This is the first collection of short stories from CJ Lines but, given the effortless way that he manipulates the format, I’m willing to bet that it won’t be his last. Ranging from visceral modern updates of the classic English ghost story to heartbreaking uses of modern technology, these are all dark tales, but that’s to be expected from an author whose first novel Filth Kiss was applauded by bastions of horror like Rue Morgue Magazine. In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I don’t read a lot of horror fiction, primarily because I take umbrage at the way a lot of prolific horror writers take one good idea and spin it out for 600 pages, but do you know where something like that isn’t a crime? In a short story. Every one of CJ Lines’ stories is built on a brilliant conceit, and while some work better than others I admired the range of subjects that he wanted to tackle and the variety of voices that he brought to the different tales.
Of the fourteen collected stories, my favourites were Lambkin, channelling the spirit of M R James, Debut, a thoroughly disturbing look at Victorian puppetry, and The Trending, a beautiful and haunting meditation on grief in the modern age. My biggest complaint about Cold Mirrors would be that The Trending was the first story in the book and it absolutely towers above everything else in the collection. It’s wonderful to read an author at the height of his power, when all the pieces come together and create something timeless and powerful, but it was disappointing that none of the other stories in the collection made such a strong impression on me.
As a package Cold Mirrors serves as an introduction to a bold British author that deserves to be known more widely. At his best he filters the human condition through a dark aesthetic that we all look for in horror and at worst I had no complaints about Cold Mirrors that I wouldn’t level against mainstream short story writers like Stephen King. Cold Mirrors is a professional collection of stories from an independent British publisher and it deserves to rise above the clichéd mess of contrivances that most high-street retailers are trying to sell you as Horror. Watch closely for where CJ Lines goes from here.
Because this is Starburst and we pride ourselves on giving you more for free than most magazines would give you for a handful of dirty cash, I tracked down CJ Lines for an interview, giving him one last chance to convince you to buy his book:
For anybody not already familiar with your work, who is C J Lines?
I’m the author of one novel, Filth Kiss (2007), and one collection of short stories, Cold Mirrors (2011). I started to write when I was a little kid, after seeing Clash of the Titans. There was something about hooded skeletons in rowboats and crawling green snake-women that sparked my young imagination and I wanted to replicate it by any means possible. As I grew up, the obsession with horror and monsters never went away. Although I moved from Birmingham to London and wrote music and film reviews for awhile, I yearned to write about monsters again so I enrolled in some Creative Writing classes at nightschool which totally relit the (Hell)fire. After a few years of tormenting classmates with short stories, I retreated from the classroom to the bedroom and plucked up the courage to try my hand at a novel. This eventually ended up being Filth Kiss.
What sort of an experience can a reader expect when they open one of your books?
Hopefully something different every time! The last thing I’d want to be is predictable. I think Cold Mirrors is a broad showcase of styles. There’s dark speculative fiction in there alongside more light-hearted stuff, some gothic period pieces and a couple of straightforward, sting-in-the-tail horror stories. Filth Kiss is a different beast. I originally wrote that as an experiment in how far I could take things, as well as a tribute to the 80s pulp “nasties” and while it took on its own distinct voice away from that, it’s still a brutal and unpleasant read. I like the idea of occupying a middle ground between your more abstract, atmospheric or cerebral horror and that gleeful balls-out mania of the genre at its daftest extremes.
Can you name any other authors or artists that you would consider to be your peers?
I’ve not found many authors who seem to have similar aims when it comes to horror. There’s a lot of really scrappy, unimaginative, grammatically questionable writing on the gorier end of the spectrum in small press which is bad. But on the other side, I find much of the more “mature” horror far too dry; lots of outdated Poe and Lovecraft imitation with little of interest to offer. I’d hardly call him a peer as he’s both a far greater writer and rightly more successful than I am but John Ajvide Lindqvist is definitely investigating the same avenues. Let The Right One In (the book, not the film) is an incredible mix of disturbing, hyper-violent horror, beautiful writing and emotional depth. Likewise, I loved Handling The Undead, in which he took a really old, overdone trope (zombies) and turned it into something both very shocking and moving. It’s great how he uses violence and grotesquery within deeper, more sophisticated narratives and I very much aspire to do the same.
What have been the biggest influences on your development as a writer?
When I was too young to rent all the 18-rated video nasties I longed to see, I naturally moved on to horror books because they didn’t have an age rating and I could buy them in the newsagent. I figured it was certainly worth honing the old reading skills if it meant the ability to access the impressively depraved levels of filth plied by Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker at the time. There’s no question that this stuff sculpted my creative mind. It’s weird because, as a teenager, I found a lot of the stuff Channel 4 would show late at night – films by directors like Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Ken Russell – would be another excellent way of accessing the kind of sex and violence that I wouldn’t normally be able to watch so I would stay up late and catch all of those. I saw so many genuinely brilliant films that way, many of which remain favourites even today. It’s weird to think how much cultural influence stemmed from an adolescent search for tits and gore! Yet somehow it all went in and, one way or another, it all comes out in my writing.
Since you mentioned them, I have to ask, which was your favourite Video Nasty and why?
Yikes, that’s a tough one. Even if we’re sticking with films that were actually on the official DPP list of “nasties”, I have a lot of love for so many of them. I’d say Flesh For Frankenstein is probably my favourite overall. It’s got a little of everything. Horror, comedy, vile gore, a surprising beauty at times and even a little genuine dramatic flair. Udo Kier’s performance is career-defining too! Close runners-up would be The Beyond and Evilspeak. The last fifteen minutes of the latter, despite being a blatant knock-off of Carrie, are some of the most frenzied of any horror film. Very underrated!
Have you ever written for any other mediums or do you prefer to stick to prose?
I stick to prose in general because it’s what I feel I’m good at. I’ve written one screenplay for a short film, there are some songs locked away in a dusty drawer somewhere and I occasionally write light poetry but this is largely for my own amusement.
Do you have another project lined up yet? Will we be seeing another full-length novel anytime soon?
I don’t have another project lined up, although I’m working on a few things. I tend to avoid talking too much in interviews about things I’m working on since they don’t always ever see the light of day. I wouldn’t want to get anyone excited for something they’ll never read! There are a couple of projects that I’ve been giving my attention to this year but I’m not sure which one will get carried through to completion. They’re both novels. One is a more sombre, literary effort about angels and the other is an unrepentant gorefest about a killer priest. Opposite ends of the spectrum, basically. I’m not a prolific writer at all and I tend to edit myself to the nth degree so whichever I choose to work on, it’ll be awhile before anyone reads it!