“You have Red Riding Hood sleeping with a wolf! That’s not what Red Riding Hood is about at all!”
After the huge success of part one of our interview with John Connolly Ginger Nuts of Horror are proud to present the second of our three part interview with one of the greatest dark fiction writers of our generation. In this instalment find out just why John was banned from the Richard and Judy Book Club. his feelings about marketing books, and how common themes in all his are woven into his fiction.
CB: I’ve just finished reading “Nocturnes II” and it has a very different tone to your first book of “Nocturnes”. The stories in book two seem to focus more on the point of the death, particularly for individuals and how they experience it – do you think that’s fair? Whereas, to me, in book one, it seemed that you concentrated more on monsters. I’m thinking in particular of the one in the hotel where he passes away in “Nocturnes II”. I just wondered if that was an intentional focus or one that evolved as you were writing it?
JC: I think the first collection was very indebted to the writers that I’ve read. It was indebted to MR James, and there were bits of Poe in it, and yes it was very creature-led and horror-led to a degree. And I wonder… I’ve kind of been talking about the essay at the end of it that deals with Stephen King for example, that the idea that things that frighten you as you get older change. If you read early King, when he’s a parent, a lot of the books are about things happening to children, “Pet Sematary” in particular. You know, the fear of something awful happening to your children. So you’re almost like probing a wound, you’re picking at the thing that’s most terrifying to you. As he’s got older, the books increasingly deal with injury and mortality. They’re often about adults suffering and adult suffering. There’s that lovely line that the concavities of my body are like another hell for their capacity.
All horror is body horror,
essentially: all horror deals with physicality
or emotional or psychological pain.
But I suppose that when I wrote those early stories I was still very young; they were written, some of them, just after my first book had been published so I was in my early thirties. Now I’m approaching my late forties and, you know, having buried people and seen friends die and things, I think perhaps it’s a slightly more melancholy collection. So I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I’m sure that’s probably true. I think it’s probably much more personal than the first one.
CB: Yeah, it certainly feels it.
JC: The first one was really me jumping into the genre pond and splashing about saying, “Look what I can make! This is great!” The second one was written over a much longer period of time. I’d been hit by vans and things, a bit like King – although not as badly as he was, thank god – but in a way I was aware of those elements to them, I think. And I’m much more pleased with [“Nocturnes II”] because it is more personal than the first one was.
CB: Which kind of leads me onto: what gave you the inspiration for the simple but unique concept of the Caxton Lending Library, and is there actually a lending library in Caxton?
JC: I would love that! That would be great, wouldn’t it?!
CB: I should clarify that in the Caxton Lending Library live all of the characters from fiction who are, whom the readers have such belief in them that they come to life, which is such a brilliant concept, so simple and yet so unique.
JC: It came about because I’d had this idea for a while. It began because I had an idea for story for a man who finds that he can actually change the fates of characters in books by altering first editions (it was the Anna Karenina thing). If he can get a first edition or a manuscript, he can alter them. And I’d always hated Thomas Hardy because his books come out just so relentlessly… you know, children committing suicide because they’re… oh lord. [JC peters off at this point since apparently words can’t do justice to his horror at Hardy ] So you know, [this man] figures that he can save Anna Karenina. Then Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Book Store, asked me for a story. His store was in trouble and he wanted writers to write in the office. I began writing what eventually became “Wanderer in Unknown Realms” but it was simply not suitable because it was too long. It was probably far too supernatural for what he wanted, and also I knew was part of a larger story that I wanted to explore. So then I had to put that aside and I went: “I need a story,” and I thought, “There is that one about the guy altering the first edition…” So I began writing it and that became the Caxton. At one point I was just going to do a volume of Caxton stories, but they’re actually really difficult to do because you have to read a lot, you know. Doing the Sherlock Holmes one was a nightmare because I’m not even a big Sherlock Holmes fan and suddenly you’re trying to pull all of these ideas together and create something out of them. So two was as much as I could do before I wanted to lie down, just thinking, “This really hurts my head. A lot.” What I’m nervous about the collection is that it’s a book about books; so many of the stories come back to books and the nature of books – the whole of the Fractured Atlas’s books, and the Caxton books. This theme recurs in all kinds of ways, and it’s something that’s consistent with “The Book of Lost Things”. It’s books as transformative elements, you know, books capable of transforming lives and changing, not just the way you look at the universe, but also altering the fabric of the universe as well.
CB: I did notice when you were talking about Route 66 earlier you talked about arriving at a door which said “please ring the bell”, and there was no bell, I wondered if that had made its way in as the bell to the Caxton Lending Library?
JC: Yeah, maybe! All of these things get put back in, you know.
JM: Your books were marketed, especially your Parker novels, as crime novels. In my opinion, they can be classed as horror and fantasy as well. How you feel about pigeon-holing fiction, and do you think you would have been as successful if your publishers had marketed you as, say, a horror writer?
JC: At that time, probably not. There was still a sense of (and, I think, there still is, although it’s getting better) that horror was the thing that you shoved to the back of the bookstore. It was suspect. You didn’t sell horror in supermarkets. It was slightly shameful. And there were a lot of reasons for that. In the United States, to a degree but not to same extent as it was here. I have to be very careful what I say, you know, but there was a period in the seventies and into the eighties, when British horror was kind of seedy. It had a seedy image. I would read those Van Thal anthologies and the Pan horror fiction which grew increasingly unpleasant. I was never a fan of Clive Barker; he was for me like the flip-side of “Carry On” films, you know, because they’re suffused with this fear of sex In Barker, it turns into something more; there’s a kind of loathing in there of sexual capacities and the physicality of it which made me- [JM lifts up his jumper to show off his Pinhead t-shirt which has so far been hidden from sight… There is much laughter] Oh! Sorry! Oops! And it was all going so well... But maybe that’s because I came from a very conservative society. I will admit that it’s a purely personal view as a reader but it didn’t endear me and, to be fair, I’m a very old fashioned horror reader. I almost stop when MR James died; you could have put a little tombstone on my door: “We end here with MR James”.
JM: You know, to be honest, apart from the “Hellraiser” films, I don’t really like Clive Barker either, for a lot of the same reasons. I mean, I got into a lot of bother for my review of the last book. The publicists and a lot of people didn’t like the fact that I thought it was rather terrible and badly written.
JC: Yeah, but he’s not particularly to my taste. And it is, as you say, a very personal and very visceral reaction. That’s the thing about horror, you know, it’s the only genre that’s named after a reaction that most of us don’t want to have to something. That put people off, especially female readers who saw sections marked “horror”. I mean, you wouldn’t want to see a section marked “pain”, would you? Well, there are certainly some people who would, but for the most part we don’t. And a lot of it put people off. As I mentioned in the introductory session [to Fantasy Con 2015], I’ve been going on radio a lot and been trying to explain to people that horror and the supernatural are different. We’re tempted to lump all of these things into one great bowl of stuff. There are actually all these subtle distinctions between them. And, to be honest, part of me doesn’t like horror. I don’t like the very visceral nature. Even my crime novels have become less violent. I find it slightly troubling. My fascination is much more with unease, you know, and that’s why I love James. Yeah, okay, there are moments of horror in the sense that you have these physical entities that have substance and smell and taste…
CB: That can reach out and touch you
JC: Yeah, and not just ethereal things that look like your Nan vaguely in the distance, but they actually have a presence in the world, which I love. But that doesn’t then taper necessarily into violence or destruction; what it does is create a really universal sense of unease, the idea that the world is much stranger than we all want to think. We are all semi-rational beings living in an anti-rational universe. It’s one of the interesting things about crime fiction. Crime fiction believes in the imposition of a kind of order upon life. I come from an anti-rational society, you know, I come from a Catholic society; you can’t be rationalist and Catholic, it’s simply not possible. You have to accept that people are not rational; people behave strangely and destructively. So I found that right from the beginning I had a distrust of the tenets on which a lot of crime fiction is based. It tends towards order while supernatural fiction has a kind of acceptance of the existence of disorder in it, and that this may be its natural state. I always veered more towards that an idea of it as an order.
JM: One of the overriding features of the characters in the Parker novels is that they ride the line of good and evil and they’re prepared to cross that line to reach their goals. How is this theme developed over the years?
JC: I think that Parker in particular is making a gamble with the universe. I think Victor Hugo once said that there are no small evils – each one draws from the same well. By doing an evil act you’re actually complicit in a greater evil. And Parker is gambling that you can do small evils to create less greater evils. But every time you do that, you sacrifice something of yourself and he’s wondering: is that a sacrifice he’s prepared to make? There’s a flip side to that. I have to do a session on character later, or about the creation of villains, and the thing is: nobody thinks that they are evil. Somebody once said that everybody has his reasons, and when you’re creating you can’t say, “how do you create villains?” when you take the point that there actually aren’t any villains. The people who do terrible things can always justify them. Even Hitler didn’t wake up and think, “I’m gonna be evil today”. You don’t want to fall into moustache-twirling. Everybody believes that they’re doing the right thing and has their justifications for it. And Parker is like them; he is prepared to justify things to satisfy a rage in himself. He feeds his own fires. But I was doing an event with a writer called Brian McGilloway yesterday in Belfast and I quite envied Brian because he wrote a lovely series of novels which he comes back to occasionally, about a detective who’s happy.
CB: What a novelty!
JC: Yeah! But his character has a family and is content. I sometimes feel that I’ve fallen into cliché with Parker and maybe did from the very start. It is very difficult to write about contentment and happiness. You have to be a very good writer to write about contentment, because contentment seems to us to be dull. Really, conflict and development seem to come out of anger, rage and trouble, particularly in mystery fiction. And, you know, the question I get asked a lot is: when is he going to be happy? And it’s quite hard – you’ve already created this person who is in torment and I really don’t know… I keep having these long dark teatimes of the soul, like Douglas Adams, about flaws and things that you might have done differently; it’s a hugely complex one. But yeah, he is gambling.
CB: Sticking to the Parker novels, both your Parker novels and your children’s novels share similar themes, the strongest of which is obviously childhood. How did you approach this theme in both sets of books, given that they were for two very different audiences?
JC: Mmmm…. Well, I suppose in the Parker books, children tend to be vulnerable and tend to need somebody to act on their behalf. That’s very much a hang over from reading Ross McDonald I think. I’m just a product of everybody I read! But we all are; you just hope that you can bring one percent of the little bit of you that progresses the whole of things slightly further than it was before. Well, McDonald had this passion about writing for young people in trouble and the sins of one generation being visited upon the next. Something of that I think was to do with his own absent father and the feeling that he had been shuttled around relatives from a child and never settled; he had some degree of blame and animosity towards adults who should have looked after him better than they did, I think. So I suppose that’s why, with the children’s books, they’re much more proactive.
CB: Like David, in “The Book of Lost Things”.
JC: Yes, David, or Samuel in a much lighter way in the “The Gates” who just breezes through life until he suddenly hits adolescence. But that idea that, especially if you’re talking to kids, you don’t want to write about kids who are dependant upon adults. You’re trying to say to children, “Look, actually, the world is a strange place; the world can be dark, the world can be strange and it can be hurtful but you have to approach it with a good heart and a degree of courage.” But also what I loved about fairy tales, and it’s one of the things I think that occurs in “the Book of Lost Things” is that fairy tales don’t necessarily want you to be good. What they want you to be is be clever.
CB: Yes, use your wits.
JC: Yes, exactly. And it doesn’t matter if you have to smudge the rule book a little bit to get along, because there will be people who are willing to smudge the rule book much further than you are. Which brings us back to Parker. Everybody has to compromise; you will have to do things that you might be slightly troubled by, but are necessary in order to prevent people doing greater harm to you. But yeah, there is that lovely idea for children that you can be agents of your own destiny, that you’re not entirely dependent on adults. And I think fairy tales are about teaching children that eventually they will have to take their place in the adult world and negotiate it. It’s one of the wonderful things about books. When I’m talking to parents on the radio (because I assume when I’m talking on radio that I’m actually talking to adults) who worry about their children reading horror or reading dark fiction, I say to them, “Actually, the fact that they’re reading that should give you cause for great joy because kids have an instinctive understanding of the darkness of the adult world. And these books are their means of negotiating the adult world, a means of negotiating fear itself, darkness itself. They allow you to put names on unnameable terrors. They allow you to call terrors zombies, vampires and werewolves or whatever it may be, and through that naming to engage in a process of exploration and self-discovery. I think a lot of adolescents, in the manner of Biblical things, put away childish things in the end, but then a handful of us think it’s still fascinating. Because you recognise that actually fear remains with you, what changes is the things that scare you and the things you have to deal with. But you still want, perhaps, to have that process of negotiation open to you.
CB: Well, it’s interesting that you should say about talking to parents about reading dark fiction as a way of kind of exploring it because I’m just about to do a fairy tale panel in about an hour or so, where I’m going to be saying exactly the same thing: that the whole point of fairy tales is obviously to give you a chance to experience things from the safety of sitting at grandma’s feet, but also a way of dealing with these things and how you should react.
JC: Yeah, and they were not aimed at very young children; they were aimed at pre-adolescents, but at a time when adolescence was the moment at which you entered adulthood. It was a time when you had to grow up much sooner as a child. I think that maybe we’ve mentioned this before but my publishers, in an attempt to do something with “The Book of Lost Things” before they realised that it was probably going to be okay, they submitted it to the Richard and Judy Book Club [there are sniggers and sidelong looks from JC and CB at this] Yeah, I know… And they created a book of lost things, they bound it in black leather so that when you opened it this castle appeared. It’s gorgeous.
CB: Have you still got it?! [said with a great deal of envy and awe]
JC: Yep! I have the Book of Lost Things. So they sent this thing in and were quite hopeful because they thought, “Well, you know, it’s a book about books and reading, and it’s also a book that adults and adolescents will read at different levels, and will take different things from.” Because for adolescents, it’s all immediate. But it’s a book that’s suffused with regret and regret is an adult emotion. Adolescents and children do not experience regret; it’s something you grow into. So they got it back from Amanda, or whatever her name was, the woman who read everything because Richard and Judy couldn’t be arsed, and she said, “We can’t possibly have this book.” It became the only book to be turned down by Richard and Judy on the grounds of bestiality, which I wear as a kind of a badge of pride now. She said, “You have Red Riding Hood sleeping with a wolf! That’s not what Red Riding Hood is about at all!” And you kind of think, “well, it’s not just a story about transvestite wolves, it is capable of bearing the weight of other readings”. But we were banging on a closed door quite frankly, and I always thought that she was tied into that very old fashioned view about what a fairy tale is, without the darkness of it.
CB: That is totally going to be our headline: How John Connolly describes being banned from the Richard and Judy club.
JM: “It’s not just about transvestite wolves”. That’s the quote, I think, of the whole convention.
CB: When you were in Leeds, I asked you the same question, so apologies for repeating but I wanted to put it in the interview. Are there any real life inspirations for Angel and Louis?
JC: No, not really. They simply wandered on, they’d been waiting in the wings, I think, and then suddenly they popped up. I have two very close male friends who will have arguments like that, and I’ve stolen wholesale conversations that they’ve had in the pub. It’s just this bickering way of men dealing with each other, because we just simply don’t show that kind of emotion, we deal through obfuscation. And they’ve changed, they’re not the same as the characters they were at the beginning. At the beginning they were more cartoonish, they’re slightly more nuanced now. I don’t know if there are writers out there whose characters emerge fully formed in a way. I think it is a process of development, often shedding things that aren’t appropriate. If you go back to someone like Ian Rankin writing the Rebus books, initially Rebus is a former SAS man in Northern Island. He’s this kind of hard guy character, but he’s not that now, and all the SAS stuff has fallen discreetly by the wayside. Or Colin Dexter: if you read the early Morse books, Morse reads pornography, lusts after schoolgirls, is really quite seedy, but then he gets played by John Thaw and the TV series excises all that stuff. By the end Morse is John Thaw. Actually the character as portrayed on television has determined the direction of the character in the books. I think very often you start out with things that actually, if you’d known that 15 or 16 years later you’re still going to be writing about those characters, you might not have put in. But usually you can subtly shade things and think, “No, actually, this is what’s interesting about this character, let’s cut away the stuff that isn’t relevant and let’s follow things that are curious”.
CB: It’s like characters taking on a life of their own. They tend to be more enthusiastic when talking about certain things, like those little bickering sections that you were mentioning – they’re fantastic and really bring the characters to life.
JC: Yeah, they do I suppose. And, you know, you suddenly realise that you live with them in your head for all of that time. Even when you’re not writing a book you’re living with them because you’re planning a book or thinking about a book, and somewhere in there they are going through an odd kind of life.
CB: [laughing] So you’ve got Angel’s voice in the background of your head?
JC: There is a little bit of that, yeah! And sometimes you find yourself in a situation and you look at it through a character’s eyes and you think, “How would this character deal with it? This character would be endlessly amused by that.” I’ve seen people fighting with shoes on the streets of Portland. I’ve seen really shit tattoos and just know that it’s the kind of thing that would annoy them. So all of that becomes grist because they’re in there with you. And it’s the fact that all of these characters are aspects of yourself, that’s what it comes down to. Even the worst of the characters has to have something of you in them. What I’ve often said is that I’ve given every sin I’ve committed to a character. [At this point, CB and JM exchange worried glances, recalling some of the sins in JC’s books…] Yeah, the worse things that I’ve done I’ve given to a character because, like I said, everything goes back to that idea that everybody has his reasons. You have to have an element of truth to all these characters. They say that you’re everybody in your dreams. Writing a book is like a written dream: you pop a little bit of yourself into every one, otherwise they don’t mean anything, and they’ve no truth to them. So even though the lowest of them (and I don’t necessarily mean the worst of them, just the guys who are a waste of space) have something. There’s a guy in the new one, the book I’ve just finished – literally just now upstairs in my room, there’s a guy who was great in school. School was fantastic for him: he was young, good-looking, popular and he could skate on the fact that he wasn’t academically bright because he could run a little bit. Then his life after that was always going to be a slow deterioration. It was always going to be a source of regret, you know, and he ends up with a kind of dead end. And all of us can kind of see that path… [There are general murmurs of agreement from us] or you know the guy. You’ve been there, so even for somebody like that you owe it to try and find some degree of empathy – not sympathy but empathy – where you understand how the person got to that level and how perhaps you in a similar situation would have done it. So they’re all little bits of you.