by Niki Valentine, author of The Haunted (pub Little, Brown)
In the 1980s, purely by accident, I caught a film on TV that would come to be a big influence on my thoughts about the horror genre. It was over twenty years old, and called The Innocents. It’s a miracle, in many ways, that I watched it at all. A teenager at the time, I was usually turned off by old films and their poorer production values and would switch channels. But something about this one held my attention.
It was an interesting time for the horror movie. There was a lot of it about and all the cool kids I knew were into the slasher flicks and screamer movies, like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday 13th. Personally, though, these films left me cold, and not because I found them chilling. I just couldn’t believe in them. Perhaps that’s why so many people liked them; it was a safe way to play in the darkness without ever, really, feeling like any of it could happen to you. For me, though, they felt so far from real life, such a remove from the reality of how the supernatural actually plays out, that I couldn’t take them seriously. The blood and gore came to be cartoonish in nature, glaringly the stage make up that it actually was.
So The Innocents was a revelation. It was totally realist in tone and played in territory that I found truly disturbing. A governess installed in an old house to look after two disturbed children sees odd goings on, ghosts perhaps, and is driven mad by them. Except that it’s never really clear that she isn’t mad in the first place. For the first time I remember, I was truly chilled by what I was watching. I saw that it was based on a book by Henry James and so I got it from the library.
What I loved (and still do) about The Turn of the Screw was how real it felt. Here, at last, was a ghost story that I could believe in. I wasn’t a total sceptic about the supernatural, I never have been, and I’d had some unusual experiences of my own that made me feel there was more to life than what we see on the surface. At the same time, I found I couldn’t believe in the overt depictions of ghosts and monsters that I saw on the TV or read about in more typical horror novels. This story tallied with what I saw around me. It touched on the darkness I felt and connected with, but in a way I could accept as reality.
I do love literary fiction, at least, some of it, and so it was reasonably natural for me to approach this genre as a writer. Ultimately, though, I was always drawn to the otherworldly; it was something that played out very subtly, almost in the background in my literary books. It became obvious to me that horror was a genre I wanted to write. At the same time, I knew I had to write stories I felt could actually happen. I needed the ambiguity of psychology in my horror, or it wouldn’t work for me. You can’t write a story that you don’t believe in yourself.
My books are thrillers and they are psychological horror. They live in the grey area where the supernatural plays out in our lives. After all, it’s rarely a shared experience. It’s rarely a clear experience, at that. It gives us whispers and voices of loved ones at strange moments. It sends dreams that seem to be telling us something. We feel the bristle of another presence in an empty room. Those close to death find themselves floating above their bodies and then gliding down a tunnel. Science and psychology strive to explain these experiences. Hiccups in consciousness due to the beginning of brain death, sensitivity to electric fields, there are all sorts of logical explanations. But I suspect that even the hardest of sceptics has moments of doubt. And I also think sceptics prefer not to believe, that it makes them feel safer, and that they often cling to their disbelief in the same way that others do to their religion.
I don’t know whether the paranormal is something real. I suspect that there’s more to life than science can (currently) explain but I can’t be certain. What I am sure about, though, is that there’s nothing stranger than our brains and our consciousness. As anyone who’s been on an acid trip will confirm, reality is not nearly as solid as we perceive it to be. Whether there are more things in Heaven and Earth than in our science books remains to be seen, but there are infinite possibilities inside of each one of us. Anything we can imagine.