Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Friday, 11 September 2020

Things of the Week 11th September 2020: 9/11, Roth-Steyr, After Sundown

It's very hard to believe that it's nineteen years since the World Trade Centre attacks in New York. I remember very clearly what I was doing; working in the small office I shared with a colleague in Manchester, when another workmate walked in. It was about 3.30 pm, British time.

"Have you heard? Someone's just flown a plane into the World Trade Centre."

I assumed at first it must be a light aircraft, a one or two-person plane.But it soon became clear it had in fact been a jumbo jet. An airliner. And that there'd been not one, but two. And that the towers had come down.

There was never much doubt about who was likely responsible, and beyond the horrifying death toll was the fear of what would come next. Soon the appalling tragedy was compounded by the invasions of Afghanistan - we're still there, nineteen years later, so that people who weren't even born that day are now risking their lives in the 'graveyard of empires' - and of Iraq.

It feels like a different world, the one I lived in prior to 3.30 pm British time, 11th September, 2001. A better one? Maybe, in some ways. Far from perfect; the tensions and conflicts behind the events of that day had been brewing for years if not decades beforehand. But like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 - also the culmination of long-simmering hostilities - September 11th was a catalyst that brought even more destruction and misery in its wake.

In that context, it seems an awkward time at best to announce a new book. 

I'd forgotten today's date until I sat down to write a blog post about my new novella, Roth-Steyr, and my first thought was to put off the announcement for another time. But the theme of the novella is in fact very much in keeping with what happened nineteen years ago today.

The Empire of the Habsburgs, one of the oldest and most powerful royal dynasties in Europe, was a strange and contradictory place. A relic of another time, reactionary and repressive, yet multinational and multi-ethnic, even cosmopolitan: Jewish writers like Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, left stateless refugees by the rise of nationalism and fascism after the Empire fell, looked back on it with aching nostalgia. Highly cultured, home to the composers Mahler, Liszt and Strauss, the poet Rilke, the authors Kafka, Meyrink and Musil - yet cruel and barbaric in its treatment of smaller countries and those who attempted to break away from its rule. 

It was the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo lit the fuse that would begin the First World War. At the outset of the conflict, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the Great Powers, covering almost a quarter of a million square miles of territory and home to over 52 million people. By the end of the war it had disintegrated, collapsing almost overnight. New nations were born, amid chaos and bloody violence, and the map of Europe changed forever. 

Roth-Steyr's protagonist, Valerie Varden, is from that lost world and knows, better than anyone, how the

world you take for granted, everything you know and love, can fall apart in an instant. And how the events of the past continue to afflict the present. (Indeed, much of the violence and division in the Middle East - the root cause of the September 11th attacks - can be traced to the aftermath of World War One.) 

Roth-Steyr will be released by Black Shuck Books on Halloween. My contributor copies of Mark Morris' new anthology from Flame Tree Press, After Sundown, arrived this week. They contain stories from some of the finest writers working in the genre today. And me. You can find out more, and order a copy if you fancy, here.

Have a good weekend, everyone. And take care of those you love.

Life is so much more fragile than you think. 

Friday, 21 August 2020

Things of the Week, 21st August 2020: Best Horror of the Year #12, Black Shuck Novellas, After Sundown, These Foolish And Harmful Delights

The strangeness that is 2020 continues.

I'm still off work, as I have been all year, trying to find a way back through the anxiety maze. It's bloody draining; that's the most frustrating thing about it. One day you can schedule a series of tasks and stick to them, and think you're progressing - the next it all falls apart, with panic attacks, random general anxiety or general debilitating knackeredness kicking in. I do not recommend it, at all.

Most of last year was spent completing the final draft of one huge novel I've been revising on and off for the better part of a decade; my then agent enthused about it, but then took a job as a commissioning editor. Still, the Huge Novel was ready to be sent out in the hope of securing new representation, so towards the end of last year, out it went... which point I should probably mention that it's about a devastating global pandemic that collapses civilisation. I have a certain knack of timing!

Luckily, one agent liked it enough to ask to see my next book. I've completed two novels so far this year (one begun last summer) and am hard at work on a third. The first one has now gone out into the world. 

Despite everything, I'm managing to write 1000 words every day, with very very rare exceptions, and that ensures steady progress gets made. I used to write a lot more than that per day, and still think it wasn't enough, always in a hurry to get somewhere else; now, a thousand words seems plenty. It frees up time and energy to work on more than one thing at a time, and more importantly, it helps make the book about the journey and not the destination.

Best of all, I'm still lucky enough to have a wonderful and loving spouse who is also a phenomenal author in her own right. Anyone who's not read Cate's collection These Foolish and Harmful Delights really should.

The fantastic illustration at the top of this post is by Reiko Murakami, for the cover of Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year #12.  As always, it contains a roll-call of fantastic authors, including Gemma Files, Laura Mauro, Nathan Ballingrud, Stephen Graham Jones, Sarah Read, Paul Tremblay, Sarah Langan and Joe Lansdale. My story 'Below', from Paul Finch's Terror Tales of North West England, is included therein.

Best Horror of the Year #12 is released on October 6th, and you can preorder it here

October will also bring the first of two all-new novellas, brought to you by that fine gentleman Steve 

Shaw of Black Shuck Books. The second one will be out next year; the first, all being well, should see the light (or the dark) on Halloween. More details to follow soon.

So October's looking like a good month, but then so does September, with Flame Tree Press bringing out an original, non-themed horror anthology, After Sundown, edited by Mark Morris. The successor to the Spectral Books of Horror and to Titan Books' New Fears, After Sundown features stories by a host of amazing writers -- too many to list here, but just take a closer look at the cover for a full roll-call! My story 'We All Come Home' is included. 

After Sundown is out on September 15th, and can be preordered here

And that's all the latest news from Castle Bestwick. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Simon x

The Lockdown with... Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a prolific writer of fiction across a broad range of genres, having written more

than fifty full length titles and over a hundred short stories. He is the co-host of Blackpool's Pub Poets and a regular participant (and occasional winner) in their monthly Haiku Death Match.

Aside from regularly blogging about writing, Ashley also teaches creative writing in the North West of England. He has recently completed a PhD in creative writing where he looked at the relationship between plot and genre in short fiction.

1. Tell us three things about yourself.

1) I own the two cutest dogs in the world. This is Oswald and Dee. Dee is sticking out her tongue in this photo. Oswald is looking fed up with Dee’s flippant shenanigans.

2) I’ve got a PhD in creative writing. I wrote a thesis that looks at the relationship between plot and genre in short fiction.

3) I’ve written a book called Blackstone Towers, a horror novel, and I think it’s awesome.

2. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?

Perhaps we should call it ‘Writer’s Blockdown’? I will admit it hit me hard.

Lockdown gave me a lot of free time. I was able to work from home in the day job, you can still deliver lectures online, but I had free time because I wasn’t traveling to work, or going to the gym, or walking the dogs very much, or doing any socialising.

But I didn’t have the enthusiasm to do any original writing.

Then I had the idea to self-publish some of my back catalogue. I hadn’t done much in the way of self-publishing previously. I’ve usually worked with established publishing houses, but rights had reverted to me on a handful of titles so I thought I would see what the experience was like. Once I’d finished revising and uploading the previously published titles, I wondered if I should try to release a novel that I hadn’t yet placed with a publisher.

I surveyed my Facebook friends to establish the most effective title for the book and that’s how I come to be here, today, talking about Blackstone Towers.

3. What was the first thing you had published?

When I was eight, I had a poem published in a school magazine. Not only was the poem dreadful (rhyming ‘boy’ and ‘toy’) but I seem to recall it was also plagiarised. After that, when I was in my early teens, I had a letter published in the British comic Bullet, and they managed to change my surname from LISTER to LISTEN. After that my first success as an adult writer came when I wrote an erotic story for the adult magazine Forum.

4. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?

I’m torn between two choices here. Part of me wants to say my PhD thesis, which can be found at this link. It embodies research from four and a half years of my life, includes a variety of original short stories in a range of genres, as well as my supported arguments for the difference between the semantic and syntactic aspects of genre.

However, another part of me wants to talk about my poetry. During lockdown I managed to put a lot of my poetry into a single collection (Old People Sex and other highly offensive poems), and I like that book because I know it makes readers laugh. My late father was a stand-up comedian and it’s always been an ambition of mine to entertain an audience in a similar way to him, so I think this book would have made him proud.

This is the opening stanza from the title poem of that collection:

Granny pulled on her surgical stockings
She put her false teeth in the glass
She took the Tena pad out of her panties
And said, “Grandpa, could you please f**k my ass?”

5. …and which makes you cringe?

There is a trilogy of erotic stories that I wrote a few years ago.

If I found a genie in a bottle, and I was granted three wishes, rather than doing something nice like removing illness and disease from the world or establishing a fairer balance of economic distribution, I’d ask the genie to remove each of those books.

6. What’s a normal writing day like?

When writer’s blockdown isn’t happening, I have a fairly rigid schedule. I get up at five and go to the gym for an hour. When I get back I breakfast, shower, shave and dress. A couple of days a week I go onto the campus and deliver lectures on creative writing and other English-related subjects. This completes my nine-to-five.

On the days when I’m not lecturing, I’ll spend a couple of hours writing from nine to eleven, walk the dogs, and then spend the afternoon either working on edits, researching, blogging or immersing myself in other tangentially related writing projects.

I’m very lucky in that I can spend so much of my time immersed in writing and stories.

7. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown and in need of a

good book?

My horror novel Blackstone Towers is due out on August 22nd. I’m very pleased with this one because it contains ghosts, zombies, daemons and lots of background supernatural elements. I think it was Toni Morrison who said, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Blackstone Towers is the book I wanted to read that I had to write.

This is the blurb from the back of the book.

The talismans of the magi control seven realms of the mortal world. One can grant the bearer immortality; another gives its owner unfathomable wealth; a third gives the holder unerring foresight. There is a talisman to control reality, success, the deliberate and the accidental, and a talisman that governs the balance between love and hate.

The planets are now aligning, and one worldly resident of Blackstone Towers knows the talismans urgently need collecting and destroying before they fall into the wrong hands.

The only problem is establishing whose hands are the wrong ones.

8. What are you working on now?

I’m about to embark on a blog tour to promote Blackstone Towers, with dates and locations below. [Ed: the blog tour's now complete, but why not check it out anyway? :) ]

My next project is going to be a series of horror novels, each one set around the same fictional university. There’ll be a Lovecraftian theme to all of the stories because I’ve recently been binging my way through the Herbert West – Reanimator stories and they have a definite allure that I think is always overshadowed by the Cthulhu mythos.

On top of that, I’m planning to spend a little downtime reading The Feast of All Souls because it looks like it’s going to be a delightful read. [Ed: Aw, shucks - thank you!]

Thank you for inviting me to visit your blog today. It’s been a genuine pleasure.

Monday, 17 August 2020

The Lockdown with... Catherine Cavendish

Following a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance, Catherine Cavendish is now the full-time author of a number of paranormal, ghostly and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. Cat’s novels include The Garden of Bewitchment. The Haunting of Henderson Close, the Nemesis of the Gods trilogy - Wrath of the Ancients, Waking the Ancients and Damned by the Ancients, plus The Devil’s Serenade, The Pendle Curse and Saving Grace Devine.
Her novellas include The Malan Witch (to be published in Summer 2020), The Darkest Veil, Linden Manor, Cold Revenge, Miss Abigail’s Room, The Demons of Cambian Street, Dark Avenging Angel, The Devil Inside Her, and The Second Wife.
Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies including Silver Shamrock’s Midnight in the Graveyard and her story The Oubliette of Élie Loyd will appear in their forthcoming Midnight in the Pentagram, to be published later this year.
She lives by the sea in Southport, England with her long-suffering husband, and a black cat called Serafina who has never forgotten that her species used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt. She sees no reason why that practice should not continue.
You can connect with Cat here:
  1. Tell us three things about yourself
I was born in Hereford and for the first two years of my life we lived in the same village as serial killer Fred West. Fortunately, our paths never crossed.
I used to work in advertising – for a number of newspapers, including The Yorkshire Post
The last time I saw my natural hair colour was in 1972!
  1. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?
When the lockdown began, I was working on my new novel and was in the process of redrafting it. I carried on. I think the continuity of it helped. I have been one of the lucky ones because I have heard and read of people who have been badly affected and haven’t been able to create anything much since this all started. One thing I have been determined to do though – I am not writing a novel about lockdown!
  1. What was the first thing you published?

A short ghost story set on the Yorkshire moors near where I grew up. It was called In My Lady’s Chamber.
  1. Which piece of writing are your proudest of?
Always a tough question to answer because it’s usually whatever I’m currently working on or whatever has been most recently published but, taking a step back, I would say one of my personal favourites is The Pendle Curse, which is a novel centred around the infamous Lancashire Witch trials of 1612. It has witches, a time slip, ghosts, haunted buildings, demonic possession and evil children – all my favourites.
  1. and which make you cringe?
Fortunately, nothing that is currently in print. However, I do cringe whenever I read the outpourings of teenage angst I wrote many years ago and had the nerve to call poetry
  1. What’s a normal writing day like?
It starts with the ‘business of writing’ as I call it – responding to emails, writing emails, blogs, social media and so on, and then, in the afternoon, I settle down to work on whatever is in progress at the time. This may involve more reading and note-taking than actual writing if I am at the embryonic, research stage. A lot of my stories have a historical setting and I need to get the details right and the atmosphere as authentic as possible. If I am working on a first draft, I like to try and get around 2000 words down per day but sometimes it’s more, sometimes a little less. Sometimes of course, yesterday’s 2000 may hit the dust the following day, when I read over it and find I have made about as much sense as a politician on lockdown.
  1. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown?
Now that depends on their particular preference. The Pendle Curse I have already mentioned for fans of all things witchy, The Haunting of Henderson Close if you like scary, haunted places, Edinburgh and dark shadows. Then there’s The Garden of Bewitchment – the wild and rugged moors of the West Riding of Yorkshire, two sisters with a passion for the Brontës, ghosts and a really scary toy that no one in their right minds should play with.
  1. What are you working on now?
A novel set mainly in 1941 in the middle of the London Blitz. This one features the occult, Churchill, and a young woman who has become an unwitting target…

Monday, 3 August 2020

The Lockdown with... Sean Hogan

Sean is a writer and filmmaker living in Margate. He has published three books to date: England's Screaming, Three Mothers, One Father and a critical monograph on the film Death Line. His feature film credits include The Devil's Business, Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD and The Borderlands, as well as a long trail of cinematic corpses that he'd rather not talk about.
  1. Tell us three things about yourself.
I once annoyed Sylvester Stallone so badly at a London Film Festival Q&A (simply by asking a non kiss-ass question) that they terminated the session immediately afterwards.

I own a psychotic cat named Tuco, who I have long suspected isn't actually a feline at all, but a demon familiar from the lower depths of Hell.

Kim Newman and I devised two horror anthology plays, The Hallowe'en Sessions and The Ghost Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (written by ourselves and a host of other extremely talented genre writers) and staged them both in London. People often ask if we'll ever do another. The answer to that is, I directed both shows and it nearly killed me. Twice. I'm not particularly eager to try for third time lucky.
  1. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?
I haven't found that it's affected me too badly, possibly because, as someone who's decidedly agnostic about social media anyway, I usually manage to resist the urge to doomscroll too much. So my day-to-day writing routine is pretty much what it always was – bursts of activity punctuated by general indolence.
  1. What was the first thing you had published?
That would be my book on Gary Sherman's excellent film Death Line, back in 2017. I'd done various bits of non-fiction writing (interviews, essays, reviews) over the years, but when I was actually commissioned to contribute to what was ostensibly meant to be a series of critical monographs, the book somehow ended up being mostly fictional. I had such a good time doing it that it A) served as a gateway into me doing more prose fiction, and B) ended up spawning the next two books I had published.
  1. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?

I suppose it would have to be England's Screaming, simply because it was an idea I'd long fantasised about, without ever really believing I would or could actually write it. And when I did finally decide to make the attempt, I still had no idea as to exactly how I was going to go about it, or whether I was capable of writing something of novel length. So the fact that I even completed it felt like a massive accomplishment at the time. Now that the book's been published and people seem to be responding to it, there is definitely a certain sense of pride that I managed to pull it off.
  1. and which makes you cringe?
The horror stories you hear about screenwriting are all entirely true. So you can pretty much go to my IMDB page and pick out any film not called The Borderlands (where, incredibly, they just shot what I wrote without changing anything, and it worked!) where I was employed solely as a screenwriter, and I guarantee you that not only do they make me cringe, but reliving the memories of working on them is enough to send my blood pressure surging through the roof.
  1. What’s a normal writing day like?

It really depends what I'm working on. Scriptwriting is almost second-nature to me now, so I find that decidedly less onerous and can get much more done without wanting to burst into tears or make a dash for the wine rack. But if I'm working on prose fiction (which I've been doing a lot more of recently), I'm still training my writing brain to think that way, which makes the work a lot slower/more frustrating. Add to that a healthy case of Imposter Syndrome (“I'm just a screenwriter, what moral or ethical right do I have to write ACTUAL PROSE?”), and I'm grateful if I can slog through 1000-1500 words in a day. And possibly this is entirely down to my own laziness, but I also seem to be an either/or writer. That is, I only seem to be able to work on one thing on any given day – I generally don't, say, find myself bouncing between prose pages in the morning and scripting in the afternoon.
  1. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown and in need of a good book?
If I actually liked kids, I might compare this to having to choose between my own children. Well...I'll say England's Screaming again, because it's the meatiest of the books and seems to generally be having the desired effect for readers; that is, it's not solely aimed at those people who'll get every last obscure film reference, but should also work both as a primer on some interesting movies you might not have seen, and as a plain and simple story. But while I'm at it, I'll be completely shameless and say that if you liked that one, then you might want to consider picking up my other 2020 book, Three Mothers, One Father, which is a Eurohorror semi-sequel to England's Screaming, and possibly even the monograph on Death Line, the narrative portion of which functions as a sort of prequel to it. (I hear shared universes are very hot right now.)
  1. What are you working on now?
Two writing projects, currently: a game script for a first-person shooter, and a novel proper, The Corpse Road. And there are one or two film projects bubbling under, assuming we're not all just scrabbling around in the ruins of civilisation come the end of the year...

Friday, 24 July 2020

The Lockdown with... Daisy Lyle

Daisy Lyle is a British dark fantasy blogger and writer based in Normandy, though she spends a great deal of time in Devon. She is a technical translator and former aerospace engineer. For the past sixteen years she has written a fiction blog called Darkling Tales (here and more recently here) where she reviews both recent supernatural fiction and lesser-known weird tale authors of the past. She also contributes book reviews to the UK-based Ginger Nuts of Horror website. Her debut novel is The Viridian Mode

1. Tell us three things about yourself.
Thing 1: I have a lifelong fascination with pop videos, both rubbish and otherwise, and wish I could make them as a job. Although my favourite era of pop video is the first half of the eighties, recent favourites include “Mantra” by Bring Me The Horizon and ‘Many Moons’ by Janelle Monae.
Thing 2: I won the Inquisitor crossword twice but the first time they failed to send me my prize (the famed bottled of champagne), and the second time it arrived, but turned out to be cava. I look down on cava even more than I look down on people who do sudoku, and if I’d been at home when the bottle arrived I’d have smashed it in the yard. Instead my mother and her boyfriend drank it, the plebs.
Thing 3: I am intermittently a Friend of Arthur Machen (when I remember to pay the subscription) and I once had a beautiful dream that I met him in the Sheffield city centre branch of Boots and he said he was a Friend of Me too.
2. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?
My output as a writer hasn’t been affected by the coronavirus at all. I live in rural isolation and have to deal with boredom a lot due to a series of poor life choices, so the lockdown barely affected my mood or productivity. Also, those dark mutterings about the collapse of the publishing industry will provide me with a perfect excuse for literary failure, should I require one.
3. What was the first review you ever wrote?
Before Darkling Tales I used to have another Livejournal “community” with an even more poncey name, Souls Adrift. On the historic day of August 12th 2004 I wrote a one-paragraph review of ‘Amour Dure’ by Vernon Lee. I was very enthusiastic about that story and still am, I’m a massive Lee fan. Quite a lot of people posted in Souls Adrift but I terminated its community status one day in a fit of pique, probably because people weren’t paying enough attention to me. That just meant I had to think up a whole new name when I inevitably made another community, and that’s how the new one ended up with the terrible name of Darkling Tales.
4. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?
When I was seven me and my twin sister compiled a survey about sex which included the question “Would you get a sex change?” This was quite edgy for the year [REDACTED]. Both our parents answered in the negative, though I am pleased to report that my twin sister is now my twin brother so the whole thing wasn’t a complete waste of time.
5. …and which makes you cringe?
Everything else I’ve ever written or tried to write. Also, I keep making factually inaccurate statements in my Darkling Tales posts, and once had to be politely corrected by Ellen Datlow for alleging that one of her anthologies didn’t have any non-UK/US writers in it. Along with Richard Dalby and Stephen Jones, Datlow is my favourite horror anthologist of all time, so this aroused an odd combination of emotions in me, namely giddy delight at my existence having been noticed by such a being, mixed with a scalding shame that has still barely faded to this day. Since then I’ve tried to be more careful with fact-checking but I still do stuff things up quite regularly.
6. What’s a normal writing day like?
It starts late – I’m very nocturnal and never write until the last four hours of my day (except for the month when I was doing the revision work on The Viridian Mode), though I get a lot of my ideas in the early evening walking about the countryside. After dinner I go up to my bedroom to grapple with said ideas until they turn into fiction. I try to write every night although as I work from home the day job does get in the way sometimes.
7. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown and in need of a good book?
I would imagine The Viridian Mode is quite suitable for people undergoing the rigors of lockdown as it’s pretty escapist. Although it’s mainly set in the real world there are several incursions into another dimension, and while the fantasy is definitely of the dark variety it also offers romance and (one hopes) a few laughs. If people miss the great outdoors or being able to go on holiday to the countryside they might also enjoy its setting, which is on a decaying country estate in Devon, described at some length. In all my writing I am constantly trying to emulate authors like John Buchan, E.F. Benson and L.T.C. Rolt, who were fantastic nature writers as well as excellent ghost story authors. The Edwardian era and the 1920s were particularly good for writers of that kind although there are still some great ones today, such as Mark Valentine and Quentin S. Crisp.
8. What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second novel The Shrine of Zero. It’s my first attempt at largely urban fantasy and combines a lot of my hobby-horses: vinyl records, goth bands, British “new towns”, moths and, of course, bonkers Victorian religious cults and street traders. It’s going to be bigger and more complicated than my first novel but I’m having fun inventing a tailor-made magical system for one of my characters.

Friday, 17 July 2020

The Lockdown with... Tom Johnstone

Born in 1968, Tom Johnstone came to writing rather late in life, and so pursues it with the quiet desperation of someone conscious of the relatively short time he has left. His novella The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, published by Omnium Gatherum Books, is mainly set at the time of the 1939 Nazi rallies in the place mentioned in the title, but has a certain resonance in this age of right-wing demagogues in power in Britain, America and elsewhere. His collection of interlaced stories, LastStop Wellsbourne, has a fair amount of socio-political commentary baked into it too, so much so that David Longhorn of Supernatural Tales called it a ‘state of the nation’ novel in short story form, and says of the author that he “has quietly risen through the ranks to become a first-rate craftsman of the short story.” His stories have also appeared in such publications as A Ghosts and Scholars Book of Folk Horror (Sarob Press), Single Slices (Cutting Block Press) and Best Horror of the Year #8 (Night Shade Books), with further anthology appearances scheduled in Nightscript Vol. 6 (Chthonic Matter Press) and Body Shocks (Tachyon Publications). Also forthcoming from Omnium Gatherum Books is the sequel to The Monsters…, entitled Star Spangled Knuckle Duster

1. Tell us three things about yourself.
I can operate a Hayter ride-on lawn-mower (sort of).

I was once a stagehand on a production of ‘The Scottish Play’, which took place on the island of Inch Colm in the Forth, and starred John Bett, formerly of 7.84 Theatre Company, with the audience ferried out there for each performance.

I spent a good part of the mid-nineties up trees and sitting in front of bulldozers on various road protests. Not really the up-a-tree part so much as my climbing ability and head for heights leaves a fair amount to be desired.

2. Many writers have said the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown have made it harder for them to create. Have you found this? Has the outbreak affected you as a writer and if so, how?
In some ways, it hasn’t affected me at all, as my ‘day job’ has remained unaffected, so I’m not benefiting (or suffering) from any extra time at home. If anything I’ve been busier at work, so more tired. Last summer, I took to writing in a pub on the way home from work, scribbling rough drafts down in a semi-inebriated haze (well, in a notebook actually!), which proved surprisingly productive. One of the stories I wrote in this fashion (finishing a tale I began in a creative writing workshop co-hosted by the fabulous and delightful Victoria Leslie) will be appearing in Volume 6 of Nightscript! But it’s a writing setting that is obviously out of reach to me at present.
The virus has negatively affected my writing in practical ways, which have had a knock-on effect on my creativity. A novella that was supposed to be part of a series, due for publication in the spring has now been delayed until the Autumn, because of the impact of the virus on sales. This has somewhat taken the wind out of my sales with regard to working on the next one in the series.
On the other hand, the crisis and its political ramifications have inspired me to produce fiction about it. When the outbreak first reached this country, I swore blind I wouldn’t write a ‘virus story’, thinking the market would be flooded both with virally-themed anthologies and enough stories on this subject to fill them several times over. I’ve since relented and written something called ‘Untogetherness’, which thanks to my observations of what it’s actually like to live through this situation as opposed to typical fictional representations of what it might be like, I sincerely hope is not too corny. But it’s yet to find a publisher, as the deluge of Covid-themed open calls ready to snap it up doesn’t seem to have materialised…

3. What was the first thing you had published?

A short story called ‘Trail of Tears’, credited to ‘T.R. Johnstone’, in Dark Tales magazine, Vol. 12. The first one credited to ‘Tom Johnstone’ was ‘Dairy of a Madman’, in Dark Tales 13, which also featured a story by a writer many readers of your blog will have heard of, a certain Priya Sharma.

4. Which piece of writing are you proudest of?
‘The Beast in the Palace’, my Georgian gothic novelette set in and around the Brighton Pavilion in 1829, as it’s one of my boldest stylistically, structurally and thematically. It was the first, and to date only, story I sold to Black Static, so it has a special place in my heart.

5. …and which makes you cringe?
All of them, including even the aforementioned story in places. And let’s not even start on the adolescent poetry. There’s no escape from the Cringe Factor in anything I write, I find, and there’s nothing like getting something published and irrevocably in the public arena to make you spot every shortcoming, glitch, typo and other unforced error in your work. Re-reading your own work is almost as risky as reading your Amazon reviews, or indeed any reviews. On the other hand, I sometimes take a fresh look at a story that’s been rejected so many times I’ve decided to retire it (unceremoniously, without even a carriage clock) and think, You know what? This isn’t too bad. It isn’t too bad at all… That’s how I came up with my first collection. Most writers do the sensible thing and pack their debut collection with reprints of their most prestigious story sales. I filled mine with unwanted stories. So more of an album of interesting B-sides and out-takes than a greatest hits compilation. I’m really selling it here, aren’t I…?

6. What’s a normal writing day like?
On working days, I aim to start writing from 5.30am until 6.30am in time to leave for work. In practice, I piss around checking my emails, the submissions grinder, social media, news sites (for research purposes of course) and then write for about ten minutes, or at best half an hour, but somehow between these and longer sessions at the weekend, when put together and edited they end up amounting to something I can persuade myself is worthy of publication.
I used to pull all-nighters, but I can’t do that these days. I find self-doubt and negativity is stronger in the hours of darkness, which makes them better for editing. Unless I’m drunk, in which case I can scribble stuff down in the pub (or could in pre-Covid times...)

7. What work of yours would you recommend for people on lockdown and in need of a good book?
The collection I mentioned earlier’s a good one: Last Stop Wellsbourne, published by Omnium Gatherum Books. I may have called it an album of B-sides, but to stretch the musical metaphor, it’s also something of a concept album. The title refers to my adopted home town of Brighton’s ‘lost’ underground river the Wellsbourne, and also the lost town of the same name I’ve invented, in the tradition of weird, haunted places in horror literature from Lovecraft’s Miskatonic Valley to Joel Lane’s Clayheath. And while it does include a fair amount of unpublished stories, there are also some reprints I certainly wouldn’t write off as B-sides, such as ‘The Beast in the Palace’, which fits in well with the theme: George IV, who was responsible for draining the Wellsbourne ‘irl’ as the cool kids say, appears in the story as a character in a way readers will, I hope, find hard to forget…

For those who enjoyed the Spine Chillers readings that were like Jackanory for classic horror fans in the Eighties, I’ve started making videos of fireside readings of some of my stories. Here are some links to the ones I’ve done so far: What I Found In The Shed, Mum And Dad And The Girl From The Flats Over The Road and The Man In The Black Suit, Part One and Part Two.  

8. What are you working on now?
My main focus at the moment is the third novella in a sequence about reluctant occult detective Herb Fry and his associate Daniel Spiegel. The first, narrated by Fry, is called The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, which Omnium Gatherum Books published two years ago. The second, Star Spangled Knuckle Duster, told by Spiegel, is due out shortly. I’m currently in the process of writing The Song of Salome, which returns to the Universal Monster Movie theme of the first.
Actually, at getting on for 30,000 words each, and with their historical scope and scale, taking in events from the 1919 Red Summer to the 1950s Red Scare, and including historical characters such as Meyer Lansky and Bela Lugosi, the first two feel more like short novels. I’m hoping the third one will have more of the concentration and intimacy of a novella.