What first attracted you to horror writing?
It was a mix of things, really: I’ve always wanted to write (I wrote ‘get something published’ on an undecorated wall in my house at the end of 1999 as a way of making a new millennium’s resolution – I figured giving myself 1000 years was a good timeframe), and I wanted to write horror because it was what I like to read. As long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed reading, watching and listening to horror stories, so it seemed a natural thing to then write them when I came to actually start writing. Sadly, it’s a terribly boring answer, but it’s also a truthful one.
Very practically, in the early noughties (and yes, I do know that ‘noughties’ is a fucking horrible word and anyone who uses it should have their bellies poked with a sharpened stick) I found myself with lots of dead time on trains to fill, commuting to and from Liverpool for work, and decided that I’d use the time to finally commit to writing properly. Initially, because I didn’t know that small presses existed, I wrote what I thought nobody was writing because I couldn’t see them when I went into bookshops: ghost stories. Specifically, I wrote a novel that, although not actually very good in some ways, helped set me going. That took me a couple of years, and just about as I finished it, I changed jobs and got something closer to home. Because I had more time, I joined some creative writing classes and moved into writing ghost stories (as opposed to novels) because stories fitted the format of the classes better than sections of novels did. Bottom line, though: writing is, at heart, me simply telling the kind of stories I’d like to hear, and those tend to be horror stories.
It’s all notable! Well, okay, maybe not all, but you know… I suppose I’m proudest of my first published story, ‘The Church on the Island’, and also my first collection Lost Places and the new one, Quiet Houses. If I read ‘notable’ as ‘personal milestones’, I’d single out the stories ‘A Different Morecambe’, ‘The Baking of Cakes’ and ‘The Pennine Tower Restaurant’ from Lost Places, ‘A Man of Ice and Sorrow’ from Black Static magazine and ‘The Elms, Morecambe’ from Quiet Houses as ones where I think I learned something new or did something that took my writing a step forwards. My two Sherlock Holmes horror stories, from the Gaslights’ Grotesque and Arcanum are important to me as well because they involve me writing using someone else’s worlds and characters, which I’d not done before. I think my scariest story is probably ‘The Pennine Tower Restaurant’, and most emotionally true are probably ‘Baking of Cakes’, ‘A Man of Ice and Sorrow’ or the forthcoming chapbook from Spectral Press, ‘Rough Music’. If you want a recommendation, though: buy the two collections, they’ll give you the best intro to the work I’m proudest of.
What are you working on now?
I have a number of stories committed to anthologies which all come to deadline over the coming months, so they all need writing (and maybe researching, although it’s not something I do a huge amount of), and at some point I need to put the finishing touches to my PS Publishing collection, Strange Gateways, which is coming out next year. I have about 5 stories to write for my Spectral Press collection, due 2013, so I need to decide on which ones to do and do those at some point, and alongside this I’m working on a novel. The novel is a huge, complex thing that’s taking a lot of time and energy, and some not inconsiderable research, but it’s proving fun. In a bleak, grim sort of way, of course…
Who do you admire in the horror world?
God, there are so many! Stephen King, obviously, and MR James – without those two, there’d almost certainly be no me writing today. The people who’ve influenced me include TED Klein (who, in some ways is a more direct influence on my writing than Stephen King – go and read his story ‘The Children of the Kingdom’ to see where I get some of my tone and focus from), Junji Ito, Alan Moore, James Herbert and Spike Milligan (don’t think he writes horror? Read his war memoires, especially the first five volumes – you’ll be weeping with laughter one moment and genuinely horrified the next).
There are people writing and publishing horror today who deserve lots of kudos: Stephen Volk, Gary McMahon, John L Probert, Simon Strantzas, Steve Duffy, Adam Nevill, Kim Newman, Simon Marshall-Jones and loads of others. In a funny way, I admire anyone who chooses to work within the written horror genre, because it tends to means they’re doing it for love rather than money! Despite the fact that I’m published now, and seem to be gaining a good reputation (the reasons for which still remain something of a mystery to me, if I’m honest), I’m first and foremost a fan. I buy the books because I want to read them; the fact that some are written by people I consider to be good friends is an added bonus.
My kneejerk response to this is to say, psychological chills, but actually I’m not sure if that’s true. It’s certainly true that my favourite supernatural movies tend be to slow-burners, things like Ringu and The Haunting, but I think what I actually like is intelligent and well-written stories. Dawn of the Dead and The Thing (my favourite movie ever by a long, long way) are both high gore events, but the gore services the story rather than the other way around. I like slasher movies when they’re good, Halloween and Se7en and Cold Fear, and they can be gory or not. Ultimately, you can throw as much blood and slime and semen around your film or pages as you want, if you aren’t talented, if you can’t create a smart story and believable characters with reactions we can understand (even if we don’t agree with them), then at that point your psychologically chilling or ultra-gory work becomes at best dull and at worst crap.
Why should people read your work?
Because it’s brilliant.
Oh, that’s not enough? You want a proper answer? Well, I think I’ve turned very quietly into a good writer over these past years. My stories are generally either good pulp or grindingly dark and emotionally traumatic, and both seem to get pretty good responses from readers. I fill my stories with sex, death, violence (both emotional and physical), creepy shit and downright scary stuff and personally, I think you’ll love it.
Just one? Jesus! No, can’t do it. Instead, let me recommend a few: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is my favourite book ever, both elegant and elegiac, scary and moving, and anyone interested in horror should read it. Junji Ito’s three volume graphic novel Uzumaki, about a town cursed by spirals, is superb, a hugely intelligent, vastly bleak and quite simply stunning piece of work. MR James’ ghost stories can’t be touched for their brilliance or their skin-crawling creepiness and if you haven’t read them, why not? TED Klein’s Dark Gods is a master-class of horror lurking just outside our front doors, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is a rattlingly fabulous read, intelligent, fast-moving and enormously good fun (as are all of his books, to be honest), Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May novels are great, Helen Grant’s young adult thrillers are all fantastic, Steve Duffy’s Tragic Life Stories and The Five Quarters are both ace collections, Gary McMahon’s Pretty Little Dead Things is a definite must-read, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow is genuinely bleak and fascinating, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is well worth having a go at if you can be bothered with all the holding the book upside down and sideways to read the weird footnotes and Tom Fletcher’s The Leaping and The Thing on the Shore are two of the most interesting horror novels I’ve read in recent years. There, that enough for you?
Buy Quiet Houses by Simon Kurt Unsworth from Amazon.co.uk (Paperback) (UK)
Buy Uneasy Tales by Simon Kurt Unsworth from Amazon.co.uk (Kindle) (UK)
Buy Quiet Houses by Simon Kurt Unsworth from Amazon.com (Paperback) (US)
Buy Uneasy Tales by Simon Kurt Unsworth from Amazon.com (Kindle) (US)
Simon Kurt Unsworth