Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned.
I caught up with Simon to ask him about his new book, Hell’s Ditch, which is already generating a great deal of praise and excitement. But first, here’s the cover and blurb.
The dream never changes: a moonless, starless night without end. The road she walks is black, bordered with round, white pebbles or nubs of polished bone; she can’t tell which but they’re the only white in the darkness, marking her way through the night.
In dreams and nightmares, Helen walks the Black Road. It leads her back from the grave, back from madness, back towards the man who caused the deaths of her family: Tereus Winterborn, Regional Commander for the Reapers, who rule the ruins of a devastated Britain.
On her journey, she gathers her allies: her old mentor Darrow, the cocky young fighter Danny, emotionally-scarred intelligence officer Alannah and Gevaudan Shoal, last of the genetically-engineered Grendelwolves.
Winterborn will stop at nothing to become the Reapers’ Supreme Commander; more than anything he seeks the advantage that will help him achieve that goal. And in the experiments of the obsessed scientist Dr Mordake, he thinks he has found it.
To Winterborn, Project Tindalos is a means to ultimate power; to Mordake, it’s a means to roll back the devastation of the War and restore his beloved wife to the living. But neither Winterborn nor Mordake understand the true nature of the forces they are about to unleash. Forces that threaten to destroy everything that survived the War, unless Helen and her allies can find and stop Project Tindalos in time.
- Okay, so “Helen walks the Black Road”. Do you have a favourite road trip memory, and is there a road trip you would love to take?
I’m horrendously not-well-travelled, largely due to having been broke a lot of the time. I want to remedy both of those things as soon as I can… I grew up and studied in the Manchester area, and my Dad comes from Barmouth in North Wales, so I know those places and places in easy reach of them by bus very well, which is why they appear in my stuff a lot! Of course, now I’ve added Liverpool and the Wirral to my list of residences, so there’s room for some new locations.
I’d love to take a road trip all around Britain, starting to get to know the place as well as I know the places I grew up. Then, of course, I’d cross the Channel and meander my way around Europe. All I need are a couple of years and the ability to drive.
- The road Helen walks leads her back from madness. Do you think this a journey that can ever end? What are you views on ‘madness’ in both the real world and its use in fiction?
I suppose ‘madness’ is a pretty outdated word these days; it’s been used as a catch-all term for any number of forms of mental illness, and we’re starting to understand – in mainstream society, I mean – what that means much better. It can be something triggered by a chemical or a genetic cause, like some form of schizophrenia, or it can be caused by some form of trauma – that tends to be the kind of ‘madness’ I write about. RD Laing believed insanity was a response to living in an insane world, and I think there’s something to that. A lot of shell-shock cases in World War One involved hysterical paralysis or mutism – psychosomatic reactions that resulted from the soldiers being placed in the psychologically intolerable situations that arose from trench warfare; it was their psyche trying to give them an out.
In a much, much milder example, I did a stressful call centre job for five years, until one day something just went, and I couldn’t pick up a phone and talk to a customer without turning into a gibbering wreck. Partly, I think, that was something in me giving way under the pressure, but I also think I was trying to get myself out of that situation – which I ultimately did. ‘Madness’ can be one of the ways we try to cope with things that would, otherwise, be unendurable, and as a writer that interests me. I’m interested in how people survive.
Helen’s ‘madness’ is a reaction to the deaths of her family at the hands of the Reapers – her family, her friends, many of those who fought with and depended on her – for which she blames herself. She’s been in a sort of non-stop fugue state, which she’s finally come out of – it’s been a coping mechanism of sorts.
At the same time, she often ‘ghostlights’: that is, her dead loved ones appear to her, even talk to her. But in this world – twenty years after a devastating nuclear attack – it’s something that happens to most people who’ve survived. Reminders of what’s been lost – the people, the whole way of life – are everywhere, all around you. You literally cannot get away from it, there are a hundred things, every day, to trigger a flashback of some kind. Everyone’s in a semi-permanent state of PTSD – another kind of ‘madness’. (Of course, that’s the rational explanation; you could just as easily say that everyone is haunted. From a subjective point of view, there isn’t much difference.) So to that extent, it’s hard to see how the journey can ever end: maybe that’s what the books are about!
- In gathering her allies, it seems Helen is making Hell’s Ditch something of an ensemble piece, or are the other characters more of a supporting cast? How difficult was it to create the necessary different voices?
Hell’s Ditch went through a lot of changes over the years: when I was nineteen it was going to be a screenplay, then a few years later I tried it as a novel. Neither worked and I forgot about the whole thing until about 2009, when I picked up the basic concept to rework it as a radio play. I changed nearly everything about it, gender-swapping some parts, creating a bunch of new characters and pretty much throwing any loose idea I hadn’t found a story for into the mix. A lot of them were shaped by the actors we’d likely be able to work with, and these being radio scripts, the characters are their voices – you have to be able to recognise Helen, Gevaudan, Alannah, Danny and Winterborn as soon as they open their mouths. The radio play never happened, but by then I was excited enough about the story to keep going and turn it into a novel – and by then, of course, the individual characters’ voices were already there, waiting to be picked up. But yes, it’s become more of an ensemble, although Helen’s quest for revolution and revenge is what triggers and drives the action.
- Er, “genetically-engineered Grendelwolves”… What the hell?
You know when I said I threw pretty much any loose story idea into the mix? The Grendelwolves were one of them; I was interested in the idea of that SF staple, a human being who’s been turned into a monster, to be used as the bad guys’ shock troops. I was interested in what would happen if you made such a being a protagonist – after all, why should a physiological change like that make you less human psychologically? As I went on and wrote it, I also realised I could use it to write a character who was old enough to remember the world before the War very well, while still being physically able to take part in the action part of things. I’d formed an idea at the outset of the kind of character Gevaudan (the Grendelwolf in Hell’s Ditch) had to be – he’s pretty sardonic and dry, but there’s more to him than that – and so it was a case of working out how he got there. Great fun to write.
- “Project Tindalos” set my Cthulhu mythos senses tingling, reminding me of a wonderful story by Frank Belknap Long. Are my senses right to tingle?
Oh yes, there’s a definite touch of the Lovecrafts, but not your straightforward Cthulhu Mythos stuff – hopefully I’ve done something a bit different with it. And there’s a strong dash of Nigel Kneale in the mix there too.
- This is a project you’ve been working on for some time, and I’m sorry to hear its development was interrupted by a death in the family. Do you think this had an impact on the work that followed, other than to derail its progress for a short time?
Yes and no. What happened was that, about halfway through the first draft, my grandmother, whom I was very close to, died. I tried to carry on with the book – I probably would have found a way to continue if I’d been writing to a commission, but I wasn’t – but I just ran out of steam. I never doubted I’d come back to it, but I needed to write something else. As it happened, I had a chance to pitch some story ideas to Jon Oliver at Solaris immediately after, and one of them was a novel then called Ghosts Of War. It became The Faceless, and my grandmother’s actually in there, as Myfanwy Griffiths. I dealt with a lot of the grief there, rather than in Hell’s Ditch – but when I came back to Hell’s Ditch I felt I’d learned a lot of new lessons about writing a novel, so I applied them, so I think Hell’s Ditch is a much better book because of that.
- You’re a prolific writer, with various projects coming to fruition lately. How much of an impact do you see this new four-part series having on your productivity? Do you intend to focus entirely on The Black Road or will you still publish other things?
Well, I’ll hopefully publish other stuff! I’ve just written a crime novel, and signed with a major literary agency on the back of that – and that’s part of a series too! (Just call me a glutton for punishment.) On top of that, I have a novel I’ve already written that I’m rewriting into shape, plus several other novel ideas I want to do. But the Black Road is calling and my next project is going to be The Devil’s Highway, the second book in the series: if all goes well, that’ll be out in October next year. Beyond that, we’ll have to see.
Thank you, Simon.
I heartily recommend Simon’s work. You can grab a copy of Hell’s Ditch by clicking here.
And for more about Simon Bestwick’s writing, he blogs here.