Eyeless in Amersham, The Dead March On

“Steve King says we don’t have nightmares because we give them all away” George A Romero

Lately, I have been thinking about what scares me.
What are the haunting images and spooky tales that stuck to me from childhood.
A friend of mine feared zombies. Rationally, he knew the zombie apocalypse was unlikely, but the dead that walk made regular appearances in his seemingly feature length nightmares. He was offered a part in a zombie horror, and so took it, believing that acting in a fiction and being surrounded by the latex and red syrup reality of behind the scenes horror would cure him. It didn’t. He said it made it worse.
I find myself walking down streets and regularly wondering which building would be the best one to hole up in in event of a plague of the dead.

I have been editing an anthology of horror stories with Johnny Mains, and it has brought back all the memories of Pan Horror anthologies and Saturday night BBC horror double bills. I was an enthusiast from the age of eight. In a Chesham bookshop, I bought Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, a much discussed volume amongst the League of Gentlemen and other middle aged fear enthusiasts. Within a month, I had the money for Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Films, I was gifted a copy of Ed Naha’s From Scream to Screen, and on it went. I learnt my left from my right, not via schooling or parental counselling, but from Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I knew my Lon Chaney Jr from Dwight Frye before I knew which hand was which. Looking at the book, I would see “Left: Boris Karlofff in Isle of the Dead, Right: Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat”, and thus I learnt.

I cannot remember my first horror film. For at least a year, maybe two, I was imagining the whole horror from a still or two. Sadly, these reels are now lost in my mind, erased by experiencing the real thing. What had I imagined The Wicker Man to be, based only on an image of a startled Edward Woodward viewing a candle made from a hand? Or the eyeless Peter Cushing walking through the misty graves from Tales from the Crypt?
Sometimes the curse of human imagination is that it has a much bigger budget than Hammer or RKO had. By the time I saw the films I had created something far more intricate and enormous than was possible on 80 pence and and a tube of blood red lipstick.

I think my first horror was Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a fine place to start. I had pretended to go to bed, but then snuck downstairs and hid behind the sofa (i think my older sisters had helped with the plan). I am pretty sure my parents knew waht was going on, but played along anyway. It was a small front room, and a boy in pajamas was unlikely to be invisible. When the horror double bills began, I was allowed to watch the first one, it was one black and white film, followed by a colour one, though they were all in black and white as we didn’t have a colour telly until 1982. So it was Night of the Demon, The Devil Doll, The Beast with 5 Fingers, energetically played (dare I say hammy on occasion?) and monochromatically haunting to a ten year old’s eyes. I think I may even once have been allowed to stay up for a second film, From Beyond the Grave, a definite mistake as I believe I had nightmares for some time afterwards. It is still a chilling film, perhaps the most haunting of the Amicus portmanteau movies, with the smile and glassy stare of Angela Pleasance and the bloody insanity and obsession of David Warner.

I had nightmares before I came to know horror films and stories, so why I want to feed my head with even more ingredients of midnight disturbance I have no idea. My forst real nightmare was involvement in a car crash when I was three, so maybe I blame reality for inspiring my hobbies.

My first grown up horror was watching Guild Home Video’s release of Scanners. I didn’t think it scared me when we all watched the eyes popping, veins bursting and heads exploding at the time, but when I was alone, the charred remains of Cameron Vale came back.

I am trying to recall the childhood TV experiences that still pay dividends in my bank of fear.

An episode of Black Beauty, when Amy looks out of the window at night, she sees a spooky man standing out in a yard. I still have a vague tremble in a rural cottages when going to close the curtains, will that man be there.

An Armchair Thriller where a man with bloodied eye sockets banged on a train window. (also a Children’s TV series, with a name like Sky or similar, where one of the characters had eyes that were black, and The Changes too).

The fish eye lens opening titles of Thriller.

Half caught reflections in windows generally, when the pattern seeking brain makes into your demise rather than a reflected lampshade.

And most of the MR James Christmas Ghost Stories.

It is not the mindless killer or the killer with announced intent that creeps me out most, but the one who has his reasons, but will never tell, just keep on killing.

I have only just started this list, there is more to come, but my word count has run out for now. Part two will follow, after some messages.

Dead Funny, including stories by Stewart Lee, Sara Pascoe, Danielle Ward, Charlie Higson, Reece Shearsmith and many more, is available now

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3 Responses to Eyeless in Amersham, The Dead March On

  1. steven nash says:

    They were already out of print when I discovered them but I loved the Pan Book of Horror Stories, particularly the gruesome (and as the series went on, increasingly ridiculous) covers.

  2. basfordianthoughts says:

    For years the villain from The Golden Gate Murders (screened as part of the ‘Murder Mystery Suspense’ series) formed the basis of my nightmares as I ran from one end of the landing to my bedroom, past a dark stairwell and the dark corner to the airing cupboard. He could have been hiding in either, with his swooshy cloak, florescent mask and his indiscriminate hatred. My office building has a dark lobby area I have to pass through to leave each evening and I’m having flashbacks…

  3. Lee Healey says:

    West Country Tales: The Beast. Gave me effing nightmares for years. Took me 20 years to track down. Apparently most of the episodes are lost, but you can find a few on ebay/i offer.

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