Meghan: Hey, Joseph. Welcome to this year’s Halloween Extravaganza. What is your favorite part of Halloween?
Joseph: I love Halloween. For me, it’s all about the change in energy. There is a wildness that comes with Halloween season. It’s okay to dance around like lunatic in the street. It’s okay to jump out of a doorway and scare people. It’s okay to flirt with the totally un-politically correct (a friend of mine once attended a Halloween party as the ghost of an S.S. officer; reprehensible though it was to see him in the uniform, swastika and all, you have to admit: that’s pretty God-damn scary!).
In Elizabethan times, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was a Festival of Misrule in which the strict, hierarchical mores of British society were overturned temporarily. Jesters became kings. Idiots became teachers. And the wealthy aristocrats were led like dogs on collars through the shit-caked streets. This yearly “blow out” was essential to the cultural psyche of the nation. In many ways, it was their version of a Purge, though of course it stopped short of allowing murder or serious criminal activity.
In my view, Halloween is the closest thing we have to this age-old and vital tradition. It’s a great equaliser. We live most of the year repressing our Shadow selves, but on Halloween, we step into the world of Shadows, and we see them in their natural habitat. There is something wondrous and liberating about the change in energy where, for just one night, all bets are off.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?
Joseph: I don’t really do fancy dress, except on Halloween! I have become many dark figures in my time. I used to do a lot of acting, and there is something empowering about quite literally stepping into the shoes, or putting on the face, of someone else. We can learn a lot if we engage with this healthily, I think.
I also do love the more laid-back and classic Halloween tradition of putting on a scary movie. I don’t need Halloween as an excuse, of course, as I love horror, but Halloween is a time of year when even people not usually inclined to horror might overcome their doubts for one night. I will watch horror movies alone, and that can be its own unique experience, but there is something about the genre I believe is best suited to communal viewings. Perhaps it connects back to the old “tales around the campfire”? Regardless of where it comes from, enjoying a horror movie with good friends is hard to beat. There is a special bonding that takes place when you “survive” a terrifying experience together!
Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?
Joseph: Halloween is my favourite holiday. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas can still get me excited like a child. The cynicism hasn’t gotten to me yet. But Christmas is in many ways the reverse of Halloween. Christmas is about family, about expectations, generosity, and more conventional togetherness. Many people I know feel very stressed at Christmas and I have felt it myself from time to time. I’m not in any way denigrating the value of family, but the fact remains there are certain obligations that come with the notion of Christmas and where and how we spend it. Halloween creates no obligations. In fact, it actively asks you to discard them in the spirit of Misrule! Halloween isn’t spent with family, or rarely is, it’s generally spent with unruly friends.
This isn’t to say that when I was younger my parents didn’t throw some humdinger Halloween parties, and this is perhaps another reason Halloween has to be my favourite season. My mother is an artist, my father a writer, the combination was perfect for creating memorable Halloween experiences, one of which will stick with me and my friends for all time: they converted our spider-filled old garage into a ghost-train haunted experience. It didn’t take much, to be honest, the place was so dank and dark, but it was truly mythical and memorable. That kind of joy (and terror), the exhilaration of stepping out of mundanity and entering the story, stays with you forever. So, I’m eternally grateful to my parents for that, and you can blame my Halloween obsession on them!!
Meghan: What are you superstitious about?
Joseph: As an occultist, I consider myself very open to weird or supernatural phenomenon. I’ve had many spiritual experiences. Some transcendental. Some hellish and indelible. So, the truthful answer to this is: I’m superstitious about virtually everything! Or at least, open to it. However, one also has to recognise our own agency in these matters. Rarely do spirits or demons, or whatever the preferred terminology is, seize us out of the blue without warning, just as the past only holds power over us if we invest it with authority. We invite demons in. We play a role in their habitation, and their enlivening. We feed them with psychological abherrance and desire. What we repress returns in sevenfold horrifying form.
One might look to Clive Barker’s immortal film Hellraiser to see exactly what I mean by this. The cenobites only come when they are called. The horror that was once Frank Cotton is invited into the house by Julia Cotton’s desire, and then subsequently fed by her with human blood in an act that is far from subtly psycho-sexual. Whilst fiction, there is a lot of truth in this. Whether you view the demons literally or figuratively as expressions of psychological malady is up to you.
So, I’m not afraid of being randomly attacked by ghosts or demonic entities, terrifying though that would be. I’m more like the vertigo sufferer. People with vertigo aren’t afraid of heights, but rather what they might do if they stand on a ledge. I don’t really fear demons, spirits, ghosts, but I do fear what I might do should I glimpse the infernal plane, or should one such entity make me an offer I cannot refuse. The greatest blindness is to think we are beyond temptation. After all, those beings really do have “such sights to show you”.
Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?
Joseph: This is such a tough question to answer, as there are so many great villains in Horror. One of my favourites is a rather obscure character known as Melmoth The Wanderer, who is featured in the novel of the same name by the oft-overlooked Anglican curate Charles Maturin. Maturin wrote a number of novels, and Melmoth The Wanderer is his Gothic masterpiece. It is equal parts Faustian legend and Miltonic evocation. Melmoth is a deviously complex character, both a tempter of souls and one who was tempted. He is, like Milton’s Lucifer, strangely heroic at times. He tries to fight against his darker nature but knows he can never win. The novel is almost ludicrously convoluted, with no less than six layers of framed narrative (perhaps more if you include certain interludes) but this convolution is intentional, because it begins to draw you into Melmoth’s own warped psyche. The labyrinth of his mind is not a place I will forget in a hurry and the sheer intensity of his hatred is awe-inspiring to behold. He is a true compelling villain, and one who deserves far more recognition among the greats.
Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?
Joseph: I do find unsolved murders fascinating, but I find unsolved disappearances far more so. I am not sure why, perhaps because there is even more mystery when no body is found?
In the UK, there are few cases more unusual than that of Madeleine McCann. Some might find this a predictable choice, but it is one of those cases that, whilst it may not seem particularly weird at first, becomes stranger and stranger the longer you look at it. She disappeared in Portugal and was one of the most widely televised and reported on disappearances of all time. How, then, were investigators completely unable to make any headway at all? It seems impossible that in 2007, with so much surveillance and technology, with her face plastered on every TV over the world for years, that we could not find her.
I have oscillated from believing wholeheartedly the parents did it, to swinging wildly the other way. Then my writer’s brain goes into overdrive with more bizarre possibilities. For example, could she be still alive? If she were, she would be seventeen or eighteen in 2021. What horrors would she have experienced and overcome to have survived until now? How would that shape someone’s understanding of the world?
The disappearance of a three year old is a truly terrible, ugly thing, and one cannot help but think there is some dark secret buried somewhere, unlikely to come to light save on Judgement Day.
Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?
Joseph: My God, this is a great question. It would have to be the Slenderman. What’s funny about this is I know full well that the Slenderman is fake. I researched him extensively for a novel I wrote back in 2013. It is not a brilliant book, as I was very young then and still learning my craft, but some of the stuff I dug into for research stills scares me, even knowing it was created by photoshop experts and Creepy Pasta lore enthusiasts. I think it was partly how meta the book became. I was writing a book about a man writing a book about becoming obsessed by the Slenderman, and in the end, I became obsessed by the Slenderman. The old Nietzschian adage is certainly true: stare too long into the abyss, and it really does stare back into you.
Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?
Joseph: Fictional or real, now that is the question! If I was saying fictional, it would have to be Ghostface from Scream. This is a bit of a cheat answer, of course, because Ghostface can be, and has been, many people, but that is precisely the genius of him. Ghostface is a character in his own right, but anyone can don the mask and become him. That is, in some ways, infinitely more scary than an iconic killer whom we all recognise. Ghostface could be anyone. He could be you or me (and of course can be “she” for that matter). Similar to my comment on superstition, Ghostface asks us to look inward and confront the question of what we are truly capable of, in the darkest sense.
If I had to pick a real-life serial killer, I would not use the term “favourite” to describe them, because we then run the risk of glorifying degraded and immoral killers; they are scum, at the end of the day. However, I do find Ted Bundy particularly fascinating. That may be a cliché to some, but there are a number of unique things about him. The sheer depravity of his crimes sets him apart: not just murder, but torture, necrophilia, and worse. His charm is another weird factor. The transcripts of his trial show him actively flirting with the female judge and succeeding. If you wrote this scene in a novel, no one would believe it, especially not in today’s age of female empowerment. I’m personally not interested in Bundy’s pseudo-philosophy and God-complex. But I am interested in the fact he escaped – twice, no less – and was only really “caught” when he turned himself in. It reminds me of the quote from the original 1986 Hitcher movie in which Rutger Hauer’s nameless killer answers the question “What do you want?” with perhaps the most chilling answer possible: “I want you to stop me.” This is the epitome of evil, I think. The hitcher knows what he is doing is wrong. He knows he is a mad dog that’s slipped the leash. But he can’t stop himself, so he wants someone else to rise to the challenge. Bundy’s story is similar. I think he wanted the electric chair, in the end: to return to the nothingness he believed in.
Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?
Joseph: Far, far too young! Weirdly, I saw horror movies before I ever got to horror books. I am not sure I could even name the age I was when I saw my first horror film, but I was definitely not yet eleven years old. Probably the first horror movie I remember was the Terminator movie. It isn’t really that gnarly by comparison with other ‘80s Horror, or even by modern standards, but it is unrelenting in its tension. The thing that made Terminator so great to me was the idea of the truly unstoppable evil, and the film still conveys that idea far better than many modern attempts. The terminator isn’t invulnerable: the flesh-suit rips, the metal skeleton is damaged, it is even cut in half. But despite all of these things, the terminator keeps going. That is truly scary. Though the terminator is a robot, we sense something beyond that: an evil willpower and determination that is frightening.
In terms of my first horror book, I was actually quite late to that game, although I had read classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. I primarily read Fantasy until the age of about seventeen, when I discovered Stephen King. I read The Stand (genuinely my first King!), and it totally blew my mind. It opened doorways in my consciousness that I didn’t know had been locked. Apart from being so inspiring, reading The Stand really liberated me and was the first step on my road to becoming a half-decent writer. Previously, everything I’d been writing was very much generic fantasy pap, and I steered away from dark themes, sex, and violence. But when I read The Stand, King blew the doors wide open.
The two scenes that stick with me in terms of being exposed to horror for the first time – or at least, modern horror for the first time – were number one: the scene with The Kid and the Trashcan Man in which the latter is sodomised with a shotgun. The second was the scene in which Randall Flagg pulls an unborn child out of the womb with a coat-hanger hook (although it turns out to be a dream sequence). Reading these was like having a nuclear bomb detonate inside my skull. I couldn’t believe they had been committed to paper.
The Stand gave me permission to explore my own darkness. Many moments in that book are still indelibly printed on my brain, not just the horrifying ones. Perhaps the greatest of them all from my point of view is the final scene with The Trashcan Man. That is a moment of divinely inspired genius, I think. True epic.
Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?
Joseph: It takes a lot to scare me, especially in fiction. For some reason I find films infinitely scarier. Perhaps because films are more intense, whereas horror novels tend to be a slow burn that accumulates over time? Each of us is more or less vulnerable to different types of horror, I suppose, and for some perhaps the slow burn effect is creepier!
However, there are certainly books that have genuinely scared me. I’ve already mentioned Melmoth The Wanderer. It was written in 1820, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it lacks punch: I was genuinely unsettled, and the further in you go, the worse it gets. It isn’t just the events or what’s transpiring, but the weird and brain-jarring structure, the elliptical storytelling that starts to disconcert and unbalance you, rather like a discordant soundtrack.
I also found The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson to be uniquely terrifying. The scene with the hand in the bed (anyone who’s read it knows exactly the one I mean) actually shat me up for days afterwards, and I became frightened every time I had to go to sleep. I get that Jackson is a mainstay, but she is so lauded for a reason.
If you want to read something more modern and genuinely scary, Steve Stred’s The Window In The Ground is a living nightmare. No one does dread like Stred. It should be a catchphrase! He is one of the few modern writers who can genuinely unsettle me. It’s something about the way he writes, so directly, so straightforwardly, it lulls you into a false sense of security. Everything feels believable in his hands, even the most insane and awful things you can imagine. The Window In The Ground is probably still my favourite thing by him. I think about it way too often.
Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?
Joseph: Surprisingly, no conventional horror movie has the claim of scarring me for life, though certainly some films rocked me or challenged what I thought I knew. The artifact that really scarred me for life was the 1993 Japanese anime Sailor Moon. Now, this may seem odd, as all the screenshots you’ll see online of Sailor Moon show happy, colourful scenes with an enthusiastic group of young girls fighting evil with superpowers. But anyone who watched the entirety of season 1 to its conclusion will know there is another side to the show.
The final two episodes of Sailor Moon take the lovable thirteen-year-old girls you’ve followed for 44 episodes, with all their cute love-interests and side-plots, and then tortures and murders them one by one. And the torture isn’t just physical, it’s emotional and spiritual too. Characters you fell in love with betray the Sailor Guardians and then gleefully tear them apart while Sailor Moon helplessly watches. You don’t just watch them being beaten in a fight, you watch them being tormented on every level in a fashion that can only be described as totally psychotic.
One after another, each Sailor Guardian is destroyed in ignoble, hopeless ways, until only Moon remains. At this point, where you think it can go no lower, Moon is forced to kill the person she loves most in the world in an agonising fashion. It’s harrowing, undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and terrifying things I’ve ever seen. The fact it is an animation only makes it worse, lending a dreamlike surreal power to each mortifying frame that a live action version would lack. I was just a kid when I saw it, probably eleven or twelve, and it shook me to the foundations to such a degree I’ve never quite recovered from it. I believe it was banned in some countries, or at least shown in edited form, but the UK was not one of them. This series and the scarring it caused has heavily influenced a novel I’m working on that will come out next year (2022) called The Tower Outside of Time. It is the third and final book in my Illuminad sequence. Each book is stand-alone, but read in order they add up to something that is—hopefully—pretty cosmic.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?
Joseph: Oh, this is a good question, and a hard one. I used to love dressing up as V from V For Vendetta, but sadly now the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous with the online group Anonymous (hey, it rhymes!), so I am no longer as keen on it. I love a good wraith or vampire. Probably the latter is my favourite, though. I guess because people used to joke I was a vampire: pale skin, weird eyes, Gothic obsession, dark arts. On a side note, I have a Magic: The Gathering Commander Deck that is vampire themed. I have a soft spot for the old long-fangs!
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?
Joseph: Much of the music I like is arguably Halloween-themed, because it focuses on black magic, the rising dead, or some other Gothic trope! Haha.
To name a few specific songs / bands, I have recently got quite into the band Draconian. They are a kind of screamo doom-metal band, but unlike many doom-metal efforts, it isn’t all misery; there is a kind of ghostly beauty to the guitar and female vocals, offset by a triumphant growl and great melodies. They really play with the juxtaposition of fury and sensitivity well, and their lyrics have some very interesting meanings if you begin to look deeper.
Some credit has to be given to the Rolling Stones classic Sympathy For the Devil. There is something truly mesmeric about that song. I saw it live, and it was like being hypnotised when that riff rolled over the crowd!
Lastly, I adore Avenged Sevenfold’s entire album City of Evil. I think it is possibly my favourite of all time, and the greatest ever written, which I know is crazy hyperbole, but I cannot think of anything that rivals it for ambition, scope, or execution save in the classical canon. It is dazzlingly technical but also heartfelt. It soars but also screams. There is a rawness that perhaps not everyone will like, especially as we have become increasingly accustomed to touched-up voices produced in flawless studios; but if you don’t mind a bit of gravel and soul in the voice and guitars, then it’s truly startling.
City of Evil is a kind of musical interpretation of the book of Revelations, and it features such epics as Bat Country, The Beast & The Harlot, Sidewinder, Blinded in Chains, and my personal favourite: The Wicked End. The album is over 70 minutes long and most of the songs exceed 7 minutes. Rarely do you ever hear a single chorus repeated. The songs morph and change like the creature from The Thing, shifting into bridges, key-changes, and flying to previously unknown heights. If pop music bores you to tears, this is the album for you. No song is predictable. Sidewinder, for example, transitions from brutal heavy metal into a Spanish guitar that is clearly influenced by snake-charming melodies. It’s pretty unreal.
Virtually all of City of Evil is classifiable as Halloween themed, I think! But it also deals with the human quest to re-discover one’s own lost soul. If you piece together the tracks, it tells a kind of dream-logic narrative of someone setting off into the wilderness, losing everything they love, and returning from war a broken and desolate man. One of the final lines of the whole album is, “A murderer walks your streets tonight”. It’s a devastating meditation on human evil, partly inspired by the quote from Dr Johnson (which is uttered in the opening track, Bat Country) “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?
Joseph: It would have to be eyeball pops. I mean, was there ever a more perfect marriage of foodstuff and concept?! It is genuinely hard to feel like you are not biting into an actual eyeball, but then the explosion of sugary flavour wipes away the fear.
In terms of most disappointing, I would have to be jelly slugs. The taste and texture seems disappointing to me. Perhaps I am a snob?
Meghan: Thanks for stopping by today, Joseph. Before you go, what are your go-to Halloween movies and books?
Joseph: Oh, this is super, super tough. I feel like we have to define what we mean by “Halloween movie”. Does that mean a movie set on Hallow’s Eve, or simply a scary movie that is appropriate to watch on the day? In either case, it feels criminal not to give the original Halloween the ultimate trophy! I mean, it’s in the title!
However, that aside, I adore the Scream movies. I feel like they brought a manic energy to the Slasher genre when it was flagging. They tread the fine line between celebrating Halloween, masks, scary movies, and the joy we get from them, but also recognising their problematic elements. They subvert tropes but don’t fall into the trap of undermining the archetypes that drive Slashers: the faceless killer—a dark lord or monster, no less—and the dauntless heroine. The male energy of death, the female energy which is pure and incorruptible (in old-school Slashers, represented symbolically by virginity, but really this is something much deeper). They have it all, as well as being funny to boot.
In terms of a favourite Halloween book, now that is tougher! There are so many works by indie authors that could be my top Halloween book that I would struggle to list them all, but I’ll try a few top picks!
Dan Soule writes awesome Halloween-appropriate books that have that “classic” feel. His Fright Nights series is very much a callback to the horror of a young Stephen King, James Herbert, and R. L. Stine. He has a wonderful prose-style, and his characters are people you not only believe in but care about. I recommend starting with The Ash to get a taste of his work: it’s a short novel about a police officer trying to get home after a strange explosion that covers miles of the UK in ash… But when things start moving beneath the ash, the horror really begins.
I’d also recommend Iseult Murphy’s 7 Days In Hell. It’s a great creepy-town tale that is so much more than it appears. It seems a cosy mystery, until things suddenly go deeper and darker than you ever expected, including into some gnarly occult shit. Definitely a perfect Halloween read.
I think those are some good recommendations and my top picks for now. We live in a world of abundant storytelling, so there are always more brilliant authors to talk about, especially on the indie scene, which is where I feel the real action, the real boundary pushing and interesting work, is happening.
Thanks so much for having me on for your extravaganza, Meghan. It means the world!
Joseph Sale is a novelist and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his fantasy epic Dark Hilarity. He grew up in he Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as You Are Not Alone (Storgy), Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.
Dark Hilarity —
Tara Dufrain and Nicola Morgan are eleven year old girls growing up in the ‘90s, obsessed by Valentine Killshot, a metal screamo band. In particular, they’re enamoured by the lead singer, the mysterious yet charismatic Jed Maine who bears the epithet “The Cretin”. In Jed’s lyrics, he describes a world beyond the Dark Stars that he hopes one day to reach. The girls think it’s all just make-believe they share together, until a freak, traumatic incident makes this world very real. As adults, Tara and Nicola try to come to terms with the devastating catastrophe that changed their lives growing up, but to do so they will have to step once more into Jed Maine’s world, and confront the man who took everything from them. Dark Hilarity is My Best Friend’s Exorcism meets The Never-Ending Story, a fantasy that explores addiction, depression, and the healing power of friendship.