Today we welcome the author of Wicked Women story ‘Kravolitz’ – Tom Johnstone, take it away!
Tell us a little about yourself and what you like to write
I like to write short fiction. I’ve never written anything over the 8-10k word range, partly through choice, partly due to time constraints, as I have a family and a full-time job. Also the ideas I have seem to lend themselves to the short form, though they sometimes end up being longer than I intended. Basically, I write what I like to read, something writers are often advised to do; and generally what I like to read is short horror, though I do enjoy novels / novellas too, as well as fiction of other genres (crime, SF) and none. Having said that, I’ve also written comedy sketches and the script for part of a mosaic graphic novel.
How long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I can’t claim to be one of these prodigies who started writing at the age of two, and made their first professional fiction sale a year later. I’m exaggerating somewhat of course, but in this as in many things I am a late developer. I didn’t really get going on my writing career (if you can call it that) until my mid-to-late thirties, about ten years ago. I responded to Telos’s open call for Doctor Who spin-off novella submissions, and one of the editors responded favourably to the sample chapter I sent them, though I wasn’t experienced enough to follow this up adequately, and there was too much going on my life to do the project justice. I sent a few short stories off to various publications after that with little success, as well as comedy scripts to satirical cabaret shows like Brighton’s The Treason Show and London’s Newsrevue. The sketches could be quite lucrative on those occasions when they used my material, and I even got a paid credit on a BBC Scotland radio show called Watson’s Wind Up, though I don’t think they actually used my one-liner and they’ve since cancelled the show…
After a while, I gave up on the sketches. I began to find the hit-and-miss nature of writing sketches that rarely got used a little trying, and what I really wanted to do was write horror stories, mainly of the weird and supernatural sort. I still put both humour and politics into these, and I began to hone my craft, securing publication in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Tales, Supernatural Tales, Strange Tales (Vol. 5, Tartarus Press), The Black Book of Horror (9-11, Mortbury Press) and your own Wicked Women.
Which authors have influenced you and why?
There are the obvious ones like M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, and their bastard literary offspring Ramsey Campbell. Once he’d outgrown his earlier reliance on Lovecraft (as the kind of wunderkind I mentioned before with such envy!), Campbell’s also an example of the importance of a distinctive voice in the successful author of fiction of any kind, something I feel I’m struggling to find.
Joel Lane, John Llewellyn Probert, Simon Bestwick and Anna Taborska have all written fiction that has suggested to me different ways in which horror could be hard-hitting and political without being didactic, (against the assumption that its dark view of human nature is inevitably conservative) something that has had a strong influence on my approach to writing. Though I’d encountered Joel’s work before, I was reintroduced to his spare and enigmatic short tales through the Black Book of Horror series, which was where I also encountered John’s wonderfully sardonic and vicious contes cruelles, as well as Anna’s powerful, harrowing ‘Little Pig’. I enjoyed the unpretentious vitality of the Black Books, which also introduced me to horror writers, then new to me, who are now familiar names in the horror world: Thana Niveau, Reggie Oliver, Gary Fry and others, who have all influenced my writing in different ways.
Going back to more famous, classic and best-selling writers, I’ve also studied the work of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, two more excellent examples of writers in the horror field each with a strong and unique voice. I’ve observed with interest the success of British horror novelists like Adam Nevill, who has brought the themes of classic weird fiction authors like Machen and Blackwood (also two major influences on and forerunners of Lovecraft) into the modern mainstream idiom, as well as Alison Littlewood and Sarah Pinborough, with their ingenuity in synthesising crime fiction with supernatural horror.
Then there are authors whose work is not categorised as ‘horror’ as such, but have a ‘mainstream’ or ‘literary’ appeal as well as a strong weird or supernatural flavour: Sarah Waters, Susan Hill, Peter Ackroyd in novels like Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Another good example of horror fiction crossing over into the mainstream is Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book, a creepy faux ‘true-life’ ghost story book whose clever production design gimmickry reinforces its conceit and reasserts the value of the physical book.
Both history and fiction are replete with women who aim to misbehave – do you have a favourite wicked woman and why?
Often women misbehave simply by doing the things that are defined as heroism or leadership in men. The science fiction writer who shows this most strikingly is Joanna Russ. The Female Man asks: why do men always get to do the fun stuff in SF? We Who Are About To… challenges the imperialism of the ‘conquest of space’ narrative, via its homicidal, one-woman awkward squad of a narrator. It says a lot about Russ’s insubordinate stance that one of her novels is called On Strike Against God.
Since Russ is sadly no longer with us, I’d also like to plug a few contemporary female horror writers, either because their work explores aspects of female transgression, or because their work is itself transgressive, or both. Or maybe because they’re just awesome! Priya Sharma’s protagonists are often flawed or damaged women, who sometimes pay a terrible price for their mistakes. This is certainly true of ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ and ‘The Rising Tide’, but in neither case do you get the impression that the author is inviting you to cast judgment on the women for their actions even if some of the other characters in the story might be doing so. Anna Taborska at her best writes gutsy, no-holds-barred tales of human cruelty, but with a fierce sense of compassion grounding them. Read her collection For Those Who Dream Monsters (Mortbury Press)! V.H. Leslie’s acclaimed stories, recently collected in Skein and Bone (Undertow Books), are dark fairy tales of women who fall foul of patriarchy in various unpleasant ways, yet told in beautiful prose and with an arch sense of humour.
To answer this question properly, maybe my favourite fictional wicked woman, the ultimate female miscreant, must be Yamasaki Asami from Ryu Murakami’s novel Audition, the basis for the notorious Takashi Miike J-horror movie. The book’s by a man of course, which may be part of the reason why she’s such an effective creation, a male fantasy of desirability and sexual availability, who turns out to be the distillation of our worst nightmares.
On second thoughts, perhaps an even better wicked woman is Stevie in Kaaron Warren’s brilliant horror novel Slights. As an Australian study of suburban scandal and misbehaviour, it makes the much-feted mainstream hit The Slap seem very coy and safe, and though Warren’s book and her heroine are both hilariously and raucously bitchy, it has a terrifying idea of the after-life at its heart. As an ostracised woman, Stevie’s a twenty first century literary descendant of Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s kind of the flipside of Audition too, because we see the world through the wicked woman’s eyes rather than seeing her through male eyes, and Stevie is brazen in her refusal of social norms, rather than wearing a mask of fragile docility as Asami does!
You co-edited Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease with Joel Lane – tell us how that came about and what readers can expect from the stories within.
I met him at a Convention and got into conversation with him about his stories ‘A Cry for Help’ and ‘For Their Own Ends’, two stories that use horror and weird fiction to explore the implications of the threat of privatisation in the NHS. We discussed the possibility of an anthology of horror stories centred around the cuts and austerity measures the government was bringing in, as I kind of follow up to the anti-racist / anti-fascist one he co-edited with Allyson Bird: Never Again.
We started work on it, but it was a little stop-go, as he had long-term health problems, and these sadly contributed to his untimely death. However, we’d already found a publisher, Gray Friar Press (who’d published Never Again), and its owner Gary Fry was very enthusiastic about the project. He said he still wanted to go ahead with it, almost as a kind of tribute to Joel. I also wanted to see it through for the same reasons. Writers had already sent in stories, and I chased up some of the people Joel had approached, many of whom thought the book had been put on hold because of his death. I also decided to reprint Joel’s ‘A Cry for Help’, again as a tribute, but also as a clear statement of intent, to open the volume.
Readers will find stories showing the spectral implications of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, food banks where you have to queue to join the queues, a privatised hospital that expects extreme ‘donations’ from patients who can’t pay, a government loyalty card that rewards snoopers, a tale of upper class, Bullingdon-type thugs that makes The Riot Club look tame. Other stories take a more psychological approach, such as stories by John Howard, Priya Sharma and Stephen Hampton, which suggest that the credit crunch and the slump in the property market can literally drive people mad. As I suggest in my non-fiction addendum to the book, quoting Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, economic unease is an abiding theme in horror and supernatural fiction: the fear of losing everything is a powerful undercurrent in the genre even when it’s hidden. Acclaimed authors showcased include Anna Taborska, Alison Littlewood, Stephen Bacon, Thana Niveau and Gary McMahon.
Has editing the anthology changed how you approach your own fiction?
I found myself writing quite a bit of ‘austerity horror’ myself! Before he died, Joel and I agreed we weren’t going to publish our own stories, to avoid accusations of favouring our own work over other, possibly more deserving talents. In his own case, I think he was being a little over-modest, and when he died I worried about over-ruling him by re-printing ‘A Cry for Help’ posthumously, but a writer who knew him better suggested I should go ahead and publish it!
As for my own efforts, I still took the view that it was better not to use my position as now sole editor to make a portion of the anthology into my own vanity press, which sounds a little pompous, but I knew some might see it that way. So I decided I should test my own attempts at writing stories in this vein in the open market as it were. Well, they can’t have been that bad, because most of them have found publishers! ‘Masque’, tackling NHS privatisation, appeared in Shroud Magazine (#15), in the States, where they already know the full implications of private healthcare; ‘Under Occupation’ and ‘Mum and Dad and the Girl from the Flats Over the Road and the Man in the Black Suit’, both which feature the ‘Bedroom Tax’, the former in the anthology Darkest Minds (Dark Minds Press), the latter awaiting publication in Supernatural Tales…
Is there any particular genre you’re drawn to and if so what’s the appeal of it?
I tend to be drawn to horror, because of its flexibility. At its best, it’s barely a genre at all, more a state of mind. It encompasses everything from the elusive chills of the ghost story to extreme zombie spatterpunk, science fiction body horror, etc. It can be both intensely physical and metaphysical, often simultaneously. Having said that, the side of it that appeals to me more as a reader and writer is the more supernaturally-orientated one. I also enjoy science fiction and crime, both of which share common ground with horror, but I’ve very little experience of writing them, or aptitude, I think, because of the discouraging technical aspects I think necessary to achieve credible results in both, e.g., research into, say, quantum mechanics for SF, or forensic police procedure for crime. For this reason, I tend to stick to my comfort zone of supernatural horror, though I have been working on a longish short story in the spy thriller genre!
Room 101 time: what one genre cliché would you get rid of?
The space opera cliché of inter-galactic free trade: to me, it’s infinitely depressing and rather anthropocentric to think that neo-liberal capitalism will conquer the universe as well as Planet Earth!
What are you up to next?
Well, my hit rate for getting stuff published seems to be improving, with quite a few stories in the can and a substantial backlog of stories awaiting publication in various anthologies and other publications. My stories are starting to attract a bit of positive attention, with the Best Horror of Year editor Ellen Datlow including two out of the three I had published last year on her list of Recommended Reads (A.K.A., Honourable Mentions), one of which was my Wicked Women contribution ‘Kravolitz’, so thanks for facilitating that by publishing it! She’s also plugged a couple of my more recent published stories (‘Under Occupation’ from Darkest Minds and ‘What I Found in the Shed’ from Supernatural Tales, #31) on the SFEditorsPicks list, so I’m pretty chuffed about that. I feel like now’s the time to build on this, and bring out a single author collection. I know it would mean more work, because I don’t just want to throw something together that would rely on reprints; I’m thinking more on the lines of a sequence of conjoined short stories, kind of a literary concept album, at least for a major section of the volume. But it’s early days. I haven’t really planned it, or approached any publishers yet… (Hint! Hint!)
In the meantime, I’ve got two stories awaiting publication in Supernatural Tales, and others elsewhere, including ‘Holywood’, my sequel to M.R. James’s ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, which is to appear next year in the Third Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (Sarob Press). I’m presently working on a very interesting project with Alchemy Press, somewhere between a tribute anthology and a posthumous collection, involving the unpublished and incomplete stories of the late Joel Lane. A group of writers are going to take his handwritten story notes and unfinished tales, and each one has to take his or her assigned piece and complete it basically. It will be interesting to see what will happen, as some of them are extremely detailed, while others are bafflingly cryptic. As I was in the middle of collaborating with him on Horror Uncut when he died, and was like many extremely shocked when I heard of his death, it seemed like a lovely idea and I’m proud to be part of it.
I also had my second taste of Fantasy Con this year, the first being 2012 in my home town of Brighton. This time I did a reading there for the first time, to an audience of four, but two of them were Carole Johnstone and Priya Sharma, so quality if not quantity… Luckily I have done public readings before, so it wasn’t too daunting! Horror Uncut was also nominated in the anthology category, which was very exciting, as well as Laura Mauro, another emerging wicked woman of horror, in two categories for the story she wrote for it, ‘Ptichka’. Unfortunately H.U. didn’t win, and neither did Laura, but plaudits for those that did, and good to see that one of them was Fox Spirit in the small publisher category!
That also covers the random fun stuff aspect of the question, as my experience of Fantasy Con this year was both random and fun. I met a hell of a lot of really lovely people there too!
Thank you for joining us Tom!
Tom Johnstone’s fiction has appeared in various publications, including the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Black Books of Horror (Mortbury Press), Brighton – The Graphic Novel (Queenspark Books), Supernatural Tales, #27 & #31, Wicked Women (Fox Spirit Books), Shroud Magazine, #15 and Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press). As well as these writing credits, he co-edited the British Fantasy Award-nominated austerity-themed anthology Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease with the late Joel Lane, published September 2014, by Gray Friar Press. Find out more about Tom’s fiction at: tomjohnstone.wordpress.com.