Interview with Adam Nevill and F.R. Tallis, by Danel Olson

Posted by Dale Townshend on October 18, 2013 in Interviews tagged with ,

Interview with Adam Nevill and F.R. Tallis
by Danel Olson

1) Do you consider yourselves as Gothic writers, or writers the works of whom are tangentially related to the Gothic tradition? If so, in what ways?

F.R.Tallis: I would have to answer ‘Yes’ to both parts of this question. THE FORBIDDEN (my first supernatural novel) is a homage to the late 19th century Gothic novel – so I suppose having written an unequivocally Gothic work – a pastiche in fact – I am more than happy to be described as a ‘Gothic writer’. THE SLEEP ROOM (my second supernatural outing) is perhaps more tangentially related to the pure Gothic, but nevertheless has many Gothic elements. Both books have in common a preoccupation with dreams and altered states of consciousness.

Adam Nevill: Tangentially for me, Danel. Even after a considerable exposure to the Gothic in books and films, that has made the ideas, images, and particularly the atmosphere of the Gothic colour and detail my fiction, and even become an instinctive part of my imagination, my use of the tradition is less conscious to me as a writer. Less conscious than it may seem on the page. I have the same relationship with Medieval art, and Jacobean and Tudor drama, which in themselves must have contributed to the Gothic literary movement: certain aspects in art and literature have always affected me and then filtered down, to be revisited later in fiction. More consciously for me are my attempts to emulate the effects of classic 20th century supernatural horror fiction; which, of course, was written by authors influenced by the Gothic too, so the Gothic has also come to me indirectly through my more apparent influences. I am wrapped in the tendrils of the Gothic at the deepest level, but don’t think I have ever consciously tried to write Gothic novels.

2)If so, what are some limits or resistance that being identified as a Gothicist causes? Patrick McGrath once told me that, once branded ‘Gothic’, some people found convenient excuse to not read him. Is that so? Does it matter?

F.R.Tallis: I once described myself as a Gothic writer in a publishing meeting and I was warned not to use the term. I was helpfully informed that ‘Gothic’ is like ‘Marmite’ – you either love it or hate it. By identifying myself as a Gothic writer, I was told, I might be alienating half of my potential readers. I can see there’s an element of truth in this. For example, some readers found THE FORBIDDEN ‘old fashioned’.

Adam Nevill: I didn’t know the Gothic was a such slur, though it doesn’t surprise me; my being a practitioner of supernatural horror was a more common kill-switch. For a decade in my time as a writer of horror fiction, including the first four years I worked in publishing as an editor, horror (let alone supernatural horror) was the genre that dare not speak its name in publishing meetings. It was considered as unappealing as pornography, as relevant as the western, as commercially viable as poetry. Even a whiff of supernatural horror gave most people in publishing the excuse to refuse to even consider any work with the taint. Where horror appeared it appeared disguised in some subgenre of thriller or crime. Agents even used to print NO HORROR in their listings and I was once told that the genre could only support King and Herbert. So greater battles had to be fought to attain literary credibility. Being Gothic was the least of my worries.

3)What are some Gothic favourite stories and novels that you both keep coming back to you?

F.R.Tallis: Actually, there are very few books I go back to and re-read. This is partly because I don’t enjoy second and third readings as much as I probably should; but also because if I really love a book, I don’t want to spoil my recollection of my initial encounter with it. Loving a particular book isn’t just about the book. It’s also about you – and how receptive you were to that book when you read it. When you read the right book at the right time something magical happens – and as we all know, magic is notoriously unreliable. It can’t be repeated at will. I read THE LORD OF THE RINGS when I was about 14 and naturally thought that it was the greatest book imaginable. A boy of 14 who doesn’t think that simply isn’t normal. I still count it as one of my favourite books, even though I know that if I read it again aged 55 I wouldn’t be nearly so impressed. (How do I know that? I recently read THE HOBBIT to my son when he was 7 and I found it rather disappointing). The fact is I’m an incurable and hopeless romantic when it comes to books. I encountered many of the great Gothic classics when I was a teenager – and I want to remember them with the uncritical, unbridled enthusiasm of a teenager even though I’m now in my dotage. The fact that I don’t do a great deal of re-reading doesn’t mean that my favourite stories don’t ‘come back to me’ – quite the contrary in fact. In addition to all of the usual suspects, I’m particularly fond of THE LOST STRADIVARIUS by J.Meade Falkner and CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER by Thomas De Quincey.

Adam Nevill: Of the truest Gothic period, I haven’t revisited anyone besides Poe. But I have revisited writers who wrote significant Gothic fiction later, like Stevenson and Henry James. Those who were influenced and revived the movement’s preoccupations, Like M R James, Blackwood and Lovecraft, are writers I often reread, and will always reread.

4)Do any of your works have intertextual ‘conversations’ with the past masterworks of the Gothic? What kinds of conversations, or over what scenes, characters, conflicts, themes?

F.R.Tallis: I am constantly in conversation with the classics. The classics are inescapable. In my novel THE SLEEP ROOM, a supernatural entity is produced from the melded unconscious minds of six female psychiatric patients being treated with narcosis (deep sleep therapy). The medical consultant who is treating them – Dr. Hugh Maitland – has effectively created a monster. He is therefore a close cousin of Victor Frankenstein and the unfolding narrative owes an obvious debt to Mary Shelley. I agree with Christopher Booker. There are in fact only a handful of plots. It is almost impossible to be wholly original. For me, the business of writing is all about the execution. I am, therefore, always – to a greater or lesser extent – revisiting and re-interpreting past masterworks.

Adam Nevill: All of my books thus far, have been preoccupied with the themes of being derided and forsaken; both with my use of characters as outsiders, and with a supernatural presence, or force evoked by minor cult-like figures, often in back stories, who retreated so far into the esoteric they made themselves susceptible to the paranormal. I’m always trying to conjure a sense of our insignificance when close to an unseen other too, of which even a glimpse is unbearable. Something natural law gives partial protection from. That seems essential to me when dealing with the uncanny. How I present the supernatural is primarily down to M R James; trying to recreate Lovecraft’s sense of awe and wonder in terror, comes from my reading of Lovecraft, Machen, Blackwood, Aickman, Campbell, and others, who are the exceptional talents, and have given us the best in the tradition to draw upon and interpret in our own way.

In terms of locations, I am always reflecting upon the idea of age and time in a Gothic sense, of past tragedy and black histories, and what they may have left behind to be accessed by the receptive in curious and terrifying ways. More than anything I’d say that the locations and situations of the Gothic are a vein I inevitably tap. Maybe because in Gothic environments the existence of the supernatural seems possible.

5) Here’s a question specifically for Adam. Some of the new stories of yours that I have had the honour to debut in the Exotic Gothic series, and that quickly went on to be republished in ‘The Year’s Best’ collections, feature diabolism and witchcraft. I am thinking of the cavernous and coven-filled apartment building in ‘To Forget and Be Forgotten’ (set in Belgium) in Exotic Gothic 2, and a cannibalistic, modernized, tut-tutting fairytale-like witch near a remote New Zealand settler’s home in the shocker tale, ‘Pig Thing’ from Exotic Gothic 4. We should also give a nod to certain witchy staff members of the University of St. Andrews in Banquet for the Damned (2008) — all part of the only ‘witch novel’ I ever read as an adult that remains to haunt my dreams.

In a period where the Gothic novel and film is glutting on vampires, and horror relentlessly offers up more zombies and serial killers, why do magicians, devils, beldams and witches often work fine for you?

Adam Nevill: Thanks for the kind words, Danel, and for publishing those stories too. I think for me, writing is so intense, time consuming, and often so full of frustration and despair, but also euphoria and joy that in itself is tiring, that to even engage with writing I have to write about what compels and rings my own darkest bells. So I have always explored what I find most affecting as a reader of fiction and non-fiction, and as a film fan, and tourist, and just through my own general experience. It is those things that make me want to write that I write about. And the occult and demonology, various interpretations of the supernatural, counter culture cults, folklore and British history have been my fuel to date. What I have realised while writing HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS is that what often really inspires me to write is the grotesque; this can be literal or surreal or expressionistic. So maybe I am a writer of the grotesque as much as a writer of the Gothic. I wouldn’t be able to switch to writing something that is hot right now; at the risk of total pretension, I’m curating my own creative vision of horror. I think the best writers in horror have done, and are doing, exactly that.

6) And another one for Adam: We once had an exchange of emails in 2009 about my interest in sudden deaths brought on by night-terrors as covered by medical journals like, for instance, JAMA, and wherein you detailed an extremely unsettling experience with a ‘presence’, not unlike the feeling we have when viewing Henry Fuseli’s painting ‘The Night-Mare’.
If I may quote you a bit…

That’s really strange and uncanny in itself regarding the [night-terror deaths] among Hmong refugees. I believe North America has such a tradition, but I can’t remember it ever leading to a fatality. I do remember an excellent book in the St Andrews library about “the old hag tradition in Newfoundland” that was a primary source for my creation of [American anthropologist] Hart Miller and it also provided the idea and material for Hart’s interviews with students. It gave me an authentic investigation into night terrors, to base my own upon, that an anthropologist had actually once undertaken in Newfoundland. It’s called The Terror That Comes in the Night by David Hufford, and I found it the old school way, by just browsing along the spines of books. His recordings of night terrors are a match with the seated thing upon the chest that was called the old hag in Newfoundland. I’d never heard of night terrors prior to writing Banquet, but suffered them in 1999 as I wrote the book, and as a result of writing it I’m sure. I’d also had something similar in 1987, as a first year student, when I would awake and discover a presence in my room beside the bed. That and the discovery of night terrors in Hufford’s book, plus a big helping hand from M R James, gave me the Brown Man. Some people do suffer night terrors acutely for years – what I found uncanny was the suggestion of the very same thing, that was reported to have been sitting upon a person’s chest, though in different times and locales and independent of each other. How does that work? The night terror research and wealth of material on witchcraft gave me a pseudo academic and scientific basis to add authenticity to a story of the occult. Interestingly, three other readers have written to me, or told me directly, that they too suffered night terrors briefly while reading Banquet. One man would awake and see the Brown Man standing upright at the end of his bed. I take that as having done my job well at some level. But I have occasionally harboured doubts about meddling with what I don’t understand. What if …
The library at St Andrews University had an enormous section devoted to the occult, bequeathed by a former rector — which is M.R. Jamesian in itself. It even included some horrible transcripts of witch trials too. Most of the books hadn’t been borrowed in years, but as I had a full year at my disposal to combine research with writing the first draft, I never had fewer than thirty of these tomes in my room. I must have read over fifty of them cover to cover. I remember even being questioned by a librarian on why I had so many books on witchcraft and black magic on my mature student library card. I felt Lovecraftian. The Anthropology section was also excellent, and included dozens of books on studies of the supernatural in developing cultures. Foolishly, I never kept my notes or bibliography and threw three thick folders away during one of many moves during my first difficult and transient years in London. I’d also given up any hope of Banquet ever being published by that point and left the book to moulder on my PC for about three years after every British literary agent refused to read a word of a “horror novel” -the market was dead. It was Ramsey Campbell and Peter Crowther (of PS Publishing) who resurrected it. I had to assemble my acknowledgements from memory and by accessing the St Andrews library database years after the book was completed.

Are there other experiences from college days or even further back that still give mystery for you, those occult things that still fill the page with dark wonder?

Adam Nevill: Blimey, even my emails become novel-length! More than APARTMENT 16, which was primarily a story that came out of my adult experiences of being isolated and poor in London, I’d say HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS was struck directly from my own deepest and earliest imaginative life; from images and feelings in my earliest memories. I hasten to add that I have been lucky enough not to have been bullied, or to have suffered a terrible mental illness, like the protagonist, Catherine Howard. But much of the imagery and symbolism in the novel comes directly from my early memories and remembered fantasies. I have so much remembered material about rod and string puppets, antique and aged dolls, early grotesque television shows aired in the early seventies, bits and pieces of things I had seen in a wax museum on holiday, from trips to castles and cathedrals and museums; I have also added to this personal grotesque reference library as I have aged. Until now no novel-length story for this earlier material that I’d harvested, has ever struck me as feasible. But HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS became a critical mass of dream and memory for me; a book on my own borderland of memory and dream, of wonder and terror. Not something I fully anticipated when I began the book. LAST DAYS was similar in this bubbling over, though I drew upon my counter-culture interests from my teens onwards in that story. Dan Simmons once wrote that it is an essential “strangeness” in fiction that makes it resonate, and I’ve always drawn heavily upon my own strangeness in all of the horror I have written.

7) Adam, does having a child in your life any way change how you write, what fears you write about? Does the experience return you to sources of wonder like fairy tales? Does it make you rethink them?

Adam Nevill: I probably won’t change how I write, but may very well change what I write about. I’m glad I have written my male outsider and angry young men horror novels because they might now be beyond my reach as a middle-aged writer. Parenthood has its own unique terrors – and they truly are terrors that I know I would not survive if they became true. So the stakes have been raised very quickly in my own life; everything is now at stake for me, all of the time, because I am now responsible for a small life. If a puppet show frightened me as a child, or an exhibition of medieval relics almost made my legs shake as an adult, can you imagine what becoming a parent has done to my imagination? I found the foreboding and dread in parts of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary near unbearable in May this year, and I can see how he struggled with the question of whether the book should even exist, it seems, and whether he had gone too far. The passages that really shook me were not those that were directly horrifying, but those that were indirectly terrifying, or just heart-breaking: those involving descriptions of the road outside the doctor’s house, in which the huge articulated rigs thundered, the funeral of the child (a more courageous writer than me because I couldn’t attempt a scene like that), and the father’s visit to the cemetery alone at night to retrieve his son’s remains. It’s a great book and some of the bravest writing I’ve encountered in the entire field of horror. He made parenthood matter; it doesn’t matter in most of the horror novels I read. And it made me think about the new byways in my imagination, and whether I should follow them … of course I will, because I will be compelled to, but just an anticipation of the places to which I will be led makes me nervous.

In terms of a reconnection with the childhood state, I’ve experienced a joy as a parent that I didn’t know I could experience anymore, and even a fear that I may have lived a half-life for too long. I found that as soon as my daughter appeared I could effortlessly open the top of my head and introduce a font of silliness and tom-foolery into the house, that my daughter is appreciative of, and an active participant in. Not only does she look like me when I was her age, but she imagines things in the way I did … which is wonderful.

And here’s a question for F.R. Tallis. Like writers such as Iain Banks and Steven King, your oeuvre is divided between the horror and supernatural fiction of F.R. Tallis, and the psychological and crime writing of Frank Tallis. What, if any, are the connections and overlaps between these seemingly two quite distinct strands to your writing?

F.R. Tallis: Well, I’m going to have to underscore your use of the word ‘seemingly’ when you describe the two strands of writing as distinct. Firstly, both crime writing and horror/supernatural fiction are based on an identical narrative archetype – ‘slaying the monster’. Whether it’s Moriarty or Count Dracula – evil must be overcome and good must prevail. And secondly, the best crime writing and the best supernatural fiction almost always involve some kind of detection – the criminal must be tracked down or the mystery which causes the ghost to return must be solved. For me, crime writing and supernatural fiction are parked very close to each other. Masters like Poe, Conan Doyle and Gaston Le Roux wrote crime and supernatural fiction – and I think that’s because the two genres share the same narrative foundations. My refusal to observe a strict genre boundary in this respect is clearly evident in my detective series – THE LIEBERMANN PAPERS (written as Frank Tallis) which features séances, occult societies, the golem legend, an alchemist’s laboratory and visitations by the angel of death. They are most definitely crime writing, but they are much closer in spirit to Gothic tales of terror than a contemporary police procedural.

9) And another one for F.R. Tallis. One argument that has been advanced on the long-standing connections between psychoanalysis and the Gothic is that Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was, itself, a Gothic novel of sorts. What do you make of this statement? Do you ever encounter the occasion for horror in your psychological work? It would seem that this serves as the premise for your own horror-novel of pathological psychology in The Sleep Room.

F.R.Tallis: THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS can be regarded as Gothic literature because it is preoccupied with altered states, dreams and the darker realms of the human imagination. It is also a record of Freud’s self-analysis – an epic journey into his own unconscious. I think of it as a kind of ‘missing link’ located somewhere between De Quincey’s CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER and Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME (both of which are equally compelling journeys into inner space). I don’t practise as a clinical psychologist these days, I just write novels – but I certainly encountered the horrific and the very strange when I was haunting asylums, hospitals and clinics: individuals in communication with the dead, cases of multiple personality – much the same as Jekyll and Hyde – bizarre sexual cases (involving eye- watering acts of torture) and the odd axe murderer. I never found any of this traumatic. However, I must confess to being quite disturbed by the celebrities I saw on Harley Street – they really were the stuff of nightmares …

10) And another one for F.R. Tallis. Your novel The Forbidden is set in nineteenth-century Paris. What was it, in particular, about this temporal and spatial setting that attracted you? How might you perceive your work in relation to the rise of neo-Victorian Gothic fiction in writers such as Sarah Waters?

F.R.Tallis: THE FORBIDDEN began life as a homage to J.K.Huysmans – particularly the J.K Huysmans of LA BAS and A REBOURS. Once you’ve decided on such an undertaking you’re pretty much committed to a late 19th century Parisian setting. This setting also served another purpose: I wanted to feature the real experimental physiologist G.B. Duchenne de Boulogne as a character. He has, I feel, been rather overlooked by the Gothic community. He was one of the first people to use electricity to resuscitate the dead and was fascinated by the idea of studying the soul using photography. He’s the sort of character you’d find in a novel by Adam Nevill – actually! Yet another factor was the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. It is a building rich with diabolical associations. Indeed, study of the myths and legends surrounding the building suggest that it is located on a portal that connects our world with hell. I don’t see myself as part of the new wave (or not so new wave now) of neo-Victorian fiction writers. Although I do think I have similar aspirations to Sarah Waters. A book like THE LITTLE STRANGER is wonderfully executed: literary, intelligent, atmospheric – (rich in sub-text) and above all, engaging.

11) What developments in the horror / Gothic modes can you both envisage or predict in future years, given the precedents set by both your own recent works and those of other contemporary British and American writers? What, in other words, is the ‘next big thing’ in Gothic writing?

F.R.Tallis: I’m afraid my crystal ball is very cloudy at the moment. I have absolutely no idea. I can’t tell you what will happen – but I can tell you what I’d like to happen. Gothic fiction has always been willing to take on the big questions: is there life after death? Is there a God? What is life? And so on. I’d like to think that this tradition will continue and not fall by the cultural way side. I love thrills, chills and shocks – but they work so much better for me if they are employed in the service of some broader philosophical inquiry or statement (usually concerning life, the universe and everything).

Adam Nevill: In terms of the zeitgeist, I would like to anticipate some first rate horror novels on organised crime and what precipitates our extinction through climate change – the two biggest threats to civilisation and, therefore, to our experience of the world and the way we even think from one minute to the next – and more futuristic horror, with horror leading the intended effects upon the reader, augmented by the ideas of science fiction. These might or might not include the supernatural or paranormal. I’d hope the tradition of the best in horror fiction, the legacy of the masters, will still be picked up by new writers and championed in whatever new courses horror takes; I can really see this in the US right now, in a new wave of American writing that is reinterpreting Lovecraft and Ligotti in distinctive ways and voices. Horror is in a good place right now and it is exciting. What I like about so many new horror writers is their depth of reading and feeling for the genre, their respect for the tradition, and their willingness to partially reinvent it in their own time. Horror is less concerned than other genres with heroism and wishful thinking and reader aspirations (which may account for its lack of popularity), but I think that is a good thing, because existence is horror, in one form or another, for most people on this planet, and will be for all of us if the planet’s temperature goes up another few degrees.

But what happens to any fiction – what is published, how it is published, at what level, and if it will even be discovered – is very much out of control right now. The endgame is unclear. Publishing and bookselling, not writing, is the big unanswered question right now for me, and it’s almost impossible to make predictions about the future of our literary culture, and literacy itself, because the changes are happening too quickly for anyone to fully process the actual changes as they happen. The physical book trade contracts monthly, the volume of digital books published annually has created a discoverability problem that could see a truly great book remaining completely unread, and the value of books is being reduced to a handful of buttons. Vested interests cloud the screen.

Perhaps a return to the net book agreement and a resurgence of independent booksellers, that old Gothic tradition, is nigh. I am told I had a small bestseller in France with APARTMENT 16; an edition with attractive specs sold 6K copies at about 16 euros each. In the UK that number would be considered disappointing because the books would have been so heavily discounted. But in France, this model is good news for all – the bookseller, the publisher, the writer (the publisher then bought the rights to two more books) – because you don’t have to sell tens of thousands of cheaply produced copies to find a reasonable readership. If an unregulated market is king, everything is sold for peanuts or pirated. Industrial collapse.

12) Modes of horror are often linked, in critical discourse, to particular moments of historical and cultural unrest and disaffection. Is there anything particularly topical in your respective approaches to the mode? How would you say that your work reflects contemporary social and political anxieties?

F.R.Tallis: I’ve just finished writing a novel called THE VOICES – another psychological ghost story – which is set in the scorching summer of 1976 (Graham Joyce and Maggie O’Farrell have just published novels set in that year too – something in the air?). For the benefit of younger readers, 1976 was the last time Britain faced total economic collapse (prior to the more recent credit crunch and double-dip recession). The 1976 setting allowed me to write something that was – paradoxically – very topical. I also love the idea of things falling apart – politically and socially – because at such times, everything – assumptions, routines, preconceptions – are challenged. This creates a very benign climate for plausible supernatural incursions. If day to day existence can no longer be trusted, nor can conventional wisdom (including scientific dogma). Suddenly, that which was formerly strange can be more readily assimilated.

Adam Nevill: Good question, Danel. While I am often seen as a writer of pure horror fiction, which I can’t always argue with, my sole intention is not only to frighten or disturb a reader vicariously. Increasingly, I find myself writing about bigger themes, like the sociopath and how this personality type shapes society at both a micro-level through to the seismic events that make history, and how self-interest without a conscience is so normalised now, we may as a culture already be worshipping devils and have surrendered nearly all control to them and their creed. Split-selves, in that we are all made up of different personalities that operate differently in different situations intrigues me too, and the damage modern post-historical life inflicts upon individuals, that is fully relevant to these times, is also something I explore through the supernatural. Creative explorations of consciousness, as opposed to everything in a book being sublimated to the story, should always be relevant, and it’s something that interests me more and more.

13) Each of you must surely have a ‘dream question’ for any interview of this nature. What might these be? What is it that you secretly wish that interviewers would ask you?

F.R.Tallis: Is it true that you narrowly escaped being ritually sacrificed in 1983? Perhaps we’ll save the answer to this one till next time …

Adam Nevill: I just can’t think of one …

House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill and The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis are out now, priced £7.99 (Pan)

Danel Olson is a research postgraduate writing on the still emerging horrors of 9/11 Gothic under the direction of University of Stirling’s Prof. Dale Townshend. For print journals, he has interviewed Terry Dowling, Patrick McGrath, Leon Vitali, and Joyce Carol Oates. His World Fantasy Award-nominated Gothic anthology series of new fiction Exotic Gothic was initiated in 2007, and the latest, Exotic Gothic 5, premiered in two volumes from Yorkshire’s PS Publishing in 2013. Critical volumes he contributed for and edited include 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000 (Scarecrow Press, 2011) and The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film (Centipede Press, 2012).
In 2013, Danel was awarded the Shirley Jackson Prize for Best Edited Anthology for his Exotic Gothic 4 (PS Publishing, 2012).

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