Interview: Gary McMahon, author of PRETTY LITTLE DEAD THINGS

PrintE-mail Written by Neil Buchanan

Starburst: If we could start with the idea behind Pretty Little Dead Things. How did it come about? Where did this idea first take seed?

Gary McMahon: Initially, I wrote a bunch of short ghost stories featuring the character of Thomas Usher. After a while, it became clear that he wanted his own novel, so I started sketching out a few scenes which then grew into the book. At that point I didn’t have a publishing deal, so when I approached Angry Robot I had about half the novel written. By the time they got back to me that they liked the synopsis and chapters, the book was finished. 

Thomas Usher is a complex character. The victim of so much tragedy and horror, yet he still desperately tries to do the right thing. What was it like to create such a compelling character?

Oh, it was great fun. I love flawed characters. I can’t write – or read about – any other kind. Flaws make us real, they highlight who we are, what we are. I’m more interested in people’s flaws than any other part of their personality. I find it easy to create complex characters, because aren’t we all complex? 

The mature adult themes this book explores are of the darkest nature. You have a talent for forcing a reader to look at parts of the human condition we would rather hide from and pretend wasn't there. To write about so much corruption of the human spirit must have been a difficult thing to do. How do you cope?

Thank you. I believe that horror fiction can be a great way of facing what’s unpleasant about the human condition. I’m not really one for cheap scares. I like to get right under the skin of my characters and find out what makes them tick, then dismantle them piece by piece and see what happens. I like works of art that leave me scarred, and so I tend to lean this way when I write. To be honest, writing about dark subject matter is what helps me cope with the terrible stuff that happens in real life.

Of course, every hero - if that's what we can call Thomas - needs his villain, and the Pilgrim soon makes his presence known. How much fun was it to write about an entity such as the Pilgrim? 

I loved writing about the Pilgrim. He took on a life of his own, growing bigger and bolder on the page as I wrote about him. He’s an evil bugger, of course, but he’s also fascinating. He has his own agenda, and he doesn’t necessarily see what he does as bad. He’s indifferent to human suffering most of the time; the rest of the time it simply amuses him. Most evil people don’t realise they’re evil. They don’t look in the mirror and think “Wow, I look really evil today.” They do whatever it is they do for their own reasons, and I made sure that the Pilgrim was the same. He isn’t just evil for evil’s sake.

There's real horror to be found in Pretty Little Dead Things. Not the least of which is Thomas's sense of grief from his lost family. Was that difficult for you to write about?

I usually write about my own personal fears and hope that they’re universal enough that other people will share them. Losing your family is one of the big ones: you never recover from something like that. In my experience, loss changes everything – you, the world around you, even the landscape inside you. Nothing can be the same again. This kind of thing can be extremely difficult to write about, but eventually we all need to face these massive fears, if only in fictional form. 

Will Thomas Usher ever be reunited with his family?

That’s a good question, and one that I’m not going to answer. I don’t even know the answer myself…if the story dictates that he never sees them again, that’s how it’ll be. But I’m hoping that he does reconnect with them at some point, and I’ll be interested to find out what happens when he does.

You've written a sequel to Pretty Little Dead Things. What might a new reader expect to see, surely, it can't be any darker?

The sequel, Dead Bad Things, is probably slightly darker, yes. It’s also a lot different. For starters, it tells the story of a character who only briefly appeared in the first book, along with more of Usher’s story. The book flicks between these two people, and when finally they meet things get really dark. The sequel is much more tightly plotted – almost like a traditional crime novel in that respect– and a lot of the supernatural stuff is even weirder than before. Read together, these two books form Usher’s “origin story”, and by the end of Dead Bad Things the set-up is in place for what I hope will be further books in the series. 

We understand you have a new book due for release, could you tell us a little something about it?

Silent Voices is out from Solaris in March 2011. It’s the second book in the Concrete Grove trilogy (the first one was titled The Concrete Grove). These books can be read as stand-alone novels, but they also form part of a much larger story about a possessed council housing estate in Northumberland, a place that acts as a gateway to another world. We have the criminals who run the estate and the monsters creeping in between the gaps, and there’s a strange power that’s slowly growing stronger and breaking down the barriers between these two separate worlds. Part crime, part horror, part fantasy, these books are the most ambitious thing I’ve attempted so far. 

And finally, you have a great affinity with conjuring a sense of horror in a reader. What is horror, and why do we like to be scared?

Sometimes I think that when we read horror stories, or watch horror movies, we’re simply rehearsing our own deaths. Or at least trying to fit something unimaginable into a place where we can deal with it. If we think about our own demise in terms of fantasy – ghosts, vampires, demons, and monsters – then the horror genre can act as a kind of code. We don’t need to stare at it head on; we can look sideways instead. Human beings have a complex relationship with horror. It’s always there, in the darkness – the darkness that’s inside us all, the darkness that awaits us when this crazy ride is over.

Silent Voices is out from Solaris in April 2012.

Read our review of Dead Bad Things HERE.

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