four films for Waking Hell

Fiction, Film, My fiction

With Waking Hell coming out I thought I’d do a couple of ‘making of’ posts – two bookumentaries, if you will. One of them’s on the music that inspired the book – it’s up over on the Gollancz blog.

And this is the other one, about four of the films that helped inspire it. So now sit back, grab your popcorn and relax as I make like Alex Cox and introduce you to… WakingHellodrome!

 

Night of the Demon

When I started writing Waking Hell, I had one very definite ambition for it. I wanted it to be a very pure science fiction book that also worked as a horror novel. So, I went back to some of my favourite horror movies for inspiration.

I’ve always loved Jacques Tourneur’s The Night of the Demon (also known, as in the trailer below, as Curse of the Demon). Its hero, Dr John Holden, is a strict rationalist who falls prey to an entity that forces an entirely new world view on him. His antagonist, Julian Karswell, is at once a boisterous clown and a terrifyingly effective black magician.

I was fascinated by how the film mapped and explored those contrasts. And I loved the sense of mysterious, remorseless pursuit that suffuses it. Both fed very directly into Waking Hell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKy9vxXK2-I

Oh, and Night of the Demon is based on M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes. James too was a big influence on Waking Hell. In particular, there’s something oddly intimate about many of his hauntings. So much of his horror peaks late at night, in bedrooms. One of the book’s key scenes contains an oblique nod to that.

 

Buffet Froid

This is a film that – when I first saw it as a teenager – blew my mind. It’s a profoundly odd movie, its characters deeply absurd, its settings (for the most part) a series of brilliantly used late night Paris locations. It’s shot through with a very strong sense that – with the world asleep – anything can happen. Those who remain awake no longer live within our city, they’ve fallen into its dream of itself.

That was something I wanted to capture in Waking Hell, that sense of being trapped within a city that has suddenly become completely other, no longer a home but rather a trap. Buffet Froid was the film that most directly inspired that, but I also drew on a long line of ‘estranged in the night’ movies – The Warriors, Round Midnight, Subway and so on.

As you read Waking Hell, hopefully you’ll see how all these percolate through into its heroine Leila’s adventures. She too is overthrown by night; the darkness both hides the world she’s always known and reveals a new one, more complex, more dangerous but potentially also more rewarding than any she’s known before.

 

Le Frisson Des Vampires

This is a very strange film indeed. On the one hand, it’s a 70s exploitation horror movie, with many of the flaws that that implies. On the other, it’s utterly engrossing and original, shot through with genuine surrealism and driven by three of the most peculiar vampires on screen. Watching it feels like spying on someone else’s dream.

The first vampire we meet casually unsqueezes herself from within a grandfather clock. She has two male companions, who slowly but surely take over the film. I found them an utterly hypnotic presence. They’re all over this trailer, too:

On the one hand, they’re a completely absurd duo. They’re given to nonsensical pseudo-intellectual lectures on occult history, they’re pretty ineffectual and their fashion sense is astonishing. Drawing on an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of early 70s hippy finery, in every scene they look like they’ve dressed up as several members of the Monkees at once.

But on the other, I found in them a profoundly unsettling sense of menace. At first, that seemed utterly bizarre. I couldn’t work out why they spooked me so much. Understanding why these 70s relics had such a hold over me helped me define some of Waking Hell’s key bad guys – the Pressure Men.

 

Quatermass and the Pit

The past and the future have one thing in common – they contain everything. Science fiction normally looks to the everything of the future for inspiration, but Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale took the opposite tack. In Quatermass and the Pit, he wrote the past as if it was the future.

In the world of the film, a fully SFnal Martian invasion is already ancient history. His characters’ challenge is to deal with it not as a thing yet to come, but as an undeniable, ineradicable fact that radically changes their sense of the past and with it the very nature of their present. For them, memory plays that role that SF usually gives to foresight.

This was a huge inspiration for Waking Hell. I was fascinated by that recasting of SF as a tool to not just look backwards and explore memory but to understand it as the one thing without which the present and the future can’t exist.

On Britishness

Aliens, Fair Folk, Fantasy, Modernity, Science Fiction

I recently took part in the BSFA’s British Science Fiction & Fantasy survey, which led to the publication of a rather nifty little book comparing genre self-perception now and 20 years ago – more details here.

The book was edited by Niall Harrison and Paul Kincaid; they’ve done an excellent job of picking out interesting survey responses, and weaving them into a text which both once reaches clearly defined conclusions, and encourages further consideration and debate. One of his key concerns is to understand just what Britishness means to genre writers working in the UK.

To celebrate publication, I thought I’d post my answer to his question about Britishness in full, here on the blog. So:

Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’d say probably that everything I write tends to be rather depressive (either the world gets destroyed, or the protagonist dies, or both), and to have a strongly interior focus; the weird elements are usually amplifying metaphors for whatever’s going on emotionally or thematically in the story. I’m not sure that these are exclusive properties of British genre fiction, though.

On reflection, for me the most purely British genre moments don’t come in fiction. They’d be Delia Derbishire’s original orchestration of the Doctor Who theme:

the ‘flashbacks to a Martian hive cleansing’ sequence in Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’:

and Christina Rossetti’s sensationally peculiar poem, ‘Goblin Market’.

Of them, the first two combine deep and entirely convincing visionary reach with a sense of having been patched together with double sided sticky tape, papier mache, and whatever else is to hand. They feel very low-tech, and entirely personal – the product of deep personal need and craft, fulfilled in a Neasden back room rather than a Swiss laboratory, an LA film studio or the board room of a Japanese zaibatsu.

There’s something very British about that; as Ballard knew so well, it’s the obsessed achievements of the suburban imagination that are our tomorrow. Come to think of it, that sense of an entirely convincing, menacingly peculiar science fiction that was also clearly built in a shed comes out beautifully in Doctor Who classic ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’.

And of course, there’s ‘Goblin Market’ – a wonderful poem, clearly fascinated by and soused in the deep matter of rural Britain, but also one that refuses to finally draw the bleak and terrifying conclusions that it is so clearly leading up to.

For most of the way, it’s a truly odd tale of the Fair Folk, fruit addiction, and late Victorian twin sisters; but it resolves with a deeply conventional, deeply unconvincing, deeply sentimental ‘if sisters love each other, everything will be ok’ finale (in fact, my story ‘Changeling’ is in part an attempt to write a truer conclusion to it). Rossetti repressed the poem’s true conclusion – there’s something very British, too, about that repression.

Having said that, I get the feeling that there’s much really interesting genre work worldwide that just doesn’t get translated into English. Not having read any of it, it’s difficult to say how British writing might compare with it, and thus what might in fact be specifically British about the SF / Fantasy written within these borders.