5 Minutes with M.J. Starling

One of Blackshaw’s favourite writers, M.J. Starling, not only agreed to read ‘The Whistling Room’ by William Hope Hodgson for our Halloween Tales production but ALSO agreed to spend a few minutes answering our questions. What a hero.

Why did you decide to pick the William Hope Hodgson story that you’re reading for Halloween Tales?

It was a difficult choice between The Whistling Room and The Gateway of the Monster. (I think my favourite Carnacki the ghost finder story is actually The Hog, but that one would take over an hour to read aloud, plus its copyright situation is a bit fuzzy in the UK.) Gateway features Carnacki’s iconic Electric Pentacle, which Whistling Room only mentions; and Carnacki’s a bit more active in defending himself and defeating the monster in Gateway, too. I could argue that’s why I picked Whistling Room – horror’s scarier when you’re helpless, when the powers involved are just too huge and dangerous to handle – but really? It’s just because I love it so much. It was the first Carnacki story I experienced, and I want it to be that for some people in the audience as well.

What’s the best show you’ve ever been to?

GuruGuru, by Rotozaza (rotozaza.co.uk). It’s a fun, cyberpunky, unspeakably meta, unapologetically experimental little show-in-a-box for an audience of five, who are also the performers. You all wear earbuds that feed you lines to speak to each other and to the sixth character, a computer-genersted disembodied floating head on a screen which is trying to coach you all out of your stage fright. Which sounds a bit gimmicky, but I’ve never seen another show whose format is so perfectly designed to illustrate its subject matter (in this case free will and determinism, with some stuff about outer performativity versus inner selfhood thrown in for added spice), plus it’s both fun and funny. It’s also the show that made me think properly for the first time about theatricality, what constitutes a play or show, and whether the traditional business models of theatre are still the best we can do in the 21st century.

What’s your favourite horror movie?

Ridley Scott’s ALIEN.

What scares you silly?

Shipwrecks. Real ones or fictional ones; seeing them on TV, hearing about them in stories people tell, reading about them in books; ancient wrecks and wrecks in progress: they give me the screaming shivers (me timbers (sorry I make stupid jokes when I’m frightened)). I mean, think about it: a shipwreck is like a haunted house, except it’s haunted by be-tentacled deep-sea horrors as well as drowned spectres. And if you were to visit one, you’d already be out of your element, reliant on fallible breathing equipment to survive, much less well evolved to defend yourself or escape from anything you might find down there. Brr. I think this might stem from a childhood visit to the wreck of the Mary Rose. Even in drydock, I was awestruck by it – this huge, impressive human creation, designed to express and exert power, just destroyed by the sea.

Have you ever had a spooky experience?

Back in school, year 7 or 8, I dreamed one night that one of my friends was trying to axe-murder me. I think I escaped being axe-murdered, but only because he chased me right off a cliff and that woke me up.

So I mentioned this to him the next day at school, and we were laughing about it when another of our friends piped up from the desk behind: this same friend had tried to axe-murder him in a dream as well, that same night.

The dreams hadn’t particularly spooked me or the other dreamer, but the coincidence certainly spooked our friend, who worried for the rest of the day that he might be some kind of living, unwitting, secretly-friend-hating version of Freddy Krueger.

You’re going to a Halloween Party, what are you dressing up as?

Humanity is unique among Earth’s creatures in our ability to comprehend the sheer scale of the universe; and the price we pay for this intellectual superiority is exposure to the soul-crushing revelation of our own cosmic insignificance. So I’d go as that – but you know, like, a sexy version?

Not a lot of people know that…

…if you find yourself in the path of a swarm of bees, you mustn’t run: instead, drop to the ground, lie as flat as possible and let the swarm go over you. You might still get stung, but not nearly as badly as if the swarm thinks you’re in its way.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

There are no guilty pleasures. No one should be made to feel ashamed of enjoying something, unless their enjoyment of it is harming someone else.

I used to buy into this idea as much as the next person, and back at school I felt shame particularly about some of the music I enjoyed (that’s too poppy! that sounds like something tween girls would like! that’s not truly deeply emotional and true and raw enough!) until I realised that had more to do with the snobbishness and, to be frank, sexism that I and my friends of the time were passing off as rational critical thought about music. I feel ashamed of thinking that way back then; I don’t feel a scrap of shame at buying Call Me Maybe, which came in for a fair bit of “criticism” that reminded me of those days.

Don’t forget, you can catch M.J. Starling reading ‘The Whistling Room’ by William Hope Hodgson on 30th October. Tickets for that (and the other two performances) are still available.

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