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On Folk Tales & the Supernatural


I have a very clear memory of the first horror film I ever saw. It was Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made in 1966 and starring Christopher Lee as the eponymous vampire. I was staying with my friend Daniel in his parents' holiday home in Rush, a seaside resort near Dublin, Ireland. I was probably about six years old and had no business watching horror films, which was part of the fun, I suppose.

Now Rush was an unusual place in which to have a holiday home for a number of reasons: a) it was so close to Dublin city that going there was less like a holiday and more like going to stay with the next door neighbours for a break; b) it was just across the water from the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in the UK, and therefore possibly qualified as a radioactive beach; and c) it always seemed to be wet and freezing. Nobody tanned on the beach at Rush. In fact, the only colour anyone ever got at Rush was blue.

Nevertheless, there we were in Rush, huddled together in a vain effort to keep warm, and the BBC was showing a double bill of Hammer horror movies, as it did every Saturday night. For those of you unfamiliar with the House of Hammer's output, it produced a great many cheap and cheerful horror movies between the 1950's and the 1970's, and gave regular work to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a host of lesser British thespians who might otherwise have been forced to do pantomime in Skegness to make ends meet. The films were sometimes campy rather than scary, and frequently bloody, in an innocent way - in fact, the blood had such a peculiar colour and consistency that when anyone was bitten or injured it looked like an explosion had just occurred in the Heinz factory - but they served to keep the horror tradition alive in England, and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of being scared.

Later, Hammer's films became rather more exploitative, and the amount of female flesh exposed increased significantly, but in its first decade or so the studio was responsible for a string of very efficiently crafted shockers, and Dracula, Prince of Darkness is one of the best. Admittedly, it looks a little creaky now, and it's clear that the main reason why Christopher Lee was largely silent throughout his many appearances as Count Dracula was because dental prosthetics had not developed sufficiently to allow him to wear fangs and talk at the same time, for fear that he would either prove completely unintelligible to audiences ("Gai ang 'Ackula!!") or he would bite the tip of his tongue off with his own teeth.

Still, when I watched the film recently on video I felt a warm wave of affection for it. After all, it was my first cinematic induction into the world of the supernatural, and paved the way for an abiding interest in the genre. It also featured a buxom lady vampire in a night-gown who at one point leaned in a window to bite her female companion, thereby introducing my six year old self to concepts of female sexuality best left unexplored for at least another decade, although even then I knew that it was best not to ask my mum about them. ("Mummy, the lady makes me feel funny. . .")

I was already an avid reader by that point, and supernatural writings quickly became the first genre fiction that I ever devoured. I would buy Pan anthologies of horror stories in used book stores, and Hammer omnibus editions which contained novelisations of the studio's output. I read all of Bram Stoker's novels, even though most of them weren't very good, and rapidly moved on to Stephen King, who was then just beginning to acquire his blockbuster reputation. I was particularly fond of the work of M R James, the English academic who crafted beautifully unsettling stories in which tweedy gentlemen went snooping in dark places and uncovered ancient demons, or were shadowed by apparitions on desolate beaches. They scared me, but I liked being scared. The question, of course, is why did I like it?

A study at the University of Delaware some years ago identified a type of person, known as a 'thrill seeker', who derived particular pleasure from watching horror movies. Such individuals, according to the study, were also more likely to engage in risky activities like bungee jumping, or taunting sharks, or seeing how long they could hold on to a live electric cable. In other words, they liked the adrenaline rush that came from putting themselves in potential peril. (Admittedly, there is another word for some of the more obsessive of these people, and it's morons, but the authors of the study were too polite to point this out.)

Still, the thrill seeker angle is mildly interesting, I suppose, although when we go to see a horror film, or when we read a piece of supernatural fiction, we are not in any real danger. Despite the efforts of some to convince us otherwise (such as William Castle, the American horror schlockmeister who in 1959 rigged the seats of a movie theatre with electric wires in order to deliver shocks to those who had come to watch his not-very-good film The Tingler) the likelihood of the monsters on the page or screen finding an immediate physical manifestation in our vicinity is rather slim. But what the horrors presented to us can do is to resonate with something deep within ourselves, something very old and very elemental. . .

Storytelling lies at the very heart of the human experience. It is how we express ourselves, how we relate to the world. When we meet an acquaintance on the street and are asked how we are, or when we sit and listen to our children describing their day, we are engaging in the act of telling tales. Even in these everyday exchanges, we edit, we elaborate, and we exaggerate. We pick and choose details, discarding those that are irrelevant, emphasising those we believe to be important. Each day, we write one more chapter in the ongoing story of our lives.

But what were the first stories? When men and women began gathering together in caves around flickering fires, using gestures and pictures and the rudiments of spoken words to communicate, what tales did they tell? Did they delight in stories in which Ug from Cave Seven overcame her shyness and managed to capture the heart of Grog from Cave Nine, the two young lovers subsequently setting up a small tea and bun shop and living happily ever after? Did they create The Caves of Madison County, the tale of an itinerant pictogram artist who captured the heart of the lovely Druk while her husband was off hunting mammoths, then left her to pursue his muse until the tribe finally hunted him down and cut off his head as an example to others?

Well, it's possible, but it seems far more likely that they told tales about the darkness, and about might dwell within it. They were probably afraid of the unknown, and they might well have tried to put names and forms to their fears, because that is the first step in confronting and, perhaps, vanquishing fear. Slowly, the structure of the tales became familiar to both tellers and listeners. Conventions arose, and motifs recurred: the hero, the quest, and the obstacles, frequently monstrous in nature, to be overcome. They produced Beowulf, and the Greek myths, finding fertile ground wherever human beings confronted the nature of the world together. Step forward a few millennia to 1822, and we find the Brothers Grimm writing as follows of the similarities between tales from very different societies and cultures:

We have carefully recorded points of similarity with foreign traditions which are often far separated in time and place, for we feel we are right to attach importance to such resemblances, precisely because they are not easily explicable. In some instances it is possible or even probable that there was direct communication, but in the majority of cases we cannot suppose this to be so, and the phenomenon remains unexplained and all the more remarkable. . . Our accumulated evidence attests the existence of folk tales in different epochs and among different peoples. . .

Variations on the Cinderella story, for example, can be found in England, Scotland and Ireland, but also in Italy, Romania, Hungary, Turkey and Armenia, in the China of the ninth century BC and in the Greece of the first century BC. In other words, every society and every age produce their own versions of the same tales, and probably do so for the same reasons: as an effort to explain a sometimes complicated, sometimes frightening world, not only to the adults among them, but, more importantly, to their children.

For children, the world is frightening and hard to understand, dependent entirely as they are in their early years upon the goodwill and protection of adults. The world's potential for terror is practically limitless for children, but as they get older these terrors decrease, or the nature of them changes. In an effort to speed up that process, we tell them tales in which bad things happen, often to people their own age, but in which everything turns out right in the end: the old woman in the gingerbread cottage is roasted in her oven by the very children she wanted to eat; Snow White's stepmother (or mother, as she is in the original tale) dances herself to death while wearing red-hot shoes; Rumpelstiltskin is denied the child that he seeks, and tears himself in two in his rage; and Red Riding Hood witnesses the death of the wolf. We tell our children that, yes, the world is sometimes frightening, and there are people and things in it of which we must be cautious, but if we proceed carefully, and try not to stray from the path through the forest, then we will be safe.

Yet, as adults, we still have our fears, and they never quite go away. We have phobias that seem to come out of nowhere: an intense dislike of enclosed spaces, of snakes, of spiders. We fear for the safety of our children, we fear illness, we fear death. In 'The Cancer Cowboy Rides', the novella that opens Nocturnes, my new book of supernatural stories, a stranger pollutes a small town by causing cancers to bloom in all those whom he touches. If I have one deep-rooted horror, it is of cancer: my father died from it, and one of my closest friends was recently gravely ill with it. I hate the idea of my body being corrupted, my own cells being turned against me. In 'The Cancer Cowboy Rides', that fear is given form, just as surely as the child's fear of the unknown threat in the dark is given form in a folk tale, except that I now know that disease and death—my monsters, my haunters of the dark—are not so easily vanquished, and will inevitably come for me.

Adults are afraid too, and that is what the supernatural taps into, at least for me: that deep, abiding knowledge that the world is infinitely stranger, more complex, and more threatening than we like to admit. The particular forms our fears take may be individual to ourselves, but fear itself is common to us all, even the bravest among us. It is that universality of experience, that little kernel of unease that we all share, which good supernatural fiction touches upon, and it makes no distinction between adult and child. In fact, it may find more fertile ground in the adult, who has tried to sublimate his fears, than in the child, for whom fear is a natural, and eminently sensible, response to the world.

Again and again in Nocturnes, I write about children being confronted with the adult world, or adults being forced to protect children from its predations, but also about adults confronting entities that are intent upon harming the grown-ups themselves. Also, unlike in the folk tales that have survived for so long, the creatures that wandered my stories could not be disposed of so easily. They sometimes retreated, or were held at bay, but they would not disappear entirely, and they could not be killed. You see, that is one of the torments of adulthood, and one that has an echo in childhood. Children believe that monsters are real, and adults try to convince them that they are not, or that the terror can always be defeated. But as adults, we are forced to acknowledge that some horrors are real, and that they may well take us in the end. In an age when children can be targeted by terrorists, where wars can be waged with the pretence of no bloodshed and the innocent beheaded by masked zealots in the name of a merciful god, the concept of supernatural entities pales by comparison with our seemingly infinite human capacity for inflicting pain and death upon one another.

Perhaps that is why I feel such nostalgia for Christopher Lee, with his redlined cape and plastic fangs. At the end of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, he was destroyed, and there was reassurance for me in that destruction. I was not to know as a small boy that he would rise again in the sequel, but in any case he would be killed once more. That was the essence of the story, retold over and over again in slightly altered form: evil will rise, but evil, ultimately, will always be defeated.

And I love that story now as I loved it then, even if I can no longer quite believe in it.

© John Connolly 2005

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