Aug '03

by Mark West

I joined the cabal of Terror Scribes after it had been going for a few years and one of the first people that I began corresponding with was Joe.  It would be a couple of years before we finally met, face-to-face, at a gathering in Leicester - I did a reading and so did he, “Inner Demons” from his wonderful “Love Stories Of The Undead” collection.  We got on well, sharing several interests including cigars - it was a very smoky night, in the end.

A year or more later, we met up again in Birmingham, for a big genre event, where he won a prize for his story “Seen But Not Heard” - which I voted as my favourite story.  We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together at that gathering - it was a busy evening, there was a fire alarm that evacuated all of us and Alison & I had to leave early as we were off on holiday - but we did speak.

We also discovered that Rainfall Books was going to publish a collection from each of us the following year.  And so it was that Joe and I sat down, one dark and stormy night, in a suitably decadent watering hole and - over an evening of fine wines and good cigars - had a chat.

MW: Joe, I just finished reading your collection and I was very impressed with it.  I loved "Love Stories Of The Undead", but the stories here seem to be more mature and stronger.  Was there a long period of time between your writing that original collection and this one?

JMF Not really, but the stories in this book do span a greater stretch of time than the ones in 'Love Stories of the Undead'. The stories in the first book were all written, pretty much, within a year. During my mid-teens I'd got more side-tracked with my writing than I would have liked, though I could blame this on my studies it was more due to the more pleasant distraction of girls, and when I started up again properly I was eager to get a collection together, so basically as soon as I'd completed ten new stories I said 'That's it! I've got a collection!', and added to it whilst I was writing more stories during the process of getting the book together.
In this new book, the earliest stories were written just after I'd finished writing my novel 'Those Left Behind', in the summer of 1999, and the latest stories were completed at the end of last year. I feel it represents the best of my completed short stories in that time. There were a few that I jettisoned from my original idea of this collection, largely because of the length of them and Rainfall wanting a shorter book. Some of these may well make it into a future collection, though not without some reworking.

MW:  Did you revise the stories for inclusion in the collection, or are they as they were when you first finished them?

JMF With some exceptions, they are the original finished product. I’ve done some minor tidying up, but the only story which has gone through complete redrafting is ‘The Cursed Tree’, which is a rewrite of the original version, though it ended up nowhere near as different as I thought it might.

MW: Just a general question (probably only for those writers amongst us), but can you describe your normal working practises?  Do you write several drafts whole, or do you work and re-work each line as you write it?  For example, the pursuit through the woods in both "Denizen" and "Dark Side" are very frantic and fluid - if I could write a first draft like that, I would be overjoyed.

JMF You may well hate me for saying this then, but I do generally go with my first-draft! I dislike rewrites, and prefer to smooth out any rough edges as I go along. Having said that, I do tend to get restless fairly quickly with my work as it ages and so it's best if I can get it out there as soon as possible. Otherwise as time goes by I'll see - like most artists of any kind - more and more things I feel that I could improve upon.
My actual writing process is fairly straight-forward, once I know where I'm going with the day's work, I'll set down and set to it. When things really get moving, like the scenes you describe, it just flows magically. I don't have a problem with those kind of scenes, they keep me hooked. It's like going into a trance when I write, I may have music playing but it's more to keep me going for a set length of time if my attention lags than anything else. I'm not aware of anything except the scenes that are playing out in my mind, and the words just flow through me onto the page. That's the magic of the art to me.

MW: I know that every writer gets asked "Where do you get your ideas" and, generally, doesn't like it so I'll try and add a new spin to it.  When I write, different images seem to come from several sources and link together.  Do you find that happens and do you also find that one story could throw out a lot of plot ideas that can be developed and explored in separate, stand-alone stories?

For me, my short stories are generally developed from one of the many wonderfully strange incidents that have actually happened to me, only played out to its worst possible degree. As I've mentioned, it's a very subconscious process when I'm actually working so I tend not to notice or be able to think about anything outside of the world that I'm creating at the time. If variations on the theme do occur to me then it's most often at a later date when I'm re-reading the work, or discussing it with others. That actually can give me a whole new perception on something I've written. There are times when people have seen something in my work that I wasn't consciously aware of writing about, but I can then step back and see was there all along.

MW: With "Coming Down" and "The Cursed Tree", you almost seem to play around with the conventions of horror and story-telling - as in, 'It all sounds so perfect that you can tell it's all leading up to disaster, right?' from "The Cursed Tree".  Was this a deliberate conceit for the stories in this collection, or is it something that you find yourself doing from time to time - playing with the form and enjoying the act of writing?

The fact is we all know we're reading a story so it doesn't particularly hurt to acknowledge that in the writing. David Porter, writing in The Literature of Terror, disliked M. R. James so much because of his knowing references and asides, but that doesn't seem to have damaged him to many fans, myself included. Both stories you mention are written in a first-person narrative, which makes them less formal from the off, and perhaps they would both have been unbearably heavy-going without such elements. You can't fool your readers, they'll think less of you for it, so just before you really lay on the horrors it's okay to tip them a wink, they know something bad is coming because they're reading my story, not the latest Maeve Binchy. But as soon as you've done it, got the formalities out of the way, then you can grab them by the lapels and really lay into them.
It's certainly important to enjoy the act of writing, and not draw back from trying out new ideas or styles within it. Quite often it's what will get one of the rut one may have fallen into.

MW:  A good point - ‘to enjoy the act of writing’.  Do you find that the act is more enjoyable if it’s a story that ‘just comes to you’ or if you’re writing something for a specific market in mind, ie a themed anthology?

JMF I’d have to say the former. Trying to write for themed markets tends to stifle me and shut down a wider flow of ideas that would otherwise be very productive. That’s not to say I don’t welcome the invitations or indeed the challenge. The other year I was asked to produce a tale featuring either a female superhero or supervillian for a themed anthology, and happily agreed, although to my shame I never actually got around to it and the book has no doubt gone ahead by now without me. Still, the idea still appeals to me, and resurfaces from time to time though as yet with nothing very substantial trailing in its wake. My story ‘The Hungry Ones’ could have been my reply to an invitation into a book of tales of subterranean dwellers if I’d written it when it first occurred to me, and my notebooks feature fairly lengthy outlines for two different possibilities for Brian Willis’s award-winning ‘Hideous Progeny’ anthology, neither of which I ever started work on. Stories do come alive much easier for me when they just grow, fungus-like, somewhere in a dark corner of my mind, but still I try.

MW: "They Are, We Were" is written from the point of view of a 70 year old man.  Bearing in mind that you're in your twenties, was writing this character at all difficult and how did you go about researching the rhythms and patterns of speech, as they sound very natural and unaffected.

I find it very easy to become characters when I'm writing them, and have most fun with the ones that are nothing at all like myself. Which is why I feel my most vivid characters are the women, or the old men, or the kind of people you’d have nightmares about turning into. It's always been that way, I can distinctly recall an early attempt at a novel, I must have been about 12 or 13 at the time, and realised I was enjoying writing from the viewpoint of a 50-year old married man more than from the viewpoint of a character who was a 13 year old schoolboy. My first ever published story, around the same time, was from the viewpoint of an almost Lovecraftian monster. I'm a great psychologist, and it's an interest of mine, and I find that I can figure people out very quickly and quite thoroughly, which is a useful skill to have in life, not least when one is a writer.

MW: The majority of the stories have very well realised locations - I'm thinking specifically of the waxworks and the forests from "The Voice Of The Denizen" and "The Dark Side Of The Woods".  Are these all fictional or based on real areas?

All real! I could walk you through these locations. Even worse still, many of them are taken from real incidents. The waxworks you can find nestled somewhere in the shadow of Blackpool tower. I can't pretend to have visited that many such places so when I wanted to pay homage to that staple horror location, I naturally drew upon it. That story also came from a lot of research I was doing into ageing and - particularly - Alzheimer's disease, for a novel I was writing. The woodland-based stories you mention are derived from two particular incidents (one of which was perhaps the strangest and most inexplicable thing that's happened to me), in the real-life locations that I then set the stories in. I think it's important to give your stories a firm base in reality, because if it doesn't come alive for the writer then there’s a good chance it never will for the reader either.

MW: As you know, I think "Seen But Not Heard" is an incredible story.  Tell me how it came together, from the initial idea to the writing of it.

JMF It came from spending a lot of time driving all across Suffolk visiting various haunted and infamous locations, not least the site of Borley Rectory. I wrote the first paragraph in August 2001, and knew pretty much where I wanted to go with the rest of the story, but actually did nothing more on it until Spring of the following year, when I sat down and wrote the rest of the story in one draft in a glorious complete three-hour session.
The story really came alive for me while I was writing it, and there were fantastic times when I would just sit back from the desk with what must have been a singularly demonic smile, rub my hands together and realise I'd just scared myself with something I'd written. I knew the points which really worked for me, and hopefully the readers too. I'm very proud of the tale, and the reaction that it went on to receive.

MW:  You’ve every right to be proud of the tale.  Going back to something you mentioned there, do you normally scare yourself with something you’ve written?

It can happen, yes, and I can’t pretend to know exactly why. Perhaps because my writing is from so deep in my subconscious that when a scare comes up it can catch me by surprise as much as anyone else. Perhaps because I enjoy the act of writing so much that I really get my teeth into what I feel are the stand-out parts of my stories. Perhaps because I write about the things that do scare me, and perhaps because a lot of what I write has its basis somewhere in my own experiences. But when I do write something that I think is particularly scary, then I’m proud of it, and can’t way to see how people react to it, and the more terrified and disturbed by it they are the better. It’s almost like setting up a practical joke and waiting for someone to walk into it. Maybe I have more in common with Jeremy Beadle than anyone should hope to have.

MW: "Coming Down" treats a very real, very unpleasant subject in a clever, almost oblique way, using that angle to show how it affects different people.  Did you find it difficult working with the subject of under-age porn?

JMF I didn't find it difficult because I didn't believe I was actually doing anything all that meaningful with the subject. For me, whilst I was writing it, the element of the child pornography was just a nasty subtext in it, and what I was largely doing was talking about secrets, what's really lurking behind the face of every person you pass by on the street or even in cases your closest friends.
I'm not sure that I could ever tackle such issues as child porn in a serious work, that would be difficult for me simply because I wouldn't feel qualified to do so. I'm not political and I'm not a moral crusader, but I'm never afraid to say what I feel and it's obvious to me that things like child abuse and child pornography are very wrong, and there's some damaged people behind them who end up causing irreparable and lifelong damage to the innocent victims involved. I've seen those lasting effects close up, and there's nothing that could excuse the causes.

MW: In general, you seem to use the countryside as a location in a lot of your stories.  Do you find yourself more at home there, rather than in an urban environment?  I ask because your characters don't seem to enjoy the great outdoors too much.

Maybe that's some kind of justification for what happens to them! I love and respect the countryside and I'd hate to think that these kinds of things would happen to me whilst I was out for a nice peaceful stroll. I do feel so much more at home in the countryside than I do in urban areas. I grew up on the edge of a large industrial town, but loved to run away into the woods and surrounding countryside, which just seemed like a whole different world to me, and still does. Every home I've had of my own has been in quiet areas and it's where I like to spend most of my free time. I couldn't live in a large town or city and be happy. I saved the life of a friend of mine when we were kids, and then some years later after we’d grown apart he was shot dead on his own doorstep and the night after the house was burned down so the police couldn’t search for evidence. It’s times like that you tend to think maybe it’s time you left town for somewhere a little more peaceful.

MW: If there is a theme to this collection, it seems to me to be the idea of man destroying nature (or attempting to) and nature fighting back (certainly, this is what I get from "Denizen", "Dark Side" and "The Cursed Tree".  It's also a thread from your earlier stories (especially "Not One Of Nature's Own") and your non-fiction account of an expedition to the moors one night.  Is this something that's close to your heart?

I have a huge respect, and awe, for the countryside, and often feel uncomfortable in large towns and cities and crowded areas. I dealt with some of this in a novella called 'The Man Who Killed an Angel', which was a psychological thriller in which the main character despised and feared the city in which he lived and the amount of contact with strangers that it forced him into. The countryside is rejuvenating to my soul, it's inspiring, and it's uplifting. I think there are things out there, other forces, powers, elementals, call them what you will, that are on a totally different level to us, that we cannot always see, or hear or even feel, but on occasion we become aware of if you know how to be receptive to them. It's why I find such reward in reading Blackwood. The world is getting horribly overcrowded and I love to find places that remain largely untouched by man, not crowded with housing estates and busy roads and the kinds of people you wouldn't really want to have to spend time with. That's horror to me, that's drudgery. I guess in that case the idea of nature fighting back has a certain appeal! But just as often in my work it's a case of the characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

MW: Joe, thank you very much.  Now how about some more absinthe?


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