Short Story: Even The Most Shunned Of Things (2022)

This time last year, I had huge amounts of fun producing a series of self-portraits that lent heavily into the tricking and treating of Halloween. Entitled The Children Of The Night, they emulated old horror movies and the paperback covers of my youth and originally produced for The Kick-About No.39. I’m much too old to actually do Halloween in any meaningful way, but I couldn’t let the occasion pass on here without some acknowledgment of a creative kind, so I do have a creepy little something for you in advance of the 31st. Last seen here, I just happened to have a hand-sewn mask hanging around the house, so spent some fruitful time yesterday hanging out in a clothes cupboard, and the words followed swiftly after. Happy Halloween!

You’ll find a PDF version here.

The Kick-About #65 ‘Cimetière du Père Lachaise’

From the noise and extravagance of our soundsuit-inspired Kick-About No.64, we’re striking a more melancholy mood this week, as we meander our way past the silent crypts, effigies and monuments of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. With All Hallows Eve but a few short days away, what better time to ruminate on the gossamer veil between the living and the dead…

Tom Beg

Wherever you go in Japan you are never too far away from an encounter with the various spirits, ghosts, symbols, and gods that are guardians of the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines you can find in nearly every neighbourhood. Luckily for me they are all quite wonderfully visual and emotive, often sporting an unintentionally sinister and stony (pun intended!) smile, weathered by years of exposure to the natural elements. Layering on some murky fog and lighting effects made for some suitably eerie imagery! / /

Phil Cooper

“I’ve never been to the Père Lachaise cemetery but I feel like I know it well from countless gothic horror films and TV shows I’ve watched over the years; it looks like it should have Vincent Price’s evil laughter piped through the mournful paths and mouldering mausoleums. So, my contribution this week is a death-themed image – well it is Halloween this week! I have a big box of old children’s building blocks in the basement I used for a project a few years ago. For my Kick-About contribution this week, I made a bridge construction crossing an imagined River Styx – from the light over to the dark of the Underworld… (cue Mr. Price again).” / /

Graeme Daly

“Lately, I have been absorbing a lot of German expressionism in my own work, the monochromatic shapely designs of the set dressings are unparalleled and always leave me wanting more. With that in mind, I wanted to do some black and white angular paintings inspired by German expressionism.”

@graemedalyart / / / /

Charly Skilling

“When I was in my early teens, a group of us from the church youth club used to go once a week to visit old folk living alone in local sheltered housing.  We would go in pairs and  would be assigned people to visit.  My friend Jan and I  used to visit Mrs Munday, the sweetest, apple-cheeked, white-haired little old lady you could ever wish for. She was in her late eighties, and of course, the inevitable happened.  One day, we had a message from the warden to say that Mrs Munday had died, was due to be buried the following Friday, and would Jan and I like to attend the funeral?  Though neither of us had been to a funeral before, we thought we should go   

We turned up at the local cemetery at the appointed hour, dressed in our soberest clothing.  It was early January, bitterly cold, and tipping down with rain.  The warden was there to meet us and led the way through the main part of the cemetery, up the hill where the graves were less closely packed and much less decorated, to a  distant corner up on the brow of the hill.  As we walked the warden explained that Mrs Munday had had no family and no savings.  It would therefore be a pauper’s funeral, paid for by the council, the burial rites to be carried out by an officer of the Salvation Army.  The burial itself would be carried out by the single undertaker and the cemetery groundsman.  She had asked Jan and I to attend as she knew of no one else Mrs Munday had any social contact with.

I tell you now, it felt Dickensian.  It was wet, it was cold, the wind blew the rain in our faces. The Salvation Army guy did his best, but I couldn’t blame him for rattling through the service at some speed. The undertaker and the groundsman lowered the coffin into the grave, then stretched a tarpaulin over the gaping hole, and with a nod to the other attendees and a hurried  goodbye, everyone scurried away to  get dry, warm and on with their lives.

Since that day I have attended many more funerals, of people I have known and loved a great deal better than I did Mrs Munday, but none of them has left me feeling quite as desolate as that first funeral did. I have often thought about that day and wondered why it matters so much that people should be mourned.  After all, the dead person is not going to lose any sleep over attendance figures. Does it matter if no one remembers us?  I think most people would say “Yes!”

So whenever I find myself in a graveyard – not an everyday occurrence, but a frequent side event of visiting churches,  historic sites etc. – I always spare a thought for the mounds with no headstones, no monumental masonry.  And sometimes, as I walk around the older pathways, where the grass grows a little longer, I come across a piece of broken masonry, a fallen headstone, a shard of sculpture – and I stop to look. Because I might not know which grave they belong to, or the name of the person buried there,  but someone, sometime, cared enough to want them remembered. And so I think of all the Mrs. Mundays, throughout the ages, who seemed to have no one to remember them, but lived a life amongst us and left as quietly as they came.”

“A few weeks ago, my Beloved and I spent an afternoon mucking about making a plaster cast of our clasped hands. To be honest, it wasn’t a roaring success – somebody had difficulty with the instruction to “Just Keep STILL”), but it didn’t feel right to just bin the finished object.  So it sat on a shelf for a while.  And then this Kick-About came along, so I dusted it off, painted it with rather fusty yoghurt and rubbed dirt all over it… “

Gary Thorne

“I have not forgotten the impression Père Lachaise cemetery made upon me in the early 80s, it being an extraordinary place. Late 90’s, straddling a motorbike and touring Normandy, our adventure included regional cemeteries, which are fascinating too. Upon return, this drawing at 58cm x 78cm was produced, which since has been face to the wall. Thanks to the KA prompt, I’m revisiting this puzzling representation.”

Claire-Beth Gibson

“I suddenly remembered my idea this morning – and the fact I had not actually made it – so I rustled this up whilst still in my dressing gown. Cemeteries gross me out and my experiences have been grotesque and disorientating. I’ve lost two loved ones to the cold empty box of the same French grave. The absurdity of putting bodies into boxes into little stone houses. A conveyor belt of bodies. Trapped in boxes. In stone houses. The voice says: Dans une boîte / Perimé / Tous ensemble / Détaché : In a box / Expired / All together / Detached.”

@claire_beth_claire / /

Vanessa Clegg

“I was reading an article about the proliferation of certain butterflies this year, particularly in graveyards. They think this is due to the policy of leaving areas wild and untended, allowing a more sympathetic environment for wildlife… With this in mind, I decided to create a ghostly mutant using a butterfly and the tiny skull of a vole (I think?) taken from an owl pellet. That clear wobbly call of the tawny owl being echoed and answered through the woods is both spine chilling and comforting, depending where you are, i.e. in bed! I like the idea of strange, unnatural creatures haunting the tombs… an uncharted world that ends at the gates.” Cyanotype. Butterfly and skull.

Phil Gomm

“Our kitchen has an angled glass roof running the length of our side-return. Internally, it’s constructed so there is a narrow ledge at the top of the wall, on which the glass panels rest, producing a series of impossible-to-clean compartments. These same compartments are where too many be-winged things go to die during the summer months, as they first fly into the kitchen and then up towards the glass roof in a fateful bid for freedom. We rescue as many as we can, but not every butterfly and bumble bee is as lucky. So it is we have something of an insect necropolis this short distance above our breakfast table, and while it’s true I pressed their exquisite remains into the chalky embrace of some filler for the occasion of this Kick-About, no living bee or butterfly was harmed in the process.”

James Randall

Please indulge my mind bouncing from Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – home to Jim Morrison –  to Riders on the Storm, to a long country road trip, to a series of photos I took while driving past a huge truck – long vehicle as it was labeled. I combined them with a few cemetery, landscape, texture and other photos I had taken and featured the colour red. I ended up placing the 15 truck photos over 5 images and encased each image in a frame composed of chopped up gothic letter forms. I’ll let you come up with a narrative for the images, but I don’t want a ride from that truck driver (do you remember the old movie Duel?).

Kerfe Roig

“There were so many interesting graves and memorials. I spent a long time looking at them and reading about the people buried there.  But I kept coming back to the Holocaust Children’s Memorial designed by sculptor, Casto Solano.  Children who were not lucky enough to have graves with gravestones. I did two watercolors and embroidered similar figures to Solano’s metal outlines over them.  Before I was finished embroidering, I took one of them and taped it to the window, photographing it with the light shining through the needle holes.  None of the photos of the entire painting showed the pinpricks of light very well, but two of the close ups got the effect I was looking for.”

star children

stardust embodied–
matter merely a vessel
for luminous spirit–
did you find what was lost?

the spiraling center
returned to elemental form–
in life but not of it–
stardust embodied

opening into dreamtime,
orbiting the moon,
spinning to the fartheset away–
matter merely a vessel

empty spaces crossing
infinite galaxies–
wings sailing oceans
of luminous spirit

a welcoming heart, a gentle touch,
warm arms to enclose you
in peaceful sleep–
did you find what was lost? /

When I was a child, the first few days of November always associated with Vesuvius – not the actual eruption that laid waste to Pompeii, but the rather rubbishy conical firework that often laid waste to my giddy expectations of giant sparks and shooting colour… and so, for your consideration and inspiration over these coming days, Turner’s 1817 painting, Mount Vesuvius in Eruption. Boom!

The Children Of The Night Part 3 (2021)

Another selection of pages from my super-seasonal ‘Portfolio of Horrors’, produced in response to The Kick-About No.39, with an utterance by Count Dracula at its dark little heart.

In common with previous images, these are all self-portraits executed via a webcam struggling with low-lighting conditions, and styled after half-remembered moments from creaky old horror films, lurid short stories, and other rich sources of ‘kinder-trauma’.

The Children Of The Night Part 2 (2021)

A second macabre collection of self-portraits from my ‘Portfolio of Horrors’ project, produced in response to The Kick-About No.39. Some of the transformations in this set really make me smile (though that’s not the intended effect on the audience!), because they happened so simply. I don’t know what it says about the specific configuration of my features, but the ‘Count Orlok‘ portrait, with those heavy-lidded eyes and hooked nose, is just my face and nothing more than that. Likewise, the topmost image, which is wonderfully strange, like some stunted, fetal imp, is also just ‘my face’.

The transformations of shadow, aided and abetted by the low-resolution textures of my rubbish webcam, are rather thrilling. They play to that universal childhood experience of discovering how even the most familiar things in our bedrooms can persecute us with their otherness after the lights go out. When I saw the results of the ‘imp’ image, I was strongly reminded of an episode from the 1976 television series, Beasts, about a newly married couple finding some strange dead creature bricked into the walls of their cottage, an idea I promptly nicked for the caption.

The Children Of The Night Part 1 (2021)

Originally, I was going to write a short story by way of a response to The Kick-About No.39, and I even got as far as committing to a rough outline, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak, and I couldn’t make it happen in time. The prompt comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the count is talking about the baying of the wolves beneath the moon, but I was never truly scared by vampires and the like. This was due in part to my fascination with the nuts and bolts of horror – its trappings, its effects, and its preoccupations.

The early horror actor Lon Chaney, was known as the man with a 1000 faces, on account of the ways he transformed his face for his performances in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). Inspired by Chaney’s lo-fi monsters and the lurid short stories of the Pan Book Of Horror, I set about producing a series of self-portraits.

The way in which the resulting images were produced involved conscious use of my webcam, as opposed to my digital camera, courting the particular effects of low-light levels and low-resolution. I was going for something nostalgic, what it was like as a small boy catching glimpses of disturbing things on small, poorly-tuned black and white televisions.

I wrote the captions to further enrich these imaginary moments, ranging across a host of hoary old tropes and cliches familiar to me from those wondrous and tawdry Pan Books of Horror and countless old movies. That said, for all my obvious enjoyment in producing these portraits, one or two did leave me glancing uneasily over my shoulder…

The Kick-About #39 ‘The Children Of The Night’

Our last Kick-About together was kicked-off by the cut-outs of Henri Matisse, and specifically his White Alga on Orange and Red from 1947. Inspired by one of Matisse’s less well-known cut-outs, regular Kick-Abouter, Kerfe Roig, treated us to something with touch of Halloween about it – a trio of rather dashing devil masks, and a foretaste of this week’s showcase. With dialogue uttered by Dracula himself as our starting point, it’s little wonder things have taken a spookier turn…

James Randall

“One of those Kick-Abouts that seemed to have a life of its own. The colours were fun to try to control.” 

Vanessa Clegg

“Based on childhood nightmares this is a painting I did a while ago but by re-photographing the unmounted slide, it could become a still from a seriously spooky film…make up your own narrative!”

“All I can say is that it’s a classic thriller/horror trick of dark shadows, tangled forest, mounting soundtrack, being lost, sense of being watched… Whaaaaaa!”

Graeme Daly

“Some painted over photographs from a forgotten forest in Ireland. Inspired by the stagnant stillness of nature in the night, where no street lights are seen, and only the little tufts of smoke from chimney spouts signify life. The thick fog and heavy mist hiding and shielding much of what you should see, like a visceral view of brain fog. But still, our imaginations would always be lit, ablaze.”

@graemedalyart / / / /

Tom Beg

“Without knowing where the quote for this week’s came from my mind instantly jumped to Victorian-era gothic fiction and ghostly visions and apparitions. With perhaps the help of some otherworldly spirits guiding me, I got a nice little phantasmagoric effect going in the same kind of magic lantern ad hoc way the horror theaters of old used to employ.” / /

Phil Gomm

The prompt comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the count is talking about the baying of the wolves beneath the moon, but I was never truly scared by vampires and the like. This was due in part to my fascination with the nuts and bolts of horror – its trappings, its effects and its preoccupations. The early horror actor Lon Chaney, was known as the man with a 1000 faces, on account of the ways he transformed his face for his performances in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). Inspired by Chaney’s lo-fi monsters and the lurid short stories of the Pan Book Of Horror, I set about producing a series of self-portraits.

The way in which the resulting images were produced involved conscious use of my webcam, as opposed to my digital camera, courting the particular effects of low-light levels and low-resolution. I was going for something nostalgic, what it was like as a small boy catching glimpses of disturbing things on small, poorly-tuned black and white televisions. I wrote the captions to further enrich these imaginary moments, ranging across a host of hoary old tropes and cliches familiar to me from those wondrous Pan Books of Horror and countless old movies. That said, for all my obvious enjoyment in producing these portraits, one or two even left me glancing uneasily over my shoulder…”

You’ll find a larger PDF here.

Phil Cooper

What a juicy, exciting prompt this week! Children of the Night is such an evocative theme. For my contribution, I’m submitting work I made a few years ago, but it’s something that has never seen the light of day, and I thought this Kick-About prompt was a good occasion to give it an airing.

I’ve written here before about some design work I did for a touring stage production of Hansel and Gretel back in 2018. Working with director Clive Hicks-Jenkins, the overall concept for the staging involved using children’s toys and building blocks to conjure environments and scenery for the action performed by two puppets.

Before we arrived at the final approach, I played around with some other ideas, most of which were discarded once we had nailed the shape of our vision. The idea I’m submitting here focused on the witch’s cottage, traditionally made of sweets to entice the starving children into the witch’s clutches. Simon Armitage had written a wonderful text for the piece that provided a rich, dark re-imagining of the traditional tale, with a contemporary edge to bring the story up to date. One of my earlier ideas for the cottage involved incorporating sweets into the architecture, but to depict the confectionery as rotting and putrefying. The witch in Simon’s tale is a rather desperate creature, half-blind and cack-handed, and she hadn’t kept on top of the window-dressing designed to entrap lost children.

I made a model of two stone gate posts, the entrance to the cottage garden, topped with a couple of rather mouldy-looking liquorice allsorts. The images here include the original sketch from my sketchbook, the models, and some test shots on a table top environment of the witch’s garden. It was all good fun, even if the idea never took off. I did make loads of fake gingerbread cookies, which we used in a filmed animation sequence, so the concept found its way into the production in the end.” / /

Marion Raper

“I find ruined churches and in fact any type of ancient architecture fascinating and love imagining how people lived there and who they were. The fact that when night came and the only light was from candles and fire must have been so scary.  No wonder everyone believed in spirits, ghosts and demons.  Added to that would be the earie sound of wolves howling.  Such clever animals and necessary for the ecosystem. I hear they may even be reintroduced . Hopefully not Dracula as well!”

Kerfe Roig

“I was thinking about this prompt when I found some monoprints in neon colors that I had never finished, being uncertain where to go with them.  I wondered what would happen if I covered them in drips and spatters of spirits and night… And then I wrote something to accompany them.

Children of the Night

There’s a dark path in the forest that reaches not only to the horizon but far up into the stars in the sky.  The contours float, infused inside and out by an endless melody that sings chaos into shimmering pattern.

Where does the story end?  Perhaps it leads to dreams that have been hidden away, to possibilities invisible in the light of day. To once upon a time that becomes here and now.

If you listen – still, silent, boundaried by the night – it’s possible to catch a glimpse of these distant voices. But only a child can find the entrance to this liminal landscape of matter, spirit, and sound.

wonder shines
silvered, transcendent –
opening /

Chris Rutter & Evelyn Bennett

Here is the latest effort. A cut-up poem from the text; ‘Listen To The Music’.” /

And for our next creative prompt…

“The spinning saxon, flying pigeons, polka batteries, jumping jacks and firecrackers, squibs and salutes, Aztec Fountains, Bengal Lights, and Egyptian Circlets, bangers or bungers, cakes, crossettes, candles, and a Japanese design known as kamuro (boys haircut), which looks like a bobbed wig teased out across the stratosphere. . . the language of fireworks has a richness that hints at the explosive payload it references. And yet, anyone who has ever held their camera up to the blazing sky knows that a brilliant firework show can rarely be captured to any satisfying degree. Perhaps this is what makes a nineteenth-century series of catalogue advertisements for Japanese fireworks so mesmerizing: denied the expectations of photorealism, these images are free to evoke a unique sense of visual wonder.”

More here and here and here.

MFT #8 Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is one of my favorite things. Here’s why.

If Halloween was a cake it would be a cake without lashings of chocolate ganache or hidden centres of jelly sweets, or tall strata of sponge in the rainbow colour of unicorns. If Halloween was an item of clothing, it would be something simple, cut sparingly from some all-natural textile. If Halloween was a song, it would have been laid down in the fewest takes possible, with no auto-tune, no vocoder, and no melisma.

The idea of a ‘classy’ slasher film is absurd, as ‘slasher films’ are fundamentally exploitative thrill rides and no better than they should be, but Halloween is, ahem, a cut above the rest.

As I’ve aged, my tolerance for horror cinema has shifted. I could watch any amount of on-screen violence as a Clearasil-dabbed teenager. For the most part, I swerve spectacles of excessive dismemberment now, and a feature of the horror films I’ve come to canonize is they’re largely bloodless affairs.

My other intolerance is for zombies. I’m not talking about actual zombies (though I’ll admit some fatigue with them too). I’m talking about the legions of modern horror films that look and behave like horror films, but are actually hollowed-out meat-puppets, vapid storytelling experiences strung together from carbon copies of other, better examples of the genre. These films are only horror films because the music and the lighting and the violence and the slick marketing are telling us they are. I am fiercely impatient with horror films in which characters walk around in the dark for prolonged periods of time, searching out some jump-scare, some sudden, glitchy walking thing or zooming pale face. These automated suspense-dispensers are to horror what aspartine is to sugar, as if ‘turning off the lights’ is some surefire way of putting the umami into a horror film’s secret sauce.

Of course, Halloween has its fair share of dumb characters walking around in the dark, and I guess we have the extraordinary success of Carpenter’s movie to thank for all the ‘dumb characters walking about in the dark’ that followed it, but Halloween‘s especial powers to frighten derive from its sensitivity, not for shadows, but for daylight. It’s here, in the sunshine, that Halloween makes its move from exploitation flick to the stranger stuff of myth, from cheap-trick to the truly more spookier realm of archetype.

Halloween’s day time scenes look pristine, Haddonfield’s pavements, paths, and big white wooden houses kicking out all this soft matte light, as if the film stock itself has been cut with some fine silvered powder. At other times, the light is honeyed, catching in the hair of Halloween‘s young and beautiful cast, and showing up all those Instagram filters for the synthetic pretenders they are.

If someone were to ask me ‘how I’m doing?’, as my mood pertains to the events of 2020 – and especially the prospect of heading into winter and the shrinking effect of a likely second UK lock-down, I’d likely say I was doing fine. I’d likely say I was prepared for the narrowing, for the darker days to come, and yet, in readiness to write this blogpost, I re-watched Halloween, and something about its onscreen capture of light made me ache. My reaction was due in part to that weird vicarious nostalgia for a time I never lived though and a place I never knew, what you might call the Super 8mm phenomenon, but mostly it was a strong visceral reaction to those moments in Halloween where the film grain holds the setting sun.

But hey, all this poeticism is well and good, but you don’t watch Halloween for the sun-flares. You watch it to be afraid, and while the film’s third act is where you’ll find all the screaming, running, stabbing and falling, this is not for me where the fear lives.

The early sunlit scenes of Halloween are as menacing as anything in horror cinema. These are long, slow shots in which nothing much happens; leaves scud across pavements, a girl in white woollen tights leaves her home, a girl in white woollen tights walks to school; the road is wide, the lawns green, but the overall effect is as if some invisible ether is slowly filling the frame. It certainly looks sunny here and everything looks fine. Everything looks safe. Everything looks normal, but we can’t feel fine, we can’t feel safe, and we know, despite the evidence of our eyes to the contrary, that nothing about this place is normal. There is malice in all this pristine clarity, and this is one of the less trumpeted achievements of Halloween, less trumpeted because it’s none of the ‘scary stuff’ that comes later. These early ‘unremarkable’ scenes produce exquisite feelings of the uncanny – that rarest, most delicate fear. This is the emptied sunlit horror we find in the paintings of De Chirico, it is Halloween‘s mystery and melancholy of the street.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, Giorgio De Chirico, 1914

Halloween isn’t the first horror film to understand the special powers of daylight for producing the conditions for a really good scare. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) establishes the template John Carpenter goes on to deploy for Halloween‘s finest moments of unease – daylight and distance.

While The Innocents takes place in a classical haunted house, with Deborah Kerr’s increasingly harried governess gliding about its rooms at night by candelight, it is the pastoral sunlit scene down by the lake packing the most powerful punch. When the spectre of the previous governess manifests suddenly among the tall reeds, there is only sunlight and stillness, and how it chills.

The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, 1961

Halloween plays this same demure trick three times to increasingly pleasurable effect. Distracted during class, Halloween‘s final girl, Laurie Strode, looks out of her classroom window to see a figure in a white mask watching her from the other side of the road. That we can hear the teacher talking away in the background about the ‘personification of fate’ lays in some of the film’s more metaphysical ambitions. She doesn’t know who this figure might be or what he wants with her. Later, walking home with her friend, Laurie sees the same figure standing at the end of a long run of neat hedging. Once at home, Laurie is in her room upstairs, at which point she sees the figure again, who is this time standing silently among the bright flapping sheets of her washing. No thunder claps, no jump scares, no cheap-tricks, and no ‘lights off’ – just the dreadful pricking of these three small slivers of wrongness.

A few years ago, I was riding in the back of someone’s car, driving past homes in some ordinary place of terraced houses and paved front gardens. It was morning, or it was afternoon, some mundane greyish day. I happened to look out of the window and saw a bare-footed woman walking away from the road up through the narrow gap between two houses. The bare-footed woman had no head. It was daylight. I saw her clearly, if fleetingly – a woman in a long dress, her arms hanging loosely at her side – a woman with no head. I sat bolt upright in my seat, my head whipping around to continue looking, to be certain of what I saw, but more houses slid past and the moment was over. I’m pretty sure the woman did have a head. I think something about the play of light between the two houses and the angle of the woman’s body in relation to my own combined to produce this disturbing effect. Anyway, this is what I tell myself, but just for a moment, I had that appalling jigsaw-feeling, that a piece of the world had been jammed into the fabric of reality the wrong way up – but made somehow to fit.