“I was always a morbid kid”: James Grainger on respectability, experimenting on pig hearts, and the movie that got him interested in horror

“Horror movies were my way of living this secret life that I thought of as the real me.”

James Grainger can recall the precise moment he became a horror devotee. The critic and author (most recently of the novel Harmless) became entranced by the genre the first time he watched Bob Clark’s 1972 exploitation flick Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. (The director, who would go on to greater notoriety for Black Christmas and Porky’s, is billed in the opening credits as Benjamin Clark.) A B-movie ripoff of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Clark’s film tells the story of a hippie theatre troupe who take refuge in an abandoned house after an ill-conceived séance has the effect of raising the dead, who turn out to be cannibalistic zombies. For the nine-year-old Grainger, it was like nothing he had ever experienced before.

“It completely fucking traumatized me,” Grainger says. “But I became like a drug addict. Every time I watch a horror movie now, I’m looking for that kick.”

Grainger grew up in an area of north Toronto that was adjacent to an army base. On Fridays, the base would open to civilians for movie nights. They would show Bruce Lee movies, documentaries like Gimme Shelter, and B-grade fare with titles like White Line Fever and Dixie Dynamite. “It was like a grindhouse, but with an army sergeant who would yell at us as he was doing the free ticket draw for the next week,” Grainger says. “For my mom, she finally got a Friday night off. So she didn’t ask too many questions about what we were watching.”

One out of every three or five of those films was a horror movie; Freddie Francis’s 1973 shocker The Creeping Flesh was one of his favourites. But it was Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things that really made an impression. “Because it was on a big screen, because I’d never seen that kind of gore, that kind of realism before, it put me in a kind of head space where I really didn’t believe what I was seeing,” he says. “I was more scared than I’d ever been, and probably ever have been since.”

Grainger refers, somewhat anachronistically, to his “horror geek days” as a young man, though his current endeavours indicate that it’s a fascination that has stayed with him. He has spent time as a writer for the genre magazine Rue Morgue and currently has a column in the Toronto Star where he rounds up recent horror fiction releases of note. His latest project is a newsletter run through the subscription service Substack. Called The Veil, the weekly newsletter is a combination of interviews, essays, and features about aspects of the horror genre that especially enthuse Grainger, including a month-long survey of folk horror, a subgenre for which he claims a deep affection.

Though he admits that his tastes and interests have expanded since his early teens, as a young man, Grainger felt no compunction about diving into the horror genre to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. “When I got into my late teens, I started branching out for a bit. Then when I went to university, I became a snob for a few years,” he says. “But I was still reading Kafka. Everything I read had some kind of fantastic tinge to it.”

If Clark’s film provided the entrée into a genre that would become a lifelong enthusiasm for Grainger, the aspects of his personality that made him receptive to the film were already present when he first viewed it. Grainger grew up in an extended family of Irish Catholics, and his affection for the ritual and mystery of the church led directly to his interest in folk horror. But more than that, Grainger admits to a strain of dark eccentricity that characterized him as a child. “I was always a morbid kid,” he says. “I remember once I used my allowance to buy a pig heart. They had this meat section at the supermarket and I had this chemistry set, and I said, ‘I’m going to do experiments on it.’ ”

A still from Bob Clark’s 1973 film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things

The connection between horror and childhood has been well documented – read just about anything by Stephen King – but the mixture of the mixture of fascination with dark subjects and the ritual of a Catholic upbringing helped inculcate in Grainger a sense of majesty that is often absent from discussions of the genre. “Lovecraft mentions that the best horror evokes not only primitive feelings like terror and anxiety, but also a kind of awe,” he says. “That the normal laws that you navigate the world by have been suspended and something far more mysterious has pushed its way through.”

That said, Grainger’s willingness to admit to his horror fixation – let alone to invite people to subscribe to a newsletter about it – is something he has come to in adulthood. As a child, there were subversive aspects to the genre that he felt he would much rather keep to himself. “I would never have talked about this with anybody as a kid,” he says. “Horror movies were my way of living this secret life that I thought of as the real me, which was kind of monstrous and perverse and wanting to hang around graveyards.” And what was the attraction of that secret life? “You enter into this world of monsters and victims and this strange, symbolic language that’s very much like a dream. You can be in this space where you can imaginatively live out these things and maybe learn from them or just feel less freakish.”

There was also, almost categorically, an element of rebellion involved in immersing himself in the movies and literature of the 1970s and ’80s, much of which was characterized by a disreputable quality that thumbed its nose at respectable society. “It was an extension of rock ’n’ roll, especially in the ’80s,” he says. “And like rock music, it should never be too intelligent. It should be good, but it shouldn’t be any smarter than Television’s Marquee Moon. Or the Talking Heads. That should be the rule: you can’t be any smarter than the Talking Heads.”

While he is willing to admit that much horror is underpinned by an abiding intelligence – he agrees, for example, that Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse classic, The Texas Chain Saw Masssacre, is a very smart, well-made film – that does not make it any more respectable. “Smart and highbrow are maybe two different categories,” he says. “The Guardian every year has their ten best horror movie lists. And it should say, ‘For people who think they are too good to watch horror.’ ”

Though his literary and cinematic sensibilities have obviously expanded since that Friday night on the army base in Toronto, Grainger nonetheless retains an affection for the kind of downmarket, straightforward horror that formed his introduction to the genre. A recent instalment of The Veil comprises a loving essay about Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. And he hopes his newsletter will reach an audience that shares his sensibilities for the kind of horror that allows its recipients to indulge their dark side within the safe confines of art, and within certain carefully delineated limits.“I don’t like torture porn or pointlessly ‘transgressive’ horror,” he says. “But if you’re going to go into that realm, you’re into a realm of wildness and the monstrous. If you just look at your own nightmares, you know that there are no rules.”

“I was always a morbid kid”: James Grainger on respectability, experimenting on pig hearts, and the movie that got him interested in horror
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