Here at Gingernuts towers we were mightily impressed with Jasper Bark’s recent collection of short stories and novellas entitled Stuck On You. In fact, we were so impressed, we asked him if he’d be interested in an in-depth interview discussing the book at length. Mr. Bark very kindly agreed. What follows is part one of this interview, examining the inspiration, craft, and thought processes behind the writing of these tales. Part two will follow, covering the remaining tales in the collection. Enjoy, and many thanks to Mr. Bark for agreeing to such a thorough examination…
Note: Every effort has been made to make this conversation spoiler free, but a familiarity with the text will no doubt enhance your reading experience. Plus, it’s a great collection. So treat yourself.
GNoH: I want to mainly talk about Stuck On You, but I noted in a previous interview you did that you also wrote the novelization for Rebellions Sniper Elite game. As a gamer nerd, I have to ask how you managed to land that gig! also, what is it like writing for a pre-existing IP? What are the challenges and constraints of such an arrangement? Similarly, is there anything about it you particularly enjoyed?
JB: I have to confess, and please don’t hate me, but I am hopeless at computer games. Even though I’ve reviewed them professionally, written for them and even novelised one, as you point out. When I used to review them I would have to get friends round to play them for me, so I could take notes.
I had to do the same thing with Sniper Elite, I spent a few evenings watching two hard-core programmers, who worked in the industry and were also gamers, charge through the game for me.
I got the gig shortly after getting in touch with Jonathan Oliver at Abaddon. We hit it off and he was interested in a few of my ideas for novels, but didn’t have a slot for them straight off, so he offered me the novelisation to tide me over. My main brief, from Jason Kingsley who owns Rebellion, was to make it like “The Professionals meets John Le Carre”, which is pretty much what I did, though with a touch of The Dirty Dozen thrown into the mix. It was a learning curve for me because I had around 3 months to churn out 90,000 words and it was only the second novel I’d written. The first had been with Steve Lyons and was based on the 2000AD character Strontium Dog. Nobody hated the novel, a few people really loved it. It was part of my apprenticeship as an author.
GNoH: Regarding the Stuck On You collection, I noticed that the stories were written over a period of four years, with End of the Line going back to 2010. How did it feel revisiting stories written over that length of time? Did you make any revisions or tweaks for this collection?
JB: As I’ve been selling fiction professionally for a couple of decades, first scripts for radio and the stage, then scripts for comics, then fiction, I have to confess that four years seems like quite a short period for me. Both Joe, the editor, and I were quite definite that the stories all had to be in a similar vein, so my main concern was finding recent stories that would fit the tone and character of the collection as a whole. I think 2009/2010 marks the point at which my work, in horror at least, moved into its current trajectory, so I chose stories, written after this point, that reflected this new trajectory, and discarded those that didn’t. With regards revisions, Joe is quite a diligent editor and even though many of the stories had been previously published he still went through the manuscripts tightening them up for me, which was most welcome. The only major revision I did was to the beginning of “Ill Met by Moonlight’. In the originally published version it starts post coitally, however I wanted one other story in the collection that was as erotic/pornographic as ‘Stuck On You’, the opener.
So I added another 1,000 words of pure filth to the beginning, as it seemed like the perfect place to put it, both in terms of the story and the arrangement of tales in the collection.
GNoH: Regarding Stuck On You the novella, one of the things that really struck me was that it was an impressive use of a US setting, in that I felt it could have been written by a US author. Did you do a lot of research for that aspect of the story?
JB: A huge amount of research. Even though there’s a strong element of the supernatural in what I write, I do a heck of a lot of research for everything I put out. I have to confess I’ve never been to either Arizona, or Nogales in Mexico. However, I did read quite comprehensively about both the regions. I also studied maps of the town and the highways. I followed the whole route they took on Google Maps satellite imagery, I studied lots of first-hand accounts of crossing the border from Mexico to the US and I even traced their journey into the Coronado Forest. I didn’t want anyone who was reading it to hit on a detail that wouldn’t ring true and break the spell for them.
GNoH: Actually, on the topic of research, do you ever get worried as to what the NSA would make of your browsing history?!? I imagine some of the medical research for Stuck On You must have gotten interesting…
JB: Hell yeah, if you saw the stuff I Google, as a matter of course, every day, because of my job, you’d consider calling the NSA yourself. Some of the stuff I stumble on can never be unseen. My third novel, Dawn Over Doomsday, a high octane, post-apocalyptic thriller, had a central character who was a militant Muslim, but was also sympathetic. I was Googling radical Islamic sites and Janes Military Defence site, a leading weaponry supplier, all at the same time. I lived in fear of setting off some online alarm and having the security services kick down the door of my study, to find me with several different editions of the Koran open at different places on my desk, alongside a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook. I’m not sure they’d have accepted: “no, guys listen, it’s all just research for a novel”, as a legal defence.
GNoH: Stuck On You opens with a powerful image/situation. Was it this central concept that came to you first, or did the rest of the plot arrive at the same time (or first)?
JB: It was one of those images that grows like a canker in your imagination. I came across the urban myth, that I mention in the story, on line. It wasn’t presented as an urban myth but a genuine occurrence. It’s even included on the Darwin Awards site, however I’ve since come to the conclusion it’s not actually true.
Whatever its fictional status, it wouldn’t leave me alone, the image haunted my imagination and realised I was going to have to write it out of my system. I didn’t do much with the idea until I was invited to submit to an anthology of erotic horror stories, for which I thought the story would be perfect.
This started me thinking about the situation in some depth and the ending came to me pretty much in a flash. If I recall I was walking through the graveyard of a local church at the time, on the way to pick my youngest daughter up from her ballet lesson.
So yes, the central concept came first, but it wasn’t really something I felt completely impelled to write until the ending hit me.
GNoH: One of the things that impressed the hell out of me with Stuck On You is the way that there’s not an ounce of fat on the backstory – by which I mean it seems like every element of the tale has relevance beyond just adding colour, and it all feeds into the final payoff. How much of that was either planned or reverse engineered once you had a draft, and how much of it came organically?
JB: I would say that the majority of it came organically. I often plan a story out quite heavily in advance, with scene breakdowns and everything. However some stories get a bit impatient with you and demand that you just sit down and write them straight off. Stuck On You was one of those.
I didn’t have any plan when I began it, I just knew what the central conceit was and how it was going to end. I decided to start right in the middle of the action, so that required the flashbacks to explain how poor Ricardo got into his terrifying little predicament.
The flashbacks also serve to lighten the mood and give the reader a little relief before plunging back into the horror.
The story grew much larger than the 5,000 words I’d originally planned on, coming in at close to 12,000. At this point I realised it needed another home.
I did redraft it quite a bit, mainly just tweaking the language and cutting away the unnecessary verbiage. However I may have tweaked some of the back story at this point, though I couldn’t say what, as it would only have been minor changes.
GNoH: How often do you find that happening that a story either exceeds your expected word-count or undershoots? Has that kind of thing ever caused problems for you?
JB: Weirdly at the moment it is happening ALL the time. The story I’m working on was supposed to be a 10,000 word chapbook and now looks like it’s going to 36,000 words long. The last four or five things I’ve written all ended up at least twice the original length I’d intended, which is a bit of a bugger because they were all commissions. This has meant I’ve ended up having to find an original work to replace the one that has grown too large and then find a new market for the expanded work. Luckily I currently have more offers of work than I can actually fulfil, so there is usually always somewhere else to place the stories that have outgrown their original word counts.
At times I feel a little like one of those B movie scientists who accidentally create a giant rampaging creature out of the most innocuous and tiny things, like a chicken heart, or a tiny amoeba that just won’t stop growing. I suppose this is fitting though, given the genre that we work in.
GNoH: Moving on to Taking The Piss, again, there’s a really striking central image to this piece, only here it’s revealed at the end rather than the beginning. Did that image come first, or did the idea germinate where the story opens?
JB: This was definitely one of those stories that grew backwards from the punchline. I got the image from a random blog I chanced upon. The guy writing the blog had been called in to fix a urinal which was backed up in some bar. What he discovered, when he began to investigate, was that someone had built something behind the urinal that was very similar to the punchline of ‘Taking the Piss’, only he had built it purely for his personal pleasure. They actually caught the person in the act, and when they did he ran out of the place screaming “I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve done nothing wrong! I wasn’t hurting anyone!” When they explored the space he’d left, they found he’d rigged himself up a little place to lie down and get comfy and everything. This story, and the photos they took, haunted me for a while and I realised the only way to purge myself of the mental images was to build them into a story (bit of a pattern forming here isn’t there).
GNoH: The entire narrative is told through flashback – what are the challenges of working in that format, and why did you pick that approach for this story?
JB: The challenges mostly involve making sure you reveal the right information, at the right time, for the story to have the proper impact. I suppose I chose that format so that I could begin the story in the most intriguing and effective way, cutting straight to the part of the narrative that makes you think: ‘what the hell is going on here? What is this guy doing and why?’ When I had established that, I could track back along the story’s time line to fill in all the blanks and slowly reveal the full extent of what he’s done and why he did it. It also mirrors the way most people tell stories in a conversational manner. They don’t necessarily start at the very beginning and build a coherent narrative, they tell you the part of the story they’re most invested in, at that moment, and then, to make sure you understand what they’re talking about, they fill in the rest of the details for you as they go along.
GNoH: The voice of the narrator of this story is incredibly strong – it’s a character study as well as a narrative, though the two are interwoven. Do you have a process for ‘getting inside the head’ of a character like this, or is it something that comes naturally?
JB: I spent 17 years living in South East London rubbing shoulders with many of these violent, criminal types, plus most male members of my family have either done time or been in the forces, usually both. So I know this type of man fairly well. I understand his moral codes, his personal failings and the things that bolster his self-esteem. I know what drives and motivates him and the limits to which he can be pushed before he becomes very dangerous. So when I sat down to write the voice came almost immediately.
As a writer I think your fascination with language also extends to a fascination with how other people use it to express themselves and what those choices reveal about their psychology and cultural background. So I’m always listening to that, with everyone to whom I speak, constantly taking mental notes that I will later use when I write.
GNoH: Going back to the central image, it occurs to me now that the ‘punchline’ for the story is told through implication rather than explicit description – I can picture it very clearly, but my mind is doing almost all the work there. Was that a conscious choice you made in the writing?
JB: Yes. The reader’s imagination is both a tool and a weapon that any good writer can use against them, or at least on their behalf. You know what scares you most about any given situation, much more than I do. If I give you just enough of a prompt you will take yourself there and scare yourself much more than I will.
In this story most of the work is done subliminally, through the use of repeated imagery and incidental detail that slowly builds to reveal a full picture as you reach the very final lines. The impact of the ending is that much greater because you as a reader put together all the little things that your mind has flagged up as pertinent, and when you do it hits all in one moment and that only increases the horror of the final image. It’s also too late to back out, to put the story down and to block out that image, because you’re on the last few words when it hits you and you can’t un-read what you’ve just read.
It’s a matter of timing, just like comedy. You create interest, build tension to just the right peak and then release that tension at just the right moment.
GNoH: With The Castigation Crunch, there’s a real shift in tone. Accepting what you just said about the similarities in comedy and horror, what differences do you take in approach when going more for laughs, and do you think comedy is harder to write than ‘straight’ horror?
JB: The approach with humour is the same as horror for me. When I write horror I’m trying to find things that really scare and unsettle me. When I write humour I’m trying to find things that amuse or make me laugh.
Comedy is a skill and a technique that you develop both as a writer and a performer. The more you do it, the more you study how it works, and how other people get laughs, the better you become at it. Once you become adept at being funny, writing comedy isn’t necessarily hard. I think the same could probably be said of writing something scary, although when you think of the number of things you read or watch that make you laugh, compared to the number of things that have actually scared you, then the scale probably tips very much in favour of humour. So it’s probably harder to write something genuinely scary than to write something funny.
GNoH: It’s fairly clear this story was inspired by world events – do you find that often happens, or is this story unusual in that regard?
JB: I do have something of a social conscience and a sense of outrage at the way those in positions of responsibility are exercising their power at the moment. I’ve outgrown any particular political philosophy or stance, but I do see a real need for a fundamental change in our society and the way we behave towards one another. I would like to write a lot more about this, but translating my outrage into readable, entertaining fiction that is as provocative and thought provoking as it is readable is not always easy.
You run the risk of becoming either preachy or polemic.
So world events do have an impact on my fiction but not always as overtly as this piece of very pointed satire.
GNoH: Though primarily a comedic piece, there’s a real anger at work underneath the surface of this story – something that actually runs throughout the collection. To what degree does writing serve as a form of exorcism for you?
JB: The role of the satirist is not always to exorcise their personal demons, or to take themselves too seriously. If anything you’re taking the piss out of your own anger and demons as much as you are attacking your subject matter. To accomplish any kind of social change you don’t want your work to exorcise either your anger or your readers’ anger, this leads to catharsis and your work can become a palliative rather than an agent of change. If people get rid of the anger they feel around an issue they may not push to change things. So it’s more of a way of channelling my anger in the most positive way possible rather than exorcising it.
GNoH: Ill Met By Moonlight is a really interesting collision of high literature and erotica – especially with the expanded opening in this collection. To what degree do you engage with or worry about genre when you’re formulating ideas/drafting stories?
JB: I think we’d all like to say that genre doesn’t matter to us, that all we really want to do is tell a good story. But frankly if you’re at all well read, and if you pay any attention to where genre is going, then that’s utter bullshit. We’re all highly aware of what genre we’re writing in, you can’t help but be if you decide to be a genre writer. There were quite a few stories which were left out of this collection because they didn’t quite fit the tone and the mood, and because they weren’t specific to this genre.
So I am aware of genre whenever I’m formulating an idea or when I’m writing it. What I do try to avoid is letting the limitations of any one genre affect me. I wouldn’t curtail a story because it was straying outside of one genre into the territory of another, nor would I avoid using a particular trope simply because it’s associated with another genre. ‘Literature’ is as much a genre with it’s own tropes and traditions as crime or horror are. So I have no problem mixing it up with erotica and doing something horrific with it.
GNoH: I particularly enjoyed the nature of the end reveal of this tale, which again is rooted in classicism. Any concern that some people wouldn’t ‘get it’? And what brought this particular ‘classic’ to mind for a story?
JB: Until recently, no one seemed to notice when I was being clever and peppering my work with all sorts of allusions, let alone ‘get’ what I was doing. My initial reaction to that was to try to point out when I was being clever, within the story, but this only detracted from the quality of my writing and made me look like a dick. So I actually gave up caring if people ‘got’ what I was doing. If you don’t get a story I wrote then that’s a shame, I’m sorry to hear that, hopefully you’ll like something else that I’ve done. Strangely as soon as I took this attitude and just wrote something into a story because I liked it, then people started spotting all this stuff I’d thought they’d never see. So that seems to have been fortuitous for me.
The story started with me writing about one of my biggest fears and that is losing my life partner, the mother of my children and my best friend – Veronica, my wife. That led to me thinking about using a figure from Jewish mythology as a metaphor for the way that many of my female friends approach a relationship. They often see the relationship as a challenge and their partner as something that, with a bit of fixing up, will actually be worth something. This led me to do some serious research into Hebrew and Jewish mysticism where I hit on the dichotomy of the word Met and Emet which mean death and life. The word Met made me think about the phrase ‘Ill met by moonlight proud Oberon’ from ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ by Shakespeare. I toured the UK and Germany with a production of this back when I was a young actor, playing Lysander, one of the lovers, so I know most of the play off by heart. Once I’d thrown in one quote I’m afraid I couldn’t keep out others.
GNoH: With ‘How The Dark Bleeds’ you go to some very, very dark places. As a parent, how hard do you find it to ‘go there’, when the story dictates it? Or do you have a distance from what you’re writing while writing it?
JB: I have no distance from what I write, if I want it to emotionally affect the reader I can’t allow myself any distance, I’m right there, suffering and crying along with my characters. This means, as you quite rightly said, I go to some very dark places and please believe me when I say that I do pay for it.
As a parent, writing this story was incredibly difficult for me. I had thought it impossible, if I’m honest. When I’d touched on this subject matter, in other work, I always backed away very quickly and had come to consider it taboo. But this story just kept getting darker and darker and I let myself move along with it.
To come back to your question about exorcising, this would be one of those instances where I’m exorcising those negative aspects. I think we all have the potential to indulge these aspects and if we don’t admit this, face up to it and take ownership, then these aspects still have power over us and the way we engage with our children. So this story is, in part, a way of facing up to that and creating a fictional repository for this particular demon.
GNoH: Following on from that, have you ever abandoned a story because of extreme or harsh content? What do you feel your responsibilities are as a writer (and human) in this regard?
JB: I’ve never abandoned a story due to extreme content, only because I didn’t think it was good enough, and then only at the planning stage, not once I’d begun it. I think my responsibilities as a writer are to the story I’m telling and to how well it is told.
As a human being I’m reaching out to other human beings, providing them with a safe, fictional outlet where they can face up to their dark sides, accept their primal urges and rehearse their behaviour in the face of the worst possible thing they could imagine happening.
GNoH: ‘How The Dark Bleeds’ has at its heart a mythos that put me in mind of some of Clive Barker’s work, whilst still being utterly original. Have you ever revisited that mythos? Is that something that appeals?
JB: Thank you for that compliment. I have yet to revisit the mythos, but I am not averse to doing so, I’m sure there is more to be done with it, I just need to find the right story. Quite a few people have asked me about extending the mythos, so I’m guessing it resonates with some readers on a particular level. I must confess that every time the moon wanes, I still think of the Heolfor and the dual goddess Monanom.
GNoH: This story also creates a real tension between fatalism and free will, which I felt was ultimately left up to the reader to resolve (or not) for themselves. These themes also come up elsewhere in this collection. Was that a conscious choice? What do you think it is about horror fiction that makes it such fertile ground for exploring these themes?
JB: The British philosopher Galen Strawson considers that, given the vast amount of evidence pointing to the fact that human free will, and absolute moral responsibility, are a total fallacy, our insistence on believing in these concepts can only be seen as a form of pathology.
There is a conflict here between the world as it probably is, and the way we want to see it. This conflict is ripe with dramatic possibility, but more than that, we’re dealing with a huge case of mass denial, it’s almost a consensus denial. We’ve all bought into the concept of free will, it sits at the very root of our political, economic and moral philosophies, it shapes our entire world view. But what if this view is entirely wrong? What if the world as we want to see it, is not at all the way we hope it is? What if we truly don’t have any free will and never had? Every logical examination of this situation points to this conclusion, but it is a truly scary conclusion because it means the world is nothing like we hope it is.
What better form of literature to explore this terrifying disconnect between belief and reality than horror fiction? Because it deals with a concept that frightens us all.
GNoH: Similarly, I’ve seen experiments that suggest that depressives have a clearer view of reality than ‘normal’ people, in that they see their own inherent powerlessness clearly, whereas ‘normal’ people have an over-inflated sense of their own agency…
JB: That is a very interesting and sobering thought. It would suggest that the non-depressive world view is essentially a fiction that helps us cope better than the depressive, who sees the real futility of any purposeful action and is often frozen into inactivity because of this. So, in this sense, horror might be said to be a fiction that helps us deal with the actual reality of the world, namely that our cheery view of it is really quite fictional.
It might also explain why many modern horror writers have such a world weary and somewhat depressive tone. I’m thinking of Laird Baron, Gary McMahon, Joel Lane and especially Thomas Ligotti. Although I have to say, I detect a huge degree of dead pan humour in a lot of Ligotti’s gloomier excesses, like the fictional equivalent of a Morrissey lyric.
GNoH: Does this perhaps explain why there’s such a strong fatalistic streak in horror in general? Do you think that’s due to writers in the genre trying to engage with this basic flaw in the free will concept, either consciously or subconsciously?
JB: In ‘In The Dust of This Planet’, the first volume of the excellent Horror of Philosophy series, Philosopher Eugene Thacker says: “horror is a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically. Here, culture is the terrain on which we find attempts to confront an impersonal and indifferent world …” The Ancient Greeks used Tragedy to cover the conceptual terrain that philosophy failed to confront. Thacker argues that we now use horror. That’s why Tragedy is so caught up with fate and destiny, and the way this is determined either by fatal flaws in our character, in the form of hamartia, or by the cruel whims of the gods.
In it’s sometimes fatalistic outlook, horror is essentially doing the same thing. In fact, if you look at the plots and subject matter of most Greek Tragedies they are rife with as much gore and taboo breaking as most modern horror is. Given this obvious link, and given that horror can be argued, in many ways, to be the literary heir to Tragedy, it’s a shame that while many classicists see Tragedy as the very pinnacle of human creative endeavour, most people see horror as the nadir, barely a step above porn and probably more suspect. I think this is more of a reflection on the age in which we live, than the genre in which we work.
GNoH: Do you think it’s possible for there to be non-fatalistic horror? What would that even look like? Also, does this link to Tragedy help explain why horror is so often morally conservative?
JB: That’s a really good question, and one I have been wrestling with myself. I’m not sure I have an answer and without wanting to get into the specifics of what makes genre what it is, I wonder if it would continue to be horror if it wasn’t fatalistic? Does tragedy continue to be tragedy without fatalism? Does it become a different genre without it, such as tragicomedy? Would horror just become dark fiction or another sub branch of fantasy? I don’t know. It certainly is the sort of intellectual challenge that might inspire some interesting fictional experiments though.
The social conservatism, which also worries me, isn’t an innate feature of fatalistic, or horrific fiction, I think it comes from the literary and artistic legacy we’ve inherited from the middle ages, which were often strictly Christian and morally dictatorial in their official world view, but there was a lot of leeway in this dictatorial approach, if you were careful.
From the carving of hideous gargoyles on the entrances to churches, through to the paintings of Bosch and the apocalyptic writings of Adso of Montier-en-Der, medieval Christians were just as interested in the grotesque, the forbidden and the taboo, but they had to exorcise this fascination in the form of moral warnings and strictures. The explicit message was: “if you deviate in any way from the strictures of this narrow moral path, this is what you will fall prey to.” The implicit message was: “wow, look at this, isn’t it cool?” They were no different in this than modern tabloid newspapers, who print all manner of salacious details about deviant behaviour, ostensibly to condemn them, but in actual fact we know that the readers are enjoying them on a purely prurient level, rubbing their hands over all the nasty details, then pretending to shake their heads in moral repugnance.
Horror is just about tolerated so long as it inevitably condemns the things it depicts. We can have a cheap thrill over anti-social behaviour, or the excesses of those who hold other religious or magical beliefs to us, just so long as those people come to no good at the end and we leave the cinema, or put down the book, knowing that the moral order hasn’t ever been effectively challenged.
I don’t think this is an undeviating rule though. This same moral stance can be turned against the worst excesses of conservatism as well. An example of this would be the amazing EC comics, which were highly moral but incredibly progressive, even by today’s standards. The influence they’ve had on the genre is incalculable.
For me one of the principle attractions of horror is that it flirts with the unknowable, the unthinkable and the unspeakable. Sometimes you can succumb to that flirtation and be liberated by it. Maybe that’s where our non-fatalistic horror lies, on the bleeding edge of all that’s possible not only in fiction but in our very existences. In that exhilarating moment when we stand poised to leap into abyss of the unknown, in search of true insight and freedom. I mean, how scary is that …?
But enough philosophical asides – why don’t you ask me about Mouthful?
GNoH: Fair enough! With ‘Mouthful’, I’m curious as to if you had always intended the story to be told exclusively with dialogue, or if there’s a draft that’s more ‘traditional’… Why did you make that choice for this tale?
JB: As with everything I write, there were at least three drafts, but it was always told exclusively in dialogue. If I recall the choice was an instinctive one. Initially I had intended to include some third person prose between the dialogue but as a I continued with the piece, it became increasingly obvious that the prose was extraneous. It began to remind me, as I was writing it, of the type of story they’d do on the old time radio horror shows in the US, like Inner Sanctum, The Witches Tale or Lights Out with Arch Obler, which were the forerunners to TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. So I decided to continue with it purely as a duologue.
GNoH: Any plans for a radio play/podcast version of this one?
JB: Given what I’ve just said, it would lend itself rather well to that medium. There is an audiobook of the collection planned so this piece will definitely be included in that. I’m also involved in a theatrical venture that I can’t say too much about at present, which may also include this piece as a live performance, so watch this space.
GNoH: Haunting The Past is another first person narrative with a very distinct voice. What was it about this story that led you to take that approach?
JB: I often plan out the bare bones of the story, but the voice of my characters is something that emerges as I write and is often a surprise to me. Some characters take a bit of coaxing, they don’t emerge all at once and they can actually hide things from you and surprise you, either with revelations, or with hidden depths that you didn’t know they had. Some characters are desperate to talk to you. They’ve been waiting for you to start the story and they have SO much they want to say. Writing these characters is like taking dictation. The narrator in this piece was very much like that, I was careful to make sure his dialect and the cadences of his speech were accurate, but he was pretty much there from the word go.
GNoH: One of the things that I’ve seen many new writers cautioned about is the use of first person perspective. The example I was given was an editor who’d rejected a short story he’d otherwise loved because ‘it was first person, but at the end, the narrator was turned into a crocodile, so how did he tell the story?’. There’s a moment in Haunting The Past where you address that issue quite explicitly. What led you to make that choice? Or did it just come out of the voice?
JB: I adapted this story from a comic script I’d written for a horror anthology comic called Flinch which was briefly put out by DC’s Vertigo imprint. Unfortunately the artist I wrote it for, who is now a rising star in the industry, was down on his luck at the time and had moved back in with his parents. The subject matter of being trapped in a house and unable to escape was too close to his actual condition at that time. For this reason he kept stalling on the script and by the time he got around to roughing out the pages the anthology had folded. It was actually his idea to develop the story as a prose piece.
When I finally got around to doing that it was for an audiobook that I was commissioned to write, so I knew I was going to be recording it. As I was writing it, I was asked, by the Rondo Theatre in Bath, to adapt some of the content of the audiobook into a one man multimedia show. So I was aware, while writing it, that I would be saying all these words directly to an audience, as the central character. For this reason I began to think very specifically about who the narrator thought he was speaking to and why. I also found it fun to break the fourth wall and draw the audience in. The final word came from the character though, this was his rationale, I think I subconsciously posed the question to him and this was his response.
GNoH: There’s a story within a story here which represents a microcosm of the larger tale. Did that inner story come about organically as you wrote, or did it occur to you as you planned the story out?
JB: The idea occurred to me as I was planning the story out. Much of my fiction plays with symmetry in terms of construction and also character motivation, I knew that this was a character whose whole life was determined by a series of patterns he felt powerless to break. This of course mirrored the final predicament he found himself in, which mirrored the wider actuality of his situation and his response to it and so on. However, the minutiae of his back story, all the little details, only really came out when he began to talk to me and I was able to coax the full story out of him. I had an inkling and a broad outline about what had happened to him, but I needed him to fill me in on the full picture, when I began taking down his story, in his own words.
GNoH: Parents and children again feature heavily here. To what degree are you working through your own fears as a parent in stories like this?
JB: Parenthood is a big theme in my work it would appear. I’ve just finished a chapbook that has this as it’s central theme and this week an anthology of short stories came out from Fox Spirit Press to which I was asked to submit a short story, in comic book form, with the artist Fabian Tuñon Benzo. The theme was European monsters and I chose to write about the Greek mythological figure of Echidna, mother of all monsters. Once again this story explored a darker, more disturbing side of parenthood.
I’ve worked from home for most of my children’s lives so I’ve been their principal carer. I take this responsibility very seriously and I naturally think a great deal about what it means, and what it takes, to be a good parent. This naturally means I will also ruminate on the many pitfalls of parenthood, and the lengths to which some parents will go on behalf of their children. This, it seems, has been a rich seam for some seriously disturbing fiction.
GNoH: ‘End Of The Line’ is arguably a science fiction tale, as well as a horror story. Do you enjoy working in genre collision, as it seems to happen a few times in this collection?
JB: I like cross pollinating genres, taking a well-worn trope from one genre and transplanting it into another. But the trope has to function according to rules of the new genre into which it has been transplanted. In this way you can breathe new life into both the trope and the genre.
In this instance the story of course deals with time travel, which is one of the oldest and most well-worn sci-fi tropes there is. However, this is effectively a supernatural horror story, so the time travel is not achieved through scientific means, as is usually the case, it is accomplished through parapsychological and supernatural means, in a way I don’t think has ever been done before. The results are also quite different from the usual time travel story, although effectively they follow the same format.
So I would hope this story will surprise you in several different ways, as well as scare you.
GNoH: The time travel element creates a puzzle box effect for the story, in some ways. With that kind of story, is it a case of working back from the conclusion, or were you discovering the plot as you went? Or some hybrid?
JB: Jonathan Oliver, Editor in Chief of Solaris, contacted me and asked me for a short story set in the underground. I pitched him an idea about a guy waking up in a pool of blood on a disused station platform with no memories. An ancient train carriage pulls up to the platform and he gets in. When he looks at the route planner every stop is a incident from his life, he realises the train will take him back to those points in his life and maybe he’s being given a chance to change whatever has happened to him on that platform.
Jon loved the idea and commissioned it. Then I was left with no idea what on earth was going to happen next. After hours of making notes, I came up with the ending and wrote several drafts, but the time travel element wasn’t working so I had to rethink the whole business of the chrononauts and the idea of exploring time travel through group minds and past life regression.
This was a meticulously constructed story and practically every word was weighed for its purpose and effect. It’s one of the oldest in the book and probably marks a turning point in my writing.
GNoH: And so to Dead Scalp. There a heck of a lot going on with this story. Without giving too much away, where on earth did the idea of ‘ingrowing’ come from?
JB: The first scene came to me in a fever dream. I tend to hallucinate quite heavily when I get a high temperature and to be honest, I quite enjoy it. The scene played out in my head like a really weird movie and left me wondering what on earth was going on. As my temperature rose and fell, I started to get little snippets of other scenes. When I was a little more lucid I wrote the scenes down, thinking that they might make a good story. About a year later, as we were compiling this collection, I found the time to sit down and puzzle out just what was going on. So I think the ingrowing came from a collaboration between my fevered consciousness and my lucid imagination.
GNoH: I have to ask if Big Bill is a reference to ‘Unforgiven’..
JB: You know, I hadn’t thought about that, but Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill is exactly the sort of archetypal western figure I was basing Big Bill on, along with Ian McShane as Al Swearingen in Deadwood, which was obviously a big influence on the story. Big Bill also has that authentic ring to it, I like to think it sounds like an old time outlaw boss and that you can begin to picture him just from the sound of his name. I also like to think that he’s more dangerous than either Little Bill or Al Swearingen, but that may simply be my conceit.
GNoH: How much of the Native American mythology in this tale is whole cloth invention, and how much was based on research?
JB: The beliefs regarding hair and dreams are from research, as was the cultivation of corn, which is not a natural plant but, according to myth, was grown carefully over several generations from grass seeds and entirely created as a means of nutrition by the Navajos. The Eternal Dreaming was entirely my creation.
GNoH: There’s a fiercely angry moral centre to this story. Was it in your mind that you wanted to tackle that aspect of American history from the start, or did it come about organically as a product of the ‘weird’ elements of the tale?
JB: Although there’s a lot I have to say in my writing, I rarely start a story with a theme or a message in mind. I usually get excited about the idea or the characters and want to learn more about them and what happens to them. Writing is a very concentrated and contemplative pursuit, and as I’m working on the story I become increasingly aware of the subtext and the themes of the story, because I’m thinking quite heavily about them. In effect the story begins to tell me what it’s really about. At this point it becomes clear to me what I’m actually writing about and this begins to colour the work and the direction I’ll take in the preceding drafts. So, as I was working on the story, it became clear there was a strong metaphor for the colonisation of America and the destruction of the native culture that preceded the United States.
GNoH: Looking back on the collection as a whole, which of these stories would you most like to see adapted for TV or a film, and why?
JB: I was in talks for a while with an indie filmmaker about adapting ‘End of the Line’ into a weird, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ style splatterfest. Due to the compact nature of the short story it would have had to be expanded quite a bit. Nothing came of the talks but I still think it would make quite a good basis for a film. Imagine if the Midnight Meat Train were to take a detour through the Twilight Zone and you’d have the sort of thing I have in mind.
Jack Ketchum wrote that novellas often make the perfect subject matter for film, as they’re about the right length and have a similar story arc as a movie. As such, both novellas in the collection might make good films. Many readers have said they’d like to see a film of Stuck On You. I don’t think it would have much mainstream mileage, as it would have to be R rated, but it might make a really good low budget indie shocker. It has a small cast, a single remote location and no real special effects to worry about.
Dead Scalp might have more mainstream potential, it would need a lot of CGI but I think it would have some great character parts in it and I don’t think cinema audiences have ever seen anything quite like it before.
Moving on to other mediums, I have actually performed The Castigation Crunch and Haunting the Past as part of a one man multi media stage show. They were also part of an audiobook presentation, along with Ill Met by Moonlight and several other stories, that attempted to resurrect the spirit of Old Time Radio Horror shows, like Lights Out and Inner Sanctum, complete with soundtrack and sound effects. The audiobook is called Dead Air and is still available on i-tunes.
GNoH: Are you still working on short form fiction? What is it about the form of the short story that appeals to you, as a writer and as a reader?
JB: Yes I am, and I always will, even though I completely agree with a quote that is attributed to Chekhov (that’s Anton not Ensign) which says: “I write novels because I haven’t the time to write short stories”.
In the introduction to his Collected Short Stories, JG Ballard wrote that the novel by its very nature is an imperfect form but the short story is a perfectible one. This means that you’re never going to write a perfect novel, no matter how hard you try, because it’s not in the nature of the medium. However, it is possible to write a perfect short story, and that, for me, is the attraction. I think Ballard has written a handful of perfect short stories, as has Bradbury. The sci fi writer Robert Sheckley is another, as is the now nearly forgotten, but all too sublime, John Collier and many of the Russian writers too, like Pushkin and Leonid Andreyev.
The potential that I might read something that is perfectly constructed, without a word, an idea, or a character out of place, is what draws me to short stories as a reader. I’ve always loved them. My favourite horror films are anthologies too. As a writer, what I love about short stories is that same potential. One day I may just write something that is as close to perfect as I can get. It keeps me striving. It also means, to return to the opening quote, that I spend far longer, per word, on a short story than I ever do on longer works, so that’s the downside and the reason I don’t produce as many short stories as I’d like.
GNoH: Finally, what do you have in store for 2015?
JB: I have a graphic novel called Bloodfellas coming out imminently with Markosia. It’s drawn by Mick Trimble and Aljoša Tomić with covers by Rob Moran, who illustrated Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts. It’s a horror/crime mash up and is an homage to the banned crime and horror comics of the 1950s such as Tales From The Crypt and Crime Doesn’t Pay. It’s been a long time in gestation (ten years in fact) it’s been through four publishers and several creative teams, but it’s finally finished. It’s set in prohibition era America, in the mythical Atros City which is like a cross between Chicago and New Orleans, and it’s an entirely new take on that old staple the walking dead. Your life will not be complete until you’ve bought a copy and read it.
Parassassin, the on going sci fi series I’ve been doing with artist Alfa Robbi, for David Lloyd’s award winning digital comic Aces Weekly, is also coming to an end and I’m hoping it will be collected into a graphic novel soon. Rob Moran and I are at work on a prestige Graphic Novel called Beyond Lovecraft also for Markosia, which contains some of the best art Rob’s ever done. And American publishers Silver Phoenix Entertainment are due to be bringing out the next installment of ‘Roller Derby Drama’, the offbeat, best selling superhero/sport series I’ve been writing for them.
I’ve also got a chapbook coming out with Knightswatch Press called ‘Bed of Crimson Joy’ and a short novel that I’m discussing with several publishers. Plus I’m writing a two man stage show with the inimitable John Llewellyn Probert. On top of all that I have a slew of short story requests, which I may or may not have time to fulfill. There are other novel projects in the works, but you’ll just have to keep watching this space to find out more about them.
Whenever I answer questions like this one above I’m reminded of the wonderful Jewish joke:
Q: How do you make God laugh?
A: Tell Him your plans.
I wonder how much of this answer we’ll chuckle over when we look back on it in a few years time Kit?
Anyway, thank you for a most exhaustingly in-depth and insightful interview.
Many thanks to Jasper for being so generous with his time and energy, and the best of luck in 2015!