Horror was ingrained in me from the day I was born. I entered this world on 8 April 1943 in London’s East End, an area still scarred by the Blitz. We lived in Whitechapel, in a very old, creeky, condemned building on Tyne Street, at the back of Petticoat Lane. Outside were cobbled streets, gas lighting, and a little alleyway that Jack the Ripper used to escape through after slicing up a victim. Half the street was comprised of bombed-out houses where there were plenty of rats running loose. Inside the house all the walls were made of wood, so every summer there were creaks and groans and your imagination went wild.
Since then my imagination has served me well. I’ve written 24 novels and sold more than 54 million copies worldwide over 38 years. Yet can I define what horror is? No. But the secret of horror is the unknown. It’s the easiest cliché of them all, but that’s because it’s the truth. People are scared of the dark.
We had an electric meter, after they put electricity into the house, where you put a shilling in. Unfortunately the meter was down in the basement where there was no light. I remember we used to keep an old mangle down there and there was a coal hole too. You had to climb over the coal to get to the meter. You can imagine as a kid, seven, eight and all the lights go out.
You’ve got to go down to this creepy cellar, hopefully with matches if you could find them, and put the shilling in the meter, if you had a shilling. I always imagined some kind of scaly hand reaching out for my wrist as I twisted the knob. I loved that place.
I had two older brothers who were always out, and my mum and dad worked on the stalls, selling fruit and veg in Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road markets. So often on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays I was left alone, sitting at the table drawing and painting. When it comes to writing horror I’m always drawing on things from my own psyche. Those things from back then are always in my mind, never to be forgotten.
The idea for The Secret of Crickley Hall came to me in adulthood when I started reading grim stories about kids who were evacuated during the war. Michael Caine was one. I was evacuated along with my two elder brothers. I was just a baby, but my eldest brother, Peter, was six years old. I don’t know what family he stayed with, but I don’t think they did him a lot of good. Years later when he was conscripted into the Army he came out a lot harder. But he was also – and still is – a great wit. He cracks me up even today. But the evacuation experience set my mind rolling.
I thought, what about a kind of home, a boarding school for young orphans from London? That was the start of Crickley Hall – these kids are sent down to this strange old house. I didn’t want to make it the usual haunted ghost house with gargoyles on the wall. Just a very plain block-type house built half a century before, with a river running underneath and a deep well that ran down to the river. Sometimes the simplest scenes conceal the nastiest things. God, I felt so bad about the poor kids in that book. Had to be done though. I had to get it out of my system.
I wish I could tell you that I have a set of tools to scare people, but I don’t. I work by instinct. There are the old clichés I try to avoid – like the creaking door or the banging window. But then sometimes the clichés are clichés for a reason: because they speak to deeper instincts.
And of course there’s horror not just in the unknown but also in the unthinkable. When I first started writing I did show readers things. If somebody got hit on the head with an axe I used to explain exactly how it hurt and what happened. If somebody’s testicles are ripped off by a rat, you don’t really want to think about. But I described it. Nobody was doing that kind of thing back then in the 70s. Over in America a few months later Stephen King – now a friend of mine – started doing a similar thing. Between us I think we altered what people considered to be horror.
Nowadays I like to get more into the psychological side of horror. Suspense and tension are absolutely essential. What I do is slow things down so that they’re quite mundane. And then an eeriness creeps in and it builds up and up and then something, whatever that thing is, happens.
But aside from narrative techniques there are some physical things that will always scare people, and you can harness them too.
Any scenes with spiders will do the job. My own youngest daughter has a phobia about spiders. Spiders are so ugly. And they move so fast. And they have too many legs. And legs make them look bigger than they actually are.
Rats are another perennial fear. They scurry around in the dirt. They come from the gutters, their urine carries diseases and they can be vicious. Best never to corner a rat. Let it run.
Finally, there are ghosts. I do believe in ghosts. I’m a Catholic and I was brought up with the supernatural. I have seen one. Funnily enough it was in Marbella. I was with two friends and our wives at 2.30 in the morning. A figure went past the door. Ghosts are where the supernatural meets the physical – things moving when they shouldn’t move, whether you see them or not. Again, it’s all about the unknown.
And then there are kids: with The Secret of Crickley Hall I’m back to kids. It’s not because I think kids are creepy; it’s because I have so much sympathy for them and I hate things that happen to them in the real world. That’s a lot to do with my early childhood. I just want to make it all right for them.