With the House of Sweets Kickstarter going strong (thanks everyone!) I thought it might be worth having a look at one of the principal influences on how it came together.
Process wise, House of Sweets coalesced a little differently to The Edge Off. The initial idea came from Iain, who sent me a mysterious drawing with the title and some notes on what kind of story he envisioned. As I’ve said before, Iain is a brilliant ideas guy who can throw out half a dozen fantastic story pitches in one conversation. I always find his ideas impressive but for some reason House of Sweets resonated on a different level again and this set off a flow of ideas that we eventually fashioned into an outline. I started writing a draft quite quickly after that. Very unusually for me, the bulk of the first draft was written in a single sitting as the story just fell onto the page. It’s probably of no coincidence that this happened on a day the internet was down in my house. A fevered day of smoke, coffee and the clatter of keys and it was more or less done. A few re-drafts later, it was over to Iain to add his magic and then onto David and Colin to complete the picture.
As usual with something from Iain and I there are influences of all kinds, from films like Dreamchild and Kill List, the recalibrated folk horror short stories of Angela Carter, the medieval legends of Cockaigne, comics like Swamp Thing, Eerie, Haunt of Horror and House of Secrets and TV like the Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected and the Hammer House of Horror.
But probably the most profound influence on House of Sweets, certainly in terms of tone, was Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film “Hour of the Wolf”.
“The hour between night and dawn … when most people die, sleep is deepest, nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their worst anguish, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most babies are born.”
A haunting surreal and almost Gothic psychological horror, it tells the story of a young couple who have retreated to a remote island so that the husband, an artist, can work. However, the artist (Johan) is plagued by terrible visions of awful creatures that he struggles to capture on paper. It soon becomes apparent that his grip on reality itself may be slipping away. Even so, his wife (Alma) loves him and is determined to stay with him throughout the nightmares, the insomnia and even some startling confessions including an admission that he remains obsessed with his previous lover.
Johan becomes acquainted with some strange, down at heel aristocrats who live in a nearby castle with an entourage of equally unsettling guests. When they invite him to a party that his ex-lover will attend he quarrels with Alma and shoots her before leaving for the castle. There, he is attacked by demons as his nightmares become all too real. As Johan flees from the monsters into the forest, Alma catches up just in time to see him disappear, taken by the demons.
Initially a critical flop in Sweden, Hour of the Wolf has become more revered as time has gone on, with many critics suggesting the film depicts the disintegration of an artist’s personality, a theme that many speculate may have reflected Bergman’s own mental state at the time. Others consider the film to be about the failure of his relationship with his wife, Käbi Laretei, who he abandoned for his star, Liv Ullmann.
The core of the film from my perspective however is that of a fear of being emotionally consumed. By a more dominant personality? Possibly; it is apparent that Johan remains dangerously obsessed with his former lover which causes him to act compulsively against his own interests, forcing him towards a fate his own primal instincts are desperately warning him to forestall. Likewise, Alma appears often to be emotionally overwhelmed by her forceful and erratic husband. Even as she diligently stands by him, she realises that the man she loves is slipping away and perhaps was never even really there in the first place.
Ultimately however Hour of Wolf seems to me to be about being consumed by your own self-loathing, the idea of being eaten alive by demons of our own making. In the film’s most jarring scene, Johan relates an incident where he murders a boy. It is never clear whether or not this incident is real or imagined, however Bergman is said to have noted the boy represented Johan’s internal demon, a representation of the repression, fear and drives that plague him. Johan is not successful in putting paid to his demon’s influence however. After disposing of the boy’s body in the river, the corpse floats to the surface, an ominous sign that he can never escape the shortcomings that cause him to careen towards self-destruction.
It is this kind of emotional anthropophagy that found its way into House of Sweets, a story based in part of course on the Grimm fairy tale Hansel & Gretel, another story where a more obvious form of cannibalism is key. As Johan’s obsessions and self-loathing eventually consume him, forcing him towards his doom, so Hans and Retha are consumed by the terrible secret at the heart of their dysfunction. But maybe just as affecting are the subtle, day-to-day rends that wear and fray relationships from cherished to the ugly and unrecognisable. Maybe all it takes is an ill-judged change of scenery to cause something you thought was an anchor to turn into a millstone; a deadweight that drags you irrevocably under.