Interview with Cliff McNish by Joseph D’Lacey

December 3rd, 2010

We don’t talk to many writers of young adult fiction here at Horror Reanimated. That’s because we prefer to eat them. I don’t know about you, but I find it off-putting when my food tries to speak to me. In general, therefore, we remove YA writers’ tongues and cauterise their vocal chords before chowing down.

Course, it’s no secret that quality control has always been an issue for us and every now and again something slips through.

Today, for example, I found my next meal out of his cage and sitting quite voluntarily in one of our body-modification suites, reading a copy of Garbage Man and gnawing on a discarded bone. Bloody cannibal.

Without even looking up from the reclining restrainer he said:
      “This book. It’s full of bloody typosrahpical errors.”
      “What? Like the one you’ve just done?”
      “Yes. Exactly like that. Ecxept worse. Muhc, muhc worse.”
      What could I do? I reached for a meat cleaver, raised it high.
      “But it’s not a bad story, though. All things considered.”
      I paused at the zenith of the strike.
      I said:
      “Eh?”
      “Not bad,” he said. “You know. Considering.”
      “Oh, yeah? And what would you know?”
      Finally he looked up at me. His eyes were quite intelligent.
      “I write horror,” he said.
      “Really?”
      “Yes. Really.”
      “Well, for fuck’s sake. Why didn’t you say so?”
      “Er, I was gagged.”
      “Fair enough. So, are you any good, then?”
      “Not bad. Considering.”
      “Hm. Not bad enough to survive a Horror Reanimated interview?”
      “I’d like to think so.”
      And so I gently strapped him down…

Joseph D’Lacey: Hi, Cliff. Welcome to Horror Reanimated where tentacled creatures roam without fear of prejudice. I hope you’ll enjoy your visit.

Cliff McNish: I’ll try. Thanks for removing the gag.

JD’L: You’re welcome. So, you write horror. How did that come about?

CM:  Basically because my daughter, aged nine, asked me for a story about a REALLY, REALLY, REALLY nasty witch, and who was I to deny her? I’d never written a thing before, but I’d always told her bed-time stories, mostly comedy, but this witch got my imagination cranking. My novel THE DOOMSPELL was the result. It’s a fantasy aimed at 9 -12 year olds, but at its heart is a bitch with four spider-filled jaws who likes torturing children.

JD’L: But your forte is writing for young adults. What are the differences, if any, in the nature of what your books explore? Are there rules about content and, if so, doesn’t this somehow negate the freedom that the horror genre has always given writers? Perhaps you feel those constraints are more like a framework in which it’s easier to work…

CM:  There are no absolute restrictions on levels of horror in YA. You only have to look at the brutal content of Melvin Burgess’s BLOODTIDE to realise what adventurous publishers like Anderson Press are willing to consider. BUT most YA publishers (and certainly all those focused on the 9-12 year old age group, where most children’s reading gets done) have pretty firm, unstated rules. Sexual content isn’t taboo, but has to be handled very delicately and in context. And any kind of human/monster sexuality is also sadly a no-no. Violence generally is also viewed with a very jaundiced eye by children’s publishers, and the idea of mothers/fathers/carers initiating physical or psychological violence towards children (which, let’s face it, is a mainstay of adult horror) would have to be justified very carefully even in a YA text. Many publishers would just say no outright unless it was a traditional kid-being-abused-by-vicious-parent story, and even in that case it would need to have a proper developed socio-economic context and a decidedly uplifting ending.

Actually, there’s another big difference. Enigmatic endings, while commonplace in adult horror, are much rarer in YA. Publishers hate them. Truly bleak endings (a mainstay of adult horror, especially in short story form) are almost unknown in childrens’ and even YA fiction. Again Melvin Burgess’s output is an exception, and there are individual examples (THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS comes to mind), but generally the ending has to be uplifting, the kids win, and the good guys don’t initiate violence unless they have to and when they do so they exercise it with such appropriate rules of restraint that you’d think they’d been reading police conduct procedurals. None of this is surprising really when you realise that most of the adults reading/choosing YA and younger fiction for kids are themselves female, often mothers and educationalists/librarians. These are genuinely wonderful people on the whole, the very people who are doing do much to keep our libraries open and kids reading through school, but they often possess a vocational focus that means they have strong views about not going OTT. The critical establishment consensus in children’s fiction is that visceral horror has no place in their domain. Actually, sometimes that need to limit what you show (as opposed to the horror you imply) often leads to spectacular results. In adult fiction it can be quite easy (even encouraged) to go that little bit further to up the grue. A children’s book like ONCE by Maurice Gleitzman does the opposite. A boy keeps seeing hideous Nazi horrors occur in front of him, and he’ll just say ‘Oh’ and move on, either not understanding or wilfully not comprehending. It’s devastatingly effective. The best children’s writers have developed a wonderful knack for harrowing understatement that adult horror writers could sometimes learn from.    

JD’L: I started reading adult horror when I was nine or ten. It was the doorway to a new world – you know what I’m saying, I’m sure. Do you try to keep that doorway open for younger readers? By the same token, how much appeal do your books hold for adult readers?

CM: I tend not to worry about opening doors for readers. I just write my fiction and hope people like it.  Quite a few of my fans are adults, actually. And a lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that as many adults (especially 19-25 year-old women) read YA as the teenagers themselves. So you have to write in a way that satisfies both camps to be commercially successful. I guess it works both ways, though. The whole supernatural romance sub-genre, with its emphasis on adolescence and seduction, is full of themes teen girls and young women love. It’s all romance really; the horror’s often incidental. And proof of that is that hardly anyone can name a single male writer of supernatural romance. Try it for yourself. Thought of one? I’m impressed if you did. It’s fundamentally women writing for each other and for teenage girls.

JD’L: Having corresponded with you recently, I can tell that the darker realms of the genre have been calling to you for some time. Why is that? What’s down there that you’re not already exploring?

CM: You’re right, my fiction is very dark compared to much else out there, and that has got me into trouble sales-wise in recent years. But why I go in that direction … well, I’m not sure. Who can honestly answer that? Because actually what you’re really asking is why, given a choice, do I tend to get to place my characters in ever-worsening darkness rather than angling them towards the light? My authorial answer to that question is to say that dramatically, in terms of plot, and depth of characterisation, it always makes sense to put characters firmly in deep fire before hauling them out again, but the true answer probably lies in a psychology I and I guess most horror-centred writers should best leave unexplored.  At heart, it just feels more exciting.

JD’L: How important do you think it is that someone delves into such themes and brings back what they’ve discovered for the wider world?

CM:  It’s only important if it matters to you. I don’t think there are any lessons the wider world is waiting for. Certainly teenagers moan to me constantly that adults write YA fiction that instructs them in moral values, and they hate that. As if they haven’t considered those moral values already for themselves! It’s in your teenage years, when you are struggling to discover your own identity, that people tend to explore their moral side most consciously. Of course we all have our themes as writers, which we inveigle into our stories, but the key is just writing a great story. There’s nothing fundamentally different about YA fiction from adult. Teenagers mentally lack not complex intellectual apparatus but only experience.

JD’L: Is the YA market going to allow you to perform that service or will you have to change your game plan?

CM:  It IS going to allow me to, but I think I probably have to get back more towards fantasy rather than outright horror, which sells poorly in the children’s book world. That said, my ghost novel BREATHE is about as dark as a children’s story can get, and it got a good critical reception and a decent commercial showing, so you never really know.    

JD’L: What effect do you think publishers’ expectations and desires have on the titles currently reaching bookshops – both in the adult and YA sections?

CM:  YA it is about 70% supernatural romance right now. Most sound like this (I’m changing a few words to hide origins of a recent bestseller here …):
He stood in the doorway with his hands on his pockets, the picture of nonchalance, and even as a human, he was too gorgeous for words. His dark hair had been combed back, falling softly around his face, and his mercury eyes, though they should’ve seemed pale against all the white, glimmered more brightly than anything.

And they were fixed solely on me.

I’m sorry, let me go outside to puke. The dispiriting thing is that most supernatural romance for YA, while better written than the above, is basically this one endlessly repeated love story. We can’t blame publishers for that. They need to make money. They’d happily publish that much needed story Harry Potter and the Gobbet of Incest but who’d read it (er, apart from us …) We shouldn’t be that surprised by recent trends, though. The romance genre has always been the most popular in fiction. Hardly surprising as most fiction readers are girls/women, and what most of them want from their fiction is a romance or at least the promise of a romance at the heart of the story. I’m not saying they don’t want other things as well, or that it absolutely has to have a romance to get their attention, but sales trends relentlessly show that teenage girls and women primarily pick love stories while for men/teenage boys it’s rarely a factor at all in their selection process. (Sex is another matter of course – plenty of men/adolescent boys are drawn to horror for its explicit pursuit of that in all its engorged traits). Anyway, what seems to have happened recently is that Romance as a genre has finally got its act together, reached out with its powerful, dainty hand and simply co-opted those parts of horror and dark fantasy that are useful to it.      

JD’L: If there were no restrictions, either in publishers’ desires or the realities of the marketplace, what book would Cliff McNish be destined to write?

CM: Probably a novel version of something I’ve written in short story form for adults. A reincarnation of Medusa. A girl, truly terrifying, who embraces her destiny as the cause of all misery in the world.  [NB I've just read this story and it's excellent - JD'L]

JD’L: As a ‘guest’ of Horror Reanimated – let me just tighten that strap – you have a certain power conferred upon you. You may award The Sword of the Ultimate Darkness to the work of horror in any medium which remains a timeless classic. You may also banish to The Plague Pits the opposing work of horror, the very worst in any medium, and the one that must, therefore, be forgotten for all time.

Please make your selections now.

CM: BEST and virtually unknown amongst adult horror readers is Melvin Burgess’s BLOODTIDE. It’s a retelling of the Norse Volsunga Saga, replete with men and half men and monsters, and utterly terrifying and brilliant. There’s nothing else quite like it in YA. I’d also like to put Steve Rasnic Tem’s Halloween stories in here. Proving if there was ever any doubt that the best highlighter of horror is humour.  

As for worst, do you mind if I put M. R. James in there? I’m sorry, but people are always telling me how scary they are and they are simply not. Endless dull preamble towards a deflated balloon. 

JD’L: Before you go, can you tell us what’s coming next from Cliff McNish?

CM: My horror novel SAVANNAH GREY (girl stalked by three monsters has a weapon growing in her throat) is out now, but my second ghost novel, THE HUNTING GROUND, is out in May 2011.   

JD’L: Oh yeah – and what does your mum think about what you do?

CM:  She thinks I work at the post office choosing decorative patterns for Xmas stamps. 

JD’L: Cliff, you’ve been a gentlemen and it’s been a pleasure to interrog- ahem, interview you for Horror Reanimated. I hope you won’t be offended if we decide to eat you anyway.

That said, if you do manage to escape, I hope you’ll consider returning to talk to us again. In the meantime, we all wish you very much success, no matter where the genre takes you next.

CM: Thanks, but know that if you are foolish enough to eat me I will only grow stronger.

Cliff McNish was born in Sunderland, but has spent most of his life in the southeast of England. His first book was THE DOOMSPELL, inspired by a story he told his young daughter. Since then he has published THE SILVER SEQUENCE and the highly-acclaimed stand-alone supernatural thrillers, BREATHE (winner of the Salford and Calderdale book awards) and ANGEL. His books have been translated into 17 languages, and are published to acclaim in the US.

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