Extraordinary Things - Dom Watson

I don’t think it matters what time or decade you were born in, we always hold on tight to the things that carved us, even if, in those stressful days of forging a career, a family, a righteous path of ethics and monetary woe, we always come back to one thing . . . the things that moulded us in youth.

I never really intended to write a Stranger Things pastiche. I don’t think it is really. There are similarities, but for the most part it is more violent, grotesque, and deals with some quite adult issues. But the show, when it aired its first season in July 2016 blew me away. More than that, it propelled me into a wine enthused nostalgic maelstrom which I certainly regretted the next morning. It was a tonic, deep down I had been looking for something like this. Super 8 came close, but this blew my love affair with 80’s nostalgia out of the water. And it was also a marvellous bottle of merlot I must say.

Everything comes so freely now. You can watch Netflix on your phone. Download an album for the train journey ahead. To me, such delights in the 80’s were few and far between. Four channels on TV, a local video shop. That was it. So, when we had the chance to watch a film it was cherished and digested thoroughly.

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“We are children and heirs of the time and place that bore us”

That was a line from Highlander the TV show circa 1992 -98. You see, ridiculous trivia, and yet that line from a pretty mediocre episode etched itself onto my brain. Beautiful in its simplicity, poetry in its formula. And yet, truth. Looking back at my youth now, we were the heirs of that sensual time of forbidden celluloid. We were aware of the top shelf of violent and horror grotesque’s in the local video store and yet we didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of watching them . . . or did we? What’s more, in such an age how did we become aware of these sacred jewels on high?

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TONGUES WAG

Most of my friends had older siblings, so it was always opportune to hang around the older bunch. Sometimes they had parties, or sleepovers and me and my mates were always there, hanging with the cooler bunch, the ones who could score the copy of Demons, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser. Suffice to say, I was around twelve when I watched my first 18 certificate film. Some may say it damaged me. I don’t think it did. But the jury is out. But here, in simpler times, we were enthral to celluloid. Art, dialled up to eleven. To us, we were adventurers, boldly going into places we really shouldn’t have been looking. But there was more, some spoke of banned films, movies that were so visceral that made people puke in the aisles of the local cinema. The Video Nasty had landed. And to us adventurers we were searching for Pandora’s Box. My mate’s brother knew a guy at work who could get a copy of The Evil Dead, possibly The Exorcist.

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TRIGGER WARNING

Don’t panic. I’m not a wrongun. As a youth I was healthy. I played football, religiously, spent summers up at the local swimming pool, daily. Cricket down the field. Messed about on bikes, went to school, gladly. Played kick-post, Grandma’s footsteps, watched normal telly like Doctor Who, The A-Team. I cried like a baby when Artax died in the swamp of sadness in A Never-Ending Story. I still do.  We just hankered for a bite of the forbidden. In fact, I never got to watch The Exorcist until its release on VHS in 1998. I was quite glad because it gave me the chills then. It was probably the mid 90’s when I saw The Evil Dead. I think – back in those adolescent days - one of the parents blabbed. Or maybe one of the older siblings ran us in. Who knows, but a seed had already been planted. And it flourished.

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SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU

As such gut-punching films were inaugurated into the Horror hall of fame – and quite rightly so – my explorations into the dark designs of celluloid horror took a wrong turn, or, maybe in hindsight, the best direction I could have taken. I never really had a clear and distinct idea of where my life was heading. To be honest I still don’t. I’m winging it, every day. But late one Sunday night in the 90’s (I can’t remember the exact date) I sat and watched – in bed – The South Bank Show which did a piece on Clive Barker.  I knew who Clive Barker was. He was the Hellraiser dude, and I knew he had written some books. But showcasing his work ignited something within me I had been foraging for myself. The ability to create, mould and craft my own monsters. Clive Barker gave me a template; a springboard in which to experiment. It would take many years for me to release my first book, but I had a plan of attack. An aim. At this young juncture I still wasn’t sure if this would be through film or the written word. Two books cemented my indecision.  Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show. There aren’t many times in life that make you want to be a novelist. To create a mythology like that, and word it and entice the reader in, it’s damn theatre. I wanted a stab.

But like I said, it was a long way off. I always tinkered. Short stories, some novels. Unfinished dross that probably now cowers in my attic space. But confidence is key. It wasn’t just about creating worlds, it was having the confidence and the can-do attitude to implement it. For a young man, now in his senior year at high school the world was already eager to bite with a sincere realism. You haven’t got what it takes Dom.

We all carry little pockets of joy within ourselves. Memories formed from innocence, happiness, sometimes fear. Shows like Stranger Things work because they tap into more innocent times, mostly for the Gen X viewer. For me it tapped into my childhood. Of hanging with my friends, coming home to parents. A safety net. But, also, it showed the fear, illustrated by the Demogorgon. Light and dark, we cannot have one without the other. The same is said for me. Which is something hinted upon in Smoker On The Porch. But even that fear can elevate us into some extraordinary places, because we are still here. We came from the other side of it. These shows we hold dear, Stranger Things, Doctor Who, Star Trek, offer us timeless sanctuaries – a reminder of home, family, friends.

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LEGACY

Stranger Things is just another show born from legacy. I get the same feeling watching The Lost Boys or the Goonies. One of comfort, nostalgia, and family. An innocent nod to times past that we can hold close like a hot water bottle. These cherished films and shows offer us a tapestry to pick from. You can see the roots of Stranger Things in The Lost Boys and The Goonies. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a great recipe should be shared.  It’s inherent in contempory culture. Stephen King dabbles with it in Stand By Me and IT. And why not? Because children see all the monsters. If we have to pick from this particular tree we have to remember to do it right. No child ever had a childhood of rainbows. We have to remember to incorporate those dark moments. Whether it’s the monster in the closet or the school bully. Or that old man in the strange house at the end of the street. These shows echo in pop culture because they are cautionary tales, allegories for the world ahead with its sharp teeth.

But us writers and authors like to pick from the story tree. And why shouldn’t we? It has abundant fruit. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I struck up a fascination with Granada TV’s dramatization of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett. We all know Sherlock Holmes, but it was Brett’s panache and eccentricity for the role that stayed with me for years. It was years later in my mid-thirties, after coming home from work and crashing on the couch that I found some re-runs on a totally obscure Freeview channel.  Clutching a mug of tea and occasionally a can of beer I sauntered through this fabulous Victoriana again. Cherished memories resurfacing like a toddler’s giggle. But this time, these fabulous totems of old celluloid ignited something else. In a mischievous mood I subverted the idea, what if Holmes and Watson had alien clients? What if Victorian London was another planet? A commune for the universe. The previous night I had watched a documentary on neolithic man, so, what if Watson (not me, though I’m quite hairy) was a Neanderthal? I went off and buggered about and came up with the premise for a novel, solely by clutching on to the gems of youth and tossing it about in Dom’s playpen. That idea became The Boy Who Walked Too Far, my first foray into print. I knew I had it. The story tree bares fruit.

But you see. They all form us, these jewelled moments of the past. If you asked the Duffer Brothers what the inspiration for Stranger Things was, they would hardly say Gone With The Wind. If they did I would be mildly perturbed. It’s there, in the ether, rich and abundant for our respective narratives. So therefore, what of Smoker on the Porch. What was its inspiration?

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SMOKER ON THE PORCH

Like I said, we carry these pockets of joy within ourselves. So, Smoker was born from love of the area I live in, which is on the Suffolk coast. There is fantastic folklore here. Something of which I will jump back into in the future. I mingled certain historical dates within the mythology, most notably the High Tide incident of 1953. But it’s structure is of course born from such stuff as IT, The Lost Boys and of course Stranger Things which was the final bit of inertia needed to formulate the story. But there never really has been this tale told in British media. 1989 is a tenuous year, Thatcher’s Britain, Grunge and alternative music moving through the charts. It’s a precipice moment. You can feel the decade ending with worry and doubt and then of course the final decade of the 20th century. These boys aren’t just fearful of the scary old dude down the street. Shit is about to get real for themselves as high school looms on the horizon.

It was lightbulb moment for me to write this. At the time of Stranger Things first season, I was wrestling with some demons so I knew the next book would echo some personal flotsam. Writing sometimes is quite cathartic, you can off load. So, for me it is quite personal that my laptop became my counsellor. Some of the shit Jake goes through in the ‘Straw house’ happened to me in some context so it is like therapy. And those incidents happened in the mid 80’s so using the Stranger Things template seemed extremely relevant. And, yet again, it's about holding our stories close to us, and that if we believe in our stories so much they can become a superpower.

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LOSE YOURSELVES

I remember recently watching Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I walked in with great trepidation. As one really should in circumstances bordering on gold awarded childhood. I walked away elated. It hit in so many spots I lost count. A continuation and yet a reinvention holding aloft the core principles of the first. And so, over Christmas I treated myself to the original and its sequel, offering me a sanctity for a few hours in which I could languish in retro heaven. And for those hours I was a kid again, playing kick-post, scrambling around the estate on my BMX. Having my first kiss, walking to school with my mates and picking up conkers on the way. So, hold on to little pockets of joy. In a more demanding world, we need them more than ever. We need our Stranger Things and Doctor Who’s. They offer comfort and respite in these more uncertain, challenging times. In essence I suppose, I don’t want to grow up.  Hold on, to your Extraordinary Things.

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Alternative cover design to Smoker on the Porch, by Dom WatsonAlternative cover design to Smoker on the Porch, by Dom Watson

If you liked what you've just read, you can order Smoker on the Porch using this link, or add it to Goodreads.

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About Dom Watson

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Father of cats and one human daughter. And a strange male toddler who magically appeared.

Imagineer of the fantastic and the horrific. Explorer of the ethereal realms of the human id.

Author of The Boy Who Walked Too Far and the upcoming novella Smoker on the Porch. Sequel to 'The Boy', A Stage of Furies due for release in 2022

Loves cooking, reading, cycling and generally behaving like a fool.

Fighting the fight for mental health.

Will sing for pizza and dance for wine.