DM: What made you want to write horror fiction?
SKU: The simple answer to this question is I write what I’d like to read! It’s a terrible cliché, but pretty much as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always gravitated to horror. I remember going on holiday to Wales with my family at about the age of 12 and liking that the room I stayed in had a really large, wide window ledge that I could sit on – I had visions of sitting on it and writing a story (which I did - a terrible thing about a serial killer’s victim coming back from the grave to take his gory, unearthly revenge, now not-particularly-sadly lost to the mists of time and a lousy filing system). At about the same time, a friend and I started to write a novel together called Cult of the Combines, about Satanists calling up some sort of demonic presence that made combine harvesters come alive and kill people. I haven’t spoken to Alex for a few years, but the last time I did he told me he still had some pages of it in his loft, where I hope they’ll stay! By inclination, I’m drawn to art (music, books, films, comics, TV shows, paintings, sculptures, whatever) that deals implicitly and explicitly themes of fragility, fear, loss, decay, threat (both tangible and intangible) and the overcoming of adversity, and it’s these things I try to write about in my stories. And bloody great monsters, of course – I still find myself suckered in to even bad movies and books about enormous creatures eating people, and if it’s set either in or on water, or in somewhere cold and snowy, so much the better. I’ve always kind of assumed that other people are like me: sometimes they want an emotional horror story, and sometimes only a creature feature will do it...
When I came to write, I wanted to try to recreate in my readers just some of the fear, excitement, humour and release I found, and can still find, in the things I love. Practically, I suppose I write horror rather than anything else because, at this point, I understand it better than other genres. I’ve read and watched so much now that I think I have a good grasp of the language of horror, of what works and what doesn’t (based, I hasten on to add, on my responses to other horror artworks: which aren’t, and shouldn’t be the same as other people’s reactions, even within horror - some of my friends love horror that I hate, and vice versa). I’ve found, as well, that horror has no limits other than those which I choose to impose, and I can explore whatever I want within its confines. I can write a story that (for me, at least) addresses the insecurities I feel (and would imagine others feel) when trying to be a good husband or dad or friend, or I can simply write a big dumb story about carnivorous bugs hiding in noodle restaurants that’s intended to do nothing more than scare or horrify – it’s entirely up to me. Horror lets me do it all! Besides, bottom line is, it’s fun and I enjoy it.
DM: What do you consider to be its attractions over other genres and mainstream fiction?
SKU: I’m not sure I’d say that horror is any better than any other genre so much as I respond differently to it than I do other genres. I think that my personality, my genes and my experiences have given me a way of perceiving, wondering about and approaching the world – I’m predisposed to see things and (probably more importantly), react to things in terms of their potential horror ‘content’. I don’t mean I see everything negatively (I don’t) or that I suspect axe murderers or werewolves are lurking around every corner or in every shadow (I don’t...or at least, I damn well hope not), but I do tend to interpret things in relation to where they might fit into a horror story. I’m sure if I was a dancer, or a painter, I’d probably be trying to deal with my world by fitting it into the language of dance or portraits or whatever. Everyone does it, whether they realise it or not – approach the world with a set of values and priorities that they apply to the situations that see, hear about, and/or find themselves involved in. There are excellent novels, poems and short fiction in every genre dealing with the same themes I engage with in my horror stories, some of which I’ve hugely enjoyed even if I couldn’t produce them myself. Horror doesn’t have any kind of exclusive right to address certain issues, any more than romance, crime thrillers or historical thrillers do. To Kill A Mockingbird is, for me, one of the most powerful novels to address issues of intolerance, brutality, love and human connections, themes often dealt with well in horror, but it’s not a horror novel. Could I write To Kill a Mockingbird? No. Could I write a horror novel dealing with those themes? Well, I’d like to think so, even if I haven’t yet...
DM: Which writers influenced your early work and how, if at all have your influences changed throughout your career?
SKU: The biggest influence on my early writing was definitely Stephen King – I read Carrie (1974) when I was about seven (don’t ask!), and although I didn’t completely understand it, I enjoyed it enough to want to read more. When I was a bit older, I started to pick up more of King’s stuff, and loved it; although I haven’t really liked his recent novels as much, his early stuff is wonderful. Salem’s Lot (1975) is, for me, his outright best, and I still consider it one of the best novels ever written, in or out of the horror field. His short stories are also brilliant, and are models of how you can paint the oddest of situations with very few words and yet have them attain a genuine, pinpoint-accurate realism and gravity. Sometimes, even now, I’ll write a short story and then think to myself: “Ah, it’s an Unsworth King!” Not as good, you understand, but I can see a direct influence over thirty years later, and it’s rarely something that I deliberately set out to do. In some ways, the stories contained in Night Shift (1978) are the most influential modern stories (for me at least) that there are.
When my granddad discovered that I was reading King (and, via the NEL imprint, lots of Herbert and Guy N Smith, both good fun and highly educational to a young, impressionable mind), he started to tell me about a range of the classic horror stories and novels (some of which, to my shame, I’ve still not read) and then gave me a book of stories by some bloke called M. R. James. I read them, and have adored them ever since. They are, without doubt (well, without doubt for me, anyway), the best ghost stories there are: witty, scary, intelligent, both personal and yet somehow grand and vast, they haven’t ever been bettered. When I write ghost stories, it’s Monty I always feel like I have peering over my shoulder, even if I don’t always listen to his advice...
After King and James, there are a second set of influences and they spring initially at least from a very specific place: when I was about 13 or so, the big horror book seemed to be Kirby MacCauley’s Dark Forces anthology (1980) (you couldn’t move in my school for copies of it), which I really wanted but which took me ages to get my hands on a copy because no bugger’d lend it me. I wanted it mainly for King’s The Mist (I’d heard it was just superb – which it is), but what turned out to be its most important function was that it exposed me to lots of authors I’d never heard of but whose stories smacked me in the head and refused to be ignored, one of whom remains to this day a huge influence on me. T.E.D. Klein’s story (novella, really) The Children of the Kingdom absolutely blew me away, and remains one of my favourite pieces of writing. He’s not written much, because of writer’s block, but the Dark Gods collection (4 novellas, 1985) is an essential purchase, and his novel The Ceremonies (1984) is also superb. I live in hope that one day, he’ll write something new, but until then I’ll keep on writing my own versions of his stories in my own merry way. Recently, there was a slight chance of me appearing in an anthology with him, and although it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now, for a few days I was wandering around entirely star struck... I’ve been in anthologies with Stephen King, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison, but somehow Klein remains more important to me. I’m not sure I can even analyse precisely what it is about his stories that I respond to so well: they’re certainly intelligent, well-written, creepy and often startling, but it’s not that, not precisely. I’ll probably never completely understand it, so let me say it as simply as I’m currently able to: he’s brilliant.
A little later, at university, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! trilogy (1975) was a huge influence. It’s a vast, conspiratorial masterpiece of sci-fi, sex, drugs, rock and roll, alternative histories, underground philosophies and black humour. It has a huge cast of characters, goes into minute detail about arcane historical and philosophical ideas, and yet still manages to be a rattling good thriller. I don’t even particularly agree with all its politics or ideas, but it did make me look at the world in a different way when I first read it, and you can’t praise a book much more highly than that. I’ll certainly never write anything like the Illuminatus trilogy (or its various Wilson-penned sequels and prequels), but I’d urge anyone who enjoys counter-culture fiction to go and hunt this one out, because it’s eye-poppingly great.
There are so many others that it’s hard to list them, some of which are long-standing and some of which have come about more recently. Alan Moore has been an influence ever since I first read Watchmen (1987) (mainly for his detached, intellectual author’s voice, which I’m always very tempted to copy but which never works when I do), as is Junji Ito (especially Uzumaki, 2002 [UK publication] ) for his telling of desperately bleak, massively intricate stories in which individuals face impersonal, malign forces and always but always come off worse. To a lesser degree, Lovecraft’s an influence as well. I’m not a devotee particularly, but when he’s on form there are very few who can touch the cold horror he generates. At the Mountains of Madness (1931) is just ace, and everyone should read it at least once. And then there are my contemporaries, whose influence on me occurs both through their writing but also (and far more importantly) through their friendship, the conversations we have and the feedback they give me: Steve Duffy, Gary McMahon, Stephen Volk, Barbara Roden, Larry Connolly, and all the others. Of course, I don’t want to be too effusive about them in case they get swelled heads...
The other key influence on me is films, particularly the early films of John Carpenter, which seemed to me both smart and populist, capable of shocking, engaging, entertaining and terrifying in equal measure. My stories are often very visual, and I put that down to those early movie experiences, where what Carpenter or Spielberg or Gilliam were putting before their cameras was, frankly, astonishing and made my mouth fall open in wonder (literally, on occasion: not an attractive sight, let me tell you). Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (1992) is, similarly, an astonishing piece of television, visceral and intelligent and genuinely gut-crunchingly scary, and it’s fair to say that I’ve been trying to write something as powerful and affecting as it and all of those other films ever since.
I suppose, though, that if I’m being honest, I’d have to say that these influences pale in comparison with the most critical thing there is: the people in my life. I’m lucky enough to have a family who love me and who have supported and continue to support me. Most critically, I met a woman who I fell in love with, to have married her and for us to have had a son, and the relationships I have with my wife and child are more important to me than anything else. Their presence and influence is in every word I write, and my fears about my capabilities as a husband and father, and the potential results of not being good enough, occur regularly in my stories. If I’m a good writer, it’s because of the technical skills I’ve learned and that people have taken the time to teach me; if I’m a good horror writer, it’s because I’m blessed to have something of absolute worth in my life that I’m really, really frightened of losing somehow, and my biggest influence is trying to address that fear.
DM: It strikes me that the father-son relationship is possibly the most recurring dynamic throughout your stories. Not only do you consider the devastating consequences of losing a son, but also the fear and mistrust felt by a father towards his child. How does this play into or against your terror of losing those close to you? Do you find these stories more difficult to write because they deal with taboo emotional reactions to parenthood? How does their composition compare to the process for your less personal stories?
SKU: This is an odd one, really, because it’s not a theme I realised was there until I was putting together the stories for Lost Places and a friend pointed it out to me. It seems to me that I write about this a lot because it’s one of the most obvious and tangible fears in my life. I worry constantly that I’m not a good enough dad, that I won’t be able to protect my son or that he’ll end up in places where I can’t offer him any kind of support, and it’s certainly true that a number of my stories address that fairly directly. I think, though, that more widely, the things I write are all about life’s fragility, about the risks to all of the good things we have and the things that give us stability. My son is a force for good in my life, but so is my wife and I can see how my worries about how I might damage our relationship, about my abilities to be a good husband and friend, are also present in most of the stories. If it’s not as obvious, I suspect because it’s a more complex relationship, so my ways of addressing it are less direct.
Good horror, I think, shouldn’t have taboos; it should be emotionally honest, and should make people think about their own lives and the things they value and how fragile those things are. I use the fears I have, the worries that’ll I’ll do something to damage my relationships with the people I love beyond repair, or that I won’t be able to protect them, to try to make my stories more affecting, although how successful I am isn’t for me to judge. I don’t exactly set out to write an emotional horror story, but for me horror flies when, no matter how bizarre the actual situation (zombie outbreaks, ghosts on the rampage, demons attacking Morecambe), it’s tied into some genuine emotional resonance. Why is a zombie outbreak so affecting? Well, yeah, it’s partly because I might get eaten, but it’s also because if there are zombies, then the rest of my life has collapsed.
As to which sort of stories are more difficult to write, it depends. The emotional ones are certainly more complicated, because I have to have some clear understanding of my own emotional responses (or my predicted ones, if it’s not a situation I’m in or have experienced that I’m trying to write about) before I can get them down onto the page. However, what I call my ‘Twilight Zone’ stories, the ones that are more plot and less character-driven, have their own difficulties, mostly to do with getting the plot details right, finding the right rythym and tone, etc. I recently did two Sherlock Holmes horror stories, which I found incredibly difficult because the horror is only one element of the overal tale: I had to find a voice for someone else’s characters and I had to make the story work as a mystery, placing the ‘reveals’ at strategic points through the narrative. Too early and people guess the end, too late and it’s not satisfying because the payoff comes out of an apparent nowhere – a tough gig. On balance, though, I think tapping my own emotions is harder. ‘When the World Goes Quiet’, a sort-of zombie apocolypse story from Lost Places, has the most downbeat ending of any story I’ve written and I remember just sitting there on a train after typing it, thinking, “God, what have I just written? What if I’d had to do what I’ve just made my characters do?” and being really upset by it. Of course, let’s keep a sense of context about this: I’m only writing, and as hard as it might be, it’s not brain surgery or mining or social work, it’s not actually hard. I get to do something I love, people seem to like it, I can look at myself in the mirror and not hate what I see, unlike (I hope) some of our political leaders - Nick Clegg take a bow - and I can sleep at night. This is a good life.
DM: Your work to date has received critical praise within the genre and you have been widely anthologized. However, in a market dominated by the novel, you have stayed with the short story format. Why have you eschewed the more commercially viable format in your writing to date? What do you consider to be the benefits and opportunities unique to the short story?
SKU: You’re assuming, with this question, that there’s any kind of decision-making or planning occurred in my writing career! Truth is, when I started writing seriously (in about 2001) I wrote a novel because I assumed that’s what you did. Just about the time I finished it, I changed jobs and had some time available so I joined a creative writing class. I did that mainly to get some independent feedback on what I was doing, and I found that I really enjoyed it. Each week, we’d get set homework, 2000 words on whatever the teacher thought of that week, and I set myself a task: I would only ever write complete stories, and I would follow her rules – if she set a “write something from the perspective of someone who bakes celebration cakes”, that’s what I would do. If I could make it a horror story, then great, but that was less important than sticking to the task. It was hugely important in developing my writing, because not only did I have to start thinking far more carefully about the words I used (and the amount: by nature, I’m long-winded, so a 2000 word limit is a big ask), but it forced me to think a little wider about where horror fits (or doesn’t).
What I discovered not long after that was that there was a market for the short stories I was writing. Starting with the AshTree Press, I began to find anthologies that would at least consider my stuff, and practically it’s easier to write a short story, spending perhaps 4 weeks getting it right, and to then have it rejected than it is to spend a year on a novel and then have it rejected. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, exactly, but writing short stories did give me the opportunity to get my name out there in a way that novels probably wouldn’t have done. Besides, I’ve found I really rather like writing short stories: they’re somewhere you can play with some extremely odd ideas and not have them outstay their welcome.
Having said that, however, the last few things I’ve written have been longer and longer, and recently I have decided to write a novel. I’ve about 30,000 words into a very, very dark novel and I’m enjoying writing it a lot, and finding the complexity and depth that the extra length is allowing me to create something that has (I think, at least) more time to breath and grow. Although it’s on hold for a couple of months while I put together my next collection, Quiet Houses, I’ll be getting back to it soon, probably in April, and am looking forward to it a lot. Whether anyone else will like it, of course, we’ll have to wait and see…
DM: Can you tell me a little about your novel?
SKU: It’s funny, because I’m quite happy to tell people about the novel in person, but when I came to answer this I started to feel a bit … prickly … writing about it. It’s not that I worry that people will read the interview, nick my idea, like it and the write a version of it faster than me, so much, as that if I write about it and it goes public and then I don’t deliver it’ll be like I’ve cheated people somehow. Dumb, huh? I’ve realised that it’s a different thing, chattering to your friends and family about your current, in-development masterpiece, to when you start talking about it in an interview or some other public domain. Then, it’s like you’re making some kind of weird promise relating to its quality, or indeed, that it’ll even actually be finished or see the light of day, and at this point, I have no guarantee that’ll happen… I suppose what I can say is that it’s a very dark, very bleak horror set in Hell. It’s structured as a thriller, with a central character investigating a series of murders and tracking the killer through a very idiosyncratic version of Hell and on the way facing demons and humans, bureaucracy and difficult trade delegations from Heaven. At this point, it’s probably a quarter finished, and I’m really happy with what I’ve done so far. Feedback from my critical circle is pretty good (and these are people I trust to be honest – I save my cronies and sycophants for when I’m feeling low and want a boost), so I’m encouraged to keep writing it, and hoping that it may eventually be published. Watch this space…
DM: Aside from your novel, what are your writing plans for 2011 and beyond?
SKU: Well, the first thing is to finish Quiet Houses. It has to be ready to be launched at FantasyCon in September [see last week's content with Mary O'Regan - Glyn], so ideally the first draft of the text needs to be completed within the next couple of months. After that, I have some short story commitments I’d like to complete, and I’ve no doubt I’ll have some ideas that’ll present themselves and demand to be written for no reason other than they want out of my head. I have a PS Publishing collection called Strange Gateways due out in 2012, which is complete apart from things like story notes, introduction/afterword, etc, so it doesn’t need a huge amount of work. I’m excited about Strange Gateways partly because it’s a PS book, and they make beautiful books and it’ll be great to be a part of the PS universe, but also because I think it shows another aspect to my work. Lost Places is a book I will always be enormously proud of, but part of the fun of writing is stretching yourself and seeing where you can take what you know: Strange Gateways is a weirder collection that Lost Places, and the stories in it have some different obsessions so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to it.
One very practical thing on the horizon is that I’m doing another Halloween reading in aid of Morecambe’s Cancer Research UK shop this year: I did one last year and had a great time, and managed to help raise over £150 for the shop. I’ve agreed to try and write a story set in the shop, and to actually write the story in the upper loft of the shop, which has no light or heat and which is allegedly haunted. My first stint in the room is in a week or so’s time, and I’ve never done anything like this before – it’s either going to be fun or a complete nightmare… The story will have its first public airing at the reading in Halloween, where it’ll be available as a limited edition signed chapbook. So, lots to do, and not much time. Still, it's fun, and whilst it continues to be fun, I’ll keep doing it.