Thursday 14 April 2011

It's alive! Tapping the rich vein of horror

Before you head behind the sofa, let me say this isn’t a blog about horror fiction. I’m not the best exponent of that, as I don't read or write much in the genre. Instead, I’m going to blog about horror as a flavour, a spice to add to the mix of any fiction you may be writing or contemplating writing.

Adding a dash of horror is a worthy tradition in literature; the Brothers Grimm were writing about cannibalism a century before Thomas Harris gave us Hannibal Lector, and it’s hard to beat the Room 101 rats in Orwell’s 1984 for nail-biting nightmare potential. Crime writers have known this trick for decades: how to season their stories with a dash of darkness. Arthur Conan Doyle served it up in spades: from The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Creeping Man.

Contemporary crime writers use horror to great effect. Mo Hayder’s Tokaloshe in Ritual and its sequel, Skin, is a great example of how a skilled writer can weave a disturbing sense of the supernatural into hard-hitting crime stories.

Fred Vargas has given us immortal ghosts, werewolves, plague rats and vampires. Enough supernatural horror to satisfy any aficionado, but Vargas does a very neat line in explaining everything in rational terms in the end.

Horror tends to work best when it’s used sparingly, to make a moment visceral, bring it off the page. Try to sustain this sort of shock value and you run the risk of numbing your reader’s responses. It’s the way we’re made. Our brains filter out familiar scents to keep us alert for the smell of danger. A surfeit of horror tends to force the reader to look away or worse, to laugh in order to relieve the tension.

The best writers know this and will provide a little light relief along the way so that you laugh in the intended places (usually right before they make you jump a foot in the air). The very best exponent of this is not a writer but a film director: George A. Romero. Zombies can be funny, but watch out for your feet and elbows.

It’s the same rule that applies with pacing, or erotica for that matter. A glimpse of the monster under the bed (or in it) is more effective that a lingering twelve page forensic examination. Plant a seed, refer to it often enough to make sure it doesn’t die in the reader’s mind, prepare them just enough for the moment when it will bear fruit. Then – let them have it.

It doesn’t need to be raw gore, either. In fact some of the best horror only hints at what lies beneath, letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

There’s a little horror lurking in everyone’s imagination and the reader’s imagination is among the most powerful tools a writer has – learn how to engage that (and to manipulate it) and you’ll be onto a winning formula.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Keep the Mythic Distance

The new issue of The Short Review is just out, full of treats for short story lovers. My review of Warren Bull's Murder Manhattan Style is there, as well as an interview with Warren. Other reviews include The Biting Point by Catherine Smith, and There Is No Other by Jonathan Papernick, reviewed by Tania Hershman.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Old Enemies

Dobbs serves up deft, evocative descriptions of international locations, from Christmas in London to Trieste via Switzerland and Zimbabwe. And a great cast of characters, including pompous, fearful politicians, a suave American presidential advisor and (best of all, for my money) a wily old Irishman with a fine line in banter and bitterness.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this new thriller by Michael Dobbs, published by Simon and Schuster earlier this year. I know Dobbs best for his House of Cards triology, so brilliantly adapted for television with the magnificent Iain Richardson in the lead role. Old Enemies is part of a different series by Dobbs, featuring soldier-turned-politician, Harry Jones. With Dobbs' signature wry angle on politics and masterful plot twists, it makes an enjoyable read. My full review was published by Euro Crime, and is also up at the Harrogate Crime Festival website.

Monday 4 April 2011

Back to my roots

First, some terrific news from Writers for the Red Cross, who raised over $30,500 in disaster relief. I was proud to play a small part in this success, as it was the Red Cross parcels of medicine and food that kept my mother and grandmother alive to see the liberation of the Batu Lintang prison camp by Australian troops on September 11, 1945. By some strange karma, most of my writing news at the moment has roots in my family history. My links to the North-West of England, specifically Cheshire and Lancashire, prompted me to submit stories to a new anthology and an established international Flash magazine. The latter, published out of the University of Chester, carries my flash, 'Bait for the Big White', in its April edition. And a very short flash of mine has just been accepted for Back & Beyond, the flagship publication for Made in Lancaster. Beyond this, I've had two flashes accepted for the Monster Book for Girls, another new anthology. And I'm in awe of the beauty of .Cent Magazine, which has illustrated 'My Camel Spits in the Sand' for their Strange Paradises section. The guest editor is Minnie Weisz, whose wonderful photography can be sampled here.

Friday 1 April 2011

Published by Penguin

Well, after a manner of speaking. My interview with Helen Dunmore, which appeared in Fringe Magazine recently, has been republished on Penguin's website at the request of their Publicity Director. Helen is the site's Author of the Month, and she liked my interview enough to send it on to her publisher, who decided Penguin's readers would like it too. So here it is, in situ, for the whole of April. Along with Helen's recommended reading, reviews of her latest books and reader commentary.