Marathon Man

Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the RainBabelDreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.

Alan Burns
Alan Burns
So this class. I remember he was talking about the OMOHO. The dread of the OMOHO. The impossibility of it. One Man On His Own. He was arguing that you can’t have it in fiction. It does not exist. It should not exist. You try to write a novel containing just one character and you are dead in the water. You need obstacles, you need opposition. You need an ally. You need an antagonist. He referred to Europe After the Rain, in the embryonic stages of which he had created a character moving through a post-war terrain. The idea for the book wouldn’t form. What was his protagonist doing? And then Alan realised, he was looking for his sister. Now he had a story. OMOHO is no story.
That was over twenty years ago. The OMOHO stayed in my thoughts, nagged at it. I wanted to to have a crack, to prove Alan Burns wrong. I wrote short stories about single men in dreary urban dwellings struggling with relationships while the supernatural loomed. Was it any surprise that I would be lumped in with the other glass half-empty slipstream writers that came to be known as the Miserablists in the early 1990s? I even toyed with using OMOHO as the title of a novel. I decided, when I wrote my post-apocalyptic novel One, that I would try writing an OMOHO. But Alan was right. You just can’t get along without other people, even when most of the people are dead. I ended up introducing survivors, until the novel was populated by quite a healthy cast list. So much for OMOHO. I couldn’t even manage it in a world depleted by a catastrophic natural disaster…
In Dust and Desire, Sonata of the Dead and (coming in November 2016) Hell is Empty, I’ve reached a compromise. Of course Joel Sorrell, my PI, is not One Man On His Own. He lives in London for Pete’s sake. But in many ways, he’s completely isolated. His wife is dead. His daughter has deserted him. He couldn’t hack it in the police force and got out, not without rubbing plenty of people up the wrong way, people he now needs to get on side if he’s going to get anywhere with his MisPer cases. Even his own cat treats him with contempt.
I’ve always liked the lone wolf, in both literature and film. Put me in front of any number of 1970s paranoia thrillers and I’m a happy boy. The main characters in these films are not strictly OMOHOs… But… they kind of are. That’s the point of them. Who can they trust? Nobody. Three Days of the Condor (Robert Redford, OMOHO by lunchtime), The Parallax View (Warren Beatty, OMOHO on a bomb-laden airliner), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman, OMOHO jogging through NYC), The Conversation (Gene Hackman, OMOHO bugger). And on the page too I prefer the mavericks, rather than the police procedurals. Especially the unnamed Detective Sergeant from Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. Yes, he works in the Force, but he’s in limbo, stuck at his rank because of his obstinacy; out on a limb working at A14: Unexplained Deaths.
I like the romance of the loner. The helpless introspection and attendant self doubt. The vulnerability. I like to see them skating on thin ice and sailing close to the wind. The desperation. I like how the rogue element will push the boundaries of what’s legal in order to make a breakthrough. Not for me the conventional interrogation with a tape recorder and an officer keeping tabs. Good cop, bad cop? No thanks. I prefer questions on the lam, and actual harm if the answers don’t pass muster. Search warrant? No time for that. Rough justice rather than a by-the-rulebook prosecution. My boy isn’t in it for the collars and the kudos. It’s personal for him. He’s in it for the result. The permanent solution. Dead men can’t get off on a technicality. Sometimes you really are on your own.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #2

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I was on the M6 within twenty minutes. The motorway was uncommonly quiet, just a smattering of lorries and cars, maybe a dozen or so in total. It was getting on for seven o’clock. Clouds were piled like wet grey towels.

My dad died when I was twelve years old. He dropped dead in a car park in Southampton while he was attending a conference, some work-related training course; he was an office manager for a stationery business based in Penrith. Aneurysm. The technical name for it – subarachnoid haemorrhage – gave me nightmares. I thought his head had split open under the weight of a skull filled with spiders. I bore the fear of that for years; a time bomb in the brain he had carried from birth.

I remember little things about him, although I suspect I’ve also dreamed some of them into perceived reality. The way he drank instant coffee exclusively with hot milk and lots of sugar; his penchant for big coats with big pockets so he could line up his pens in a row; a love of Dylan and Mitchell (I remember singing along to Blue in a Christmas living room smelling of vinyl seat covers and tangerines and Harveys Bristol Cream). I remember going to the swimming baths with him, and clinging on to his shoulders in the deep end, where the water was always colder. He would buy me crisps and chemical-green pop from the vending machines afterwards, and we’d sit on plastic chairs while I ate and he tied my shoelaces.

What’s the difference between a duck?
I don’t know, Dad.
One leg’s both the same.

My foot on the parapet. The crack of stone. The drop.

How fast you’d go. A sense of freedom, of flight. Shackles off. A release for ever from worry and fear and responsibility.

I bore down on the accelerator.
70… 80… 90…
I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and closed my eyes.

Joni Mitchell


Joni is 72 today. I grew up on her music. My dad was (still is, let’s be honest) besotted with her. He’d take a walk out to Ames record shop in town to buy every new LP of hers on the day of release. Last time I asked him, he reckoned Blue was his favourite album of hers, and why not? It’s a classic. It’s up there for me too. But there are one or two other albums that vie for top spot: Hejira, for example. And The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Here are six songs of hers from those three albums I’d happily take to a desert island with me (ask me again next week and I might choose a different six…):

Little Green (Blue)
Heart-rending song about the girl Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965.

Edith and the Kingpin (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
A lush song about a gangster and his squeeze. I remember being hypnotised by the economy and beauty of the simple line: His eyes hold Edith/His left hand holds his right.

Shades of Scarlett Conquering (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Another effortlessly gorgeous couplet: Out in the wind in crinolines/Chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn.

Amelia (Hejira)
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Amelia Earhart. I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms…

Refuge of the Roads (Hejira)
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Wanderlust. These are the clouds of Michelangelo/Muscular with gods and sungold/Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads

Blue (Blue)
Acid, booze and ass, needles guns and grass, lots of laughs…

Happy birthday, Joni. Get well soon.



There’s some good can come from waking at 5.30 am with a full bladder, or an accidental kick in the shins, or the cat deciding that your head is the place where it wants to sit. This morning I drifted in and out of consciousness, now eyeing the LCD of the clock radio, now fending off a cat tail like a supersize feather duster, and ideas accumulated. Swathes of dialogue, scenes, plot points, possibilities. I opened my mind and sucked it all down. The drawback, of course, is that you then have to get up and write it all down, or risk dropping back into sleep and forgetting the lot. I usually have a notebook and a pen by the bed. This morning? Of course not.

Kindle surprise

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Two recent short stories, originally published by the good people at This is Horror and Nightjar Press, are available to buy online. The Fox was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award and was well received by Starburst: “As events unfold, a knot appears in your stomach, twisting tighter and tighter until you reach the denouement.” Adam Nevill said of The Jungle: “In a Conrad Williams story you always see the very texture of the world’s simplest wonders and sudden horrors, but through eyes you thought had closed in your past.”

Priced at £1.99 each ($2.99 in the States). Cheap as chips. Or fries.

Graham Joyce


I stayed at Graham Joyce’s house on the 1st March last year. We were reading at an event at Warwick University. He wasn’t feeling too good. I was hoping he’d be up for a monumental Leicester curry afterwards, but his appetite was shot. His lovely wife Sue made me ham sandwiches instead. I slept in his study at the top of the house, the room where he spun gold.

Howz yer guts? I emailed him, a few days later.

Not great. Just had to cancel talk I was doing tonight. Doc thinks it muscular, so I’m on strong painkillers. Hope it goes away. Enjoyed seeing you the other night. Bright light in a dull evening.

It was a Graham Joyce sort of day, yesterday. The sun was out and the clouds were high and light. There was a touch of autumn in the air. I was out all day, working. By the time I got round to thinking of heading home, I received a phone call. Graham had died.

For some reason I thought of him at my wedding in 2002. At the time, Graham was adapting his novel The Tooth Fairy for a Hollywood production company. After the ceremony, after lunch, he stood with me and my dad. Dad was in the police force for 25 years, and then for seven after that he ran pubs. He’s no stranger to industrial language, but he has no truck with those who speak it. I dare not utter an oath within earshot of him, even now. In the past I’ve seen him harangue gangs of teenagers on street corners for trading four-letter insults.

‘Dad, this is Graham. Graham’s a writer. He’s doing stuff over in Tinsel Town.’

‘Really?’ Dad asked. ‘How are you finding it?’

Graham (normal talking voice, ie. loud): ‘They’re a bunch of fucking cunts, Grenville. Bunch of fucking cunts.’

It says something about Graham that he charmed the bristles smooth on my dad within seconds. To this day my parents still talk about that meeting. ‘He had a way of telling a story, didn’t he?’ my dad says. Too true.

I don’t remember getting back to my tram stop, but I remember walking through the park. I was expecting to see a ladybird. I was trying to see Graham in something. If anybody could reach through, it was him, this amazing writer who wrote so beguilingly about nature, who sometimes seemed so very close to the liminal, the numinous, that he was also somehow of it. I was looking for a sign.

The last time I saw him was on Boxing Day. My wife’s parents live in Leicestershire and we’d often take advantage of that to drop in on Graham, Sue, Ella and Joe. We all went on the walk in Wistow he describes in his final, stunning blog post. It was a glorious day. He was in good spirits. There was much laughter and we talked about writing and guitars and football and family. When we got back to his house he got the karate gloves out and sparred with my boys.

Yesterday I cried and my kids hugged me and I smelled their gorgeous heads and thought of Smoking Poppy. I hadn’t seen a ladybird. Or a heron. And there are no hares in Didsbury that I’m aware of. Later, my wife said: ‘Have you seen the moon?’

I went outside and there was a breathtaking, swollen supermoon rising over the village. Of course Graham would die on a day such as this. How could he not?

But he isn’t gone. He’s in the words of the extraordinary books he wrote, of course. And he’s larger than life (if that is at all possible) in the memories we have of him. He was a man of laughter and mischief and generosity. He was one of my very best friends and I’ll miss him enormously. But I felt self-conscious about my grief yesterday, and I imagined him with that twinkle in his eye, pressing a pint into my chest, telling me to cheer up, you soft bugger.

Kurt Cobain

Photo by Martyn Goodacre
Photo by Martyn Goodacre

I’m not interested in why. I don’t care if there were clues there for all to see. So he was a drug user. So he couldn’t handle fame. Twenty years have sanded away my opinions about that, if I even really had any. Outside of family and friends, his death shocked me like no other. He was only 27 years old. There was pain and rage and screaming, but there was melody too.

When I first heard the song… that song… in 1991, I was a second-year student sharing a house in Bristol. Too young to have appreciated punk in 1976, I suddenly understood – as those power chords kicked in – how people hungry, primed, for musical change (here we are now, entertain us) must have felt. I listen to Nirvana and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The music is still relevant, in my eyes. It is timeless, visceral, raw and beautiful.

Joel Lane

Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn
Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn

In 1986 I was desperately trying to find like minds. I wanted more than anything to be a writer but there was nobody at the sixth form college in Warrington where I was studying for ‘A’ levels who was similarly driven. Then I heard from one of the older boys in my form about a writers’ group in town that he sometimes attended. It was hosted one evening a week by a poet called Gary Boswell in a cold, prefabricated unit (now demolished) on Museum Street. I went along and met Gary, and the other members of the group, and continued for a year or so until the group disbanded. On one occasion, Gary invited Rupert Loydell along as a guest speaker. Rupert edited (edits! it is still going) a small press publication called Stride. He brought some free copies for us to take home. Inside these magazines were mentions of other small press markets looking for stories.

All of this is a long-winded way to explain how I first learned about Joel Lane, who died on Tuesday. It was through the small press publications being produced in the middle to late ’80s that first alerted me to a wonderfully dark, perceptive and very British voice. It was also the first voice in fiction that really called to me, as if something stoppered inside had been uncorked. He wrote fearlessly, honestly, with verve and crunch, and narrated urban horror stories about places I recognised. He became a great influence and it was wonderful to finally meet him at the Midland hotel, Birmingham, in 1992 when I attended Fantasycon for the first time.

We became good friends. He visited me when I was living in Morecambe, studying for my MA in 1993. In an age when people were turning more and more to word processors and electric typewriters (one email he wrote to me after sending him a PDF while I was putting together the Gutshot project, for which Joel provided the closing story, reads: There’s no attached PDF on my screen. I have no doubt you sent one but my PC won’t register it. Technology hates me. It’s mutual. I have no solution except smashing my computer, which won’t give me a proof, or burning down the house, which won’t help anyone. If this were the wild west I’d know what to do, but you know what? It isn’t), he was resolutely old school, writing long letters to me in his unusual, almost childish handwriting, very neat (I wonder how many bottles of Tippex he went through), the words transferred so hard to the paper that the back of the page felt like Braille. He would send me mix tapes he’d created (Joel cared very deeply about music and had deep knowledge of and an eclectic taste in it) with titles such as The Miserablist Tape [you ever heard]). Sometimes he would phone me and we’d talk about how we were doing, what we were working on, what we were reading and listening to. Once, in that soft, lightly lisping voice of his he told me he’d been a bit fed up – health issues, problems at work, etc – and then he sighed and said: ‘I’ve been reading a lot of Polish war poetry lately…’

His fiction is sometimes difficult, but in a good way. It often paints a bleak picture, but it is underpinned by love and hope and humour. Joel was a very funny guy. He was also deeply thoughtful and ludicrously intelligent. And he was generous with his time, reading drafts of new stories, offering detailed constructive criticism, encouragement and suggestions. He became greatly animated when I told him I wanted to write about insects for The Unblemished, and rattled off a list of authors I’d do well to read. I hardly ever saw him angry, but he was fiercely against injustice of any kind. He was one of those rare people who are more concerned for those around them than for themselves.

Since getting married and having children, I saw and heard less of him and now, of course, I’m regretting that. At least I got to see him once a year at Fantasycon, and I will always remember him from those times, in his tight-fitting jeans and silk shirts, rubbing at his head as if trying to quell the machinations of his brilliant mind, carrying his plastic carrier bag of books. Hi… how are things with you?

It’s unbearable to come to terms with the knowledge I’ll never see him again, but I’m privileged to have known him. And how lovely that we will always have his many, many outstanding stories to help remind us.

Nothing lasts for ever, and there’s no eternal. Everything falls apart in the end.

Obligatory cat post

I’d always wanted a cat and when I bought a flat in Stamford Hill in 1997 it felt as though the time was right. It was a Maine Coon or nothing for me. I have always admired them, and was enchanted by their inquisitive nature, the odd sounds they produce and the sheer size of them. That and the tendency they have to follow you around. So I did some research and found a breeder in West Croydon who had a bunch of kittens for sale. I took a trip out there and was greeted by four little Maine Coons from the same litter, six weeks old. Two immediately caught my attention. The first one was a ginger tom, and it was flying around, a wild look in its eyes, as if it had a propeller in its backside. The other was a smoky grey female, calmly observing this lesser mortal with an almost amused air. I plumped for the grey, and took her home in a box.


I called her Redknapp, after my favourite footballer at the time, but since his retirement (and realising anyway that it was a pretty dumb thing to do) we now call her Reddie. When she was a kitten she developed a number of lifelong habits which include licking the edges of glossy magazines or paperback books and chewing plastic bags.

I feed her dry food, mainly Science Plan (she has always turned her nose up at human food but loves tuna and chopped-up tiger prawns). She’s a bit timid with strangers, and it’s taken her years to get used to our boys (when our first son was born she hid under the bed and did not emerge for two entire days) but when everyone’s out at school or in bed at night, she will come and find me and curl up next to me while I write, or while I unwind in front of the box.


She’s getting on a bit now (13 is pretty old for Maine Coons) and last year she was very ill for a spell. The vet discovered that her kidneys were failing so now she takes a tablet every day. She’s been fine since, but despite retaining a healthy appetite she’s getting a little boney and ragged around the edges (but that didn’t stop her from escaping yesterday and spending the whole night outdoors). She sleeps a lot, but when she wakes up we have a little chat (Maine Coons love to chat) and part of me suspects she’s asking me how the writing’s going and why the hell are you talking to a cat when you should be getting back to it, numb-nuts?

So excuse the writer-has-cat cliché, but I just wanted to show her off. And why not? She’s prettier than all of you…


Doorstep Horror

This post originally appeared at the Mulholland Books website in September 2010, shortly before my crime novel, Blonde on a Stick, was published.

October 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.

A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.

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Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.

That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen. Newsflash. This just in. The body, as yet unidentified, was found on wastelands behind Manchester’s southern cemetery…

Dad puts his fork down. On the phone. He’s here then, he says. He’s come over to Manchester.

I know he’s talking about the Ripper. It’s all you hear about in the school playgrounds. Brian Trent got into trouble with the headmistress for starting a game called Dead, where he pretended to be Jack, felling girls, and how many could he get on the floor before the coppers stopped him? Manchester is twenty miles from here. If the Ripper can leave his hunting grounds of Bradford and Leeds to travel across the Pennines, then he can nip along the M62 to Warrington. Mum will walk home alone this night.

This is where much of it started for me, this business of horror and crime. Siamese genres that share the same diabolical heart. A faceless killer with a northern accent. Pictures of policemen on their knees in allotments and alleyways combing the area for clues. Everything black and cold and filthy. Desperate women torn apart on cobblestones. Doorstep horror. A wraith evading capture and grinning at the plods in their abject failure.

My parents were both in the police force. Mum left when she became pregnant with me. Good was instilled in me as intractably as the marrow in my greenstick bones. I behaved. I was shy to the point of becoming wallpaper. Spock hair. National Health Service glasses. If it weren’t for the blue serge and silver pips in my family I’d have been bully fodder. As it was, I was overlooked. I witnessed casual violence in the playground, observed the rhythms and reactions. I learned about preemptive strikes, grudges, breaking points. Some of these kids would go on to be ugly criminals. There was a rapist among them, it turned out. There was a murderer and a victim. It was a rough old school.

I lived in a pub, too. Once Dad had finished his twenty-five-year stint and picked up his carriage clock and index-linked pension, he did the usual where bobbies were concerned and took over management of the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Orford Lane. What might a quiet boy deep into solitude see here? Time, gentlemen, please. Gentlemen. Oh, really? I’ve seen drunk men threaten each other with the bare fangs of broken beer glasses. Hiked skirts, dirty thumbs hooking into knicker elastic against back alley garbage hoppers. Dad with a black eye and a split lip thanks to a “gentleman” who took umbrage at a request to drink up now, please.

I found echoes of all of this in the black novels of Derek Raymond and waded into the filth after the unnamed Detective Sergeant to the dank, stinking hellholes where bad men met their ends. I fell for the grand guignol of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and the existential tension in James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes. Later, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which was punishing but magnificent, offering up great swathes of my own childhood panic in its red, steaming fists.

All of this has directed where I go in everything I write, but most of it comes from the lonely places from which I viewed the world, and those that I disappeared to inside myself.


Eight years old and I wanted to make sure Mum would be all right walking across Lovely Lane at closing time. Imagining her wrapped in her coat, chilled by that Warrington winter, while fear, and maybe something else, hastened her heels. It still frightens me now. More so than the endless scrutiny of faces as men poured out of the factories at quitting time : Is it him? Is it him? Is it him? More than the “I’m Jack” tape. More than the conjecture about what the Ripper did to his victims in the blanket secrecy — details jealously kept by the police — that followed his attacks.

People ask me why I’ve made the transition from horror to crime and I think: “Transition? Seriously? What the hell are you talking about?”