The Northampton curmudgeon Alan Moore’s retirement from comics is now official. With the last issue of Volume IV of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he’s leaving the medium for good. People are keen to sing the praises of The Killing Joke, Watchmen and V for Vendetta – and for good reason – but his contribution to horror is often overlooked, and I think that worth rectifying.
Back in the eighties. Nuneaton had a covered market, a poorly lit maze of patchouli oil-scented corridors lined with assorted bric-a-brac and random detritus. You’d ricochet between piles of bootleg band t-shirts and piles of tin signs stolen from a cavalcade of pub toilets. There was one particular stall though – the name of which eludes to me, decades on – which held nothing but racks of magazines. Copies of Starlog and Fangoria were secreted amongst issue of Look-in (invariably containing a badly drawn comic strip about how Duran Duran met), Beano and Whizzer & Chips. The fourteen-year-old me would greedily skim through the former, picking up titbits about sci-fi films that wouldn’t be reaching our shores for twelve months - or horror films that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch for years.
A little background; I was already a keen comic reader. I’d read Starlord, and 2000ad after the two of them merged (“Exciting news for all readers!”) so was familiar with the medium. However, my only exposure to American comics had been through UK reprints - where they’d invariably release the original material at the wrong size, in the wrong colours and in no particular order.
On this one occasion in this mysterious unnamed arcane magazine emporium, one particular comic nestled amongst the newsprint-scented magazines caught my attention. Covers of American comics tended to be dynamic, a freeze-frame of a superhero caught mid-super-heroic action. This, however, was different. It showed a couple standing shoulder-deep in the stagnant waters of a swamp, both their eyes closed as the two embraced. She was naked, long flowing white hair draped in the water. He was – something else. Monstrous, yet humanoid, a strong vine-encrusted hand holding her tightly, lovingly.
It was more Renaissance painting than comic panel, something very different from the typical four colour tableau I was used to.
A butterfly sat there, perched on the comic’s title.
With hindsight (with the benefit of graphic novel collections) this particular issue (#34; The Rite of Spring) is a really odd place to start the series with. There aren’t really any horror elements to speak of, unless you’ve got a phobia about a combination of vegetables and sex. The issue focuses on the relationship between Abby and the eponymous Swamp Thing, the two of them finally admitting their love for one another. In this issue, in lieu of being able to have sex, they experience a communion of sorts. Abigail eats a tuber from Swamp Thing’s back which – through its hallucinogenic qualities – allow them to connect in a means way more powerful and spiritual than mere physical contact can provide.
It wasn’t so much the pull of vegetable sex that attracted me to the comic (although I haven’t been able to look at broccoli in the same way since. Damn you, sexy cruciferous plants), but the surprising fact that Swamp Thing was the hero.
Swamp Thing - since its inception at the hands of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson back in 1974 – told the tale of Alec Holland, a scientist transformed by lab sabotage into the titular Swamp Thing. Over the course of the issues, we would follow his attempted revenge on the people who’d doomed him and killed his wife. Eventually cancelled due to poor sales figures, the title was given to British writer Alan Moore to invent as he saw fit. Moore had already cut his teeth in the comics industry with his work on 2000ad and on various Doctor Who and Star War comics – he’d end up being the first of the vast wave of writers who went on to take the US dominated comics industry by storm in a British invasion of sorts; Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, et al.
Swamp Thing had always been a horror title, but Moore took this to the next level. He ripped the title out by the roots and reinvented it from the ground up.
We begin Moore’s run with some proper existential horror. Holland discovers – almost to the cost of his sanity and what little that remained of his humanity – that he’s not Alec Holland at all. Whereas he’d always believed himself to be a scientist transformed by a combination of swamp water and experimental chemicals into the Swamp Thing, he finds that not to be the case. Alec Holland is long dead. We learn that the chemical soup in the swamps created a unique new organism, one which ended up imbued with the memories of the dying Doctor Holland.
Swamp Thing never was Alec Holland. He’s a vegetable who thinks he was Alec Holland.
Pretty mind-blowing stuff, especially in a title which – to be fair, prior to Moore – had often reverted to a “Swamp Thing beats up the monster of the month”.
Moore’s American Gothic storyline (running between issues #37 and #50) saw Swamp Thing travelling across the United States, encountering various horror tropes along the way, all given a unique Moore twist.
Vampires were presented as unbreathing water-dwelling monsters; feral predatorial leeches and bloated egg-laden abominations, and zombies were returned to their voodoo roots, vengeful dead plantation slaves returned from the grave.
The Werewolf myth was presented as feminist allegory, a woman freed by transformation from male tyranny. It’d be another fifteen years before Ginger Snaps would revisit the same territory linking menstruation to lycanthropy, but to think that these concepts were being presented in a medium still effectively believed to be the domain of children.
American Gothic also saw the first appearance of John Constantine, the Sting-inspired Magus, who’d spin-off into his own incredible horror title.
“American Gothic” was all building to a big event, a (sort of) crossover with the world/universe/reality shattering Crisis that happens in the DC Universe each summer. Whilst Superman and Batman and their leotarded and spandexed ilk were saving the physical realm, Swamp Thing, John Constantine and DC’s array of magical characters were challenged with defending the metaphysical one.
The Brujeria, a secret society of warlocks, were seeking to bring back primordial Darkness back into the universe – the sentient absence of everything that comprised all of existence before the introduction of God’s divine light. What lingers in my memory from this storyline is the Invunche, the Brujeria’s assassin, and how one is created.
You steal a six-month old child, disjoint the – I can’t go on. You should find out for yourselves and be forced to have that memory too.
Re-reading Moore’s run, some of it feels less successful now than it did back then. Whereas the fifteen-year-old me was thrilled to see a guest appearance by Batman, it feels weaker now. Swamp Thing worked best when operating in its own reality, lessened by the occasional enforced use of the DC Universe. I’d feel the same later in life seeing John Constantine frequently interacting with regular DC Characters.
What remains as strong, however, is the writing. Without ever lapsing into pretention, Moore hit the comics world with prose of a quality that it had barely seen before. Villains were as well-developed and written as the heroes, and it felt like you were reading something new, something important.
And this stuff was genuinely scary. Some of the imagery in The Saga still clings to the periphery of my consciousness, decades on. The first appearance of the Invunche, Swamp Thing’s raw and bloody resurrection in The Anatomy Lesson, Phoebe’s transformation into avenging she-wolf in The Curse – all powerful horror imagery to me, rivalling Danny Glick tapping on the window in Salem’s Lot or the first appearance of the Pod People in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Moore is leaving the industry for good, and it’ll be poorer without him. I can fully understand why he’s leaving -exasperated with an industry that rarely gives the proper respect to creator’s rights – but it’s something to be commended that he’s created such an incredible body of work.
So, farewell, Alan Moore. Our sole interaction might have been you telling a teenage me to “Fuck off” at a comic convention (Disclaimer: You did look very tired and grumpy when I approached you), but, here’s the important thing;
I tell people I got into writing horror through Stephen King, but …pssst…. I think it was because of you, so thanks, I guess.
But no thanks for the Invunche haunting my dreams.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Issues #20-64: Obviously. Later writers picked up the Swampy mantle with varied success, but I’d also recommend the Nancy A. Collins run (Issues #110-138) and – to a slightly lesser extent – the Grant Morrison and Mark Millar run (Issues #140 onwards).
Hellblazer Issues #41-46: Garth Ennis’s run on Hellblazer is, equally, as good a horror comic as you’ll find. The Dangerous Habits storyline chronicles John Constantine’s battle with cancer and is amazing.
Swamp Thing Pilot Episode 2019: Cancelled after just one episode but showed great promise. There’s a bit of body horror in it that’s as visceral and brutal as anything from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it looked like it might be a great adaption. Sadly, this is why we’re not allowed to have nice things.
ABOUT DAVID COURT
David Court is a short story author and novelist, whose works have appeared in over a dozen
venues including Tales to Terrify, StarShipSofa, Visions From the Void, Fear’s Accomplice
and The Voices Within. Whilst primarily a horror writer, he also writes science fiction, poetry
and satire. His last collection, Scenes of Mild Peril, was released by Stitched Smile Publications and his debut comic writing has just featured in Tpub’s The Theory (Twisted Sci-Fi).
As well as writing, David works as a Software Developer and lives in Coventry with his wife, three cats and an ever-growing beard. David’s wife once asked him if he’d write about how great she was. David replied that he would, because he specialized in short fiction. Despite that, they are still married.
In this day and age, it seems like technology is the number one source of everyone’s entertainment. We play online games, we download apps to our phones, and we scroll, falling down the Facebook ‘rabbit hole’ more often than we care to admit. But there are those of us out here who still enjoy the comforts and enjoyment of a good book. You just can’t beat a great book! But when you’re looking for something thrilling, exciting, and unique - you have to go for the zombie novels! A good zombie book just has everything; adventure, horror, a great undead storyline that you can’t help but get addicted to. In all my years and of all the genres I’ve ever read, zombie novels are the most fun!
So, without further ado, here is a list of some of the best zombie reads out there!
The first must-read zombie novel is called “Warm Bodies” and it’s written by Isaac Marion. If you enjoy zombies, but also feel-good romances, then this book is perfect for you! It manages to capture the dark and scary elements of zombie life, in a post-apocalyptic world, but also manages to combine an adorable romance between a zombie and an uninfected human. Out of all the stories in our list of zombie apocalypse books, this one is by far the sweetest. It’s creepy, twisted, and also somehow very romantic and sweet. If you like quirky humor and a good ole’ tug at the heartstrings, then this book is definitely for you!
The Reapers Are the Angels
Another great zombie book is “The Reapers Are the Angels” and it is written by Alden Bell. What makes this particular zombie novel, so compelling is that it is told from the perspective of the lonely zombie, rather than the victims, which most zombie plots tend to revolve around. It showcases a really unique take on loneliness in this post-apocalyptic world and it leaves you feeling a wide array of interesting emotions. It allows you to explore this strange society caught between what it once was and what it has turned into. It is a very compelling and gripping zombie novel that you really should check out!
The Girl with All the Gifts
Another good one on our list of zombie apocalypse books is “The Girl with All the Gifts” written by M. R. Carey. This particular story follows a unique zombie plague, caused by fungus, rather than bacterial or viral like you find in other kinds of zombie stories. It takes place about twenty years before the initial infection and it progresses throughout the rest of the novel. It has a killer female protagonist and it grips you from start to finish. This book is honestly hard to put down.
“Zombie Ohio” written by Scott Kenemore is another brilliant zombie novel that you absolutely have to read! It has a quirky and fun tone to it, but also still has that quality dark zombie feel for it. The story surrounds a man named Peter who dies in a car accident. He can’t recall why or how though, and the story revolves around him slowly accepting his fate which is that he is now a zombie. The story has some humorous moments and some sad ones too. It packs all the feelings though, and is a really incredible read.
The last incredible zombie book on our must-read list is called “Breathers” and it is written by S. G. Browne. This zombie novel is unlike any other novel you will probably ever read. It’s gory, it’s incredibly dark and gruesome, and yet it also manages to combine really sweet romantic elements that somehow harmonize together perfectly. This story revolves around a man named Andy, who recently died and became a brand-new zombie. His friends and family do not accept the new him and don’t like his new existence at all. So, Andy is going to his first ever undead anonymous meeting where he meets a beautiful zombie woman, falls in love, and discovers the joy of human flesh. It is packed full of intensely creepy, but also heartwarming moments.
These zombie books are sure to entertain you for hours and leave you feeling both creeped out and maybe even inspired. So, go and check out your local bookstore today and start a new zombie book. It is sure to spook and thrill you.
For more reading recommendations this list of zombie apocalypse books has so many great books
Today marks the release of Duncan P. Bradshaw's comic horror masterpiece Cannibal Nuns From Outer Space! (yes that exclamation mark is needed and totally justified.), and to celebrate it's release Duncan has written an article on the five main influences on the book.
I absolutely loved Cannibal Nuns From Outer Space, it's a glorious mix of over the top comedy, shaggy dog stories and well over the top horror. If you are on the fence about reading this book (shame on you) you can read our review of it here.
FIVE INFLUENCES FOR…CANNIBAL NUNS FROM OUTER SPACE! BY DUNCAN P. BRADSHAW
I wrote Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space! (CNfOS) to be a summer blockbuster film, a straight-up British b-movie. Like many of my books it has more than a few nods to other books and films which have left a big impression on me. If I were to list them all, we’d be here for quite some time, so I thought I’d limit it to just five. And now *drum roll on a pair of empty baked bean cans* in no particular order, let’s begin…
1. A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
I do most of my reading during my lunch break at work, so on a good day I have around forty-five minutes to make headway into my latest read. Every once in a while, I’ll read something that makes me wish I had a longer break. A Head Full of Ghosts was one of those, and then some. It’s the way he tells you the story, the drip-feed of ambiguity and it hooked me completely. CNfOS starts with an exorcism, and as Mr Tremblay’s book is set around one, I named one of my characters after one of his. A small nod perhaps, but some things need to be a bit more subtle, whilst others…not so much.
Man, what a film! It has it all, a small group trapped in a forest hunted by an implacable foe. Except, instead of the default dumb teenage kids being eviscerated on their spring/autumn break WOOO, it’s a team of highly-trained soldiers. It has everything, the seemingly invincible enemy, endlessly quotable dialogue (even if it’s cheesy as hell), cool weapons and memorable deaths. There’s a section in CNfOS which doesn’t so much as pay homage to it, as have it adopted as its sordid love-child. If you miss it, then you need to check your copy, as it is impossible to.
3. Hot Fuzz
Okay, it’s not horror (though I’d argue that the spire squashing scene and the sight of Timothy Dalton sporting a spike through his face are pretty WTF moments) but Hot Fuzz is a massive deal. There’s the fact that it’s set down the road from where I live, and its portrayal of rural British town/village life is painfully close to the bone. Again, this has kickass dialogue and some absolutely mental scenes in it, both married so well that their offspring could have webbing between their toes. The town both it and CNfOS is set in are a close match, and one particular scene in my book has a few little tips of the hat to this absolutely incredible film.
4. Total Recall
Yes, it is evident that Arnie action films had a big influence on me growing up, and how could they not? As much as I love Commando, it’s Running Man and Total Recall that stood out the most. The latter in particular as it had that blend of action, sci-fi and horror, and it’s set on Mars, which I have a real soft spot for. One of the sequences that always sticks out is when Arnie gets to the red planet and goes to the rough part of town. The bar, with all of its…clientele, stuck in my head, and one that perfectly mirrored a section in CNfOS.
5. Invasion of the Body-SnatcherS
What a film! Sure, like most from that era it hasn’t aged the best, but the impact it had when I watched it for the first time, is immeasurable. I think what hit me the most was that of helplessness, of knowing that these people are wrong and evil, but you’re utterly powerless to prevent it. If you manage to find someone who isn’t a pod person, how the hell are they going to believe a word you’re saying? Then, what if the person you confide in about something being wrong is a pod person? That feeling, that sensation, where you have to try and look beyond what you can see, and uncover the truth of these mysterious people, and then somehow deal with it? That’s the true stuff of nightmares.
There you go, five references (hidden or so bloody obvious that you eye roll yourself back to 2016) from the book. When you read it, I’d love to know what things you spotted, and which were your favourites. Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter. Now please, enjoy the rest of your day, but be careful of the nuns…you never know where they’ve truly come from.
about duncan p. bradsHAW
Duncan P. Bradshaw lives in the majestic county of Wiltshire in Southern England, with his wife Debbie and their two furry faced fellows called Rafa and Pepe. They are often caught prowling around the vegetation at the base of railway lines, foraging for small reptiles to feed on and dock leaves to quell the savage nettle burn.
Class Three was his debut novel, a homage not just to Romero, but to many things in popular culture that have squished him into the malformed collection of matter that exists in the same plane of existence as you. Since the release of Class Three Duncan has carved a path to become one of the finest exponents of horror comedy, with his excellent Mr Sucky and the newly released Cannibal Nuns From Outer Space!
To find out more about Duncan and his books please follow the social media links below
The summer blockbuster book! Probably.
With an encyclopaedic knowledge of cake, and exclusive access to the church’s stockpile of holy weapons, the Order of the Crimson Rosary are on the frontline in the eternal war between good and evil. Whether it’s repelling demonic possession, judging the authenticity of supposed miracles or having the final say on the colour of bunting at church fetes, the organisation's members sacrifice their own freedom to keep the world safe.
Father Flynn, the top operative in the UK, has been responsible for a number of recent high profile gaffs. Given an ultimatum, he must choose between returning to his old job of preserving the last microfiche machine in the church’s library, or submit himself for rehabilitation.
Yet evil doesn’t take a ticket and wait in line, as the dreaded cannibal nuns from outer space land to begin their annual harvest. Can Flynn get himself sober enough to repel their evil machinations? Or will another idyllic British village become the nun’s latest buffet?
One thing’s for certain, to beat them, Father Flynn is going to have to kick the habit.
Book two in the GoreCom series, this time it's highly trained priests facing off against the titular cannibal nuns from outer space. Can the finest Crimson Rosary operatives in the UK thwart the nefarious plan to reduce another population centre to compote?
Before deciding to take writing seriously Paul had done many things, printer, caving, the SCA, Brew-master, punk singer, music critic etc. Since then he has appeared in numerous science fiction, and horror magazines and anthologies. Born in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, he moved to Appalachia in his 30s . He has three children, two who live in his native Pennsylvania, and one at home. Married to his lovely wife Leslie for twenty years, they live in a fairy tale town in nestled in a valley by a river. Author of over 50 published stories, his Amazon Best Seller debut novel “I Never Eat…Cheesesteak” is available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and fine stores everywhere.
Web Page: https://lubaczewski.wordpress.com/
I Never Eat….Cheesesteak on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46196262-i-never-eat-cheesesteak
THE FIRST HORROR BOOK I REMEMBER READING
I don’t know if I’d say “book.” When I was a kid,(takes out cane, starts waving it about) we did short stories. My mom would read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” every Halloween. We also had Poe’s “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” in the house. It might explain why I tend to think of horror as a short story format. The first big ol’ hunk of glossy covered paperback horror I remember reading was “Halloween III” by Dennis Etchison (Jack Martin)
THE FIRST HORROR FILM I REMEMBER WATCHING
Dracula (1931) we used to watch it every year at Halloween, my family still watches some version of the Count every year.
THE GREATEST HORROR BOOK OF ALL TIME
Man, for all the temptation to say something modern, I still do adore Mary Shelley’s original “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” There is an amazing amount of depth there. Plenty of stuff that has been more viscerally appealing since then, but it’s rare to find one left you thinking more.
THE GREATEST HORROR FILM OF ALL TIME
Impossible question, too many genres that all have their top of the food chain. But I’d have to go with “Bride of Frankenstein” here. So many amazing performances, so much beautifully shot stuff in there. The cemetery scenes alone…..
(full disclosure, my one cat is named Elsa The Bride of Kittenstein, she showed up on the street near our house abandoned on Elsa Lanchester’s birthday)
THE GREATEST WRITER OF ALL TIME
Could have named a classic like Camus or the like, but I’m going to say Terry Pratchett. To put that much humanity into those books, so much wisdom, and to still be laugh out loud funny.
Critics everywhere are having heart failure, but, whatever, my runner up was going to be Dostoyevsky, and third would have been Poe
THE BEST BOOK COVER OF ALL TIME
Any of the first run of the Necroscope series, Bob Eggleton’s covers sold that series so hard, they were so beyond what anyone was doing at that exact moment in the mainstream.
THE BEST FILM POSTER OFF ALL TIME
Oh, so many good ones to choose from, but I’m going to have to say the posters for the Giant Claw. Wait! Hear me out here. Those posters are the main reason anyone even watches the thing to this day. It has some of the silliest special effects ever, but those amazing art-deco posters make you give it a shot in spite of yourself. Most films have great source material to work with, they don’t have to try so hard, but whoever did those had to sell a muppet Jim Henson created while drunk on tequila.
THE BEST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
Well I’d like to think the one I have out right now, “I Never Eat…Cheesesteak” It’s got chills, it’s got lots of jokes (really, lots of them) and it has my home town of Philadelphia PA as the center piece. I moved away long ago, but it’s nice to pay homage to the place. Horror-Comedy is at the same time one of the more popular, and yet still completely underserved sub-genres in the field. I hope I hit my goal, doing to horror what Douglas Adams did to sci fi.
THE WORST BOOK / FILM I HAVE WRITTEN
Well probably have to go shorts here, since that’s mainly what I’m known for. No author is likely to say, “Oh god this one” but I know that my more experimental pieces can leave some people cold. That’s OK, I like to occasionally drop a story you have to think about a lot, and not everybody is looking for that in their horror. So, a story like “Heart of the Town” or “Country Roads” might leave some going, “WTF did I just read? What even happened?” While I dig existential writings, Camus, Sartre, and the new wave of Sci Fi, I’m fully willing to acknowledge that some people open a horror anthology looking for popped eyeballs or their pissed. I write that too, but sometimes you have to write for yourself. As long as a few people get it that’s fine.
THE MOST UNDERRATED FILM OF ALL TIME
Bedlam (1946) Karloff gives a master class in the genre, and he’s not even the creepiest thing happening in the film. The trial scene is AMAZING
THE MOST UNDERRATED BOOK OF ALL TIME
Weirdly, it’s hard to think of any King as “underrated” but, I really enjoyed Cell. It was quick, concise, good characters, real world modern fears, great pace in the beginning. Shame about the ending they tacked on the film though.
THE MOST UNDERRATED AUTHOR OF ALL TIME
Brian Lumley. Maybe not when he was appearing in Weirdbook all the time, and the Necroscope series was being produced, but bookstores don’t carry back catalogue and classics the way they used to. Since then he’s been fading in the public eye. But really those Necroscope books were stunners when they dropped, the first three with their James Bond meets Dracula plotting were top of the food chain. Also, what he’s added to Lovecraft lore is endless.
THE BOOK / FILM THAT SCARED ME THE MOST
Well, none that really scare me, not since I was a kid. When I was a kid the opening sequence to “Dracula Prince of Darkness” scared the hell out of me. Now if you want to go, “creeped me out and left me uneasy” that’s easy, “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer.” That film was revolutionary. John McNaughton knows all the rules of film, all the little things we just assume are going to happen in a film, and he makes sure none of them do, to really devastating effect. Amazing that he never touched the level of that film again in his career.
THE BOOK / FILM I AM WORKING ON NEXT
Well, there’s a snippet of my next novel in the back of “Cheesesteak” called “Cult of the Gator God” that should be out this winter. I’ve got a short in the punksploitation horror anthology from St. Rooster “Kids of the Black Hole” coming out soon, and I am currently buried in editing. I wrote faster than I edited and I’m trying to get three novels ready to send out. Still writing, but the pace will pick up a lot once that is done. Speaking of which, last answer and, I have editing that needs doing.
They say life is what happens when you're making other plans. It is also what happens when you need cash to record a demo, but that isn't as catchy in a song, or a meme. Al was coasting through life without a plan or a clue when he was offered a way to make quick cash without doing anything illegal, mainly because killing vampires is not technically against any laws. If he agrees he jump starts his musical career, but on the downside he has to combat the forces of undead evil, including their horrific fashion sense. Will Al survive? Will his punk rocker sister Angie finally dump her loser boyfriend? Will Al's girlfriend come to her senses and dump him? Will Al's gruff partner Abdiel become "woke"? (depends on your definition) Will the citizens of Philadelphia discover the dark festering evil that lurks in their very city?(other than Eagles fans) Will anyone eat an actual cheesesteak? The only way to find out is to read this book, because there will probably never be a Cliff Notes for this one!
On Saturday the genre lost one of its shining lights, Sam Gafford was an inspiration to many and a selfless supporter of so many more, as well as a hugely talented writer. However, he was sadly one of those writers that not enough people knew about. Today we welcome John Linwood Grant, a long time collaborator and more importantly a close personal friend of Sam's to Ginger Nuts of Horror with a deeply personal tribute to man whose memory should never be forgotten. Please read John's moving tribute, and please share this article far and wide, we may have lost Sam, but we can't ever forget his contribution to the genre.
SAM GAFFORD: A GOOD MAN LOST
Sometimes you meet someone who you know, from the very start, is the genuine article. On the 1st July, Sam Gafford, writer, editor and owner of Ulthar Press, suffered a massive heart attack. He never really regained consciousness, and he died on 20th July 2019. This tragedy (he was merely in his fifties) is not only deeply felt by his friends and family, but it has relevance to the weird/horror fiction scene.
Sam was the genuine article, and we have all lost something in his passing.
He was an excellent writer (of which more in a moment), but he was also a true fan, an enthusiast, and because of that he set up Ulthar Press to publish good, readable weird fiction that was accessible to all. And he’d long been publishing small works before that, going back to the eighties – fanzine and chapbook formats of odd and rare pieces, especially those of William Hope Hodgson. He loved Hope Hodgson – he was one of most knowledgeable WHH scholars around today - and he loved weird fiction. He also loved comic books, but that’s another kettle of superpowers altogether – and he had a wonderful wry sense of humour, one of things we bonded over.
Ulthar Press helped hundreds of writers to see print, and Sam was an egalitarian in many ways. He didn’t care if you were a well-known ‘name’ or an emerging voice. He wasn’t interested in which snarky, argumentative corner of the field you were in or identified with. He published writers who wouldn’t even speak to each other – but they would speak to Sam. And if they had a good story, he wanted to help get it out there. His mind was a turmoil of clever, whacky and cool ideas, hidden inside a self-effacing guy who often didn’t have any confidence in his own talent.
This isn’t a biography – others knew him better than I did - but I had nearly five years of close friendship with him, and many shared projects. We co-founded Occult Detective Quarterly, and it was typical of him that he wanted it as a paying market – he would dip into his own limited pocket to support any Ulthar books which should have, but didn’t, break even. Writers should be paid. He found publishing stressful, and unremunerative, and yet days before his death, he was planning new works. He believed in small presses. Only in the last few months he published two imaginative new anthologies - ‘Machinations and Mesmerism: Tales Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’ (edited by Farah Rose Smith) and ‘Hell’s Empire’ (edited by John Linwood Grant), and he had more on the way.
He was and is, I believe, underrated as a writer, never mind his other activities. He didn’t feel comfortable with the fuss and falseness of marketing, networking and all that exhausting jazz. He didn’t show off like so many of us do. Yet his novels ‘The House of Nodens’ (Dark Regions) and ‘Whitechapel’ (Ulthar) - a Lovecraftian horror, and a weird Arthur Machen/Jack the Ripper tour de force respectively, were both superb. His sole collection ‘The Dreamer in Fire’ (Hippocampus) is a wonderful selection of stories both dark and strange; his collaboration with artist Jason Eckhardt, the graphic novel ‘Some Notes on a Non-Entity: The Life of H P Lovecraft’ (PS Publishing) is fascinating. These are just some of his fine achievements.
Sam wouldn’t have said most of that. He would have worried, and hoped that someone would pick them up and maybe give him the nod, say what he’d done wasn’t bad at all. He was more likely to tell you how good your own work was, or ask you if you had anything which fitted Ulthar’s list.
I am diminished, and we are diminished as a field. We should remember him, and all his works...
‘Machinations and Mesmerism’ is available through Lulu. ‘Hell’s Empire’ and Sam’s own books are available through Amazon UK and Amazon US. John Linwood Grant and Dave Brzeski will continue producing Occult Detective Quarterly for the immediate future, under one name or another, as a tribute to Sam’s enthusiasm and ideas. It will be dedicated to him.
John Linwood Grant, July 2019
John was also invited onto the Lovecraft ezine podcast to talk about Sam, you can watch this by following the link below
A young woman in a flowing nightgown running for her life through a copse of trees. A pale blue night sky and shadows cast in the dark. Bright red Kensington Gore the consistency of anything from apple juice to oatmeal. These are just a few of the images that make the original Hammer horror films instantly recognizable.
Hammer was one of the originators of schlock horror, and no other production company was more prolific. From the 1950s to the ʼ70s, the “house that horror built” pumped out one gothic shocker after another, often releasing four or five in any given year. And while these movies might have been cheap and often cheesy, they never failed please their audience or to prod at and reshape the boundaries of what was allowable, if not acceptable, in cinema at the time.
From drafting multiple scripts to get past the censor board to shooting extra, more risqué footage for more lenient markets than their home audience in Britain, Hammer never stopped pushing the envelope when it came to showing violence, gore, nudity, and sex on the screen. And for their efforts they were, and still are, beloved across generations of horror fans.
But watching some of these movies today—with their rudimentary storylines, their shoddy production value, and their at times questionable, if sincere, acting—a person might be tempted to wonder what it was that made them so successful. What is it that makes people love Hammer horrors so much? What is it that makes us, even now—half a century later—stop flipping through channels or scrolling through our options and settle in for The Brides of Dracula, or Dr. Jekyll, Sister Hyde, or Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed?
Curious, I dug in. I watched all 54 original Hammer horrors in chronological order, those I’d seen before as well as the many I hadn’t. And I read a number of histories and filmographies. I spent half a year tracking down hard-to-find films and deciphering their allure. Here’s what I came up with, my theory about why we love Hammer horror movies: they’re comforting. Hammers are the hot chocolate of horror, with maybe a splash of brandy added to make it a little more grown up.
Okay, you might be saying, but these are movies that set out to shock and titillate and scare us; that influenced multiple generations of horror fans and filmmakers; that reshaped cultural and industry standards so the genre could become what it is today. Wouldn’t it be paradoxical for these horror movies to have the same effect as a warm blanket on a cold night? Maybe, but it’s true nonetheless. In fact, I would go even further and say this soothing effect was intentional.
Hammer set out to cradle the audience, telling them everything was fine, there’s nothing to worry about, while simultaneously building the suspense and therefore tension and ratcheting up the viscera at the pay off. (This is true not only over the course of individual movies, but over the whole of their filmography.) And these two objectives, to comfort and horrify the audience, worked hand in hand. The rudiments of this process come to light when we look at the three main mechanisms through which Hammer soothed their audience into becoming, as we will see, co-conspirators.
Long Ago and Far Away
The first of these mechanisms, and perhaps the most intentional, was to set their films in places removed from the audience in time and space, creating what might be considered fairy tale worlds. Only 15 of the more than 50 Hammer horrors were based in contemporary England. The rest are plucked from history and legend wherever they occurred (or were most convenient to film), from 19th century Egypt for the Mummies, to medieval Spain for a werewolf, to Tsarist Russia for Rasputin, and so on.
Importantly, Dracula and Frankenstein, Hammer’s two most successful franchises by far, were both also set long ago and far away, in a temporal-cultural hodgepodge that might best be described as a gothic Victorian central Europe. Why is this important? Telling stories that take place at a remove in time and space creates a comforting distance between the audience and the action. “You can relax,” it says. “This will never happen to you.”
Monsters and Other Villains
The second way Hammer horrors lull their audience is by leaving no doubt at all about who the villain is. Of 54 films, 15 are about vampires (16 if you include Countess Dracula which doesn’t actually have any vampires, but does have Ingrid Pitt as Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins), and 7 are about Frankenstein and his monsters. Then there are 4 mummies, 3 aliens, and 1 each of a gorgon, a snake woman, a yeti, and a werewolf. All told, 34 of the movies are creature features.
The rest of them have human monsters. There are people driven to evil by greed, there are Satanists, and there are psychopaths. There are two Jekyll and Hydes, and there are two Jack the Rippers (of which one is also a Jekyll and Hyde). There are people who abuse their authority and, in the very memorable Fanatic (known in its American release as Die! Die! My Darling), a woman who is beyond obsessed with religion.
The only film that might give a person pause when it comes to isolating the “bad guy” is Captain Clegg (Night Creatures in the States). Is the villain the brute of a man Clegg tortured years before and who now seeks revenge? Is it the authority figure bent on disrupting the townsfolk’s illegal smuggling operation? In the end, in my estimation, it is Clegg’s own past that has come back to haunt him. And that is as nuanced as it gets with Hammer.
Defining the antagonist in stark terms removes another possible source of discomfort. We are not on the alert for clues about who to root for. We are not wondering what the big twist will be. (Even when there is a twist, it’s unmistakably foreshadowed.) Hammer horror films present good and evil in black and white with no gray in between, and that makes Hammers easy to watch.
Bats on Strings
In the same way that Hammer villains are predictable, Hammer sets have a distinctive look. Besides the obvious matte paintings and the pub that looks remarkably similar across a number of different titles, there are the expansive rooms of the castle or the manor that are furnished with lush jewel tone velvets and golden candlesticks and picture frames.
But the candlesticks, when hefted, never look very heavy. And the big wooden doors, when broken down, either give way too easily or shake the walls around them. Add the obvious wigs and period-incorrect hairstyles; the reused, mix-and-match props and character actors; and the day-for-night lens filters to the sketchy sets, and we begin to get a feel for the third and most powerful mechanism through which Hammer won the hearts of so many: complicity.
Hammer horrors, like other low budget B-movies, require the viewer to be actively involved. We have to hitch up our suspenders of disbelief and conspire with the filmmakers to create the experience. We don’t expect realism from Hammer. Sinclair MacKay, in A Thing of Unspeakable Horror, called Hammer a “gothic repertory company.” In a way, it’s like dinner theater. It’s their job to play it straight and our job to buy it.
This complicity is why we forgive, and even enjoy, the many flubs: the stilted lines, the wobbly knife blades, the dead women’s chests heaving with breath. We see them, but we give it all a pass because we’re in on it, we’re accomplices. And because it’s more fun that way.
Trust + Complicity = Kensington Gore in Eastman Color
Certainly, there are bigger discussions to be had about Hammer films. In particular, an investigation into how their blatant sexism and racism have influenced the genre would be both fascinating and important. But I do think there’s merit in discussing these mechanisms through which Hammer horrors create a sense of comfort in their viewers.
When the movies were new, the effect of these practices—of creating distance, delineating good and evil, and provoking audience complicity—was to gain the viewers’ trust, a trust which made it possible to progress from shocking the world with bright red blood on Dracula’s fangs in 1958 (two years before Hitchcock poured chocolate syrup down the drain in Psycho) to delighting their audience by showing Dr. Frankenstein saw off the top of a man’s skull in the early 1970s.
In our time, they evoke a fondness, an amused delight that beckons us to stop scrolling through our options and settle in, looking forward to seeing a young Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing in a movie that won’t be too challenging and that’s okay, because it’s the middle of the night and nothing is better than a Hammer for filling the insomnia hours.
In the end, people creating horror stories in any medium can learn something important from these movies. What Hammer knew is that the audience is savvy and is not to be manipulated against their will. But earn their trust, and they’ll become your co-conspirators. Then you can get away with murder.
Amy M. Vaughn
Amy M. Vaughn is a writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her books include Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel (Grindhouse Press, coming fall 2019) and Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press, 2018). Before writing weird little books, Amy wrote normal, nonfiction books, including the informal textbook From the Vedas to Vinyasa: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga.
Forato House is looking for test subjects: Are you between the ages of 21 and 61? Are you depressed, anxious, unfulfilled? Join us at our state of the art residential testing facility where we have perfected trepanation, the ancient art of drilling a hole in the skull to achieve a permanently higher state of consciousness! But that’s not all! We are currently seeking individuals who wish to eradicate their neurophages. Through our proprietary process of injecting hallucinogens directly into the frontal lobe, you can rid yourself of brain mites and experience lasting bliss. Do it for science! Do it for peace of mind! Do it for the people you love!
Read our review of Skull Nuggets here