Take it away Hannah:
I'm really pleased to have been invited as a guest poster on James’s blog as part of the blog tour for Impossible Spaces, a new collection of strange and dark short stories from Hic Dragones. As you might see from the cover of the book, I edited this collection. As you might see from the website, I am also the founder and editor-in-chief of the publishing company.
But I'm also a writer myself, and it’s nice to be invited to talk about my own story in the collection, Great Rates, Central Location, which is set in a budget hotel in Manchester. I've written a piece for my own blog about the hotels that gave me the idea for the story, so I thought I’d write something today about the books that I enjoy reading (and which may or may not have inspired my own writing).
I've been a fan of horror and dark fantasy since I was a kid - when your dad teaches you to read using The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, then gives you Titus Groan and Gormenghast when you hit ten, it’s impossible not to be. But my tastes have changed a little over the years. As a teenager, I liked my horror Gothic. I read Dracula and Frankenstein, but what I really loved were the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century: The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and can picture Catherine Morland, you can picture me as a teenage reader.
I still love a bit of high Gothic – it’s like a delicious, melodramatic treat –but as time has gone on, I’ve found myself drawn more to a different mode of horror writing: the urban, the contemporary, the everyday. I particularly like horror (and fantasy) that is as realistic as possible, scenarios that could almost (almost) be real life… but that are just a little bit off.
I suppose part of this change of tastes could be down to a choice I made at university. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Roald Dahl, and while I had a lingering, nostalgic love for his children’s fiction, I became fascinated by his short stories for adults (several of which were adapted for the Tales of the Unexpected TV show – though this was ever so slightly before my time). My favourite short stories were always those that presented an ordinary – even mundane – world, which is unsettled by one piece of odd (or unexpected) behaviour: ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, ‘The Landlady’.
Tales of the Unexpected has been a big influence on my writing. I never watched The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, so when I imagine a strange and off-kilter world, where ordinary people get dragged into something different, something ‘off’, it’s the Tales of the Unexpected theme music I hear, not the Twilight Zone.
As well as weird and twist-in-the-tail fiction, I also enjoy fiction that’s more easily described as horror.
Again, I like stories that are grounded in the everyday – but an everyday that’s dark and wrong. It kinda goes without saying that Stephen King is the master of this type of tale. One of my favourite stories by King is his novella The Sun Dog. The story’s opening is so beautifully ordinary – a kid gets a Polaroid camera for his birthday; he’s quite excited about it, and gathers his family together to take his first photo… but as the picture develops in front of his eyes, there’s something wrong with it. It’s the perfect set-up (in my opinion) and the gradual reveal of the ‘wrongness’ is expertly timed.
I recently reread The Sun Dog, and followed it up immediately with Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence. Again, Campbell’s status as a master of horror doesn't need to be stated, and I'm over-the-moon to have been able to include his short story ‘The Place of Revelation’ in Impossible Spaces. This story is a wonderful example of the way Campbell can evoke ordinariness, whilst simultaneously undercutting it with a deep, ancient sense of dread. This is also apparent in The Influence, in which supernatural menace is combined with commonplace family life. Although the ‘evil’ in The Influence is not the eldritch, grand terror found in some of Campbell’s other novels, it is a more claustrophobic, creeping horror – and that always works for me.
Finally, there are a couple of up-and-coming horror writers whose work I'm really enjoying at the moment. Simon Bestwick – whose short story ‘Trading Flesh’ can be found in Impossible Spaces – is one of them. Although ‘Trading Flesh’ is a dark, twisted steampunky (in the twisted, post-apocalyptic way) tale, Simon’s novel The Faceless (which I can never recommend highly enough, no matter how hard I try) is grounded in a more ‘real world’ realm of children’s bogeymen, family relations and the historical trauma of war. It’s a truly terrifying read, and Bestwick is brilliant at conjuring up a thoroughly believable world that is riddled with seriously disturbing secrets.
And just in case you thought I was only plugging writers I've had the good fortune to edit… I also want to mention Tom Fletcher. Fletcher’s début horror novel The Leaping is a chilling tale (which gave me actual nightmares). I've seen reviews of this book that have concentrated on the second half of the story, which is set in a bleak Cumbrian landscape redolent with ancient terrors and barely-hidden trauma. But the book actually begins in Manchester, and Fletcher’s descriptions of the unsettling nothingness of city centre living and call centre employment is, perhaps, even more frightening than the rural Gothic of the Lake District. As a Cumbrian-by-birth, adopted Mancunian, The Leaping is, perhaps, closer to my ‘real world’ than any of the other stories I mentioned in this post, and that made me love it even more.
Thank you for indulging this little glimpse into my reading preferences. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know for sure how much any of these books have influenced my own writing… but I know I've had countless hours of enjoyment either way.
Impossible Spaces: buy here...