Wright to Writer: 'I try to write that which I enjoy and struggle to find elsewhere'

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Horror illustrator Graham Humphreys talks to Bartholomew Bennett about his forthcoming horror novella The Pale Ones.

Within the opening of your story we are immersed in a world of books. As a lover of second hand books myself, I often wonder about the previous owner/s - in many ways it’s part of the allure. That aside, you introduced a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ into one of the early chapters. It’s a favourite of mine. Picking a favourite book is never easy (much like picking a favourite film) so I’m going to ask if you had/have a favourite bookshop and if so why? (But I’ll also ask if ‘Under The Volcano’ might have been a favourite of yours as well?)

You know, I do love bookshops (and the book sections of charity shops which the narrator haunts in The Pale Ones), but I’m a bit hard pressed to give you a favourite; there are dozens that have meant something to me. In Leicester, where I grew up there are a bunch of small shopping arcades, and a series of bookshops that were there in my youth are the ones that have a special place in my heart – Rhyme and Reason was a children’s bookshop, which was probably the first one I remember spending any significant time browsing. I was a reader from an early age, and just randomly, I remember spending birthday money there on stuff like Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy books (now back on trend, I understand) and I particularly remember getting a copy of Ladyhawke (later the film) by Joan D. Vinge. Then, a few metres away, there’s a second-hand / antiquarian bookshop, Maynard and Bradley (still there today), which a few years later supplied me with numerous used copies of Michael Moorcock’s Granada / Grafton paperbacks, Elric and Hawkmoon, and Corum and so on. Finally, up in the higher levels of Silver Arcade, was the Final Frontier, a comics specialist, again very close to my (adolescent) heart.

I have to admit I don’t really have any special attachment to particular bookshops after that – they come and go (and mainly go) so quickly, I’m a bit wary. But I source my books from anywhere I can. And I have a lot!

As for Under the Volcano, well… Yes, it is a quite beloved book of mine. I think I read it in my (very) early twenties, and it seemed quite a hard slog in many ways – just in terms of actually taking on board all of its contemporary references and the details of its setting. But I think my affection for it is based on two things – just being so taken with the portrait of Firmin’s unhappiness – and my own sense of having invested a certain amount of effort in reading and assimilating the book. Looking at it again more recently, it seems a lot more straightforward (just at a prose level) than I remember. But I love the book (and especially the edition I describe in my own book – the Picador paperback with the Richard Parent cover illustration). Those Picador books with white spines – oh my! – I had so many book-crushes on the stuff they were printing at that time (1990s) – they had so many ‘glam’ (to my younger mind, at least) authors – Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Rushdie, those creepy early Ian McEwan stories… I think though, that I discovered Lowry for myself, rather than by reputation, probably browsing in a bookshop, which brings us full circle…

The horror genre in literature and film is often derided in critical appraise. Where ‘science fiction’ tends to attract intellectual notice, ‘horror’ is usually considered its deviant, bastard cousin. Yet there is a history of cross over, beginning with (appropriately on this 200th year of the publication of ‘Frankenstein’) Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, but also in the hybrid fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where do you stand on this?

Let me preface my answer with the observation that when thinking about genre, one needs to take a certain amount of care. Whereas we all know roughly what is meant by horror, science fiction, romance, fantasy etc, each genre is somewhat amorphous, and there are innumerable boundary cases – Frankenstein being one of them. I don’t find the policing of borders and the categorisation of writing / art / movies / whatever something that is particularly productive.

I should also make it clear that since childhood I’ve enjoyed horror fiction – and later on, horror films. I’m passionate about both and I think there is a huge amount of excellent work done across genres in both fiction and film making. But I’m not, I suppose, massively invested in thinking things through at the level of genre – genres as concepts are quite clumsy, cumbersome things, and although they are useful (and productive) in some senses – in terms of marketing and community, I don’t really feel hugely comfortable making big statements about horror or science fiction as a whole. The boundaries are massively fuzzy, as your examples of Shelley and Lovecraft suggest. Genre is a fairly treacherous concept, in that the shapes of individual genres are quite irregular (their conception as categories is not schematic) and so inevitably there are places where the boundaries are not clear. Even within genres, there can be competing or opposed tropes and / or ideas.

Also there are a number of well known observations re: genre – the first comes from Kingsley Amis, who noted in regard to science fiction being ignored by guardians of the literary, that any genre work which reaches the prevailing standard of excellence becomes classified as literature. A neat trick, I think, which is not only an example of the slipperiness of boundaries, but of the kind of dubious horse-trading logic to which genre arguments can sometimes descend.