Exeter-based filmmaker Ashley Thorpe poured over famed horror magazine Fangoria as a youngster. Now he’s one of the magazine’s named columnists. Here’s how it all happened. Take it away Ash
Writing this feels more than a little weird.
Just over a year ago I was reeling from my associates and I being given a Media Innovation Award. Now I won’t lie to you -I’ve never been too impressed by ‘the media’ par se but to receive an award for innovation -that meant something to me. Shortly after that I was stunned when my animated shorts were subsequently screened at Cannes, the Fangoria weekend of horrors in New York and then a nomination at Raindance in London.
Last year, bar redundancy and regular trips to hospital, was pretty much a blur of astonishment. It looked like a hard year to follow.
But all this somehow shrinks in the presence of one fact, one opportunity, one golden ticket that has come out of all of this: I am now writing for Fangoria magazine.
The first issue came through the post this week -wrapped in a yellow manilla -wherein I’m actually credited as a Fangoria contributor. Fangoria contributor. Still sounds strange. Especially when you bear in mind that this 30-year-old magazine is based in Brooklyn, New York City, and here I am writing articles about the esoterica of the horror genre from a rented house in Exeter, Devon.
But wait -I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to where it all began…
My first memory of buying Fangoria is leafing through a raggedy spinner stand at Read ‘n’ Return on Fore Street in the mid 1980s. I’d amble in there either after school or at the weekend and see which thumbed imports had the juiciest articles. The magazines would be all scrunched up just to fit in it and you’d have to hunt through dog-eared copies of Starburst and Mad to find those unmistakable film strip graphics.
I was in hogs heaven just letting my fingers walk that spinner, just taking in all those lurid stills, retro posters and technicolour splatter. In retrospect I guess it had the forbidden frisson of pornography and I loved it.
The shop has since undergone numerous changes of management so I don’t think they’d mind me mentioning a school-uniformed child buying this stuff. Incidentally it’s funny to think that I’d subsequently go from there to B&P Video in Cowick Street (long gone in case Whitehouse or fraud squad are watching) wherein (still in school uniform) I’d browse the joint Horror / Porno section and then chat with the cashier about the coolest nasties coming out. Hell, bless the guy, he’d even save the posters for me. A golden age. Long gone.
Horror was my worldview at 14 and Fangoria was my newspaper, recounting despatches. But I’ve always had an unalloyed love of the macabre in any medium, and always enjoyed the empowering aspects of creating art of any kind. Whether writing or painting it was always the darker aspects of the fantastic that I was drawn to, sometimes by choice, sometimes via circumstance.
I suffered from night terrors when I was a child. I’d awake in trances, fevered dreams that I quite literally couldn’t wake from -and as I grew older, the only place where I found a recognition of those terrors was in horror. I remember my Nan, quite innocently God bless her, buying me a second-hand copies from St George’s market of things like Pans Book Of Horror volume ‘god-knows-what’. These stories were far too adult for me, really quite dark deviant stuff, and yet I saw in those stories something that evoked those intangible dreads that had come out of my dreams with me when I would awake trembling as a child in my parents arms.
For all the hysterical Thatcher era paranoia that it was corrupting children (following in the proud tradition of the Penny Dreadfuls and the EC horror comics of the 1950s they tried to ban it in the UK at one point), Fangoria actually helped me sort out whatever was going on in my head.
My nightmares dissipated the more I read. I learned the history of horror and I learned its craft. Thus, when I started making my own stories and paintings I felt that this was a place where I had an authority of sorts. I felt it was mine. And of course, as much as horror was about confronting those early fears it was also a means to escape the day to day.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have found like-minded people with whom to share that love of all things dark and disturbing. I made many of my school friends via running Call of Cthulhu role-playing games (that improvisational ‘on the spot’ instant narrative conjuring is fantastic practice for any aspiring scriptwriter, a little advice there for anyone listening…)
I’ve always had a lot of encouragement, whether from my parents or people that I would show my artwork / films to, but it took nearly 10 years after leaving university to really reconnect with those passions.
I made the inevitable mistake of ‘doing what I thought I should do to get somewhere’, only to end up at the DHSS via the salt mines! As they say: ‘the path to truth is neverstrewn with roses’. Perhaps I didn’t really know what people expected, so possibly I made a lot of bad choices, ‘the wrong method with the wrong technique’, but the moment that I just threw it all away and said, like the little iconoclast I used to be as a child, ‘Bollocks to this’. That’s when, ironically, it all started coming together.
After years of circling round the perimeters of the industry, a little bit of BBC work here and a little bit of illustration there, I moved back to my home town, settled down and decided that I was going to create a series of animations – with whatever skills, however limited that I’d picked up up along the way, with budgets however small – and make something of all the neglected half forgotten stories that fascinated me as a child. And, like the return of a childhood imaginary friend, I started reading Fangoria again.
And that, ironically, is where it all begins.
These short films (Scayrecrow, The Screaming Skull and more recently The Hairy Hands) caught the attention of a Canadian film journalist by the name of Chris Alexander. I say ‘caught the attention of’, what I actually mean is I tracked him down and sent him copies of my films. You see, he used to write one of my favourite columns for Rue Morgue magazine before leaving to join the monster of horror publishing that is Fangoria.
I knew from his delirious columns that this heartfelt cineaste not only loved Hammer horror but was also a connoisseur of sleaze. My kind of journalist. He watched them, loved them and did everything he could to get others to watch them too. If I’ve achieved any degree of success with what I’m trying to do, after my colleagues and long suffering fiancee, Chris certainly deserves a big share of the credit.
In a weird twist of fate earlier this year, after many years of being a contributor Chris Alexander became Editor in Chief and one of the first things he did was try to get more ‘film people’ involved in the magazine. Due to our shared enthusiasm in each other’s work I was one of the lucky ones that got the call.
That was a phone call I won’t forget in a hurry. The first thing that Chris did was set up a number of new columns -Trash Compactor (about lesser known B-movie nuggets) and Sound Shocks (about the rarely discussed aspects of genre soundtracks). That that first article that I pitched -a piece on UK Sci-Fi nasty ‘XTRO’ -was initially hard work.
I think the weight of what I was about to do crashed in on me. I was about to write for what was, for about two decades, my favourite magazine in the whole world. Suddenly, the words didn’t trip off the tongue quite so readily. The follow-up came more readily and it’s become easier article by article.
Chris has relayed that the articles are getting good feedback and that gives me more confidence as ‘a writer’. Apart from the deed of writing for the magazine itself, the other weird frisson came from recently tracking down and interviewing a couple of film composers and signing off the correspondence with the Fangoria crest. The name still opens doors and still demands respect. It’s a dream come true and I’m proud to be part of it.
What am I trying to say here?
It’s so difficult to gauge sometimes what will press peoples buttons. You could potentially spend the rest of your life trying to divine a formula. I’m not for a second saying that I’ve found any answers. I still feel as if I’m making this up as I go along.
I’ve still got a very long way to go. Still learning my craft as a filmmaker and as a writer. All I can say is that I spent 10 years chasing media tail, but the moment that I started making something honest, something that I truly wanted to see aswell as make, something ironically not made to necessarily impress anyone but certainly made for an audience, that’s the moment it all started to gain momentum. I’m back at that spinner again, letting my fingers do the walking. Best advice I can give: Look to what you love. Make it personal.
(images: top, Fangoria cover that features Ashley’s first article; middle, Ashley on set for The Hairy Hands; bottom, a vision of the future, perhaps? Fangoria cover mock up featuring Ashley)