David Huckvale, the authority on various wonderful subjects such as Hammer Horror, Edgar Allan Poe, Dirk Bogarde and Film Scores, has kindly agreed to review my book. I am very pleased, since David's own works have this interdisciplinary character: something I can absolutely relate to, always searching for parallels and connections between different forms of art (Horror in the Eye... being thus a result of this).

HORROR IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER 

Reviewed by 

David Huckvale 

Marta Oliehoek-Samitowska’s new book is an intriguing blend of her own artwork presented alongside interviews with leading contemporary horror authors, who discuss with her the influence of horror films on their own “speculative fiction.” Picking upon the title, the drawings concentrate on close-ups of each authors’ eye, which couldn’t help reminding me – I hope appropriately - of the famous close-up of Sally’s eye in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure of the artwork itself (the eyes are quite masterly!), I think it’s very useful to include such images, alongside photographs of the authors, as the interview format can sometimes resemble the process of listening to a film’s soundtrack without the images. One imbibes a certain amount of information, but all the gestures, and non-verbal communication, which accompanies a conversation, is lacking. Also, conversation by its very nature can sometimes become less focused than more formal writing. For example, we all have a habit of listing the films we admire when in full conversational flow, often leaving the titles to speak for themselves, but a long list of film titles can be frustrating, as one longs to know more about what authors like in particular about them! Several authors here are guilty of this. Nina Allan, for example, begins to explores the parallels between film technique and writing style in a fascinating way:

 

Cinema is a constant source of inspiration, most especially because of the narrative techniques it employs—jump cuts, flashbacks, montage, story-within-story—that have become increasingly important to me in my development as a writer. I love the economy of film—the way film has of saying a great deal in a short space of time, often within a single shot. Skolimowski’s 1978 movie The Shout, based on a short story by Robert Graves, is one of my favourite Horror films of all time.

 

It’s one of mine too, but I longed to know more about what exactly Allan finds so inspirational about it.

Writers are often notoriously reluctant to discuss their work, some preferring to leave it to speak for itself. None of the writers here are guilty of that, but some are inevitably more eloquent than others. Perhaps the most famous name in this gathering of interviewees is Ramsey Campbell, whose responses are rather more terse than the others, though he does confess to the revealing reminiscence of watching Disney’s Snow White, elements of which terrified him as a child “ - the unstable face in the magic mirror that doesn’t react to the person in front of it, and even the sight of darkness beyond a window in the dwarves’ cottage while they perform their song and dance, because I was sure something would appear out of the dark.”

This seems to me to be an important observation to make about the problematic term “horror,” and these comments caused me to contemplate yet again why this specific genre has been traditionally held in such low repute, when elements of “horror” so often punctuate nearly everything worth consideration. Campbell continues this line of thought, with regard to the films of Ingmar Bergman:

 

For all sorts of other reasons, Wild Strawberries is still my favourite Bergman, but I’d commend films such as Hour of the Wolf and Persona to viewers in search of profound disquiet. I and that quality in the desertion that ends The Eclipse (Antonioni -Ed.) and the temporal dislocations of Marienbad, not to mention that film’s sense of the uncanny enigma. I’d also mention Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, which takes realism so far that it seems to spill over into the surreal (which emerges in the dream sequence). It in influenced my sense that supernatural Horror fiction could also include social realism.

 

Terse though Campbell may be in general, this is a vitally significant observation, which I arrived at through my own interest in nineteenth-century Romantic music. There is much “horror” in the music of Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner. We could all benefit from escaping the confines of “genre,” and “medium,” I feel, which limits, rather than enhances our understanding of the human condition.

Gary McMahon echoes these sentiments:

I’m of the opinion that Bergman made a lot of Horror films that people wouldn’t necessarily call Horror films. The Silence is a prime example. It has this air of weirdness, and a sense of escalating dread. If you watch it with Kubrick’s The Shining in mind, I think it’s clear where Stanley got a lot of his inspiration for the King adaptation. Bergman’s films often strike me as ghost stories without ghosts; stories where the characters haunt themselves, or are haunted by moments, memories, or paths not taken. This kind of thing wouldn’t appeal to your average Horror fan, but it might appeal to Horror fans who are looking for something deeper, more substantial than cheap scares or blood and gore.

 

Inevitably, one’s engagement in this book’s interview format will be enhanced the more familiar one is with the works being discussed. That is not to say that there aren’t many astute observations about “horror” in general which are well worth engaging with whether you have read a particular author’s work or not. Aliya Whiteley has some very acute observations to make about one the most important aspects of the horror film, ghost story and supernatural novel, which is the immense power of landscape, particularly with regard to Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General:

 

The first time I saw it I was struck by how frightening it made the traditional rural British countryside look. The trees were gnarly and looming, and the light broke through the branches at such odd angles. And yet I recognised it, having often been walking in the woods and across the fields all my life (I grew up in a rural setting). When a film takes something familiar to you that you’ve never really thought about much, and recasts it as Horror, it’s doing something so powerful.

 

What makes this observation all the more enlightening, is that Whiteley then connects her interest in “horror” landscape to her love of David Lean’s films, which are similarly rooted in landscape, though rooted in apparently quite different genres:

 

I think the thing that keeps drawing me back to David Lean’s films is the sense of the personal within the huge landscape. From the smallest emotions to the vast sweep of place. That famous arrival in Lawrence of Arabia, or the whistling trains of Brief Encounter with the swelling music of Rachmaninov, and then we get this tiny, encapsulated, barely-spoken love story within. Ryan’s Daughter has a wild landscape, in which the characters are embedded, and yet it’s the smallest story. Almost claustrophobic, in ways. I’m really interested in that effect.

 

Christa Carmen focuses on the power of individual objects and colours - the terror of the inanimate, which I have always felt to be a key aspect of the uncanny. The psychiatrist, Ernst Jentsch, described uncanny experiences as those that make us doubt “whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate.” She concurs, particularly with regard to the films of Alfred Hitchcock:

 

My favorite Hitchcock films are The Birds, Marnie, Vertigo, and Rear Window. Each of these films highlight the director’s ability to harness the power of the uncanny. The feathered creatures that pepper the scenery of our lives, the color red, an elevated location, a neighbor’s open window, these everyday things are elevated from the mundane to objects of terror and annihilation. I think the best Horror, whether films or literature, is that which stems from our real-life fears.

 

The genre-widening – indeed genre-exploding aspect of these interviews

contains A. C. Wise’s delightful revelation concerning film noir (a genre that shares so much with “horror”):

 

My absolute favorite film Noir is actually Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which may not be one people typically think of when they think of lm Noir. It has a lot of Noir touches stylistically though, and it checks a lot of the boxes—the down-and-out alcoholic detective with the tragic past, the femme fatale, a seedy urban setting, a maniacal villain, and murder. Plus it’s a fantastic movie to boot! It manages to mash-up Noir darkness with Disney and Warner Brothers characters. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.

 

Forming a central pillar in this intriguing chamber of horrors are the interviews with John Llewellyn Probert and his wife, Thana Niveau. The horror reminiscences of self-styled Lord Probert are a delight to read, particularly as I found a great deal of myself in what he has to say. (Personal recognition is surely one of the reasons we are attracted to anything.)

 

I’ve often said that when I was a child Horror was my best friend, and thinking about it again because you’ve asked, I would still maintain that. It gave me somewhere to escape, it was a great help in venting frustration, it encouraged me to be creative myself, it introduced me to a whole collection of other “friends” (books, music, non-Horror films).

I suspect like to a lot of people my age, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became almost friends when we were growing up because you saw them so frequently and in such a variety of great films.

The important thing about the humour in Horror is that it should arise naturally from the situation. It may seem weird but I never set out to have humour in my stories, that’s just the way they turn out.

 

I also warmed to this interview because of its acknowledgement of the vital importance of music in horror films, and that “there are other good movies that would benefit hugely from better scoring.” Hear, hear!

 

Thana Niveau’s interest in ballet chimes well with this:

 

I love ballet on two levels. I admire the artistry, the grace and strength, the almost supernatural control a dancer has over her/his body. But there’s so much Horror required to reach that level of perfection. I’m fascinated by the obsession, the pain, the almost Cronenbergian trans- formation of the body, forcing it to do things that are completely unnatural.

 

And, having recently completed my own study of Body Horror (Terrors of the Flesh), I was particularly interested in what she had to say about this particular aspect of horror cinema, particularly the films of David Cronenberg, who has “a unique way of celebrating the Horror of the human body.”

 

We have all these gloopy organs inside us, like a colony of living things all working together to make us what we are. Any one of them could turn on us, grow a tumour like a parasite to destroy the whole. Our own body can be our enemy. What keeps us alive can also kill us. We can never know exactly what’s going on inside us, how we can transform.

 

Also, being something of an anti-natalist myself, I sympathise as far as any man can, with her disquiet about giving birth:

 

I have a genuine Horror of pregnancy. The idea of something growing inside me, feeding on me, transforming me, controlling me.

 

Reading what these authors had to say about their own viewing made me aware of how diverse individual taste can be within the same overall genre, so it was reassuring to read Gwendolyn Kiste confess, “To be honest, I’m a bit behind on more modern films. I’m such a huge fan of the classics, and I often re-watch films I love over and over to dissect them and understand what makes them work, so it sometimes takes me years to catch up with what everyone’s seeing right now.”

I also found myself in agreement with what Nina Allan had to say about the way in which the “horror” genre has moved into the mainstream, and consequently lost something.

 

I think as Horror has grown in mainstream popularity through this past decade or so (it’s difficult to believe now that back before the millennium, Horror cinema was seen very much as a fringe genre, watched only by weird, solitary guys in black T-shirts) there has been a pressure on production teams to make increasingly bold claims and statements about movies, simply to get them noticed.

 

The move to the mainstream has diminished the genre in many ways, as John Llewelln Probert explains:

 

Personally I would hate it if Horror became respectable and I think that would sound its death knell. By staying underground and being “that thing people don’t/shouldn’t really like” it leaves Horror open to be more confrontational, challenging, risqué, creative and in the end a lot more worthwhile, both in terms of what you can take away from it and in just being a lot more fun.

 

Film critic, Tim Lucas, who is one of the first of these Beholding Eyes, concurs on the dangers of trying to coerce horror into the spotlight:

 

It seems to me that American films are now based almost entirely on cud that we have already chewed. It tries to make Fantasy more realistic with CGI in place of practical effects, which I think results in the psychosis that explains our current political and social situations.

 

He also hits the nail firmly on the head with regard to what that awkward term “horror” is really all about:

 

What attracts me to Horror has always been the genre’s facility for actualizing unique forms of beauty. Anyone who castigates the genre as ugly is missing out on that rich dimension of the seventh art.

 

Beauty is what it’s always been about for me: the beauty of landscape, the beauty of architecture - even the beauty of ugliness. Perhaps everything is beautiful if looked at in the right way, and even if it’s not, it can always be made beautiful in fantasy. As many of these authors reflect, “horror” isn’t necessarily about being “scared.” Orrin Gray refers to M. R. James’ phrase of “pleasing terror”.  Gwendolyn Kiste argues that a horror film “doesn’t have to be truly 'scary' for it to work very well. It could be unsettling or even downright weird, and still fit very much in the Horror canon.” But beauty, like horror, is very much in the eye of the beholder. And in this book you will find 21 different perspectives that are well worth reading.

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