Some things make you feel old.
So I received this e-mail. It read:
Wow, you’re still alive! I remember reading your stuff in the House of Hammer magazine when I was 11 or 12 years old. In fact, I was thinking about you when I watched The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on YouTube a wee while ago. What did you write about it in your review? Something along the lines of: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film… But you certainly won’t sleep through it”?!
I used to write feature articles and occasionally reviews for film magazines, including House of Hammer, which was oddly published by Marvel Comics UK and had a wider horror scope than just movies by Hammer Films. It later transformed into House of Horror.
The e-mail I received was from an Ian Smith. He added: “Did you write a feature about David Cronenberg and his first four movies (Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers and Rabid) in House of Hammer — somewhere around issues 13 – 16? If so, you also acquainted me with the World of Cronenberg for the first time — another feather in your cap! I seem to remember Mark Gatiss fondly waving a copy of House of Hammer on a BBC documentary he did about British horror movies.”
So I thought Ian Smith might be worth talking to because, born in Northern Ireland and brought up both there and in Scotland, he currently lives in Sri Lanka and spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya, Tunisia and, he says, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often”. His website is titled Blood and Porridge.
So I talked to him via Skype in Sri Lanka, shortly after he had come back from a month working in Burma. He works as a teacher-trainer for people wanting to teach English as a foreign language.
When he finds the time, he writes short stories – horror, science fiction, fantasy and, he says, “even ‘mainstream’ ones set in humdrum wee Scottish and Irish towns and villages”. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from travel to Scottish amateur league football teams, from linguistic relativity to vampire movies. He has written under the pseudonyms Steve Cashell, Rab Foster, Eoin Henderson, Paul MacAlister, Jim Mountfield and, he says, “occasionally, under my own boring name”.
“So,” I said to him, “a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very often?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I spent two years working in North Korea with the British Council.”
“Which years?” I asked.
“2005-2007. That’s when they became a nuclear power. I remember I was with the British Ambassador that night and he was looking quite rattled and I told him: Well, you’ve joined that exclusive club. There can’t be many ambassadors who were in a country that suddenly went nuclear. It did not cheer him up.”
“Where were the bugs?” I asked. “The first time I was in North Korea we went, for some reason, to the Indian ambassador’s residence and he started off by just pointing silently to the radiogram, which was where the main bug was.”
“The only thing I noticed,” said Ian, “was that, when I picked up my telephone I would sometimes hear clicking noises. There was obviously someone listening in. I had freedom to go pretty much anywhere in Pyongyang, though occasionally I would spot someone behind me who was obviously keeping an eye on me.”
“Did you get out of Pyongyang much?” I asked.
“Just a little bit. I was generally restricted to the city but there are a couple of places you can go to which are on the official tourist trail. You can go about 30 miles down the road to the beach; and there’s a couple of mountains you can go to. Most of the time I was in Pyongyang and then they’d fly me over to Beijing every couple of months for a break.”
“Much-needed,” I suggested.
“Well,” said Ian, “I have to say I didn’t actually mind the job too much. I got on quite well with the North Korean people: they had a very nice, dark sense of humour.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised anyone risked showing any sense of humour in the People’s Paradise.
“They were very British, actually,” said Ian. “Always slagging each other off. I guess you probably need it in that environment. I enjoyed working there. You just had to not think too much about the wider picture.”
“What were you doing there?” I asked.
“I was training-up some teachers of English – giving them some training on the job.”
“Who is getting taught English in North Korea?” I asked.
“It’s quite a big thing,” said Ian. “At the time, Kim Jong-il had said he wanted everyone to speak English because it was the international language for business. Even in the more secluded countries, they now realise there’s a need for it.”
“It sounds dangerous,” I said. “North Koreans would actually be able to talk to foreigners.”
“Well, it’s a two-edged sword,” agreed Ian.
“What did you think when you were told you were going to North Korea?”
“I saw it advertised and applied. I had been in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years.”
“So anywhere was better?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say that, but I felt it was definitely time for a bit of a change.”
“You read House of Hammer when you were about 11 or 12,” I said. “I always imagined I was writing for 16 or 17 year olds.”
“Well,” said Ian.”you couldn’t get into the cinema to see these films and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up late to see them on TV, so it was a kind of forbidden fruit thing. Someone said: The scariest horror films are the ones you are too young to get in to see. You just imagine them being much worse than they actually are.”
“And now you write yourself,” I said.
“I do a bit of writing. I write a lot of horror stories. I usually get two or three published each year. Sometimes hard copies, sometimes internet magazines. I’m not going to make any money out of it. It’s all moved online, but the problem is you get paid less now, if at all.”
“Why did you want to be a writer?”
“It’s just something that seemed obvious to me. Even when I was a kid, I was writing stuff in exercise jotters.”
“And now it’s all gone electronic,” I said.
“I think with a lot of those horror and fantasy writers from the 1970s and 1980s – their actual book market dried up and a lot of them started doing stuff on the internet and self-published – Tanith Lee, who died a few weeks ago published dozens and dozens of books in the last decade or so, but all electronic. Her fanbase would download it.”
“Your next story?” I asked.
“The Groove. It should be appearing soon in a Kindle magazine called Hellfire Crossroads. It’s a traditional revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story like the ones that used to be in those horror comics all those years ago. In it, the guy who has died is a sort of John Peel music obsessive who has this horrible, bitchy wife. The guy has left these requests for music to be played at his funeral but she ignores them and plays Angels by Robbie Williams. I just thought that, if something was guaranteed to bring me back from the grave in a fit of revenge, it would be that.”
“A sort of Hammer Horrory idea,” I said.
“I was reading,” said Ian, “an interview with the director Julian Richards, who made a film called Darklands in the late 1990s, which kick-started the new movement in British horror movies and he said, when he was a kid, the first film he did was on super-8 and he basically found the story in House of Hammer because they used to do these horror stories at the back – Van Helsing’s Terror Tales – he spent three years turning that into a film. So, in a way, House of Hammer was quite influential.”
“I guess every little helps,” I said.