I must have dozed despite the image that wouldn’t leave my mind or grow clearer, because I awoke at a few minutes past two. I had a sense that I’d heard something not especially substantial on the move in the dark. The only light came from the scrawny digits of the bedside clock, which aggravated the darkness. As I groped for the cord above the bed I felt as if the gloom was gathering like soot on my fingers. By the time I located the cord I’d begun rubbing them together. The light showed that I hadn’t closed the drawer of the chest as tight as I’d imagined, since it displayed a shadow like a thin strip of earth. Surely it was just because I hadn’t fully wakened that the sliver of blackness looked restive. Lurching out of bed, I slammed the drawer and found myself staring at the room. What should it remind me of? Then I knew, and rather more than that. It brought to mind the first time I’d stayed by myself at a hotel.
I’ll be reading at an event at Waterstone’s, Liverpool, tomorrow night to celebrate the launch of Simon Bestwick’s post-apocalyptic novel Hell’s Ditch along with horror legend Ramsey Campbell. Tickets are available for £3 and we kick off at 6.30 pm. Come and join us!
It’s always a thrill to receive a box of books in the post. And it was especially satisfying to open this parcel, if only because it meant it hadn’t gone missing (which I was convinced was going to happen). The books are lovely; Titan have done a beautiful job. It seems like such a long time ago that I first came up with the concept, but all the hard work was done by others: eighteen ridiculously-talented writers (and each one a pleasure to deal with) contributed wonderful stories. I was thinking with some sadness that the project was over, but really, with the book’s publication, it’s only just started. Because now you lovely readers get involved. I hope you love this anthology as much as I do.
The splendid Ali Karim has posted an in-depth interview he conducted with me for The Rap Sheet, the essential, award-winning resource for readers seeking information about what’s new and interesting in the world of crime fiction. You can read it here. Thanks to Ali and The Rap Sheet for their interest and support.
I’m pleased to be able to reveal the cover to the new anthology, scheduled for publication next year. Credit to Titan for agreeing to list every author on the cover. None of that ‘And Many Others’ nonsense here!
It was a privilege to work with so many talented writers. I hope you’ll be as impressed by the stories as I was.
On October 7th I posted a blog about the Gothic Manchester Festival, and how I was hoping to write a new short story in time for a reading I was scheduled to perform at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation along with Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh. I intended to write something “brisk and baleful”, around 1500 words. Well, I didn’t. Not brisk, anyway. It ended up being around 6000 words, and I ditched my original title, Way Out Via 30 Steps (although I like that title too much to discard it completely). It is now called Shaddertown, and it will be appearing early next year in the excellent Shadows & Tall Trees(edited by Michael Kelly), alongside Alison Moore, Kaaron Warren, Myriam Frey, David Surface, CM Muller, Robert Levy, Charles Wilkinson, Tara Isabella Burton, VH Leslie, Brett Cox, Michael Wehunt, Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley.
As part of the Gothic Manchester Festival I’ll be reading (alongside Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh) at an event run by the excellent Twisted Tales people (27th October). The evening is an opportunity for us to talk about why we have chosen to set so many of our stories in Manchester. It was lovely to be invited along, but after confirming my attendance I began to have a bit of a panic. How many stories had I actually set in Manchester? I went through my files… plenty set in Warrington and London… a handful set abroad in the Charente-Maritime, in Venice, in the Northern Territories of Australia… but Manchester? Er… one. Which is fine, I suppose. I could read a bit from that (Late Returns, set in Didsbury, if you’re wondering), and try to relax this idea of boundaries to include Warrington while we discussed our reasons and motivations.
But I thought I’d use my Manchester shyness as a spur to write something new. And something audience-friendly. By which I mean short. Something brisk and baleful, under 1500 words if I could manage it.
I’d been on a tour of Manchester’s subterranean tunnels and long wanted to use that as a location in a story, but it was only while travelling back from Ormskirk last week, when I saw a sign at a railway station (WAY OUT IN 30 STEPS) that I made connections and felt the prickling of an idea. There was every chance it would simply end up on an index card under a pile of Urgent and Pending and Do this NOW you complete sac-head. So I started posting it on Twitter, deciding that I couldn’t cope with the shame of not finishing a project that I was releasing piecemeal to the public.
It’s first draft, warts-and-all, so please be gentle with me if you decide to tag along. You might hate it (you might even enjoy it), but remember first and foremost it’s there to act as a fire under my backside…
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Many of us have jobs. Full-time jobs, part-time jobs, weekend jobs, holiday jobs.
I’ve done my fair share of grim jobs. I’ve delivered pizza. I’ve worked in one of the busiest bars in Warrington on New Year’s Eve. I spent one bewildering day trying to sell kitchens. I sorted out an oncology department filing system at a London hospital into three piles: Living, Dead, Dying. I’ve lugged heavy firecheck doors all around a Hackney warehouse. When my dad was an Investigator for a security firm back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was offered the chance to spend my summers between college and university terms working as a security guard, usually on a construction site, for £2.50 an hour (thanks, Dad… why couldn’t you have been a chocolate taster, or the owner of a boutique hotel?). Invariably this would involve sitting in a Portakabin or, if I was unlucky, a car, for up to 16 hours a day, mainly ensuring that kids didn’t come to play in the piles of sand.
One summer I wrote the first draft of a novel and soaked up a very nice tan while ostensibly acting as a deterrent in serge on a patch of waste land off the M56 near Appleton. With hindsight I was lucky to have that job, even though it didn’t pay well, because it gave me huge swathes of time to write, or read, with impunity. I wanted to do nothing but be a writer, and I remember being in a froth of panic at the thought that one day I would probably end up with a proper job that stole the hours I would otherwise spend making things up.
When I did get a proper job, my fears came true and I grew so desperate to get my own fiction written that I set the alarm clock for 6am so I could get some pages down before I went into work.
Now I’ve been lucky enough to write full time for a few years. It’s likely not to be a permanent thing, but I’ll take it where I can. It’s all I really know and what I love. I imagine this cycle of writing and work will continue until I’m too decrepit to know the difference between a pen and a mug of Complan (if indeed I ever did). Essentially, I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. It is as much a part of me as my heart or my backbone. I was writing before I realised you could be paid for it, and I think that is key to the kind of writer you eventually become.
Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the point of this post. In recent times I’ve stumbled upon (what I consider) strange behaviour among established writers, chiefly Jim Crace and Alice Munro. Both have taken the decision to retire from writing, as if it was, you know, just a normal job and not some ravening compulsion. Crace, clearly, is not what you might call a born writer. He considers writing to be something one should be paid to do and believes that once your popularity wanes, you should pack it in. In an interview in 2008 with the Guardian, Crace first broached the subject of his own retirement. An author’s lot is predicated on bitterness, according to him, resulting in “the elderly novelist who may be writing his/her best books but whose day has come and gone. S/he is no longer fashionable and can only find a marginal publisher and command a tiny advance. The book receives few reviews and is ignored by the public. Bitterness.”
Munro’s situation is all the more baffling because previously, in a Paris Review interview, she’d expressed concern at the thought of calling it a day. You get the sense, though, with Munro (who is 81 compared with Crace, in his mid-sixties), that she feels she’s written everything she wanted to write, that she is, in effect, spent. If that’s the case, then good luck to her. I hope to hell that never happens to me.
I contacted two writers I admire immensely – Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub – both huge influences on me as I was developing, and both of an age that in other occupations would see them being handed the gold carriage clock and a goodbye handshake, yet both are still going strong.
Ramsey is as prolific as ever, perhaps even more so. Over a career that spans fifty years, he has published such genre classics as The Face that Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun and The Grin of the Dark as well as hundreds of short stories. This year sees the publication of The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, which is, unless I’m mistaken, his 33rd novel.
“I can’t imagine ever retiring as a writer unless that was somehow enforced, say by an illness that left me unable to write,” Ramsey says. “Ideas – I have notebooks full of them, and some have been lying dormant for years, even decades. Now and then I have a browse of them and often discover how to develop one that failed to inspire me at the time. Not long ago I discovered that my original notes that led to my writing ‘The Companion’ forty years ago are so remote from the actual story that there’s actually a complete other tale to be had of them, and I may well get around to it. As to the future, well, they’d better leave me a pen inside the coffin in case I need to scribble a last tale or two.”
Peter Straub, arguably one of the most influential modern horror writers, is the author of Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon and Koko. Recent books such as lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room have garnered awards and critical acclaim. His latest novel, A Dark Matter, was described by the Guardian as ‘understated, literary horror, all the more terrifying… for what he keeps from the reader and for his brilliant psychological portraits of innocents caught up in events beyond their control and understanding. Gripping.’
“I’ve never thought for longer than a couple of seconds about retirement,” says Peter, “but Philip Roth retired this year, and if he can do it, I certainly can. I guess the real motive would arrive one day when I would have to realize that I really was not as good as once I was, and my books really did seem to be growing weaker. For long time now, writing fiction has seemed to be my most dependable way of achieving stability, contentment, inner peace. Yet now I am seventy, and writing has become more difficult, and it goes a lot more slowly. I’d like to think I might have three or four more novels in me. The presence of ideas or the lack of ideas does not trouble me, because I almost never have ‘ideas’. I spin everything out of its own materials. This is a very absorbing process. However, the certainty of embarrassing myself in public would be a powerful incentive to walk away from my desk.
“I don’t think one can think of writing in the same way one would medicine or the law, or any conventional business. It is riskier and scarier, also less tangible than most occupations. And you have to spend so much time alone. It is a very strange, small, displaced aperture through which to see and experience the world, also to explain what you find in the process. On the other hand, it is so unimaginably rich.”
Ten years ago I interviewed Christopher Priest, and at the time he said something about writing that resonated with me. He said writing was like ‘drinking water’. It was just something he did, natural and essential to his life. He could no longer stop doing it than he could stop breathing. And most writers I know feel the same way. Because how do you switch off the tap? Or is it a case of no longer answering the ‘What if?’ questions, ignoring the moments when you think: that would make a good story. Turning away from the fantasies, refusing to engage with the voices in your head – to me (at the moment) that sounds more like death than the real thing.
In 1993 I started the novel that would become Head Injuries. It was called Dust back then. Heavily influenced by M John Harrison, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker, it was my attempt at a modern British ghost story. It’s a flawed novel, but one for which I have great fondness. I wrote it on an Amstrad with a 10″ screen bought from Morgans near Manchester Piccadilly train station. As I paid for it (I think it was about fifty pounds), the salesman asked if I wanted to upgrade to a 12″ screen for an extra tenner. I said I couldn’t afford it and he said not to worry. ‘There’s a free set of binoculars comes with with it so you can see what you’re typing.’ Chortle.
The novel is partly set in Morecambe, which is where I stayed while I wrote the novel (I was taking the Creative Writing MA at Lancaster University at the time). Much of what happens in the book happened during my stay, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what is fact and what is fiction because the book, for so many years out of print, is available again, for the Kindle. You’ll find it on Amazon pages in USA and UK as well as the rest of the world.
I pondered for some time about releasing the book in 2013, as it would have been fifteen years since its publication (the novel was published one day before my 29th birthday) but other than me, who really gives a toss? So I thought I’d get it out there now, before Christmas. And just for you, for being such wonderful people, it’s available at a low price for a limited period. Included with the novel is an introduction by me and two related short stories. Bargain.
I hope you like it. Drop by and tell me what you think!