Paul Pinn: A Tribute


I didn’t know Paul Pinn that well on a personal level; we met in person once or twice, spoke on the phone a handful of times and corresponded by email. He wasn’t much taller than me, as I recall, with long dark greying hair pulled back in a ponytail and a strong London accent. There was a little of the old rocker about him, and a little of the old hippy; he was warm and laid-back, and a pleasure to talk to. We kept in sporadic contact by email, and some years ago I had a phone call; he and Elaine, (his partner of twenty-five years, who survives him) had left London for the coast. He sounded happy. I’m sorry to say I lost touch with him after that; then out of the blue, I learned that he’d passed away earlier this year from cancer.

I have a nasty feeling that many people working in the field of contemporary horror won’t recognise Paul’s name, much less know his work. But if you read or write horror, you should.

The problem is that most of Paul’s work was published in the small press magazines that proliferated in Britain in the 1990s. They’re all gone now; what’s left of them gathers dust in lofts and bottom drawers across the UK, but they were where names like Paul Finch, Neal Asher, Tim Lebbon and Simon Clark first saw print and honed their writing craft. It’s where I got my start, too: reading and submitting to magazines like Peeping Tom, Odyssey, Nasty Piece of Work and Psychotrope. Some of them even published me. But it often seemed that every issue of every magazine had a Paul Pinn story in it.

I don’t think Paul ever thought of himself as a horror writer, as such; it was just that a lot of his work was very, very dark in tone, and that because of his background—he worked for many years as a psychiatric nurse, much of it at London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, from which the term ‘Bedlam’ was derived—it often concerned itself with psychosis and psychopathy. Paul knew about mental illness because he’d seen it up close and personal, and because part of his job was to understand it. Rob Kemp, a mutual friend who knew Paul well during this period of his life, described him as “overflowing with respect and care for his patients. He was a truly good guy.”

There was more to his work than that, though. For a start, not only was he well-travelled, he’d seen parts of the world you didn’t encounter on a package tour. I think he’d been in real danger a couple of times; it meant that he could write a wide range of settings with a real ring of authenticity—India, and in particular Goa, figured heavily in his writings—although he could also conjure brilliantly grim, fantastical landscapes from his imagination.

But there was even more to it than that. He was a poet, too, with a poet’s eye for a line or image that would evoke a character or setting instantly, and more than that, he had a vision of the world that was his alone; you could rarely mistake a Pinn story for anyone else’s.

Paul once described the world as “damned” in the sense that he felt human civilisation had gone past the point of no return and was heading for inevitable collapse. He was unflinching about human savagery, whether on the macro or micro scale. There’s an edge of dirty realism to his compressed, rapid-fire narratives (most of his stories contain as much incident as some novels), but also a strong streak of the numinous. Paul described himself as believing in God, although his concept of any deity that might exist didn’t correspond to that of Christianity or most other faiths (he also described himself as irreligious.)

scatteredThe stories he wrote ranged back and forth across the borders of realism, fantasy, science fiction and the downright dreamlike and hallucinatory. In 1997, for the 750th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Bethlem Hospital, Tanjen Press collated twenty-one of them, under the title Scattered Remains. Shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, it was a landmark collection, one of the best of the late 1990s.

I loved Scattered Remains, so much so I reviewed twice; when it came out, in a now-lost review for Unreal Dreams, then again for the now-defunct Terror Tales website. I reproduce it here, warts and all, to give some idea of what was so great about the book:

“Paul Pinn is one of the few genuinely great horror stylists in Britain. He’s got that much in common with Joel Lane, but that’s about it. Both writers evoke powerful moods and a strong sense of place, but while Lane specialises in chilling vignettes of alienation and wounded emotion, Pinn’s stories are crammed with ferocious, rapidly expanding narratives that go further than you’d expect, as in ‘Handicapped’, the first full-length story in the collection, where a paranoiac’s persecutory delusions build up to explosion point, or the titular Scattered Remains, a mind-warping account of a post-apocalyptic world and black magic. The collection is hallmarked by riveting storylines, lush prose style that whips fresh images into the eye at every turn, and a pitch black vision of nihilistic doom that clings to the whole collection like a second skin, leavened by the occasional moment of comparative lightness like the odd and enigmatic ‘Phlon Xi’ or the plain weird ‘German Jim and the Doors of Physics’.

“Pinn has the kind of CV that writers are always supposed to have but all so seldom do—a wide range of experiences that are reflected in the richness of his stories’ settings. He has a strong practical knowledge of psychiatry, but unlike a lot of writers who mistake technical knowledge of a field for talent, Pinn is a real writer, a stylist with a personal vision and the guts and balls to brand your brain with it too. Tales like ‘The Day of the Muffled Oar’ or ‘Handicapped’ snap you straight into minds flying apart under their own internal pressures like deep sea fish driven to the surface, or driven to heightened extremes of alienation as in ‘The Tides of Quiddity’.

“‘Black God Fever’, one of the most ass-kicking stories in the whole collection, draws on the national madness ofpariah the Bosnian apocalypse, and the private insanity that claims a mercenary serving there and fuses it, in searingly brilliant language, into a blend of supernatural and psychological terror that lingers long after the story’s chilling conclusion.

“I’m at a loss for words to describe just how fucking good this collection is. It’s blacker than midnight in hell, but never monochrome or monotonous. Paul Pinn has served up a rich variety of stories here, strung on the common theme of that incredible vision. Scattered Remains is a book that demands superlatives. If you can find a copy, grab hold and don’t let go. You won’t be sorry. Or maybe you will, but you sure as shit won’t forget it.”

Nearly two decades later, I still believe every word of the above to be true.

Scattered Remains was the nearest Paul got to traditional publishing; he set up an imprint, Time Bomb Books, to self-publish his further works. The first of these were two novels: The Horizontal Split was the odyssey of Sarah Donaldson, a brilliant but schizophrenic English schoolgirl who runs away from home and embarks on a violent and dangerous odyssey through India, pursued by (inter alia) an ineffectual father and a psychopathic mother who wants her dead. Sarah was the protagonist of the two final stories in Scattered Remains—‘The Day of the Muffled Oar’ and ‘When The Hooghly Screams’ (did I mention that Paul also had an extraordinary facility with titles?)—and these two tales are incorporated into the longer work. The second novel, The Pariah, was a paranormal thriller involving McKoy, a retired MI6 agent, and Robert Paymer, a sadistic psychopath with lethal—and ever-growing—psychic powers. What could have been hackneyed pulp fare was given real, brutal force by its narrator: Paymer, whose abilities enable him to take the role of an omniscient author. Paymer is drawn with all the frightening authenticity Paul could muster. And that was plenty.

My impression was that Paul had tried to place both books with mainstream publishers without success. Maybe they were too weird, too intense; it can’t have helped that horror had become a toxic brand in the publishing market of the late 1990s. He self-published a third novel, Skull Wars, which also incorporated a number of short stories, and two further story collections, Idiopathic Condition Red and the aptly-named A Strange Collection of Stories, both of which—particularly the latter—are excellent. He also self-published a volume of poetry, and a non-fiction book, Operation Miasma, about post-war MI6 activities in his beloved Goa. All this work remains available online.

The author Steve Byrne told me that Paul had grown disillusioned with writing and had almost given up entirely (Steve thankfully persuaded him otherwise.) Perhaps the news of his passing will prompt a rediscovery of his work; I sincerely hope so. It would be good to think Paul might find, posthumously, the wider recognition he so richly deserved; I only wish it could have come when he was still with us, and that the horror community knew what a remarkable voice it has lost.


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1 comment

  1. Jasper Bark

    Great tribute to an author that’s sadly unknown to me Simon.

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