Dark Entries – Robert Aickman. In 1968 I got this collection of short stories out of Croydon Library straight after seeing The Bells of Hell – an adaptation of Aickman’s Ringing the Changes in the Late Night Horror anthology series; needless to say the BBC has since wiped the tape.
A Harlot High and Low – Honoré de Balzac. A sequel to the more celebrated Lost Illusions, but I read this one first; I love the character of Vautrin, a criminal mastermind who ends up as Paris’s Chief of Police.
Ubik – Philip K. Dick. I dig the advertising slogans, and the slow drip-feed of hints that All Is Not As It Seems (it rarely is in a Dick novel).
The Enigma of Amigara Fault – Junji Ito. Ito is a genius and his horror mangas WILL give you nightmares. This one is particularly creepy and disturbing.
Le position du tireur couché – Jean-Patrick Manchette. After I moved to France and was training myself to read more French, a friend introduced me to the left-wing “polars” (crime stories) of Manchette; not just terrific reads, but the hard-boiled language is relatively simple. This was filmed, very badly, as The Gunman (2015), starring Sean Penn. A 1982 French adaptation, Le choc, is only marginally better, but at least in that version you get Alain Delon to look at.
Les liaisons dangereuses – Choderlos de Laclos. La Marquise de Merteuil, c’est moi. Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust. Glad I read this in my early twenties; I’d never find the time now. Much funnier than you’d expect (I read the Scott-Moncrieff translation) and the author ties it all up at the end with the Mother of all Literary Pay-offs. Everything you ever needed to know about life, love, art, memory and the passage of time; it really did change my life.
Froth on the Daydream – Boris Vian. Vian is one of my heroes (as well as a novelist he was also a surrealist, poet, translator, literary prankster and provocateur, songwriter and jazz trumpeter), and this is his best-known book, full of wordplay and creative whimsy that ends up leading you into some very dark places.
Le chanteur – Daniel Balavoine (“Je me prostituerai/Pour la postérité” – vicious demolition of your average pop star career)
Bluebeard’s Castle – Bela Bartok (the ultimate musical dispatch from the eternal war between men and women; music to make your hair stand on end, plus some of the best brass ever)
Independence Day – The Comsat Angels (“I can’t relax cos I haven’t done a thing/And I can’t do a thing cos I can’t relax” – story of my life)
Imperial Bedroom – Elvis Costello
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis (I often play his Electric Period albums while writing because it’s extremely effective at neutralising unwanted outside noise, building work etc) Histoire de Melody Nelson – Serge Gainsbourg
Vec Makropulos – Leos Janacek (the downside of living for 300 years, plus lots of brass. I do like classical brass.)
Doctor on the Go – Lee Perry (from an album called Revolution Dub, purchased from Brixton Market with my dole money in the mid-1970s, before I even knew who Lerry Perry is; I love the piano backing, and the samples from TV’s Doctor at Large – Robin Nedwell’s laugh!)
The Royal Scam – Steely Dan (I love all their other albums too; they never get old)
The Avengers (1965-1968) The Emma Peel years.
Better Call Saul: I much prefer this to Breaking Bad.
Bilko: fastest, funniest, most cynical sitcom ever.
Desperate Romantics: The Pre-Raphaelites as preposterous soap opera.
Futurama: clever, funny, subversive, but can also make me cry.
G.B.H.: British TV drama at its best.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The Wire: the first three seasons, with Stringer Bell.
FILMS (This is not to say I don’t love Vertigo, The Seven Samurai et al, but I tried to pick films that don’t usually feature in everyone’s all-time Top Ten Lists)
Green for Danger (1946) Alastair Sim – “When I took my departure that evening, it was not with the feeling that this had been one of my more successful investigations.”
Night of the Demon (1957) “I must protect myself. Because if it’s not someone else’s life, it’ll be mine. Do you understand, mother? It’ll be mine.”
The Rebel (1961) “Blimey, who’s gone raving made here then?” Best film about modern art ever.
Le deuxième souffle (1966) Lino Ventura, hard-boiled French gangsters in mackintoshes; cool nightclubs full of dancing girls; criminal codes of honour. I’m particularly fond of the mysterious Orloff, a peripheral character whose story I would like to write some day.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) “Attack what? Attack where?” The yawning chasm between Britain’s preposterously elevated idea of itself and how it actually is: class-ridden, mired in delusions of Empire, hamstrung by nepotism and petty squabbling. There’s even some Fake News in there. Tony Richardson’s best film, still criminally undervalued, with a brilliant ensemble cast drawn from a Who’s Who of Great British Acting.
The Conformist (1970) Jean-Louis Trintignant is so insecure about his manhood that he becomes a hitman for the Fascists. One of the most handsomely photographed and designed films ever made; Bernardo Bertolucci’s best; and a big influence on the Hollywood movie brats of the 1970s.
Daughters of Darkness (1971) Delphine Seyrig as the world’s most soignée vampire, preying on a honeymoon couple in off-season Ostend.
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) Hong Kong/Taiwanese martial arts period thriller with six great action roles for women. Directed by the great King Hu. One of the most nail-bitingly tense films I’ve ever seen.
The Fury (1978) Psycho kids who can make people bleed from all orifices; John Cassavetes in evil mode. Possibly Brian De Palma’s most bonkers film, full of weirdly mismatched performances, odd comedy, and a contender for most delirious ending ever.
After Life (1998) Dead people have to select a memory to take with them into eternity in Hirokazu Koreeda’s low-key but lovely, humane, deeply affecting and thought-provoking inquiry into the meaning of life.
Notting Hill, Soho & Tokyo in the 1970s, Westbourne Park & New York City in the 1980s, Holborn & King’s Cross in the 1990s, Paris in the 2000s, The Low Countries in the 2010s
Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate, Belgian frites, Roquefort, Pecorino & Ossau-Iraty cheese, small film festivals, cats, skulls, lipstick, handbags, travelling by train, canals.
Bio: ANNE BILLSON is a film critic, novelist, photographer, style icon, wicked spinster, evil feminist, and international cat-sitter who has lived in London, Tokyo, Paris and Croydon, and now lives in Brussels. Her books include THE HALF MAN, SUCKER, STIFF LIPS, THE EX and THE COMING THING as well as several works of non-fiction, including BILLSON FILM DATABASE, BREAST MAN: A CONVERSATION WITH RUSS MEYER, and monographs on the films THE THING and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.