Summer, 1990. I’m fourteen years old and I’ve just bought a copy of Stephen King’s IT. A pair of malevolent yellow eyes glare out at me from the storm drain on the cover, a red balloon dripping with rain floats nearby, and a boat made from a sheet of newspaper is about to be swept inside.
This is my first horror novel.
With a nervous flutter of anxiety and excitement I read the opening pages – only to shut them moments later when the monster in the drain rips the arm off a six-year-old boy. Terrified, I wrap the book in a plastic bag and stuff the bag in the bottom drawer of my chest of drawers. Feeling somewhat defeated, I entertain myself that summer with gentler tales (The Gunslinger and The Eyes of the Dragon among them).
Given that I had difficulty sleeping as a child because I was afraid of the dark, it seems odd that I would choose to buy a horror novel for my holiday reading (and one that runs to over 1,000 pages at that!). But for a while I had felt a strange pull towards horror, one I didn’t fully understand or feel entirely comfortable with. I was attracted to these books and repelled by them before I had read a single word of any of them. And so, it went on like that, me circling these stories, drawing a little closer to them each time, before stepping back.
I finally plucked up the courage to read ITthe following summer. I loved it from start to finish (with maybe one or two reservations about the finish) and it remains my favourite King novel to this day. But the unease I had felt the previous year would return when I came across the work of another horror writer: Clive Barker.
The Hellbound Heart and Cabal were my first encounters with Barker’s blood-soaked narratives, but it was his later dark fantasy epics of Weaveworld and Imajica, with their overtly metaphysical themes, that really seized my imagination. This was something more than horror, this was awe: terror and wonder combined. As an aspiring young writer who was still trying to work out exactly what sort of stories I wanted to tell, this was a revelation. Not only could horror provoke a visceral reaction, it could provoke a mental one too. It could make you think.
It was around this time that I started university, where I studied English and Film.
In one film module I learnt about the ‘Theory of Abjection’. This refers to those things we find repulsive or disgusting and thereby seek to cast off from ourselves. But because these things are a part of us, we are irresistibly, inevitably, drawn back to them time and again.
What I had learned from Clive Barker was that it was possible to encounter darkness in a way that was healing and transformative. For me, this was most clearly demonstrated in the story of Faust: the man who sells his soul to the Devil.
My first encounter with the story was during my first year at University when we studied Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. This is the form of the story most people are familiar with: Faustus sells his soul to the Devil in return for a life of wealth, power and sensual excess. At the appointed hour the Devil comes to collect, and Faustus is found the next day, his dismembered corpse scattered around his study. As morality tales go, it’s straightforward enough.
But there is another version of this story, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Goethe’s telling of the story, the character of Faust is a restless, striving, dissatisfied soul, who wrestles with every aspect of human existence. It’s this struggle that brings him into contact with Mephistopheles, but the deal Faust makes is different. He wishes instead to better his understanding and the lot of humankind, and so he declares that if he should ever come to a standstill in his progress, then Mephistopheles wins. Things don’t go according to plan of course, and in the end a blind and aged Faust tries to cling to what he thinks is his greatest moment of success, unaware of how Mephistopheles has deceived him. This is not a morality tale in the traditional sense. Darkness is not invited in simply to be banished at the end, nor is one man’s folly held up as a stern warning for the rest of us. It is an embrace – albeit a cautious and uneasy one.
Darkness is shown to have its place in the scheme of things. It is an attempt at integration, a striving towards wholeness, and in this sense such stories can have a healing effect. It’s why Clive Barker made the monsters the heroes in Cabal (although when he wrote his own version of the Faust myth, The Damnation Game, it was Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus he turned to for inspiration).
Acknowledging the darker aspects of our nature makes us more rounded as human beings. Darkness and shadow give an object depth and dimension, and the same goes for us. Without the ability to face up to this, we are left at the mercy of whatever emerges from the murky corners of our mind, or else we risk becoming incomplete, two-dimensional.
David Budd is the author of the upcoming novel, The Shadow Man, to be released be Otranto House this summer.