Below is the text of an interview conducted by Joseph D'Lacey for Horror Reanimated.
March 24th, 2010
Today 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?
SB: 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 heart 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 powerful 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?
SB: 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 me 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?
SB: 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?
SB: 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.