Today’s Art (6th February 2020)

Well, thanks to both having slightly more time and also feeling more inspired, I ended up making this 1980s/90s-style cyberpunk painting that ended up being more detailed than I’d initially expected 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Computer Parade” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (11th January 2020)

Unfortunately, this 1980s/90s-style painting didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped and the only way to salvage it was to apply a digital effect/filter (the “Waterpixels” effect in version 2.10.8 of “GIMP” if anyone is curious) to the whole picture that made it look a lot more impressionistic than it originally did.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Rental Shop” By C. A. Brown

Three Things That Writers Can Learn From 1980s Clive Barker Novels

Well, since I’ve started re-reading a 1980s horror novel by Clive Barker (“The Damnation Game”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d write something vaguely similar to my other recent article about writing lessons that can be learnt from 1980s Shaun Hutson novels, but about the writing lessons that can be found in Clive Barker novels – especially those from the 1980s.

Still, I should point out that this article may contain some SPOILERS for Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and “Weaveworld”.

1) Mediums, imagination and creativity: One of the most interesting things about Clive Barker is that he didn’t really start out as a horror author. Before his first short story collection, “The Books Of Blood”, was published in the mid-1980s, he was already a playwright and an artist. Then, sometime after the publication of his novella “The Hellbound Heart“, he both wrote and directed the famous film adaptation of it. Later, in the early 2000s, he also helped to design a computer game called “Clive Barker’s Undying” too.

The main lesson we can learn from this is that learning other skills and experimenting with different creative mediums will result in better writing. Not only will it give you a better idea about which creative ideas will work best in story form (and which might be better suited to art, poetry etc…), but it also forces you to learn more about your own imagination too.

I mean, one of the cool things about Clive Barker’s art, fiction, films etc… is that you can tell that they all came from the same person. For example, Barker’s paintings often display the same focus on the human body and/or bizarre dream-like weirdness that his fiction does.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment with other creative mediums. You’ll get to know yourself better and this will result in better and more imaginative writing.

2) Don’t self-censor: Although the 1980s was well-renowned as a time where horror authors had more creative freedom than ever before (I mean, it was the heyday of the splatterpunk genre) and probably ever since, Clive Barker used this creative freedom for more than just shock value or titillation. He also used it to tell the kind of weird, subversive, nuanced, emotionally mature, imaginative, transgressive and unique stories that feel timelessly refreshing to read.

For example, his 1988 horror/dark fantasy novel “Cabal” contrasts an underground city of strange, scary-looking “monsters” with an upstanding, respectable psychologist…. who is also a serial killer. It’s a brilliantly subversive novel, showing how mainstream society is eager to destroy or condemn whatever it considers “weird” without ever looking at the far greater problems within itself.

This theme is also explored in Barker’s 1987 dark fantasy novel “Weaveworld“, where the main antagonist isn’t a fantastical monster (in fact the closest thing to a villainous “monster”, Immacolata, actually becomes a more sympathetic character later in the story) but a fanatical “moralistic” policeman who is often depicted in a brilliantly satirical way. Again, this comments on how mainstream, respectable etc.. society never really thinks to look at the problems within itself whenever there is something else it can condemn instead.

Plus, of course, when he was writing in a genre that was seen as “low brow” in the 1980s, Barker never simplified or toned down his writing. Although most 1980s horror fiction is more well-written than it is often given credit for, Barker often wrote the kind of complex, poetic, intelligent, painting-with-words, nuanced etc… fiction that would have probably won numerous major literary awards if it didn’t have the word “Horror” on the back cover.

Likewise, despite the highly “literary” writing style and the many grim and macabre horrors within his 1980s novels, Barker’s fiction will often display a wonderfully impish sense of humour too. These two things might seem like polar opposites, but it’s the contradiction between them that really makes his stories so distinctive. And it is the kind of thing a writer can only truly do if they don’t censor themselves.

One other great thing about old Clive Barker novels is how they don’t contain the puritanical undertones of most 1980s horror fiction and this is still refreshing even today. These are novels that don’t hypocritically condemn their more risque elements, but instead often show both their comedic absurdity and also their timelessly human and spiritual qualities. This is difficult to describe whilst still keeping this article “safe for work” (ironic, I know), but it results in the kind of timelessly open-minded stories that are still refreshing to read even thirty years or more after they were published.

Yet, Barker’s brilliant lack of self-censorship also manifests in more “PG-rated” ways too. For example, despite initially building his reputation as an expert writer of “edgy” horror stories during the 1980s, he decided to write a much more innocent, fantastical and wonder-filled series of YA novels in the 2000s (the “Abarat” novels) and they are just as creative, imaginative, subversive etc… as his general fiction novels are. You really get the sense that Barker is genuinely showing off another part of his imagination, rather than watering his stories down for the sake of popularity.

Yes, these days, “don’t self-censor” is probably dangerous advice. Perhaps it always has been. But, the less you censor yourself, the more interesting and creative your stories can be.

3) Imagination is infectious: One of the great things about Clive Barker’s writing is how it lingers in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading. This can have some wonderfully weird effects.

For example, in early 2010, I tried reading Barker’s 1989 novel “The Great And Secret Show”. Although I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages for reasons I still don’t quite understand, what I read still lingered in my mind to the point that, whenever I saw a dramatic-looking road I used to walk along every few days, I always thought of this story. After this happened a couple of times, I suddenly started thinking of it as “The Clive Barker road”. And the idea of visiting somewhere that reminded me of a Clive Barker novel made this road feel like a more interesting place.

In 2009, I fell asleep one night and had five nightmares – these were all “dream within a dream” nightmares which each began with me dreaming about waking up. Interestingly, the coolest – and least scary – moment in this sequence of dreams was when, at the end of the third one, I suddenly found myself triumphantly shouting the tagline from the cover of my old second-hand 1980s paperback copy of “Cabal” (“At last, the night has a hero”).

Anyway, what was the point of these journeys down memory lane? Well, it is to show how imagination is infectious. If you write something that is distinctive, unusual, interesting, personality-filled and/or imaginative enough, then it will take on a life of it’s own. To give you an example, even though Clive Barker hasn’t ever made a heavy metal album, his books were imaginative and inspirational enough to inspire the band Cradle Of Filth to make one (called “Midian”).

So, one lesson that is worth learning from Clive Barker’s fiction is that imagination is infectious. That you should strive to tell the kind of stories that linger in your readers’ imaginations and which inspire people to create things themselves.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (28th November 2019)

Well, I had a bit more time and I was feeling slightly more inspired. Today’s digitally-edited painting was originally meant to be a stylised “retro” 1980s-themed painting but, whilst editing it, I ended up adding a more cyberpunk colour scheme/lighting style to it.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Video 1985” By C. A. Brown

Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking

Although horror fiction has had something of a resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting to note that (with the exception of the zombie genre) it has mostly gone back to a more traditional focus on atmosphere, suspense, implication, psychological horror etc…

This isn’t a bad thing. These traditional elements have stuck around because they are effective. When brought up to the modern day and placed in modern settings, they can still be extremely disturbing. So, this article isn’t too much of a criticism of modern horror fiction.

On the other hand, when I started to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 splatterpunk monster novel “Breeding Ground” before writing this article, I was reminded at how different it was from modern horror fiction. How much more transgressive it was compared to the scarier, but perhaps not as shocking, horror that you’d typically find in a more modern novel. This is a novel that absolutely revels in grossing the reader out – and you don’t really see this sort of thing that often in modern horror fiction.

If a modern horror novel is an ominous piece of classical music that sends a shiver down your spine, this 1980s novel is a heavy metal song turned up to eleven (and, yes, the one and only Iron Maiden are referenced in it too 🙂 ).

So, naturally, this made me think about why 1980s horror fiction – here in Britain especially – was a lot more transgressive than modern horror fiction often is. Here are some of my theories:

1) Historical context: Ok, there’s a lot of stuff here. The first is probably that, unlike the stylised US-influenced popular image of “the 1980s” these days, 1980s Britain was apparently a fairly miserable place to live in.

Although I haven’t studied 1980s history in a gigantic level of detail and didn’t even exist for most of the ’80s, even the comedies from that decade ridicule the general grimness of the country back then.

One of the side-effects of this was that horror authors noticed all of this stuff. They rebelled against it and they used it as a source of horror. They wrote stories set in miserable places where horrible things happen to people who live dreary, precarious and/or second-rate lives because, in a world like that, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. They satirised the supposed bastions of goodness (eg: politicians, religions, celebrities, the police etc…) that everyone was told to trust in those troubled times. Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason why the genre is called “splatterpunk”. Like old punk music, 1980s horror fiction had a lot to rebel against.

The second is that horror fiction was in a fairly unique position at the time. In mid-1980s Britain, there was a ridiculous moral panic (is there any other type?) about “Video Nasties” – gruesome horror films that had been released on the newfangled VHS format. This led to film censorship being extended to cover videos, with the censors actually becoming stricter. However, thanks to a very enlightened court decision a couple of decades earlier, literature was (and thankfully still is) pretty much a safe haven from official censorship.

Needless to say, there was clearly an appetite for shocking transgressive horror entertainment at the time. Horror authors were in a unique position where they could reflect these changes in the genre in a way that films weren’t allowed to. And, with this added freedom, they were able to write stories that were gorier, grosser and generally more shocking than even the most “extreme” modern horror movies. Of course, since horror movie censorship has been relaxed over the past couple of decades, horror authors have less reason to make their stories as transgressive as they once did.

Thirdly, horror fiction was actually popular back then 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party, I remember seeing loads of old 1980s horror novels in charity shops, second-hand bookshops etc.. during the early-mid 2000s. It seemed to be as much of a fixture on 1980s high street shelves as crime thriller fiction is these days. Of course, since there were more horror novels for readers to choose from, there was probably more incentive for horror authors to out-shock the other authors, to provide horror fiction that was scarier, grosser and generally more extreme than the competition.

2) Respectability: One of the cool things about horror fiction in the 1980s was that, like with computer and video games in the 1990s, it wasn’t a “respectable” genre.

This meant that the genre had a lot more freedom. Since it was “trashy” entertainment that was made by and for fans of the genre, it didn’t have to worry about winning mainstream accolades. It could be as high-brow or low-brow as it needed to be in order to provide the kind of experience that readers would enjoy. Everything from the no-nonsense grisly grittiness of Shaun Hutson to the sophisticated dark fantasies of Clive Barker could thrive in this environment.

Because it was seen as “low culture” that fans enjoyed for the sake of enjoying it, it didn’t have to hold back because of what “respectable society” might think. It didn’t really have to advertise itself because horror fans knew an interesting horror novel when they saw one (even when I got into reading horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s, you could always tell that a book was a 1980s horror novel just by looking at the cover). Like modern heavy metal music, 1980s horror fiction was pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, media etc… and could do its own thing in a way that other genres couldn’t.

Of course, these days, horror fiction has had to regain some of it’s former popularity by appealing to more “respectable” audiences. This means that the genre also has to have an eye on things like professional literary critics, reading groups, large publishers, awards and what modern culture thinks is “acceptable” entertainment. But, like with modern videogames trying to gain some of the respectability of cinema by becoming more “cinematic”, this has resulted in major changes – some good, some bad- in the style, techniques etc.. of the modern horror genre.

3) Novelty: Horror fiction has existed for over a century at the very least. But, transgressive, shocking and/or ultra-gruesome horror fiction only really started to become a thing from the mid-1970s onwards (with James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats” being one of the earliest popular examples). Back then, this type of horror was something new.

It was shocking because it was so different from the horror fiction that had come before it. It was a type of horror fiction that would have been pretty much unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s. And, as such, it was something that authors were eager to explore and readers were eager to experience. It was the literary equivalent of ID Software releasing the original “Doom” at a time when computer games were mostly cartoonish platform games aimed at children.

Of course, novelty doesn’t last forever. Over time, “shocking for the sake of shocking” lost some of it’s appeal. The readers became jaded and the authors probably wanted to expand their repetoire. So, transgression and shock value went from something that a horror novel could rely on to being just one ingredient of many that horror authors can use. And, with the novelty value lost, authors also felt more free to look back at the older elements of the genre and find ways to bring them up to date.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂