Ginger Nuts of Horror
With a limited edition hardback featuring a stunning painted cover by legendary poster artist Graham Humphreys (The Evil Dead, A Nightmare On Elm Street) and a series of eerie black and white interior illustrations from Cardiff artist Adam Blandon, new author Liam Ronan is making his debut in style. He’s written screenplays and has had his work showcased on ITV, but ‘Creeping Stick’, out now from Pendragon Press, marks his first foray into horror fiction.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m a first generation Star Wars kid, a child of the video shop era. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that prolonged exposure to the dreaded video nasties had a profound effect on me. That probably explains why I asked Graham Humphreys to do the cover for ‘Creeping Stick’, he did some of his best work on sleeves for Palace and the like...
I grew up in a Welsh steel town during what I consider to be a minor golden age of independent music and great genre film and literature. Not that it was easy getting hold of any of it - it’s all at your fingertips now, but back then, we had to really work at hunting down our guilty pleasures.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I still have a day job – I’m a communications manager working directly with the media – so most of my spare time is also my writing time. But I like to read, watch cult films, have fun with my wife and sons. We walk a lot. Most of the places we visit end up featuring in my writing in one form or another – the Welsh valleys, Kenfig National Nature Reserve, Sker Beach, Margam Country Park, places like that. South Wales has a great haunted landscape.
Other than the horror genre, what else has been a major influence on your writing?
Music, without a doubt. I play a lot of soundtracks when I write –‘Halloween III’, ‘28 Weeks Later’, ‘Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue’, ‘Angel Heart’… You can’t listen to the score for ‘The Fog’ without getting serious chills. I just find it inspiring. If it’s an action set piece, something like ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ or ‘The Warriors’ will do the job. Those cheap ambient albums you find in gift shops and garden centres can do the trick, too – the ones with titles like ‘Thunderstorm Symphony’ or ‘Coastal Melodies’. Seriously!
I was also lucky in that my father owned some land and kept animals, so a lot of my childhood was spent building stables, driving tractors, helping hill farmers bring in the harvest, that sort of thing. I loved working with my dad. He would tell me stories from growing up in Ireland, stuff about hearing the banshee on the night his brother died or how his mother had been bewitched by fairies while walking home along a dark country lane. All good ‘folk horror’ stuff.
It definitely helped shape my interests later on. I learned as much as I could about our own Welsh legends – the sin eaters, the sweet-smelling death poppies that foretold disaster, the ghostly hounds of Annwn loping along Morfa Beach, the death-knock of the Tolaeth, the voices of the judged locked within the stone walls of the Prince of Wales pub in Kenfig ... have you ever seen the Mari Llwyd? It’s more of a benevolent tradition than a legend, but it involves someone going from house to house dressed in a white shroud with a horse’s skull for a head. I’ve seen it for myself, and was amazed at how grotesque and eerie it looked!
That’s what I love about living and writing in Wales, though. There’s a real sense of otherworldliness here, and I try to put that across in my writing.
The term horror, especially when applied to fiction, always carries such heavy connotations. What’s your feeling on the term “horror” and what do you think we can do to break past these assumptions
Personally, I don’t care if someone likes the term or not. It’s a badge of honour. Stephen King once said that being labelled a horror writer put him in the same company as HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Bloch, all those guys... That’s not too shabby, is it?
A lot of good horror movements have arisen as a direct result of the socio/political climate, considering the current state of the world where do you see horror going in the next few years?
Well, let’s see… the ‘70s were angry and disenfranchised and gave us ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, ‘Last House On the Left’ and so on. The ‘80s were greedy – lots of consumer classics like ‘Reanimator’ and ‘Society’ there. The ‘90s seemed a little bit lost, really, but from 2000 to now, I think we’ve basically been paving the way for a return to the anger of the ‘70s. God, I hope so… There’s plenty to feel angry about.
What are the books and films that helped to define you as an author?
‘The Outsiders’ by SE Hinton. It still blows my mind that she wrote it while still a teenager. They teach about it now in the school my kids attend, but I discovered it at Taibach Library in Port Talbot, where I spent many a rainy Saturday afternoon as a child, and loved it. It really, really moved me. I mean, I can still quote the lines where Johnny dies in the hospital.
‘The Keep’ by F Paul Wilson taught me the power of a good hook via the classic blurb line ‘Request immediate relocation. Something is murdering my men’. ‘The Tomb’ was great too, I always imagined an in-his-prime Mickey Rourke playing Repairman Jack…
Anything, and I mean anything, by Joe Lansdale, but especially ‘The Bottoms’, ‘The Big Blow’ and ‘Mucho Mojo’. I also love John Connolly’s work. He does something with the landscape, makes it a character all of its own… I could talk about this stuff all day.
What new and upcoming authors do you think we should take notice of?
Hmm… well, there’s me, for a start! ‘Creeping Stick’ is my debut, and I have a few others on the way. ‘Mist Angels’ will probably be next. I also have an idea for a follow-up to ‘Creeping Stick’ that is vaguely related to its themes without being a direct sequel. We’ll see.
How would you describe your writing style?
It depends on the nature and topic of what I’m writing. With ‘Creeping Stick’ there is a sense of forbidden knowledge and the unknown at play, but wherever the ‘real life’ aspects are concerned, I’m a big believer in tying up loose ends and making sure everything makes sense. No room for half measures…
Back in 2007 ITV screened a comedy I’d written called ‘What Goes On Tour’. I packed it full of colloquial terms and phrases, the sort of very broad humour that you would find in the Welsh valleys.
‘Creeping Stick’ is my first published book, but in many ways it is not typical of the sort of thing I normally write. It’s set during some unspecified, pseudo-Victorian era, so I’ve presented the text accordingly. It also moves from Victorian Gothic to American Gothic, so there’s a shift there, too. It is partly inspired by what I thought Lucio Fulci didn’t show us in his classic horror film ‘The House By the Cemetery’, all those ghastly processes and procedures that Doctor Freudstein must have developed to keep himself alive down in his basement lair.
I have something else I am working on, a horror story that takes place during the Vietnam war, so I’ve been heavily researching that to try and capture the authentic feel and tone that kind of very specific setting demands.
Are there any reviews of your work, positive or negative that have stayed with you?
Well I’m only just starting out, but ‘Creeping Stick’ has earned a full five star review at the Good Reads website, and has been mentioned as a book to look out for by ‘The Dark Side’ magazine. But my favourite review has compared it with the work of a well-known horror titan – “Vivid descriptive prose abounds here with some startling, not to say, disturbing imagery on display. The writing here is reminiscent of Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, that’s how good it is, and presents a potent mix of body horror, creeping tension and even a dash or two of steampunk imagery.” I’m not going to argue with that!
What aspects of writing to do you find the most difficult?
Probably just finding enough time to sit down and write without being interrupted… I guess we all start off in similar circumstances, with day jobs and parental responsibilities and whatnot. Nobody ever has it easy first time out, so you just find ways that are suitable to whatever those circumstances may be.
For example, I wrote ‘Creeping Stick’ in a series of different phases, usually inbetween feeds while the baby was sleeping or while leaning off the edge of my bed using a laptop, just trying to grab twenty minutes here and there. But ‘Mist Angels’ has been written at a desk I set up in my garage. That may sound a bit odd or uncomfortable, but it was perfect - no phone calls, no distractions. I put on the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack, listened to the rain hitting the roof and just sailed through that one.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
Not really… probably sex scenes, to be honest. They bore the hell out of me in books, I always skip over them. Although there was an ace book doing the rounds in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s called ‘The Burning’, a real literary nasty – no relation to the slasher film – which the kids at school used to read out loud. Pardon the pun, but my 13 year old self remembers that one as being fairly scorching. But no, there’s not much chance of me ever being shortlisted for one of those Bad Sex In Fiction awards.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
Oh, the names are hugely important… in ‘Creeping Stick’, the villain was originally called Uriah Spindle. I thought it was a good, old-fashioned, penny dreadful type of name, and originally pictured him as a cross between Quilp from Charles Dickens’ ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and a diseased version of the Child Catcher as seen in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. But as the story evolved, I needed something more exotic to suggest his nomadic, privileged upbringing in the far flung corners of the British Empire, also wanting to evoke something more metaphysical as he has been exposed to a multitude of faiths and beliefs.
I settled on calling him Raziel, which was the name of an archangel entrusted with the secrets of God himself, adding Menelaus as a middle name. In Greek it means ‘wrath of the people’. The wasting disease that he suffers from marks him as being visibly different, but he doesn’t become a true monster until later in the book, and under very specific circumstances. That’s the point at which Graham Humphreys has depicted him on the cover.
Writing, is not a static process, how have you developed as a writer over the years?
I’d like to think I’ve developed intolerance for poor or lazy writing. Have you ever seen ‘Demons 2’? There’s a scene where a couple have to get off the top of a building using ropes, and the husband turns to the wife and says “Remember those rescue courses we did last summer?” I mean, come on… They had four writers on that thing, and that was the best they could come up with?
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
Coffee, persistence and a dedication to making it the best that you can - no half-measures. Just because it’s horror or sci-fi or whatever, if you can’t believe what a character is saying or doing, the reader isn’t going to buy into it, either.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received with regards to your writing?
I was lucky in that my first boss, a guy called Derek Hooper, was a former old-school London journalist who taught me how to write effectively. I can’t think of a way in which he didn’t have an impact on my writing… He used to say “Write me some copy so crisp it crackles!” And I think Joe Lansdale once described the secret of writing as being something like: put paper in typewriter. Plant ass in chair. Start typing.
Incidentally, Joe Lansdale is hugely generous when it comes to advice - he’s been patient enough to answer every question I have ever sent him. I’ve also been impressed by something a good friend who has recorded several excellent albums once told me – you can be the most talented person in your chosen field, but it’s the ones who never give up that will ultimately succeed. Just set yourself a deadline, find a way to write whenever you can, and work your way towards hitting that deadline. And then never stop until it is out there.
Getting your work noticed is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve, how have you tried to approach this subject?
Write a bunch of killer hooks to catch people’s attention, set up a webpage, use social media, tap into other mediums like images and book trailers, all that kind of stuff. ‘Creeping Stick’ has a Facebook page and a YouTube channel, for example. I took note of advice from established writers, again thanks to the wonders of social media...
A lot of first time writers try to get ahead with some kind of recommendation from an established writer, and there’s nothing wrong with this. The internet may have made it easier to connect with established writers, but I think it is important to be respectful and not to expect any free handouts – people are busy and get asked all the time, so a ‘no’ should not be taken personally.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
At the moment? ‘Creeping Stick’. If it ended up being the only book I ever have published, I’d still be damned proud of it. And grateful, too – especially to Chris Teague of Pendragon Press and sub-editor Ross Warren.
And are there any that you would like to forget about?
Not really… at this stage I’m more focused on bringing my stuff out into the light, so there’s quite a bit of quality control going on.
For those who haven’t read any of your books, which of your books do you think best represents your work and why?
Anyone reading my work for the first time – which is going to be whoever picks up a copy, let’s face it – will be starting with ‘Creeping Stick’. I submitted it to Pendragon, and they liked it enough to publish it as a limited edition hardback with a beautiful cover by Graham Humphreys, who did the iconic film posters for ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’, ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Evil Dead II’ and more.
The hardback also features a series of seriously creepy black and white interior illustrations by a Welsh artist called Adam Blandon, whose work is just superb –he deserves every bit of the praise that this has earned him.
But the style of the book, its language and descriptive approach, is not typical of my overall writing – it’s just what ‘Creeping Stick’ called for. There’s a bonus short story included with the hardback called ‘Scaring Crows’ which demonstrates this, and I think the epilogue does too. The next book will be different again.
Do you have a favourite line or passage from your work, and would you like to share it with us?
“Eleven year old boys have many reasons for wanting to burn down their schools. Rory only needed one, and it went by the name of Mr Hopkiss.” That’s the opening line of a short story I did called ‘Teachers Are Evil’, I quite like that one.
If it was something from ‘Creeping Stick’, it would probably have to be: “Tend to your fire and stand guard against the dusk. Do not mistake the scattering of sand against your pane as something you can afford to dismiss, lest you turn a blind eye to the grim affairs of Raziel Menelaus Spindle, also known in certain parts as Mister Stick, or the Stickman, or Creeping Stick. For your children may yet come to know the horrors that lurk within his House of Perpetual Lament, in the company of laughing shadows, and in the shade of the beckoning dark.”
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
‘Creeping Stick’ takes the form of a written death bed confession from a former priest who has been cut off by the church. He has no one to give him last rites or absolve him from his sins, of which there are many, so he turns to paper and ink, intending it to also serve as a warning about what happened to his home village, which has been utterly devastated, and what may still be lurking out there.
As the confession unfolds, we discover that the title ‘Creeping Stick’ was the nickname given by the village children to Raziel Spindle, a rich merchant who wanted to build an orphanage in the area. He suffers from a terrible disease and is a ruthless businessman, but is no villain – not at the start. A series of events occur throughout the book that make him that way, and when he takes on the mantle of monster, he really applies himself.
There are all kinds of deranged insanity once the characters discover the House of Perpetual Lament, and the true nature of Spindle’s revenge against them. It’s grim with a capital ‘G’, and I hope readers will find it scary and atmospheric as well.
My next book will probably be ‘Mist Angels’. It’s completed and undergoing a rewrite at the moment. That one is set around an old colliery high in the Welsh valleys, and has strong elements of folk horror as well as violent action set pieces. It also has vague links with ‘Creeping Stick’.
After that, I have a Vietnam horror novel called ‘The Teeth In The Darkness’ on the go, and ‘The House At Gallows Drop’, which is a ghost story. Plus I have an idea for a possible follow-up to ‘Creeping Stick’. That would take place during a different time period altogether, and would be presented very differently to the original.
If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?
I think it’s more fun to take a cliché and twist it on its head rather than abolish it completely.
What was the last great book you read, and what was the last book that disappointed you?
I’m a big fan of the Dexter novels, but that final one didn’t work at all for me. I think it was because I had high expectations going in that the book would round off the series in a far more satisfying way than the television show managed, so I was setting myself up for a fall...
As for the last ‘great’ book I read, it’s probably ‘The Pilo Family Circus’, which has been out for several years now, but I re-read it recently and enjoyed it just as much as I did first time round. It’s about a guy who is forced to join a troop of bad-ass circus clowns, the kind who carry switchblades and rob people in dark alleyways. On the second reading, I realized that it was also an allegory for schizophrenia. I love that, coming back to a book and discovering something new.
What's the one question you wish you would get asked but never do? And what would be the answer?
There’s actually two questions – the first being “John Carpenter wants you to develop your idea for a proper sequel to ‘The Thing’, will you do it?”, and the second being “Will you sign this multi-million pound book deal, please?”
I’ll let you guess what my answers would be…
As the eternal hunger of Creeping Stick consumes the grim secrets of a small coastal town, venture into the House of Perpetual Lament with Raziel Spindle. . . And discover a new reason to be afraid of the dark.
The debut novella from a promising new writer of the dark and supernatural, Liam Ronan.
Published as a limited edition of 100 hardcovers, signed by Liam, with cover art from cult film poster artist Graham Humphreys along with a gallery of interior artwork courtesy of talented new artist Adam Blandon, including these two sample images: