Ginger Nuts of Horror
Benedict J Jones is a writer from south east London who mainly works in the crime,horror genres. His first story was published in 2008 in 'One Eye Grey' since then he has been published in a multitude of genre magazines, websites and in several anthologies. His debut collection of crime fiction is "Skewered and Other London Cruelties" (Crime Wave Press)
Hello Ben how are things with you?
Hi Jim, I’m really good thanks. Had a great year so far and it only seems to be getting better.
Who exactly is Ben Jones? What are your three best qualities and what are your worst three qualities?
Well, I’m a thirty three year old writer from south east London who mainly works in the genres of horror, crime and the western. In terms of my best qualities they’re probably that I’m imaginative, loyal and hardworking while the worst ones are impulsiveness, disorganisation and not believing in myself enough.
Everyone’s journey to becoming a writer is different, from the inspiration to start writing to lessons learned in getting your first story published. What made start this journey and what are some of the highs and lows so far?
I think it all goes back to the bare bones of what all writers of fiction are doing – telling a story and creating a world for the reader. Since I was young I’ve always written. For a long time it was something I just did for me and then in the late nineties I read a short crime novel by Victor Headley called “Yardie” and that really inspired me to want to write something that caught certain aspects of London. So I wrote a crime novel, which is actually a novella, called “The B-Line Blues”. When I finished it I didn’t do much with it but I carried on writing. At the same time I was reading short fiction by people like Clive Barker and Stephen King which was feeding my appetite for horror. So a lot of the shorts I wrote around then were horror, I rarely submitted anything that I wrote, and that continued until 2007 when one of the stories was finally picked up.
Honestly, every time I see something of mine in print it’s a massive high and getting paid to write is always great. The print version of my collection “Skewered; And Other London Cruelties” is probably the highest high so far. In terms of lows it’s the rejections and also when writing longer things when you convince yourself it’s awful – I think I’m only just realising how to work through that.
It’s around six years since you were first published, do you feel confident in calling yourself a writer? Do you feel as though you have paid your dues?
That’s a really good question. For me it seems that, mentally, every time I achieve something I move the goal posts. At first I thought I’ll consider myself a writer when I actually get published, then once I had ten publications under my belt, then twenty, then the collection, now the novel. But for the last couple of years I’ve considered myself a writer and am happy to refer to myself as such.
With regards to paying dues I think that’s a constant thing that I’m always working towards. I’ve been in plenty of publications that I wanted to do but there are some that are still eluding me and that’s a good thing in that in makes me want to push to get in those publications. So even with the thirty odd short stories I’ve had published I very much feel that I’m still paying those dues and I think that that’s a positive thing.
You write both horror and crime, would you say you are more comfortable writing in one genre or the other?
I think I go through periods where one genre comes more easily than another but then a lot of the time I like to mix them up together anyway. The hybrid crime-horror story is a particular favourite of mine. But after working so much on the crime side of things recently, along with a lot of westerns, I’ve got a real hankering to lay down some “proper” horror as it has been a while.
When you sit down to write a story have you already got it in your mind as to which avenue it is going to travel?
Generally, yes. But a lot of the time while I have a destination in mind I’m not too sure of the route I’m going to take to get there and that comes as I work through the story. A few times I’ve had a complete plan to work to but that seems to lose some of the spontaneity that can come from meandering through the story.
Crime and horror share a common dark parentage, both in terms of shocking themes and narrative styles. In your opinion when does a crime story become horror story, is there a fine line that the story has to cross, or is more of a general haziness in the foggy streets?
For me, although there is a blurriness around the genres, they are quite distinct. Once a supernatural element enters into things then it becomes a horror story rather than crime. You often see Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” on best horror lists but to me that’s a crime novel. I think the genre haziness is in part due to the slasher films and books. Technically a lot of them are really crime stories – Ted Bundy attacking college girls type thing but once you add a pinch of the supernatural it becomes a horror story.
What can make it even more confusing is the little hybrid sub-genre of crime/horror – some of the Charlie Parker books and William Hjortsberg’s “Falling Angel”. They’re clearly crime novels but are also horror novels.
I really like the fact that two genres are so closely related and crossover in certain parts. It allows you, in certain circumstances, to play with the reader – is it supernatural or is the monster purely human. Then of course crime itself is a very broad school that encompasses a lot of stuff that is very varied in tone. In many ways I find crime a lot more shocking and scary than some horror. It’s that inhumanity of man to other men that really scares me.
One of the factors in both genres that seems to run rampant is the love of the first person narrative, why do you think that is?
I suppose that it pulls the reader in closer and lets the author speak very directly to them. It also allows the writer to act and lie in a more convincing fashion. You can really get into the head of a character and then almost channel that directly onto the page.
It’s also a very personal way of telling a story. You’re asking the reader to listen to you directly and then trust you, or not as the case may be with some of the more unreliable first person narratives.
While I enjoy the narrative style I always felt that it cuts through a lot of potential sense of dread as we know that unless the writer uses a massive dues ex machina the hero is going to get out of it alive. How do you as a writer ensure that the tension and thrill level of your stories is maintained when using this narrative style?
I’m not sure it reduces the level of dread it just comes at it in a different manner. Personally I’ve never put much store in the “how did he tell the story if he’s dead at the end” line. It’s all in how it is told – diary entries, thoughts or conversation to self, these can all be first person and give perfectly feasible ways to kill off the narrator.
In terms of maintaining the thrills and tension you can mix up the points of view. While I wouldn’t do this much in the shorter form I used a mixture of first and third person throughout the novella and this is a device that we see John Connolly use in the Charlie Parker series. In one of Ray Banks’ novels, “Saturday’s Child”, he uses a double first person narrative rushing towards each other through the story like two maniacs playing chicken and all the reader can do is hang on and wait for the crash.
So what’s the crime scene like in the UK, I don’t mean the big supermarket brand of crime, more the grassroots level.
I’ve found it quite different to the small press horror scene. I think this in part was to do with the massive crash in the horror industry, which now seems to be writing itself, which never happened to crime. In that sense it never feels that there is the same level of cottage industry going on.
In some senses this links back to what I mentioned earlier about crime being a broad church. I can only really talk for the hard boiled and noir element in the UK crime scene, not the cosy mysteries and all that. I think it’s in pretty rude health and that’s no in small part due to the internet. There’re some real quality venues for international crime fiction emerging and UK authors are playing their part in that.
Who would you recommend we should be reading out of this scene?
Ray Banks is excellent; his PI novels in the Cal Innes quartet is well worth searching out and his novel “Matador” is a must. Gareth Spark does some excellent work. David Siddall’s recent novella, “A Man Alone” was a great urban western. Paul D Brazill has been consistently putting out work of a real quality and Chris Leek is doing some good stuff. Ken Bruen is now slightly bigger, thanks to films and TV series from some of his books, but his works are a must for any fan of British noir – his Jack Taylor books, although set in Galway, are possibly the darkest things I have ever read.
As an aside there are quite a few multi genre writers out there who we probably consider as horror writers but also write horror. The one I’d really like to mention is Joel Lane. His passing was a huge loss to the horror community but his crime fiction was among some of the best I’ve read and I can’t recommend the chapbook “Do Not Pass Go” highly enough.
Is it as vibrant as in the US, your brand of gritty crime, dare I say neo noir (I’m not really down with the crime kids) seems to be alive and kicking in the US with publications such as Shotgun Honey?
I’d have to say no. For me we seem to be lacking that middle ground, before your books are in Waterstones. The small press venues and publications that you see in the small UK Horror presses just aren’t there. Although in some ways that’s good because it means that these writers can’t “stay in the scene” they have to push out and look beyond the UK’s borders.
But once you start looking closely at the new US Presses coming through you can see the British connection immediately. A lot of the authors I mentioned earlier, and myself, have been featured on Shotgun Honey, Dave Siddall’s novella came out through All Due Respect (another great US small press who also published my story “Habeus Corpus” in their first anthology) and Chris Leek’s novella “The Gospel of the Bullet” is coming out through One Eye Press.
What is about London and crime stories, even when they are nasty and gritty, setting them in London just seems to make them seem that little more glamorous than if they had been set in say Manchester, why is this, or is this just me being a silly old romantic?
Well I occasionally feel silly having people do stuff in London, thinking this would be more believable in New York, but then I just watch the news and check out a few crime reporting sites and go “oh,”. Similarly once you start reading crime reports on a regular basis you realise it’s everywhere and I think it has probably always been like that to a degree. Sure the big cities with high population densities have a higher I of certain types of crime but there’s some different stuff out there in the sticks.
That said a lot of the writers that I mentioned earlier do not set their works in London. I do think that noir is a sense of mind, similar to horror, in that you can set it anywhere. It’s all about how you are made to feel and what the writer can inspire in you.
But the sprawling beast that is the Big Smoke is so inspiring to me that I feel a little bit guilty when I write about anywhere else. London just is, it’s what I see and experience every day and that bleeds through into my writing, hopefully.
Your debut collection Skewered: And Other London Cruelties has just been released. For those who haven’t read it is there a significance behind the title?
Initially the novella was called something entirely different. After discussions with the publisher we came up with Skewered and once we added the additional shorts cruelties came to mind. Skewered links into the kebab theme of the novella but also how a lot of the characters in the stories end up – whether that’s physically or emotionally.
What made you decide to publish a collection at this point in your career?
In truth it has been a dream for a long time. It was the aim and target when I wrote all those stories that never saw publication in the early two thousands, really was a dream and as the publications racked up it also seemed like the natural next step. A lot of the authors I have discovered over the years have been through their short form work before I moved onto the novels. For example I read Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” long before I picked up “The Damnation Game”.
Also as we discussed before I regard this as a milestone, just my name on the cover of a book seems to give me some validation in my claim to be a “writer”.
Is this a collection of original stories or is this a top of the pops of your writing career so far?
It’s a combination. The novella “Skewered” and the shorts “Red Christmas”, “With a Smile” and “Dirty Pictures” are all original whereas the rest were published in various print and online publications by some wonderful editors. “Real Estate”, the first appearance of Charlie Bars, was in Out of the Gutter Magazine. “Borrowed Time” on the Big Pulp! Website. “Hungry is the Dark” was in the “For the Night is Dark” anthology from Crystal Lake, “The Listening” in “Darker Minds” from Dark Minds Press, “Habeus Corpus” in the All Due Respect anthology and “Like Clockwork” was in “No Monsters Allowed”. “The Tick-Tick Man” appeared at “Pulp Metal Magazine”.
How much thought went into the running order of the stories, did you ever consider opening the collection with one of the shorter stories rather than the novella length Skewered?
In some ways I think it would’ve been better in “Real Estate” had appeared first as that is set before “Skewered” but it was good to present the novella first to let people get into the real “meat” of the book. So, yes, it was considered but we went with the novella first to really draw people in.
I must admit as an opening line to a book, the one from Skewered is right up there with the best of them. So what is your stance in Kebabs, are they a proper meal in themselves or should they only ever be consumed post booze up?
Thanks, Jim. Proper meal! I’m a massive fan of kebabs. My personal favourite is a chicken shish with no salad and plenty of chilli sauce although I do occasionally go for a kofte, lamb shish or mix of the above. Rarely do I step to the dark of donkey doners but it has happened, although I can’t see why someone would go for a chicken doner – nasty stuff.
I’m really lucky in that I’ve managed to find two great kebab shops; El Turkistan on the Old Kent Road and Capital Kebab on The Cut near Southwark Station that have never let me down although a couple of the more local places are pretty ropey.
There are some really nasty scenes in the book, how much research did you, for example I’m never going to use an iron again after that scene in Skewered (not that I ever have or had any inclination to do so). Have you spent an age researching East End torture techniques?
A lot of it comes from news reports I read. They always gloss over it a bit but once your imagination kicks in, or mine anyway, I start looking at things around the house in a different manner. Then there are things people tell you or overhear in the pub – it all goes in the files. As well stuff that read in all the genres and in factual books all go into the mix so when I need something nice and nasty it’s all in there ready to go.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection?
That’s a really hard one as they are all special to me in different ways as they were written at such different times. Apart from the novella its self I really enjoyed reading back “Hungry is the Dark” and that seems to be the one that a lot of people want to know more about with quite a few demanding a return of Harry. “Dirty Pictures” was actually written for someone who is very special to me so that always claims a little bit of my heart.
How well has the book been received?
The reviews have been hugely positive which is really good. Although we’re trying to get some reviews in the US so we can push it that way. The best thing for me has been the response from people I know, whether friends or through work, who in some cases aren’t massive readers who’ve picked the book up and then really enjoyed it. That means a lot to me. As well as that there are people who’ve followed me since my early work who seem to have really liked “Skewered…” even though horror is their main bag. I’m just blown away that there are people out there who got real enjoyment out of those words that I’ve squeezed out over the year and I suppose that is the real validation for any writer.
So what’s next for you I’ve heard mentioned horror western, has this found a publication yet?
Well, “Mulligan’s Idol”, the horror western novella, is still under consideration by a US publisher.
My short modern horror western, “Going South to Meet the Devil”, will be appearing in the “Darkest Minds” anthology that is going to be coming out from Dark Minds Press. But mainly I’ve been working on a Charlie Bars novel. It’s almost finished in first draft form so with a bit of work and some luck people may see that by the end of the year. Apart from that I’ve got a tonne of shorts that need rewriting before I can send them out and I’m just really enjoying being busy with it all.
It’s been a great pleasure Ben, and folks I urge you to buy the book, at the time of writing this interview I’m about halfway through it and it is a fantastic book. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have any final words for the readers?
Thanks, Jim, it’s been great talking to you again too. For the readers I’d say that I would, obviously, like you to pick up “Skewered; And Other London Cruelties” but before I’d ask you to do that stick my name into Google and have a read of one of the stories that are out there in the ether for free. If you like that, then maybe go for the collection – it’d be much appreciated.