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Paul Cornell


Paul Cornell



Paul Cornell has written some of Doctor Who's best-loved episodes for the BBC. He has also written a number of comics for Marvel and DC, including The X-Men and Batman & Robin. He has been Hugo Award-nominated for his work in TV, comics and prose, and won the BSFA Award for his short fiction. LONDON FALLING is his first urban fantasy novel.

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31 Oct 2012



To view Halloween as a rehearsal of, rather than an occasion for, fear, isn’t a recent trait.  We don’t expect children going out trick or treating to be genuinely scary or scared, and if there ever was an ‘original’ version of the holiday, I suspect it involved an equally pantomime encounter with terror.  Making abstract fears concrete, monsters who can be hauled down from their thrones of night to become masks for gooey six year-olds, is necessary for all ages.  We invent terrors we can defeat.  So it struck me that, for a Halloween blog, it might be interesting to go in the opposite direction, to list what I believe to be the species of genuine fear, and to talk a little about where I’ve encountered them….


1: Loss.  I think many of us fear most the unexpected phone call in the early hours from someone who tells you they have something bad to tell you before they tell you anything.  Why isn’t your partner picking up the phone?  They probably just haven’t got a signal, right?  We’ve all rehearsed that one, and been relieved at the outcome, having let the fear grow in us just a bit.  That’s when we can feel the roulette ball bouncing between all the many happy outcomes and the one terrible one.  The fear is of the unimaginable, and yet horribly guessable, wound such loss will make.  The rehearsal of it means we tell those we love that we do so.  The closest I’ve come is having someone who actually didn’t feel they had the authority to tell me tip me off, by the mere fact of their call, to the death of my father.  But that was expected, and, as it turned out, merciful. 

2: Time.  Having a child has made me suddenly rather aware of mortality, rather than, as is often said, offering me a taste of the opposite. It’s like I’ve now ticked the last box on my biological to do list.  Here is the person who will look at me like I looked at my own father, when he was very old.  It’s like I’ve handed something on.  That is to say, I’ve given something away.  He is the one without injured knees and lined palms.  He will be the one who calls for me to keep up.  He will speak at my funeral.  Or I hope he will. 

3: The Unknown.  Of course the stories about witches and aliens and zombies are all made up.  So what exactly is that standing outside the window as you make tea at 3am?  We’re biologically wired to imagine threat: the big people and the little people we evolved alongside on the veldt; the tiny shifting sounds and shadows of the big cat that evolved to eat us.  We can all therefore be lulled, when our defences are down, into wondering if it might be true.  I once house-sat for my parents and found myself sleeping in the lounge with a chair against the door and all the lights on.  The subsequent power cut made me run for my car and drive off, having not paused to gather all my luggage. 

4: The Person Who’ll Do Anything This monster is not made up.  They sometimes are found standing outside the window at 3am.  The oddest thing about them is that there aren’t more of them, that the magic of society is strong enough to make the vast majority of us want to make the vast majority of other people happy.  Some of these are serial killers, some are successful entrepreneurs, some were DJs in the 1960s.  I think they all probably knew someone quite like them when they were young.  I’ve only met a couple of these, and left bars and as a result left meetings a little more quickly than was polite.

5: The Numinous.  Knowing something is true that most people assume not to be is, in itself, scary.  It’s not the aliens and the ghosts so much, both of those could be interesting and even fun, picked apart on the slab of science.  It’s what they suggest.  What the big picture is.  One doesn’t want to carry that knowledge around alone.  To take that feeling further, those who encounter something from outside our universe: God; Satan; angels; the imminence of the universal now… those people often report a terror that seems apt for the tiny thing looking up at the big thing, whatever its intentions are.  I’ve had some contact experiences myself, and while at the time those were without fear, thinking about the implications afterwards was another thing altogether.

6: Boredom.  We’re used to more and more opportunities for stimulation now.  Indeed, we often feel swamped by them.  Take those away completely, locked up in one’s own brain, with only our own company, whether bricked up in one of Poe’s dungeons or in dementia or in an aware coma, and it becomes clear we need people, we need information, to be trapped with just ourselves, oddly, is to die many times.  My recurring nightmare is to be trapped on a desert island.  I even find living alone hard to bear. 

7: Forgetting.  To be afraid of not remembering that which is most dear to you is to be afraid of a dial in one’s brain only turning one more notch, because in truth we forget almost everything we’ve ever known.  We ourselves, with, at age 21, our brains containing not a single cell we were born with, are an oral tradition, every memory that forms who we are repeated from dead neuron to one still current.  The fragility of relationships, of self, scares us so much we have to say over and over how solid those things are.  My own memory is so bad I have to take a lot of this on trust, and cloud source my relationships with other people. 

8: Other People.  ‘Old horror movies,’ I was once told by an executive, ‘feature some fears we don’t recognise these days, like the fear of the mob’.  I wonder if he still feels the same way.  We live in a world where, as at no time before, we horribly aware of how different to us the people around us can be.  Blog comments sections show us that.  We surround ourselves, on Twitter, with a news service of only people who agree with us.  Modern manners are increasingly about being gentle to the increasing number of people around us.  Every now and then I wonder if one day I’ll fail that test of kindness, and, like Frankenstein’s monster pursued with flaming torches, fall through the ice of public opinion before I can explain myself.  Being outside civil company, looking in… that exile seems to me sometimes to be the worst of these nightmares. 

But tomorrow is All Saints, and we wake up from these fears, and the joy of a cup of tea and the puzzled look of a baby reminds us of everyday happiness, and we discover hope again.  It’s good, I think, that that moment is written into the year.  I’d say happy Halloween… but that’s really not the point. 


Paul’s new novel, LONDON FALLING, is published by Tor on 6 December, trade paperback £12.99, DRM-free ebook £8.99

For more from Paul, check out his blog

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  1. November 1, 2012 at 10:36 pm Kevin J. Maroney says:

    This is a fine list. Erasure, running up against the limits of your self, running out of control.

    A couple more categories occur to me. Maybe these aren’t for everyone:

    * “the vast”–there’s even a special term for the thrill of terror of the vast, “the sublime”. I think the chilling effect of the numinous is almost completely tied up with the vastness of it; encountering a leprechaun isn’t terrifying, but encountering a leprechaun society beside and below our own would be.

    * “the clown at midnight”–the familiar, specific thing that is completely removed from its context, so incongruous we cannot picture any good reason it might be present. You could say that this is a version of “the unknown”–known objects in an unknowable context–but it seems different enough to be worth mentioning.

    Of course, most kids find clowns bewildering and terrifying on their own. And what if the leprechaun has a chainsaw?

    – womzilla

  2. November 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm Adam McGovern says:

    A lovely map of humanity, the chakras of who we wish to be and fear we aren’t. Especially “Forgetting”; I’ve reflected in the past about the many stories of me that my mom remembers from before the time that I do, claims that define me, and the way that, reflected in the reaction we get from close friends, how much of what we know about ourselves even in maturity is taken on a faith in others. “Love is a story told to a friend,” said Joni Mitchell, and life is a story told *by* a friend. Being who you really are isn’t scary so much as hard, and the trick is to let trusted loved ones let you know.

  3. November 4, 2012 at 9:57 pm Nick Walters says:

    Paul, that it a very well thought out list of the things that truly scare us. “The shape at the window at 3am” is exactly right, and is why the Paranormal Activity movies are (to me) more terrifying than any amount of zombies, vampires, werewolves etc. There was one bit during PA3 that caused me actual physical pain, I was so shocked I thought I was having a heart attack.

    Such films, and such fears, are close to home as you suggest and I’m sure you are aware of MR James ghost stories and the BBC adaptations thereof, i.e. Ghost Stories at Christmas; most notoriously the Hordern/Miller “Oh Whistle…” I’ve seen this countless times and know the “scary bits” off by heart, but it’s not about them, it’s about the whole mood of pervasive, all encompassing dread. The ITV version of Casting the Runes is also worthy of note (the worst bit is when Jan Francis is molested in bed… by… I won’t spoil it!)

    I am currently working on an anthology of horror stories, a genre I have never really written for before, and I found this post extremely illuminating.

  4. November 5, 2012 at 4:59 pm Paul Cornell says:

    Excellent responses, everyone. I think you’re right about the additions to the list you mention.