One of the major questions I keep being asked since publishing The Haunted Mansion back in 2014 is, where did all the ideas come from? I guess the easiest answer would be to say I borrowed them, from everything I have ever watched, read or heard. But I think this would be doing me something of a disservice, since it is far more complicated then that. Instead, the books are like giant melting pots, filled with all the things I have absorbed over the years. This bubbling, shapeless mass is then mixed with my own thoughts and opinions, which I then try to mould into something vaguely coherent and readable.
But I am not alone in doing this, everything, from the earliest Batman comic through to Stranger Things or the latest Hollywood blockbuster is influenced by something. Sometimes these influences are explicitly mentioned, but more often than not, they are hidden away like Easter eggs in a computer game. But if you can learn to recognise these hidden gems, they can act as a road map to a whole host of surprising films, books, artists and ideas.
Since I grew up watching B-movies, reading pulp fiction and surrounded by comic books, all these things are reflected in both The Haunted Mansion and The Big Stench.
From the author H.P. Lovecraft through to Lon Chaney Jnr’s The Wolf Man via 2000ad and the stylistic movies of Mario Bava; the amount of material that wormed its way into the first two books of the Charlotte Entwhistle trilogy is huge. At first I thought I should try to remove all these references and write completely isolated from any outside influences, but this was impossible. The books are as much a product of Alex Cox’s Repo Man or William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, as I am. So I decided to throw all the movies, books, comics, soundtracks, songs, and more into the limelight.
Some you might easily spot. However, others are hidden, lost within the words like ghosts, shrouded by a foreboding fog on Grimpen Mire. With this in mind I have drawn up a short list of some of the more significant influencers. But, I should warn you that the below list is a long way from being a complete record of everything in the first two books, and that a fair amount of the items are not suitable for those with a delicate disposition.
With logic firmly on the back burner, the entire film runs like an horrific hallucination. This includes the final scene in which a young boy has to escape the clutches of Dr Freudstein by climbing out of the cellar through a cracked tombstone in the ceiling; a scene which I deliberately echoed in the final moments of The Haunted Mansion.
Carnacki, The Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson
This is actually a compilation of several stories published in the early 1900s which told the adventures of the paranormal investigator Thomas Carnacki. Apart from the ghostly content of the tales (or not, as often Carnacki would uncover a distinctly human cause behind the events taking place), I really liked the structure of the stories. Each one begins with Carnacki inviting a select group of friends to his London home and ends with them being dismissed once the tale is told. And I borrowed this idea of having such a solid beginning and end to each tale or chapter for The Haunted Mansion, although it all fell apart towards the end of the book.
The Evil Dead (1981) – Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi’s first full length feature film is a tour-de-force of blood, guts and humour. Documenting the arrival of a group of friends at an isolated wooden cabin, things quickly descend into anarchy when a tape is played which unleashes ancient demons into the world. With grotesque make-up, frenetic camerwork, a healthy dash of Lovecraft and the EC world writ large on the silver screen, The Evil Dead has been both banned and applauded all over the world for its non-stop aggressive style and Three Stooges humour.
It’s links to The Haunted Mansion and The Big Stench are many and varied but it is the bubbling, stop motion effects at the film’s conclusion which are reflected most explicitly in the acidic, viscous pool after Eliza the spider meets her own, untimely demise, on the floorboards of the Entwhistle Mansion.
H.P. Lovecraft – Collected Works
There are so many collections now out, devoted to Lovecraft’s work, it can be difficult to know where to start. But generally, the majority of his work touches upon the same ideas and themes; that there are eternal beings who operate in the shadows; there is ancient knowledge which has been handed down for centuries; retreating into insanity is the only way to survive. Obviously there is a lot more to his work, but what is important is how his ideas have spread throughout popular culture, to the point where merely mentioning his name or referencing the Necronomicon has become easy shorthand for an inescapable, timeless evil. But this barely touches upon the long and winding mythology Lovecraft created and which has since been added to and embellished by countless others. Personally speaking, if you want to find one story to start your journey through Lovecraft’s world you could do a lot worse then reading either The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward or The Colour Out of Space.
I only had a few reprints of these infamous comics from the 1950’s, but they had a profound effect. With their fantastically gory covers, often simplistic stories of revenge and retribution and a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude where everyone and everything could end up chopped apart, eaten by a zombie or worse – I loved both their clarity of vision (even though it is somewhat warped) and their ability to stick to their own crazed logic. No-one ever woke up in Tales From the Crypt, sighing with relief about all the horror they had just experienced ‘being a dream’ – instead, if the characters woke up at all, it was invariably to find themselves in a far worse situation then the one they had just ‘left’. So, even though Lovecraft is influential, the rotting hand of pre-code E.C horror comics (and their ilk), still reaches out today, from beyond the grave.
Warlords of Atlantis (1978) – Kevin Connor
I saw this in a now long gone Barking cinema, when I was about 8 years old. Then it was a fantastically engaging adventure story, filled with giant monsters, flying piranhas and an evil alien race, and today I still feel the same.
Certainly, there are plot holes, scientific inaccuracies and maybe even the acting is less than perfect in parts, but it is all played out with such energy and panache that it is worth its weight in gold. So if you want to see the origins of the flying fish or the Aethersphere in The Big Stench, look no further.
Journey To The Centre Of The Earth – Jules Verne
My copy of this book fell apart several years ago, but the story of Professor Lidenbrock descending into an Icelandic volcano with his nephew Alex and an Icelander Hans Bjelke, stayed with me. The idea of a hidden world beneath our feet wasn’t new even in the early 1860’s, but Verne populated it with gigantic mushrooms, dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes, all of which turned it into a fantastic adventure story. Although it is not the sole inspiration behind Charlotte’s descent into The Big Stench, it certainly played a large part.
The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawk’s 1951 film The Thing From Another World, returned to the original source material, a short story by Joseph W. Campbell Jnr called Who Goes There. In doing so, Carpenter ended up creating an horrific tale with extraordinary body shaping special effects by Rob Bottin.
It is a seemingly straightforward story of a shape-shifting alien taking over the occupants of an Antarctic research base, but with a pulsating score by Ennio Morricone and Carpenter, a stand out performance by Kurt Russell and the aforementioned effects work, it becomes a paranoid masterpiece. Initially panned by the critics when it was first released, it is now recognised as a classic and very possibly Carpenter’s best film.
Inferno (1980) – Dario Argento
This is the sequel to Argento’s gloriously vibrant Suspiria (1977) and although not as immediately sensational as that film, it is just as engaging. Like its prequel, it takes on the story-line of the Three Mothers, and the gradual awareness of the protagonists that they may be living under the same roof as an ancient and influential, evil.
The entire film is wrapped in a oppressive, dream-like, miasma which is highlighted by one particular scene is which a character discovers a flooded room in her building’s basement and has to take a swim when she accidentally drops her keys. It is a magically surreal moment and one which I considered long and hard whilst writing Charlotte’s own dive into the liquid Stench.
Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott
With dark corridors, hanging chains and even a giant ‘alien basement’ covered in huge eggs, Alien is often described as a haunted house movie in outer space. However Ridley Scott’s film replaced an evil spirit with a parasitic creature brought on board the interstellar ship Nostromo, by the unwitting (and unlucky) John Hurt.
With a palpable sense of tension throughout, aided by a restless camera constantly prowling and the almost ever present pinging of a motion detector, it gave audiences their first proper taste of a grimy, blue collar space environment and has been copied by almost every Science Fiction horror film since. Only Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is probably more influential in the SF genre. The sequel (aptly named Aliens (1986)) had Sigourney Weaver return as the heroine to face hundreds of the vicious creatures.
Frankenstein (1931) – James Whale
Along with Tod Browning’s Dracula made the same year, few films are so fundamental to the horror genre. Picked apart, analysed and endlessly parodied, remade and re-imagined, both films aren’t just solid classics, they are cornerstones within cinema as a whole.
The story follows the scientist Henry Frankenstein as he attempts to create human life from the body parts fetched for him by his hunchbacked assistant Fritz. Unfortunately, the monster they create is hideously misunderstood both by his creator and the world about him and it responds with violence and aggression. All of which culminates in the monster being trapped in a windmill and seemingly burning to death at the hands of a mob of angry villagers.
Encased in the now iconic make-up by Jack Pierce, Karloff delivers a nuanced performance which succeeds in highlighting that the creature is not just a murderous machine but is instead a tragic individual, brought back to life by a scientist who never contemplated the consequences of his actions.
How Frankenstein and its outstanding (and arguably superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935)) manage to stand the test of time and surpass all the other versions, is a testament both to James Whale’s direction and Boris Karloff’s performance.
The Haunting (1963) Robert Wise
Bedeviled by bad luck, misery and death, Hill House is a large, foreboding mansion. With barely a straight angle anywhere, doors which open and close by themselves and the odd, hard to explain, cold patch; the building is opened up to a study of paranormal activity by a small team of pseudo-experts.
Although no spirits are ever actually seen, the threat of some awful presence hovering just behind a door or round a corner, is tangible.
Based upon the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, if there is an archetypal haunted house film, this could well be it.
Collected Ghost Stories – M.R James
I think I first came across the work of M.R James as BBC adaptations at Christmas. They were often chilling tales of unlucky walkers who stumbled across an ancient artifact and unwittingly conjured up an unstoppable phantom. Probably the most famous of his stories (due in no small part to the short film directed by Jonathan Miller in 1968), was Whistle and I’ll Come to You based on the story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad. It was only after watching this and the other adaptations that I read the actual stories and was not disappointed. They are all extremely well written, and although often seemingly set in the most benign locations, the horror and creeping tension seem all the more intense. A lot of the BBC films are now available to watch on Youtube.