Lost in the Required Reading
Sometimes, the universe speaks to you. Or that’s how I choose to see it. I suppose it’s just coincidence, really. It’s either that or I’m deciding to pick up on the same, repeating cues to assemble my own, personal breadcrumb trail. It’s a way of making sense of the noise. Or using the noise to make sense of yourself.
When it works, it feels a little miraculous. It’s as if all the big wheels were turning just for you, if only for a moment. You’ve been steered, turned around, deposited where you needed to be. Of course, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, you end up trying to force it. Which rarely works.
I guess I’m more sensitive to this as I’m starting to focus on the shapeless entity that’ll become novel number 3. There are no more short stories to tackle, no more scripts to work over, no more launches to plan. The stage has been cleared away, the decks have been swabbed. It’s time to work out what my last horror novel for a while is going to be. The previous two were their own interesting experiments. A meta horror confessional and a psychological, candy floss coloured terror ride into old age. For novel number three, I want to try something else.
Only…how the hell do you start a novel again? I should know by now. It’s just, once I get into one, I rarely think about how the process started. It’s like lying in bed at night, trying to think about how you’re going to go to sleep. That’s not how it works. Sure, if we’re lucky, we fall asleep; but the actual moment is robbed from us. The closest we get to seeing it is when we’re kicked awake just as we’re drifting off. In that moment, it’s jarring to realise how easily your reality melted away without you noticing. It’s one of those times when you really have to wonder who’s in control: you or the body you’re living in.
As I’m not going into novel 3 with a clear story, I’ve started by trying to narrow my focus down to what it might be. In other words, I’m trying to take the genre as a whole and slowly dissect my way down to where I want to start.
I began by aiming at grounded horror. Something stark and brutalist. If only because I’ve never attempted a story where the threat wasn’t supernatural in nature. 'Duel' and 'Psycho' got me thinking about mob mentality, misguided social media bubbles and public violence. The technological puppet strings you see in 'Black Mirror'. The nightmare societies found lurking through the science fiction prism of Philip K Dick.
I was quite happy with where that was taking me until, talking to David Shakes and R.M. Francis after the book launch, I told them about the idea I’d abandoned before moving on to the little, pink rabbit. It interested them more than I’d expected. Seeing their intrigue, I decided I should go back to it. After all, it had hooked the curiosity of two great writers.
I worked over the last version I’d kept on my laptop and read through all my old notes, trying to find a way to rekindle it. The work went well, for a time. The story was certainly easier to tackle now I’d spent time away from it. Slowly, it became something else. The oblique social commentary was cast aside and the plot turned more claustrophobic. It turned to haunted houses, haunted people and slipping personalities. It got me thinking about John Carpenter. His iconic take on ‘The Thing’. One of the highest peaks cinema horror has to offer. It also took me back to his low rent, rapidly formed, proto action movie ‘Assault on Precinct 13’. Which, in turn, sent me to ‘30 Days of Night’. An underrated, gruesome little gem of a comic book movie.
I became fixated on the tension and chase of those siege stories. The building paranoia. The heavy, uneasy silences. The terrible waiting. Which led me to finally watching the occasionally good, but mostly flawed, ‘Don’t Breathe’. It’s interesting, as gimmick driven horrors go. Although its twist nearly ruins the journey and the teen laced plot feels a little too needy as it desperately seeks an audience. Regardless of its problems, though, it set me on a totally different path. One which had potential, but didn’t feel quite right for a horror novel. A story of super powered plagues and cosplay madness.
I always do this when it comes to starting a novel. I sidle around it, trying to find the right starting place. I must look like the kid refusing to get in the pool. Crabbing over the wet tiles, eyeing the water, searching for the safest place to start swimming.
There’s a weight to this moment that I swear I didn’t put there. It’s all becomes about definite, final selections. I spend ages picking through influences. Scrabbling through books, movies and even soundtracks. Trying to assemble a required reading list for an idea that has barely even taken shape.
I can’t decide if I’m doing this to feather the nest or to secretly double check my story doesn’t exist already. It can lead me down some interesting rabbit holes.
Take this week for example: I’ve found myself obsessing over Goddard’s ‘Alphaville’. A movie I’ve never seen. It’s hard to say exactly why it’s gotten under my skin. I’ve never felt the need to watch it before but, recently, I’ve watched the trailer for it over and over again, read into its history, even considered buying it.
I also ended up sitting at my work desk, selling my time, wading through the full ‘Taxi Driver’ score. I tell you, when you’re not feeling happy or comfortable in your own head and you start down that dark, writhing score it can make for a long afternoon.
Sometimes, I have to wonder if this is the best way to go around beginning something new. I know it works in the end, but it’s such a shambling start. Can you really drag a story out of your brain? Maybe this isn’t as the homework I think it is. Maybe the organic moment just happens to occur when it’s ready and I’ve tricked myself into thinking this is how I summon it into being. After all, it’s not like universe has whispered any clues to me yet. Although, the old 60s movie ‘Carnival of Souls’ has kept cropping up on the peripheries of my comfortable, little bubble recently. Maybe I need to go check that out. Maybe that's where the answers are hiding...