Horror in the age of e-mail

Img00117-20100329-1142

The age of the letter, so it has been said, is dead.

In a new era of instantaneous communication, the very idea of regularly committing pen to paper seems archaic. Indeed, it almost seems… contrary.

Such is the process of crafting a letter that they encourage the writer to employ both brevity and depth – too short and they become meaningless, too long and they become a chore. This is the antithesis of modern interaction – quality over quantity, so to speak.

And what will be the historical archives of the future? A portable hard drive? A memory stick? A letter can be kept as a reminder or memento, books of letters by famous writers or celebrities regularly appear. But could we ever see the same with e-mails?

The Victorians liked their letters. For them, they were akin to diaries or journals and carried with them the whiff of direct experience, strong emotions, personal contact. Bram Stoker used such a device to craft his throbbing ode to subsumed passion, Dracula, and it’s a method that the horror genre has exploited ever since – many of HP Lovecraft’s stories sound like hastily dashed off missives, written with a shaking, terrified hand.

So it’s nice to find that reports of the death of letters in the electronic age have greatly exaggerated…

John Reppion’s pamphlet-sized chiller On The Banks of the River Jordan shows why. Written as a series of e-mails between the author and an Irish researcher, it is set in the Victorian park on whose edge Reppion now lives. At only a handful of pages long, further details would be spoilerific, but the claustrophobic fog, the mewling horror in the surrounding dark parkland, the writer’s mind at first seemingly tricked by his esoteric researches: On The Banks of the River Jordan neatly uses the same air of personal experience – indeed, personal terror – that marked out late-19th Century gothic horror.

Having purchased it along with his ‘Haunted Liverpool’ book – and having visited the park several times when I lived in Liverpool – one can clearly guess the inspiration behind such a classic short horror story in the Lovecraftian tradition.

Highly recommended.
——————

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Horror in the age of e-mail

Img00117-20100329-1142

The age of the letter, so it has been said, is dead.

In a new era of instantaneous communication, the very idea of regularly committing pen to paper seems archaic. Indeed, it almost seems… contrary.

Such is the process of crafting a letter that they encourage the writer to employ both brevity and depth – too short and they become meaningless, too long and they become a chore. This is the antithesis of modern interaction – quality over quantity, so to speak.

And what will be the historical archives of the future? A portable hard drive? A memory stick? A letter can be kept as a reminder or memento, books of letters by famous writers or celebrities regularly appear. But could we ever see the same with e-mails?

The Victorians liked their letters. For them, they were akin to diaries or journals and carried with them the whiff of direct experience, strong emotions, personal contact. Bram Stoker used such a device to craft his throbbing ode to subsumed passion, Dracula, and it’s a method that the horror genre has exploited ever since – many of HP Lovecraft’s stories sound like hastily dashed off missives, written with a shaking, terrified hand.

So it’s nice to find that reports of the death of letters in the electronic age have greatly exaggerated…

John Reppion’s pamphlet-sized chiller On The Banks of the River Jordan shows why. Written as a series of e-mails between the author and an Irish researcher, it is set in the Victorian park on whose edge Reppion now lives. At only a handful of pages long, further details would be spoilerific, but the claustrophobic fog, the mewling horror in the surrounding dark parkland, the writer’s mind at first seemingly tricked by his esoteric researches: On The Banks of the River Jordan neatly uses the same air of personal experience – indeed, personal terror – that marked out late-19th Century gothic horror.

Having purchased it along with his ‘Haunted Liverpool’ book – and having visited the park several times when I lived in Liverpool – one can clearly guess the inspiration behind such a classic short horror story in the Lovecraftian tradition.

Highly recommended.
——————

So farewell, Johnny Hicklenton…

Johnny Hicklenton was that rare thing in comics – a man who could still shock, even when he wasn’t trying.

Even after a career of drawing grotesque, devious and downright evil-lookin’ art that managed to cleave the audience of 2000 AD down the centre, Johnny still had a couple of shocks up his sleeve.

Firstly, he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. Secondly, he faced it down and refused to let it beat or intimidate him.

But the biggest shock, is the fact that he died last week.

Born in Guildford, thanks to night school lessons he passed his Art A-Level early in 1984 at the age of 16 before working in a garage, an office and a bingo hall bar while producing a portfolio. He ended up working on Nemesis the Warlock for 2000 AD, in which Pat Mills’ warped writing met Johnny’s insane artwork. It was a shock then and still is now – how many so-called ‘shocking’ artists can say that about their work 25 years on? My favourite was his Black Widow story for the Megazine – there was something even more disturbing, so shocking sensual and intense about his work when it was so garishly coloured. His return to the Meg a few years ago was not treated kindly, which is a real shame when he himself was so positive and happy about it. I hope his passing at the very least provokes a re-evaluation of what was a brave, stunning and utterly unique career.

I interviewed Johnny in late 2007 for the Judge Dredd Megazine. He was a thoroughly nice guy – good to talk to, open to difficult questions, interested in what I had to say about his work. For such a pleasant, open, positive guy to create work that, even when he was trying, was often difficult to look created a curious contrast that was really fun to encounter and even more fun to write about. It remains the one thing I’m most proud I wrote.

We didn’t discuss his MS. I’d like to tell you that this is because he wanted the article to be about his work, rather than his illness. I’d be lying. He just never mentioned it. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t. Because then the feature was just about his artwork, and why he produced these amazing images that divided and provoked in equal measure.

We meandered off the subject quite a bit, talked about reporting, him asking me why I did what I do, discussing the nature of revenge and retribution. He offered to draw a cover for the magazine I produce, The End is Nigh, but it never came to be. That’s my real regret – he sounded like he would have enjoyed it.

After we had talked, he sent me an image he said had been inspired by our chat. I really don’t recall it straying into such odd territory, and it still freaks me out now. But I think it shows how his imagination worked, his own particular take on reality. I’ve enclosed it below.

So long, Johnny. I’ll leave the last word to you…

‘I really think it’s very important to me that I meet my own standards, but those standards have been raised by the readers. At the end of the day we can all be those two Muppets who sat in the theatre box and shouted at everything, but always you’ve got to check yourself because you can get so convinced that you’re doing the right thing and start taking a long and comfortable walk up your own rectum, and I never want to do that.

‘Now I’ve got the most beautiful wife, a beautiful life, I love drawing Dredd and have wonderful people around me – I ain’t going anywhere.’

 

PAEDOTINE 100dpi gray.psd
Download this file

So farewell, Johnny Hicklenton…

Johnny Hicklenton was that rare thing in comics – a man who could still shock, even when he wasn’t trying.

Even after a career of drawing grotesque, devious and downright evil-lookin’ art that managed to cleave the audience of 2000 AD down the centre, Johnny still had a couple of shocks up his sleeve.

Firstly, he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. Secondly, he faced it down and refused to let it beat or intimidate him.

But the biggest shock, is the fact that he died last week.

Born in Guildford, thanks to night school lessons he passed his Art A-Level early in 1984 at the age of 16 before working in a garage, an office and a bingo hall bar while producing a portfolio. He ended up working on Nemesis the Warlock for 2000 AD, in which Pat Mills’ warped writing met Johnny’s insane artwork. It was a shock then and still is now – how many so-called ‘shocking’ artists can say that about their work 25 years on? My favourite was his Black Widow story for the Megazine – there was something even more disturbing, so shocking sensual and intense about his work when it was so garishly coloured. His return to the Meg a few years ago was not treated kindly, which is a real shame when he himself was so positive and happy about it. I hope his passing at the very least provokes a re-evaluation of what was a brave, stunning and utterly unique career.

I interviewed Johnny in late 2007 for the Judge Dredd Megazine. He was a thoroughly nice guy – good to talk to, open to difficult questions, interested in what I had to say about his work. For such a pleasant, open, positive guy to create work that, even when he was trying, was often difficult to look created a curious contrast that was really fun to encounter and even more fun to write about. It remains the one thing I’m most proud I wrote.

We didn’t discuss his MS. I’d like to tell you that this is because he wanted the article to be about his work, rather than his illness. I’d be lying. He just never mentioned it. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t. Because then the feature was just about his artwork, and why he produced these amazing images that divided and provoked in equal measure.

We meandered off the subject quite a bit, talked about reporting, him asking me why I did what I do, discussing the nature of revenge and retribution. He offered to draw a cover for the magazine I produce, The End is Nigh, but it never came to be. That’s my real regret – he sounded like he would have enjoyed it.

After we had talked, he sent me an image he said had been inspired by our chat. I really don’t recall it straying into such odd territory, and it still freaks me out now. But I think it shows how his imagination worked, his own particular take on reality. I’ve enclosed it below.

So long, Johnny. I’ll leave the last word to you…

‘I really think it’s very important to me that I meet my own standards, but those standards have been raised by the readers. At the end of the day we can all be those two Muppets who sat in the theatre box and shouted at everything, but always you’ve got to check yourself because you can get so convinced that you’re doing the right thing and start taking a long and comfortable walk up your own rectum, and I never want to do that.

‘Now I’ve got the most beautiful wife, a beautiful life, I love drawing Dredd and have wonderful people around me – I ain’t going anywhere.’

 

PAEDOTINE 100dpi gray.psd
Download this file

A lament to the local newspaper

Last year, the Guardian Media Group announced that the offices of local newspapers around Manchester were to be closed for good.

The closures include the Rochdale Observer, the first paper I ever worked on.Straight out of my training course in Liverpool, I spent just under three years trying to keep my head above water as a junior reporter; sometimes failing spectacularly, other times actually managing to serve the community that read my stories.

For decades, this ring of papers around Manchester has helped produce the profit that kept the loss-making Guardian alive. In the view of an accountant, this was their purpose. But it was not the reason why they existed in the first place.

My ‘patch’ was an area called Littleborough and Wardle, two villages nestled against the Pennines that have long skipped back and forth over an ever-changing border with Yorkshire. I was known and referred to locally as ‘their’ reporter and I learnt my trade writing about their jumble sales, their churches, their community meetings and, especially, their efforts to reopen the canal that flowed through the heart of their little town. My patch was just one of six or seven at the paper, each of which filled their own page on the twice-weekly title. I presented the very public face of a small but intensely independent community. By closing down the Rochdale office, the whole town will quickly become a single ‘patch’, with Littleborough and Wardle relegated to a mere part of it. Their residents will no longer have their own voice, no longer will their local newspaper provide them with the kind of news they always wanted – news about them and their community. It will just be about Rochdale, a town as culturally and physically distant from Littleborough as cities like Manchester or Liverpool.

Ironically, it was to Manchester that GMG decided they were centralising all editorial production for these papers. Rochdalians already resented the neighbour in whose shadow they resided, it had taken their shops, their youngsters, their businesses and now it had taken their paper as well. Thousands of people instantly became disenfranchised by the loss of ‘their’ reporter and ‘their’ section in the local rag. And when people become disenfranchised by a newspaper, they stop buying it. And when people stop buying a newspaper, the owners of that newspaper withdraws still further. So it came as no surprise to hear that GMG had washed its hands of the newspaper group it had systematically milked dry and then finally gutted. It was sold to Trinity Mirror for a song.

In 2002, when we discovered that one of our fellow junior reporters was being paid less than the cleaner who cleaned the office, we walked out on strike. I was one of the many young reporters on the picket line in 2002 when GMG management axe-man Mark Dodson came out to talk to us. The specifics of the chat escape me, but it boiled down to an argument of ‘if you won’t do the job for that amount, there are hundreds who will’. Which neatly sums up the attitude of many newspaper owners – your skills as writers, investigators and community reporters are nothing special, they could be done by anybody and we only tolerate editorial because it fits in the space around the money-making adverts.

Eventually, I left the newsroom altogether, taking a job in local authority public relations. Just like many, many former journalists.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those ex-hacks who flew the coop years ago and now gazes back on his career with coloured lenses in his glasses and wants it preserved in the face of change. I know full well that local news has to adapt, I know that newspapers are finding life tough and I’m fully aware that I often hated it at the time. We weren’t particularly bold as a paper, the assumptions that formed its news sense were old and tired, the coverage was parochial to the point of self-obsession. Yet nothing that has or will replace it will match the way that the local paper served that community.

I received the news about Rochdale on my Blackberry, on a bus filled with people reading a free paper or surfing the web on their phones, on my way to my job in local government PR – times change, of course newspapers have to change with them.

But not like this. This isn’t change. It’s butchery.
——————

A lament to the local newspaper

Last year, the Guardian Media Group announced that the offices of local newspapers around Manchester were to be closed for good.

The closures include the Rochdale Observer, the first paper I ever worked on.Straight out of my training course in Liverpool, I spent just under three years trying to keep my head above water as a junior reporter; sometimes failing spectacularly, other times actually managing to serve the community that read my stories.

For decades, this ring of papers around Manchester has helped produce the profit that kept the loss-making Guardian alive. In the view of an accountant, this was their purpose. But it was not the reason why they existed in the first place.

My ‘patch’ was an area called Littleborough and Wardle, two villages nestled against the Pennines that have long skipped back and forth over an ever-changing border with Yorkshire. I was known and referred to locally as ‘their’ reporter and I learnt my trade writing about their jumble sales, their churches, their community meetings and, especially, their efforts to reopen the canal that flowed through the heart of their little town. My patch was just one of six or seven at the paper, each of which filled their own page on the twice-weekly title. I presented the very public face of a small but intensely independent community. By closing down the Rochdale office, the whole town will quickly become a single ‘patch’, with Littleborough and Wardle relegated to a mere part of it. Their residents will no longer have their own voice, no longer will their local newspaper provide them with the kind of news they always wanted – news about them and their community. It will just be about Rochdale, a town as culturally and physically distant from Littleborough as cities like Manchester or Liverpool.

Ironically, it was to Manchester that GMG decided they were centralising all editorial production for these papers. Rochdalians already resented the neighbour in whose shadow they resided, it had taken their shops, their youngsters, their businesses and now it had taken their paper as well. Thousands of people instantly became disenfranchised by the loss of ‘their’ reporter and ‘their’ section in the local rag. And when people become disenfranchised by a newspaper, they stop buying it. And when people stop buying a newspaper, the owners of that newspaper withdraws still further. So it came as no surprise to hear that GMG had washed its hands of the newspaper group it had systematically milked dry and then finally gutted. It was sold to Trinity Mirror for a song.

In 2002, when we discovered that one of our fellow junior reporters was being paid less than the cleaner who cleaned the office, we walked out on strike. I was one of the many young reporters on the picket line in 2002 when GMG management axe-man Mark Dodson came out to talk to us. The specifics of the chat escape me, but it boiled down to an argument of ‘if you won’t do the job for that amount, there are hundreds who will’. Which neatly sums up the attitude of many newspaper owners – your skills as writers, investigators and community reporters are nothing special, they could be done by anybody and we only tolerate editorial because it fits in the space around the money-making adverts.

Eventually, I left the newsroom altogether, taking a job in local authority public relations. Just like many, many former journalists.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those ex-hacks who flew the coop years ago and now gazes back on his career with coloured lenses in his glasses and wants it preserved in the face of change. I know full well that local news has to adapt, I know that newspapers are finding life tough and I’m fully aware that I often hated it at the time. We weren’t particularly bold as a paper, the assumptions that formed its news sense were old and tired, the coverage was parochial to the point of self-obsession. Yet nothing that has or will replace it will match the way that the local paper served that community.

I received the news about Rochdale on my Blackberry, on a bus filled with people reading a free paper or surfing the web on their phones, on my way to my job in local government PR – times change, of course newspapers have to change with them.

But not like this. This isn’t change. It’s butchery.
——————

The sound of geography

“I’ve walked all the way from south of the river.”
I love the sound of geography.
The language of directions not just by means of street names, shops and pubs, but of bridges, hills, rivers and ginnels gives me a strangely warm sense of satisfaction. Before our cities became pulsing vein-systems of traffic, geography was still important to people. You can hear it in place names, descriptions becoming appellations and history embeds itself in the landscape.
In Leeds the voices of the past are everywhere: Briggate (bridge street), Kirkgate (church street), Cavalier Hill (where Royalist forces in the English Civil War bombarded the then-town centre), Park Row (which skirted the edge of parkland)…
Having moved so much throughout my life I’ve never been as knowledgeable about an area as someone who’s lived there their entire life. Places have merely been locations, background scenes for whatever is going on in my life rather than being an intrinsic part of it or influencing it.
Although I was born here and am officially a ‘Loiner’ – someone born in the city centre – I left when I was a child. I’ve been back for almost eight years now. Longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. Yet long enough for me to start feeling as if I know the place better, and have begun to properly thinking of it as its constituent parts, rather than as a homogenous whole. For me now, it’s not just ‘Leeds city centre’, it’s Briggate, Headrow, Mabgate, Boar Lane, Water Street and Neville Street. Each one as separate as the other.
And I have history to thank for that.
I know that in 1643, hordes of Roundheads streamed up Briggate and overran a 12-foot-high barricade that ran from St John’s Church to the waterfront, expelling the Royalists from what is now the main shopping district. I know that The Calls was originally a path through the gardens of the houses on Kirkgate. I know that in the boundary wall of the Parish Church, there’s an ancient stone that marks where Leeds stopped and the influence of York began. I know that Vikings used to meet at Headingley, that most of the houses in Meanwood are built on old quarries from which the stone for most of the old buildings in the city came from. I know that the Kirkstall road once went straight through the nave of the derelict abbey. I know that Leeds once had three railway stations.
And I know that the city itself, despites centuries of redevelopment and regeneration, is still based on medieval layout of the medieval town.
So I love the sound of talking about the city in ways that aren’t just street names. The river is a case in point – not exactly on the scale of the Thames it still divided the city in two. To the south, endless chimneys and streets filled with mills. To the north, the civic quarter and the main shops. Briggate, which has always been at the heart of the city, has always been a den of villany; the covered alleys – known as ginnels or Low Ins – that riddled its buildings still survive in the ginnel pubs The Angel, The Ship, The Packhorse and Whitelocks, but minus the abattoirs, brothels and gin shops that once hid there.
It makes me feel grounded to refer to these landmarks, remarkable not just for their history but for the way they have kept their identity in the face of centuries of change. Leeds reaped the rewards of development but mercifully escaped the same arrogant 1960s contempt for the past that decimated the centres of Manchester, Bradford and Liverpool.
This city’s face may seem to have changed, but its voice is still that of the past. You just have to listen, and to repeat the way it talks about itself.

The sound of geography

“I’ve walked all the way from south of the river.”
I love the sound of geography.
The language of directions not just by means of street names, shops and pubs, but of bridges, hills, rivers and ginnels gives me a strangely warm sense of satisfaction. Before our cities became pulsing vein-systems of traffic, geography was still important to people. You can hear it in place names, descriptions becoming appellations and history embeds itself in the landscape.
In Leeds the voices of the past are everywhere: Briggate (bridge street), Kirkgate (church street), Cavalier Hill (where Royalist forces in the English Civil War bombarded the then-town centre), Park Row (which skirted the edge of parkland)…
Having moved so much throughout my life I’ve never been as knowledgeable about an area as someone who’s lived there their entire life. Places have merely been locations, background scenes for whatever is going on in my life rather than being an intrinsic part of it or influencing it.
Although I was born here and am officially a ‘Loiner’ – someone born in the city centre – I left when I was a child. I’ve been back for almost eight years now. Longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere. Yet long enough for me to start feeling as if I know the place better, and have begun to properly thinking of it as its constituent parts, rather than as a homogenous whole. For me now, it’s not just ‘Leeds city centre’, it’s Briggate, Headrow, Mabgate, Boar Lane, Water Street and Neville Street. Each one as separate as the other.
And I have history to thank for that.
I know that in 1643, hordes of Roundheads streamed up Briggate and overran a 12-foot-high barricade that ran from St John’s Church to the waterfront, expelling the Royalists from what is now the main shopping district. I know that The Calls was originally a path through the gardens of the houses on Kirkgate. I know that in the boundary wall of the Parish Church, there’s an ancient stone that marks where Leeds stopped and the influence of York began. I know that Vikings used to meet at Headingley, that most of the houses in Meanwood are built on old quarries from which the stone for most of the old buildings in the city came from. I know that the Kirkstall road once went straight through the nave of the derelict abbey. I know that Leeds once had three railway stations.
And I know that the city itself, despites centuries of redevelopment and regeneration, is still based on medieval layout of the medieval town.
So I love the sound of talking about the city in ways that aren’t just street names. The river is a case in point – not exactly on the scale of the Thames it still divided the city in two. To the south, endless chimneys and streets filled with mills. To the north, the civic quarter and the main shops. Briggate, which has always been at the heart of the city, has always been a den of villany; the covered alleys – known as ginnels or Low Ins – that riddled its buildings still survive in the ginnel pubs The Angel, The Ship, The Packhorse and Whitelocks, but minus the abattoirs, brothels and gin shops that once hid there.
It makes me feel grounded to refer to these landmarks, remarkable not just for their history but for the way they have kept their identity in the face of centuries of change. Leeds reaped the rewards of development but mercifully escaped the same arrogant 1960s contempt for the past that decimated the centres of Manchester, Bradford and Liverpool.
This city’s face may seem to have changed, but its voice is still that of the past. You just have to listen, and to repeat the way it talks about itself.