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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.

Another is Theodore Sturgeon’s famous formulation – he said something like 90% of everything is crap, reportedly in response to criticism of science fiction as a whole – is a good rule of thumb, although I prefer something like its inversion – the idea that only 10% of any writing / fiction / art is really good, and an even smaller proportion qualifies as outstanding. One could postulate something like a normal distribution curve, whereby there’s only a small percentage of really, really bad stuff as well, and the vast majority is somewhere in the middle – ranging from the mediocre to the merely competent. Clearly, there are all sorts of problems (how can we measure / quantify any of this?) but if we’re accepting as a given that literature has a detectable measure of quality or worth, then why not run with it? Although honestly, I’m happier talking about the value of stuff / writing / art that I think is worthwhile rather than worrying about how to position it in some largely arbitrary structure or hierarchy of value.

There is also M. John Harrison’s observation that the vast majority of ‘literary’ fiction is effectively a genre of its own with tropes, settings, characters, themes etc, that are every bit as rule-bound as the mass of genre productions. And of course there are exceptions to this. Just as there are exceptions within every genre.

Finally there is some counter-suggestive evidence to the idea that genre is run-down by all elements of the critical establishment – one can look at the authors published by Penguin under its Classics branding in recent years – Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti, as well as writers touched by the sheen of antiquity – Machen and Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

In my own illustration work, particularly in the formative years, I was significantly influenced by music. Has the work of any particular composer or band played a role in your own writing?

There isn’t really a single (or even group of) influence(s), musically for me. Having said that, I do listen to music a lot when writing, particularly during the revising and editing process. It does depend though, on what I am doing – I find that certain modes of prose, or specific character voices can be disrupted by music. I tend to shy away from stuff with very obvious vocal lines when I’m writing. Classical pieces work well for mood, but I’m not really at all knowledgeable, so it’s the obvious stuff – Orff, Saint-Saens, Holst. And I’m not above the sort of horror ‘greatest hits’ approach - Hall of the Mountain King, or Carmina Burana, or Ride of Valkyries if it comes down to it. I like film soundtracks as well – I have huge affection for John Carpenter's massively spooky synth work. And then again lots of the obvious genre stuff – Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. Similarly I like the ambience of a lot of David Lynch soundtracks – from the Julee Cruise stuff through the Badalamenti incidentals. In answering this, I can’t resist adding that at the moment I’m listening to Kieron Gillen’s Wicked + Divine Spotify playlist, which dovetails neatly with the Image Comics series. Not only is the Wicked + Divine a plenty great read but also the book’s whole concept dovetails brilliantly with the music. Image, by the way, publish a ridiculous number of really excellent titles; I’m not a huge comics reader but their books I do look at regularly – they’re owner created titles and wow! For me, the imprint is like the gold standard of (genre) comics at the moment.

In the same way that discovering a book in an actual bookshop is in some ways not dissimilar to experiencing a film in the cinema, what was the first film you recall seeing at the cinema? and to what extent (if any) does cinema impact on your writing? There is a sense that some contemporary books are written in anticipation of a film adaptation. Has this been a consideration in your own work?

I think the Disney Pinocchio was the first film I saw at the cinema, probably about age four; the whole Pleasure Island part, where the boys are transformed into donkeys absolutely terrified me. My own son is five, and he is easily frightened by cinema (we had to leave Paddington 2 because Brendan Gleeson scared the living giblets out of him). Taking him to films has helped me remember how immersive the experience of cinema is for young children.

Having said that, my own bent in terms of writing is probably not towards the cinematic; the two media (film and the written word) are quite different in the way they work, and the possibilities they present. Some plots and characters do translate between the two, sure. But my own focus is on what will work on the page; there are correspondences between screenwriting and the prose forms, of course. But film is above all a visual medium. And prose offers something else.

Also, technicalities aside, there’s also quite a difference in scope and scale between film and writing in terms of cost, which in practice means that fiction perhaps offers the opportunity to take different risks. One of the reasons that horror fiction tends to be at its strongest in the shorter forms is that it can afford to take risks with (e.g.) likeability of character. But this is also true I think, to some extent, in longer form. It’s noticeable for example, in the recent cinematic adaption of Adam Nevill’s novel The Ritual, the plot and characters are changed to make the protagonist, Luke, a more readily sympathetic figure from the off. The demands are different though, and for my money, although the film’s gambit pays off initially, the book pulls off the later stages of the plot far more successfully, partly because of where we are in relation to Luke. Our fellow feeling for him, by that stage, is hard-won but much more tangible. I didn’t care really about the guy in the film: the twist given to his character didn’t ever really integrate properly with the rest of the plot (it seemed a bit as though they’d tried to recapture / fuse a certain abstract plot element of Neil Marshall’s The Descent, but not quite got it right); the character in the book, imperfect to be sure, ended up with a lot more of my sympathy.

The creative process differs from person to person. Above are mentioned two significant influences on writers - music and cinema. Our own life experience inevitably plays a part. Is there a significant event or place that had had a major part influence in your own creative development?

I consider myself as much reader as writer, so I feel almost as though the experience of reading, or consuming fiction in one form or another, from really a very early age is really key. But there’s also – I’m not sure entirely how to describe it – a hypothesis, or notion, that a disproportionately large percentage of writers of horror, or the supernatural, or dark fantasy experienced an extended period of illness as children. I think I recall Peter Straub talking about this in an interview. I was hospitalized a number of times as a child, for various ailments. Unsurprisingly, that was never a happy experience. In terms of The Pale Ones a lot of the detail of the book is pulled directly from my own life: the book hoarding and selling certainly. I use that detail to form something else entirely: the narrator’s situation doesn’t resemble my life at all, or only in very specific physical or geographical respects.

It seems to me that writers (artists and musicians) often display a duality. There is the personal expression, the exposed soul, the need to communicate... yet there is also a mask behind which the artist can conceal themselves. Where do you find your own balance?

Obviously, I started to talk a little bit about this towards the end of my last answer. I suppose that I’m really quite a private person. My writing isn’t at all about putting myself on display. And from that point of view, the notion of an impersonal poetics a la T.S. Eliot obviously appeals. But it seems disingenuous to pretend that you, as a writer, are somehow absent from the writing. On one level at least, the work is all about you.

Most of us need to interact with a keyboard in our work. Although I use actual paint on paper, I still have to scan the work for delivery on a computer. I know that some writers prefer hand written notes in the development of their work, even preferring to deliver entire handwritten manuscripts. How do you prefer to work? and do you have any particular thoughts on the delivery process?

It’s interesting to think about this. Over the years I’ve built up a reasonable typing speed so that using a keyboard is now effectively quicker for me than writing by hand. Occasionally I draft stuff manually, when I don’t have access to a decent keyboard, and I do enjoy writing with a good fountain pen, but it all ultimately goes onto the computer. I have two young children, so for me at the moment, time is at an absolute premium. Thus, drafting by hand is a luxury I can’t really afford. On those occasions when there is a problem with whatever I’m writing, a possible solution is just to write out notes in an attempt to organize my understanding. Write quickly – write around the problem – what are the things contiguous to it? And in that situation, I almost always handwrite – it makes me feel, for whatever reason, closer to the issue; the point of the exercise is to try to spark a connection.

Do you write with a particular ‘audience’ in mind? If so who? and why?

This is quite an easy one to answer. I write primarily for myself; I am the audience, or the readership. And that’s not because I see myself in opposition to an audience, or somehow special, or different. I see myself as reader, perhaps primarily. So I try to write that which I enjoy and struggle to find elsewhere. My tastes are varied, and not especially esoteric, or at least not exclusively so. If an idea excites or interests me, then I assume that I will not be alone in that. And a) I’m not entirely sure how else to approach the idea of a readership and b) writing is, by-and-large, hard work, and committing myself to a project in which I don’t have a basic level of interest seems a good way of maximising the chance of not completing the work, or failing it in some other way.

On the other hand, I have been working recently on a dark fantasy for younger readers, the writing of which has made me reflect on the relative virtues of simplicity (or transparency) and complexity. Both are required in one form or another. Finding an effective balance between the two has been much more of a conscious process / concern for the kids’ book.

Bartholomew Richard Emenike Bennett was born in Leicester, the middle son of an American father and English mother. He has studied and worked in the US and New Zealand, and has a First Class Honours degree in Literature from the University of East Anglia. The Pale Ones is his first published work, although he has been writing fiction, long-form and short, since 2002.

The Pale Ones is due for release October 2018.

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Film Poster by Graham Humphreys

Graham Humphreys is an illustrator and designer with 40 years experience. One of the few contemporary illustrators using the traditional medium of gouache to paint his images, Graham is best known for his work within the horror genre.

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