Happy Birthday, Horror!


It may not have been a natural birth, stitched together as it was from the flesh of other fictions, given life by the lightning bolt of Fear… still, it was 200 years ago this June that, by most accounts, Horror as a genre was born.

Brian Aldiss in his TRILLION YEAR SPREE cites Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as ground zero for SF as a genre. While Sir Christopher Frayling begins his NIGHTMARE:The Birth Of Horror, with FRANKENSTEIN and how it came to be.

Gothic Poster

That ‘Haunted Summer’ on the shores of Lake Geneva, within the walls of Villa Diodati has a lot to answer for… and to celebrate, since not only did it result in the creation of FRANKENSTEIN, but also, indirectly, to DRACULA, in the writing of John Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE, and indeed in the figure of Byron himself, who directly influenced Polidori’s depiction of Count Ruthven, and the iconic image of every darkly handsome, gloweringly dangerous vampire thereafter.

From this night, when Byron, Shelley, Mary (then Mary Godwin) and Polidori told ghost stories comes one of the most influential books in the English Language and indirectly, an entire genre – one from which that most vampiric of arts, the cinema, has drunk deeply.

“Cinema comes to life in the dark – like Dracula.” – David Thompson

Given the immense influence of these books, these people and that night on our culture – artistically and otherwise –  why then does there seem to be so little celebration of it?

The BFI in their infinite wisdom chose to hold a huge celebration of Gothic and Horror Cinema a couple of years before this momentous date… which seems rather short sighted. They couldn’t have waited?

The way that TV and Literary subjects so often tie together now – see the recent spate of books and TV series about Russia, or those which ties very sensibly to specific historic events like the Somme, you’d have thought they could have held on just a little, in order to ensure blanket coverage.

As it was, the BFI Gothic celebrations were an immense success, but it’s hard not to feel that the Official bastions of our cultural and artistic heritage once again have slighted or underestimated the genre. Don’t quite take it seriously enough to think it warranted the extra effort, or the wait. Or perhaps just don’t see this moment in our cultural history for what it really is: One of the most important events in the history of art. Literary in it’s basis, but infinite in its influence both in subject and in style.

Is this because it’s Horror? I can’t help but think it is. It’s a genre then that has commercial value to our cultural institutions, but not enough meaning to be genuinely respected or cared for. Not enough meaning to note a date.

Similarly, though Mary Shelley lived for many years in the city of Bath and wrote much of FRANKENSTEIN there, that city still has not recognised her, nor the place where she lived and wrote with the ‘Blue Plaque’ seal of official approval, despite the fact that she is hands down one of Bath’s most famous residents, and despite the efforts of Sir Christopher Frayling, Angela carter and others to encourage the city to do otherwise. Jane Austen is their cause celebre… the respectable face of their literary heritage. Not this rebellious young woman who eloped with her lover, spent a summer with the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, and wrote a novel which got so under the skin of its readers as to never have left their nightmares since.


Perhaps that’s as it should be. Horror is, after all, a ‘disreputable’ genre. It’s meant to be the outlaw, the outsider. The genre that dares to challenge and attack and shake things up. But when it has so much influence, when it has borne GREAT and LASTING works of art, it still bothers me to see them diminished, ignored, or not given their due.

SO, while the cultural capital was a little premature with its ‘Petite Mort’ for horror (left the money on the dresser and walked out of the door)… up North we embrace it and declare undying love. Darkness and Shadow are part of the lands in which we live. We seem to occupy a similarly ‘outsider’ status, and we recognise one of our own.

It makes me proud  to see the way Newcastle has NOT forgotten, and indeed is celebrating this momentous anniversary with a series of lectures by Gail-Nina Anderson and our own NOVOCASTRIA MACABRE screening of Ken Russell’s GOTHIC at Newcastle Castle, which dramatises the events at Villa Diodati in a way that comments on them, the people involved, and the genre they begot, with Stephen Volk (screenwriter of GOTHIC as well as GHOST WATCH, AFTERLIFE, THE AWAKENING, MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT and more) and  David Pirie (who quite literally wrote the book on British Horror Films and the importance of Gothic Horror to our culture with A HERITAGE OF HORROR: ‘The Gothic is to Britain as the Western is to America’) in discussion after the film, chatting about the making of the movie, it’s conception, and the importance of the events depicted.

We’ve had our Shakespeare celebrations this year.

If you love the darker side of literature, the dangerous free spirits of Horror, Fantasy and SF, this is your moment. This one’s for YOU. Villa Diodati is YOUR Stratford Upon Avon. The theatre of your mind’s eye, The Globe. And whatever dark entity was conjured from the collective fears of Byron, Shelley, Mary and Polidori… that’s YOUR Shakespeare.

Embrace the darkness. Face your fears. Celebrate!

Gothic event alt2

GOTHIC screening at Newcastle Castle with Stephen Volk & David Pirie

Gail-Nina Anderson lectures at Newcastle Lit & Phil: ‘The Birth Of Frankenstein’ and ‘Byron: Poet, Pin-up, Vampire‘.

GOTHIC review by Ken Hanke

GOTHIC news and reviews at stephenvolk.net

Ken Russell

Altered States (1980)


The ‘Establishment’ never knew how to deal with Ken Russell, right up to the day he died, he just didn’t – wouldn’t – fit into any box they could use to contain and understand him.


He was a fiercely intelligent film maker, with a gleefully mischevious sense of humour. He was an emotive director, his films were passionately felt, dangerously conceived and impudent in their willingness to be vulgar.

Altered States (1980)


That willingness to pin his heart on his sleeve confounded many critics I think – overwhelmed them. He felt his films with such intensity and he was so determined that an audience be anything other than bored, that, in combination, critics and sometimes audiences were dumbfounded into silence or shocked into anger. They felt attacked; provoked. And indeed, Ken’s films could be a slap across the face, but always in an effort to get you to ‘wake up!’ and ‘FEEL SOMETHING!’.

Mahler (1974)


Polite society often cringes at those who lay their feelings out for all to see; who value the truth of emotion and experience above all and want to share it. For some this ‘isn’t done’, it ‘isn’t proper’. I still feel like that’s the attitude of an awful lot of the ‘establishment’ critics, especially in the UK (perhaps, as in the rest of UK journalism there is a predominant similarity of background that conspires to agree that some things ‘just aren’t done’?).

There is value in artifice and stylisation. But the deadening hand of ‘realism’ infects much of popular arts (how I cackle when people talk about the ‘realistic’ effects of a Transformers or the latest movies from Marvel or DC).

The age old refrain of style over content is often levelled at film makers like Ken Russell or Brian De Palma, for instance, but only – I think – because it is still the predominant norm to approach ‘content’ as a literary idea. As if the very stylisation and presentation of image and action is not speaking itself. Russell and De Palma both are visual film makers who want to make you think and feel via images. The light, the colour, the framing, the use of lenses, the movement of the camera in relation to actors, ALL combine to elicit a response. To provoke a reaction, a thought, a feeling, an idea…

I wonder if the problem today is that too few people still understand or are open to a genuinely cinematic, artistic language/experience. Like music, which is one of Ken’s greatest inspirations in life and in his art, the language of cinema has the ability to bypass the concious and connect directly with the emotive, the unconcious, the visceral, experiential… why then do so many films now conform to a single ‘style’ of presentation? A deadening rhythm of shots and cuts in which dialogue, that most concious aspect of the cinematic experience, becomes the key to understanding?

Such films, and such a style, has little chance of overwhelming us. And perhaps that’s no longer what an audience wants… to be moved to feelings we don’t understand, to revelations in ourselves that we did not see coming. That does, after all, require a willingness to ‘Go There’ (as Harlan Ellison might have put it).

Tommy (1975)


There is little of true surprise in today’s cinematic product – certainly not from the studios. People do not go to movies to be surprised, shocked, awed or overwhelmed by the experience. I’m not even sure they really go to be moved… audiences en masse (and I hope I’m wrong, and it’ll swing back some day) go to a movie knowing what they’re going to get. Looking for a given experience. Looking for a film to conform. And perhaps, in a world where much in life has become unpredictable and unpleasant, that’s what they need – or feel they need: a guarantee of equilibrium. A good, none threatening time where things are okay in the end and someone else will do the right thing and sort the world out.

Artists like Ken Russell (and I use the word because I believe that it applies), we’re genetically unable to provide such succour and reassurance. Russell wants you on your feet. He wants you climbing up the walls. He wants to shake you up, excite you, appal you, shock you, make you giggle and wince and cry. He wants a reaction. He’s willing – and brave enough – to risk making a fool of himself, and wants you to be willing too, because he wants you to FEEL. Something genuine. Something new. Something to inspire you. Ken Russell wants to set your soul on fire.

That in itself is an act of wild rebellion. It is a dangerous act. Because a soul ignited, is a soul set free. It will act according to its own wild impulses, unencumbered by social grace and free of the shackles of ‘politeness’. It will seek truth. And that can be shocking.

To be open to such an experience and by extension such a possibility requires – demands – a lack of vanity that is frequently missing today. It demands a bravery from it’s audience to engage and react.

Be brave. Be willing. Art can take you places that you never dreamed…

‘Never Be Afraid To Go There.’*

*With thanks to Harlan Ellison.‎