“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion: an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of a pectoral fin – as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain.” Jaws, Peter Benchley.
I was eight years old and lying in my parents’ bed; my dad on his night shift at Fords’ Car Factory, and my mum asleep. My sisters and I took turns to sleep with her when dad was away. My turn meant that I could sneak a peak at the book she was reading. That week it was Jaws.
“A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea’s rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her.”
My recollection is vivid, just enough lamplight to read by in that dark room, me turning the pages carefully, so as not to disturb my mum, and that creeping sense of horror that made me want to stop whilst not letting me go. I was unable to stop myself, my heart beat faster than usual. I practiced pronouncing the longer words under my breath – uncertain of their meaning – but they felt delicious on my tongue. Something awful was about to happen.
“The fish turned towards shore.”
I had cut my teeth on Enid Blyton: Mr Pink Whistle, The Magic Far Away Tree, and The Wishing Chair; and a little later, The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. I had been moved up a year in school on account of my advanced reading age. No super genius, super prodigy child here, just an innate love of words and stories and imagined, far away worlds. That, and the insistence that my dad bought me books, books that I could walk into and live in, that tingled my skin and made my eyes pop with possibilities.
And here, already, with the tatty paperback of Jaws clutched in my hands, I was experiencing a tiny drop in the ocean of books; the wonderful possibilities of what there would be to read as a big person.
“She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood.”
It took me a little while to read those first seven or eight pages, but that seed was well and truly planted. I can’t claim to have read the entire book. I think it probably seemed too overwhelming, too huge, not to mention the limited opportunities I would have to read what would be a forbidden text for an eight year old, but it captured my imagination. It was my earliest influence, my first introduction to the dark side.
“The fish, with the woman’s body in its mouth, smashed down on the water with a thunderous splash, spewing foam and blood and phosphorescence in a gaudy shower.”
In the same bedroom, in the same flat, around about the age of eight, I discovered the Stephen King novel, Carrie, under my parents’ bed. I did the same, flicking through the pages, and delighting in the words in front of me.
And then came my first horror film. My parents were out, we had a babysitter, I was up late, I watched the film. That’s all I remember. It was a vampire film, no doubt one that would attract a “U” rating by today’s standards. At the end, the vampire fell down a hole, unceremoniously and accidentally staked by a wooden post protruding from the ground. He turned into a skeleton. I was horrified. I wanted to hide my face from the awful image of that skull, staring from empty eye sockets up at the man who had pushed him.
But the film that both scared and scarred me well into my adulthood, (the film that I honestly cannot recall how I even came to watch) was that old, 1975, shocking and controversial movie, David Cronenberg’s, Shivers.
It’s the story of parasitic slugs that infect people via any available orifice and take over their body, turning their hosts into insatiable sex maniacs. There’s a scene, I can remember it clearly (even on that pirated, VHS copy), where one of the slugs crawls up through the plug hole in the bath, between the legs of the unsuspecting woman, and enters her body to live and breed in her stomach. Hysterical screaming and water thrashing ensued. It took me until at least the age of 35 before I could pull the plug out of the bath while still sitting in it.
Those early films terrified me. I was also addicted. I have never fully understood why we, as human beings, love that feeling of being afraid (from a safe distance, of course). Yes, there’s a science behind it, but still, why would you expose yourself to those feelings? And then go back for more? Horror movies and books scare me, and often terrify me, and I embrace it, because I love being scared, but only when it’s not real, when the danger is psychological but not physical, when that danger is locked in the pages of a book, or trapped behind the silver or small screen.
My world of horror really opened up when starting secondary school. The kids were all reading The Rats, Lair and Domain, by James Herbert, marking out the pages that revealed titillating snippets of sex scenes. Did you read page 175??
Yes, they were titillating, but that’s not what attracted me. The first to last pages dripped with terror and blood and guts. I never got to finish Domain; we were living in the midst of the Cold War at the time, a very real and physical horror for me, and I was filled with nausea every time Reagan and Gorbachev became even a little disgruntled with each other. But I devoured The Rats and Lair. And I wanted more.
A friend of my mum’s was an avid horror reader, and I convinced her to loan me them, on the condition that I wouldn’t let my parents find out. She introduced me to Dean Koontz and I was captivated. The first book I read of his, Strangers, really sealed the deal for me: I was a horror fan. I read as many of the man’s books as I could get my hands on; Night Chills, Whispers, Phantoms, The Face of Fear, The Key to Midnight, Twilight. And so on.
And throughout all this, I wrote. At the age of six or seven, my stories were about the fairy, Tinkerbell, and her adventures in the forest; and Snowball the mouse, and his escapades during the night, free from his cage as his owner slept. And then ghost stories crept in, and gentle horror, and when Kennington’s Infants School library was vandalised and our teachers asked us to all write a replacement book, I wrote and illustrated The Secret Room. Pictures of severed heads and dripping blood decorated the pages. I’ll dig it out of the loft and share with you.
And in my late teens, when I realised that, if I wanted to be a writer, I could be one, I started my first horror novel, Crush. I wanted to scare people the way I had been scared. I wanted my words to make people check under their beds, look in the wardrobe, and sleep with the lights on.
I’ve been working on my second horror novel, The Remainers, whilst working a full time job to pay the bills. It’s a bit of a monster, and I love it, but it’s too long – currently at 160,000 words and counting. I’m parking it for a while. I’m seeing it as the horror project that helped me to better understand writing in the genre. I’ll finish it one day soon. It’s too scary a tale not to be told.
My new project will begin in the Autumn. I’m hoping you’ll stick around to see how that turns out.
Extracts from Jaws, Peter Benchley