Thank you to everyone who came to Den of Eek! 2 Urban Legends

wordpress den of eekIt’s getting dark outside and I’ve only just shaken off enough of my hangover to write anything about last night. But despite the pounding headache, I’ve been in an insufferably good mood. Because last night, I hosted the second Den of Eek! event, and I think… I think it might even have been better than the first one.

Like last year, I invited a bunch of awesome people to come and tell original scary stories to an audience by candlelight. We used the same venue and the same set up: just a stage, a microphone, and a bunch of chairs, but this time the brief was slightly different. Rather than doing ghost stories, like last year, we asked everyone to come up with an original take on an urban legend. The stories they wrote were brilliant, terrifying, gruesome, funny… and deeply, deeply creepy.

We kicked off with Aliya Whiteley’s megamix of urban legends, followed by Chris Farnell’s cautionary tale about GM foods. Natasha Duncan-Drake came back from last year to tell us not to step on the cracks in the pavement, Neil Jones also returned with a warning to would-be petsitters, and Sarah Ditum told us an absolutely true story about something she found in the basement of her new house. To finish off the first half, Tom Pollock read a story about a mysterious key than unlocks more than just doors, and Joff Brown, another Eek! veteran, explained that a little imagination is a dangerous thing…

After a short break, Clayton Littlewood read the night’s most shocking story – one of the highlights of the night, for me, was watching the expressions on people’s faces during this one. James Moran passed on an evil curse; Rosie Fletcher’s tale of sex and revenge was sleazy and gross (in a good way!) and Sarah Pinborough made everyone scared to take the bus home. James Brogden’s story about a university prank gone wrong was funny right up until the horrifying punchline, and Kit Allen’s Halloween history lesson was eerily fitting, given the location. Finally, James Henry’s amazing meta explanation of where urban legends come from brought the house down.

I knew all the stories were good because I’d read them beforehand, so that I could put together the running order, but they really came alive out loud. Last year, I think I was too nervous about keeping everything running smoothly that I didn’t get to really enjoy listening to the stories, but this year – despite a few teething troubles with the microphone! – I felt a bit more confident that it was all going to work out, and, self-congratulatory though it might sound, I had a really good time.

One thing that I really, really love about this event is that many of the people who read stories hadn’t done it before. Some of them don’t even write fiction very often, and certainly don’t share it in public when they do. But they went for it, and – I think? – enjoyed themselves as much as we enjoyed their stories. Somehow, everyone I’ve asked to be a part of this has turned out not only to be smart and talented, but also fun and friendly and easy to work with. The atmosphere backstage is always brilliant – and I think that comes across to the audience, too?

Obviously the ultimate goal of Den of Eek! is to raise money for charity, and since this was another sold out event, we raised another massive chunk of cash for the Geeks vs Cancer appeal. I’ve thanked all of the performers from last night (many times over!), but if you came along, bought a ticket, or even chucked in a few quid’s donation, you deserve a thank you too. You’re brilliant.

We’ll be putting together an ebook of the stories soon, and I’ll be shouting about that when it happens, but in the meantime, if you didn’t get round to buying last year’s, maybe you’d like to pick up a copy now? It’s on offer right now, so it’s a mega bargain, and all proceeds go to a good cause.

It’s baaaaaack: Den of Eek! Urban Legends

Den of Eek poster smallHey, remember when I hosted a night of spooky storytelling last year and spent the whole night being so terrified I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes? Well, it was so much fun I’m doing it again.

Seriously, last year’s Den of Eek! was awesome. A bunch of incredibly talented storytellers gathered together in a basement bar in central London to read original horror fiction to an increasingly creeped out audience, and the whole thing was just brilliant fun. We also raised a ton of money for charity, which is always good. So that’s the bit we’re doing again.

Last year’s event was all about ghost stories, but we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so this year we’re doing urban legends. You know. Stories about the weird but absolutely true thing that definitely happened to your sister’s boyfriend’s brother. Stories about things they don’t want you to know. Stories that’ll make you shiver, and think, and look nervously over your shoulder all the way home.

Like last time, we’ve got a bunch of amazing people writing stories for the event: Sarah Pinborough, James Moran, Tom Pollock, Neil Jones, James Henry, Rosie Fletcher, Sarah Ditum, James Brogden, Natasha Duncan-Drake, Joff Brown, Aliya Whiteley, and Clayton Littlewood. (Yes, there are three Jameses, and three Sarahs, including me. It wasn’t intentional.) Also, like last time, we’re opening up some slots for new talent, and you’ve got just over a week left to enter that competition if you haven’t already.

So, yeah, the important bits: it’s going to be on Wednesday 18 September at 7.30pm, at the Phoenix on Cavendish Square. Tickets won’t be available on the door, so you will have to book in advance. They cost £5 (plus a booking fee) and all proceeds go to charity. And you can buy your tickets here. So, do that, maybe?

One last thing – the amazingly gorgeous poster art was created by James Freckingham, of Robotic Industries. He’s brilliant.

Den of Eek! A Collection of New Horror Fiction is out to buy now

Den of Eek ebook coverHey, remember when I put together an event where loads of amazing people came and read ghost stories in a London pub? Sure you do. It was brilliant.

Well, finally we got round to publishing an ebook collection of all the stories read that night. The twelve short stories in this book are completely original, created especially for the event, so you can’t get ’em anywhere else. The full contents list looks like this:

“Grindr” by Clayton Littlewood (author of Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho)

“The Double Walkers” by Leila Johnston (editor of The Literary Platform and author of Enemy of Chaos)

“Siren” by CJ Lines (author of Filth Kiss and Cold Mirrors)

“Matron” by Sarah Pinborough (author of PoisonMayhem, and The Language of Dying)

“Death in the Modern World” by Natasha Duncan-Drake (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“The 34 Steps” by James Moran (screenwriter for Doctor WhoCockneys vs Zombies, and Tower Block)

“Ghosts in the Web” by Mary Hamilton (Guardian journalist and games designer)

“A Witch Killing” by Joff Brown (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“Unfriending” by Neil Jones (screenwriter for BedlamHouse of Anubis, and Hollyoaks Later)

“The Phantom Limb” by James Brogden (chosen as part of the Den of Geek new talent showcase)

“No Reason” by Johannes Roberts (director of Storage 24F, and Roadkill)

“Forever Death” by Kevin McNally (actor in SupernaturalPirates of the Caribbean, and Downton Abbey).

… Which, you’ve got to admit, is pretty incredible. All proceeds from sales of the ebook will go to Den of Geek’s Geeks vs Cancer appeal, so when you buy it you also get to experience the warm glow of doing something good for other people. Which is priceless, really.

The ebook costs £5.14 and is available for your Kindle (or the Kindle app on your PC, smartphone, or tablet) here. Go and buy it, please.

Den of Eek! A Night of Spooky Stories

Last night I did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done: I hosted a live storytelling event that I’d organised. And it was amazing.

The idea for Den of Eek! had come months ago, after watching a reading of a short horror story elsewhere. I wanted to recreate the idea of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and I thought it would be fun to get together a bunch of interesting people – not just horror writers – to see what kinds of stories they’d tell. I pitched the idea to Den of Geek and they were enthusiastic, and then I spent a frantic couple of months making it happen.

It’s kind of incredible to me that it all went as smoothly as it did. Everyone I asked was into the idea, and they all wrote new, original, spooky stories for it. We ran a reader competition on Den of Geek looking for new talent, and managed to find three genuinely great stories to include as part of the event. We booked the function room of the Phoenix on Cavendish Square, and the lovely Mark Mitchell designed a fantastic poster for us to use to promote the event. Within a day of tickets going on sale, we’d sold half of them; two weeks ago, we sold out completely. Somehow, everything came together perfectly.

Last night, we had both an amazing line-up of speakers and stories, and a brilliant audience. Clayton Littlewood opened the evening with a creepy tale of being stalked on Grindr, followed by Leila Johnston’s account of doppelgangers (which even included a reference to the death of my least favourite Romantic poet). CJ Lines told an oddly convincing story about a haunted videotape, Sarah Pinborough turned the reassuring tick of a grandfather clock into the terrifying noise of a monster, and Natasha Duncan-Drake used slasher tropes and Twitter formatting to create an almost poetic nightmare. The last story in the first half was James Moran’s, which featured a haunted staircase and might have given me a whole new neurosis to deal with for the rest of my life.

After a brief interval, we came back with another six stories: Mary Hamilton’s story turned the whole internet into a horrifying, ghost-filled wasteland; Joff Brown’s tale of a witch-killing was delightfully creepy; and Neil Jones’s story of Facebook betrayal was wonderfully told, a slow unfolding mystery with a killer last line. James Brogden’s eerie story about a phantom limb was a really imaginative take on the idea of a ghost story, while Johannes Roberts’s harrowing tale of bullying and revenge was probably the darkest story of the night. Finally, we wrapped up with Kevin McNally’s gorgeously delivered tale of cursed treasure, all atmosphere and decadent descriptive language (a couple of people commented that they thought he must’ve been reading Lovecraft or Poe, but nope, that was an original!). Everyone brought something of their own personality and interests to their story, and it was kind of fascinating watching how it played out.

I thought I’d be sitting here this morning dissecting the night and thinking of things I’d’ve liked to change. But honestly, I think it was great. (I mean, I’m biased, maybe, but still!) My hosting skills were probably the weak link of the night, but I managed to get everyone’s name right and didn’t actually fall over, so I’m calling that a win. Keeping every story to around 5 minutes, and making sure the running order shuffled up the ultra-modern social media stories with the more traditional ones, seemed to keep the audience engaged. Everyone reading was just brilliant; I’ve said thank you to all of them a thousand times already, but I really couldn’t have wished for a nicer, more creative bunch of people to work with. And the audience were so lovely, just warm and attentive, and it seemed like they were really having fun. I could’ve hugged everyone.

On a slightly more serious note, probably the best thing about the Den of Eek! night was that we decided to put all the proceeds from the ticket sales towards the Geeks vs Cancer appeal. We managed to raise a decent chunk of money, and it’ll go to a genuinely good cause. We’re looking into turning the recording of the stories into a podcast, or maybe putting together an ebook, so that even more people get to enjoy them – more news on that when I have it.

Right now, I’m just… really, really happy. Once again, I just want to say a massive thank you to everyone involved. You’re all amazing.

Should The Human Centipede II be banned?

So, the BBFC has rejected The Human Centipede II – effectively banning it in the UK, as without a certificate from the BBFC it can’t be legally distributed in this country.

In a press release, the BBFC goes into great detail about why the film has been refused a certificate. Be warned: it’s pretty grim reading. In conclusion, the BBFC says:

“There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience. There is a strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence and a clear association between pain, perversity and sexual pleasure. It is the Board’s conclusion that the explicit presentation of the central character’s obsessive sexually violent fantasies is in breach of its Classification Guidelines and poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers.”

I’m trying to get my thoughts in order about this, to come up with a coherent position on it (particularly because Sarah Ditum asked me to weigh in for her Comment is Free article). On the one hand, the BBFC decision sounds reasonable: this is the job the BBFC exists to do, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve done this lightly. On the other – do we have to do this all over again? The idea that horror movies might have a corrupting influence on vulnerable minds is hardly a new one, and it feels like we’ve only just finished discussing what Saw, Hostel, and the whole “torture porn” wave that followed meant for our collective morality.

I’m not really a fan of the trend for “extreme” horror movies – but when I say that, I mean that I actively avoided A Serbian Film, The Human Centipede, and Antichrist. I am, though, a massive fan of the Saw franchise, and I think that the first Hostel film is one of the best horror movies ever made. “Extreme”, to me, maybe doesn’t mean the same thing that it does to you. Or your mum. (Or my mum!) I’m not a violent person, I pass out at the sight of (real) blood, and yet I love horror movies and watch a lot of them; I don’t think I’ve been particularly desensitised or morally compromised by these films. I don’t think watching The Human Centipede II would do that, either; it’d make me feel sick, and uncomfortable, and maybe angry, but I don’t think it’d do me any lasting psychological damage.

And yet… I haven’t seen the film, and the BBFC examiners have. If we think they’re wrong about this, we need to maybe reassess what they’re there for in the first place. Personally, I’d like to see a system that offered more information about what films contained – a series of warnings, perhaps? – so that individuals can make a more informed choice about what they want to watch. The current age restrictions seem kind of arbitrary, and the guidance info is usually pretty useless. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of banning something because it’s been deemed immoral; morality is a tricky, slippery thing, and once you start making pronouncements on what is and isn’t moral, where do you stop? And what does art have to do with morality, anyway?

The Human Centipede II isn’t a film I want to stand up for. Personally, I think it sounds horrible and I have no desire to watch it. But should that mean no-one should be able to? I’m not convinced.

Scream 4 is awesome. No, really. It is.

Scream 4Due to poor performance at the US box office, it looks likely that there won’t be any further Scream sequels after Scream 4. And that’s kind of a shame, since Scream 4 was far better than it had any reason to be.

I should admit, straight away, that I love the Scream franchise. The original Scream was one of the first horror movies I saw and, as a teenager, I became obsessed. It was my gateway drug, and I actually think it’s held up pretty well. I loved Scream 2 just as much, and while I didn’t like Scream 3, it didn’t diminish my love for the franchise overall. So I was cautiously optimistic about Scream 4; I wanted to love it, but thought it might disappoint me.

It didn’t. It was wonderful. Here’s why I loved it, and why I think you should go see it:

Sidney Prescott is awesome
Any slasher movie is only as good as its Final Girl, and Sidney is awesome. She’s smart, resourceful, and occasionally ridiculously brave. Throughout Scream 4, Ghostface and others repeatedly tell her that she’s a victim; that she’s bad luck, or that she somehow deserves to have been targeted by murderers so often; that the only skill she has is to survive, as though that’s not worth anything. But she refuses to accept any of it.

By Scream 4, Sidney’s older, and wiser, and determined not to let victimhood define her, no matter how hard everyone else tries to push it on her. Sidney’s grown up through these movies, and it’s kind of awesome to check in with her and see how she’s doing.

Actually, that goes for all the characters from the original movies. It actually feels like they’ve been getting on with their lives between Scream 3 and Scream 4. Things have changed, but they’re still recognisably the same people, in a world that’s very nearly ours.

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Women in Horror Month: Jennifer’s Body

Jennifer's Body posterSometimes, rarely, I’ll fall completely in love with a film. And it’s usually not a perfect film, or even a great film. But when you’re falling in love, superficial flaws hardly matter. I am utterly smitten with Jennifer’s Body, and I have been ever since I first saw the trailer.

The title references a Hole song, which is a good start. The plot sounds like it was lifted straight out of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a terrible indie band try to sacrifice a virgin to the devil to get a record deal, but since the girl they kill isn’t a virgin, she becomes a demon – and the only person who can stop her massacring teenage boys by way of revenge is her nerdy best friend. The soundtrack features Panic! At the Disco, Dashboard Confessional, and Hayley Williams; the dialogue is stylised to breaking point; and it’s stunningly beautiful to look at.

What really works about this movie is the way it draws its relationships between women. The boys are almost incidental; they’re mostly just plot devices, used in much the same way female characters are frequently used in other films. What’s at stake in Jennifer’s Body is the relationship between Jennifer and Needy; it’s about the things girls do to one another, and why. Jennifer’s victims are chosen deliberately to hurt Needy, and Needy can only defeat demon Jen by yanking off her BFF necklace; it’s not difficult to see through the Buffyesque high-school-is-hell metaphor. Teenage friendships are often intense, and competitive, and Jennifer’s Body absolutely nails that.

And there’s more. The title’s about more than just a song: it’s about the ways in which Jennifer, as a character, is reduced to little more than her body. The evil musicians who sacrifice her to their own egos don’t see her as any more than a body, and neither do most of the teenage boys she murders. The demon inside Jennifer uses her body like a weapon. The fact that it’s Megan Fox in this role, an actress who’s frequently reduced to little more than a body by both filmmakers and audiences alike, an actress who’s both desired and hated for her looks rather than anything else, is kind of brilliant. (And for the record, I adore Megan Fox. Like Robert Pattinson, she seems like one of those celebrities who knows that the amount of attention she receives from the press is ridiculous, and deliberately says bizarre things in interviews just to fuck with us.) Jennifer’s Body isn’t the most feminist film that’s ever been made – it’s too concerned with having fun to worry too much about making statements – but it’s deliciously subversive in all kinds of ways nonetheless.

Jennifer’s Body is a horror movie written by a woman, Diablo Cody; directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama; and it’s about the relationship between two teenage girls. It’s hardly groundbreaking cinema, and like I said, it’s not a perfect film. But it’s a film that feels like it’s from a parallel universe where horror movies directed by, written by, and about women aren’t a rarity. In that parallel universe, that’s not a remarkable thing; every film directed by a woman doesn’t have to say something about gender and filmmaking, it just is. It’s a parallel universe I’d like to live in, where stories by and about women are just as common as stories by and about men. But since I don’t live there, I’ll just have to make do with the ones I’ve got.

Women in Horror Month: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire SlayerFor a few years in my teens, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most important thing in my world. I watched the original movie on TV one night and became obsessed with it, to the point where, when the TV show started, I almost didn’t watch it. I couldn’t imagine Buffy being played by anyone other than Kristy Swanson. But then I succumbed to temptation, and fell in love with Buffy all over again.

Joss Whedon imagined Buffy as the antithesis of the usual horror movie heroine: she wouldn’t be a victim, and she wouldn’t scream and run away from monsters. Instead, she’d actively seek them out – and she’d be the thing they were afraid of. While the movie was camp and fun, the TV show took things far more seriously than the daft-sounding title suggested. Buffy felt like a real person. She had a family, and she had friends, and she fell in love with inappropriate men. She didn’t always know all the answers, she was far from perfect, but she could stand up for herself. Her monsters were my monsters – over the years, she had to fight school bullies, evil boyfriends, awful fast food jobs, and many many feelings of inadequacy and despair – but she always had a clever comeback … and she had superpowers. She was awesome.

Beyond Buffy herself, the show provided a variety of different roles for women. There’s Buffy’s new best friend, the shy and nerdy Willow who, over the show’s seven seasons, would gradually overcome her shyness and develop magical abilities powerful enough to save – or destroy – the world. There’s mean girl Cordelia, who gets slowly drawn into Buffy’s world, learning that there’s more to life than popularity contests and perfect hair, and eventually moving onto the Angel spin-off show to become one of its most rounded and interesting characters (before being abruptly written out, but that’s not relevant right now). There’s bad girl Faith, and snarky ex-demon Anya, and quiet, calm, shy, lovely Tara, and bratty Dawn, and all manner of female villains and tertiary characters. No-one was ever quite what they seemed on this show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show on which women didn’t have to wait for men to rescue them, ever. Usually, it was the other way around.

Lots of films and TV shows give their female characters guns or karate skills, call them “strong female characters”, and think they’ve done something revolutionary. But that’s not what strong female characters really are – ideally, strong female characters are well-written characters, who have flaws and are conflicted and interesting, fully fleshed out human beings. Buffy wasn’t a perfect show, and perhaps no TV show that runs for 140+ episodes can ever be entirely consistent, or get everything right every week, but Buffy certainly had a good go.

Although the show was devised by a man, there were several prominent female writers on staff, most notably Jane Espenson, who’s gone on to work on Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls, and Dollhouse and Marti Noxon, who now works on Mad Men. Noxon also took over from Joss Whedon as show runner for the final two seasons, and many episodes were directed by women. (Although not as many as were directed by men, admittedly.) Buffy wasn’t just a show about a hot girl killing monsters, as fun as that sounds; it was a show with women both in front of and behind the camera, on which a range of female characters got to be heroes and villains and everything in between.

For me, as an awkward teenager, it was a show that told exactly the stories I needed to hear. And I loved it desperately for that.

Women in Horror Month: Mary Shelley

This is going to be another Women in Horror post that isn’t actually about horror movies. Sorry about that. Without Mary Shelley, though, the horror genre would be a very different place; her creation has made an indelible mark on pop culture. Imagine a world without Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein; without Re-Animator, or Herman Munster, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or the Monster Mash. It’s unthinkable.

The story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein has passed into legend itself, becoming almost as well-known as the plot of the novel itself. During the summer of 1816 (the “Year Without A Summer”, thanks to a volcanic eruption that changed weather patterns across Europe), Mary, along with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Claremont, and John William Polidori, stayed with Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. Since the weather was awful, they entertained themselves by talking: they read ghost stories, discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, and made up their own supernatural tales.

Mary Shelley (or, rather, Mary Godwin, as she was then) based her story on a nightmare she’d had, and the tale she started writing then would eventually become ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, one of the first science-fiction novels ever written. The book obviously struck a chord with readers: although it was initially rejected by publishers, and only 500 copies of its first edition were printed, it’s a story that’s widely known and referenced today, nearly 200 years later.

Mary Shelley created a horror archetype that summer, and she was only 18 at the time. If that’s not enough to make you feel like an underachiever, I don’t know what is.