Music of the Fears
You might remember, the other week, that I mentioned setting up a sort of required reading list for the new novel. Who am I kidding? Of course you remember. They’re putting up the blue plaque outside my window to commemorate the anniversary of me writing it. I was talking about how I was looking for particular things to read and watch. I was listening to a lot of horror scores. I was basically chasing some sense memory of the novel I’ve got growing in my head. Or I was sense checking that it didn’t already exist.
To be honest, it’s a ritual. It’s all rituals at this point of the process for me. Particularly when I’m writing to release a book, instead of having the artistic (and financial) luxury to be able to sit and wait for inspiration to strike. A phrase that I’m fairly sure is more of a cosplay alibi than anything actually bordering on truth. Ideas do not saunter over like a freshly purchased cat, if you just sit still and wait for them to come to you. Or, at least, they don’t for me. If anything, ideas are more like summer wasps. The angry, hungry pest in full bloom. I watch them circle the room a few times and zip past my eye line before they dive bomb me for ages, eventually driving me out of my seat and away from my food and drink.
When I say I was listening to scores, I was listening to a lot of scores. I had afternoons of listening to soundtracks, scores and complications. The crooked paranoia and needle drops of The Hateful Eight. The old fashioned, sharp orchestral tides from Taxi Driver. The driven, pragmatic synth pulses of John Carpenter. The 8 bit, level by level discovery of It Follows. The lingering, percussive footsteps of Brick. The strange, haunted angles of Jonny Greenwood. The history and frenzy of The Witch. Sorry, The VVitch. Don't want that goat coming after me.
It went on and on. I thought of dark, tense, terrifying movies and then scrolled through Spotify to find their scores. They weren’t all on there, but most of the ones I was hunting for turned up. In one form or another. As my phone filled up with daily downloads, I began to realise the best thing I could do was set up a playlist and take the best moments from each score. I could build a soundtrack to the novel I was writing. I’d never really tried that before. Which was odd when you consider how many interviews I read with Quentin Tarantino back in my late teens.
I really liked the idea of constructing a makeshift soundscape. A temp score for the novel in my head. So it started to build, day by day. I never went over the playlist for those three weeks. I just kept adding to it. Annihilation got some tracks on there. Soft, searching motifs. Jangling jabs of panic. Choral warnings and despair. Green Room and Blue Ruin both lent a certain lonely violence to the proceedings. I lifted a track of two from the Prometheus soundtrack, moments of discovery leading to regret. I borrowed from Nightcrawler’s dark celebration of success built on the wreckage and blood of others. The rather classical horror lilt of Ghost Stories. The electronic thunder rumbles of Blade Runner 2049. The alien language landscape of Arrival. I never really looked back at what I was building. I just kept adding to it. The idea being that I’d hone it later. Shape the order of tracks to suit what I was writing. Whittle them into a keener shape.
Every morning, I was up and writing. Plotting out ideas, figuring out the basics of what I wanted the new novel to be. The rabbit holes I fell down each day led to more movies and TV shows. I’d find those scores and then other scores by the same artist. Some of the Black Mirror scores were incredibly handy. I couldn't stop playing the score for Black Museum. It’s horror music from another world. The same artist did the score for Girl with All the Gifts. I’ve been warned off the movie by fans of the novel, but the score is brilliant.
All of this magpie eavesdropping gave me over three hours of aural horror and terror. My phone was filling up, but I felt proud of my handiwork. Which is why, last Friday afternoon, I decided to see what I’d made.
Oh my god.
Last Friday afternoon, I basically traumatised myself. I'd created a monster. There’s no other way to put it. I’d selected all the tension. All the terror. All the paranoid searching and eventual overwhelming of lost souls. As I performed my daily tasks as a data monkey, I began to twist inside myself. Track by track. Movie by movie. I was making a nightmare well in my head. I was filling up with orchestral despair. I’ve always been driven by music. A score in a movie hooks me into the emotion with undeniable and irresistible success. A really good score does the same to me once the movie’s over. I think Disney began this process, back when I was a kid. The bobbing songs and rising canopies of score from The Jungle Book. The trippy, country fused folk of Robin Hood. The borrowed scores and imagination provoking visuals of Fantasia.
Only this was no Bare Necessities. This was only the fight with the tiger through the fire. Over and over again. I began to resent the sounds of people enjoying their Friday around me. I jumped if anyone talked to me over my shoulder. My work became heavier. The music was dialling up the gravity in my head. My mind was overwhelmed with disaster and monsters. Tiptoeing curiosity and full pelt flight from fear. I heard the choruses of witches. The footsteps of the beast. The doom of so many lead characters from so many times.
I didn’t make it the full three hours. I think I bailed at somewhere near two hour fifteen. Without thinking, I removed the download from the phone. I deleted the playlist. For the rest of the afternoon, I took in the giggles of co-workers counting down to five thirty. The traffic whispering past our windows. The moaning office printers. The banal, over produced jingle pop on the radio helped me breathe a little deeper. I drank my tea slowly, sure I’d come through the other side of something. It took me until home time to see the silver lining. If that playlist represented what I’m attempting to write, then the third novel could be something stark. A real palpable, terrifying bit of work. Fingers crossed, right?