Usually it’s a pleasure to invite an author onto Linda’s book Bag, but today I wasn’t so sure. You see, I don’t read horror or anything remotely scary – I’m too much of a coward. So when Karl Drinkwater suggested I read his latest collection of short stories, They Move Below, I challenged him to write a blog post persuading me to do just that. However, when I saw what a convincing case he made, I had to keep my side of the bargain and read his stories too. This post is the result!
They Move Below was published in e-book and paperback on 11th May 2016 and is available for purchase here.
They Move Below
Horror lives in the shadows. It exists under the earth’s surface in ancient caves; below the vast sea’s undulating waves; under dense forest cover; within a storm’s thick, rolling clouds; downstairs in our homes, when we hear the knife drawer rattle in the night. Even our minds and bodies harbour the alien under the skin, the childhood nightmares in our subconscious. In this collection of sixteen tales Karl Drinkwater sews flesh onto the bones of our worst fears whilst revisiting some of horror’s classic settings, such as the teen party, the boat in trouble, the thing in the cellar, the haunted museum, the ghost in the machine, and the urban legends that come true. No-one is safe. Darkness hides things, no matter how much we strain our eyes. And sometimes those things are looking back at us.
The Case For Horror
A Guest Post by Karl Drinkwater
When I first discussed They Move Below with Linda she told me “I don’t read horror as I’m too much of a wimp”, then spun it round and challenged me to persuade non-horror readers to try the genre. Ouch. How could I do that? I have pondered for some time and come to three conclusions which might help to make my case.
We’re Already Reading Horror
I remember hearing the same thing from crime fans and thriller fans – “Urgh, horror, that isn’t for me!” Then I look at the books and films they like, and discover that they’re full of murders, stalkings, kidnappings, abuse, darkness, and I wonder why they don’t see them as horror. Sometimes the concept of genres blinds us to the elements that all good fiction shares: characters you care about, plots that keep us reading, and a confident touch of style or voice as the work’s fingerprint. Elements such as murders are common because they tie easily into plot (“how can we stop/catch/evade this murderer?”) and character stakes (“I’m worried about this character because they might be killed next!”) And when you look at challenges that a protagonist has to face, threats to their life or body are bound to be common ones, because we can all identify with them. We’re all horrified by them. And thus we have a shortcut to identification with, and investment in, the plight of the characters.
I began to realise that, regardless of genre, certain dark topics will recur, and the best works resist being narrowly categorised because of this. It’s a dilemma I face, because I write both literary fiction with (sometimes) dark qualities, and dark fiction that often focusses on themes and character as much as a literary work does. I occasionally look at a short story I’ve written and realise it could fit into either a horror collection, or a contemporary collection. Am I writing horror about people; or people stories with elements of horror?
Consider these two books.
The Road (Cormac McCarthy): many see it as post-apocalyptic horror (a world of despair, cannibalism, violence, child-killing, rape, death, greyness and suffering); but it is also held up as a literary work about a father protecting his son. It’s okay for a book to contain horror as long as there is something we can connect with.
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë): some see it as a fantastic love story. Some see it as a story of coming of age and a woman gaining independence. Yet it also includes scary visions, violent figures appearing in your bedroom at night, secret imprisonment, trying to burn down a house and its occupants, stabbings … at least some of its power comes from those horror elements.
There Are Different Types Of Horror
All genres have sub-genres. It is easy for an outsider to lump all things they don’t understand into a single category. I see crime festivals with logos of guns, knives and blood spatters (the latter was one I spotted in my news feed today), so an outsider may easily think all crime fiction is gory, when I’m sure that’s not true. Likewise many horror books and films have blood-spattered covers, and may persuade those outside the genre that everything in horror is gory. Again, it is not true, but we remember the extreme cases. In reality much of the blood-spattering is a shortcut marketing technique to signify genre, and may have little to do with the content.
When you get down to individual works there are those which are gratuitous, and those which aren’t. The former favour spectacle over character. As a horror fan I can appreciate that, but to an outsider it is easy to be scared away by imagery and totally miss the more subtle books and films that they might have enjoyed.
An example of a horror book that is unashamedly gratuitous might be American Gothic by Brian Keene. I thought it was entertaining enough, but the shallow characters combined with over-the-top violence and physical abuse would send many more sensitive readers running for cover. Whereas Pet Sematary by Stephen King is also horror, but at the opposite end of the spectrum – it’s creepy and ominous without being gory or gratuitous, and you read on because you care about the characters and want to know what happens. If you are new to horror it is that kind of book that will pull you in and give you a fantastic read; avoid the ones that will only repulse you.
If you’ve read a few of the stories from They Move Below I hope it was the ones that focus more on character than gore – e.g. Web; They Move Below; Bleeding Sunset; Dancing Snowflakes. They make a better case for my argument than some of the others. It reminds me of Stephen King’s Night Shift, which I read as a child. Actually, read isn’t the word: it was more that I was transported to other worlds and lost track of where I really was. King’s collection has many horrible and fascinating stories, yet one of my favourites is The Last Rung on the Ladder, which sends shivers down my spine to this day, and there isn’t a monster, killer, or supernatural boogeyman in sight. Just a story about love and hope and the one chance we have at life. And it’s all the more horrible for it. (Horrible = brilliant, in this case.)
Horror Gets To The Heart Of The Problem
We read books to escape. To forget who we are for a while; to live other lives, see other places, experience other emotions. We read for excitement. We read to imagine: to put ourselves in other shoes and consider what we would do in that situation.
The characters have to face some kind of threat. Otherwise there is no story. “Man goes to the shops; buys chocolate; walks home whistling in the sun; is not mugged or run over or abducted by aliens.” A lovely thought, but I won’t sell many copies when I come to write it. The easiest stakes to care about are those we can identify with. And that comes down to threats to our body, or our mind, to our loved ones. Those things are often key to horror, so it is a natural fit. I once wrote:
“When I’m reading a good horror novel I forget about the room I’m in, the cat on my lap, the cars outside – I am struggling to survive against evil forces, the inhuman, the alien, the grotesque, the cruel, and that takes all my concentration. I am in the book. I discovered that when I discovered horror as a child. Something about it pulls at my mind, snips at its flesh, teases it, worries it, but gets its attention. The journey begins and you need to see it through to the end.”
That still stands. If you pick up a book and the greatest threat facing the protagonist is whether they can afford another designer hat then I assume you’d give up on it pretty quickly. How can we identify with such first world problems? But if you pick up a book and the character has woken in the night, alone, worried that someone – or something – is downstairs, then it grabs you immediately, because we’ve all had that fear, we all begin to think about what we would do. And that’s when plot and character come together in a way that is satisfying to the reader.
I don’t know if that’s enough to make my case. Is anyone convinced? Am I totally wrong? Let me know!
My Review of They Move Below
OK. Let’s get this over with. I was wrong and Karl was right! To answer his question, yes, I’m convinced and yes, he’s made his case very eloquently. As a result of this challenge I have found a whole new genre and if Karl’s writing is anything to go by, I’m in for a treat.
They Move Below is a magnificent collection of stories. Even though one or two made me feel uncomfortable, the lesson here is that horror really lies in who we are as humans and how we treat one another. The obsessive love of the mother in If That Looking Glass Gets Broken is shocking, but completely believable. So too is the insidious escalation of events in the brilliantly structured Overload.
What impressed me so much about They Move Below, however, is the quality of Karl Drinkwater’s prose. He writes with considerable sophistication and an almost urbane style that is so pleasurable to read. I also enjoyed the variety of the stories, with the different voices and perspectives. There’s such a range of presentational devices that They Move Below has something for every reader, from the police interview format of Breaking the Ice to the almost sexual vampiric Bleeding Sunset, Dancing Snowflakes. The direct speech feels natural and well constructed, especially the the dialect in Sinker and Karl Drinkwater has the ability to present scenes very visually to draw in the reader.
I also thoroughly appreciated the commentary at the end of the collection that explained a little about how each story came into being. They Move Below is a vibrant, interesting and (for me) frequently unsettling collection of stories that deserve considerable success. And in answer to Karl’s question above, ‘Am I writing horror about people; or people stories with elements of horror?’ I would answer, ‘Yes, both.’ And this is the attraction of They Move Below.
About Karl Drinkwater
Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester but has lived in Wales for over fifteen years, ever since he went there to do a Master’s degree: it was easier to stay than to catch a train back. His longest career was in librarianship (25 years); his shortest was industrial welding (1 week).
He started writing stories when he was 9, and hasn’t stopped. His writing sometimes spends time in the sunlit patches of literary fiction, where it likes to picnic beneath an old oak tree, accompanied by a bottle of wine, some cake, and soul-searching peace. At other times his words slope off into the dark and tense shadows of horror fiction, and if you follow them you might hear chains rattling behind locked doors and the paranoid screams of the lost echoing in the distance. There is no obligation to enjoy both of those avenues. His aim is to tell a good story, regardless of genre, but it always comes down to life, death, and connection.
When he isn’t writing or editing he loves exercise, computer games, board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, and zombies; not necessarily in that order.
You’ll find all Karl’s books for purchase here.