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7 JULY, 2022

July for a horror writer should be hot; the sun a white, baleful eye that sees every sin and reaches fingers deep into the soil to find the rotting secrets buried there and bring them writhing to the surface. It should be a sheen of sweat, half fear, half desire, slicked across skin too warm to touch. It should be evenings stretched endlessly, like a held breath, where sounds are stifled under an unnatural sky, and thunder rumbles ominous, distant but creeping slowly closer with each bat that arcs the twilight. It should be mornings dragging themselves stickily from unquiet dreams, bedsheets tangling legs like shackles, a pearl of panicked dew filming the forehead, and a throat parched and dry.

But this July is none of these. It is sulking, cold and aloof. It keeps its secrets, like some Byronic antihero, some gothic host with skeletons in its closet. The skies are bruise-dark, the air, both morning and evening, is chill as the grave. July always broods, but this one does it with the cool calm of a calculating killer. What is it hiding? What dastardly deeds does it have planned?

These are the questions I ask, the stories I imagine while I walk the dog in the rain, sloshing through puddles with my snow boots that should’ve been in the cupboard months ago. Surely, I think, it must be plotting something? But July keeps its council, keeps its powder dry. It knows the weather’s changing, and this is not a horror writer’s summer.

The real world, right now, is more sinister and full of foreboding than anything I can write. Things are changing. I can smell it on the wind. It feels as though we are moving between genres. Friends quip that there’s no place for dystopias at the moment, and they are only half joking. If this were a horror story, we would be in the calm before the storm, the place where everything seems alright, on the surface, but there are already clues that monsters are lurking in the shadows. If I turn on the radio any morning these days, I hear things I would hesitate to write about in a horror story, for fear of being unbelievable. I hear things that, three years ago, I would never have believed myself.

Three years ago: my last summer in Asia. In July, I was soaking up the sun on a beach, wiggling my toes in the sand, about to leave one continent for another, start a new life again. Things were bright, warm, hopeful. Three years ago I had not heard the word “pandemic.” Three years ago war in Europe was the stuff of history books. Three years ago the US Supreme Court overturning Roe vs Wade belonged in dystopian novels. I had not yet got my hands on Atwood’s ‘The Testaments,’  and when I did, the world would still be innocent enough for me to receive her comments on how women are the first to suffer under any dictatorship with a detached philosophical nod of the head, rather than the visceral panic I feel now, reading the news.

The world has changed in three years, beyond all recognition. But more frighteningly, the worlds inside our minds have changed. Our worst nightmares are not so fanciful anymore. Dystopias are no longer fanciful what-ifs, but well-thumbed survival guides. I have a little red bag packed in the hallway. Maybe you do too. I thought I was packing it for natural disasters – floods, forest fires, maybe even “the big one” I heard so much about in my first few months on Canada’s West Coast that I, naively, had not realised sat atop the Cascadia subduction zone. Now I’m almost nostalgic for those first, heady days of panic when the foe I imagined was simply Nature in all her volatile, honest glory. Now my darkest dreams feature disasters wrought deliberately by some grasping, power-hungry politico with a moral compass in the red, permanently set to “shock and awe.”

And yet we go on, don’t we, with our daily lives, waiting for the storm to break? We keep our heads down, keep the ship afloat, as though routine might be enough to save us. We cling to the everyday, the “new normal,” like a life-raft in this unknown ocean with its deadly currents, that run just under the surface, where we can hear the slick whisper of their pull.

We know there are monsters there, in the deeps beneath us, but we think they don’t know about us. They are not wise to us, yet.

This July is like the early part of a horror story, the part where the clues are building, one by one. The lightbulb that flickers in the cellar. The creak on the stairs. The tap, tap, tapping on the window that is surely only the branches of some tree. The shriek in the night that is merely the call of a wild creature, or else simply a nightmare.

Don’t fall for it, dear reader, as the folks in horror tales always do. Don’t think you’re safe in the small pool of light from your torch, don’t think its little halo will keep the monsters at bay. Don’t, above all, think the monsters are not real.  Take a tip from horror stories. Keep a weapon under your pillow, and be ready to run.

I am a horror writer. It is my job to see demons in the shadows cast by a coat thrown over a chair in a darkening room. It’s my curse to prophesy disaster from a flight of innocent birds where others just see swallows returning. Time was, it was all make believe, all for fun. Fear was entertainment. But now it’s not pretend anymore. A lot of people are scared, for real. A lot of people have reason to be.

Now I see you, July. I know why your skies are covered, why you’re keeping your powder dry. You sense it too, don’t you? Some dull beast, slouching toward us, growing its claws until it’s ready to rend your horizon with its rage.

I keep my little red bag packed. I keep my snow boots ready. I see the clouds gather outside the window, July.

I’m a horror writer, and when I tell you a storm is coming, you can believe me, or you can put it down to my overactive fancies. I don’t know what my place will be, if the storm breaks and the downpour comes. I don’t know who will want make believe monsters when the real ones, barely skulking in the shadows right now, finally step into the light and reveal themselves in their full, horrible power. I don’t know how I will sharpen my words and load up the ammunition of my imagination to make a dent on the real world when they do. But I do know how to read the signs. A storm is coming. And we will all be very different when it has blown through.

So remember this July, with its clouds and foreboding. In the future, when horror stories are only make believe again, when dystopias are “what if?” and not “when did?” once more, this is what we will write about. We will keep telling ourselves stories of monsters, so that we recognise them when we see them in the flesh. We will remember that all horror stories have at their core a seed of truth stolen from the real world. And we remind ourselves to sniff the air, so that next time those of us that are left will not be taken by surprise.


FK Marlowe profile pic
FK “Belle” Marlowe

F.K. Marlowe is a Shropshire lass who lived in London and Beijing before settling down with her husband, three daughters and rescue pup in Vancouver. She writes horror stories with a tendency to the paranormal, and Young Adult fiction with fangs and sass.

Marlowe doesn’t worry overly much about the placement of semi-colons and the like, having spent far too long pootling about in academia to take them seriously. (She has an Oxford first in English Lit, plus a Master’s and PhD from Leeds). She has, however, discovered that life is the best education for a writer, and plans to continue her studies there as long as possible.


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