The Great God Pan is an 1890 novella by the controversial Welsh ghost story writer Arthur Machen. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. In many ways the story reflects the author’s absorption with the wondrous, the uncanny and the unknown. “In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star” Machen writes in an early page of The Great God Pan, which might be said to be the mystical doctrine that informs all of his principal writings. Machen’s novels and tales possess a thematic unity in that running through them all are two polarised strands – terror and wonder – and occasionally they meet and intertwine. Indeed, while the necromantic fantasies produced by Machen in the 1890s later led to him being labelled the ‘laureate of evil’, he had by then already assumed another mantle – that of the ‘apostle of wonder’, for the diabolic and the divine lie at the heart of his fiction. But Machen’s own life is perhaps his greatest creation; for it is exactly the life we might expect such a poet and visionary to have lived.
Although Daphne du Maurier is remembered as one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, she is in many ways an unlikely success story. Daughter of the famous actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, Daphne was educated at home in London, and then in Paris, before writing her first novel in 1931. Three others followed before Rebecca, in 1938, made her one of the most popular authors of the day (much to her own surprise). Nearly all her fifteen novels have been bestsellers, and several of her works became successful films, notably the version of Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier, and the chilling adaptations of her short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Daphne herself was made a dame in 1969, in recognition of her unique achievement of writing novels that were both popular and literary classics. What merits her mention on this website is that she has been credited with shifting the Gothic mode towards romantic fiction with her novels, which were built on the work of the Bronte sisters and inspired a genre that has flourished ever since.
In the period between Halloween and Christmas, with the country in the icy grip of winter and the nights long and cold, there is nothing like a good scary ghost story to bring family and friends together around the hearth. One of my favourites in this particular film genre is 2001’s The Others, the sort of suspenseful chiller which doesn’t seem to come around too often, given the modern preference for out-and-out shocks and gore in horror movies. Probably the best recent example of a film in the mould of The Others is 2011’s The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In post-World War I England, an author and paranormal sceptic (Hall) is invited to a countryside boarding school by one of the teachers (West) to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting. But just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling encounter which makes her question all her rational beliefs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there’s something very clever about a film that is subtle enough to scare and unsettle its audience by placing suspense, atmosphere, a gripping plot and a quality script and actors at its heart. As an added bonus, The Awakening also has one of those jaw-dropping twists at the end that make you question everything that you’ve just witnessed. If you enjoy films like The Sixth Sense, An American Haunting and The Woman in Black, you’ll probably need to make room on your DVD shelf for The Awakening.
‘The secret that will shake the world’ is the tagline to Simon Toyne’s 2011 novel Sanctus, itself part one of the Sancti trilogy. The plot outline immediately places it firmly in Dan Brown-holy-conspiracy-territory. A monk throws himself to his death from the oldest inhabited place on the face of the earth, a mountainous citadel in the historic (but fictional) Turkish city of Ruin. This act, witnessed by the entire world thanks to the marvels of modern media, causes the cowled and mysterious fanatics within the citadel to take extreme measures to protect a millenia-old secret. The Sancti, as this ancient monastic order are called, are the custodians of one of the greatest secrets (some would say cover-ups) in human history – one which, if it ever got out, would change everything, for everyone, everywhere. This intriguing set-up, coupled with a suitably ominous cover, is what probably attracted most people to Sanctus (which topped the bestseller lists when it was published) in the first place. It certainly worked on me, despite my somewhat disappointing experiences with similar sub-Dan Brown fare like the Templar Legacy, The Sacred Scroll and The Atlantis Code. The question is, was Sanctus just more of the same?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock recently, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that the Sherlock Holmes industry has never been in ruder health than it is at the moment. There is the hugely successful feature film franchise starring the ‘bromance’ pairing of Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law. Then there is the excellent BBC series Sherlock, made by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which features a modern-day Holmes played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather less impressive is the tacky and derivative Elementary, which has Johnny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a cross between C3P0 and Rain Man and, to add insult to injury, features a female ‘Joan Watson’ to boot! Nevertheless, despite its (many) limitations, Elementary, like Sherlock and the feature films, shows the enduring popularity of the character worldwide. At a recent author and blogger event at the offices of Simon & Schuster, I had the good fortune to meet Robert Ryan, the author of Dead Man’s Land, a novel which introduces an intriguing new twist on Holmesian mythology.
The US TV series Supernatural (2005-) follows two brothers who were brought up in a rather unusual family business. Now a small screen stalwart, the show has also had international success that has earned it year after year of season pick-ups. For those who don’t know, Sam and Dean Winchester are monster-hunting brothers who drive around the back-roads of America in search of the things that go bump in the night. They’ve encountered everything from vampires and werewolves to pagan gods and shapeshifters, who they regularly dispatch with help from their father’s journal and fellow hunter Bobby Singer. Their father, John Winchester, taught them what it took to be hunters from childhood after the murder of their mother at the hands of a powerful demon, who the brothers finally caught up with and killed at the end of season two. For seven years the series has stayed strong, balancing the personal stories of Sam and Dean versus the increasingly ambitious narrative of evil messing with humanity on Earth. After several seasons of summoning every kind of spook, spectre, monster and angel to throw at the unlikely pair of demon hunters, the Supernatural writers finally played the literal God card at the end of series six, potentially making the Almighty himself the season villain. As ever on Supernatural, however, things did not quite turn out to be the way they at first seemed.
A Mashup novel (for those of you who aren’t in the know) is a work of fiction which combines a pre-existing text, often a classic work of fiction, with a modern genre such as crime, fantasy or horror. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which combines Jane Austen’s classic novel with elements of modern zombie fiction, is one of the most famous and successful works in the genre, and has been credited with spawning a rash of imitations and cash-ins, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, which does much the same with the historical autobiography. While some see the Mashup novel as re-energising fiction and bringing it to a wider audience than ever before, many criticise it for being too safe and lazy – the literary equivalent of the current penchant in Hollywood for reboots and prequels. What is unarguable, however, is the genre’s success. Both AL:VS and P&P&Z have topped the bestseller lists; the former has already been made into a Hollywood blockbuster while a film version of the latter is in the pipeline. So what makes Mashup novels so appealing and do they spell the beginning of a new golden age in genre fiction or the end of literature as we know it?
For 140 years, Nathaniel Cade has been the President’s Vampire, sworn by a blood oath to protect the President and America from their supernatural enemies. Cade’s existence is the most closely guarded of White House secrets: a superhuman covert agent who is the last line of defence against nightmare scenarios that ordinary citizens can only dream of. When a new outbreak of an ancient evil – one that Cade has seen before – comes to light, he and his human handler, Zach Barrows, must track down its source. To ‘protect and serve’ often means settling old scores and confronting new betrayals . . . as only a century-old predator can.
Anyone who enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will love this. Witty, exciting and compulsively readable, Cade is an (anti)hero that you won’t soon forget. Click here to find out more!
Despite being almost thirty years old, Ghostbusters has weathered well and still has the ability to elicit a wistful smile from a generation old enough to remember the likes of Madness, Reaganomics, legwarmers and the glory years of Liverpool FC. That’s because Ghostbusters, being made in the middle part of the decade that taste forgot, is as Eighties as it is possible to get. You would think that in the cold, cynical world of 2012 the film would be a bit like an old Status Quo album – so many good memories, but is it wise to revisit, in case you realise it is actually a load of rubbish? Okay, for those too culturally snobbish and those too young to have ever experienced the Ghostbusters phenomenon, here’s the spiel: three young(ish) paranormal investigators are sacked from their positions at Columbia University and decide, once armed with a fireman’s pole and an old ambulance, to set up a ghost-busting service. Meanwhile, Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) is having trouble with her fridge, possessed, it seems, by the spirit of – bear with me – Zuul, an ancient Babylonian and follower of Gozer, the Destructor. Ooh Er.
It began simply. “In space no one can hear you scream”, cautioned the posters. There were no name actors, no fanfare, no star-laden premieres. Just a tale of seven people, all but one of whom dies at the hands of a seemingly invincible alien life form. Simple, but brilliantly radical, Alien was the grubby flipside of George Lucas’ fairytale utopia, a future where humanity was losing the war with technology and where exploitation and boredom prevailed. Alien was the heaven-sent antidote to the vacant escapism Star Wars’ success had borne in Hollywood, and an anomalous reminder of the power of cinema to terrorise and disturb. The film was conceived by Dan O’Bannon in 1976 but it was only a few years later, with the twin successes of Star Wars and horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, that Hollywood saw the opportunity to combine the two most profitable genres of the time in one movie. Even so, Alien was a massive risk at the time, especially since the director, Ridley Scott, had only one film under his belt when he came on board. This decision, risky as it may have seemed back then, proved to be a masterstroke as Scott stamped his unique vision on Alien with the memorable quote “To me, it was more than a horror film. It was a film about terror.” Now that the saga of Alien has come full circle with the recent release of Prometheus, it is perhaps the perfect time to look at how the original film came to define the genre of sci-fi horror.