Author Conrad Williams talks horror, sparkly vampires and childhood fears of the dark.
Starburst: If we could start with a little something about your early career: where you come from, school, influences, and as a child what scared you?
Conrad Williams: I was born in Warrington in 1969. From a pretty early age I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was lucky in that every English teacher I had supported and encouraged my ambition. It's not enough, though, to have people on your side. You have to do some grunt work too. I wrote a lot of short stories and pestered people to read them. I remember getting in touch with Ray Bradbury, an early influence, and being a complete fanboy. But he was incredibly nice, sent me a note and a signed photo (which I have framed in my room) and picked out one of my stories for praise. It's little pats on the back like that over the years that give you help to carry on. Early influences also included the double bill of horror films on a Friday night (BBC2, I think), where they would show one old black and white film (one that stayed with me was Night of the Demon) followed by a lurid colour. I remember how I felt watching these, being moved in different ways within the space of three hours: discomfort and dread followed by deep horror – the colour films that bothered me most (in the best possible way) were the two Dr Phibes movies, Theatre of Blood and The Ghoul. The level of acting in these films often goes unmentioned, but there is some top talent here. The Price films are pretty camp and filled with black humour, but The Ghoul is played with a straight bat. It was an effort to get myself up the stairs in the dark to bed afterwards. I was deeply unnerved by the dark when I was little, probably all the way up to 11 or 12, I would ask for a light to be left on. I definitely felt smothered by the dark; there was a physical weight to it, I thought. I believed I could feel it press in around me.
You’ve written a number of terrifying novels over the years which in themselves are a highly depictive, visceral look at horror: how do you set about conjuring the feelings of fear, dread and dismay in a reader?
I think the first thing I promised myself when I started writing fiction seriously was that I would not shirk from writing a horrifying scene. I wanted to be true to the genre I had fallen in love with. If you commit like that, then I think you're most of the way towards writing horror that really works. There's a lot of atmosphere-building, and finding the effective rhythms in a sentence. I think the reason horror is a difficult genre to get right is because a lot of people just don't get that it has to be well written. There's nothing worse than a clumsily-worded sequence exactly where you need to be precise. I also think you have to find some common connective tissue. You have to write honestly, about what it feels like to be an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. I don't always get it right, but I try to get my characters to react realistically to events, and one of the things that sometimes works is to have them act illogically, because we are – once you strip away the manners and the suppressed emotions – instinctive creatures, animals even. You think you know yourself well, but nobody knows how they would behave if they were in a life-or-death situation. I think back to the air disaster at Manchester airport in 1985. There was a documentary about it that was a fascinating, if uncomfortable, revelation about the human condition in extremis. Some of the passengers trapped in the fuselage while the plane was burning queued politely in the aisle while others clambered over seats, stepped on people, shoved others aside in their desperation to get out of the aircraft first. I'd like to believe I'd be one of the last off, suffering from smoke inhalation, rescuing children, but equally I might tread on your face to save my own life. I have absolutely no idea what I'd do.
Thoughts on Unblemished. Unblemished won Best Novel in 2007; what was that like to write?
It was interesting, and quite a challenge. The book I wrote prior to that was a crime novel, so this was a big switch in pace and scope. It's the longest novel I've written, and I wrote it, in part, as a valentine to the big 80s blockbusters that had meant so much to me when I was growing up: Stephen King's stunning early quartet: Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand and The Dead Zone; Peter Straub's Shadowland, Ghost Story and Koko; T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies. My wife and I had moved to France in 2003. The whole 'humans behaving as insects' idea for the novel came from living there. We had a crumbling farmhouse – no indoor toilet, no bathroom, no heating – and every room was filled with ancient cobwebs and the desiccated husks of spiders and flies. A cracked chimney breast fed a constant stream of bees into our living area during the autumn; a nest was trapped in the flue. When we arrived back after a long trip to London, we had a carpet of bee corpses to clear out.
An editor at Tor had expressed some interest in a short story of mine (Outfangthief, written as Gala Blau) and wondered if I had a novel on the go. I put together an outline and there was a lot of back and forth but he was unable to find the proposal any traction in the upper echelons of his publishing house. At around the same time I was corresponding with Paul Miller at Earthling, who had just published Game, a nasty little novella of mine about London gangsters and supernatural revenge. He had launched his Halloween series and wondered if I might have something that fit the brief. So I ended up writing it for him and he did a beautiful job.
The characters and creatures that inhabit Unblemished are all wonderfully flawed, and leave the reader uncertain of who is worse, monster or man? Is that intentional?
Certainly. It's no coincidence that the monsters in the book look like us. I think the actions of Salavaria and Manser are, in a way, far worse than those of the Unblemished who, after all, are only employing mimicry in order to get close enough to us to enjoy a hot meal. There's no cruelty there, just animal instinct. What Malcolm Manser gets up to is utterly repellent, but I felt I had to go as dark as possible, in order for the reader to have some sympathy for the 'creatures'.
Do you think Unblemished could be seen as a contemporary reflection of the true horrors of the world: the recent London riots, for example?
Possibly, although I'm a little squeamish when people hold up horror literature as some kind of mirror to society's ills.
Thoughts on One. One is a bleak survival story of a man’s search for his son – with monsters, of course. As a father, did you find it easier to identify with the main character? Do you think one has to experience horror to be able to write it?
I couldn't have written One if I wasn't a dad. It certainly helped me find the right tone. Some people criticised the book because they found some of those passages between Richard Jane and his son, Stanley, too mawkish and they might be right, or it might be just that they don't have children themselves. I wanted to tap into that common, low-level terror that a parent feels for his son or daughter every minute of every day. I wholly believe in Jane's drive to find his little boy, even though, deep down, he knows he can't still be alive. You keep going because you have to know for sure. To give up is to deny the love for your own child, and which right-minded person can ever do that? In terms of experiencing horror... I'm not so sure. I've (touch wood) never been at the heart of any traumatic event. I've never been involved in a car crash, or an act of terror; I've never seen a dead body. What I do have is a very active and bleak imagination. Which is both a blessing and a curse.
Thoughts on sequels?
I've written sequels to my novels Head Injuries and London Revenant, but they are both short stories ('The Return' and 'O Caritas' respectively). I have a chapter out-take from The Unblemished that might work as a standalone, and I've thought about a possible follow-up novel to One, but I doubt I'll ever get around to writing it. There are other ideas, new material, that seems so much more compelling. It's not that I have a problem with sequels (I'm looking forward to reading Stephen King's new Danny Torrance novel) but at the moment there isn't a sequel project pushing itself to the front of the queue; certainly not where my work in horror is concerned. One sequel I'll definitely write is a follow-up to last year's Blonde on a Stick, which I always saw as a sequence of five ultra-black novels.
What’s next for Conrad Williams?
I'm currently co-writing the story for a video game for Sony and will write a 'prequel' novel for them, which will be published prior to the game's release. I've also got a couple of new novels on the go - what I hope will be a subtle modern ghost story with a twist, and a big, blustery YA novel. Next year sees the publication of my second collection of short stories, Open Heart Surgery, from PS Publishing, which will be ready, hopefully, in the summer. I've got a couple of new stories I want to write for that.
And on a final note. Your thoughts on the standard tropes of the genre: werewolves, vampires, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster? Have they been done to death, or is there always room for a sparkly vampire or two?
Well, the YA novel I mentioned will contain an old horror favourite, but done in a different way. They keep coming back, these horror 'standards' and I can see why, but sparkly vampires? Not for me, I'm afraid. I don't get that whole emo/Goth/undead boyfriend wank fantasy. I don't want my monsters to have issues, or a sensitive side. That's not horror. That's a teenage diary dressed in black.
Thank you, Conrad Williams.