Ginger Nuts of Horror
Having recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed James Everington’s volume Falling Over, and in anticipation of the release of his novella Trying To Be So Quiet, we sat down to chat with the author for an in-depth conversation about the writing of the short story collection.
GingerNuts of Horror: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with us. Let’s start with Falling Over. Can you remember now what inspired the setting for this story? There’s something impressively disconnected about student accommodation during a holiday, like a seaside resort in the off-season…
James Everington: My pleasure, Kit. Hmmm, that’s a tough question to answer. I think short stories work best when all the elements, character, plot, theme & whatnot are all in alignment, and I work hard at that. So after the event it’s tricky to unpick the story mentally and remember what came first. But as you suggest, the setting is key to this story; it’s not just the sense of isolation, it’s the fact that it’s a place normally full of life. I think deserted places (even if it’s only a temporary desertion) are really interesting settings: abandoned buildings, an office building at the weekend. It’s like they’re haunted by the absence of the people normally there.
And that reminds me, one day I do need to write a story set in an off-season seaside resort...
GNoH: Similarly, the protagonists are themselves in a kind of limbo - approaching the end of their studies, but not yet clear on the next step. To what degree was that a conscious choice in terms of contributing to the atmosphere of the story?
JE: That was pretty deliberate, because one of the ideas behind the story is that those characters are in the process of becoming someone else. Whether that’s a pod-person, a respectable member of society or something else entirely is a different matter. So yes, they are in limbo and don’t know where they will end up afterwards.
GNoH: There’s a powerful ambiguity at the heart of this story. Were you ever tempted to leave that hanging to the end, or did you always have a resolution in mind?
JE: No, I didn’t really know how this one would end until I finished it. I don’t tend to plan out my stories very much, and so sometimes like this one they surprise me. But I guess it was always going to end ambiguously; that’s pretty much hardwired into me. There is a resolution as you suggest: the character has chosen his fate (or been overtaken by it, at least). But precisely what that fate is, and even whether it’s good or bad, can be read multiple ways.
GNoH: I recently read that one definition of horror is when an author creates a situation where either the protagonist has gone insane, or the laws of nature have somehow been horrifically subverted, and the tension between those two positions creates almost a game between author and reader. Does that ring true to you? It feel to me like that speaks to that hardwired ambiguity you’re talking about…
JE: I certainly think that a lot of good horror has at its heart a central ambiguity about whether what is occurring is objectively real or just in the protagonist’s head. Turn of the Screw being the classic example. And as a horror writer I don’t always feel the need to answer that question. But sometimes it is more scary if you do, because to me that phrase you use: “the laws of nature horrifically subverted” is what is truly scary. Werewolves and things I don’t find horrifying as concepts because, within the context of a story, they’re just another physical thing that can kill you, like sharks or tigers. What I do find horrifying are those stories that imply that what we think we know, are basic human reason and logic, is wrong. That the whole house of cards must come tumbling down… Which is why I often write about more ghostly, ambiguous horrors.
GNoH: Moving on to ‘Fate, Destiny, and a Fat Man from Arkansas’, there’s a crime thriller undercurrent to this story. Is that a genre you’d be interested in working in more?
JE: I’m not sure, to be honest. FD&AFMFA uses some elements from crime thrillers, but it isn’t really written like one. It, like most of my work, is driven by atmosphere and a certain powerlessness of the central characters to change their fate. Which is pretty much the antithesis to a plot-driven thriller. So much as I’d like to write something like that, I’m not sure I have writing powers up to the task.
GNoH: That’s really interesting, because to me, fatalism can often be a strong part of crime fiction, especially the noir side. This one also felt reminiscent of a ‘deal with the devil’ type story, in some ways - was that conscious on your part?
JE: Not specifically the ‘deal with the devil’ idea, but a lot of horror is about the consequences of people’s actions and how they might be more far-reaching and implacable than you realise. And this story is very much playing with that idea. The horror is that it doesn’t really matter what the two criminals do in the story: the die is cast and their fate, in the form of the Fat Man From Arkansas, is coming for them no matter what...
GNoH: Does that aspect of horror ever bother you? I always have this nagging feeling that fatalism is small-c conservative by nature…
JE: Hmmm, I’m not sure about that. I think it’s more fatalism; it’s more writing about what I’m scared of. And one of those things is being trapped in a situation that we can’t change, even though we know it will end in the worst way imaginable. So life, basically (I’ve turned into Marvin the paranoid android here). We’re all there on that car journey in ‘Fate, Destiny, and a Fat Man from Arkansas’ and we all know it can only end one way, no matter the route we take.
GNoH: Looking at ‘New Boy’, again there's strong themes of alienation here. Can you recall now how you made the connection between the world of temping and that eerie sense of dislocation? It feels like such a natural fit, and yet I can’t immediately recall it being done before…
JE: Because I worked as a temp is the short answer. And you’re right, it creates a disconnect from the world, because you’re living in the short term, you can’t be certain of anything more than a few weeks ahead: not your job, not your rented home, not your friendships with other temps. And so you feel of detached from it all, to a degree, a spectator of your own life. Which from a fiction writing point of view is an interesting thing to explore. Although it wasn’t a conscious continuation, the story naturally follows on from the title story–the temps in ‘New Boy’ could be the students from ‘Falling Over’ a few years later.
GNoH: Again in this story there’s a powerful sense of dissonance between the narrator’s sense of the world and the way others perceive things, and it’s delivered very skillfully. What techniques do you employ as a writer, either on a sentence or story level, to transmit that sense of imbalance to the reader?
JE: The way I think of it is like that thing when you get a new car, and suddenly see that model of car everywhere. The world hasn’t changed, but the filters through which you perceive the world have. I think we’re all unconsciously filtering our perceptions of the world all the time. So from a fiction writing point of view, when describing a character’s surroundings, I always want to know how they’re filtering the world: what will they notice and how will they interpret it? What won’t they notice?
GNoH: Another aspect that impressed me throughout was your character work. Does this filtering idea apply to how you get into a character's head?
JE: Yes, very much so. It’s a way of describing character and the external world simultaneously, which appeals to me as a technique. I believe that good writing is writing that does more than one thing at the same time.
GNoH: ‘The Time of Their Lives’ has an incredibly strong sense of place. To what extent do you visualise the settings for your stories? Do you have a clear picture of the hotel in your mind?
JE: It’s based on a combination of hotels I’ve stayed in, including those I imperfectly remember from childhood holidays. In general, the amount of time I devote to setting depends on how important the place is to the feel or plot of the story, plus what duration of the story the characters will actually spend there. So the hotel in ‘The Time of Their Lives’ was pretty important to describe correctly, because it’s the setting for 90% of the story. It’s not so much visualising the place as it is selecting the right details about it. Which ties into the answer above, as well as my general view that every element of a short story needs to work together.
GNoH: Your child lead was very well realised here. What do you find to be the challenges and pleasures of writing young characters?
JE: I found it quite easy, to be honest. A lot of horror stories are told from the point of view of outsiders, and children are the ultimate outsiders to all things adult. Again, the challenge in writing them is the same as for writing characters of any age: understanding what they see in the world around them, and what that indicates to the reader about their inner weather.
GNoH: I’m just going to say that ‘The Man Dogs Hated’ is a perfect short story, in my opinion. However, I’m conscious of your author note, so I’ll understand if these are tough to answer. Did you land on the voice immediately for this piece?
JE: Thanks! But yeah, it is hard to answer because this story is one of those odd ones that just came to me, and I wrote it. The voice is integral to it of course, you’re absolutely right (which is part of the reason I sometimes pick this one for readings). I just woke up one day with this story, in that voice, in my head. I wish I could say something more interesting, sorry!
GNoH: There’s a lot going on with this piece, but one phrase that kept coming back to me is ‘the banality of evil’. Was that on your mind at all in the writing? Do you think that’s a fair assessment of one of the themes of the piece?
JE: I’m not so sure about banality, to me It’s more about how people don’t think that they’re evil. The characters in the story think they are doing what’s right; they’re protecting their neighbourhood from something that doesn’t belong. The reader might beg to differ but do they actually know that for sure?
GNoH: Was there a lot of edit/re-write work on this one, or did it come out fairly clean? It feels very well polished…
JE: Barely any, sorry! The odd nip and tuck but that’s it. If all stories were as easy to write as ‘The Man Dogs Hated’ I’d have far more written by now. But, as I’m sure you’re painfully aware Kit, most stories are absolute bastards.
GNoH: ‘Sick Leave’ does a great job of capturing that fog of a nasty head cold. Was it inspired by illness, or was it more a case of connecting with that feeling because of the wider theme of the story?
JE: The original inspiration was from wanting to write about The Black Death. Because when you look at things that worry us today, we’ve no idea. The plague killed something like a third of the population of Europe in a relatively short number of years. Just imagine that! Well, of course we can’t really. So I wanted to write about it, but not in a literal historical way. And it struck me that The Black Death was kind of emblematic of both death and illness in general. I’m not a hypochondriac, but the first sneeze of every winter I always flash back to reading about ‘Captain Trips’ in The Stand. So I wanted to capture that kind of feeling; the paranoia of illness.
GNoH: So did the ‘Ring of Roses’ song inspire the setting, then? I’m wondering where the creepy kinds came from...
JE: Well, every horror author has to write at least one creepy kids story, don’t they? It’s kind of a rule… But anyway, yes I’ve always known that song since being a child (non-creepy variety) and one day I found somewhere there were different variations on the lyrics, so that was part of the initial inspiration. I mean, it’s both amazing and weird when you think about it: the folk memory of a truly apocalyptic medieval plague has survived as a song children still sing, in the age of smartphones and hoverboards.
GNoH: There’s a subtle feeling throughout this story of the past infecting the present, somehow. What that part of what you were going for, or a happy accident?
JE: Absolutely. That’s part of what I was getting at talking about the song above. The past isn’t something we can escape no matter how hard we try; nor our biological limitations. It’s part of the reason I think we’re so scared by stories about SARS or bird-flu or whatever the next thing will be. If one of those diseases ever does mutate and become contagious like scientists fear, it will be like the past returning. Bodies in the street; marks on doors. Maybe kids will sing creepy songs about the resulting plague in 2216.
GNoH: ‘Public Interest Story’ felt to me to be a very angry piece (I mean that as a compliment), which the author’s note seems to confirm. Am I correct about that? Can you talk about the roots of that anger a bit?
JE: As I say in the author’s notes, I think the UK tabloid press are an absolute disgrace. And I wanted to explore that in a story, but to make their machinations more like a Kafkaesque nightmare. I think if I’d attempted to write a realistic piece on their activities I’d never have come up with anything as bad as how low they actually behave. And again, aside from the media angle it’s a similar universal theme to some of the others stories we’ve spoken about: being caught in a desperate situation and not being able to escape from it.
GNoH: Alienation is a recurring theme in this collection, but here it feels more pointed, the result of malice. Do you think it’s true that ‘man is the real monster’?
JE: Hah, I dunno. I’m always in two-minds about this idea. I obviously see that, yes, there are no monsters but us really. But it’s quite a boringly literal idea; I think some of the best horror is about the monstrous as the other; that which what we can’t know beyond our own selves. The Willows for example is one of the finest horror stories ever, and it has no truck with the idea man is monstrous; man isn’t important enough to be monstrous, we’re small-fry compared to whatever awe-inspiring entities we half glimpse there…
And with Public Interest Story it’s not so much individual maliciousness. It’s a depersonalised system, a process. It ruins his life but it’s not aimed at him specifically; it could have been anyone.
GNoH: I found this to be a political story (though not party political), and incredibly effective on that level. Is that something you’d ben keen to explore again in your work? What do you see as the attractions and pitfalls of that kind of story?
JE: Sure, but I guess I approach it more obliquely than straight on. (The same with warfare in Drones.) It’s not direct satire, because for one I’m not sure I could write like that, and two I’d worry that it would date really quickly. It’s more a nightmarish, surreal version of the political power the media wield–taking it to the nth degree and seeing what I can craft from that.
GNoH: It’s been three years since Falling Over came out. Are you still working in the short form? Is there another collection on the cards at some point?
JE: Oh yes, absolutely. I love short stories and can’t envisage a time when I won’t be writing them. I think the form of the short story is a perfect fit for horror (think of how many of the genre’s classics are short stories) and also a perfect fit with my talents, such as they are. For the most part I’ve been working on longer form work for the past eighteen months and I’m itching to get back to some short stories.
As for a third collection, definitely. I have enough stories but whether they all fit together in a single collection I don’t know yet. I might write a few ‘exclusives’ for the next book too, but even so I hope to start trying to see if anyone is interested in publishing it late this year or early next.
GNoH: Your new novella, ‘Trying To Be So Quiet’ has been getting some rave reviews, including from this site.Are you happy with the reception it’s gotten so far?
JE: Yes, very much so. Well, flabbergasted is probably a better word. And thankful. It’s always nerve wracking waiting for the first reviews to come in, but when people who have as good taste as Jim rate your work it makes it all worthwhile.
GNoH: Finally, what does the rest of 2016 have in store for James Everington? What do your readers have to look forward to?
JE: Quite a few things, although that’s more due to the vagaries of the small press than me being prolific. You’ve already mentioned Trying To Be So Quiet which I imagine will be out by the time people are reading this. Then in July Infinity Plus (who published Falling Over) will be releasing The Quarantined City which is one part horror, one part Borgesian strangeness, and one parts spicy foods. It’s about someone in the titular city, seeking out a reclusive writer by reading his stories. And they are odd stories...
And then at Fantasycon I’ll be launching a new novella called Paupers’ Graves which is a horror story set firmly in the real world, and is about death and class and the effects of the past persisting into the present. That will be out from Hersham Horror, alongside some novellas from some other cracking authors…
So lot’s to look forward to!
Thanks so much for your time, James, and best of luck with your writing for 2016 and beyond.
James Everington mainly writes dark, supernatural fiction, although he occasionally takes a break and writes dark, non-supernatural fiction. His second collection of such tales, Falling Over, is out now from Infinity Plus.
2016 will see the release of a ghostly novella Trying To Be So Quiet from Boo Books and The Quaran-tined City, an episodic novel mixing Borgesian strangeness with supernatural horror, from Infinity Plus.
James has had work published in The Outsiders (Crystal Lake), Supernatural Tales, Morpheus Tales and Little Visible Delight (Omnium Gatherum), amongst others.
Oh and he drinks Guinness, if anyone's asking. You can find out what James is currently up to at his Scattershot Writing site.