DM: What made you want to write horror fiction? What do you consider to be its attractions over other genres and mainstream fiction?
That said, if, as a horror writer, you can edify as well as entertain, then all to the good – and horror most certainly can edify, because there are some excellent literary practitioners working within it. That’s one area where I get a little bit pugnacious. Even at small and medium publisher level, there is some staggeringly good writing in the horror field. Without thinking too hard, I can throw a handful of names at you right now, which the mainstream book buyer is unlikely to be familiar with – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon, Mark Samuels – and, purely as authors, I reckon they’re the equal of almost anyone you’ll find on the ‘bestseller’ shelves in the average high street bookstore. I’m not whining about some kind of injustice here – that’s the way the cookie has crumbled, but the general public’s perception of horror as something dingy and designed to appeal to our basest instincts is hugely inaccurate.
Of course, the worth of any field of creative endeavour is entirely subjective. So I don’t think you can sit there and say: “Horror deserves better.” In some ways, horror’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s a very busy genre. You only need to look at how many horror movies are made each year – vastly more than in other fields. Likewise, the majority of the small presses tend to turn out horror and science-fiction first and foremost. But inevitably, when you get an awful lot of material, quite a bit of it is going to be poor quality. Even as a horror fan, there are times when I’m watching yet another bad movie or reading yet another disappointing story, and I wonder for how long I’m going to waste my time on this sort of thing. Something keeps drawing me back to it, though – something deep rooted, and that, I guess, is the rule right across the horror fan-base. So to answer your question somewhat less long-windedly, what are the attractions? … I honestly don’t know, but they’re there. Despite the genre’s problems, certain among us have an innate need to venture into that dark unknown, and not be fazed by what we discover there, no matter how horrible it is.
DM: Which writers influenced your early work and how, if at all, have your influences changed throughout your career?
The short horror stories I’d read before then, when I was college age, were mainly in the Pan and Fontana series. Though there was much more literary merit in those books than many give them credit for, folk will remember that later volumes increasingly comprised lots of short, nasty vignettes, which didn’t leave a lasting impression. When I finally returned to horror after such a long break, things had moved on significantly from that. The Books of Blood had been published, which I found startlingly visceral. They were far more violent and sexually explicit than the Pan stories had ever been, and yet the pace of the narrative and the quality of the writing were outstanding. Likewise with Ramsey – I’d never read anything quite like it before. The unreal nature of his settings, the isolation of his heroes, the eeriness of their predicaments – they made for compulsive reading. The other thing about Ramsey was his ‘kitchen sink’ quality. Nearly all his stories were set in his native Merseyside, and took place in recognisable inner city areas and on drear housing estates. There was nothing exotic about them, and yet their depth of weirdness and their sense of a world off-kilter was amazing. It genuinely made you believe that strange and ghastly things could be going on in the house next door, and you would never know.
Campbell and Barker were certainly a driving force behind my shift towards horror, but it was a neat switch-over. After I left the police, initially I wrote solely about crime and ‘broken Britain’, which wasn’t far removed from what writers like Campbell and Barker – and other writers who were really up-and-coming around then, like Joel Lane, Chris Fowler, Nick Royle, Simon Clark and Mark Morris – were also doing. That was in my early days. My first horror stories tended to be urban nightmares, often with grotesque psychological undertones. Later on – now, I suppose – though I often still use police officers and journalists as key characters (go for what you know, as they say), I’ve developed wider but not unrelated interests – such as folklore and mythology, particularly with regard to the UK. My 2008 collection, Ghost Realm, consisted entirely of new horror stories set in specific UK locations and drawing on their history and legends. My 2010 collection, Walkers in Dark, followed a similar path. I’m not sure what the inspiration behind this is, except that I’m fascinated by the history and geography of Britain. There’s probably a Jamesian element in there too – many of my settings, these days, are rural, and many of my evil forces are now drawn from the supernatural rather than the damaged psyche of my characters.
DM: In consideration of your increasing involvement in the horror film industry, which writers and directors currently working today provide you with inspiration and open up new ways of exploring the genre?
At the big budget end of the spectrum, I still regard Guillermo del Toro as the great hope for horror and fantasy. I thought Pan’s Labyrinth was pure artistry on celluloid, and not only that, it made for cracking scare-fare as well, incorporating all kinds of elements from the genre. Further back, I enjoyed his Mimic, though it gained minimal response from the general public. I hear he’s now working on Frankenstein and At the Mountains of Madness. I’m looking forward to the second one more of the two, though that’s only because the former has been made and re-made so many times, but if del Toro can’t put the flat-headed fiend back into the public’s imagination then no-one can. I should also mention James Wan, who I suspect has now moved into this higher price bracket. I haven’t a great deal of time for the Saw franchise – I think it’s quickly become very samey, but there was no doubting the quality of the original, and I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Silence – pretty much a straightforward ghost story, which passed under many people’s notice, but very stylishly made. I look forward eagerly to seeing what his vampire opus, Nightfall, will be like.
At the lower budget end, it’s not all bad news. Plenty of indie films have caught my attention. I loved Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek, though it pushed the slasher envelope about as far as I, personally, like to go. I was impressed by Gareth Edwards’s Monsters – how could you not be given what he had to spend and the product he eventually conjured from it? Other relatively low budget movies that hit me hard in recent times were Jaume Balaguaro and Paco Plaza’s [Rec] (without doubt, one of the best horror films I’ve seen in ages), Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (bone-numbing chills in broad daylight), Juan Bayona’s The Orphanage (another very classy ghost story, beautifully written by Sergio Sanchez) and the tautly scripted Them (or Ils, as it is in French), which I’ll be reviewing soon for Twisted Tales. It’s no surprise, but it’s a comment on our industry that three of those last four were European productions. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we don’t lack the talent over here in the UK, but we do seem to lack the finance. As such, my most recent script, The Devil’s Rock, has been put on film with New Zealand money. The director of this one, by the way, is an English guy, Paul Campion. He learned his trade at the knee of Peter Jackson, working on The Lord of the Rings. He has great artistic flare, and is another one to look out for in the near future. He’ll definitely be going places.
DM: You have an incredible range of experience as a writer: short stories, novellas, novels, scriptwriting for television and film, tie-in fiction, etc. How do you think that this has helped you develop as a writer and do you consciously draw techniques from one form to use in another?
Yes, the most important lesson I’ve taken from my script work is to say as much as possible with far fewer words. Okay, we all overwrite now and then – we’re often the worst judges of our own work, and we can’t be sure if we’ve got the message home – but there’s no more instructive an exercise for an aspiring writer than to find that he or she has to tell an intelligent and entertaining story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, at the same time introduce and maybe dispose of a dozen fully-fleshed characters, and also wow the audience with the sort of meaning and subtext you’d normally find in a full-length novel, in a script no longer than 100 pages (which is usually about 20,000 words). If you can even half-master the level of imaginative discipline that requires, then you will definitely come out of it a better writer. Whether I have or not is another question, but at a personal level I feel I’m writing better now than I ever have, and one of the tricks I use is to mentally approach each project – short story, novella, whatever – as if I’m writing a script.
DM: I’d like to discuss your forthcoming movie, The Devil’s Rock. What is it about, how have you found the development process and, if you have seen a near-finished cut, are you happy with the results?
That’s about as much as I’m allowed to tell you at present, but I wrote a detailed synopsis, and Paul put feelers out to see what kind of financial interest we could kindle. There wasn’t much in the UK, but he has good contacts in New Zealand, where he worked on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, among other blockbusters, and it was a different story down there. I was finally commissioned to write the script shortly before Christmas 2009. If you remember, we had hellish weather – heavy, prolonged snow and bitter temperatures. This curtailed my normal method, which is to take long walks and dictate copious notes. Instead, I was stuck in my office most of the time, but by the end of January we had a first draft. We workshopped it a bit – occasionally meeting up at neutral venues, occasionally emailing it back and forth between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere – probably producing another three drafts before we were happy enough to send it to our potential financiers. That’s always a nerve-wracking moment, of course, though to sweeten the pill Paul had done something he’s very, very good at, which was produce a detailed selling document, full colour, laminated and packed with pre-production artwork, sketches, mood photos, letters of intent from actors, plans for locations he’d scouted, and so on. Even so, after making the approach around April, we only got the green light in July. My job normally ends at that stage. All I usually do from them on is sit at home and watch my computer screen jealously as I’m copied in on all the on-set gossip, but this time there were still some last minute rewrites to do – often a necessity when the financial reality of actually putting your ambitious dreams onto celluloid kicks in. But, despite the odd moment or two of panic, we still brought it home on time. Principle photography commenced in early August, and had wrapped by September.
Post-production has been underway ever since, though it’s now nearing completion. I’ve been in more or less constant touch with Paul (we have plans to work together again, hopefully this year), and in late November I got to see some of the early rushes. These were lacking special effects, music etc, but I got a positive vibe from what I saw. Paul is a terrific visual director. He comes at film from an artistic perspective, so it looked absolutely great. The acting also was exceptional, though it’s not very easy to appreciate how your dialogue is being handled when you have to listen to it via computer in a noisy London pub. But hey, that’s the movie business.
DM: What are your writing plans for 2011 and beyond?
You’ll notice that I’m a bit hesitant to put names to these projects. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m only usually forthcoming on this sort of thing if I think it’s a real goer. That way, my blushes are spared if it doesn’t happen, and it’s so often the case that it doesn’t. It’s a stressful way to run your personal business, I suppose – when you’re never sure what your next earner is going to be until the day it suddenly arrives. But the upside is that good things can happen at any moment, and usually you never see them coming. Sew enough seeds, and sooner or later the flowers bloom.