Wednesday, 21 December 2011



Did you hear about the dyslexic Satanist? He sold his soul to Santa.

It’s a silly joke, but I think it captures a truth we have all felt: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas. Call him what you like, there’s something not right about him. Something ambiguous, even sinister. Perhaps it’s because the first lie our parents ever tell us is about the existence of Santa. Perhaps it’s because the nature of that lie is so diametrically opposite to what we are being told elsewhere. In this modern, paranoid world with its increasingly amped-up fears about home invasion, where children are brought up to believe all doors and windows must be lock at night and they must never talk to, never trust a stranger, how unnerving must it be for those same children to suddenly be told that there is this old guy on a flying sledge who can get into their home and prowl around their bedroom with impunity, and that they must be good and do as he says or they won’t get any presents. Think about that for a moment. Think about the darker implications. Talk about a mixed message.

Parents might try to delude themselves that it’s part of “magic of Christmas” to perpetuate this myth, but behind that popular image of the laughing, jolly red-faced man in the fur-fringed red costume, Santa is just another bogeyman. A myth our parents tell us to make us behave. Think of the words of the classic, oft-covered song, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

Does this sound like anyone you’d want to meet? Would you want to sit on his knee, or would you want to run and hide? This Santa sounds more like some kind of moral vigilante. The Punisher with a white beard and a sack of toys, or perhaps the sadistic Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan’s THE MIKADO:

“I’ve got him on the list / I’m sure he won’t be missed!”

Scant wonder that Diamanda Galas referenced the lyrics of this song in “Double Barrelled Prayer”, when referring to the savage dogs of hell

They know when you are sleeping.
They know when you’re awake
How fast your heart is beating
So be ready or too late…

They can smell your blood inside
It’s too late to go and hide…

Behind that jolly mask, then, Santa is a figure who sits in judgement, who weighs lives in the balance. Like God. Or the Devil. Or Jason. Or Michael Myers.

Yep. Sorry, boys and girls, but Santa never really was one of the good guys. The modern, iconic image of Santa, in his red suit, hemmed with white fur, has its origins in the work of 19th Century illustrator Thomas Nast, but was actually fixed in the public consciousness by the art of Haddon Sunblom - in a series of advertisements he created for Coca-Cola, beginning in the 1930s (a decade which also saw the composition of “Santa Clause is Coming To Town”). The Santa we are most familiar with was a simple marketing gimmick, dressed, conveniently enough, in the Coca-Cola colours. Thus, over time, Santa has become a symbol of the crass commercialism of Christmas, his motivations distinctly suspect. Billy Bob Thornton’s drunken department store heist man is not alone in using that familiar red and white outfit for questionable aims - horror cinema is filled with “Bad Santas”: Silent Night, Deadly Night and its various sequels, Christmas Evil, Psycho Santa, Santa Claws, Santa’s Slay, Satan Claus, and of course Freddie Francis’s horror anthology Tales From The Crypt, featuring what may well be the original Santa serial killer in the tale “And All Through The House”.  And that’s if we stick solely to the US and UK. Grimm Up North’s recent festive double bill of Rare Exports and Saint offered a suitably startling reminder that there are other versions of Santa out there; that behind the smiling shill for a fizzy drink company lies a far older, far darker, more ambiguous entity.

The name Santa Claus is an American-English corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself a corruption of “St Nicholas”, the Christian saint famous for his generous gifts to the poor. So “Santa Claus” is nominally Christian. But the figure of Father Christmas is entirely secular, a figure representing good cheer, originally all in green, and later in red and green, and most likely derived from the pagan figure of the Green Man, symbol of fertility, the changing seasons, and of rebirth, and thus a figure whose appearance at the year’s end, the Winter solstice, is entirely logical, signifying as he does the hope of a new year, and the arrival of Spring.

The connection of this figure directly with Christmas probably dates back to the 14th Century verse narrative SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. Perhaps the earliest, and one of the greatest of all festive stories, this epic poem is an attempt to reconcile the Christian and Pagan traditions, as the two are brought into quite literal conflict. It is Christmas at the Court of King Arthur, and in the midst of the celebrations, a knight arrives, demanding audience. He is clad all in green; even his hair and flesh are green. This Green Knight sets a seemingly absurd challenge: he will allow any knight who dares to cut off his head, and then, the following year, the knight in question must allow the Green Knight to do the same to him. Gawain takes up the challenge, and strikes off the Green Knight’s head. But the Green Knight does not die. He simply picks up his severed head and replaces it. Gawain is faced with having to go to the Green Knight’s own castle in a year‘s time, where he must risk his own head.

The story is filled with both Christian and Pagan symbolism. Gawain is the perfect Christian Knight, faced with martyrdom. The Green Knight is of course the Green Man of pagan tradition. Gawain is being tested for his faith, and for his chivalry as a knight. In the end, he does not lose his head, because he proves true, and the narrative ends with another Christmas celebration. Here Pagan and Christian are finally reconciled, albeit uneasily, and not without tension. And it is the Pagan world, interestingly, that sets the rules and parameters for the contest.

This is perfectly understandable, and entirely appropriate. The early Christian Church had been very smart in its efforts to convert the pagans, retaining many of the symbols and fetish objects and much of the iconography of pagan worship, and merely assigning them a new, Christian value and purpose. Christmas time itself is the Pagan Yuletide or Winter Solstice. The images of death and renewal, of the old year giving way to new, the turning of the seasons so essential to pagans, are assigned a new value within the Christian faith. The evergreen holly and ivy, originally used in druidic practice become symbols of Christ. The result, however, is that the symbols become ambiguous. And at Christmas, this ambiguity is rife. For Christian believers, it is a time of celebration of their faith, of their belief that they are redeemed, that mankind is renewed. But underlying this are pagan beliefs and fears. As Winter draws in, and the days get shorter and the nights longer, the promise of Spring’s renewal seems further and further off.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a tale of high chivalry and courtly love, and ends in celebration and renewal, but it is also links Christmas quite explicitly with the pagan world and the supernatural. It adds a touch of dread to the festivities. And in the ambiguous, menacing Green Knight, it introduces the idea of a figure who sits in judgement, who “knows if you've been bad or good”, and who thus decides whether you deserve a good Christmas. And this figure has persisted ever since, distinct from any Christian interpretation that might be placed upon him. Christmas, then, is not simply a time for celebration and good fellowship and overeating. It is also a time to reflect upon who we are. And to confront our darkest fears.

Christmas, as we know it, was pretty much invented by the Victorians. It is no accident that the second most famous, most celebrated, and most performed Christmas story, after that old chestnut about the kid being born in the stable, and the shepherds and the three kings and whatnot, should be Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Originally published in December 1843, Dickens’ classic tale has never been out of print, and has been adapted for stage and screen a multitude of times. It has been an opera, a musical, the source of numerous pantos. There are versions featuring the Muppets, Blackadder and Dr Who. There is even, horrifyingly, an updated version starring Ross Kemp as one “Eddie Scrooge”.  The result is that while we are all-too-familiar with the story, we tend to know it second hand, in reduced, simplified form; to regard it as a warm-hearted, sentimental tale of a hateful miser, made to see the error of his ways by visits from the three spirits of Christmas.

And yet Dickens’ original story contains some genuinely disturbing images. The narrative follows a redemptive arc, but there is a palpable sense of dread, too. The visions Scrooge is offered tap into all of our worst fears about being unloved, alone, isolated; of dying forgotten, or worse, actively hated. The final, sentimental, celebratory Christmas scenes are made all the more rosily appealing by the dark alternative we have been shown. Tiny Tim’s words, “God bless us, every one!” have an undercurrent of fear and pathos. Scrooge has seen a future in which the boy dies, and that future might still happen. Dickens knew full well what Christmas was like for the desperate and the destitute. His father had been sent to debtors’ prison when Dickens was only twelve. And the recent Poor Laws had made life even worse for the poorest in society. A CHRISTMAS CAROL in its condemnation of selfish greed and call for social responsibility is very much a product of Dickens the social critic and reformer.

But the story is also a product of Dickens the great myth-maker of his age. It was written during a period when there was something of a national preoccupation with Christmas. Prince Albert had imported a number of festive traditions from his native Germany, including the Tannenbaum or Christmas Tree, and the giving and receiving of greetings cards, and there had followed a widespread revival of interest in early British Christmas traditions, such as the Yule Log, mistletoe, and holly and ivy. The Victorians were creating a whole iconography of Christmas that remains with us to this day. And whether they were conscious of it or not, a lot of that iconography is essentially pagan, and pre-Christian in origin. Charles Dickens did much to consolidate that iconography in the national consciousness, to fuse Christian and Pagan into a vision of Christmas that is essentially fairly secular - a time of family, of celebration, of goodwill to all, of the opportunity for redemption, where God is mentioned only in passing, where essential human decency prevails. For all of the darkness along the way, essentially, yes, a comforting vision.

That Dickens should choose to present this vision in the form of a ghost story might seem perverse, but again it simply shows his understanding of his audience. The Victorians loved tales of the sensational and supernatural. This was beginning of the great age of the English Ghost Story, and Dickens was a key player in its development. But in making his Christmas Myth a ghost story, Dickens achieved something else. He ensured that the Ghost Story became as much a part of Christmas as trees, and cards and goose and plum pudding, and carol singing, and all of the other festive traditions his story celebrates.

And the tradition has continued ever after. The great Edwardian master of the ghost story, MR James wrote all of his tales originally as Christmas entertainments for his students, to be consumed no doubt with mince pies and a glass of good port. More recently WOMAN IN BLACK author Susan Hill has taken to releasing a ghost story in time for Christmas (though ironically, we will have to wait till the New Year for the new film version of her most famous work). It is thus entirely appropriate that many of James’s stories should have been adapted for TV over the years, invariably as part of the Christmas season’s viewing, and that TV and film companies should continue to choose Christmas-time as much as Halloween as a suitable time to release their. There is something almost… cosy… about ghosts and horror at Christmas.

So all of you Grimlins out there planning to spend that Jesus kid’s birthday watching a Filipino Zombie movie marathon are just following in a great tradition dating back centuries. Just don’t eat any of the guests. That would be wrong.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


Steve Balshaw takes a look at his personal highlights from this years festival.

 It’s over. The great darkness has lifted from the city of Manchester . It is no longer Grimm Up North.

Here at Grimm Central we’ve finally managed to get the bloodstains out of the soft furnishings and  explained away all of that screaming to the local authorities, so now we can sit back with a glass of 19th Century vintage absinthe and reflect a while…

It has been, as we promised, a Hell of a Festival. 17 movies and one seminar in less than four days. We’ve had our biggest and best audiences yet, and  some of our intensest screenings. We’ve dined out in casinos with rock stars and screen legends, and  got drunk and traded tales of terror with our loyal Grimmlins. We’ve had premieres and previews and a couple of creepy classics, and at every show there was a free raffle, and putrescent prizes to be won.

Looking back, it’s all a bit of a bloodsoaked blur of appalling activity, but a few things stick like fish-hooks in the brain:

Our red carpet premiere of the gripping, emotionally harrowing psychological three-hander, RETREAT, where Director Carl Tippetts and producer Gary Sinyor regaled us with tales of the high-stakes nature of making a low-budget film with A-list Hollywood stars (Our thanks to our festival patron, TV ghost-hunter Yvette Fielding, for hosting the Q&A).

The Black and Blue panel discussion and subsequent screening of their latest release, STALKER, which saw producer Jonathan Sothcott, actors Billy Murray and Jane March, and one-time Spandau Ballet and Eastenders star Martin Kemp, whose debut as writer-director the film was, talking with disarming honesty about the realities of independent filmmaking in the UK and with engaging enthusiasm about genre cinema generally.

An all-too-brief panel discussion on the politics of zombie films with authors David Moody and Wayne Simmons, following on from our screening of the highly political THE DEAD. David’s been a friend and supporter of the festival since day one, and it’s always good to see him. Wayne proved an equally entertaining and thoughtful speaker, and this was one discussion that really could’ve gone on a lot longer.

The festival “hot tickets”, SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE and THE WOMAN, the first a charming, surprisingly sweet-natured black comedy, the second a visceral, confrontational and controversial exploration of sexual politics, suggesting just how diverse our Grimmlins tastes really are.

The warm response received by some of the programming team’s own favourites - the cerebral Science Fiction film BY DAY AND BY NIGHT and the HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s remarkable retro-style THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS. Good to see our faith in these films was justified.

Ending the festival on a real high, with the regional premiere of THE WICKER TREE, Robin Hardy’s follow-up to THE WICKER MAN, and having Robin himself there to talk about the film as well as his plans for his next project, which will take the themes of the first two films still further (our thanks to Andy Murray for leading the Q&A). It’s often a disappointment to meet one’s heroes, but not in Robin’s case. He proved to be a gracious guest, an entertaining speaker - and excellent company over dinner as well.

Festivals are as much a social event as they are an excuse to screen movies, so one of the most enjoyable elements for us, as always was meeting people - the various guests, celebrity or otherwise, as well as journalists, bloggers and of course our loyal Grimmlins - hanging out together over a few drinks and just generally chewing the fat about genre cinema and related issues. It is at moments like these that we remember why we subject ourselves to the stresses and strains of running a film festival.There was so much on offer this year, this is just a handful of my own highlights, everyone who came, I'm sure, have their own!

We will be back. Probably when you least expect it.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


At any festival, there are always some films that get more attention than others. Either the advance word is good, or a degree of notoriety has been acquired already, there are famous or popular actors or directors attached, or the film is part of a familiar brand or franchise.

So, as we ready ourselves for the first day of the festival, we thought it might be an idea to highlight a few of the films you may not be familiar with, but really shouldn’t miss.

Revenge: A Love Story
(Saturday 10.15pm)

Police are investigating a serial killer who targets officers pregnant wives. A suspect is eventually captured and brutally interrogated, but finally has to be released without charge. But is he actually innocent? 

Following standing ovations for screenings of little seen Thai movie SLICE and Korean revenge movie BEDEVILLED last, were delighted to be presenting this darkly-glittering cinematic gem from Hong Kong; the latest release from Josie Ho‘s 852 films, and the follow-up to Pang Ho Cheung‘s full-on splatter satire DREAM HOME also screened last year. Successfully balancing gripping character drama with harrowing, visceral horror, this smart. sharptly-scripted shocker has real psychological and emotional depth underpinning director Ching-Po Wong often disturbing and graphically violent imagery. Censors have made a series of cuts to the film in its home territory, but we will be screening the film in all of its emotionally intense and gory glory.

Urban Explorers
(Friday, 5.25pm)

A chance for any armchair urban explorers out there to discover the disused and derelict architecture beneath the city of Berlin in the company of a murderous psychopath.

Suspenseful, spooky, and at times downright nasty, this tense, claustrophobic and visually stunning cat-and-mouse thriller combines striking and original locations with deaths gruesome enough to shake even the most hardened gorehounds. Just the thing to screen here in macabre Manchester, which has a vast underground cityscape of its own - directly beneath our festival screening venue!

(Friday, 10.00pm)

A middle class Spanish family move into their new home, unaware that they are about to be the target for a gang of ruthless career criminals who know exactly how to apply pressure to get what they want…

The violation of one’s home, the threatening of one’s family, the destruction of one’s comfortable life. These universal, primal fears are the beating heart of this terse and remorseless home invasion thriller from the producers of the recent hit movie CELL 211. Cruel and claustrophobic, the film offers a nightmare vision of a familiar environment turned into an inescapable trap, where bonds of love and loyalty start to break down and fly apart in a tooth and nail struggle for survival. A tight, brutal little thriller that does not let up for a second, and goes to some very dark places indeed.

Adam Chaplin
(Friday 12.10 am - or is that Saturday Morning?)

When his wife is brutally murdered by depraved gangsters, implacable bad ass Adam Chaplin enlists dark and demonic forces in order to avenge her. The corrupt and fallen city of Heaven Valley won’t know what hit it. Brutally and repeatedly. In the face.

For our Friday Night Midnight movie, we present the World Premiere of this phantasmagorical full-on Faustian revenge fantasy, which mashes up THE CROW, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR and the most outrageous of 80s straight to-video vileness to create a new benchmark in demented, bone-crunching action and blood-soaked carnage. Nasty and blackly funny in equal measures, this is a guaranteed Grindhouse cult hit of tomorrow..... If you enjoyed last year’s late night screening of ALIENS VS NINJAS, you’re going to love this.

(Saturday 12.25am - or is that Sunday Morning?)

Slacker dude Mike Kellerman wakes up to discover that hes been dead for two years and is now a zombie. The last thing he remembers, he was going to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Encouraged by fellow undead dude, Brent, he determines to go ahead with the plan…

Championed by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, this zom-rom-com road movie combines splatter with patter, and plays like Day of the Dead re-imagined by Kevin Smith. Filled with stoner humour, pop-cultural references, and a surprising amount of romantic idealism, the film nevertheless doesnt stint for a moment on the exploding heads, severed limbs and spilled guts, and delivers a twisted sucker punch ending that will touch the heart even as it sickens the stomach. A perfect Saturday night post-midnight treat.

The Dead
(Sunday, 1.50pm)

A zombie plague has torn an unnamed African country apart.  A stranded US military and African military deserter form an unlikely partnership as they cross the tundra in a beaten up vehicle, the engineer looking for a way back to the US and the deserter searching for his lost son both of them trying to survive the ever growing zombie holocaust.

THE DEAD was a film we couldnt screen last year due to its other festival commitments. And that always rankled a little. So were delighted to offer a rare chance to see the Ford Brothers stunning debut feature on the big screen before its eventual UK release on Bluray and DVD. An allegorical exploration of western post-colonial guilt and the bitter legacy of decades of civil war and mismanaged Aid schemes wrapped up in a gripping and gory white-knuckle thriller, this plays like HOTEL RWANDA might had it been part of Lucio Fulci's Zombie series…

HP Lovecraft's Whisperer in Darkness comes to GRIMM UP NORTH

To celebrate our screening of HP Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness on Wed 13th Mar (7.15pm Stockport Plaza cinema), Steve Balshaw Grimm Up North's film programmer takes a look at the man himself.

HP Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one of American horror fiction’s most unique visionaries, and its greatest mythmaker. His work transcends its pulp and genre roots, influencing authors as diverse as Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorge Luis Borges and even misanthropic French miserablist Michel Houellebecq. He has provided inspiration for a multitude of books, paintings, sculptures, films, music, comics and graphic novels, cartoons, and even role-playing and computer games. The Mythologies he created, with their weird mixture of folklore, both real and invented, gothic horror, exoticism, and science fiction have found their way into popular culture in myriad ways, many of which would have surprised and quite possibly appalled their reclusive and eccentric creator.

The effect of such widespread appropriation of his creations, one might expect, ought to be a dilution of their effect, and ultimately a reductio ad absurdium. For every effective and intelligent usage by others of Lovecraftian mythology and storytelling tropes, there are dozens which really have no connection with his work at all, beyond a little arcane name-dropping. It is these latter which have done much to harm Lovecraft’s reputation in certain quarters, to suggest, as his detractors have, that his stories are often little more than roll-calls of bizarrely named Elder Gods and forbidden texts, referenced with ever-increasing hysteria as each narrative progresses to its climax. But this is to entirely miss the purpose of Lovecraft’s created mythologies, and his often deliberately overwrought use of language.

Myths are generally created as a means of telling us things about ourselves and others. They are parables, serving a symbolic or illustrative purpose. They open a window into the unknown, and try to make it comprehensible. Lovecraft understood this clearly. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he begins by observing:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Not love, or hatred, or greed: Fear.

He goes on to point out how early man, confronted by a world that was largely inexplicable, would weave around those inexplicable phenomena: “…personifications, marvellous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear…”

Lovecraft sees this instinct towards fearful myth-making not as a primitive instinct, but as a primal one: “though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs much of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained.”

We are still, at heart, primitives, afraid of the dark, and our own accumulated superstitions. The role of the writer of the supernatural, for Lovecraft, is to tap into the reader’s existing sense of “cosmic fear”. Here’s how he begins one of the most celebrated of his weird tales, the one in which so much of his unique mythology was given shape, The Call of Cthulhu:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

It is passages such as this that lead Michel Houellebecq, in his perceptive biographical and critical essay H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life to describe Lovecraft has having: “An absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by a particular disgust for the modern world.”

This is, I suspect, true. But behind the hatred and disgust lies Lovecraft’s “oldest and strongest emotion”, FEAR.

Detractors such as Michael Moorcock have emphasised the neurotic racism, misogyny and fear of sex that they see as permeating Lovecraft’s work, and it is true that such elements are there - but they are part of a larger, more general terror of existence. And it is this primal, crushing terror that drives his work, and gives it much of its visceral impact.

A little biographical information about Lovecraft might prove useful at this point.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, a place he very rarely left. His mother’s side of the family, the Phillips, could trace their ancestry back to the 1600s. His father, a travelling salesman was committed to an asylum when Lovecraft was only three years old. The cause of dementia was syphilis, though whether Lovecraft ever knew this is uncertain. Lovecraft was raised by his mother, grandfather and two maternal aunts, and he grew up with a strong notion of belonging to a grand family with a noble history. He was a sickly child, subject to night-terrors, during which he believed himself to be assaulted by horrific "night gaunts." His grandfather’s death when Lovecraft was 14 threw the family finances into disarray. They lost the family home, and Lovecraft had a nervous breakdown, with the result that he never completed his formal education to his own satisfaction. Recuperating, he lived what he described as “a hermit’s existence” with his increasingly depressive and unstable mother, who was herself finally committed to the same psychiatric hospital as her husband. Following his mother’s death, Lovecraft made his only real attempt to engage with the normal stream of life. By now an established author, he attended an amateur journalist convention in Boston Massachusetts, where he met Sonia Greene. They married in 1924, and moved to into her apartment in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. The marriage was not a success. Sonia was Jewish and “in trade”, which created hostility from Lovecraft’s aunts. Lovecraft could not find work in New York to support them both, and his wife was forced to move to Cleveland for employment. Alone and isolated in Brooklyn in the midst of a large immigrant population, finding himself utterly unemployable, Lovecraft became increasingly consumed by racial paranoia. He returned to Providence, to live with his aunts. He never returned to Sonia, and they finally agreed to an amicable divorce, though this was never finalised. He remained in Providence, a struggling writer in ever poorer health until his death, aged 47 from cancer of the small intestine.

The details of his life are significant, because in them we find the roots of all of Lovecraft’s literary obsessions: inherited guilt and degeneracy, racial anxiety, the grand family that is not what it seems, the continued, lurking terror of madness, of encroaching, mutating disease, of basic contact with others. Above all, the sense not simply of alienation, but of otherness, of outsiderdom.

True, Lovecraft was not entirely alone. Indeed, over time, he found himself the head of a kind of “literary circle”, with other writers who shared some of his obsessions, and whom he considered friends. But these were literary friendships, conducted by correspondence. And it is significant that the authors to whom he felt closest (neither of whom he ever met) were the manic-depressive mother’s boy Robert Ervin Howard, creator of Conan The Barbarian and other hyper-violent arrested-adolescent power fantasies, and the eccentric Clark Ashton Smith, who lived in the California dustbowl with his aged parents, writing purple-prosed, fin de siecle style decadent fantasies, filled with gaudy phraseology and exotic, gothic orientalism. All three men are remarkable, brilliant in their way. And all are equally odd; loners, existing in isolation both from the literary mainstream, and apparently from life itself. Yet Lovecraft is the most alienated of all. Even in his letters to those he feels kinship, he emphasises his difference, his distance, describing himself in letters written in his 30s as an old man, a “grandfather”, when he was actually only 3 years older than Ashton Smith.

This conscious emphasising of his own otherness, even when expressed humorously, is clearly not an assumed posture, but a reflection of his own deepest sense of self. It is pathological, and lies at the core of Lovecraft’s writing.

It is often seen as significant that so many of Lovecraft’s admirers, including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Michel Houellebecq discovered him when young. This has led him to be dismissed as an essentially adolescent writer. Charles L. Grant has gone so far as to observe that: “when you grow up you discover that what attracted you when you were fourteen was his rococo style and very little else”. This is palpably untrue. The style is barely relevant at that age. What makes Lovecraft speak so strongly to adolescents is his overwhelming sense of alienation, something which every anxious, spotty teenager knows all-too-well.

To illustrate my point, I’ll end this posting with a  personal anecdote. I discovered Lovecraft’s work at the age of thirteen. The first story of his I ever read was THE OUTSIDER - about as evocative a title as any lonely teenager could wish for. The subject, too, has particular resonance. The solitary, unhappy protagonist, seeking only human warmth and company is brought quite literally face to face with the reason he can never experience it: because he is a  monster, a “ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity and dissolution.” He flees back into his darkened solitude, taking bitter consolation in that he has learned: “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men”.

This is the fear of every neurotic, self-loathing adolescent writ large: I am not what I believed myself to be, I am not like others, I will always be alone. And these are not fears we ever truly grow out of. They do not leave us with age. They recur, in some ways they deepen over time.

I last read Lovecraft about three years ago. His stories disturbed and haunted me just as much as they did thirty years earlier.

That fear never goes away. Steve Balshaw