Archive for the Literature Category

James Herbert – A Legend

James Herbert. Image © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson

The death of James Herbert this morning at the age of 69 marks the end of a significant era in horror literature. His debut novel The Rats, published in 1974, was a flesh-creeping, nightmare-inducing, page turner, which became an instant best-seller, spawned sequels, adaptations and a 40 year run of success for its creator. His most recent novel, Ash, had only just been released in paperback by Pan Macmillan.

I’m sure column inches will be filled over the next few days and months in newspapers, literary journals and genre publications as critics revisit his works and no doubt opinion will continue to be split. For some, he was little more than horror’s Dan Brown (as I’ve seen several people comment already) – not really a literary giant, but a popular, page-turner of an author. For others, he was a god of horror.

Bedlam will be spending a little time looking over Herbert’s body of work this year, and I hope you’ll join in our exploration. We’d been discussing a career overview interview with his publicists for quite some time, and now that the main thrust of his publicity for Ash and the BBC adaptation of The Secret Of Crickley Hall  had died down I’d been hopeful we could finally find the time to work on the piece together. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be, but we’ll be paying tribute all the same.

My own journey with Herbert is fairly short but intensive, and certainly satisfying. I’ll share it with you.

His was a name I knew from my teenage years. My brother Jonny had been a fairly avid reader back in the 1990s, and had sat recommending both The Fog and The Rats to me at length, although at the time I was a little  confused about The Fog, mistaking it for having something to do with the John Carpenter film which I’d seen and loved. For the next decade Herbert’s books sat on bookshelves staring me down, demanding to be read, and yet somehow being resisted. Sure, I read the blurbs, admired the smart design work (usually Herbert’s own – he’d been an art director before he was ever an author), but not in the habit of borrowing my sibling’s books.

And then we met – very briefly – at Ingrid Pitt’s birthday. I’d been working with Ingrid a lot at public shows through my association with Hammer, and on arrival at the bash in Hammersmith, found I was marked out as a special guest along with the likes of Caroline Munro, Kate O’Mara and James Herbert. (Ingrid wrote about it here).

Not long after that I picked up my first James Herbert novel. I was to be over in Edinburgh visiting Jonny and had spotted a rather attractive paperback copy of The Rats outside a second hand bookshop in Belfast. Needing something for the weekend’s reading, I bought it, and set about devouring it en route on the ferry. Walking through Stockbridge the next day I spotted a copy of Fluke, and my Herbert odyssey was off.

Suffering from a lifelong phobia of rats, that debut novel would be a perfect starter for me – striking a nerve like nothing else, and filling the deepest recesses of my mind with absolute fear and dread.  I needed to reach the end, but I needed more. Strange how adrenaline works. From there I delved into the terrifying fear of The Fog, the catholic manipulation of Shrine, eerie villages in The Survivor, a loveable dog in Fluke, and so on.

I’d just read The Dark when I discovered that Ingrid had written an adaptation of it for the screen at the behest of John Hough, which led into interesting diversions with Ingrid’s memoirs and a couple of informative chats with John, and then back to James Herbert and my attempts to get him to write the foreword for Ingrid’s as yet unpublished memoir The Hammer Xperience. But ill-health and on-going work on Ash made that impossible.

In October of last year I was down in Hastings as a guest at the Queen of Horror festival, to launch Ingrid’s posthumous book Dracula Who..?  James had been invited too, and while we were launching (quietly) upstairs, James was downstairs signing with the other guests. I finally got a bit of time to sit with James and chat, and we talked of Ash and his work, the career interview idea for Bedlam, of his and Ingrid’s friendship, of the tribute to Ingrid he included in Ash, about The Dark, of Hammer films (who he told me had been keen to work with him recently, but he was too busy on Ash to contemplate), about Dracula Who…?, and about my brother. I’d hoped that Jonny could have been there that weekend (he’d worked with me and Ingrid a few times), but couldn’t get the time out, so I told James about how I started reading his books, and James dedicated a special birthday inscription on a copy of Ash for Jonny, which I gave him the next week. It was a lovely gesture, and one that some authors wouldn’t have been prepared to make.

He was absolutely charming, and very softly spoken and very optimistic. Plans were made to sort out the interview once Crickley Hall was out of the way, and I gave him a copy of the limited edition Dracula Who…?

Later on we shared a stage, as friends of Ingrid during a special tribute piece, that involved most of the guests from the weekend – Barry McCann chairing with myself, Damien Thomas, Robert Young, Madeline Smith, Renee Glynne, Tony Rudlin, Carol Cleveland, John Hough and James Herbert filling up the rest of the space. It quickly became a rather more wider interest discussion on horror, with dear John Hough and James almost interviewing each other. Well over time, it was hard not to listen to the master. He’d not been expected to stay more than a couple of hours for the signing, and yet he made a point to hang around and chat and hand out the fiction awards for the weekend and meet the newly appointed festival ‘Queen’. He was a little frail – relying on sticks for mobility, and told the audience that all that sitting behind a desk writing meant his legs weren’t exercised enough, but he was determined to get more active.

One of the worst things about this job is marking off those who touch our lives and then leave the stage too soon. Is hard enough when you admire someone from afar, but once you’ve spoken with them, engaged and talked as a person it hits. I’ve been blessed in that so many of those I meet are a far cry from the potentially aloof or rude people they could be. Screen actors live like ghosts through projections of their work, authors live on through their words being spoken and read. My last conversation with James was on the promise of we’ll talk again soon. While I can’t ask him the questions I want to and get his firm answers in response, James can continue to talk to me and his hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers (54 million copies+ sold to date) through his work. That’s quite a landmark to leave.

Ash may not have been the swansong that fans (or he?) would have chosen to leave – it isn’t genre redefining, not indelible on the memory, not timeless, rather an of-the-moment, conspiracy laden horror thriller – but it stands as yet another original gripping page turner, positing bold ideas and leaving the reader to question their perceptions of popular figures. It proved Herbert still had bite, and more stories to tell. And even if the worst thing that can be said of Ash is that it made people pine (and return to) his earlier work, then it still served to remind us of how solid and original his writing can be.

Bedlam editor Robert J.E. Simpson and author James Herbert. © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson

I still have a handful of his novels left as virgin reads to me, their deflowering will be all the more poignant in the coming weeks and months. One thing I didn’t mention to him in Hastings was that we share a birthday, and James would have been 70 in a couple of weeks’ time. I’ll be raising a glass in his memory, and toasting one of the most influential genre writers of the 20th century, with one eye on that old railway bank across the road and the rats’ lair…

Robert J.E. Simpson

Dickensian Gothic: A Christmas Carol

David L Rattigan opens a creaking door on Charles Dickens’s Gothic tale

Charles DickensThe year was 1843, and English literature had witnessed the zenith of early Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allen Poe was reimagining the genre in such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). And in Britain, Charles Dickens was appropriating the Gothic tradition for his own stories; the conventions of the Gothic were to loom particularly large in late works such as Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860), but it was in a series of Christmas stories that he first explored the genre fully. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) are now forgotten by popular culture, but the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), continues to be read by millions and has been the subject of dozens of film adaptations.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol primarily to expose the horrors of real-world injustice, but he chose to hang his social commentary on a literary framework owing much to Gothic horror. It is easy to forget that in genre terms, the tale of Scrooge is primarily a ghost story; it was originally subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas. Its role in enshrining the traditional Victorian Christmas – trees, holly, candles and carols – has meant many who know the story only through other media forget that it is, at least partly, horror.

Certainly Dickens narrates A Christmas Carol with tongue firmly in cheek at times. He prefaced the 1843 edition of the book quite whimsically:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it [from the saying “to lay the ghost to rest”].

The story itself begins with death, but the author treats it with a large dose of gallows humour. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” he writes, before a humorous diversion as he muses on why the simile is “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin-nail.” But after this almost-silly – if macabre – opening, Dickens sets the scene outside Scrooge’s London offices some seven years after Marley’s death. Far from being a picture of cheery, greetings-card festivity, the scene is gloomy and haunting. No snow, no children playing, no Christmas carols. It is dark, and the fog – in fact a mostly industrial London smog – is so thick, the houses across the narrow street have become “mere phantoms.”

Arthur Rackham illustration of Scrooge & MarleyEbenezer Scrooge is described in almost non-human terms: He exists in his own atmosphere, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him”; blind men’s dogs recognize him and try to warn their masters; Scrooge has the “evil eye” of ancient folklore. Nature itself is described in decidedly preternatural terms: “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down … one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

Dickens’s prose is littered with Gothic elements. There are shadows, flickering candles and dingy streets; there are Scrooge’s gloomy chambers, echoey and empty of humanity. One particularly curious Gothic reference is when the miser declares that everyone who wishes another a merry Christmas should be “boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” a curse that evokes both cannibalism and vampirism. Dracula was not yet written, but vampires were already firmly in the public imagination through works such as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. The imagery is certainly intended to be dryly humorous, but the modern reader easily overlooks how grisly it was. (Much too close-to-the-bone for Dickens’s audience at some points. For example, when Scrooge tells his nephew words to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell first,” Dickens can’t even bring himself to mention hell, referring to it euphemistically as “that other extremity.”)

With his dark, shadowy images of a fogbound London, Dickens has established a Gothic atmosphere long before we arrive on the doorstep of his house, where he first sees the image of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in place of his doorknocker. The author describes the vision in terms that are as bizarre as they are wonderfully ethereal. Marley had a “dismal light” around him, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” It was a face of “horror” and “livid colour,” and the wide-eyed ghost’s “hair was curiously stirred as if by breath or hot air.”

Once inside, Scrooge speaks face-to-face with the ghost, who has come to warn him of an impending visitation by three spirits. The narrative of this encounter is terrifying indeed:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley in Scrooge (1951)Film adaptations have not always succeeded in translating these details to the screen. In 1938, a Hollywood version that suffers from far too much whimsy and a disappointingly cartoonish portrayal of Scrooge (Reginald Owen), the chance for something genuinely frightening or haunting is squandered by uninspired direction and a banal performance by Leo G Carroll, an otherwise-fine character actor whose skeletal features might have seemed ideal for the role of a ghost. Even the 1935 version managed a more effective atmosphere in these scenes, despite not showing Jacob Marley at all. Three portrayals that really work, however, are those of Michael Hordern (1951), delightfully camp but accompanied by truly chilling shrieks; Frank Finlay (1984), who manages a literal jaw-dropping in comic but macabre fashion, and without the help of special effects; and Gary Oldman (voice only) in 2009. In this decidedly scary latter version, CGI-animated and produced by Disney, Marley’s jaw literally hangs from its hinges as if on a decaying corpse.

Horrors of Injustice

Dickens masterfully blends the twin horrors of the story’s Gothic, ghost-story elements and the injustices of Victorian society. As Marley’s visit comes to an end, for example, the sky is filled with moaning phantoms in chains, but an equal horror is one spectre’s piteous wailing at “being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.” The phantoms’ misery, writes Dickens, was in wanting to help others, which they had never done in life, but realizing they had forfeited such power forever.

One particularly effective moment of Victorian social horror will come later, when the Spirit of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two children, Ignorance and Want. In their “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” state, they have become so animal-like, Scrooge mistakes their hands for claws. Dickens describes it vividly thus:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Disney’s 2009 version of the story stands out for making much of this scene. In a nightmarish sequence that takes place in the shadow of a chiming clock, Ignorance is transformed into a knife-wielding, caged lunatic – Dickens’s book referred earlier to Bedlam, London’s infamous insane asylum – while Want becomes a prostitute who is strait-jacketed and dragged away by invisible hands.

Scrooge and the Numinous

Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly encounters exhibit another common element of Gothic fiction, namely an experience of what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) later called “the numinous.” In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (1917), he described the numinous as an experience of fear and fascination, dread and awe, such as that of encountering a deity. The effects of this mysterium tremendum include trembling, or shuddering (“grauens” in the original German). In discussing the manifestation of the numinous in culture, Otto linked it explicitly to ghost stories:

But even when [the numinous emotion] has reached its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part of it to break out in the soul in all their original naïveté and so to be experienced afresh. That this is so shown by the potent attraction exercised again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even in persons of high all-round education. It is a remarkable fact that the physical reaction to which this unique ‘dread’ of the uncanny gives rise is also unique, and is not found in the case of any ‘natural’ fear or terror.

Scrooge’s three visitations increasingly display aspects of the numinous. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge finds its light so overwhelming, he eventually causes its departure by seizing on its extinguisher-cone (a feature not often seen in film versions) and literally snuffing out its flame-like existence. Dickens’s description of this spirit feels almost Lovecraftian:

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. … [The] figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Scrooge’s response to meeting the Spirit of Christmas Present is to hang his head and look upon him “reverently.” But it is the third encounter, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, that is accompanied by a classic experience of the numinous. By its mere presence, the ghost seems to “scatter gloom and mystery” in the air around it, causing Scrooge to bend down on his knee. He cannot see the spirit more than vaguely in the darkness, but he senses it is “tall and stately” beside him:

Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved. … Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

A Christmas Carol: The Films 

Has any film come close to recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Dickens’s novella? The first sound version of the film, in 1935 (starring Seymour Hicks, who had already played the role in a 1913 silent, Old Scrooge), boasts perhaps the most effective opening, with an atmosphere perfectly capturing the dingy, almost-depressing air imagined by the author. The street outside Scrooge’s office, with snow on the ground, and fog, but no cheery, pretty snowflakes to create a picture-postcard scene, is bleak and claustrophobic. A small band of musicians plays the The First Nowell – badly. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Christmas carol, but the groaning notes perfectly suit the sombre setting.

Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951)

The 1951 film – by far the most popular version, due mainly to a very memorable starring turn by Alastair Sim – achieves a sublime Gothic feel, thanks largely to the black-and-white cinematography of C Pennington-Richards. Never is this better-seen than in the image of Scrooge kneeling before the “spectral hand” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come; the many layers of light, creating stark shadows and contrasts, give the image an astonishing depth. . (A hideously colourized version from 1989 robs the film of virtually all its visual power.) The film’s grimness may well explain why it flopped on its original American release, but it is testament to its faithfulness to the Gothic tradition.

The 1984 TV version, directed by Clive Donner, is also of note for an earnest attempt to accentuate darker elements of the tale. It’s also one of the few versions to be shot largely on location. The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury stands in for Victorian London, lending the film a pleasing authenticity; visitors can still see Scrooge’s gravestone, specially created for the film, in the churchyard of St Chad’s today.

Disney's A Christmas Carol Jacob MarleyFinally, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves a mention for being one of the few versions to go for actual scares – including decidedly modern “jump scares” – rather than purely atmosphere. The early scenes, such as that of Marley’s visitation, are executed fairly effectively, but they’re surely too scary for the film’s juvenile target audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers later try to accommodate all ages by adding some very out-of-place slapstick action, including an arbitrary extended chase sequence featuring a shrunken Scrooge. By the time the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come arrives, the film is a bit of a mess.

Perhaps no cinematic version has truly matched Dickens’s original, but that’s unsurprising, for the author’s prose has a chilling and equally wry way of articulating the Gothic. How can an any celluloid image hope to rival such literary descriptions as “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” and a spirit that is “now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”? A Christmas Carol is a work of singular humour and atmosphere, and, as Dickens himself wished, may no one wish to lay its ghost to rest.

The Charm of Evil

“And it was at that age that poetry arrived in search of me”
—Pablo Neruda

I was seven when horror came in search of me. I’d seen it from afar: garish comic-strip representations of Dracula on Valentine picture postcards, glimpses of men standing around in misty graveyards in late-night films I wasn’t allowed to watch. But when I was seven, my father gave me a book, the Ladybird Horror Classic abridgment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I devoured its words and handsome illustrations eagerly, and from that moment forward, horror had me firmly in its clutch. Those pocket-sized hardbacks of FrankensteinDracula and The Mummy were my initiation into the realms of the genre.

Not long afterwards, I spotted a film of the same name while scouring the TV Times. I’d read a horror book and now had one foot in a dimension hitherto open only to older children and grown-ups, but would my dad let me watch a horror movie? To my astonishment and delight, he did. That the film was over 40 years old, in black and white, and mild by eighties’ standards did not bother this horror-hungry young mind: The characters I had seen only in ink on a page were alive on the screen in my own living room.

It might sound impressive if I said it were Stevenson’s exposé of the duality in man and the darkness in all of us that resonated with me, but in truth the film’s allure was as plain as this: images of horror. It was Spencer Tracy’s eyes darting left and right as he rose from a park bench bent on a spree of terror; it was the chilling nonchalance of Tracy’s Hyde as he played the piano and spat grape seeds on the floor while Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy cowered behind him; it was the uncontrolled glee on Hyde’s face as he battered his victim to death with his cane; it was his shadowy figure disappearing into the London fog, his cloak flapping behind him.

This introduction to horror was the beginning of an obsession. I scoured the TV guides weekly to discover what new horror films awaited me, and I made a ritual of waking in the early hours, before school, to watch a video recording of the previous night’s ghoulish offering. My dedication soon paid off in the most sacred experience of them all: my first Hammer film.

It was roughly 1986, and the film was Dracula, back in the day when the title card actually read “Dracula,” in that beautifully ornate typeface, instead of the US title “Horror of Dracula.” I can visualize how its listing appeared in the pages of the Radio Times – I even remember there was a science documentary on the same night, and a photograph of outer space dominated the page. Seemingly minor details linger in the mind after such hallowed occasions as a Hammer devotee’s first Hammer horror. But the major details linger even stronger: Seeing for the first time Dracula’s disintegration as Van Helsing forces him into the sunlight; I experienced it several times over, thanks to the wonders of rewind.

The following year was the 30th anniversary of Hammer’s first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the BBC commemorated it with a documentary, Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood, and a season of Hammer weekend double-bills. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was paired with The Evil of FrankensteinThe Nanny with Rasputin, the Mad Monk. If Dracula was my conversion to Hammer, by this time I was a committed disciple. As I grew older, I would familiarize myself with the entire canon of Hammer horror films, acquainting myself intimately with Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, werewolves, mummies and all manner of reptilian monster. Later, I read David Pirie’s seminal A Heritage of Horror and approached the films on another, more adult, level.

That’s not to say I wasn’t for turning. There was a period in my late teens when, as an evangelical in the religious sense, I became convinced I could not reconcile my love of Hammer films with my Christian faith. Full of zeal for Christ, I scrubbed my Hammer titles and vowed not to return to them – but I did. The lure of Hammer was too strong. When I had eventually left behind my naïve fundamentalist enthusiasm, Hammer was there waiting for me. Horror found me again

An obsession with horror, like any obsession, especially those that seized us while we were young, takes on evangelical overtones for those it holds. It becomes the source of visions, by day and by night (I have visited Bray Studios, the home of Hammer Films from 1951 to 1966, at least a dozen times in my dreams). It becomes the chief element of rituals, like my dawn ritual of watching Hammer, wearing the ceremonial robe of my bed sheet or duvet. Other followers become brothers and sisters, fellow devotees who understand the magic lost on outsiders.

As I think about my devotion, I realize it brings a kind of comfort to me. My preferred manner of settling down to a Hammer horror is still laying down, shrouded in blankets. To revisit a cherished Hammer movie is to cosy up with something familiar, something safe that belongs to a tradition I have valued since childhood.

 

The director Terence Fisher, the Hammer pioneer who made DraculaThe Curse of Frankenstein and well over a dozen other films for the company, envisaged evil not as ugly and repulsive, but as attractive. Biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon termed this theme “the charm of evil.” It was this charm, working its powers through Dracula’s hypnotic glare and Baron Frankenstein’s cold and reckless pursuit of power over life and death, that seduced me almost three decades ago – and of which I remain its willing captive.

Dark Chocolate: Wonka at 40

In David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en, an obese man pays for the sin of gluttony by being force-fed to death. The results are shown in gruesome detail. But the concept isn’t totally original. We already saw a slew of young gluttons being punished in ironic ways particularly befitting their vices in 1971.

The film was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which, over the course of an hour and a half, an overweight Bavarian is washed away down a chocolate river, an obnoxious gum-chewer is inflated to four or five times her normal size, a vicious young madam is sent to her fate down a garbage chute, and a wannabe cowboy gets shrunk down to the size of his TV-saturated brain. Unlike in Se7en, we never see the decaying corpses – we’re assured they’ll be de-juiced or, with any luck, rescued before they reach the incineration stage – but we take the same crude pleasure in watching sinners get their comeuppance.

Every good fairy tale, on analysis, boils down to horror. Creepy old wolves pretend to be grandmas to prey on little girls, witches plot to cook and cannibalize young children, and evil queens hire hitmen to assassinate beautiful princesses. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is full of equally and delightfully vile details.

The decidedly sadistic nature of Gene Wilder’s candy-maker has not been lost on observers over the forty years since the film was released. He’s mesmerized by the sight of greedy Augustus Gloop caught in the pipe as he muses, with a glint in his eye: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”

But his delirious pleasure in seeing people suffer is only just beginning. With Augustus on his way to be turned into marshmallows, Wonka takes his remaining guests on the boat ride from hell. In a nightmarish scene that could only be inspired by a heady concoction of hard drugs, the factory tourists are whizzed through a tunnel of psychedelic colours and past a montage of lizards, worms, fanged insects and decapitated farmyard animals. Meanwhile, Wonka appears to zone out as he groans in increasingly loud and frenzied tones: “Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?”

Critics have occasionally noted these dark and, admittedly, bizarre aspects of the film and speculated that children are bewildered by it. But no. Children love it. Adults who didn’t grow up with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may well find it bewildering, but just as kids get the often-sinister, eccentric world of the entire Roald Dahl canon, they get this film. I was hooked as a youngster, and I am still attached today.

Part of the attraction, perhaps, is the satisfaction of seeing the obnoxious, the selfish, the bullies brought to justice. But a large part of it – as Dahl knew very well – is the charm of evil.

Gothic Horror Theatre: It’s Alive! (Or Is It?)

When I hear of a stage play adapted from a Gothic horror story, like London’s National Theatre sell-out production of Frankenstein, there’s a vein of jealousy running through my excitement. For I began my writing career as a playwright, and I worked hard on several scripts of famous horror tales that never made it to the theatres. Yes, for reasons unfathomable to me, my Phantom of the Opera, written when I was nine, was eclipsed by some inferior version produced around the same time by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I hear it’s still doing quite well in the West End, but what do punters know?

My version was inspired not by Gaston Leroux’s novel, which I hadn’t yet read, but chiefly by the Universal film starring Claude Rains. Despite some beautifully expressionistic art direction and a tightly crafted chandelier sequence, this 1943 version smothers most of the terror with whimsical vignettes and protracted musical sequences. The few horror moments, such as the final unmasking – to reveal a relatively unimpressive Jack Pierce makeup – inspired me to pen a 10-minute adaptation, which my peers and I performed before a packed assembly hall. The other pupils loved it so much, I wrote a more action-packed sequel with gunfights, tied-up heroines and dramatic poisonings.

I later tried my hand at other horror classics, including Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeDracula and Frankenstein. I was particularly proud of Frankenstein because, like the mad scientist himself, I worked on it day and night in the confines of my writing laboratory. It was the only full-length play I ever finished, although I’m sure it was awful – I was still a mere 10 or 11 – and sadly, the manuscript has disappeared. I still have a box containing other plays, and even a few crumpled pages of Phantom still exist. (eBay?)

So the idea of horror theatre has a special resonance with me. Danny Boyle, best known for films such asTrainspottingShallow Grave28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, directs the new Frankenstein, which opened in February to almost unanimous acclaim. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. (The only other instance I recall of the dualism being quite so vividly portrayed is in the 1968 TV play for the ITV series Mystery and Imagination, in which Ian Holm played both parts.

The BBC followed with a contemporary, semi-comical adaptation of its own, Frankenstein’s Wedding, a multimedia staging before an audience of thousands in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, in Leeds, and broadcast live on BBC3. As the title suggests, the action centred around the night of Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth. There were pre-filmed flashbacks on large screens, musical numbers by live bands and even flash-mob style dance routines that involved the entire crowd. The reviewers’ consensus, however, seemed to be that the much-hyped event was a flop, albeit a fascinating experiment that deserved praise for its daring.

Over in America, the new off-Broadway production of Dracula has received a critical bashing. The show is a revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L Balderston play that enjoyed huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s. In 1931, it was filmed by Universal with the star of the Broadway production, Bela Lugosi (Raymond Huntley had played him in the earlier London version), and then in 1979 with Frank Langella, also reprising a role he had played on Broadway. This new version stars Italian model Michel Altieri in the title role, with support from George Hearn – musical theatre’s definitive Sweeney Todd – as Van Helsing, and Emily Bridges, daughter of actor Beau, who took over from Thora Birch after her much-publicized firing a few days before the previews.

It turns out Birch may have had a lucky escape from a doomed production. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times doesn’t hold back in his assessment:

Sadly, this comically creaky production … makes the material feel about as immortal as a fruit fly. The creature this lumbering staging most resembles is not one of those comely young vampires with six-pack abs zigzagging at warp speed across screens today, but a lumbering, dead-eyed zombie fresh from the crypt. … [The] play comes across as a hopelessly hoary Victorian melodrama long on talky scenes rehearsing the by-now-familiar lore … and scarcely enlivened by cheesy would-be thrills that are not likely to raise a single goose pimple[.]

Who needs Van Helsing when you have critics like Isherwood?

Two misses out of three so far when it comes to this mini-revival in horror theatre. While the National Theatre’s Frankenstein may be an exception, the greatest stage adaptations of the classic Gothic tales probably have yet to be written. Balderston and Deane don’t hold up in this more sophisticated age. I’ve never read the play The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, made famous on the Victorian stage by Jack-the-Ripper suspect Richard Mansfield, but I suspect the same could be said of it.

I’d write the definitive Dracula myself, but Andrew Lloyd Webber would only steal the limelight again by writing his own musical version. I suppose with me it’s just a case of “Once bitten, twice shy.”