GUEST POST: Phil Sloman

By Phil Sloman

It’s always been a pleasure to be invited along to Meghan’s House of Books Halloween Extravaganza. I’ve enjoyed it each and every time. This year I thought I’d do a short article about guising or, more particularly, masks.

On reading up on guising it seems that the tradition grew as a way for children, and adults, to avoid the dead when they visited on Halloween. Or something along those lines. Now I like that as a concept but there’s a different take I wanted to present to you, dear reader. And perhaps as much to myself.

We all hide our true selves from time to time. Some more than others. Often dependent on the situation we are in. So, your work persona might be very different to your persona with friends which again may be different to your round the house personality and so on. Some masks may be worn for self-protection in a world where prejudice is rife and the anonymity of social media (a mask in itself) emboldens the bigots who are out there. That is not my story to tell.

For many, masks develop in childhood. I was bullied as a kid. A lot of people were and, sadly, continue to be. For me, it was mainly for being a bit of a nerd (bright kid, crap clothes). That was probably the first time I learned to wear a mask. I learnt to dumb down and hide the fact I was clever. I know I am not alone in this.

Now somewhere along the line I got into horror. Probably around the age of 15 or so. I remember having the Gremlins Read Along audiobook as a vague dabbling into horror and progressed from there. Ended up reading the book adaptation of Nightmare on Elm Street long before seeing the films and have to admit my imagination worked far more effectively than the films in the end. So, where is the mask here, I hear you cry. Well, this is the mask from my family. My Dad didn’t really get horror and couldn’t really understand what I got from it. So, I don’t really talk to my family about my horror writing and therefore hide it away. Even when up for awards I don’t mention it. Whether this is really a mask or just hiding from a situation; discuss amongst yourselves.

With the advent of social media, as noted above, it is interesting to see the persona some people adopt and the masks people choose to wear (or indeed the masks people drop behind the distance a screen and keyboard present). So much can be hidden behind that avatar, so much of us presented as the best versions of ourselves. The thing is that you risk getting lost in this other you of your own making; a smiling personality which may be drowning in tears on the inside. And there is a fear of judgement should that mask slip and our vulnerability be revealed.

Okay, so the link to Halloween, and thanks for sticking with me so far, is that this is a day when we get to wear masks as we go out and about on the streets asking neighbours and strangers for treats. Yet, I would claim here that some of the masks out there are people being free to express the true them and drop their day-to-day societal masks. Societal norms are abandoned and we can fully embrace “us”. The same, I find is true of horror conventions. Places where I know I have found my tribe. A place, other than at home with my wife or out with close friends, where I feel I can be me. There is a natural coming together of the like-minded and, what I have found personally, the welcoming.

As said, this was a short musing as an offering to Meghan’s celebrations. There may be pieces in the above which chimed with you. Equally, there may have been rolling of eyes and a note of “just be yourself and let the world accept you for who you are”. This is sound advice. Yet there is something drilled into a lot of us as kids that fitting in is what is required. And it takes time to feel comfortable to let those masks slip – and there are always multiple masks – where that vulnerability dissipates and all that is left is the wonder that is you.

So maybe we should hold on to that freedom that the 31st October brings with it and take that as a mantra through the entirety of the year. I know it is something I shall certainly ponder.

Phil Sloman is a writer of dark psychological fiction. His first story was published in 2014 and he has been writing ever since. In 2017 Phil was shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Newcomer for his novella Becoming David, and was part of Imposter Syndrome from Dark Minds Press shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Anthology in 2018, and edited the 2020 British Fantasy Award shortlisted anthology The Woods. Phil regularly appears on several reviewers’ Best of Year lists.

Richard leads a simple, uncomplicated life in the suburbs of London where anonymity is a virtue. His life has a routine. His cleaner visits twice a week. He works out in his basement, where he occasionally he kills people. Everything is as Richard wants it until David enters his life. What happens next changes his existence in its entirety and the lives of those around him. Is he able to trust anything to be true? And will he be able to escape David or will David take over Richard’s life completely?