In this episode we discussed Malevolents: Click Click by Thom Burgess and Joe Becci.
Thank you to Thom for approaching us with his work! You can find him on twitter at @manoghosts, and his big cartel shop here.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, and you can find her work at makiyamazaki.com. Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and their band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
Letty also has a wonderfully haunting and Halloween-appropriate comic, A Stranger Came to Town, which you can purchase here.
The sounds used in this episode are:
- forfie - bonfire
- knightonahorse - creepy metal grind
- ivolipa - screech owl
- CGEffex - chitter ambience
Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, our podcast is a year old, and today we’re talking about The Malevolents by Thom Burgess.
(Theme tune plays)
Ren: Good evening, Adam!
Adam: Good evening, Ren!
Ren: So for this episode we have to pretend that we’re not sitting in front of our computers in bedrooms and computer rooms, and trying not to make too much noise on our squeaky chairs, but instead sitting in front of a bonfire, roasting sweet potatoes in the fire, while strange creatures make chitinous noises in the trees. Because —
Adam: it’s Brexit Britain!
Ren: Yes, you got it in one, well done! Also, it’s Halloween.
Adam: We have to make our own podcasts out of sticks.
Ren: That’s right. The podcasts of the future are just creatures in the trees making noises.
Adam: But at least we have our pride!
Ren: And furthermore it is our first anniversary episode!
Adam: Happy birthday to us! A year older, a year creakier.
Ren: A year creepier.
Adam: I don’t know if they go hand in hand, being creaky and being creepy. Maybe if you’re an item of furniture.
Ren: And who’s to say we’re not?
Adam: You don’t know, you can only hear our voices.
Ren: I haven’t even seen you in person for several years, so…
Adam: So I may have transformed into a creepy wardrobe. I mean, it’s a possibility.
Ren: But yeah, we’ve been talking about ghosts, and witches, and werewolves, and wheelers and haunted puppets, and clown-scarecrows for a whole year!
Adam: Well, more than a year, we just weren’t making anyone else listen to us before.
Ren: And it still feels like there’s a lot to cover —
Adam: Oh gosh yeah, it still feels like we’ve only scratched the surface. We discover more and more, really.
Ren: I was worried at first that we’d run out of things. We’d do Coraline —
Adam: — and a few Goosebumps and that’d be our lot.
Ren: We haven’t even done Coraline, and we’re at 20+ episodes, a year in. Adam: Coraline’s my favourite.
Ren: Coraline’s the reason we’re doing this.
Adam: Pretty much. Episode 100, there we go.
Ren: Is that going to be Coraline? I’m up for that. We’ll have such troves of knowledge and nuance by then.
Adam: Oh yes, we’ll dissect it like… a fish.
Ren: Yeah, just like a fish. So… so.
Adam: You wanted to assess what we’ve learned?
Ren: Yeah. What have we learned?
Adam: I’ve made a few notes.
I kind of already knew this, but homes. Homes becoming other and unworldly. That’s a Coraline trope, but it came up really nicely in Marianne Dreams/Paperhouse as well.
Ren: Yes, and Mercedes Ice has a bit of that as well. And Thornhill, although the house Thornhill was never very welcoming.
Adam: Yes. Although there’s always the question of whether the child can adapt to this home or not. Whether they can find a way like Mercedes does for most of the book, unless the building is more or less exploded, and obviously he loses his kingship.
Ren: A lot of buildings, a lot of homes. I’ve mentioned before about the familiar becoming unfamiliar being a trope of children’s horror, and we’ve seen that with homes and houses.
Adam: I think it’s also though that children can’t drive. Or they’re not allowed to drive.
Ren: Some of them are probably better at driving than me.
Adam: And me, I can’t drive. But I have money and I can go and get a train! I might go with someone else, but theoretically, it’s my right, being a British citizen, it’s my right to get a train!
Adam: Even if I have nowhere to go, I can get a train, and sit in my train seat, and then write an angry letter to The Telegraph if my ticket is checked more than once.
Ren: You are a gentleman of a certain age.*
Adam: I am now a gentleman of a certain age, I’ve been doing this for a year. But what I’m trying to get at in a roundabout way is that when you’re a child, your home makes up a fair portion of your world. The home and the school become your world, to a degree, so if you are uncomfortable at home or at school, and these places become threatening, it’s not very easy for you to escape.
I think this ties in to my second point, the fear of not being believed, and monstrous authority figures. Say you have a teacher, or a Demon Headmaster, who’s up to various nefarious no-goodings, then if your parents don’t believe you you’re in a pickle.
So I think that fear, and recognition that as a kid you don’t have much power, and there’s a whole world of adults who circumscribe your behaviour, and tell you what you can and can’t do, and if they abuse that power, who do you turn to other than other potentially devious authority figures?
Ren: And we’ve definitely seen some bands of children against adult authority figures. I’m thinking of The Crysalids, as well as The Demon Headmaster. That’s definitely a reoccurring theme.
Adam: And I think the fear, whether these are human monsters or humanoid figures like the aliens in Interstellar Pig, these monstrous creatures being merciless. This idea that despite being a child there’s no way to appeal to their sympathies, or better judgement.
Like say with The Witches, it doesn’t matter if you’re the sweetest, kindest, nicest child in the world, the witches want to squish you and squash you and annihilate you. The fact that there’s no reasoning with the witches. And the aliens in Interstellar Pig are completely merciless in their stances towards humans.
So I think that’s quite a scary thing. Because maybe there’s that hope as a child that horrible adults will be a bit easier on you because you’re a kid, so having that safety buffer taken away is scary.
And you talked about groups, but I think sometimes there is also the fear of groupthink, the fear of being the single person who sticks out. When everyone else is hypnotised, or deceived and it ends up being you against the world. I think that’s pretty scary as a kid.
Ren: Yeah. We get a little bit of that in House of Stairs, there’s two of them at the end but they are the only ones who are resisting both the machine and the authority figures who put them in the machine.
Adam: It’s something you see a lot in Young Adult fiction, like The Hunger Games.
And finally perhaps, the fear of being accidentally evil? The fear of being cursed or doomed, especially by something that was out of your control, or you accidentally did but didn’t mean to. I was thinking of Witch Week. Some of the children respond with pleasure at realising that they’re a witch, but others are overwhelmed with fear and shame and horror that they are these somehow evil figures, without even knowing it.
Ren: Yeah. And that’s another thing that’s out of control.
Adam: And it’s something they can’t run away from as well, because it’s part of them.
Ren: Having powers that you don’t know what they are, or how they work, and people fear you.
Adam: You get that in The Crysalids as well.
Ren: And perhaps the accidental ghosts of Beetlejuice.
Adam: The lovely ghosts. The Ghost Who Were Nice. I think also, just while it’s on my mind, and I don’t know if we’ve encountered this, but I’ve been thinking about Narnia recently, and I don’t know if we’ll ever cover them because they’re not really horror, but The Last Battle really bothered and upset me as a kid.
And okay, they all die, so of course it’s going to be upsetting. Except for Susan, she likes boys so she goes to hell. But they end up going to Cair Paravel, so if you’re brought up to believe in heaven it’s not such a bad ending. But I have a very atheistic Dad, so I definitely didn’t believe in heaven as a kid, believed in hell a bit, not so much heaven. That’s what having an atheist kid and a Catholic aunt will do to you, I think.
But one thing that really upset me is that after the train crash they’re dead and they don’t know it. So they’re walking through Narnia and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re back in Narnia, how did that happen? I remember this cliff, and a jolt. We were on a train, weren’t we?’ We kind of know that they’re dead and yet they don’t know yet, that really freaked me out as a kid. The idea that you might be dead, or you might be ill, or something might have gone wrong, and yet you’re oblivious.
__Ren: __That actually ties into my number one children’s horror experience from The Moomins, which we will do an episode on.
Adam: We should, there’s quite a lot of horror in The Moomins.
Ren: There’s this one story where they find this magical hat that transforms things, so they put some eggshells in it and they turn into pink clouds and they’re all floating about and it’s lovely, but then they play hide-and-seek and Moomintroll hides in the hat, and when he comes out he’s transformed into this strange looking creature, but he doesn’t realise it.
He comes out, and everyone’s like: ‘urgh, what’s this? How did you get in the house?’ And he’s like ‘It’s me, Moomintroll!’ And that just absolutely terrified me. The idea that his mother doesn’t recognise him when he’s like ‘it’s me!’. Brrrrr.
Adam: So we need to collect up all these tropes so we can write the scariest children’s story that ever existed and traumatise a whole new generation of kids, like we were traumatised!
Ren: (evilly) Ah hah hah hah hah! Yep. That’s the end-game of this podcast.
Adam: If it wasn’t already apparent.
Ren: Shall we talk about our topic for today?
So this one is a bit different than usual, in that the author Thom Burgess, approached us on Twitter to see if we were interested in talking about his graphic novellas. So we had a look at them, and thought they were pretty good. In the interests of full disclosure we had access to free digital copies of these stories. But we’re just going to talk about them in our regular way.
Adam: With watermarks, but I didn’t think that affected my experience too much.
Ren: Yep. So spoilers and all that. Mostly we’re going to talk about Malevolents, with a 'ts'. As in… several malevolent… uhhh.
__Adam: __I left it up to you to say the name!
Ren: I just realised that a malevolent isn’t really a thing. But if it were, it would be the plural of that!
Adam: This is really the only Young Adult-ish one out of the trilogy of Thom’s horror-themed graphic novels. It’s the only one with teenage protagonists.
Ren: So that’s the one we’re going to talk about the most. Illustrated by Joe Becci. So in Malevolents Click Click, a group of school kids have dared each other to stay the night in 50 Berkely Square, which is a notoriously haunted house. They have a ouija board, but before they even get to use it, one of the group starts telling a story of a boy called Billy Blore. Billy was dared to stay in the same house, in the same room, that they are in and to summon the spirit of a ghost called Maggs with the ouija board.
Maggs was born into the rich family that lived in the house but was declared ‘wrong in the head’ and kept inside out of the way. One day he escaped and attacked a couple and ripped their tongues out. After that he was kept locked in the attic by his brother, where he ‘screamed his vocal chords to shreds’, until all he could do was click his tongue to call for food. Eventually his brother couldn’t stand the incessant clicking and he left Maggs to starve to death in the attic.
So Billy completes the dare, and feels quite smug about it because it seems like nothing has happened, but soon he starts to feel watched, and starts seeing things out of the corner of his eye, and getting cold chills. It’s clear that he’s got the attention of Maggs. Billy starts to become undone, pursued by the clicking noise wherever he goes, and sets it, and himself, on fire.
So the girl finishes telling this story, and one of the boys is like ‘yep, it’s all true, the caretaker told me and he bet we wouldn’t stay the night here. Also this ouija board is the one that Billy brought with him’.
Adam: ‘By the way…’
Ren: They scoff, but then the caretaker himself turns up and he says that he had to bring them there because Maggs was restless and he needs the tongues. They try to leave but the withered, wild-eyed face of Maggs rips through the wall and the last panel is the lights going off in the house with the words ‘click click’.
So, it’s a good, creepy classic ghost story.
Adam: Yeah, it’s very much set up like a story told around the very fire we’re sat around now. Oooh it’s warm and toasty.
Ren: But our backs are cold and maybe there are things lurking in the woods.
Adam: So visually, I think Maggs is pretty scary! He looks suitable gnarled and knotted, like he’s been hewn out of an old tree. I really like the panel of Maggs emerging from the wall, in particular. It reminded me quite a bit of a similar panel in a Junji Ito comic, Uzumaki, which is about a town infected by spirals, and there’s a man who grows these spiracular maggoty growths, basically, and there’s a bit where he comes through the wall and his face has sprouted.
And in fact, the special edition of the comic comes with a forward from Junji Ito, so I definitely saw an influence in as much, as I think Ito sometimes probes into more existential horrors, but there’s a definite monster of the week flavour to Ito’s stuff as well. He clearly loves monsters, and old-fashioned ghost stories. He loves things that go bump in the night, and I think you get the sense that Thom also likes these late-at-night creepy tales.
And some of the pleasure is that we don’t get too distracted by psychology, and I think in this context it kind of works. It’s not really about that. It’s more about the simple pleasure of story-telling and the way that with those folkloric stories you never quite know if there’s a germ of truth in it or not.
Ren: I do really enjoy these kind of ghost stories. I keep wanting to watch The Haunting of Hill House which is just on Netflix and people keep talking about how good it is. But I’m so bad at dealing with tension in TV or film, that whenever it’s dark and creepy music starts playing, I can’t look at the screen and start reading things on my phone instead to diffuse the tension.
Adam: It would be pretty scary though, if the same scary image appeared on the phone!
Ren: That would get me!
Adam: Shout out to Maki to get the wheels on that one moving.
Ren: So I have both this drive to enjoy ghost stories, but I’m also really quite a scaredy cat. So I enjoyed this, because it didn’t have spooky music. It was good and creepy, but I was actually able to read it.
Adam: That’s a good quote from a horror podcast!
Ren: I have quite a disadvantage in the horror-reviewing field.
Adam: (movie announcer voice) Ren had just one fatal flaw.
So this is set in London, right? Did you hear much talk about local London ghosts when you were young, in London? Did you hear about the ghosts?
Ren: No. I don’t think so.
Adam: No ghosts in your school?
Ren: Oh, there was a ghost in my school!
Adam: There we go. I knew there would be one.
Ren: Yeah, my school was 400 years old, and there was a staircase that the students weren’t allowed to walk on, a staff-only staircase. Because it was part of the oldest part of the building. And apparently someone had been murdered around the those stairs. I had a friend who said she was quite sensitive to these things, and she said those stairs had a creepy aura. Mmm-hmm. **
Adam: I mean, living her in Suffolk there’s obviously the folk tale of Black Shuck, the demonic dog. I’m pretty scared of dogs anyway. It’s loosely what Hound of the Baskervilles is based on. A big ghost dog, basically!
Ren: Also, my dad —
Adam: — is a ghost!
Ren: No. He’s a vicar.
Adam: Not just a vicar, he’s a bishop!
Ren: Yeah, but back when he was a regular vicar he sometimes had to go to people’s houses to bless them, if they felt that there was something creepy in the house. So he sometimes got to bless houses where there might be ghosts.
Adam: Did he ever report back on feeling something supernatural?
Ren: Well, he did say he went into the room once that people wanted blessing, and he did say it had a cold and unfriendly feeling to it.
Adam: I once looked round a house that had a weird feeling, but I think that was mostly because there was a plastic baby’s high chair, and an empty can of beer left on it. Which gave it a bad ambience. So I don’t know if it was actually haunted or anything.
Ren: Haunted by a drunk baby!
Adam: That’s the saddest thing! Dickens really missed a trick not writing about that. It could have been the sequel to A Christmas Carol. Scrooge and the Drunk Baby.
But before this gets into being a Decembrists song…
Ren: I think the thing I liked best about Malevolents was the drawings of Maggs’ shadowy figure turning up to haunt Billy. He turns up at the window when Billy’s brushing his teeth, and appears creeping in the background of a crowd scene on TV. And my favourite one, when Billy is at the swimming pool diving for quoits, and he dives to the bottom of the pool and sees the dark, huddled figure of Maggs bundled underwater against the corner of the pool. That was very good.
Adam: It was, that whole sequence was very good. I did feel we see a bit too much of Maggs a bit too early, myself. I would have liked to build the tension up a bit more before we saw Maggs. It feels like Maggs is hanging out all over the place! But the art is creepy enough that it does remain creepy.
Ren: Yep. Lots of dark, scribbly pencil.
Adam: I liked the scribblyness of it.
How did you feel Maggs worked as the antagonist?
Ren: I don’t know, it’s entering into the territory of mental illness and horror, which is obviously a big trope but we haven’t really encountered it so far. Adam: Yeah, it’s in a lot of adult horror, I could list off so many films that use it, but it hasn’t cropped up so much with children’s horror.
Ren: So Maggs is scary and violent, and at least assumed to be mad in the mould of asylum horror stories. And it doesn’t do anything different with that trope, but maybe it doesn’t really need to, as it is quite a straightforward ghost story. But that trope’s not my favourite!
Adam: I guess there’s the question of if this is an actual, local ghost story, should it be changed or what would be the meaning of it being changed. It’s tricky because a lot of folkloric stories are going to be problematic, because they’re often steeped in fears of otherness, or difference, or plain prejudicial attitudes.
There’s the question of whether we should repeat these stories, or should these be subverted? I guess there would be a way to do that within the frame narrative, perhaps, while keeping the central story the same. But I can understand also that as a writer Thom seems to care a lot about economy of expression, there’s very little exposition in any of these graphic novellas, they did just seem to be recounting these old stories. Maybe in the future it’s something he can look more into.
Ren: But that aside, Maggs is definitely a good scary antagonist, with a scary desire for people’s tongues. So I think it works quite well.
Adam: So I think I somewhat preferred the other two graphic novels, Hallows Fall and The Eyries. The Eyries is the second one, in which an American photojournalist called Rebecca goes to the southern coast of England, and encounters the ghosts of various nasty smugglers. I think defaming smugglers is fine. I really liked the art of that one (by Barney Bodoano) , it was possibly my favourite of the three.
I found it genuinely uncanny, just slightly off, and the expressions were quite unreadable. And I did my postgrad in Devonshire, and I’m not saying the loans were like that, but I thought it captured that part of the country. It felt quite location-specific, because of the smugglers connection. It was the one that felt most firmly rooted in place, to me. Which is think is what I want from a ghost story.
Ren: It definitely felt like folk horror, that one.
Adam: That’s true, and I am definitely a sucker for folk horror. I’ve recently listened to The Evolution of Horror podcast on folk horror, and got quite into it. And Hallows Fall is also rural, it’s sent in Kent’s bluebell wood, or round that region. I don’t know Kent nearly as well as the southern coast, but I tend to like those kind of locations more than London, because I’m a country boy.
It’s probably partly what you can relate to, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time walking around woods late at night. And I’ve spent less time exploring abandoned buildings in London.
Ren: Yeah… I mean, I don’t think I’ve done that either. I don’t think. Adam: Not even in your wildest freegan skipping days?*
Ren: I’m not ruling it out entirely, but I can’t think of a specific example.
Adam: Maybe you repressed it because it was so spooky!
Ren: But yes, I like the different locations and how the stories are tied to them.
Adam: Selfishly, I’d quite like a Black Shuck one, if you’re listening Thom. Because then it can be set in Suffolk, the spookiest county. That’s not official or anything, but that that’s what I’m claiming.
One of our beers is called Ghost Ship. Although the real spooky thing is that with climate change, beer is going to become less and less produced and less available.
Ren: That is the real horror.
Adam: I thought because I’ve already talked about Brexit, I might as well get the bigger picture horror as well.
Ren: I liked in Hallows Fall that the horrible guy got sacrificed by his fiancee. I enjoyed that.
Adam: He was pretty ‘orrible.
Ren: It reminded me of The Shining, when I was watching it and shouting ‘Lock him in the freezer, Shelley! Lock him in the freezer!’, and this guy did get metaphorically locked in the freezer.
Adam: Yes, I think we’ve discussed Kubrick on this podcast before, and both of our wariness about Kubrick and the fact that he seems to be a little bit too much in love with his evil masculine protagonists.
Ren: So I was glad that this, if not evil, at least boorish and unpleasant character —
Adam: — Well, he was sort of like a yuppie from a ‘90s sketch show. He made me think of a Kids in the Hall yuppie that would be played by Bruce.*
Ren: With a big watch.
Adam: Yeah, exactly.
Ren: I think the thing that I liked least about all these stories is how unlikeable all the characters are.
Adam: Well the teenagers in Malevolents sure swore a lot, I thought.
Ren: They were very sweary.
Adam:Very sweary children. You wouldn’t have caught me swearing like that, or if I did I’d have gone and washed my mouth out with soap.
I only actually did that once. I wouldn’t advise it.
Ren: I just found it a bit sweary and cynical and grouchy, for my tastes.
Adam: Yeah, where’s the love??
Ren:Where is the love?
Adam: That’s what we want in our horror, more love!
Ren: Maybe I just want cosy horror.
Adam: We’re a long way from The Pogles!
I do know what you mean. It’s something that happens in horror, I think, but I do struggle with it. I read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story recently, which is effectively creepy, but has a lot of boorish men and generally not very likeable characters, and is quite a long novel. So I just kind of felt, I don’t really want to spend all this time in their company. Which isn’t such an issue, to be fair, in a short graphic novel.
But at least they had characters. I mean, I love Junji Ito’s stuff, I’m a big fan, but I will say that one of his weaknesses is that sometimes the characters do lack character. He’s so good at coming up with these monsters, or bizarre twists that sometimes the characters are very bland.
So these characters aren’t the most likeable, but they do feel like real characters, and I had a sense of them.
So if you are in the mood for traditional creepy ghost stories with dark and scritchy art, you can find Thom on twitter at @manoghosts, and that has links to his big cartel shop where you can buy special editions of the graphic novellas for Halloween. So if this sounds like your cup of Joe, I think we generally recommend them!
Ren: Yeah, they’re pretty good and spooky.
Adam: Do we have a Texture of the WeeK?
Ren: Do we? I do. Do you?
Adam: I’m sure I have objects around to make sounds with somewhere…
Ren: That’s the most important bit.
Adam: I’m going to have to really reach up to these high shelves now. Oh my gosh. I’ve kind of got through the objects down here.
(Banging noises begin)
Ren: Texture texture
Adam: Ooof! (Falling down noise)
Ren and Adam:Texture texture texture texture of the weeeeek!
Adam:I genuinely did hurt my knee there!
Ren: Oh Adam.
Adam: I did a good comedy pratfall, which was silly because no-one could see it. But then I hurt my knee because I’m old.
Ren: Where your noises there just you falling?
Adam: It started out as me deliberately falling because I didn’t have any noises to make, but then my deliberate fall became a semi-real fall and I hurt my knee.
Ohh I’ve fallen in the fire and hurt my toes! It was a tree I just climbed up. I think I tripped on a badger!
A bit of Noel Fielding animal whimsy there, for all you bake-off lovers.
Okay, so for me, I would say Maggs’ nose.
Adam:I just liked the… I don’t know if it’s exactly wartiness. I could imagine snipping bits of Maggs off with some scissors. (Adam makes snipping noises with scissors)
Ren: You’ve got some scissors.
Adam: Yeah! I could have used those in Texture of the Week. So, the flesh of Maggs.
Ren: Well, mine is adjacent to that, because I was going to say the hair of Maggs.
Adam: The flesh of Maggs and the hair of Maggs!
Ren: Particularly when Billy is in the video shop that he works in, and he hears a noise, and leans down under the stacks and you can just see the upside-down scraggly ends of Maggs’ hair, and then the top of his head creeps down, and then his eyes. But just the straggly hairs hanging down I thought was a good creepy texture.
Adam: Good old scraggly hairs.
Ren: Have some scraggles.
Adam:I think that might have to be my parting words.
Have some scraggles, creepy kids! Some good old halloween scraggles.
Ren: So that’s been Malevolents by Thom Burgess!
Here’s to another year of creepy spooky whatnots!
Adam: Don’t eat too much choco!
Ren: See you next time!
The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper, and this is a reference to a real letter in it, which began ‘as a gentleman of a certain age’.
Apparently it was Mrs Martin, the infirmary nurse, who was murdered during a period of the school's history when it became 'a den of vice rather than a centre of virtue'.
On reflection, I'm afraid to say that I have never explored an abandoned building. But as a kid I did find a watch with four faces hanging in a tree in a park.