Posts filed under 'Writing Chat'

THE ROAD TO COMMISSION By Donna Condon (Senior Editor: Piatkus Fiction – Little, Brown Book Group)

After I contributed an article to the wonderful Horror Reanimated blog late last year I was asked by a few readers whether I could also contribute something with a focus on commissioning. Well, what better time than now: the beginning of a new year when we are all reassessing things and determining to make those dreams become realities. What I thought would be useful is an overview of how exactly fiction commissioning works. So here goes . . .

Editors work on lists (or imprints) which have their own personalities, subsequently meaning that editors will have a remit to look for something specific that fits comfortably on that particular list. Some editors acquire various types of fiction (like me, and in my case it’s commercial rather than literary), and some will specialise further and, for example, will publish crime fiction only. Even within a remit there is a remit: if publishing and looking for, say, urban fantasy, exactly what type of urban fantasy is missing from the list? Urban fantasy that is grittier, more series that are aimed primarily at women, more international settings to balance out the number of series with US settings? It’s the editor’s job to assess what is working for the list, what is missing, what opportunities exist within the remit they have, and also what opportunities exist that could stretch that remit a little – all the while making a profit, establishing new authors and publishing successful books. Balance is very important; very seldom is there space for a lot of the same types of fiction, as it makes it very difficult for the company’s sales team if they have the job of pitching books and authors to retailers that have an identical hook.

Most big houses very rarely assess unsolicited submissions so my first advice to aspiring authors out there is to secure an agent. As editors are so specific about what they are looking for (which isn’t necessarily concrete and is instead something that evolves as new trends emerge/people’s reading habits change etc) it’s really essential to have an industry insider championing your book who’s in a position to target exactly those people who are looking for the kind of book you’ve written. Also, if your book falls too much between two stools they are in a great position to advise you how to tweak so that its placement is not a problem that will result in your book being deemed not quite right for any list at all.

In terms of assessing a manuscript that has come to the editor from an agent who says, ‘this is exactly the book for you,’ there are also additional factors to consider along with the above. If it is indeed exactly what you have been looking for, and you’re really impressed by the content, you’ll look at sales of similar authors and novels. Experience allows an editor to assess sales data in such a way that you have a good idea whether there is room to publish more in this area or whether the trend is coming to an end. There has to be a market for each book published, else it disappears into the abyss. Also, increasingly, the author’s profile is important. If you have a debut crime author who is active on crime blogs (perhaps even has their own review site) and understands social networking, this knowledge/profile will definitely go more in their favour than that of an author who never goes online and doesn’t know the first thing about that realm.

Once the editor has decided there is a tangible reason to pursue a submission, the material is then assessed by the rest of their editorial colleagues and, if everyone believes in the content, it goes forward to be discussed finally with sales and marketing, the big question being: will we sell copies? If the editor gets everyone on board and gets the thumbs up to offer, the advance offered to the author essentially reflects the level of sales hoped for and, once the offer has been made via the agent, the author hopefully say yes!

I’m aware how far detached writers can feel from the realities of the commissioning process so I hope this overview today has been helpful. Best of luck with your writing!

About Donna Condon:

Donna Condon is a commissioning fiction editor on the Piatkus list at Little, Brown Book Group where she has worked for three years. Prior to that she worked at Piatkus Books (when it was still an independent) and Virgin Books. She commissions commercial fiction across a whole range of genres.

2 comments January 20th, 2011

Are We Doomed: Is the apocalypse waiting around the corner for writers? by Donna Condon

The title of my piece sums up the feelings of a large chunk of writers and publishers today: Are we doomed?

Within the book trade – both publishing and retail – the general feeling is that the grim reaper, with every mention of ‘economic downturn’ and every advancement in digital, gains more ground on the print book, which he stalks insistently and not so quietly. This coupled with an overwhelming sense of uncertainly means it’s a stressful time for all involved: booksellers, authors, agents, editors and publishers. The feeling is particularly prevalent for more niche areas of publishing, such as horror, and, within the more mainstream market, literary fiction.

The book industry has reached a point that is both exciting and terrifying. While there is a wealth of opportunity at the moment, it is, however, evident that said opportunity inevitably has its own consequences, which a lot of houses are feeling at the moment (such as Leisure Books). I don’t think it’s a secret that the book trade has been really struggling of late and that a lot of factors have elbowed it into its current position: the move from decentralised buying to centralised buying and the effect that’s now having; loss of the net book agreement without clear parameters in place to protect the industry from rampant discounting and, in essence, cannibalisation; the inevitable inability of the independents to compete on price, leading to the closure of many; Amazon; the recession and its inevitable effect across the industry; the collapse of Borders… I could go on.

Times are indeed tough. To summarise it briefly, the problem for an acquiring editor who has slots to fill and a minimal marketing budget to spend across the whole list in today’s climate is that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to acquire a host of debut novels from people who are unheard of and make them work in the current market. Therefore many publishers are now in a position where they are focusing much more. In other works, in the past where the editor might have acquired a few authors writing in the same area, they are beginning to be more selective, acquiring one with a really clear hook/usp (unique selling point) and putting their energy into making that author work. Subsequently there is a growing fear that new authors in these areas will find it more and more difficult to get published and I certainly see this being the case. However, I do think there are two things we should be dwelling on…

  • a –  focus is good, and although it does mean more money inevitably being invested in making already big authors even bigger, it does hopefully mean the quality of new fiction will increase as publishers strive to publish the best books they can in their specific areas
  • b – with the advancements in digital being what they are, it is in an author’s power to make themselves go from unknown to known, prior to having their novel acquired

We’re also at the cusp of one of the most exciting times publishing has seen in its history. Three years ago, e-readers were something spoken about casually as a fad that may happen and now there are more than twenty competing versions. Sales of e-books currently account for less than 1% of market share, and publishers are admittedly struggling to figure out pricing, digital rights issues and how to market digital content (without making the same mistakes the music industry has), but it’s expected that this will increase dramatically over the coming years. Want it or not: change is coming to get us.

But now for the good news: I for one think the genre writer wanting to get published is in a much stronger position, say, than an author of a stand-alone general fiction novel, as there are very few communities to support them in the way that the horror community supports its own. Publishers want new authors to already have a presence. Coupled with the fact that there are now so many online opportunities for writers to enter into the communities that surround their genre, means that this is the perfect time for authors to say, ‘Right, what can I do to make myself attractive?’ I think rather than throw in the towel (or laptop, as the case may be) authors need to stop thinking, ‘the end is here’ and start thinking, ‘Ok, things are changing. What can I do to move with the times and work these changes to my advantage?’ The premonition that publishing is dead is a foolish one. What is about to happen is that publishing as we know it is about to enter a new age and those who evolve, and accept and embrace change are more likely to survive than those who don’t. If this is true of the industry, then logic dictates that it’s true of the very people who keep the whole industry going: authors. So in answer to the question ‘are we doomed’ I think, authors, it’s time to don the boxing gloves.

About Donna Condon:

Donna Condon is a commissioning fiction editor on the Piatkus list at Little, Brown Book Group where she has worked for three years. Prior to that she worked at Piatkus Books (when it was still an independent) and Virgin Books. She commissions commercial fiction across a whole range of genres.

And don’t forget, next week we have some of the titles Donna’s worked on to give away as competition prizes.

3 comments October 13th, 2010

After Shock: a WHC Retrospective, by Sharon Ring

whc-2010Sometime late in the afternoon of March 28th, I found myself sitting in the A&E ward of Eastbourne District General Hospital receiving a severe telling off from a very young doctor.

“Clearly you’ve been overdoing things,” he said.

“Perhaps,” I replied.

“What the hell have you been doing these past few days?” he asked.

“Ah, I was at World Horror Con!”


I received an email from Joseph and Mathew asking me, at the last minute, if I fancied going to the Con and doing a little reporting on behalf of Horror Reanimated. With little time to spare, I packed my rucksack, donned my hiking boots and headed off to that most peculiar of south coast towns, Brighton. The Royal Albion Hotel, just across the road from the pier, was the venue for the convention and in due course I found myself in the reception area picking up my Convention ID and goody bag.

dealersroom2Mathew F. Riley, Weston OchseThe hotel was packed with authors, artists, editors and bloggers; everyone jostling to get to their rooms, get to that familiar-looking face, get to the bar. Me, I was heading for the Dealer’s Area, looking for the two gentlemen who’d made it possible for me to be there. Hard to find at first, the Dealer’s Area was tucked away in the basement; a baking hot room that had everyone looking fit to drop from heatstroke. So many desirable books, so few coins in my purse!

Gary McMahon, Adam Neill, Joseph D'LaceyThe Convention got properly going a few hours later with opening ceremonies overseen by Amanda Foubister and Jo Fletcher. We were duly prompted to read our pocket programmes, a phrase which became something of a mantra as the weekend progressed.

From then on it was a matter of picking and choosing what I wanted to attend; and there was just so much to choose from. I took a deep breath, wished for the ability to clone myself and then tried to make it to as many panels and readings as possible.

The panel which really caught my attention on the Thursday evening was Who Cares What You Think? Do Reviews and Blogging Really Matter? I blog, I review, I had to be there. The conversation got off to a slightly controversial start with one of the panellists claiming that anyone who was reviewing for free was, in essence, a scab. I’m still not sure whether this person was playing devil’s advocate or if this is something they strongly believe. Either way, it got the audience’s attention and made for an intense hour’s debate with a lot of input from both panellists and audience. It’s a topic which seems to be doing the rounds this year, with EasterCon attendees talking along similar lines and various bloggers coming together to discuss it at social networking sites.

joedlaceyreading2I made it to three readings that night: Joe D’Lacey, Peter Crowther and Michael Marshall Smith.

Most of the Convention readings took place in the hotel basement, in a small, soft-lit room far away from the mayhem of other Convention areas. More than once I heard people mention this room as a place to hide out and relax as well as catch up on readings from a wide variety of authors.

From Michael Marshall Smith’s reading, I made it to one of the bars. I had a love-hate relationship with the hotel bars for the entire weekend. I had vowed to behave myself and not end up spending vast amounts of money (which I didn’t have anyway) on beer and socialising. Thursday night was a success in terms of steering clear of beer. I had a couple of soft drinks, babbled somewhat nervously at Joseph, Gary McMahon, Steven Savile and Mark Deniz then wandered off into the night back to my lodgings. One day down, three more to go.


And so to Friday; the first full day of World Horror Con. I spent my first hour at the hotel kicking myself for missing the Adam Nevill reading; I’d planned to go, but was waylaid by a delicious breakfast and a lengthy explanation to my host of just what I was getting up to at the convention. I’m still not sure he “gets it”. I met up with Mark Deniz and Carole Johnstone to attend the Guest of Honour Interview with Tanith Lee.

gohinterviewtanithleeDave CarsonI’ve been reading Tanith’s work since my teens although it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of her later stories. After a very pleasant hour listening to Tanith chatting with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, I hung about to listen in on some of the next Guest of Honour Interview with Dave Carson. I don’t know a great deal about artists working in the horror genre but, after spending time talking with one or two and seeing their work, it dawned on me just how long some of the iconic imagery has been in my life. I generally pay more attention to the words than the images but somehow those images have lasted equally as long as the words, testament to the power of a decent book cover. Dave Carson’s hour talking with Stephen Parsons ended on an unexpected note, discussing the possibility of illegal downloading having the potential to make an impact on the work of genre artists.

barbararodenreading4Back down in the basement, I caught a moment or two of both Yvonne Navarro’s and Barbara Roden’s readings. Next up was a brief and thoroughly welcome appearance from lunch; one sandwich, one coffee, then back into the thick of it.

Friday afternoon saw me attending yet more events; the Brian Lumley Reading and Q&A, the Ash-Tree Press book launch and the Guest of Honour Interview with Hugh Lamb.

brianlumleyreading2Listening to Brian Lumley was a little like stepping back in time. As with Tanith Lee, Brian Lumley was a name I grew up knowing well, and again it’s been a long time since I read any of his work. This was, for me at least, a theme which was to run through the entire convention, reacquainting myself with some familiar names and promising to revisit some of those stories in the near future.

Paul Finch, Gary McMahon, Simon Kurt UnsworthThe Ash-Tree Press book launch was the only book launch I managed to attend all weekend. I was too late for cake but I did find time to get a photo or two of some of the authors who were launching books.

Hugh LambBack in the main lounge the next Guest of Honour Interview was with Hugh Lamb, overseen by the lovely Barbara Roden. This was a full hour of geek heaven for me; I edit for a living, so listening to someone who knows the industry as well as Hugh was a real treat.

Life Sucks panelTwo more panels got my attention that afternoon. Life Sucks: Do We Really Need any More Vampire Books? and Deal or No Deal: How Do I get an Agent? Life Sucks was incredibly good fun with the conversation occasionally veering back to the subject of the Twilight books, something which raised a mild hiss every time it was mentioned. Deal or No Deal was a feisty and very informative hour of discussion on the work of agents; what they do, how to get one, how to lose one.

By then it was time for a long break. I caught up with my convention “buddies”, Mark Deniz and Carole Johnstone, taking off for dinner and a chance to talk over the event thus far. We rounded off the day by going to the screening of Let The Right One In complete with an introduction (and small magic show) by John Ajvide Lindqvist.


I started Saturday off with coffee and a catch-up in the bar, only just making the tail end of Keeping Them Reading: What Happens When Harry Potter Grows Up.

panbookhistory9It was then time for one of the largest gatherings of the Con, From the Sublime to The Ridiculous: A History of “The Pan Book of Horror Stories. I’d spoken with Johnny Mains, moderator of the panel and editor of Back From The Dead; The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, on the first day of the Con where he confessed to feeling as nervous and overwhelmed as myself. All those nerves had vanished as he stood on stage with several of the original Pan authors, all gathered to talk about the book series. This was undoubtedly one of the best attended panels of the whole weekend. I doubt there was a person present who hasn’t spent time reading these books at some point in their lives.

Femme FatalesStraight after the Pan panel was one of the liveliest panels of the entire Con. Femme Fatales: How Can We Get More Women in Horror was well attended with an excellent panel (Suzanne McLeod, Sarah Pinborough, Maura McHugh, Allyson Bird and Ellen Datlow). This was an intense hour taking into consideration not just female horror writers but also thinking about women readers, female protagonists and the stigma of paranormal romance.

gohinterviewdavidcase1From this lively panel, I went to my first Guest of Honour Interview for the day, David Case. He was being interviewed by Ramsey Campbell and the whole hour had a very sweet feel to it; more like two old boys sitting and reminiscing in the pub than a real interview and, despite its poor attendance was possibly one of my favourite hours of the weekend.

gohinterviewherbert1Next up was another Guest of Honour Interview, this time with James Herbert. As I made my way from one room to another I spotted Neil Gaiman who, it transpired, was to be a “super-secret” guest and interviewer of James Herbert. This caused a hell of a stir as word got around about his arrival with people descending on the main lounge from all over the hotel. Again, Herbert is an author I know well from years gone by but I haven’t read much in recent times. Once more, I was left with an urge to go back and re-read some of his earlier works.

Nicholas Royle, Jasper Kent, Christopher Fowler, Simon R GreenAfter a hastily scoffed lunch I made it to yet another panel, When is Horror not Horror? Crossover Genres. Again, this was a well attended panel with a great discussion on defining those books which have crossover “appeal” and the resurgence of horror as a marketable product.

gohinterviewingridpittFrom here, I popped my head into the main lounge where the next Guest of Honour Interview was taking place with Ingrid Pitt. I’d decided to get a couple of shots of her, then try and grab a coffee and a rest. As I tried to leave the room, she stopped me in my tracks asking where I was going. I quickly mumbled something about bathrooms as I made my escape. I was told afterward that she sprung that little surprise on anyone who attempted to leave the lounge during her talk.

gaimannewmantalk3Straight after Ingrid’s interview was a special surprise, Kim Newman interviewing Neil Gaiman for half an hour. Once again, the main lounge was packed out as Kim and Neil chatted about the old days before moving on to what Neil is up to at the moment, which would appear to be “everything”.

stateoftheart1Following the Newman and Gaiman chat were two equally interesting panels. State of the Art: Masters of the Craft assess the Genre and Into the GoreZone: Can you Go Too Far in Horror? It was soon obvious that the planning for these two panels was slightly out, with State of the Art needing to move to the larger of the two panel rooms. Ramsey Campbell took charge and got the rooms switched, with people milling about in a slight state of confusion in the hotel reception not quite knowing which panel was where.

The Awards

I took myself off for a long break then, grabbing food and a spare set of camera batteries before making my way down to Brighton Pier to catch the Bram Stoker Award Ceremony. The ceremony began with an embarrassingly bizarre video introduction from Deborah LeBlanc. May I never have to see anything like this ever again…

The awards went as follows…

  • Tanith Lee and James Herbert were named Grand Masters
  • Basil Copper received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Horror Convention (a slightly different award to those won by Brian Lumley and William F. Nolan)
  • Brian Lumley and William F. Nolan received Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • The Richard Layman President’s Award went to Vince Liaguno
  • The Silver Hammer Award (for volunteer work on behalf of the Horror Writers’ Association) went to Kathy Ptacek
  • The Specialty Press Award went to Tartarus Press (Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker)

The Stoker winners were:

  • Novel: Audrey’s Door, Sarah Langan (Harper)
  • First Novel: Damnable, Hank Schwaeble (Jove)
  • Long Fiction: The Lucid Dreaming, Lisa Morton (Bad Moon Books)
  • Short Fiction: In The Porches Of My Ears, Norman Prentiss (PS Publishing)
  • Anthology: He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson, Christopher Conlon (ed.) (Gauntlet Press)
  • Collection: A Taste of Tenderloin, Gene O’Neill (Apex Book Company)
  • Non-Fiction: Writers Workshop of Horror, Michael Knost (Woodland Press)
  • Poetry: Chimeric Machines, Lucy A. Snyder (Creative Guy Publishing)

The Horror Writer’s Association also announced three new award categories for the awards – Screenplay, Young Adult and Graphic Novel. No announcement on when these new categories will be added though, perhaps next year?

From the Award Ceremony, it was back to the hotel for parties. Two or three parties were taking place, scattered between the Royal Albion and the nearby Radisson Blu (which had played host to the conventions KaffeeKlatsches and writing workshops). It was here that my mission to remain beer-free suddenly hit a magnificent pint-shaped obstacle; it was also here that things got a little bit hazy for me. Mark, Carole and I wandered from the Albion to the Radisson and back again before settling down to a very long night of drinking, aided and abetted by Joseph D’Lacey, Charles Rudkin and Bill Breedlove.

We were politely, and very firmly, asked to leave the hotel around half six in the morning having been caught helping ourselves to the beer; I should point out here that Joseph had long since vanished and took no part in the beer theft.


By Sunday lunchtime all I was fit for was lounging in the sun room of one of the bars, drinking coffee and muttering oaths of abstinence to anyone who was unlucky enough to be sat with me.

World Horror Con was not just my first horror genre convention, it was my first convention ever; and, as several people pointed out during that long weekend, it was a real baptism of fire. I have nothing to compare it with but can say in all honesty it was one of the most intense, interesting and funny weekends of my life. Apparently, World Horror Con has never taken place outside of the U.S; I’m glad I got to be there on its first trip away from the States and reckon it won’t be long before the U.K. gets to play host again.

Mark Deniz, Vincent ChongSo, what were my favourite moments of Horror Con? Now there’s a list that could go on for a long time but, narrowing it down, I’d have to say that getting to hang out with my boss from Morrigan Books, Mark Deniz comes top of the list. We work together but live a fair old distance apart so getting to spend time together talking shop and wandering around the various panels was a lot of fun.

And then, in no particular order; meeting authors I grew up reading, getting to listen in to a lot of industry talk (mind-boggling at times but mostly very informative), meeting authors I’ve reviewed and interviewed for my own blog, meeting fellow bloggers and reviewers and even the occasional Facebook Scrabble friend. I’d started the weekend feeling entirely out of my depth but by the time I was heading home I was left with the feeling that I’m part of that community now.

Sharon Ring

12 comments April 14th, 2010

Interview with Simon Bestwick by JD’L

pictures_of_the_darkToday our interview takes place in the attic of a derelict house far out across the moors. A long way from where anyone could hear if something happens to me. Who am I kidding? Something always happens to me, doesn’t it? The attic is strewn with dust and bones – I can’t tell whether their owners died up here or were brought along later.

Not to worry, though, it’s cosy as can be. And the shadows move as though something in the darkness is still alive. Home from home.

Joining me in the attic is Simon Bestwick, author of the inspiring short story collection ‘Pictures of the Dark’. It’s the best book of short fiction I’ve read in a long time. Simon sits opposite me, wrapped in a grey blanket edged with red, for all the world like some street-weary derelict.

What struck me about this collection was the fortitude of Simon Bestwick’s writing voice. Flawlessly genuine throughout the entire work, much of his strength seems to come from using the first person.

Joseph D’Lacey: Simon, thanks for suggesting this snug attic in the middle of nowhere. The air’s a lot…drier…than I’m used to in the basement of Horror Reanimated. Not so many uncategorisable things crawling the walls.

Anyway, welcome to the interview.

I wanted to know first of all why so much of the work in PotD is written in the first person. Is this your M.O. in longer fiction too?

Simon Bestwick: It’s just the easiest voice to slip into as a writer.  I know some people say you should always switch it to third person unless you’ve got a really good reason, but I’ve never done that, although I have sometimes deliberately chosen beforehand to write a particular piece third person, just to break the monotony.  First person’s particularly attractive in horror because of the nature of the field- it puts you right inside the character’s head and implicates you in their thought processes.  That makes it harder to dissociate yourself if the character does something terrible- anybody is capable of just about anything, but we like to pretend otherwise and turn away, cop out by dismissing people who do certain things as ‘evil’.  Plus which, of course, a first-person voice usually implies the character has lived to tell the tale, but that doesn’t have to be the case.  And even if the character has survived, that’s not necessarily reassuring- just read Lovecraft’s ‘The Rats In The Walls’, or nearly any first-person narrative by Poe.

All my novellas have been first person- not deliberately, it’s just worked out that way.  My first novel consisted of three different first-person narratives; my second one’s third person, although all from one character’s viewpoint, and the third’s going to be third person, and told from a lot of different viewpoints.  Not planned beyond that yet…

JD’L: You’re very comfortable in the horror genre. I can’t help thinking you belong there. But you also write crime fiction – Never Say Goodbye, Starky’s Town and Vecqueray’s Blanket spring to mind straight away. If you had to write in only one genre for the rest of your existence (including eternity in hell, where we all belong) which would it be and why?

tide_of_souls1SB:  Horror, because it encompasses all the other genres as well.  The overlap between horror and the crime genre’s an obvious one, but it can just as readily go into science fiction or fantasy’s territory, and because it shares a lot of elements with magic realism as well, there are plenty of writers- Graham Joyce, in particular, springs to mind- who are just published as ‘mainstream’ authors.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never consciously sat down to write a horror story or ghost story, but I’d also be lying if I said I’d never just sat down to tell a story I really needed to tell and thought fuck genre labels.  Genre categories are handy if you’re trying to sell fiction or analyse it, but if you’re trying to write it you need to treat them with extreme caution.  Write the stories you want to write and worry later about who you’re going to sell it to or where.

There’s good genre writing and there’s good writing that happens to be in a particular genre.  M.R. James’ ghost stories use language wonderfully and they’re great at giving you a pleasant shiver, but beyond that, there’s not really that much to them.  Compare a few of James’ stories to any collection by, say, Raymond Carver and you’ll see what I mean.  On the other hand, if you take a collection of Dennis Etchison’s short stories and compare them to Carver’s you’ll that they measure up, in terms of the quality of the writing and in terms of content.  The best writing deals with whatever subjects, themes, issues are closest to the writer’s hearts and it does so with good prose, careful structure and sound characterisation; it combines all the tools of narrative art with actually having something to say.

JD’L: Can you cite any precursors to your writing style or have you worked hard to create an original voice?

SB: Both- there’s been a lot of writers whose work I’ve admired in different areas, and I’ve tried to learn from each of them. At the same time there’s a fairly definite goal in mind, and I think my style’s been shaped by aiming for that. Poe and Lovecraft both taught me how dark fiction can be and how to construct a story so it builds to maximum effect; Richard Matheson showed how clear, simple prose that tells a story smoothly and effectively could have poetry in it too; later Stephen King did much the same.  Also, I came back to writing fiction from an acting background, and so there were playwrights as well, Edward Bond, Howard Barker and David Rudkin; they all dealt in very unsparing, often harrowing imagery and again, they were all trying to create a poetic language that was also very everyday, earthy, raw.  I think that’s always been one of the main things I’ve striven for, and to use that to try and get as much as I can into everything I do- psychological depth, social comment, existential musings- but never forgetting a) to still tell a good, involving story and b) that horror fiction is supposed to unsettle, frighten or disturb.

Also, I’ve never bought into the idea that good writers have to starve in garrets and that only crap sells in large quantities.  There are some people in the genre who get very sniffy about anyone actually wanting to make some kind of living as a writer, but I think the ugly truth is that commercial success and literary quality just aren’t related.  There’s crap that sells by the barrowload (Dan Brown) while there’s good writing that gets overlooked (Joel Lane and Mark Samuels both deserve to be far more widely read and better known), but equally there’s crap that doesn’t sell and good work that does.  I’d like, personally, to fit into the second category, but at the same time I’m not interested in fiction that doesn’t connect on an emotional level- anything I do has to become personal on some level or it’s a waste of time. The horror genre just happens to give me the best set of tools to do that.

Shakespeare wrote some of the finest dramatic literature and poetry in the English language, and he did so as a commercial dramatist; and he did that because writers had to cater for everyone- so his tragedies have these beautiful poetic passages after the style of the Latin dramatist Seneca for all the university-educated types in the ‘gods’, but also plenty of gore, poisonings and the sword-fights.  And out of that, he synthesised something truly great, something that had both profundity and popular appeal.  I don’t think that’s too shabby an ambition, and I think focusing on that has helped develop the style I’ve got.

It’s not just me, though; I think what we’re seeing more recently are different strands in weird fiction being drawn together, different traditions being integrated and synthesised.  Conrad Williams is doing that, I think; Gary McMahon is another one.

JD’L: One thing I adored about PotD was your use of language. Partly because of this, the stories had depth and colour rarely found in any genre. Were you born a clever bastard or did you take lessons?

a-hazy-shade-of-winterSB: You have a knack of asking questions I can’t answer without sounding like a vain git!  I agree with the line about genius being the capacity for taking infinite pains- I’m not claiming to be a genius there, just that if I have reached any standard of quality it’s through a) reading widely in and out of the genre and b) being very tough with my own work.  More and more now the first draft of anything is the raw material- the ‘brain barf’ as an American friend put it!- and the rest of the process as shaping and refining it.  The first draft can be frustrating at times, but once the work’s completed it’s a hell of a lot easier to work out what to do next.

I’m about to start rewrites on the novel I’ve just finished, and there’s basically a long list of notes of all the things that need to be put right are improved, scribbled down at random and then sorted into some semblance of order to make the long process of setting things to rights a bit easier.  Both parts of the process are a lot of fun, however knackering they can sometimes be.

I can’t stand writers who try to get away with second best when writing genre fiction- whether in prose, characterisation, plotting or whatever.  I want to write the best fiction, the best work I possibly can.  You’re a short time here and a long time dead, and when I’m gone, if I’m very lucky, the work might live on.  In the meantime, I’ll be happy if it pays the bills.

JD’L: For your basic horror fan, PotD has got everything: Ghosts, Zombies, Vampires, Psychos, Demons and more Zombies. However, the themes in the collection make it far more than just a bunch of monster sketches. In PotD, story is everything and yet the resonance of each tale lingers. What comes to you first; story or theme? And if your theme comes first, do you worry that trying to explore it too fully will spoil the tale?

SB: Form dictates content, but content also dictates form.  Most often the story comes first.  Sometimes I can see the themes in there waiting to be pulled out; other times I’ve no clue what it’ll be ‘about’ until I actually start writing.  When there is a theme in mind, the job is then to dramatise it, so the theme basically disappears into the characters and the action without needing any big Kevin Costner speeches, please god.  And if you’ve done your job properly, form and content become the same thing, so exploring the theme fully will be the same thing as taking the story as far as it can go.

JD’L: What was the last piece of short fiction that blew your mind and why?

SB: ‘This Creeping Thing’ from Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical.  It’s a great collection; the nearest I can come to describing it is Raymond Carver writing magic realism for Jackanory.  The stories start out light, almost whimsical.  It’s only as you go on that you realise what he’s doing, and just how dark it is.  ‘This Creeping Thing’ blew my away because it surprised me, not in a plot twist kind of way, but by going into territory I’d never have guessed it would, or could, go into.  I can’t really talk about the story without spoiling it for people, but really, I can’t recommend it, or the collection as a whole, enough.

JD’L: I’ve always considered short fiction essential practice for novels. Yet some short fiction writers never touch the longer form and some novelists never write short stories. Sometimes, that middle territory occupied by the novella is where the most astounding things occur. Do you have a favourite form?

houses_on_the_borderlandSB: I love them all!  In the past year or so, I’ve been concentrating on novel-writing and haven’t written many short stories except when an editor’s requested one.  Mainly it’s the time factor- not just the writing time, but also you have to mull over story ideas and let them brew up to a certain point before you can start writing them.  Once the ball’s rolling, you can just come back to the desk each morning and jump back in where you left off.  With a novel, that makes daily production an easy task. With short stories, on the other hand, they usually get done in one sitting, maybe two.  And then you have to go off again and wait for the next one to rise to the surface.

The last couple of short stories were actually quite tough to write, because I kept thinking ‘this is for a professional anthology, you’ll get some real cash for it so it’s got to be good.’  And you can’t work like that.  You can’t think of the money or the exposure at the time you’re writing it, just the work itself.  It took a while to get my focus back on where it needed to be, which is writing something I wanted to write.  Whether it’s a mass-market novel or a short story maybe a hundred people (if you’re lucky) will read, for god’s sake don’t write it unless you actually want to.

When I started out I wrote a story a week, which actually took a lot of pressure off; no-one was offering professional payment for it, the reward was the buzz of having written something you were proud of and seeing your work in print.  Now there’s less time for them, so it tends to be about specific projects.  And in the beginning it was easier to take chance and just discard the ones that hadn’t paid off.  Now the emphasis is more on thinking through and reworking, so there are fewer individual pieces of work but hopefully the quality’s higher each time.  So the old difficulties and challenges have gone and now instead there are new ones, but I can live with that- it’s part of growing up and developing as a writer.

It’d be nice to do some new short stories, though, just for fun.  There are always those ideas that won’t leave you alone and have to be written.  Maybe after the next novel I’ll have a blitz on them, start laying the keel for a new collection.  I agree with you about novellas; they give you the focus and brevity of shorter fiction together with the additional depth, colour and range of a longer story.  Some of the work I’m proudest of is novella-length, such as ‘The Narrows’ and in particular ‘The School House.’

JD’L: Have there been any supernatural or unexplainable events in your life that have shaped your creativity?

SB: No.  Plenty of unpleasant non-supernatural ones though.  Go to a private all-boys’ school for seven years if you really want a reservoir of painful memories to draw on.  See ‘The School House’ for details; writing that fucker hurt.

JD’L: The sheer variety of ideas in PotD was a delight but I can’t help wondering about the things that you return to again and again, those rocks you can’t help but keep looking under. Are there any core themes that won’t leave Simon Bestwick alone? If so, what are they and why?

SB: Apocalypses, because there’s such a massive list of ways in which we’re fucked right now, or at least imperilled.  Economic crisis, climate change, resource wars, peak oil, pandemics… They all basically serve to remind us just how fragile everything we take for granted, day to day, is, and how easy it is for everything to slip out of our control.

Sex and love keep cropping up too, probably because I’m male and single.  Mind you, that happens even when I’m not.  Not single, that is; my gender hasn’t altered (appreciably) in the last thirty-odd years, although… hm, there’s another potential story idea.

Also, I fear and loathe authoritarianism- fascism, fundamentalism of any kind, and I’m terrified of them having any power.

I think there’s a real danger of this country becoming an honest-to-god police state in my lifetime, and I just don’t know if there’s the will to fight against it.  All you have to do to get a law passed is to say it’s a necessary measure to fight terrorism- six weeks’ detention without trial, bans on legitimate protest- and afterwards no-one notices when those laws are used to clamp down on people who disagree with their government.  We’re living in increasingly interesting times, so that’s something that should scare everybody.

We’ve also got people trying to smuggle insane bullshit like creationism onto school syllabuses.  We’ve got pharmacists who refuse to supply contraceptive pills and registrars who won’t conduct civil partnership ceremonies, all claiming religion as a defence. The head of the Catholic Church, who’s told his African congregation that condoms make the spread of AIDS worse and has worked to shield paedophiles from justice, attacks anti-discrimination laws for ‘restricting religious freedom’- presumably meaning the right to act like bigoted scum without consequence.  People like this hold power.  And this is in a world where we also have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.  The scary thought is not that those people might get access to those toys- under George W. Bush, they did. And it could- probably will- happen again, and we might not be so lucky.  How that can’t appal and frighten somebody is beyond me.

JD’L: A fog of depression overtakes me…What projects can we look forward to from you next, Simon?

fade2greySB: I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel,The Song Of The Sibyl, which I’ll be rewriting into its (hopefully) final form over the next couple of months.  After that I’ll be writing the first of a planned quartet of novels set in Britain twenty years after a nuclear attack and incorporating Lovecraftian horror.  There’s a couple of short stories in the offing- I have a tale called ‘The Sons Of The City’ in End Of The Line, a horror anthology coming out from Solaris Books and edited by Jon Oliver, as well as another that I can’t talk about as it’s still under wraps.  I’ve also been invited to contribute something to Never Again, an anti-fascist anthology edited by Joel Lane and Allyson Bird, and another novella, Angels Of The Silences, should be due out from Pendragon Press at Fantasycon this year.  I do my best to keep busy and have a lot of irons in the fire!

JD’L: No Horror Reanimated interview is complete without its incredibly bogus award ceremony. You have been given the power to make two nominations:

First, The Sword of the Ultimate Darkness goes to the work of horror in any media which you consider a timeless classic.

Conversely, you may banish to The Plague Pits the very worst example of the genre in any media.

Please make your nominations.

SB: The Sword Of Ultimate Darkness: Fuck.  Never, never, never ask me to nominate a ‘best of’ anything.  I should’ve told you before we started doing this.  I’m hopeless at it.  So hopeless, in fact, that I’m going to cheat.  I’ll nominate Best Film, Best Novel and Best Short Story.

Film: Threads.  You won’t find it in the horror section of your local HMV, but it still remains one of the most authentically frightening, haunting and distressing films I’ve ever seen.  An ‘80s film about a nuclear attack on Britain, incredibly realistic, harrowing and bleak.  (Similarly, I’d also recommend Peter Watkins’s 1965 film The War Game.)  Threads terrifies while engaging the brain and the emotions, and it goes, again and again, way beyond what you hoped would be the cut-off point.

Novel: The Grin Of The Dark by Ramsey Campbell.  There’s some bloody stiff competition, not least among Ramsey’s own work (The House On Nazareth Hill and Incarnate both came close too.)  A friend told me a couple of years ago that while he still thought Campbell the finest living horror writer, he didn’t think he’d write anything again that’d blow him away like Incarnate had.  I took great pleasure in giving him Grin as a Christmas present and he took great pleasure in eating his words.

Short Story: ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ by Poe.  Do I really need to say anything else?  Not really.  Other than, imagine reading that for the first time aged about nine (if that) and getting to that final line…  Yes.  Exactly.

The Plague Pits: this one’s even tougher, actually, because I’ve got less and less time for shit writing or films.  I’d rather leave it and watch something else!  Of course, sometimes you can find and extract a good idea from the awful mess…

Even though it hasn’t been released yet, I’m strongly tempted to nominate Michael Bay’s remake of The Birds because a) it’s (another) pointless remake of a classic and b) it’s Michael fucking Bay.  Remakes in general- with certain honourable exceptions- are usually an appallingly bad idea and proof of the movie industry’s intellectual bankruptcy and contempt for both its audience and its own history.

But if I’ve got to pick one existing example… OK.  Let me draw your attention to a film called Necropolis (1987, dir. by Bruce Hickey), which I saw back in the ‘90s.  Time has mercifully blurred the memories, but not enough.  Back then, my best mate and I would watch his enviable collection of shlocky ‘80s horror videos into the small hours.  (And without seeing all those naff zombie movies, I’d never have had the idea for ‘Starky’s Town’ among others.)  We’d usually be a wee bit intoxicated as well, so we weren’t exactly hard to impress.

The main character of Necropolis is a punky, black-leather-jacketed witch with spiky blonde hair. And six breasts. Which she gets out. More than once, as I recall. And still, we switched the film off after twenty minutes, which gives you some idea of what a steaming pile of half-digested llama guts it had to be.  The main actress (I use the term advisedly) appeared to be a dance student on her summer break; every few minutes came footage of her doing a completely pointless dance routine to godawful ‘80s synth-pop.  There were no good reasons to put that in the film and plenty not to, so I can only assume she was blowing the director between takes.  Occasionally I wonder if I should watch it again just to check we didn’t switch off just before it turned into one of the great lost masterpieces of Western cinema, but so far I haven’t.  I’m going those twenty minutes of my life back on my deathbed as it is without adding on Necropolis’ full running time of 77mins.

JD’L: It only remains for me to say a big thank you for talking to Horror Reanimated – albeit on your own rather unusual terms. There’s certainly been a lot of weird activity up here in this attic, much of it XXX rated!

On behalf of all of us, may I also wish you very much success with all your future work. There’s absolutely no question it deserves a much wider audience.

SB: Thank you.

Simon’s other fiction includes:

1 comment March 24th, 2010

Women in Horror: Alan Kelly examines the works of Poppy Z. Brite


Poppy Z Brite photo by J.K. Potter; Creative Commons license

As a writer Poppy Z Brite took the lost and the depraved, the vicious, the misguided, the outsider, the deviant and the freak by the hand, she lead some home, some to the sadistic salvation they would discover in the extreme ecstasy and pain to be had from “violating the sanctity of a dead boys ass”, abandoned baby vampires into violent pansexualized father/son fuckfests and even others towards the relative safety found in the “transubstantiation of culinary delights” and I loved every fucking word.

As a 16 year old boy, growing up gay in a small backwater her novels became a beacon of hope – or despair, depending on whatever disposition you favoured – breaking through the psychotic monotony of my teenage years – each of her books were connected by one fundamental thread – her characters where for the most part lithe young boys who wanted to be girls, avenging resurrected photographers, dirt poor chartreuse soaked teenagers, gentle mystics, grunge musicians, vampires and necrophiliac cannibals in love. She effortlessly, exquisitely took the mantle of the masculine – Brite identifies as a non-operative transsexual – and offered a uniquely feminine fetishism of the gay male -  beautiful descriptions of hard-core gay sex, lurid descriptions of violence and prose as elegant as anything Shirley Jackson or Oliver Onions ever put on paper overlapped seamlessly.

Her wordplay was pictorial in its depravity, think B-movies or quasi-horror cum skin flicks with an intellectual bent and you’re not even halfway there. Her oeuvre connotates the absurd, the sexual, the glorious Grand Guignol in a bracingly intelligent, sometimes serious and sometimes even light-hearted fashion. She had an ear for macabre whipsmart dialogue, extraordinarily vivid characters; her fiction had me delight in the weirdness and inherent brutality of existence beneath the dark miasma that hung over most of her characters’ lives. What can I say, I’m a sadist. She worked me like an addiction I never wanted to break. Her frames of reference incorporated everything from The Church of The Subgenius to the cyber-punk/avant Goth subcultures which populated the seamy seedy French Quarter in New Orleans, Trent Reznor, AIDS terrorism, filicide and filleting boys.

Because this is Women in Horror Recognition month I’ve decided that the focal point of this piece is going to be on Brite’s earlier body of work – in her later novels Brite’s moved away from – though not completely out of – the horror genre: The Value of X, Liquor, and D.U.C.K are more akin to the writing of Faulkner, Flannery O’ Connor and Harry Crews; I’ve also chosen to omit her commercial projects (the unauthorized Courtney Love biography) and her “franchise fiction” (The Lazarus Heart – which is a tie-in of The Crow).

lost_soulsIn her debut novel Lost Souls (Dell bought it in 1991 and a few months later she was signed to a six-figure three-book contract) I was introduced to a triumvirate of psychotic vampires called  Zillah, Molochai and Twig – creatures I wasn’t sure I wanted to fuck, or flee from. After subjecting a young woman to a night of alcohol-fuelled crazed lust – they disappear. An unfortunate side-effect of humans mating with vampires is that said young woman won’t survive the pregnancy, therefore forcing another of their kind to leave the orphaned vampire baby on a doorstep in grim suburbia; the baby, who grows up to become a reclusive teenager and goes by the name of Nothing, rejects the dull normies and the stifling small-town he was forced to grow up in and leaves it all behind in search of his true heritage. The Lost Souls of the title are the heartbroken musician Steve and the fey psychic Ghost, residents of Brite’s fictitious Missing Mile (apparently inspired by Athens in Georgia, where Brite resided before making New Orleans her permanent home). Eventually Nothing hooks up with his real family and embarks on an incestuous affair with Zillah – the leader of the pack and his own father. At first Nothing is easily seduced by the lure of these creatures’ hyperreality. Nothing finds his own way into the damnation – that is the easy part – however, he soon realises that after witnessing some of his new family’s more unsavoury antics he might need to find a way back to the light. The morally conflicted little vamp finds allies when he finally encounters Steve and Ghost, but the pack isn’t prepared to give up one of their own without a ferocious fight.

Lost Souls was listed by Fangoria as one of the best vampire novels ever written and Brite was crowned as the reigning Queen of the Macabre – dethroning even Anne Rice. The contract with Dell left Brite free to write full-time – up until this, she had been making ends meet as a stripper, artist’s model, mouse-caretaker (she cleaned up after them at a cancer research lab) and short order cook.

It took only another nine months for Brite to produce her second baby, Drawing Blood. The setting may have been the same (being almost exclusively based in Missing Mile) but although this novel had supernatural overtones, it was a very different book in tone and subject-matter than her previous one. In the opening chapters a father brutally kills every member of his family, sparing only his young son Trevor. Years later – much like his predecessor Nothing – Trevor returns to the place of his birth, now a stoic young illustrator, and the house where his family perished. In New Orleans the cyber-hacking, slutty Edward Scissorhands lookalike Zach needs to get out of dodge post-haste when a shadowy government agency begin tailing him. He is aided and abetted by the sultry exotic dancer Eddy Chung (perhaps the only female I remember as a mainstay throughout the novel, though in Brite’s earlier work, gender, pretty much like everything else was debateable). Trevor returns to his home and meeting Zach offers him sanctuary. The boys fall in love but soon the malevolent force that runs through the house starts to assert itself. The ultimate solution for Trevor is to find his way through and out of a mysterious liminal dimension known as Birdland. Brite’s conjuration of Birdland took my breath away – her allusions to the insane architecture of such a place can be traced as far back as the now-defunct 1920’s fantasy/horror publication Weird Tales which had lurid, garish covers of archetypal monsters and other assorted ghouls. One sequence in a cinema had me leaving the lamp burning for three whole nights – it was as if Todd Bronwyn had cast the characters that lived there.

Drawing Blood was perhaps the most gentle and tame of her Gothic Line. It was around the same time that Brite had her first short story collection Swamp Foetus (or Wormwood in the UK) published and saw her cover similar if no less unsettling terrain and even had cameo appearances from some of the characters of her earlier novels.

exquisite_corpseThis brings me to Brite’s most controversial novel to date Exquisite Corpse. A novel which took me to the shocking, acid-skin-stripping, viscera full frontiers of psychosexual obsession and corpse-revelry and I fell in love. A tour-de-force with a taunting, teasing, thrilling and tortuous narrative trajectory that undoubtedly had maniacs salivating on the frontlines of the lunatic fringe. So extreme in content was this that her publisher Dell refused to publish it – her UK publishers also declined. Eventually it was picked up by Simon and Schuster in the US and Orion in the UK. This was so much more though than just another “extreme” novel; even with Lost Souls and Drawing Blood Brite took incredible risks and happily gave the V to any of her detractors. She wrote a novel that dragged you into the darkest realms of humanity – but her characters weren’t “monsters.” Caitlin R. Kiernan wrote in the afterword of Self-Made Man:

“At the root of all the anxiety and alarm seems to be Poppy’s decision to portray the novel’s two cannibalistic serial killers as human beings instead of reducing them to one-dimensional monsters who could then easily be dismissed by readers as Not One of Us. That Andrew  Compton and Jay Byrne are shown as men with passions and fears, strengths and weaknesses, that they are humanized rather than demonized, putting the reader at risk of gaining some insight into appetites so alien to their own, and so taboo to their society. And, I suspect, a fear that even the most disgusted reader may find a spark of empathy.”

This novel wiped the floor with the Brett Easton Ellis pussy-hating, chainsaw cub-scout Patrick Bateman. Delving deep into the psyche of the most damaged “monsters” and indeed, as Kiernan pointed out, giving us an insight into another world. Brite was a braver writer than another so-called-subversive enfant terrible, A.M Holmes, who took an intellectual and infuriatingly moral stance in her exploration of paedophilia in The End of Alice. The tabloid detachment of Holmes’ style sickened me while the intimacy of Brite’s full-blown love affair with the “monsters” or the “freaks” offered me a better understanding of the depth of things – however depraved and vile those acts may be I never felt the urge to scald my skin after reading. She led me to other subversive writers like Dennis Cooper (Frisk) Matthew Stokoe (High Life) Laura Albert (the writer formerly known as JT Leroy) and the divine former pro dominatrix Christa Faust (who collaborated with Brite on Triads and is the author of Money Shot) and many other writers who weren’t afraid to grab life by the dick and suck it (or in Andrew Compton’s case, bite it off).

With Exquisite Corpse she really raised the stakes – this was before Eli Roth could shave the hairs on his balls or Takashi Miike and The French New Wave got behind a camera. Before the gang-rape and violent retribution of Virgenie Despentes’ Baise Moi or the small-press deciding Charles Manson is worth publishing. Not that I’m diminishing any of these people and their endeavours, I’m just pointing out that Poppy Z. Brite was writing material at a time – the early nineties – that you probably wouldn’t get away with doing today. This is why I felt honoured when Joseph D’Lacey (who runs this site) asked me to write a piece on one of my favourite writers; his own novel Meat is one seriously fucked up, intelligent, though like Exquisite Corpse, a significant piece of work with staying power and violence and grace. And something which actually tells us, rather than dictates something very real about humanity – even if we might not yet know what that is.

I’m also going to mention a few more female writers you might want to look up which are: Caitlan R Kiernan, Laura Hird, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Zahavi, Darcey Steinke, Val McDiermud, Joolz Denby, Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, Cathi Unsworth, Rhodi Hawk, Gabrielle Faust, Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Vicki Hendricks, Lydia Lunch, and Alexandra Sokoloff.

And if you fancy finding out more about Women in Horror Recognition Month, you can always visit these places:

1 comment February 26th, 2010

JD’L talks to 3:AM Magazine plus changes to pre-christmas signing schedule…

I was interviewed by Alan Kelly for the brilliant 3:AM Magazine. It was a real pleasure to talk to him.

In other news, since Borders has gone into administration, my 19th December signing in their Leicester branch has been cancelled. It’s a real shame because I’ve had some great times in that store and the staff are all lovely people. I hope someone can save Borders and keep their way of doing things alive.

I do have one more signing left before Christmas at Waterstones, Northampton on Saturday 5th December between 11AM and 3PM. I should be on BBC Radio Northampton talking about it sometime this week. There will be copies of MEAT, Garbage Man and The Kill Crew available.

See you there!

Add comment November 30th, 2009

Micro-review of Banquet for the Damned + Macro-interview with Adam LG Nevill by JD’L

banquet of the damned_AW.indd

Banquet for the Damned combines several very real elements – night terrors, shamanism, anthropology, witchcraft and heavy metal – in a very real location; St. Andrews. It’s one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. I had shivers across my skin as I discovered within its pages the histories of the covens of Europe and the studies of evil spirits and familiars in the shamanic traditions of South America and Africa.

Into this world of student revelry and stuffy intellectualism, comes a renegade writer and explorer of altered realities, Eliot Coldwell. And he’s brought something nasty with him. Something hungry. Students begin to disappear from the campus.

At the same time, following the break up of their band, guitarists Dante Shaw and his best friend Tom travel to St. Andrews. They plan to meet Eliot Coldwell, Dante’s spiritual hero and author of the notorious cult novel, Banquet for the Damned. Dante intends to make a concept album using Eliot and his work as the theme.

But instead of finding inspiration in St. Andrews, Dante discovers nightmares stalking the town’s ancient streets…


It’s no secret that Bloody Books and Virgin Horror were in direct competition for the same share of the genre market. When the Virgin line folded, we were kind of pleased to be left in the game.

Horror Reanimated seeks the best in the genre and, as time went by, we featured Virgin titles and talked to their authors. (See our posts on Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell and Conrad Williams). Having read plenty of Virgin Horror, it now strikes me as tragic that such high quality fiction will no longer issue forth from that elegantly twisted horn of plenty.

My most recent read was ‘Banquet for the Damned’ by Adam L G Nevill. Originally published by PS Publishing, this title gripped me as hard as any supernatural tale ever has. It is a superbly crafted, beautifully told and genuinely frightening novel. As a final tribute to a noble and prematurely buried imprint, I bring you a candid interview with Adam L G Nevill, author of Banquet and editor of the Virgin Horror line.

We honour the genre’s slain; enemy and friend alike, generals and foot soldiers equally. Why? Because when you throw the festering undead into a pit, they stick together!

But that’s not all. Adam has recently proved himself truly undead having risen again with a major two-book deal…

Joseph D’Lacey: Adam, I’m going to thank you in advance for agreeing to what I realise may be an uncomfortable interview for you following the termination of your horror list.

But I’d like to talk to you first about Banquet for the Damned. This novel came right out of leftfield and slammed me hard upside the head. I’d long believed my supernatural ‘fear’ nerve to be burned out through overuse. Apparently not. What chilled me about the story was the depth of research the characters had done on witchcraft, familiars and evil spirits. It was all too real. What can you say to reassure me that you made it all up?

Adam L G Nevill: Thanks for the really kind words JD’L, and for reading it so carefully. There is nothing more satisfying than finding an ideal reader.

As for reassurance that it’s all fiction, who can say … Night terrors are an absolutely real and universal form of sleep disturbance long associated with witchcraft. My story is inspired by the many actual histories of witchcraft and demonology that I read and researched. And the authors of those tomes were pretty convincing …incubus

While I was based in St Andrews and matriculated at the university, I discovered the most incredible archive of old books on the occult bequeathed to the university library by a former rector. And the university also has a world class anthropology department, with some terrific sources on the occult and superstition in the developing world too. I remember having 40 books on witchcraft and the supernatural on my post-grad library card, when a curious librarian finally asked me what I was doing at the university. It was Lovecraftian – some of the books had not been borrowed since the sixties and I would scurry back to my room and pore over them. I had a year up there and had the time to read dozens of secondary texts on the subject of the unworldly. From that I took great creative license with specific histories and idioms to create the sense that my fictional scholars were authorities in order to make the supernatural element seem authentic. I blended bits and pieces from many documented stories and phenomenon to create my own history of a forgotten pagan god/witch’s familiar that had been called by many different names and moved through the ages, worshipped by one cult or another. I wanted its origins and long story to reflect the patterns of how real history is interpreted and revised, so that even the documentation and sources seemed authentic.

Making the supernatural believable in a modern setting is no easy task, so the carefully wrought history, the scholars, the academic environment, are designed to add credence to a preposterous notion I want a reader to accept. I lose interest in so much horror fiction because of its errant silliness from the beginning, but well-researched books like Matheson’s Hell House, Blatty’s Exorcist and Legion, or most recently Simmon’s The Terror and Brookes’s World War Z unsettle you far more because of that sense of authenticity and plausibility. Place the unrecognisable subtly amongst the recognisable and it’s easier for a reader to lose themselves in a story.

JD’L: Great. Like I’ll sleep a wink tonight knowing all that.

Our resident supernatural horror author, Bill Hussey, doesn’t believe in ghosts, spirits or the afterlife. Aside from the research angle, how much actual experience of the supernatural do you have? Do you think there’s a world we can’t see, a world where dark forces conspire to enter ours?

ALGN: I suffered dreadful night terrors while writing the book. I’d never had them before. Bizarrely, two readers have emailed me to declare the same while reading it. Which would suggest we all induced them subconsciously while either writing or reading a book featuring vivid night terrors. Or, I do wonder, did I make myself receptive to a phenomenon that was actually there anyway? I began the book in St Andrews, but continued writing the novel’s first draft for 18 months in Kent, when these experiences occurred. I would awake periodically to see the outline of a very tall and thin figure standing before the curtains of my room, silhouetted by both the ambient light passing through the curtains and by a thin line of red light, like fire, around its shape. I would sit up, pinch myself, blink, make certain I was fully awake, but the figure would remain there, more or less at the foot of my bed, staring. You can imagine the terror. I even called out and challenged it on a number of occasions, but received no response. It would eventually walk the length of the room, then turn and vanish through the door. I base one scene in Banquet on what I experienced. My landlord in Kent was deeply uncomfortable with such talk, and his girlfriend told me of a family tragedy involving fire which explained his reticence. I said no more about it, but she also pointed out to me how a second shadow would follow my landlord from room to room in this lovely old house we lived in. And sure enough, it did. The second shadow was a different size.

real-ghostAdd to that, as an undergraduate, while billeted in halls that were once part of a military hospital, I would often wake because someone was standing beside my bed and leaning over me, with their face close to mine. It used to scare me witless. Door handles would also turn, doors would open, no one would come through, though other residents at the end of the corridor featuring the affected rooms would see a woman in a white uniform entering or leaving.

On holiday, in an old cottage in Dorset, we would sit in the living room and hear footsteps walk the length of the rooms upstairs. It was terrifying at first, but by the end of the week we became accustomed to the walking figure (though no one would go to the toilet alone). The owners of the cottage informed me that nearly every visitor experiences a haunting there and someone even took a photo of the ghost, looking through a window. Needless to say, we never went back, and I am relieved it was not me that saw that face at the window.

Add a whole raft of inexplicable sixth sense experiences to these brushes with the uncanny, as well as the fact that everyone has a ghost story, so I don’t rule out ‘activity’ after death. Both positive and negative activity (most of our family hauntings were positive farewells from the recently departed, and I have two relatives with psychic tendencies). I may revile religious fundamentalism, and am no fan of most organised religion either, but I do find the current atheistic lobby tedious. And believing in nothing but status and money seems to be a modern dilemma.

I think the very act of writing has an element of mysticism involved too, and I have sympathies with Machen and Blackwood’s creative visions, who were both mystical writers. A deep involvement in fiction, both reading and writing, has also given me transcendent experiences and I wouldn’t be without them.

JD’L: Banquet is set in locations that are very well known to you. Dante and Tom set off from Birmingham and spend standrews-catchedralmost of the novel in St. Andrews. To begin with, I thought these real locations were going to kill my suspension of disbelief. In the end the effect was the opposite. Such was the power of the writing that I could see the streets of St Andrews and its old buildings and dark alleyways – even though I’ve never been there. How important do you think the setting was to the success of the novel?

ALGN: Thanks again JD’L. St Andrews is pretty much a character in the novel. I drove up there knowing I wanted to write a novel of supernatural horror, with a vague idea of the story featuring a notorious but nearly forgotten book and occult scholar. But when I received my first sighting of the town, I knew I had found my setting. The town was such a tremendous inspiration – it is one of those places that make the supernatural seem possible. The wealth of history, the architecture, the tributes to martyrs, the shadowy courts, the very age of the place, just conjured macabre fantasies. I was absurdly terrified of doing it an injustice, and was so enthusiastic about the town, I did my absolute best to recreate it in language as precisely as I was able at the time. Again, I do think a detailed sense of place and conjuring of atmosphere through specific details lays the ground for the insertion of the implausible, the impossible, and aids the suspension of disbelief. The very physical presence of the ancient town, twinned with extensive reading, allowed the story to write itself. So without St st-andrews-abbey-1Andrews, there would have been no Banquet.

JD’L: There are so many passages in Banquet that are a delight to read. The story is magnetic but the way you tell it is reminiscent of the literary styles of bygone horror authors. It put me very much in mind of M. R. James. Was that a deliberate ‘one-off’ or is this the voice of Adam L G Nevill that we can expect to hear again? I’m particularly interested in your answer because I know you’ve had some good news recently…

We’ll get to that soon…

ALGN: I do wear my influences on my sleeve in Banquet. And M R James was the chief mentor that guided my hand. My dad read many of the classic supernatural writers to my brother and I when we were boys: James, Poe, Mare, Collier, and his shelves were groaning with Lovecraft and Blackwood, which I then explored on my own. Such dark matter had a deep impact on my imagination at that age – I truly experienced what one critic called “the sublime of terror” – and I was pretty much destined to try and recreate it in my own fiction at some point. So my reading of the canon of the supernatural in fiction will always be apparent, and I’m deeply in debt to the classic masters. As I also am to the modern masters in the field. Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell have taken the weird tale to the mountain, not only in terms of their actual bodies of work, but in a mastery of language and style that few can be consistently compared to in any genre. All three of those writers have given me wonderful examples of introducing more speculative and surreal elements to a treatment of the supernatural in fiction. I think this is evident in my second novel. I also think it’s worth mentioning that your development as a writer is in tune with your development as a reader. I was never sophisticated enough as a reader mr-jameswhen I first began writing seriously, but by reading great writers patiently, pennies began to drop. So often these days I’ll pick up a book and think, this writer hasn’t read enough.

JD’L: Banquet is a brilliant example of the triumph of style over gratuity. It’s tense and claustrophobic and the exact nature of the evil remains veiled even when you describe it directly. When violence and malevolence occur, when blood is spilled, it’s done with great delicacy and poetry. How did you manage this?

ALGN: When describing the supernatural, producing risible descriptions is probably the easiest thing to do. And it is the bane of the field. Fear is also difficult to describe. Producing clarity and impact, is bloody hard. I doubt there are many books as bad as bad horror novels, nor films for that matter as bad as bad horror films, but there are few books or films as powerful as great horror novels and films. I aspired to, and looked to, the best in the genre. I pretty much took two years out from work and lived on about three grand a year, in the late nineties, to deliberately hone the craft and improve as a writer. I paid a lot of attention to cultivating subtlety through glimpses and suggestions, as opposed to full reveals. There are no better examples of this style in the field than in the fiction of M R James, who only wrote fiction with the full intention of frightening and disturbing a reader. It was my goal to combine the stylistic traits of the better late Victorian and the Edwardian authors, like James, within a thoroughly modern multi-plot structure that Stephen King and Dan Simmons made their own, and to also write in the present tense to emulate a cinematic feel. If a reader could accept that immediate-tense narration, I hoped the actual appearances of the supernatural in the novel might take on a more vivid nature within the reader’s imagination. Perhaps in a personal film. I also wanted the power of a short story to endure throughout a long novel. What was I thinking? In hindsight, I realise many seem to believe that it cannot be achieved in a horror novel. Stylistically, it was a bloody ambitious book to write, though the occult element may appear conservative and ‘old school’ to many as it deals with possession and witchcraft. So, Banquet was every bit as much of an example of a new writer trying to achieve a particular set of criteria within a novel, and also hoping that it would be a good story for an average reader who would be unaware of the scaffolding.

Did it work? It took three years of constant revision to complete the book, and I remember being profoundly disappointed when I finished it. Looking back, and reading generous praise from readers, I feel much happier with that debut.

I also read a terrific thesis by Peter Penzholdt, in which he identified and explored various treatments of the supernatural in fiction, including M R James. His study identified techniques that I was only occasionally stumbling across, on an instinctive level as a writer, and wondering afterwards how I’d achieved a certain affect. His study helped me find more consistency. My tutors at St Andrews were also poets, and poets are masters of language, which is why I chose St Andrews in the first place to study writing formally. I never doubted my ideas, but I was right to doubt my ability at expressing them. I desperately needed a mentor – someone who could look at my actual writing and tell me what was wrong with it. Get the actual writing right first, is the best advice I can give anyone. At times the criticism was crushing and I doubted whether I should even continue writing. I’d go back to my room after a tutorial, deflated. But by the end of the year, I’d experienced nothing short of a personal renaissance. I learnt how the use of simple, innocent diction, in a calculated and coercive fashion, can build and build, and prove more powerful than the use of language that on its own, in isolation from the rest of a sentence, carries an unpleasant meaning. I eschewed the latter, and used the former. M R James preferred “wet” to “slimy” and I do too. Good poets and short story writers consider the music and image of every descriptive word to create the desired effect. I’ll approach every scene in that way, then look at how these scenes are attached to the one preceding and following, and then rework to maintain fluency and pace without losing descriptive power in the set-pieces. Above all I learned that good writing is all about rewriting. Draft after draft with long breaks in between each draft. Eventually when the removal of one comma will cause a total collapse, it’s as good as it will get.

JD’L: When readers see a book on a shelf and the name on its spine they rarely understand the time and effort that put it there. I’m not just talking about the novel they’re actually looking at either. So much more has to have already happened for the miracle of publication to occur. At times, I even think other authors believe those with bigger, better deals or greater sales figures have somehow lucked into it overnight. Can you tell us a little about the crests and troughs you’ve ridden from dream to publication?

ALGN: Banquet was complete in 2000. I began it in late 1997. But by 2002 every agent who accepted fiction in the Writers and Artists Yearbook had eventually turned down my letter of introduction. I don’t think anyone ever read a word of the actual book. “No horror” being the usual refrain, or “too many authors already”. And as no publisher took unsolicited manuscripts, that was that. Game over. By then, I’d forsaken a career in television a second time. I was living on a shoe-string (again) and enduring an existence above an old pub in East London and working nights as a security guard. And going mad with sleep deprivation and a sense of despair. Only my erotica novels kept me afloat.

From 1997 onwards, I was lucky enough to be published as an author of erotica. I wrote nine novels in total, for Virgin Books’s Nexus imprint (which I was asked to edit in late 2004). Approximately one each year, so I carried on cutting my teeth in another genre that was box-office back in the nineties, while horror seemed all but dead as a mainstream publishing concern. My Nexus books kept me going. Built morale. It was pulp fiction under a pseudonym, but it was the ultimate confirmation of publication and a great education in novel-writing. I even wrote one erotica novel in the second person, several from first person female POVs – with each novel I attempted a different approach to narration.

Then my editor at Virgin, James Marriott, showed one of my horror stories to John Couthard, who recommended me to Ramsey Campbell. Ramsey was putting together a collection called Gathering The Bones and took my story, Mother’s Milk. I was amazed. My first publication under my actual name and the rite-of-passage horror story that I wrote at the end of my masters in St Andrews. Being a cheeky blighter I then asked Ramsey in 2003 for advice with the novel Banquet for the Damned, which I had revisited and rewritten again in 2002, and Ramsey recommended me to Peter Crowther at PS. I was unaware of small presses at the time, but Peter read and accepted Banquet within a week. Without Ramsey and Peter, Banquet would have remained an uneaten meal, mouldering in the pantry of my hard drive. Peter then championed the book for years and it started to develop a modest reputation among other writers and critics who said some very kind things. Had it been the eighties, the story may have been different, but I’d written a big supernatural horror novel in a publishing climate that had no interest in horror. I was bloody lucky to find a sympathetic writer of considerable reputation, and a sympathetic publisher in Peter Crowther. They brought me into print as a writer of supernatural horror.

JD’L: Having been through all this yourself, it must have been tough notifying your Virgin Horror authors that the imprint had reached the end of the road. Was the imprint doomed from the word go or do you think, if certain things had been different, the line might still be going?

ALGN: We’d been taken over by a big international corporate publisher in 2007, but were still working under the existing Virgin management and I was asked to create new fiction lines. I immediately put horror forward as one idea. Everyone was excited, we had big plans, the critical path was set, so it certainly wasn’t doomed from the get go. On the contrary. But during the first year in 2008, despite how promising the line was, the company’s strategy began moving in a non-fiction direction. New management, new staff, more changes, new focuses, and I was kind of left alone in fiction on the sidelines, but without any real resources to publish the 2009 list. Then cutbacks and title-count reductions hit with the recession, people started losing their jobs etc. Fiction was wound right back to the erotica I had been editing since 2005, plus the cult fiction reprints I was producing for Bukowski. The editorial strategy had moved almost exclusively to non-fiction, leaving horror, erotica and me, high and dry. But the list was acclaimed, it was successful at the level it was published, and may well have continued at a better level had the company’s publishing strategy not changed. So it was deeply disappointing having to tell the authors of the end after such an exciting start. Nine months later I was delivering the same message to a hundred erotica authors too. Again, not something I chose to do nor enjoyed doing. Considering the re-emergence of horror – one of the only good pieces of news in fiction publishing these days – it now looks horribly premature to have buried us thus and so quickly. Ironically, The Birthing House was the first book I tried to buy for the list and that went on to sell 150K copies for Sphere, who published it so well. I’d even say, we were ahead of our time. As I said to the authors too, we may not have swung wide the gates of hell, but we certainly took the catch of the porch door. Having Bloody Books up and dancing at the same time as the Virgin horror line, it was an exciting time to see the underground – the punks – looking to the mainstream again. We raised consciousness and published some fine books. Can’t believe I got Thomas Ligotti into Smiths Travel too – I mark that as an editorial achievement. And if you look at the breadth and quality on those two horror lists, in an age of mediocre thrillers, predictable post-colonial literary fiction, ghost-written celeb fiction, and Vatican conspiracy nonsense, I think we can hold our grizzled, lipless and mottled heads up high.

JD’L: It’s been my experience of publishing that you never know what’s round the next corner. Your personal story seems to fit with this. After all you’ve put up with, suddenly there’s some real sunshine brightening the next part of your writing journey. A two book deal, no less! How did it come about and what was your reaction?

ALGN: To quote Chevy Chase in Caddyshack, “Cinderella Story, boy from nowhere.” When my agent John Jarrold called me to tell me the results of the auction, as I held the phone, my hand shook. Pretty much waited my entire life as a writer for an opportunity like this. I started writing seriously, with it being the major focus of my every day, and as a purpose for life, in 1995. So after fifteen years, I do feel like I have spent a long time in an apprenticeship.

I finished my second novel of supernatural horror at Xmas – another ambitious three year epic, this time written around a very busy fulltime job in publishing. One publisher expressed firm interest in late May of this year, then another and another … And John set an auction date. The very word “auction” in relation to me is hard to even say, and the enthusiasm from the editors was overwhelming. And that’s not false modesty. I vividly remember 40 plus rejections to my introductory letter for Banquet in 2000. They took two years to come in, and by the time the final one had landed on the mat, my head was down. Having worked in publishing I also know how hard it is for editors to pitch and get enough positive feedback from sales, publicity, export, rights, marketing, and management about a proposal. But my second book seemed to generate that at the appropriate levels, and as I’m 50K words into the first draft of a third novel, we submitted a partial of that too. So it became a two-book deal.

JD’L: Any chance of a whisper of what your next novels are about?

ALGN: The second novel is haunted building story spanning generations, my London novel; the third a ‘great outdoors’ novel of psychic terror.

JD’L: Time for the awards ceremony, Adam…

You have honour of making two nominations. First is the Sword of the Ultimate Darkness which goes to the work of horror in any medium which, in your opinion, is a timeless classic.

Second, you may banish to the Plague Pits the worst example of our beloved genre in any medium.

Please make your nominations.

ALGN: I consider this a real honour. For the Sword of Ultimate Darkness, I’d like to mention a book that may have slipped under the radar for many, but it’s a magnificent second horror novel by an American writer called David Searcy, whom I know almost nothing about, but the book needs its profile raised and I treasure it. I found it in a bookshop in New York in 2004. The cover caught my eye. I read the back, checked the first few pages and bought it. It’s one of those books that both made me want to write and also to give up writing because it is so good. It’s a terrific amalgam of M R James and William Faulkner, of Daniel Woodrell and Algernon Blackwood. American noir, scarecrow horror. I read it in one sitting in Hyde Park under a tree, and found myself glancing over my shoulder as the end drew near. It’s called Last Things by David Searcy.

The Plague Pits are overflowing, but I’d like to cast the remake of The Haunting, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones, into the pit, along with the entire cast and crew for taking part in such a sham, plus the studio that probably ruined what was originally an honest endeavour. If anyone else was unlucky enough to pay to see this film, they’ll know why it belongs at the bottom of the pit.

JD’L: Lovely choices!

It only remains for me to say a heartfelt thanks on behalf of all at Horror Reanimated for joining us here in the rotting colon of purgatory. And to apologise for the smell, of course. We wish you the very best of luck for all your future projects.

It was a pleasure, thanks very much for the kind words and for having me. And also for giving me an opportunity to leave the indistinct bone-thing, that has been following me, with you. The runes are cast…

12 comments August 17th, 2009

Some candid thoughts on writing by JD’L

I have moments when I rue the day I started writing. I know I’m not meant to say that in public.

I’m one of those people who has periods of furious activity followed by fallow times. Fallow? Who am I trying to kid? I mean times of famine. I occupy one of two states: Writing or Not Writing. I could call it manic depression or bi-polar syndrome but that would just be an excuse. When I’m Not Writing, I’m miserable. And when I’m Writing, I’m slightly less miserable.

In the famine times of Not Writing I search myself for any evidence that I ever made contact with a qwerty keyboard in a creative way. I never find any. Sure, I can look at my laptop and find evidence aplenty – novels, novellas, short stories and poetry heaped up in drifts. But do I remember writing them, how it felt, how I even did it? Do I hell.

In the old days, that was the condition of my condition. Writing or Not Writing. Miserable or slightly less miserable.

I look back and think what a lucky fucker I was back then. ‘Back then’ meaning before I had a novel published. Nowadays, the misery is far more complex and tormenting. I’m able to explore anxiety about sales figures and Amazon rankings. And no longer can I write a book just because an idea occurred to me. Now I have to ‘consider the market’ while I do it – before I even start. So the times of Not Writing are further blackened by apprehensions about my next Everest ascent of a novel ‘not quite fitting’.

This exact thing has just happened.

After Bloody Books bought MEAT but before it was published, I suddenly realised I needed more material. ‘Christ’ I thought. ‘What if people actually like it? What if it sells really well? (DUH!!!) What if they want something more?’ Around the same time my wife told me she was pregnant. In a total panic, I sat down and wrote Weed, a depraved romp about man-eating plants taking over a country estate – 145,000 words in 14 weeks. What with one thing and another, it’s taken me two years to edit and submit. Then Bloody Books said they ‘didn’t see it as the next Joseph D’Lacey novel’ (I can see their point, of course. Weed is not strictly eco-horror). So, I can now add to my list of miseries the perpetuation of the angst-ridden process of submission/rejection/acceptance.

Oh, happy day.

And let’s not forget that I picked one of the least popular genres to write in. There are horror/sf/fantasy writers who do sell big numbers, true, but they’re a rarity. Most of us have to be happy with seeing our work make it out of the starting gate. And I am happy about that. If I dropped dead before finishing this blog post, I could rest easy knowing I’d done good work. But I plan to do better. Much better.

Next time I move out of my Not Writing phase, that is.

Assuming I don’t snuff it and do continue this ‘writing career’ – is there a special word to describe an ironic oxymoron? – I can then enjoy the knowledge, as so many genre fiction writers do, that my ironic oxymoron could be terminated forever by this time next month because what I write is not marketable. That knowledge would be easier to live with if it wasn’t for the twinned knowledge that my work could be the next big thing. It happens. Yes, it does – even to horror writers. That’s the kind of crazy hope that keeps you going in the face of overwhelming odds.

And then, one day, you do make it. You are the next big thing. Huzzah! But, irony of ironies, deep in your heart you’ll always know it was the fickle nature of the market that put you there, like some kind of literary lottery win. Not your talent because you don’t have any, not your unique voice because you have nothing important to say and not your powerful language because you write like someone who failed GCSE English!

Isn’t it strange? I’ll never be comfortable doing this. But I’ll never be able to stop.

And then something small but wonderful happens.  As I wrote this post, a message came in from America. A message that reminds me I’m not working in a vacuum. I wanted to share it with you:

Dear Mr. D’Lacey,

My name is Scott Axelrod from Staten Island, New York. I wrote you a while back after reading MEAT to thank you for an amazingly, eye-opening reading experience. I ordered Garbage Man from Amazon UK upon it’s release and just got around to reading it a few nights ago. It is now 5:00 am NY time, and I have finished the book. I have to say that the careful thought and imagination it took to create such a terrifying tale is overwhelming. Staten Island, NY is well known as the home of now closed Fresh Kills Landfill–the story obviously hits a little too close to home, only a few blocks away from my own home in fact.

The detail in which you describe the fecalith’s minions is so visceral, that at times, I thought I could smell the familiar sour stench that would waft over the neighborhood many a summer’s evening. Just envisioning all of the disgusting things we toss out coming back home to us is such a ridiculous idea, but, one so powerful, that I often find myself wondering what will be done with all the garbage when there is nowhere left to unload the garbage.

The powers that be plan on turning “The Dump” into a park for children to play and athletes to exercise. There will be shops and fun things for the family to do there too. What if the fecalith is lying in wait for those always-smiling politicians to ceremoniously break ground and actually build a place of amusement atop all the muck and the filth?

Thank you once again for another thought-provoking and terrific read. I hope you are able to get your work into the hands of more Americans readers, because your ideas have a worldwide resonance. You aren’t just doing cookie cutter fiction. This is horror that we live and breath, but can also get lost inside of under the guise of entertaining “fiction.” I myself remain a staunch supporter, and anxiously await any and all of your furture work.

Your humble fan,

–Scott Axelrod

Staten Island, NY, U.S.A

It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

5 comments August 3rd, 2009

Interview with Conrad Williams by JD’L

oneI know nothing about Conrad Williams and I knew nothing about his latest novel ONE until I started reading it – coming to a book cold is the best way, I find. At its core, ONE is a story about the nature of hope and it got right under my skin. It moved me. It also scared me. That doesn’t happen very often and ONE has become my favourite book of the year.

So, it was with a good deal of pleasurable excitement that I wrote my questions for Conrad…

Joseph D’Lacey: When I was halfway through ONE, I knew we had to have you on Horror Reanimated so I’m delighted to be talking to you. What aspect of you was it that brought forth this novel – if that isn’t too odd a question? Was it something you’d planned over some time or did the story simply demand to be told? Perhaps all your tales come in the same way – could you tell us a little about what happens to you when you’re working?

conrad-williams1Conrad Williams: Thanks for inviting me, Joseph. ONE came about principally because I’d always wanted to write an ‘end-of-the-world’ novel. I think every horror writer has one simmering away on the back burner. I have notes from years ago for a novel that was meant to be called DARK MATTER (a title snaffled by Peter Straub now, curse him) in which the surface of the Earth is fried by a massive solar flare. In ONE, a gamma ray burst from the death of a nearby star is to blame, although this is never mentioned explicitly. Once I had the event, and the explanation for my protagonist’s avoidance of it, the rest of the story was pretty much nailed on. I had to write about a father and son. I have three of my own; the book could not have been written without them.

JD’L: ONE’s themes have been explored in other post-apocalyptic tales. I’m thinking of Stephen King’s The Stand, for one. However, the closest and most obvious parallel is with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; another of my favourite books from the last couple of years.cmtheroad

thestandWere you touched by these or other eschatological tales or did ONE feel like something new for you, something without a particular precursor?

CW: THE ROAD changed my life. I’ve never read another novel like it. I read it every year and it takes me a day and it always makes me cry. It is at once the most perfect horror story and the most perfect love story I know. I wanted to write a UK version. The States seems to have a monopoly on this kind of thing. I wanted to claim a bit of misery for Blighty.

It’s always going to be hard to write a post-apocalyptic novel without these huge shadows at your shoulder. THE STAND and I AM LEGEND are also very precious to me. But you can’t really avoid writing an extinction level event story, if you’re a horror writer.iamlegend

JD’L: I love post-apocalyptic stories – both the reading and the writing of. It seems like there’s a lot of them about right now. Is all this Armageddon fiction arising from a common psychic weather pattern, a kind of morphic resonance that writers everywhere are picking up on? Are we feeling our planetary mortality more acutely than ever before?

Hey, maybe the world really is about to end…

CW: I think there’s probably something in this theory about horror becoming more popular when there’s something laying waste to the population, be it economic meltdown, terrorism, disease or war. And apocalyptic fiction, or survival horror, has a special impact because it is an everyman story. You survive the warheads raining down, you prove to be immune to the aggressive strain of flu, you happen to be working on the seabed when the ozone layer is roasted off the face of the Earth, then this will be you. This is your story. It’s a constant, worming fear that this will happen to us all one day. All apocalypse fiction is prophetic, in a way.

JD’L: In terms of genre, ONE could be survival horror. Some people will call it science fiction. Certainly, both elements are present. The theme, however, struck me as being about hope and how it sustains people – how it can even twist them.

Do you think horror writers have a greater thematic scope than writers of mainstream fiction? I suspect the genre allows us to go much deeper into the core of what it means to be human.

Do you agree or am I full of it?

CW: I do agree. I think that it’s only in extremis that we discover who we really are, what we’re really like. Every day we wear masks. We spend so much time projecting the image of ourselves that we wish to be acknowledged that we end up strangers to ourselves. If you crash in a jet about to take off from a runway, and survive impact only to see a wall of fire rising up the aisles behind you, will you be one of those people who politely queues up for the exits and waits for instructions, or will you be clambering over the seats, mashing old people and children back into their chairs in a bid to be out of the fuselage first. I’d like to think I’d be a hero. Last off the plane. But I just don’t know myself well enough – nobody does – until you’re in the moment. Stripping those false identities away and presenting our crude, fundamental structure is what interests me about horror fiction. Ordinary people trying to cope with extraordinary events, sometimes succeeding, often failing.

JD’L: I don’t want to say too much about the novel because almost any information will spoil the freshness of the story. However, I do want to discuss the protagonist, if that’s alright.

Richard Jane, the ‘one’ of the novel’s title, begins the tale as a chance survivor and then becomes a traveller as he searches for his son. There’s an ‘averageness’ about Jane, as evidenced, for example, by his choice of weapon – he’s not some military demi-god, just an ordinary man. What makes him extraordinary is his love for his boy, a love which becomes more idealistic as the novel unfolds. And yet this love and the hope that he’ll see his son again become Jane’s own high-octane fuel, allowing him to search ever-onward.

I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a character who is so physically and psychically dismantled by the end of a tale.

How did it feel to be the master of Jane’s destiny, of his dissolution?

CW: It was hard, because of course, he is, to some extent, me. I consciously wanted to write a third person novel, but from one point of view. He’s in every scene. He’s the filter for what is experienced throughout the book. So I got very close to him and there was much hand-wringing about what would happen to him and his son.

Initially he was the ‘one’ of the title. I intended to write a novel with one character. One story. But it’s impossible. You need someone else to bounce off. My old creative writing tutor at Lancaster University, Alan Burns, said that it was impossible to write an OMOHO (one man on his own). At the time I thought, bollocks. But he was right. There’s no story if there’s only one person. So the ONE of the title is him, but it’s also about something else: the title is explained in the novel.

Jane’s choice of weapon is interesting, and it caused some debate between me and my editor. I didn’t want him to become some tooled-up Rambo swaggering down the A1 with an arsenal hanging off his greased muscles. It wasn’t about weaponry. He really didn’t care about defence. So he clung to the first weapon he came across, an air rifle. A powerful one, mind. Not one of these pump-up pellet puffers we had when we were kids.

JD’L: Not only did you reduce Richard Jane as the story progressed, you also did a good job of mutating our country and capital city. You made the familiar unrecognisable and that’s probably what scared me the most – the idea that the future might somehow alter the very fabric of our world. Possibly to a point beyond which we cannot, as a species, adapt.

I have chills just thinking about it. Did you, or was it just a bit of fun?

CW: We’re a pretty hardy species, but there’s fragility there too. We’re having any rough edges sanded off us by a fondness – not a need – for convenience. We’re not hunter-gatherers any more. We’re docile animals grazing on a constant drip-feed of vacuum-packed meals from Tesco. We drive to the corner shop for the newspapers. We have umpteen remote controls to tune in to channels none of us want to watch. We have satnav and wifi and Twitter. People are getting older and people are getting more sedentary. Come the apocalypse I can see an awful lot of folk shambling outside to watch it kick off, desperate to check out immediately, because surviving will be no picnic. It will be just too much like hard work.

JD’L: Are you widely knowledgeable, Conrad? There were many occasions in the novel where I was thinking, how does he know all this stuff?! Did you have to do much research and, if so, is that a process you enjoy?

cwheadinjuriesCW: My dad always said to me that it’s better to know a little about a lot than a lot about a little. I actually think it’s better to know a little about a lot as well as a lot about a little – especially if you’re an airline pilot or a surgeon. I’m curious, which is a good thing in a novelist. And there was a lot of research, especially for the opening couple of chapters. I did enjoy it, yes. I like to learn new things. I used to spend a lot of time at the British Library when I was living in London and miss the place terribly. I’m glad if all that stuff about diving and oil platforms came over without looking as if it was researched. I think it’s best to ration that kind of information rather than clout readers over the head with pages of look at all the work I did!

JD’L: As I mentioned in the intro, I know nothing about you. Could you tell me a little about your writing history – where has your fiction appeared in the past, when was your first novel published, that kind of thing?darkdreams7

CW: I’ve been around for a while, but I’m no longer the enfant terrible of British horror. Graham Joyce no longer refers to me as ‘Young Conrad’. I published my first short story, ‘Dirty Water’, in a small press publication called Dark Dreams when I was 18. Since then I’ve had around 80 stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. My first novel, HEAD INJURIES, came out in 1998. It was optioned by Michael Winterbottom’s production company, Revolution Films. Four novels since then (DECAY INEVITABLE is published by Solaris Books this summer) and hopefully many more to come.

JD’L: Your writing style, use of language and descriptive power made ONE a very rich experience. It’s a lot more than just a great story; it’s exceptionally well-executed. The blend of beauty and pace makes the tale magnetic.

You appear to love language itself – I’m guessing you’ll have written poetry at some point. How much notice do you think publishers take of writing style when considering submissions?

decayinevitablecwCW: I do love language, and I have written poetry, but only the kind of juvenilia that ought to be shredded and used as hamster mattresses. A love of lyrical writing remains, however. Trying to describe the most horrifying things with beautiful imagery is a real challenge, but I think it can add impact. Clive Barker knows about the beauty of an opened body, for example. In such circumstances, the writing, as well as what’s being written about, can add to the power of a scene. I want people to recoil, but be unable to look away. I love that paradox.

I don’t know if publishers pay much attention to writing style. Maybe they do. But I suspect, for many of them, it gets in the way. They want stories. You only have to look at the way Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown write to see that the quality of the writing is secondary. I’m as interested in the craft as I am in the story, possibly to the detriment of story in some cases, certainly when I was younger. Which is bad too. There’s only so much pretty writing you can get away with before someone says, ‘well, that was beautifully written, but what happened?’ Graham Greene, Jim Crace, Rupert Thomson, these are the writers I turn to for great writing. Writers who care as much about the how as well as the what.

JD’L: The genre fiction marketplace, especially for horror, is a tough one right now – the ‘hiatus’ at your own publisher, Virgin Horror, is an example of how things can go wrong. Would you consider writing in other genres if the money was right or do you write dark, bizarre tales for their own sake?

CW: It’s extremely disappointing. Adam Nevill, who launched that list at Virgin, had assembled a superb stable of writers. I was stunned to discover that I’d be sharing a publisher with Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Gregory and Thomas Ligotti, among others. The problem is that publishing is an industry, not a crucible for experiments, and the bean counters want to see wide profit margins. You can’t build a reputation any more. There is no midlist. There has to be a big spike on the sales graph, right now. What’s encouraging is the rise of the small presses, although I’d hesitate to refer to PS Publishing, for example, as a small press any more.

I have written, pseudonymously, a crime thriller with an intended series character, and that has found favour with a New York editor who is working with me on the novel in the hope that he can convince his bosses that it’s a goer. But even that has a supremely dark spine to it. It’s still, recognisably, my stuff. I don’t think I could turn my hand to lad-lit, or romantic fiction, nor would I want to. I’m not interested in trying to surf the wave of the next big thing, like the writers who spewed out novels with ‘code’ or ‘cypher’ in the title once Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE found its way on to every beach in the world. You have to have faith in what you’re doing, try to bend everyone’s way of thinking your way. There’s nothing I’d like more than to be a full-time writer, but I’m not going to become a hack to do that.

JD’L: Whilst some imprints are shutting down or not buying new horror, others are stepping in to fill their shoes – HarperCollins’s Angry Robot line, for example. We’ve all got this feeling here at Horror Reanimated that the genre is on the rise, both in quality and popularity. What are your thoughts?

CW: I’d like to think so, despite my unhappy experience with Virgin. There’s definitely an appetite for horror, especially on screen. I hope that this gradual opening of arms we’re currently seeing among a number of publishers is indicative of a new age of horror fiction. There are a bunch of hot, hungry young authors out there. All it needs is a hot, hungry young editor to tap into it.

JD’L: Traditionally (it’s still a rather short tradition as traditions go…) our interviewees are given the power to make two awards.

The Sword of the Ultimate Darkness goes to the work in any medium that will remain a horror classic forever. Well, until the end of the world at least.

The Plague Pits are where the worst examples of horror in any medium end up.

Please make your nominations…

CW: Sword of Ultimate Darkness – I’ll go for T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies. Absorbing, beautifully paced and written, and very, very creepy.

As for the Plague Pits… any of the Hollywood remakes of what ought to be untouchable classics. I’m thinking of Psycho and The Haunting, but there are and will be many more. Leave them alone, FFS…

JD’L: It’s been my great pleasure to chat to you.

I usually write a creepy intro for these interviews but ONE was so disturbing, I didn’t feel you required it. From all of us here at Horror Reanimated, I’d just like to say, Mr. Conrad Williams, you are one scary motherfucker and we love you!

Keep up the great work and let us know how you’re doing from time to time.

CW: It’s been a pleasure and a privilege. Best of luck with your own work too.

3 comments June 17th, 2009

Bill and Joseph’s series on novel writing Part III: Structure

Joseph D’Lacey – I want to talk about two kinds of structure today, Bill. The structure of the novel and the structure of a horror writer’s (or any writer’s) working day. Let’s start with the bones holding up the novel first. How do you prepare an outline? Or perhaps I should ask: DO you prepare and outline?

Bill Hussey – I do prepare an outline. The outline helps me in the same way research lends a hand: it gives me the confidence to start writing. I think there comes a point when you’ve had the idea, you’ve done some research, you’ve accumulated other bits and pieces and all that stuff reaches a critical mass. You know instinctively when that happens and I find that only then is it the point at which I should start the story. The outline is part of that. I usually prepare what I call a skeleton outline before I start – maybe 6 typed pages. It’s all pure STORY. Story in the form that kids tell stories: this happens, then this, then this. Makes a tedious read! But I must stress this is a pretty bare outline – lots of gaps – and I never treat it as a sacred text.

JD’L – This is interesting, Bill – you’re still using the analogy of a skeleton, a bone structure upon which to lay flesh. Aside from the obvious and corny horror angle on this, it says to me that regardless of the need for structure, novel writing is still an organic process – a process of GROWTH. It seems that you’re saying you would never start a novel without this template existing first and that, for the template to exist, ideas and research have to come first. Is this your strict policy or do you sometimes deviate (I’m not talking about wearing pantyhose, here, Bill)?

Another thing that strikes me about your approach is that it resembles the ‘treatment’ screen writers use when working up a script – a pure story document, as you say. A map that lets you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there. For a lot of writers this kind of certainty, this kind of confidence would be a prerequisite before setting off on the novel’s journey. Is that right? (‘scuse, my pre-satnav metaphors!)

BH – I do deviate in the pantyhose sense, thanks for pointing that out, Joseph. So far, I haven’t deviated from the idea, research, structure format. I don’t say I would never deviate from that, it’s just that I find these things help me out on what is the difficult and labour-intensive exercise of writing a full-length work of fiction. I attribute these things to the fact that I’ve never had writer’s block (yet!) or got stuck mid-story. That said, my fleshless skeleton is not a treatment as such. I ALWAYS deviate from it. If a better idea comes along I’ll just tear up that part of the outline. Most importantly – and I must stress this – if my CHARACTERS decide they won’t do what the outline tells them, I will always go with what they say.

Characters are the gods of story, so even in a ‘plotted’ novel their voice must come first. A lot of ‘literary’ writers (those who think ‘plot’ is a dirty word) balk at the idea of any form of planning when it comes to novels, but I think that if you just use the outline as a trellis frame and let your story grow around it however it wants then that’s fine. How’s that bills-metaphor1for a metaphor! Anyway, in summary, an outline helps to get you started but only refer to it now and then – the bones of the story should be in your head anyway – and always be prepared to ditch bits of it – or the whole damn thing if your characters say so. But I know you have a different approach, Joseph.



JD’L – I’m an intensely haphazard and unfocussed individual – if such a thing is possible. I write on steam-power, somehow. If the boiler is stoked with the fuel of ideas, worlds, characters, questions and passion then the engine runs. And, seeing as we’re slipping into the use of metaphors as well as ladies’ underwear, I suspect I sometimes use this power to steamroll my way through obstacles in plot and story. It’s brutish. It’s unrefined and here’s the important thing; it DOESN’T always work.

For every two novels I’ve completed, I have one unfinished. This is untidy and I hate it. Maybe if I did morebills-half preparation, I’d have fewer blocks in the way of my progress. Interestingly, I’ve been unable to have any kind of writing day for the last six or seven months and so ideas that I might have just set off on have been held on the back burner. Information and material for those ideas has begun to pile up. This may mean that, by default, I’ll be writing my next novel in much the same way you do, Bill. If it works I’ll buy you a half in the pub of your choice.

BH – The thing is, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about writing a novel. Those writers that tell you that their formula is the only one (usually arty types who finish a book every decade) are talking bollocks. For me, I like to have a flimsy structure but I would equally hate to over-plot – i.e. index cards on a peg board with bits of coloured string pinned between them. That kind of prep would take all the joy out of writing. But I know it works for some people who still write wonderfully inventive books in that way. I know we’re trying to pass on a bit of advice here but, like so much of writing, whatever works for you is how to do it. If you finish a book with no plotting at all – great! If you still get a thrill out of following an in-depth structure and finish – great again! But here’s the crucial thing: outline or no outline, research or no research – FINISH the book. If you’ve written 20 books but never finished one, you’re not a-finnish-manuscripta writer I’m afraid.



JD’L – Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. You must finish (even me!). And also, for everyone reading this, Bill and I are very aware that we don’t have any special secrets to share with you about how we write. All we can do is tell you what we DO and how we THINK we achieve it.

I’ll tell you how I wrote MEAT. I went to work six or seven days a week. When I got there I wrote about the character/characters I felt in tune with that day. This meant I wrote at least six story strands in separate documents. When I’d finished each of those stories to the fullest, when I was happy with each outcome, I then began a new document and pasted the stories in so they were woven together. When this document was complete, I found natural breaks in the resulting narrative and put my chapter ends in. For once, I did not add ‘parts’ or anything extra. Is that a good way to write a novel? God knows. But it worked for me. (I promise to try really hard and finish all my unfinished novels, by the way, Bill. Honest.)

BH – Good man! It’s interesting, hearing how you put MEAT together. I think, in fact, all writers DO use an outline because that’s essentially what the FIRST draft of a novel is. We’ll get onto redrafting/editing later, but the first draft is really little more than a big messy outline of what your novel is going to be. You’ve hammered it out (my advice is not to go back and edit/check too much while you’re writing the first draft) and now you can actually begin writing the novel properly.

JD’L – That’s right. My first draft is a ‘brain dump’ session that goes on for between three and five months. No going back to fix things in mid flow. Bury the ugly creature for another two or three months and then the crafting begins at the time of disinterment. So what about the second structure, Bill? A writer’s working day. How do you go about it?

BH – It entirely depends on the time I have. Those blessed days when I can devote all my time to writing generally pan out like this: I get up reasonably early, chow down some cereal flakes then go for a brisk trot along the beach. We’ve got a great nature reserve up here and the sea air clears the old grey matter. I always take a pen and notebook as that’s when I get an idea that almost always breaks down bits of that skeleton outline. That generally takes half an hour. Then I get back – cup of tea – answer some emails/letters – then I start to write. I hope to finish about 1000 words before lunch, then another 500/1000 after lunch. If I haven’t finished at least 1500 I stay at the desk until it’s done. For me, I need that kind of discipline to get a book finished. I might do a lot more than 1500 but never less. If I can’t devote a whole day, I’ll work in the evening and have been known to write in the early hours. Great time to write, 2am, no distractions. What about you, Joseph?clocking-on

JD’L – Rules are: Always write 1000 words before quitting. Write either six or seven days a week until the first draft is complete. Write in the morning if at all possible – that’s my best time. I write in an office away from home so that my body and mind recognise I’ve ‘gone to work’. If I have longer time available and finish my 1000 words swiftly, I continue to do more ‘stints’ until I’m too tired to continue. So, bad day = 1003 words which took two or three hours to write. Good day = 2500-6000 words in somewhere between 2-7 hours (days like this are rare, however). I try not to drink too much the night before a writing day because I can’t concentrate worth a shit when I’m hungover – although I often have great ideas the morning after. I try very hard to not be ‘online’ when I’m meant to be writing. That’s it. Most of my life is characterised by an utter lack of rules, enthusiasm, structure and energy but writing is sacred – there have to be rules. That’s it.

BH – I think a word target per day is crucial. Try to make it achievable but be ambitious. Honestly, 250 words a day – the target of a guy I was on the MA in Writing with – is not enough. You can’t get into a scene or into a character’s head at that level. You need an investment of TIME (I’ve always thought time is the greatest gift for a writer) and I think everyone can manage at least two hours. Sarah Pinborough told me she’d get up two hours before work and write, then, after a full day’s work, she’d write in the evenings. More or less every day. You want to write and earn money – you need to set aside that kind of time. Exhausting, but worth it.

JD’L – Absolutely, Bill. It’s all about commitment. 250 words is a poem, for God’s sake. Time and effort and regularity and stickability write books. Nothing else.

Well, I think that covers the two kinds of structure which underpin novel writing. In part 4 we’re going to take a look at a more esoteric topic: Theme.

1 comment January 22nd, 2009

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