Becky’s just dyed her hair bright orange. It looks ace (a bit like Hayley Williams) but she’s glad she’s still on lockdown. ‘I bought the dye before lockdown thinking I’d have some great lockdown hair,’ she says. ‘But then I started thinking I should actually wait until the end of lockdown and come out looking funky fresh. But it’s a good thing I did it now, because it’s so patchy. I would not like to go out in public.’
Maybe it’s a good thing, then, that Becky’s started a new job over Microsoft Teams (nobody can see your patchy hair if you sit at the correct angle, right?) Still, getting acquainted with new co-workers in such an impersonal way must be tough. ‘It’s going well; they’re a lovely bunch. I’ve got nothing to complain about. I’m trying to stay positive so I can be positive for other people.’
This is what makes Bex such a good person. We’ve been pals for a while, meeting after she submitted an excellent essay to the Dark Issue and then bonding over sharing our mental illness experiences, a love for mead, and a mutual interest in horror. She has a very kind heart and is an excellent advocate for mental wellbeing – including for BeatED – as well as being a dead good friend. Enough gushing. Here’s Bex’s happy thing.
Kirstyn: What is your Happy Thing?
Becky: I went through a few, and I’ve gone a bit off-brand. It was a toss up between Gothic literature and horror films, and I know those are things we talk about quite a lot. [Bex is the founder of Haunt, an indie Gothic fiction publisher.] I decided to go for my third thing, which I absolutely love, and it’s board games.
K: I’m very happy you’ve made that choice, because what I try to do for these is to at least have some experience in what the other person is talking about, which can often be quite hard. But this one isn’t difficult at all, cos it’s my jam as well. So, why board games?
B: I’ve played them since I was a kid with family. I’m from Sheffield and every summer we’d come up to Aberfeldy. And the family would connect through card games and board games, so I think that sparked my love for playing those games and seeing it as an opportunity to socialise, catch up with people, and destroy them. I think it started from that.
K: So a mixture between connecting with people and showing them who’s boss.
B: Well, I try to. It doesn’t always work.
K: Growing up, what kind of games did you play?
B: It started with really simple card games like Black Jack and Chase the Ace. We used to use little matchsticks to bet with. That’s actually encouraging gambling from a young age, but it was fun.
K: It’s putting some stakes on it as well. Teaching your kids from when they’re young that life isn’t always fair. You have to learn that early on.
B: Go hard or go home. Go hard or lose your matchsticks.
K: Do you have any fond memories of any particular games from when you were young?
B: If I’m honest, the ones from when I was younger are the proper standard ones like Scrabble and Monopoly. I really liked them because they did bring out a bit of a competitive spirit in people. If you’ve got anything you want to hash out that you don’t want to do directly, just whip out Monopoly. Get all the passive aggression out.
K: Once you start that losing streak, it’s hard to come back. You can take these things quite personally sometimes.
B: I had a cousin once who was really winning at Monopoly. You know when you get to that stage where you’re so skint you start to beg money from the other players. He wouldn’t let anybody speak to him or ask him for money unless you pretended to phone him. That’s the best abuse of power in Monopoly I’ve ever seen.
K: The games I was thinking about that I really enjoy were exactly those sorts of games, the ones you played when you were younger which were Monopoly and Scrabble, Cluedo and Ludo. I know your vast selection of board games, and it’s clear board games have changed significantly. What do you think happened?
B: I think the thing that really set it off was Cards Against Humanity. I don’t know what it was about that game, but it seemed to get people back into physical game playing. Everyone had started playing digital games and video games which took it all online, and I think Cards Against Humanity brought a lot of it back offline. I know not everyone likes Cards Against Humanity, but it definitely got people playing physical games again.
K: I wanted to briefly touch on video games for a second. Do you play video games?
B: I wouldn’t say I’m a proper gamer, because I think I’m stuck in the past when it comes to video games. I like The Sims 2, Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. I haven’t progressed to modern games at all. How about you?
K: You mentioned the main two games I know, basically. My brothers had a PlayStation I sometimes played on, and I vaguely remember playing Spyro. But Crash Bandicoot’s my main one. If I could play that all day, I’d be happy.
Video games can often be a quite solitary pursuit, compared with board games which you have to play with other people. There are good things to be said for both of those things. Why do you prefer board games?
B: I think it’s because of the social aspect. It’s providing something to do that isn’t going out. A lot of the things you do at night involve a bar or a restaurant or alcohol. It’s an area where there isn’t that culture where you have to drink if you don’t want to. You can hear each other speak. I think that’s why I like it; I’m not much of a going-out person, and if it’s too loud I’m less likely to engage. So I thought, ‘I’ll bring the party to me.’ And it worked!
K: What is your favourite board game?
B: I go through waves of games that I buy and really love, but then I buy something new, go to that, go back to the other one. At the minute my favourite one, which links in with my love of Gothic, is called Mysterium. It’s a modern version of Cluedo. With this, one person is playing a ghost and the others are all people. They’re trying to figure out who killed the ghost, where the ghost was killed, and with what weapon. The way they do that is the ghost sends them messages in the form of pictures and everyone has to piece it together and make a final guess. It’s a really cool Gothic game. As soon as this is over, you’re coming round for a game.
K: What is it about playing board games that soothes your mental health?
B: There’s a different game for every mood you’re feeling. So, I like the ones that bring people together and you can relax and have a bit of a laugh. You can do that with things like Mysterium. I also like the strategy games where maybe you have to put a bit more focus into it. That’s soothing for me because it takes up all your effort just focusing on the game. For example, there’s one called 221B Baker Street, it’s a Sherlock Holmes game and you’re a little Sherlock head and you go around London. You have to gather clues and then solve the mystery. So it’s not a riddle or trivia, it’s building a narrative. I find those world-building ones really good because you’re so immersed in it that it takes up all your time and focus and energy. And when you solve it you feel as though you’ve accomplished something.
K: There’s a difference between those sorts of games compared with the sort of games we were playing at your game night. Obama Llama is just bang bang bang. I like that one because it took me out of myself in a different way. It’s very fast-paced and you have to use your head in a different way, almost like a lateral puzzle or a logic puzzle. There’s no time to think about anything else because you’re just going hell for leather trying to finish. What do you think about the difference between these types of games?
B: It really depends because sometimes I just want a cup of tea in the morning and to just solve some stuff. I feel like I’ve done two in one: I’ve been productive even though, technically, I haven’t, and I feel like I’ve had some fun and relaxed a bit. Sometimes I go for them in the morning. But when I’m having a group of friends round, I just want all the silly stuff.
There’s another great one called Game for Fame where you’re all struggling actors and you have to audition for things against each other, but it’s really silly. You have to gargle songs with water and people have to guess what it is. It’s really stupid, but I love it.
K: Mysterium merges your love of the Gothic with board games. Are there any other games like that you can recommend?
B: There’s one called Betrayal at House on the Hill which I haven’t played too often yet, but it looks really promising. You’re building a haunted house as you go along, so it’s cool because you don’t know the layout of the house, you can’t see it, so you have to explore it before you can figure out what it looks like. That one’s quite good. There’s another one that’s not quite Gothic as much as dark. It’s called Bucket of Doom. It’s so funny. You’re put in a situation, like you’re in a shark cage, you go down and see some sharks, the door busts open and there’s a shark coming towards you. You’ve got 10 object cards that might be something like a can of Irn Bru or a stick of rock, and you have to pick a card and explain how you’re going to use the object on the card to escape the death situation. That’s another one that gets really stupid.
K: Something we’ve been doing a lot during lockdown is playing games online. I’ve found that really helpful; when I’ve had a bad day it’s great to lose myself in that. Do you want to talk a little about that?
B: One thing I’m really missing is board game nights. Those games where you can replicate them online are awesome. We’ve been playing Drawful. You get something ridiculous to draw, like a snowman on Mount Rushmore or something, and you have to draw it. People have to guess what you’re trying to draw, but also make other people think their suggestion is the right answer, and then everyone votes. That’s really stupid, I love it.
There’s also the t-shirt game, Tee KO. You draw all these different pictures with no context and you write all these different slogans with no context, then you get other people’s suggestions, you pick a picture and a slogan randomly and fit them together, then all the different t-shirts go into battle and the best t-shirt wins.
K: I’m isolating by myself, so I can’t sit down and play a game with somebody, so these online game nights have been really good for me. I don’t think there are any solo games out there, apart from card games.
B: I wonder whether that’s because the video game market has nailed the single-person narrative game that board games haven’t quite caught up with yet. There might be loads of them and we just haven’t seen them.
K: Going back to Cards Against Humanity, it’s not liked by a lot of people for good reason. It can be quite offensive, it’s non-PC, it’s probably not something you should be playing if you’re trying to be a good person. But it is the ultimate in leaving your life behind. It’s almost as though you’re taking on a different personality with all these cards containing ideas that you would never say in any other time apart from when you’re playing the game.
B: It’s really tough, because when it first came out, I was a bit on the fence about it. Then I went through a big phase of loving it, but I’ve not actually played it in a long time. We actually have one of the huge boxes because we got so into it. I don’t think there’s any reason other than the fact that I just bought into the hype around it. It’s tough because sometimes I feel like the creators are trying to mock how these things work in the world, and how people are seen. And they’re mocking that perception that privileged people have and challenging it. On the other hand, on face value, some of the cards are just terrible. I think we’ve all drawn one where you’re like, ‘I can’t,’ and you just put it away. In that sense, it’s personal. I think it’s also challenging what you find offensive versus what other people find offensive. I like haven’t that challenge, because it’s decentering yourself. I have many thoughts about Cards Against Humanity.
At this point, I realised time has crept up on us, so it’s time for Becky to do a reading, She reads her piece from the Dark Issue of Marbles (which you can buy online here). It’s an exploration of the duality that comes with being human and discovering the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ inside of yourself.
K: I think we met because of that essay, because you submitted it. And I love it so much because it talks about so many brave things. There are so many things in it people don’t talk about. It’s such a good piece of work and I’m really glad we got to publish it. I wanted to touch on the sense of duality and taking that into the context of Jekyll and Hyde. Do you read Jekyll and Hyde as a mental health story at all?
B: I think there is a certain reading you can have of it like that, and it goes back to the Victorian conversation about repression. It’s very much a narrative about when you try to separate all the different areas of yourself into good and evil. That’s really problematic. No one person is good, no one person is evil. Jekyll and Hyde is a warning about trying to box up those elements of yourself. That’s what I was trying to touch on in my essay; it doesn’t always work to say, ‘This is the good part of me and this is the bad part of me.’ Although I think it can work as a coping strategy, it wasn’t working for me. I had to accept that these were bits of myself I could work on, rather than pushing it away from me.
K: To what extent, if any and there doesn’t have to be because I hate the idea that if you’re into spooky stuff it’s because of mental illness, but to what extent do you think your interest in darkness and Gothic literature is influenced by mental ill health?
B: I’ve been reading Goosebumps since I could read, so I definitely liked spooky fiction before I suffered with mental health issues. I do think horror and Gothic can be really good for engaging in those topics and for looking at those anxieties, whether they’re societal or personal, and laying them bare, or thinly veiling them through a different narrative. I think that’s why I’m drawn to them, because I love any narrative that explores mental illness. I love and respect horror and Gothic for doing that.
K: One last question and then we’ll have to wrap up. Can you recommend some Gothic literature to read – apart from Haunted Voices, which is published by Haunt, which is run by Becky.
B: One of my favourites is obviously Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because I don’t think there’s been a faithful adaptation of it yet, it’s really important to read the book. It’s not just a mindless monster who’s born evil, it’s an abandoned person who just wants his dad to give him some love and respect. He’s very othered, no matter what he does. It’s actually a really sympathetic tale of humanity, rather than a monstrous other.
In terms of modern fiction, I really like Kirsty Logan’s Things We Say in the Dark. Previously she’s written dark fantasy, and this is her first purely horror collection. It’s all feminist horror. It’s about anxieties with the home and the body, and it is perfect for lockdown because I think we all have a lot of anxieties about the home at the minute. Depending on how you feel, I really recommend that one.