SIMON KURT UNSWORTH is writer of supernatural fiction from Manchester, England, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for his short story, THE CHURCH ON THE ISLAND. We sought him out to find out about his new book, THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE…
STARBURST: How would you describe The Devil’s Detective?
Simon Kurt Unsworth: The Devil’s Detective is a horror novel that wears a thriller’s clothes. Or possibly a thriller wearing a horror novel’s clothes. It’s a crime story set in Hell, and it follows Thomas Fool, an Information Man, as he tries to solve a series of increasingly brutal murders and tries to make sense of the situation in which he finds himself. It’s bleak and miserable, but hopefully also exciting and surprising.
Where does Fool come from? What inspired him?
When I first had the idea for The Devil’s Detective, years ago, it was initially a very loose series of images about a policeman in Hell. At the time, he didn’t have a name or character, only a role. A month or so after having the first thoughts about the book, I was watching one of those local news shows that are split into segments and only feature stories guaranteed to make your granny smile. This one was doing a piece about a castle said to be haunted by the spirit of its former jester, Tom Fool. I have no idea why, but as I watched the dramatisation of what Tom Fool’s ghost was said to have done (walked up behind a tourist who was looking at his portrait, if you’re interested – we get the word tomfoolery from him, so he must have been some decent kind of jester before he died and became a ghost) I suddenly knew that my nameless policeman wasn’t nameless anymore; he was called Tom Fool.
As for the inspiration for Fool’s character, it comes from everywhere, from all of the policemen and private investigators in all the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched and shows I’ve seen. He’s also every middle management wage slave I’ve met (I was one myself for a long time), and his frustrations reflect, at least in part, their frustrations and some of the ones I used to have. Thomas Fool is a good man in a bad place, something I suspect most of us feel like at some point or other in our lives, and I wanted to write about how that might make him feel. Of course, most middle management wage slaves don’t have to deal with demons…
Why do you think we’re so obsessed with Hell and devils?
I don’t know about everyone else, but I know my interest is in the way in which Hell and demons act as both threat (behave, or we are the great punishment you’ll face) and, oddly a kind of promise: survive this, they seem to say, survive us and you’ll be able to be proud of yourself, to know you’re capable or lucky or powerful. As an author, they’re also great because there’s no limits to how gross, how foul, they can be. It’s liberating, because you can go as far with them as you want, and then go a few steps further. Want it to have the face of a goat and the arms of an octopus? No problem! And shall we add in the stench of dead things and then sprinkle in some maggots and some excrement? Done. Should it kill children? Puppies? Tropical fish? Sorted! They’re fun, because they have no boundaries.
My other theory, for what it’s worth, is that because there’s no physical geography for Hell (or at least, none that we’ve seen or have photographs of), it means we can personalise it. My Hell is different from your Hell, which means from a story-teller’s point of view it’s an infinite playground. It can smell of sulphur if I want it to, or not; it’s up to me.
How do you tell a murder mystery in Hell?
Carefully! The main thing was that, because this is an idiosyncratic version of Hell (no lakes of burning oil or rolling rocks up hills all day for my sufferers, oh no), I had to be really clear about how it looked and felt and smelled and functioned. I had to create the rules and make sure they were consistent, and only once I’d done that, when I was confident I understood my Hell, could I let Fool out into it and start him walking through it.
The other important part was to have a big enough cast so that there could be red herrings, so that I could try to misdirect the reader. I always knew the end of the book (it was one of the first things that popped into my head all those years ago) and how the murders would fit into that story generally, the harder work was to link everything together and make it logical and internally consistent. I think I’ve managed it, but I suppose only reader feedback will tell me for sure.
Why do you write horror?
Because it’s what I like to read, is the short answer. When I started writing properly, about fifteen years ago, I naturally wrote the kind of things that I’d want to read, and I’ve carried on doing that ever since.
What is it about the darker things that appeal?
The philosophical answer to that is, I think, that it allows us to confront our fears safely; we can explore death and pain and fear and fragility and uncertainty by reading about or watching characters experience things on our behalf. When I write, particularly short stories, I tend to work through some of the greatest fears I have by putting my characters in situations that where they’re having to deal with things that I don’t ever want to have to face. I live in constant dread that something awful will happen to my son or wife or stepdaughters and I frequently work through these and other fears in my fiction.
The short answer is, of course, is that it’s fun to be scared!
Horror appears to be gaining popularity again, why do you think that is?
Well, it never completely went away – King and Barker and Koontz have always had a healthy presence in the bookstores, and horror movies are big business (I don't imagine there’s been a point at any time recently when at least one of the top ten grossing movies isn’t a horror). I think what’s happening at the moment, though, is that more major publishers are taking chances. There’s a growing understanding that horror is capable of being intelligent, that it can deal with major themes, that it can move us as well as frighten us, and I think we’re seeing result of that understanding and of that risk-taking.
What story do you wish you had written?
I wish I’d written Salem’s Lot. For me, it’s a perfect novel – smart, creepy, confident enough to take the time to tell the story that needs to be told and yet very human and emotionally true. It’s deceptively simple, and its tone is surprisingly warm, yet it never shies away from brutality or fear or killing its major characters. It’s my favourite book, and it never fails to stun me when I read it.
Which writer would you want to meet the ghost of? Why?
None. I know enough living writers to be happy with their company, and I long ago decided that I don’t want to meet most of my heroes (literary or otherwise) in case I’m disappointed by them. Let M.R. James rest easy in his grave, I’m happy having coffee and pastries with Stephen Volk in Soho, or drinking Guinness with Larry Connolly in Brighton or drinking with everyone at FantasyCon each year.
What is your dream project?
All my projects are dream projects. I mean, I get to write books for a living, what’s not to love? I’m writing the sequel to The Devil’s Detective, then I hope to write a ghost story featuring the main character from my short story collection Quiet Houses, I’m writing a film called Familia with the actor Ian Brooker and I have short stories in my head about places and things and people and ghosts and monsters that I’ll write soon. This is my dream project, simply being Simon Kurt Unsworth, the writer, having people read my stuff and like it and keep asking me to write more. Does that sound a bit hippy? So be it, because however it sounds, it’s true.
THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE is out now, published by Del Rey.