I don’t find traditional horror particularly frightening. When I look back at the things that disturbed me as a child, it was never the vampires or werewolves, or the traditional tropes of the horror genre. I was fascinated by ghosts and the idea of people living on in some way after death but not particularly scared of that idea. The things that really struck fear into the heart of me were, on the surface, supposed to be funny or entertaining. Circuses and clowns, Punch and Judy, the faded photograph of Emily’s shop at the beginning of Bagpuss, the test card girl sitting poised to play noughts and crosses, alone. The experiences and images that disturbed me had little in common and my reasons for being scared were subtle and buried. Generally, I’m a pretty hard person to scare.
I went through a teenage stage where I watched slasher films with friends. My cousin and I would go skating on Saturdays and then hire a video that we weren’t actually old enough to be allowed, then watch it while her parents went out for a drink. The thing was, though, that I had it in my head back then that I would train to be a doctor and had forced myself to watch surgery and face the blood and gore of life. I had deliberately desensitised myself and the slasher movies were cartoonish compared to other things I’d seen. The scenarios were too easy to get out of, when you actually thought about it, and the fact that anyone was in peril at all was down to their own stupidity. None of it really made sense and it certainly didn’t have the depth that meant it would stay with me.
The first time I remember being really and truly terrified by a horror story, of having my sleep disturbed by it, was a Hitchcock episode of Tales of the Unexpected. In fact, the opening to this used to raise my heckles in a similar way to the test card girl. The music was eerie in a sense that’s hard to explain and the hands, moving in front of firelight, reminding me of a scary story I use in my first novel about lights in the window that turn out to be eyes. My brother and I bonded over this story at a barbeque recently and I’ve talked to other people of a similar age, lots of whom remember this episode particularly.
The Hitchcock story involves a woman who was famous for escaping from prison and who had been put into a high security institution. She is desperate to escape again and tries several times without success. Finally, she recruits the undertaker to help her. He agrees to bury her with the next dead prisoner and then to dig her up afterwards so that she can escape. The agreement is that she will climb into the coffin the next time the death bells tolls. She does this, and waits and waits for her rescue. Impatient, she lights a match underground. The interior of the coffin lights up and we see the undertaker, dead in the casket. The episode closes with a shot of the secluded burial grounds, and the sound of her screams as the camera pans out.
The fact that this story comes back to me with such clarity and detail says a lot. It was more than thirty years ago that I watched it. There’s something fundamentally disturbing about the story but, for me, what makes it all the more terrifying because it relied only on the reality I know and understand. I found myself rooting for the criminal, because I empathised with her need to escape. I could see myself in her situation, buried alive thanks to my inability to deal with my situation. I analysed the story over and over again, working out how I could avoid such a fate. I decided I wanted to be cremated, I imagine like very many who saw this programme. And it stayed with me as a perfect, frightening concept, the ultimate scary story.
I read many novels and stories since that I found frightening but they all had something in common; elements of realism and a subtlety in any supernatural elements they used. Proper monsters felt too far my own understanding of reality for me to be genuinely scared of them. I just didn’t believe. So when I sat down to write my own thrillers with supernatural or horror elements, these influences were there. I specifically wanted to write something I could believe in, something that would scare me. For me, the real horror of life comes from the things we are capable of doing to each other. It comes from the idea that we don’t really know the people we love, their psychology and the inside of them, that we like to think we know what they’re capable of but we don’t. It comes from marriages, relationships, friendships, trust and manipulation. The true terror comes from the inside of us, rather than some external monster that wants to eat our brains.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Niki Valentine is an award-winning writer who, under a pseudonym, has been published internationally to huge acclaim.
When she isn’t working on her next psychological horror novel, Niki teaches Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University. Niki’s upcoming novel, Possessed, is published as a paperback original by Sphere on the 25th October.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Who do you trust when you can no longer trust your own mind? Emma’s life has always been a struggle, and now she’s been accepted at a prestigious music school, she is determined to excel. But when the impossibly chic twins, confident Sophie and quieter Matilde, come crashing into her life – surrounding her with champagne and parties – they demand Emma’s full attention. Then shy Matilde commits suicide and shockingly, her identical twin Sophie flourishes.
Now odd things are happening to Emma: blackouts, waking up in strange places, bizarre dreams. Something, or someone, is consuming Emma’s mind. Terrified, Emma begins to doubt everything and everyone around her, especially the beautiful Sophie… Powerful, twisted, atmospheric and disturbing, Possessed is a terrifying psychological thriller.
Sphere is kindly giving away THREE (3) copies of Possessed.
To enter please leave a comment for Niki then fill out the form below. This giveaway is UK ONLY and ends 31st October 2012
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