the social pretensions of the middle classes, and both include a disastrous turkey dinner, but where the 1973 play derives its cerebral, socially-conscious fears from the past, the implied source of the 2008 film’s more visceral horrors come from the future: new, emerging viri that Jonah obsessively associates with China’s increasing economic dominance. Ironically, he’s trying to interest Robbie in a TCM scheme (that’s Traditional Chinese Medicine, not the TV channel, or indeed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), which looks set to be the latest in a long line of failed start-ups on the part of the sanctimonious, thin-skinned chancer.

So how’s that home-schooling working out then…?

Despite his own spliff-smoking, cargo-knit cardigan-wearing hippy affectations, which include planning to embark on a program of home-schooling, along with his partner and Lainey’s sister, simpering earth mother Chloe (Rachel Shelly), Robbie gives Jonah’s proposal short shrift. For his part, Jonah has been mocking the other couple’s ‘eco-tourism’ business, but this was in the privacy of the bedroom, not at the dinner table! While Elaine, the most human of the ‘adults’, seems sceptical about the home schooling idea, Jonah tries to go one better with:

“Oh, well, I’m teaching Mandarin to Miranda.”

This is not a film for those, like me, who believe the very definition of true horror is ‘bad things happening to good people’, or depicting a world where no good deed goes unpunished. In The Children, the gruesomeness of the character’s screen fate is directly proportional to his or her personal odiousness. But it’s Christmas, so why not enjoy some cruel just desserts?

Alternatively you could watch a real Christmas horror movie, where stalking is glamorised…

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Badvent Calendar Day 6

Night Terrors

Radio 4 has begun serialising Alice Vernon’s critical autobiography about insomnia, somnambulism and other sleep disturbances. In the first episode, she looks at how they have been depicted in supernatural terror classics like Dracula and the ghost stories of M.R. James. She points out that in his best-known story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad,’ the bed is itself the source of terror.

Alice Vernon often wakes up to find strangers in her bedroom.

Ever since she was a child, her nights have been haunted by nightmares of a figure from her adolescence, sinister hallucinations and episodes of sleepwalking. These are known as ‘parasomnias’ – and they’re surprisingly common.

Now a lecturer in Creative Writing, Vernon set out to understand the history, science and culture of these strange and haunting experiences. Night Terrors examines the history of our relationship with bad dreams – how we’ve tried to make sense of and treat them, from some decidedly odd ‘cures’ like magical ‘mare-stones’, to research on how video games might help people rewrite their dreams. Along the way she explores the Salem Witch Trials and sleep paralysis, Victorian ghost stories, and soldiers’ experiences of PTSD. By directly confronting her own strange and frightening nights for the first time, Alice Vernon encourages us to think about the way troubled sleep has impacted our imaginations.

Abridged by Polly Coles

Read by Emily Raymond

Produced by Clive Brill

A Brill production for BBC Radio 4

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Badvent Calendar Day 5

Let the wild Krampus begin!

Yes, folks, it’s Krampusnacht, when the demonic counterpart to Santa Claus is abroad punishing the bad children with his switch and loading them into a basket to carry off. So, here’s my annual reminder to buy my Eibonvale chapbook ‘How I Learned the Truth About Krampus’ today before the Xmas rush.

Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure of legend with a classic half-goat half-demonic appearance.  The night of the 5th December is Krampusnacht, when this hairy devil appears on the streets – on his own or accompanying St. Nicholas, but always carrying a bundle of birch twigs ready to punish those who have misbehaved.  At least, that’s how the folk-festivals that take place across Europe go.  The truth may be stranger still.  This is a sharp and intelligently written horror story that delves deep into seasonal mythology and folk legend.  An atmospheric and chilling tale of the dark side of the winter season.

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