Today I'm really happy to bring you a Hallowe'en Special - a guest post by my friend and accomplished horror writer, Paul Holbrook. Paul is the author of Memento Mori and Domini Mortum which is currently crowdfunding on Unbound. I highly recommend both of these books if you enjoy horror. Take it away, Paul. Even Killer Clowns Need Some Love
Just recently I have been more than a little disturbed by some stories peppering the internet. Now, I get annoyed by stories on the internet on a daily basis; I am not one for celebrity culture, what the Kardashians do with their meagre if non-existent talent is up to them, whether Brangelina are no more I could not give two hoots about, and who Katy Perry is currently ‘boffing’ does not mean a thing to me. These daily irritations though I have learned to live with; they are a by product of our overshare culture, where everyone supposedly wants more than their allotted 15 minutes, and every child in the western world dreams of having a million YouTube subscribers. I flick through them quickly on my Facebook timeline, unfollow people on Twitter who seem to think that I would be interested in that sort of thing, and generally get a bit arsey when these stories suddenly start to appear on supposedly serious news websites. These are the things that annoy me daily, but they have never really got to me personally before. Unlike this new breed of ‘news’ story.
I am referring, of course, to the recent apparent worldwide scourge of the Killer Clown. This is something that does mean something to me, it is something that has irritated me beyond belief and it is in danger of damaging the very heart of something which I hold very dear.
Bear with me, my friends, while I give you a little background to my ire, some pre-learning to my fury, because I am unashamed to admit that I am Coulrophobic. I have always been a Coulrophobe and will always be one. Every since I can remember I have had a fear of those who have to paint their faces and wear huge shoes to compensate for their self hatred.
One of my earliest memories was a book that I owned when I was in infants school. I had to find this book cover on Google because I don’t own it anymore, and even if I did it would be useless to show you because I defaced the cover by tearing off the offending picture on it. It is not Enid Blyton that I found offensive, although her off-the-cuff racism and subtexted hatred of children are always echoed in the background when I hear her name. No, it was the clown that I found most horrible to look at. I’m not sure exactly what it is that I found so abhorrent and freakishly scary about the picture but, all the same, it unnerves me still.
The book is linked to a part of my childhood, at said infant’s school, in the clown-infested Luton of the early 1970s. You see I hated starting school; I didn’t see the point of it. I spent my first few days of formal education crying at the gates, begging my mum to take me home with her and, eventually, being forcibly dragged in a torrent of tears by school staff to the classroom. It was in these first few days of state endorsed torture that someone had the bright idea of having me keep something from home to make me feel better about spending long hours in the chamber of preadolescent doom. The item was, you guessed it, a copy of a book with one of Enid Blyton’s strawberry nosed, flappy footed, fear monkeys on the cover. Strangely enough it didn’t make me want to stay confined and so, book in hand, I ran away from school and made it most of the half a mile back home before getting lost. As I stood there, utterly alone and with no idea where I was, the clown on the cover of the book smiled up at me, laughing and sneering, obviously revelling in my terror as only an evil clown could. Eventually I was picked up by the authorities. Psychoanalysts (and I have known a few) would probably say that the image on the cover of this book linked to a traumatic childhood memory, probably goes a long way to creating this ‘idea of reference’ towards the cult of the clown, one of the purest examples of transference that could be given in fact. But I think it was just a small piece of my jigsaw of fear.
There was also a story told to me by my father at an early age; of how, as a child, he had once visited a circus in White City, London shortly after the war. Apparently a clown (whose name escapes me now but was probably something clowns like Bozo, Zupo or Mr Fingers) had approached my young Dad in the audience bringing his creepy painted face up close to my Dad’s and saying something along the lines of “Hello, Little Boy!’ In a Mr Punch type voice.
In my mind, when Dad retold this story, there would have been a warm acrid smell of body odour, whisky and regret, you would have seen the stubbly whiskers of the creepy old man poking out from beneath the fear make-up, and his huge white gloved hands would have come dangerously close to the young boy's trembling body (these additions were purely the twisted figments of my mind, but they fed the story and made it all the more scary). It was obviously a nightmarish experience for Dad too, as it scared him so much that he wet himself and he had to be taken home.
When you are a young child and your parents tell you such a horror story it’s going to stick. My Dad has been terrified in the decades since and I have had that fear genetically burrowed under my own skin.
So why, if the thought of clowns sends icy needles down my spine, am I so angry at the current spate of scary clown based phenomena? Surely I should be pleased at the stories of people fighting back, of men in Carlisle dressed as Batman chasing the white-faced happy killers away, of those people who think it funny to stand outside a school dressed as Ronald McDonald’s funny cousin, and even of the tearful tales of so called ‘real’ clowns, who are losing their livelihoods because people are so scared of them. This upsurge in hatred and resentment of these permanently grinning buffoons, and the calls for their extinction, should make me happy, shouldn’t it? And why, if I hate them so much, should this piece be called ‘In Defence of the Killer Clown’. Well let me explain.
Skip forwards, from my infant school terrors, some eleven years. I am now a geeky sixteen year old, still afraid of clowns and, to be quite honest, afraid of the world in general, and what it has in store for me. What I have however are my books, I love reading and inhale books at an alarming rate, any will do.
It is September time and I have just started sixth form, (after imploding during my exams, failing every one, and being accepted on the only course that they would let me do). Over that past year I had discovered Stephen King, but had not really been that impressed, despite my friends telling me that he was the author to read. I wasn’t totally convinced, although I had read and enjoyed Salem’s Lot after staying up late to watch the excellent TV version with David Soul and James Mason. King had brought out a new book though; a book about a clown that killed children.
My first thought was to ignore and not acknowledge the existence of the book whatsoever. If I didn’t know about it or read about it then it couldn’t hurt me. But after weeks of hounding by my friends all of whom had read the book, I gave in and took in those first few pages.
‘And George saw the clown’s face change. What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke.’
I did not, however, hurl the book across the room, I did not lose my sanity and check myself into the nearest secure establishment for fear of the smiling killers. I read on. I read on through the night and over the next week got lost within the story. I have read the book a few times, since that first time, and it never loses its power for me. But how could I do this? How could one of my favourite books contain the thing that I fear the most? Well, I think that there are a few answers to that question. Firstly it’s a great book, the stories within the stories stay within my memory, narratives interlinking with other narratives, little scenes and King’s meanders off-tangent that are as much part of what I love about the book as the main story, maybe more so.
Secondly there were the sections of the book concerned with ‘The Loser Club’ a collection of misfit children which made up the heroes of the story. These sections, set in 1958 are my favourite parts, the book could have just included this story and I would have been more than happy.
But finally it is the clown. It is Pennywise the dancing clown or Bob Gray as I generally referred to him as, because it took away from the thought of a big shoes smiling monster. Pennywise was funny, he had all the best lines in the book and he did his job, scaring people. When I think of ‘old Bob Gray’ it is with a smile. I loved the book because King had caught on to what it meant to be afraid as a kid, for me anyway. He had perfectly identified the feelings of fear that I had as a child, whether it be being left at school by myself, or when I was older that fear of the future, that fear of the unknown, of not knowing what that brutal world has in store for you after school. It struck a nerve with me and the ‘clown’ element was the crucial part.
So when I see that people are dressing up as a clown, standing at the side of the road and trying to scare people (for a laugh) I get angry because they are ridiculing my childhood fears. I know that it’s just some eejit with a clown suit, a YouTube account, and a desperate need to be famous; its not Pennywise, not something to really be scared of, and that is why I am standing up for Killer Clowns, the real ones that eat children and laugh while they’re doing it. Leave them alone, don’t try to be one, you can’t, and by doing what you're doing your making the killer clown a figure of fun, something to laugh at and to not be afraid of. Because when you bring something out into the light, where everyone can see it, there’s nothing to be afraid of any more – and I want to be afraid.
You see I believe that we need our fears; they keep us alive, on edge and wary of what is coming. A person with no fear is soon to be a dead person; that much I know from watching countless horror movies over the years.
As someone who enjoys writing horror stories, fear is my aim, my bread and butter, it is what I strive for when I sit at a laptop and start to let my mind loose with a story. Because people want that fear, they like to feel that tingle on their neck, that unnerving feeling of uncomfortableness when they are reading something that scares them. It’s what they read the stories for.
And so when someone tells me that I frightened them with one of my stories, I am happy, a large smile spreads across my face - as broad as a clown’s in fact.