Interview by Martin Ruf
I would like to begin the discussion of your stories with a look at your other literary endeavours. Was the experience of writing the biography of Stella Gibbons and the adaptation of Feydeau's plays in any way helpful for the writing of your own stories? Or do you see no connection among the three kinds of literary work?
What an interesting question! When you write the biography of someone you know, as was the case with my book on Stella Gibbons, you are, in the course of research, constantly coming across the unexpected. You think you knew this person; you discover you don’t. It is the very stuff of drama and storytelling. Mysteries about your subject are not solved, they proliferate. This fascinated me. Strange coincidences occur, like the time I visited an antiquarian bookseller on quite another errand and by chance found that the bookseller in question had a couple of books of Stella Gibbons’ poetry annotated in a handwriting which I later identified as belonging to a former lover of hers. You sometimes feel you are being guided by an invisible hand. There’s a Henry James tale about this ghostly aspect of biography, called “The Real Right Thing”, and I have touched on it in various stories. Where Feydeau was concerned, I was much inspired by the meticulousness of his plotting. He could bring off a magnificently surreal effect – like the man who always begins to stutter when it rains – by surrounding it with careful prosaic detail, thereby convincing you it could happen. He also had this theory about writing farce which also applies to other kinds of stories. “Whenever I want to devise a comic situation,” he used to say, “I would think of two characters who absolutely must not meet, and then I bring them together!” I have used this device in my stories on a number of occasions.
There is a strong and fruitful bond between your stories and the classic tradition of the British ghost story; most of your readers are probably aware of it. But let us stay for a moment with authors who write in languages other than English. Do you also, for example, feel a certain affinity with the most elegant French masters of the fantastic – like Merimée, among others?
Merimée, and particularly Maupassant – The Horla! - were masters of this kind of narrative. Chekhov also could manage a tale of terror, as in “The Black Monk”. The brilliance of their technique has been an inspiration.
You have written ghost stories in the strict sense of the term but also weird or strange tales in the broader sense. An author of weird tales may more or less write about whatever he chooses; a writer of ghost stories has to be conscious of certain rules – even if he finally decides to break them. What is your experience with this difference between almost absolute literary freedom and comparatively strong restrictions?
I am not really aware of such restrictions when I am writing, and the boundaries between ghost stories and weird or strange stories are very blurred for me. Very often an anthologist will guide me to a certain subject, because this is the topic of his anthology: e.g. a certain part of the British Isles as in Paul Finch’s brilliant Terror Tales series - Terror Tales of the Lake District, Terror Tales of East Anglia etc. But this is not a restriction, so much as a focus for my attention. M. R. James famously said of ghosts: “Yes, these things exist, but we don’t know the rules”, and I think this is true, so I have never felt restrictions. Nearly all my stories – and those of M R James, for that matter - are not about ghosts in the strictest sense, i.e revenants of the dead, but about the spell and danger of the past interacting with the present. That offers vast, almost unlimited, scope.
The stories in your collections are accompanied by fine vignettes. Have you ever had the experience that the original creative idea concerned a drawing and only afterwards proved to contain the germ of a story? Or do both creative impulses make themselves felt almost at the same time?
No, not from my own work, but my stories are often inspired by a visual image deriving from a work of art by someone else. A case in point is the novella “A Child’s Problem.” I had long been interested by the artist Richard Dadd, a gifted 19th century painter, who went insane and murdered his father. He spent the rest of his life in institutions for the criminally insane, and there produced some very extraordinary works of art. One of the most disturbing and enigmatic of these is The Child’s Problem (1857), which is in the Tate Gallery collection. It shows a child fearfully reaching up to move a chess piece on a table while close by a sinister figure, head half covered by a cloth, appears to be sleeping. The image obsessed me and finally brought forth the novella which made its first appearance in A Book of Horrors (2011) alongside Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, John Ajvide Lindquist, and others of that kidney.
And a related question: Was The Hauntings at Tankerton Park an exception in this respect or did the poem and the drawings come into being in the same way as your stories and their vignettes?
Well, it owes its inspiration to a mutual love of the publisher Jonas Ploeger of Zagava, and myself for the illustrated books of Edward Gorey. I longed to bring forth a book along the lines of Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies – M is for MAUD who was swept out to sea, N is for NEVILLE who died of ennui…etc. - in the form of a rhyming alphabet about a haunted house. Of course, the result is rather different from Gorey’s masterpiece, mainly because I have none of his gift for comic draughtsmanship. I wrote most of the rhymes first, but when I came across a line which did not immediately suggest a striking visual image, I would change it for one which did.
The writer of a ghost story will probably have certain metaphysical conceptions, even if he entertains them only for the time in which he actually writes the story. Do you agree, or do you rather think that a metaphysical conception – platonic, neo-platonic or other – is no more than a means to write a good piece of literature and could be replaced by almost any philosophical system?
This is another most interesting question – well they are all interesting! I have very strong metaphysical beliefs, though I don’t state them explicitly in my stories. Indeed, many of the protagonists in my stories tend to be sceptics or agnostics. Nevertheless, these beliefs form a necessary background or “subtext” to the stories. Such beliefs must be strong in order to activate the imagination in a coherent direction.
This question may or may not be connected to the one before. It is probably hard to imagine a ghost story completely out of the context of guilt and punishment. Is it at all possible to write a “serious” ghost story – in contrast to a mere experiment for experiment's sake – that ignores this moral context?
I think almost certainly not. One must believe to some extent in a moral universe: in other words, one in which actions and thoughts inevitably have consequences not only in the physical, but in the psychological and psychic world too. You can tell immediately the writers who are merely dealing in horror for horror’s sake, and I find their work, however well written, to be profoundly unsatisfactory.
In some of your stories you enter, metaphorically speaking, into a dialogue with other authors. M. R. James is the most obvious example, but there are also Aickman and Mark Samuels. How important is this dialogue within the framework of fiction for you – in contrast to writing a critical essay about these authors?
How clever of you to identify those three writers in particular! I find this “dialogue”, as you rightly call it, to be immensely stimulating. I am not interested in imitation or pastiche per se, but in using the themes and ideas of these writers as a jumping off point for my own notions. An example might be my story “Rapture” in Marked to Die, a Mark Samuels tribute volume. The story takes as its starting point, one of Samuels’ very finest tales, “Apartment 205” - from his first volume of stories The White Hands (Tartarus 2003) - in which someone is disturbed by noises coming from a neighbouring flat in the same apartment block. Slowly he is drawn in to this neighbour’s terrible existence. I even set my story in the Holloway Road where Mark once had a flat, but there I think the resemblance ends. I freely acknowledge his brilliant inspiration, but my tale takes a rather different and personal direction, though its fascination with the idea of “end times” and the millennium is present in Mark’s work as well.
My final question is rather a request. If someone who had never read one of your stories asked me to recommend one or two, I would at first lament the difficulty of making such a choice because there are so many candidates. In the end I would, probably, settle on “A Donkey at the Mysteries”, “The Endless Corridor”, “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini”, and “Flowers of the Sea”. Would you yourself like to add one or the other title? Maybe a story that tends to be undeservedly overlooked?
I agree with all those recommendations. Thank you. A story that I wrote recently which I am particularly happy with is: “The Old Man of the Woods.” I am confirmed in this by the anthologist and horror impresario Steve Jones who has just included it in the latest edition of the series Best New Horror. This is #31 and destined sadly to be the last of the BNH series. One’s favourites tend to be ones to which one has some kind of personal or sentimental attachment. In the case of “The Old Man of the Woods” it is because the house in the story is based on one that I and my late wife once owned in France and spent many happy times there. But this one, I do think has merit independent of this. One that divides people – they love it, or very occasionally hate it – is “Bloody Bill”. Again, I have a reason to be attached to it because one of the main characters is based on a school friend who subsequently committed suicide. His name was Caspar Fleming and he was the only son of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. The point is, not whether the story is based on something personally and deeply felt – very much the case with “Flowers of the Sea” incidentally – but whether that deep personal feeling has communicated itself to the reader. In the case of the stories I have mentioned – and others! – I believe it has.
Reggie Oliver, thank you for this interview.