Writers’ brains are slightly different from normal people’s.
That filter system in our head is faulty, or maybe it’s plumbed in wrong, doesn’t matter, whatever the reason, stuff gets lodged in there and it stays with us, warps our perception of the ordinary, the mundane.
Don’t believe me? OK, well take, for example, the recent project I’ve been working on – the portmanteau horror audio anthology Thirteen – you’d be surprised by how much of my personal history has gone into shaping this anthology.
I kid you not.
And it’s not just true of me, but of all thirteen of the writers that have contributed to this audio.
Still don’t believe me? All right, you asked for it.
I was originally approached to write an article outlining the background that led up to the production of the audio anthology, but instead I’m going to give you thirteen very good reasons why Thirteen is exactly the way it is…
Somewhat coincidentally I was thirteen years old when I first saw this performance of M.R James’s story The Mezzotint on BBC2’s Classic Ghost Stories series, and it creeped the hell out of me. It was roughly around this time that I was starting to get into horror, I mean properly into horror, and the idea of a picture that seemed to move whenever the observer wasn’t looking, was truly chilling. This first encounter with James’s classic supernatural tale, a semi-dramatization with the wonderful Robert Powell, was really the beginning of my fascination with how audio can, if done correctly, open up a whole new dimension to the written word.
Stumbling across good audio readings of classic horror stories on vinyl was like striking gold as a kid. I remember standing in a dusty second hand shop flicking idly through a battered old cardboard box full of LPs and suddenly discovering this H.P Lovecraft story; even the cover artwork was damned freaky – some guy in a dungeon chowing down on a hunk of raw meat, standing next to a huge pile of skulls and bones. I just knew, even before I had listened to it, that it was going to be good. I must have played that record to death.
I have to confess, right here, right now, that I have never actually listened to this album from the ex-Black Sabbath frontman, but the front cover left a scar on me as a child. When you’re young it’s not just stories that can frighten you, a single image can stir the imagination just as potently. I remember quite vividly walking past HMV with my mother in late 1983, when I was just 10 years old, glancing into their window and being absolutely terrified of the album display there – Ozzy, fully made up as a werewolf, snarling at the camera. Gave me nightmares for several days afterward, but also proved to me the importance of a good, strong front cover image.
As with the above, it would appear on the surface to be a very strange choice, but this vinyl LP (actually my sister’s LP, I just pinched it) both captivated and unnerved me in equal measures. It was a collection of short stories narrated, and mostly written by, Morris himself, that were meant for very young children, and yet, there were stories on there with titles like The Mad Tapper, featuring absurdly odd little characters that made eerie, emotionless noises as they mended shoes. Some of them seemed to border on horror. Even the cover artwork felt all kinds of wrong – the characters themselves looking like ventriloquists dummies, with dead, black eyes.
I remember where I was the first time I saw an episode of this anthology series. It was the early 1980s and I was tucked up in one of those convertible sofa-bed contraptions, on holiday in Bridlington with my family, and watching a tiny black and white portable that came with the top-floor holiday flat we’d rented. The episode [Where’s Your Sense of Humour?] was about a practical joker whose incessant pranks did nothing but anger his friends and family; the twist at the end of the story being that his constant japery eventually led to his demise (he fell down some steps while setting one particular wheeze and broke his neck). But it was that last lingering shot of the dead man near the end of the episode that would give me one hell of a sleepless night later that day; as I recall his friends found him lying there at the bottom of the cellar steps, his eyes wide and staring, mouth pulled open in a rictus grin of pure glee… happy right to the end.
My mother had quite a few of these anthologies in the cupboard under the serving hatch, along with a stack of other great horror and SF titles. Nothing else in there, just books jammed in, filling up every shelf. I read them voraciously one school summer holiday when I was about 12, not just delighting in the stories but the deliciously lurid and schlocky covers too.
I was very young when these first aired. Tom Baker read a series of four creepy supernatural tales (the fifth was scheduled to air near Christmas 1978 but was pulled due to a BBC strike) , while John Mills took care of the daring tales from the Second World War. I don’t really remember too much about the stories themselves, it was more the mood that stayed with me over the years – and Baker’s wonderfully rich and evocative delivery.
I came to this series very late. Not until the DVD release, I fact. I was far too young to watch it when it was originally shown in 1976 and it was never given a repeat transmission, so I really didn’t stand a chance, did I? Thirty years later I was house sitting for a friend and was rifling through their DVD collection for something to watch when I stumbled across this little gem. I watched all six episodes in one sitting, then the next day I watched them all again…and then ordered a copy of the DVD for myself. In my opinion this anthology series from the late great Nigel Kneale is one of the best pieces of television ever produced.
This reading of John Wyndham’s novel was released in 1982 on a double cassette and I just about wore the thing out. It wasn’t the story that used to terrify me (although it is a satisfyingly creepy little tale) so much as Robert Powell’s ‘performance’ of the minor characters, especially the blind doctor in the hospital near the beginning – “I’m bloody blind man, can’t you see that?” Even now it gives me goosebumps.
Yep, OK, this probably has to be the biggest influence on the Thirteen audio out of the entire bunch. I first saw this as a kid, one late night on ITV, and, despite its faults (I never did think that the ‘Midnight Mess’ story really worked) fell in love with it. A few years later my parents bought a VHS recorder and we managed to squeeze it onto the end of a tape somewhere the next time it was next shown on TV… after that I’d watch the film at least three times a month.
Growing up I loved listening to soundtrack albums (in fact, I still do when I’m writing) and many evenings I could be found in my room, one of my many cherished vinyl LPs on the huge stereo system that my dad had given me, headphones plugged in, volume turned up to drown out all extraneous sound. Usually it’d be the 1979 Universal Dracula soundtrack by John Williams, or Ennio Morricone’s Exorcist II: The Heretic score. I was in love with John Carpenter’s music too – Halloween III: Season of the Witch was a particular favourite. Listening to them allowed me to make up my own movies in my head, or even encouraged me to take the stories of those films I’d seen in whole new directions, ones I’d perhaps liked to have seen them go. A very useful outlet for someone that walked around all day with his head stuffed full to bursting with story ideas!
I can’t even begin to tell you how this series affected me as a child. Not just as a viewer but as a writer – or, at least, as a would-be writer. It was during the transmission of this series (1979-82) that I started to write stories. I tried to replicate the atmosphere of the whistling ghost that haunted the abandoned railway platform, I attempted to create creatures as good and as scary as the man with no face who hid in every photograph ever taken, and my female characters were always tall, blonde, elegant and beautiful. This series was also responsible for my first piece of fan fiction ever, when I was just seven years old. Aww bless.
THIRTEEN: Hidden Tracks (obviously)
When I was 15 I was in the breakroom at school, chatting with a friend who happened to be a huge Beatles fan about the so called ‘hidden track’ at the end of Sergeant Pepper – that garbled mass of backwards voices which plays after the end track. The conversation went something like this –
I stare blankly at him.
Me: It doesn’t even make grammatical sense. What’s it supposed to mean?
He shrugs again.
The conversation ends. We exit stage left.
It was the first time I’d come across these so-called ‘hidden tracks’. In the linking story for the audio, I have one of the characters explain to the narrator that hidden tracks are put on the end of records as a surprise for the listener. Well, if those handful of hidden tracks I had discovered since the Sergeant Pepper business were anything to go by, then “a surprise for the listener” is all they were, and an unpleasant one at that. They’re certainly not entertaining, nor are they particularly pleasant to listen to. I found one such track hidden at the end of an album by a group called The Beekeepers, a rather silly little song it was about a mouse singing in the Albert Hall, then there was the one I discovered at the end of Nirvana’s In Utero album called Endless Nameless, a track so bad it actually does feel “endless” when you’re in the process of listening to it.
But it got me thinking – what if there was a purpose to those hidden tracks, what if they had been placed on the end of certain records for a reason? And what if they were a lot more unpleasant than they at first seemed?
If you were to go away now, this very instant, and listen to Thirteen, I honestly believe that you will see the influences of all of the above thirteen items somewhere under the surface of this audio anthology like a cockroach crawling beneath the pallid white skin of a cadaver. This audio was a long time coming, literally and figuratively; not just in its production, but also in its gestation, its very conception. Thirty-nine years to be precise – and that’s a lot of reading of books and watching of films and TV and listening to audio and having strange conversations with school friends.
And, you know what? I think it really shows in the finished product.