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!
Join multi-award-winning authors Ramsey Campbell and Conrad Williams in celebrating the sub-genre of Body Horror, including readings from the new, critically-acclaimed anthology The Mammoth Book of Body Horror (Constable & Robinson).
Editors Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan will introduce the event, plus there will be a Q&A and book signing session afterwards. A must for all horror fans! Signed copies of the book will be available to purchase courtesy of Waterstone’s. Light refreshments provided.
Saturday 7 July, 1.30pm – 4pm, Bolton Central Library, Le Mans Crescent, Bolton, Lancs BL1 1SE
To book contact email@example.com or call Helen Romaniszyn on 01204 332209.
I was at alt.fiction last weekend, an excellent little sf/fantasy/horror convention in Leicester. On Sunday I attended the launch of The Mammoth Book of Body Horror edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane. My story, Sticky Eye, appears in the book. I was told it was to be a signing event, but it turned out to be more of a panel. Novelists David Moody and Simon Clark – both excellent company – were also in attendance.
The panel was hosted by Alasdair Stuart, who made a fine fist of pretending to be Ramsey Campbell, who was unfortunately absent. Towards the end of our allotted hour, Alasdair asked the panel what their favourite body horror story was. I might have mentioned either of Stephen King’s stories, Survivor Type or Grey Matter, or pretty much anything of Clive Barker’s, but at the last moment I remembered a story that had horrified me so greatly that I had to put down for a while the book in which it had been anthologised.
All I could remember was that Bob Shaw had written it (now I’ve been able to check, I can reveal that it’s called Love Me Tender), but I fiercely remembered the impact it had upon me. It appeared in Ramsey’s New Terrors anthology in 1980. Remembering that jaw-dropper of a story also reminded me of the time I met Bob Shaw, back in the early 1990s.
I can’t quite remember why he did it (perhaps I’d asked him for any writing mentors or contacts in the neighbourhood, perhaps he was sick of me pestering him and wanted to direct my attention elsewhere) but it was Ramsey who gave me Bob’s phone number, which contained the same area code as my own. I can remember being taken aback by the idea that any writer – particularly one as prominent as Bob Shaw – would choose to live in Warrington, but I was delighted that I might be able to pick the brains of a well-respected novelist without forking out for a train ticket.
I was quite nervous when I called Bob but was immediately put at ease by his charm, and his gentle Belfast accent. He told me he’d be in the Ring O’Bells pub on Church Street and that I would know him by the trim of his beard which he wore, he said, because he fancied it gave him a ‘conquistadorial air’. I went along and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and met him a couple more times after that, but I never mentioned Love Me Tender, mainly because I was unconvinced that someone so convivial could write something so terrifying.
Time passed, I moved to Morecambe, then London, and it was while I was there that I heard that Bob Shaw had died, in 1996. Christopher Priest’s obituary of Bob Shaw can be found here.
So… what’s your favourite body horror story?