Apex blog tour – guest post by Ian Nichols

10 February 2014

Welcome to my first part of the Apex Blog Tour, kindly organised by the Little Red Reviewer, celebrating The Book of Apex: Volume Four of Apex Magazine. I’m happy to introduce Ian Nichols who wrote the guest post below on horror and monsters.


I’d really like to talk about monsters. I’ve been a reviewer for The West Australian Newspaper for a little over twenty years, and I’ve been a slush reader for Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine since the magazine was founded, more than ten years ago (and if you don’t know about ASIM, you really should check out their website). Those two things mean that I’ve seen a lot of fiction, and a great deal of it, for awhile, was horror fiction. Lots of monsters.

Vampires, werewolves, zombies; take your pick of the three biggies. What makes them horrific, what makes them monsters, instead of being just weird creatures with peculiar dietary habits, bad hair days every day or a stubborn refusal to lie down and take their medicine? These days, vampires are sparkly, werewolves have their own salons and zombies are lying around just about everywhere, dropping in, dropping out, dropping off. There really have been an amazing number of zombie apocalypses, for every possible sort of reason.

There is a sort of progression for most fads, and those listed above really are fads. Airport movies are a good example, they start off with a bang, head through the sequels, which have a little less oomph, are parodied, and then become self-parody. The progress goes Airport (1970), Airport 1975, Airport ’77, The Concorde – Airport ’79, Airplane (the parody in 1980), and after that it’s Snakes on a Plane and god help us all. The same sort of progress can be seen in monster movies, moving, for vampires, from Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), which still has the ability to scare the bejesus out of you, up through the Universal and Hammer horror, which became progressively more camp, and, god, that’s a word that’s gone through incarnations, to Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). After that came the wonderful movies such as Blackula!
But what made Dracula, in his first, if you’ll pardon the pun, incarnation so scary? I warn you, if you’ve never read Dracula, there are spoilers from this point on. Okay; it’s all about sex. Dracula feeds by penetrating the flesh of his victims, drawing blood from them. In the case of Mina Harker, Dracula also feeds some of his blood to her, creating a bond with her. What Dracula is doing is committing a rape, not just of the body, but of the mind and soul, as well. His first victim in the novel, Lucy, wastes away and dies, but rises again as a monster who stalks and feeds on children. She’s tracked down, staked through the heart, beheaded and her mouth filled with garlic by her former fiancé, Arthur Holmwood. Dracula eventually gets his comeuppance by being stabbed through the heart with a Bowie knife.

Now, I don’t know about you, but bloody rape and enslavement are a long way from the prancing of Bella and Edward and their super-powered friends. The intellectual and emotional effect of such threats go a long way beyond someone just growing long, sharp teeth and fighting other vampires. In the same way, werewolves also represent invasion and unwilling change into something despised by the world; they’re really not able to just fit in as buff young men who like rare steak. Zombies, as well, originally were unholy beings, the dead who have had their souls captured by a bokor and are forced to serve him, having no will of their own. Enslavement of the soul, again, not just an unlucky accident with some germs or moulds or poisonous saliva.

But the monster, the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie and all the other boojums are only the physical manifestation of the horror. Real horror is what we don’t see.

When we’re little and hide our heads under the blanket to keep out the boogie man, that’s horror. When we’re waiting, sweating, for the result of that test, that’s horror. It rests in our imagination, and the task of the horror writer is to engage that imagination, not to dull it. A clear and specific description of exactly how the body parts were scattered around the room and a detailed portrait of the creature that caused them to be scattered is, in my humble opinion, not as scary as a hint of carrion coming from a locked room, along with small scratching noises. H P Lovecraft gives us a wonderful example of this in “Pickman’s Model,” when he discusses how Pickman, an artist, creates the scariest of paintings, but never describes them in detail. In the end, the horror is made apparent when the protagonist sees a photograph that Pickman has dropped of a horrific model, and, “It was a photograph from life.”

Thus it is that when I write horror, I prefer to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination. I like to hint at the cold evil that lies behind a single off-note in a symphony, or a seemingly innocent plant which has an odd colour, or the corner of the room where you just don’t like to go.

I mean, you can imagine what you fear most much better than I can, can’t you? They might be behind you right now.

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