An interview

The wonderfully talented Priya Sharma took the time to interview me over at her blog, which you can read by clicking here. It focuses on my latest effort, ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’.

Priya writes brilliant stories (check out this list) so track some down if you haven’t already.

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Making a splash – a podcast interview

I’m interviewed by the guys at This is Horror about mermaids and Water For Drowning. Click here to listen.

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Water For Drowning – a new chapbook

Well check this out, isn’t it beautiful?


Many thanks to Pye Parr for the gorgeous artwork – it’s for my new chapbook, coming soon from This is Horror. Here’s a little taster:

“There are lots of mermaid stories, and lots of different versions of the same stories, but they’re always about love. That’s what Genna told me. She was pretty fucked up, but she was right about that.”

Bad things happen to good people, but sometimes the reverse is true, too. For Josh, falling in love does not fit in with his rock n roll lifestyle. And falling for someone who believes in mermaids? Who wants to be one? Well, he wasn’t expecting that, either.

But the sea is deep with mysteries. Sometimes they wash ashore, whispered in the hush of a quiet tide, and all you have to do is listen. Other times you have to  explore the dark beneath the surface yourself, unsure of what you might find…

If you fancy reading the whole thing you can pre-order ‘Water For Drowning’ now by clicking here.

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Bram Stoker Award for After Death…

The winners of the Bram Stoker Awards have been announced and you can find the results by clicking here.

Delighted to see After Death… win for best anthology. I’ve a story in this called ‘Afterword’. Congrats (and thanks) to editor Eric J. Guignard.

You can buy it here.

After Death

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Ben Baldwin’s Cover Story

If you’re a fan of genre fiction, it’s likely you’ve come across the art of Ben Baldwin.  I first encountered his work in Black Static (he illustrated the story from which the magazine takes it’s name, in fact), and in 2012 he was responsible for the covers of Interzone, following in the footsteps of Richard Wagner, Warwick Fraser-Coombe, and Adam Tredowski to name only those of my own subscription years.  He’s been nominated for various awards and recently he won Artist of the Year in the This is Horror Awards.  I’ve chatted with him a few times at a couple of FantasyCons but this time I’ve done it a little more formally…

Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.  I thought I’d start by asking about the fantastic cover design for Black Static issue 39 – where did that come from?

Hi Ray, glad you like the image. I’m quite pleased with it and also a bit surprised with how the finished art looks. This was one of those images that at some point during its creation suddenly went off in a different direction from what I had originally intended so I didn’t actually have this image in mind at all at the beginning.

I’d started work on this sometime at the end of last year mainly for my own amusement but also with the thought that it might be something that Andy could use on a cover of Black Static but I got distracted by other stuff and didn’t get round to finishing it until a few weeks ago. Originally I’d wanted to create a demonic marching band but the main character started becoming more and more militaristic and less musical so in the end I decided to ditch the marching band idea and it just developed fairly quickly from there. The picture now has a slightly apocalyptic feel with the character’s red uniform and upright sword fitting in with the symbolism of “War” the second horseman of the apocalypse. Not sure what happened to his horse though. I imagine it’s probably been rotavated on the battlefield behind him.


You’ve illustrated some interior, too, for Steven J. Dines – how did you find that?

Steven is an author I’ve only recently discovered through various TTA Press publications but what I’ve read of his work so far has all been really good. So when Andy asked me if I’d like to illustrate one of his stories for BS 39 I jumped at the chance. It’s about a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who is still haunted by his experiences so it’s a bit of a ghost story but very powerfully told. I had the image more or less formed in my head straight away after reading it so it was quite a smooth process creating it.

the broken and the unmade

How long have you been in the art business and how did you get started?

Well, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been doing art. It’s just something I’ve done all my life from when I was very young. Most people grow out of scribbling on bits of paper when they’re children but I just seem to have persisted with it.

In terms of it being a business and actually making a bit of money from it, my first book cover was for a novella by Stuart Young published by Pendragon Press in I think 2005. Before that I’d sold a few paintings and designed flyers and painted UV backdrops for various night clubs and at some point, I can’t remember when but I guess it was some time in 2004, I decided to try getting work doing book cover designs. I spent quite a long time emailing and writing to publishers and even visited a few in person up in London with my portfolio but they were all reluctant to publish me until I had something already published to show them. Also my work probably wasn’t that good back then either. So it took a while to get some work coming in but eventually I got a commission and then a few more and it’s gradually built up from there. But I still feel like I’m just starting to get my name and work known.

How did you first come to be involved with TTA Press?

The first bit of work I did for TTA Press was for the old magazine called The Third Alternative in 2005 and it was for a story by Paul Meloy called ‘Black Static’. TTA Press was one of the many publishers I’d sent emails to around that time and one of the very, very few who replied and offered me some work. I illustrated a couple of stories for The Third Alternative and then several years later after the magazine had been relaunched as Black Static I got back in touch with Andy Cox and he offered me some more work for both Black Static and Interzone

Fraser-Coombe’s covers in 2010 were essentially pieces of a giant jigsaw illustration spanning six issues whereas Wagner and Tredowskiro approached each cover individually.  Your covers work very well as stand-alone pieces and yet belong together as part of a particular theme: why did you choose the tarot deck as your inspiration?

I really liked how Fraser-Coombe’s covers were linked together whilst each working as a stand alone image so I guess he’s partly to blame. I obviously didn’t want to copy his idea though but as I had 6 covers to design I thought some continuity between them all would be good.

I’m not sure at what point I decided to use Tarot cards as inspiration although once I had the idea it seemed like something I could have a lot of fun with. Especially as I didn’t plan what cards to do but left it up to chance by taking a random card from the pack for each cover. I’ve got a fairly low tolerance for New Age nonsense but I’m pretty interested in symbolism, mythology, the “occult” and how various ideas or states of perception can be encoded in pictures. So I’m kind of fascinated with Tarot cards and their history and the temptation to go and play with these archetypal images and to let my own thoughts feed in to them is pretty strong. Lots of artists probably feel a similar way considering the thousands of different versions of Tarot decks there are around nowadays.

One other reason for using the Tarot was that I didn’t have to spend any time trying to come up with iconic images for the covers. All I had to do was put my spin on the existing images and then take the credit for it.

the hanged man

My favourite of your Interzone covers is probably The Hanged Man of issue 240.  Is there a cover that you are most proud of?

Hmm… I’m not sure. I think ‘The Priestess’ on IZ 242 is probably my favourite as it just seemed to draw itself and gave me hardly any trouble. I quite like how ‘The Hanged Man’ on IZ 240 turned out too. The one that I really struggled with was ‘The Hermit’ on IZ 241. Not sure why but that one took a lot of work to get right and I’m not that keen on looking at it now.

Overall though I’m incredibly proud to have been the cover artist and very grateful to Andy for letting me use the cover of Interzone to indulge my obsessions.

The Priestess

How much of your art is planned and how much takes shape as you work?

This varies quite a bit depending on the image and whether I’m working with a publisher who has a clear idea of the picture they want and who needs a lot of rough sketches before I start. I much prefer letting things develop organically though. I often have a fairly specific idea or feeling about the type of image that I want to create but it can sometimes take a bit of time for me to work out how it should look. I like to try out different ideas, let things germinate in the back of my mind for a while and allow a lot of the elements to develop by chance until I have all the component parts and composition narrowed down. At that point I can then get quite obsessive about the details but I really like the initial stages where the picture could go in any direction.

Nowadays, I use Photoshop for nearly all my work but that’s in combination with my own photography and hand drawn or painted elements. Sometimes I’ll start with a rough sketch on paper, sometimes not, or I’ll sketch out the main elements directly onto the image on my computer using a graphics tablet. Then I decide which bits I’ll draw or paint by hand and which bits will be photographed. If I’m going to use a lot of photography then I’ll work out what I need and where I’ll be able to go to photograph it. I also have thousands of photos I’ve taken over the years and often I can go back and find something I need from them. I try not to use much stock photography unless it’s unavoidable but I’ll often look for reference images on the web to help me work out how particular elements should look.

I also add quite a lot of texture to some of my images and this is often hand painted with watercolour or acrylic or comes from photographs I’ve taken of decaying concrete or scratched metal etc. So I just layer this mix of different traditional and digital techniques together in photoshop and try and make sure it all looks more or less cohesive.

How would you describe your own artistic style?

Well I think it’s quite erratic. But hopefully I’m progressing with it too. Progressive Erraticism maybe?

Are you influenced by any other artists, and if so who?

I expect at some level I’m influenced every time I look closely at another artist’s work as I’m always interested in looking at the techniques and processes behind different artists’ images. I think that by showing how you can combine traditional art and photography with modern digital programs Dave McKean was probably the biggest influence on me in terms of technique when I was starting out. However, my favourite artist has to be Austin Osman Spare who I’m pretty obsessed with. Other artists I like are the photographer Joel Peter Witkin, H.R. Giger, Francesco Parisi and several surrealist painters like Max Ernst and Remedios Varo. So there’s probably quite a few different influences from different artists.

What do you seek to achieve with your work?  Does it differ much between cover art and illustrations for individual stories?

I think with short stories I generally try to capture what I feel are the emotions or essence of the story rather than illustrate a particular scene, although that does vary a bit. With book covers the image needs to be quite visually striking and that often means finding a scene in the story that will make a good illustration to hook readers.

At the same time I want all my work, whether they’re commissioned pieces or art done for my own amusement, to feel alive and be emotionally compelling. So I try and produce images that are striking and evocative and that hopefully convey a bit of myself and my thoughts too.

Are there any other artistic mediums you’d like to try/use?

I’d quite like to do some 3D work and animation but the chances of me getting the programs and finding the time to learn how to use them are pretty small. I’d also really like to do some stop motion animation along the lines of Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay but I’m not sure if I’d have the patience let alone the skill to do anything like that.

What is it about ‘genre’ art that appeals to you?

I think it’s the visionary and imaginative aspects of it that attract me the most as there are no real limits apart from your own creativity so that’s very appealing along with the whole sense of fun that comes with that. Also, I’ve never been that interested in producing art that is just a direct copy from real life. I like to embellish things and exaggerate elements to make them more fantastical so I guess I like that element of it too.

Do you read much genre fiction, and if so who are your favourite writers?

Yeah, I read a fair bit, I guess. Not sure who my favourites are as I like some authors for certain qualities that probably wouldn’t be as effective in the work of other authors that I like, and vice versa. Off the top of my head I’ll say Philip Dick, JG Ballard, Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, Peter Watts, Jeff Vandermeer, Lauren Beukes, Steve Aylett…

Also one of the great things about working with Interzone and Black Static is that I’ve read and illustrated some fantastic work from authors like Nina Allan, Ray Cluley and Jason Sanford who I hadn’t come across before.

(Thanks for the mention.)  Is there anyone in particular you’d like to illustrate for?

Any of the people I mentioned above would be great although a few of them are dead so that would complicate matters… Speaking of that I’d love to have been able to work with William Burroughs and to listen to any ideas he would have had about images for his stories.

Can you reveal anything about your future projects?

There’s always a few projects I’m working on and I’ve got several completed covers that I’m waiting to reveal once the publishers start to advertise the books. One of which is for one of my favourite authors and for some reason I decided to try and have part of the cover made up of Escher like tessellations combining various different images. I think the concept really fitted with some of the ideas behind the book although it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve attempted to do visually. I ended up cheating a little bit with it so it’s more of a repeated pattern than a true tessellation but I think it looks quite effective.

I’m currently working on some cover art for a debut novel from director/writer Jim Shields called “Baby Strange”. This will be published by PS Publishing in a few months and I’d advise you all to keep an eye out for it as it’s a hugely enjoyable novel full of gritty horror and madness!

I also have a very exciting personal project that I’m working on in my spare time. Well, it’s exciting for me but I hope it will be exciting for other people too once it’s completed. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage though as it’s still fairly early days.

Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions, there’s just one more – for all those wanting to do what you do, any advice?

Persistence is all.

I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing

You can check out more of Ben’s work at his website by clicking here.

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Less is More: Horror Short Stories

I’ve started writing a column for This is Horror and the first is up now.  It’s an introductory piece on the short story form in horror, with following articles to focus on particular examples old and new.  You can check it out by clicking here: Less is More

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Sonny See Says a Few Words


I’ve always been curious about how podcasts get put together, especially when it’s as beautiful as the one I was lucky to get for ‘Tethered to the Cold and Dying’; the readings are all top-notch, and the effects are fantastic, wonderfully suited to the subject material.  I love it, and can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be to bring a story to life like this.  Thankfully Sonny See, the man responsible for putting the production together for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine, has allowed me to reproduce his comments on the process, so here’s the man himself explaining how it’s done.  Anything in [boxed brackets like this] are my own views.

Over to Sonny…

“Well, here is my usual procedure after being assigned, or choosing a story.

Once I have received the audio from those giving voice to the characters in the story, I break all of it down in to manageable pieces. In the case of Tethered, I had something along the lines of 16 or 17 chapters, and so that many different Audacity projects. [Audacity is a free open source digital audio editor and recording application.]

When given multiple takes, I choose what I feel best suits the story as I am trying to portray it. I have a separate track for each character when possible, and a track or three for sound effects and background music, if any. I create one main folder for the entire production, and separate sub folders for each chapter, sound effects, and music. All of this I save in my Dropbox folder. Doing this allows me to work on the project during lunch at work, using a computer with a Windows 8 operating system. Then I am able to work on the same project at home on my desktop, which runs Windows Vista, and finally, whenever lounging about, using my laptop, running Linux. With Audacity, and Dropbox, I am able to be a little flexible.

Once I have the dialogue tracks in the proper order, I begin to work on timing and pacing of the story, tweaking the dialogue, and slowly adding background noises and sound effects. All of this, of course, takes an inordinate amount of time, and while this is going on, I am agonizing over what sounds to use, what music, if any, to use, and searching the inter-webs for appropriate, inspiring sounds to add to the soundscape. I usually try to get a sound, or set of sounds, for the background ambiance in order to set the scene, then layer on different sounds to add to the feel of the story.

For instance, in the first and subsequent chapters, I found a sound of arctic wind. I used that as the background. I took the sound and used Audacity to change the tempo of different sections, cut some sections out, layered the same sound on top of itself in different places in order to avoid repetition and make it seem more vast and desolate. On top of that, I made the choice to add the sounds of him trudging through the ‘snow’, then the hiss of his suit when he talks, or exerts himself. I added static from his communication device so that mother would sound tinny and far away. [I loved this. In the written text I presented dialogue differently than was usual here with dashes and italics so that it didn’t look like a normal conversation. The sounds Sonny has used reflect this perfectly.]

Sometimes I deliberately leave sounds out in the hope that the listener will hear it anyway. One example of this is when Jack first meets Hugo and he says that he can ‘hear’ Hugo biting in to the crispy skin of the goose. I tried to find an appropriate sound for that but in the end, decided to leave it out and see if anyone else heard it anyway as I seemed to do.

Once I was as satisfied as I was going to be, I had to find a way to connect all the chapters. How to make the transition back and forth between all of the flashbacks and the different scenes. I decided to create my own transitions using a trial version of a program called Absynth. It was at this point that I decided to add the ‘overly subtle’ audio ‘Easter egg’. By the way, I have sent, via email, the solution to what that hidden audio is. Perhaps Rish and Big will let everyone know. Or, maybe they won’t. I will leave it up to them.

After listening to the story in whole or in part far too many times, I came up with the drinking game. [I love this.]

If you have read this far, let me say that I appreciate all of the positive comments about the production. I had fun doing it and was glad to be a part of it.”

If you haven’t heard it yet, pop over to Dunesteef by clicking here, and if you too like what Sonny See has done then add a comment to the episode or the website’s forum.

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Other Summers available now

You can read a story I wrote with the talented Michael Kelly if you click here.  It’s a fond nod to the superb Ray Bradbury (and an experiment in writing by sending emails back and forth).

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The Different Seasons of Stephen King

Okay, bit of a misleading title.  This post has nothing to do with Stephen King’s collection of novellas except to steal the seasonal link.  It does, however, have something to do with Stephen King.  Here’s the plan: analyse a Stephen King novel for each season of the year.  And as we seem stuck in winter right now, even though technically it’s spring, winter’s where I’ll begin with a closer look at The Shining.  Just for fun.  Because, you know, all work and no play…

The House that Jack Built: Shining a light upon one of Stephen King’s most rewarding novels.

The Shining is perhaps the best known of Stephen King’s novels and with the sequel, Doctor Sleep, just around the corner it’s likely to see something of a revival in popularity.  I didn’t catch the recent Room 237 which addresses the complexity of Stanley Kubrik’s film version (“complexity” depending how much you buy into some of Room 237’s theories) and plenty has been said already about King versus Kubrik, but I feel the strength of the original novel is often overlooked (if you’ll excuse the pun).

The set-up is simple: the Torrance family move to the Overlook Hotel as caretakers over the winter months, only to find the hotel isn’t quite what it seems.  In fact, it’s The Shining’s Bad Place, not simply the location where the monstrous lurks but the monster itself, something King suggests early on by referring to the Torrance family as “microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster”.  One of the most famous modern horror stories to make the house the monster is perhaps Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Jack Torrance makes a direct comparison between this place and the Overlook.  Just as in Jackson’s novel, things aren’t quite as simple as house = monster in The Shining.  There are psychological aspects to consider…

“Landscapes of the mind” are very much the territory of the modern Gothic, according to David Punter, and I’m inclined to agree.  I agree with William Day, too, who claims that “no discussion of the Gothic can avoid discussing Freud”.  King may be somewhat dismissive of what he calls “Freudian huggermugger” but there is certainly much in his work pertaining to psychoanalysis.  Indeed, not only does The Shining make Freudian rhetoric a means by which to discuss its narrative but it incorporates it, too, making Freudian observations a part of the narrative itself.  Both Jack and Doctor Edmonds provide pseudo-Freudian comment in The Shining, and when Danny muses “it’s like I can’t remember because it’s so bad I don’t want to remember” he’s rephrasing Freudian terms for repression.  Considering the novel’s focus upon identity and sexuality, together with the anxiety and fear that comes with it, these Freudian trappings are perhaps unsurprising.

Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ is an essay often referred to in discussion of the horror genre.  He defines the uncanny, or unheimlich, as when the familiar becomes unfamiliar.  It is the opposite of a pleasant feeling and turns the comfortable house into a haunted one, a definition that suits the Overlook not only as a ‘haunted house’ but as a hotel, having domestic familiarity yet lacking the same comforts of home.  According to Ernst Jentsch, the uncanny occurs when there is “doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate” and there are many examples of this, too, in The Shining, from the threatening hedge animals to a fire-hose that becomes a sleeping menace with scaly canvas skin, its “muzzle” at once bestial and gun-like.  Yet King maintains an ambiguity for much of the novel, allowing the reader to think Danny’s imagination may be responsible for such occurrences, or that Jack is suffering a mental breakdown.  What we actually get is a combination of supernatural and psychological, and the novel is all the more effective for it: while the many rooms and histories of the hotel may constitute multiple facets of the hotel’s hostile personality, scarier still is the idea that they may be reflections of the personalities of its occupants.

Take the basement, for example. It houses the boiler, which obviously parallels Jack’s destructive temper, something King makes this very clear in integrating details of its operation with references to Jack’s violent thoughts.  Being the lowest point of the hotel, and with its ready-to-explode boiler, the basement resembles, as well, an apt hellish dimension.  But it is also the room that separates Jack away from the rest of his family, becoming obsessed as he does with a collection of papers detailing the hotel’s history stored here like memories, perhaps making the room the building’s unconscious.  More than a storage area, “Freud depicted the unconscious as a dynamic force” (according to Richard Gross) and the repressed events housed within the Overlook continue to exert an influence, motivating Jack’s actions and ultimately leading to violence.

Other rooms also have significance: Room 217 (not 237 as the film would have it) is particularly important.  Locked doors concealing secrets are typical tropes of the horror genre with obvious psychoanalytical parallels in representing the drives and desires that are repressed or shut away.  And within 217, that bathroom…  The bathroom is a private place, a naked place, and as such is a place of extreme vulnerability for both Danny and Jack, albeit for different reasons.  For Danny the bathroom has monstrously sexual connotations; the breasts and pubic area of the naked dead woman in the tub are significantly noted, and when repeating these details later, Danny “looked miserably at his mother”, highlighting one of the Oedipal struggles addressed in the text.  Jack, however, does not witness this body, finding instead a dry clean bath.  This absence contributes to the Oedipal struggle, representing Jack’s weakening role in the power struggle with Danny, but it also serves to draw attention to the bathroom as symbolic of cleanliness.  Jack observes how sparkling clean the room is, detecting the smells of soaps and disinfectant with a “self-righteous, cleaner-than-thou” smell.  Even when he does imagine the corpse, he has it clutching a bar of soap.  Unlike Danny, Jack refuses to acknowledge the room’s significance, denying a need to cleanse himself, fleeing from the woman he imagines there.

Many critics recognise an Oedipal struggle as central to the text, but surprisingly few have commented on the significance of the bathroom scenes.  James Twitchell even claims the bathroom sequence is a “throwaway scene” little more than “a light socket into which our finger is placed while King turns up the voltage”, but I’d argue there’s a resonance to the scene that marks it as integral to the text and by no means “throwaway”, though turning up the voltage is apt enough for it marks an increased attention to the Oedipal conflict and emphasises the division it causes within the family.

As Freud notes, “the opening of locked doors [is]…among the commonest of sexual symbols”, so the Oedipal parallel of Danny’s trespass is clear and Jack’s efforts to harm him may be read as the typical ‘castration’ punishment.  Danny can read his parents’ thoughts, an ability “like peeking into the bedroom…while they’re doing the thing that makes babies”, and such reference to the primal scene directs the reader to castration theory and the Oedipus complex.  Fear of castration induces the child to overcome his Oedipus complex and the traditional horror convention of a young woman pursued becomes, instead, a pursuit of the son by a castrating father who, under the Overlook’s influence, emphasises his own “pecker” with “ask your mother” as a cruel taunt.  But there’s another Oedipal relationship in the text.  Jack’s intimacy with the hotel mirrors his relationship with Wendy, and Jack wants the hotel all to himself, willing (eager) to harm his competition.  This is where the Oedipal conflict really comes to the fore.

Danny’s ‘shining’ allows him to anticipate this pursuit and conflict.  Initially he sees the threat as an unknown tormentor, a “shape”, a “monster” but it soon becomes clear that this monster is Jack.  Again, there are similarities to Freudian theory.  In his essay ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, he notes the identity of the person beating the child remains obscure at first, before becoming recognisable as the father.  In the following phase, the identity switches back from the father to a representative of him.  Interestingly, Freud notes that a teacher is a typical representative figure and Jack was once a teacher, until he beat one of his pupils.  But Danny realises his tormentor is not really his father any more but the Overlook Hotel – one has become the mask for the other.

When Danny first visualises the hotel, when ‘Tony’ shows it to him, he sees the building and “a giant, grinning skull over two crossed bones”.  Poison, Tony warns him.  It’s an appropriate symbol, the hotel working its malign influence on Jack so that the Overlook Hotel becomes his habit much as drinking used to be.  Researching its background he acts as if wanting to drink again, wiping his lips with his hand, and when Wendy finds him amongst the newspaper clippings she steps close and Jack realises “she was tying to smell the liquor on him”.  The hotel has become his poison,  a replacement for the alcohol that once intoxicated him.  The scene in which he imagines he is drinking marks the novel’s turning point, a shift in Jack as he addresses figments of the hotel directly, see-sawing between seeing them and not.  It is a scene that firmly, and finally, establishes the instability of his mind, whilst illustrating that he has returned to being the man he once was, defeated by his past and his ghosts.

While it is tempting to blame alcoholism for Jack’s problems, his drinking is merely a device used to illustrate his denial of responsibility, something Jack does repeatedly throughout the text.  He recognises his failures and gradually replaces his responsibilities with a patriarchal tyranny similar to that of his own father.  The play he is writing, about the abuse of power, comes to be something he can relate to, so he changes it in denial.  “If you avoid your obligations, then you always end up hurting your loved ones” King said of Thinner, but it’s something that applies to many of his other books, especially The Shining.  Jack admits only his obligation to the Overlook Hotel, something “like having a responsibility to history”, but considering the history of both Jack and the hotel, this does not bode well.

The Overlook is a place where repetition can, and does, occur.  The hotel thrives on it, forcing repetition upon the Torrance family both in attempting to reproduce the fate of Grady’s family and in twisting Jack into the image of his own father.  Jack’s history is revealed in multiple flashbacks based around memories of a paternal nature, allowing past, present, and future to combine in the paternity of Mark, Jack, and Danny Torrance.  “In the Overlook all times were one”, and while Danny is haunted by the future, Jack is haunted by his own past.  The use of precognition and ghosts in the novel is King’s way of illustrating this.  As Joe Abbott notes, Jack’s obsession with the past opposes Holloran’s  advice, “that you get on, no matter what” and Jack ends up repeating the monstrous behaviour of both Grady and his own father.  Grady’s recommendation that he “correct” his family plays on Jack’s realisation that he has failed in his responsibilities, and the sentiment is later voiced in Jack’s threat, “take your medicine”.  He sees punishment as a corrective medicine due to the violent behaviour of his father who used the same phrase.  The hotel recognises and exploits this paternal influence, using the voice of Jack’s father to persuade him to kill.  Jack believes that ‘Father Knows Best’ and becomes his father in repetition, re-enacting his childhood but with himself in the active role, revenging himself upon his own family in a fashion Freud has detailed in his essay, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’.

This potential for violence is apparent in the family name: “Jack” may be plain and ordinary (Jack is an everyman character, an any man, and therein lies the true horror of The Shining), but “Torrance” tells of a stormy temperament.  It’s an important contrast, one he shares with the hotel.  Like the Overlook, Jack seems pleasant on the outside (at first) while inside he roils with violent rage, as the conflict between his spoken dialogue and that of his private thoughts reveals at various points in the novel.  His temper is “like a vicious animal on a frayed leash” and as the simile suggests, it is not his monster exclusively; it threatens everyone close, namely the family unit.  Danny has suffered his wrath in the past, receiving a broken arm, and a former student also suffered violence at the hands of Jack Torrance.

“The terrors of the Overlook Hotel prompt, mirror [and] confirm exactly the nightmarish disintegration that is taking place in Jack Torrance’s mind” according to Thomas Tessier, and as the text progresses Jack’s thoughts become one with those of the hotel.  As Tony Magistrale puts it, the Overlook “methodically assaults his very identity” until, instead of “slowly closing a huge door on a roomful of monsters” as Wendy supposes, Jack stands on the threshold of opening it and becoming one with the Bad Place.

According to Victor Sage, “the horror tradition draws strongly upon the metaphor of the isolated house” because the isolated house represents the individual.  The Bad Place, once used as a means of addressing, housing, sexual interests and fears, is used now in modern fiction to address interest in, and fear of, the self.  King notes it’s a kind of symbolic mirror.  The house of Dr Jekyll, for example, can been seen as a Freudian symbol reflecting the nature of its occupant (and for a ‘queer reading’, consider how Hyde always uses the back entrance…) while Poe’s imploding House of Usher, which The Shining draws upon, also highlights the building’s role as metaphor. The Overlook takes the association further in being an entity in its own right, “a parasitic organism” as Tony Magistrale puts it, “growing more powerful as it ingests human malfeasance”.

As King remarks, “the good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in”.  The isolation and imprisonment provide the perfect setting for claustrophobic horror, but also acts as a physical representation of psychological repression.  In the words of Douglas Winter, the building is “a symbol of unexpiated sin: it is the house that Jack built.  The ruined Gothic castle has become the haunted mind itself’.  Or to put it another way, Jack brought his own monsters to the Overlook – the hotel merely encouraged him to set them free.

Abbott, Joe M.  (1994).  Family Survival: Domestic Ideology And Destructive Paternity in the Horror Fictions of Stephen King.  Dissertation requirement for  Philosophy Doctorate, University of Southern California.
Bosky, Bernadette Lynn.  (1987).  The Mind’s a Monkey: Character and Psychology in Stephen King’s Recent Fiction.  In Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds), Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King.  London: New English Library.
Brown, Stephen P.  (1987).  The Life and Death of Richard Bachman: Stephen King’s Doppelganger.  In Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds), Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King.  London: New English Library.
Bruhm, Steven (ed.).  (2002).  The contemporary Gothic: why we need it.  In Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion To Gothic Fiction.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Day, William Patrick.  (1985).  In The Circles of Fear and Desire.  Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Freud, Sigmund.  (1929).  Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.  (1917).  Trans. Joan Riviere.  London: Allen & Unwin.
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–     (1977a).  Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality.  (1905).  In Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality.  Ed. Angela Richards.  Trans. James Strachey.  London: Penguin.
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–     (1991).  The Unconscious.  (1915).  In Sigmund Freud, The Essentials Of Psycho-Analysis.  Ed. Anna Freud.  Trans. James Strachey.  London: Penguin.
–     (1997).  The Interpretation Of Dreams.  (1900).  Trans. A. A. Brill.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.
–     (2001).  Beyond The Pleasure Principle.  (1920).  In Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XVIII.  Ed. James Strachey.  Trans. James Strachey.  London: Vintage.
–     (2003).  The Uncanny.  (1919).  Trans. David McLintock.  London: Penguin.
Gross, Richard D.  (1993).  Psychology.  (1992).  London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Jentsch, Ernst.  (1995).  On The Psychology Of The Uncanny.  (1906).  Trans. Roy Sellars.  In Sarah Wood (ed.), Home And Family.  Great Britain: Angelaki.
King, Stephen.  (2002).  Danse Macabre.  (1981).  London: Time Warner.
Magistrale, Tony.  (1988).  Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic.  Bowling Green Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Punter, David.  (1996a).  The Literature of Terror, Vol. 1: The Gothic Tradition.  London and New York: Longman.
Sage, Victor.  (1988).  Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition.  Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.
Tessier, Thomas.  (1991).  The Big Producer.  (1988).  In Don Herron (ed.), Reign of Fear.  London: Pan Books.
Tudor, Andrew.  (1997).  Why Horror?  The Peculiar Pleasure of a Popular Genre.  Cultural Studies 11: 3.
Twitchell, James B.  (1989).  Preposterous Violence: Fables of Aggression in Modern Culture.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Winter, Douglas E.  (1984).  Stephen King: The Art of Darkness.  New York and Scarborough: New American Library.
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A Case of Narrative

I’ve been reading (and writing) some detective fiction lately, but not blogging much, so here’s an article I wrote a while ago.  It first appeared in issue 52 of emagazine.

Exploring the appeal of detective fiction

The first clue

We’ve had a fascination with detective fiction for a long time; Oedipus Rex is arguably an early example, just as the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel is an early courtroom drama.  But it is Edgar Allan Poe who is often credited as creating the first detective.  ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’ introduces C. Auguste Dupin who goes on to appear in ‘Marie Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’.  In Britain he evolves into Sherlock Holmes, a character whose name is now synonymous with detective.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledges the debt with Watson telling Holmes “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin” in A Study in Scarlet.  Agatha Christie developed the genre in favouring the novel form and creating Poirot and Marple whilst back in America, where the genre began, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were writing ‘hardboiled’ detective fiction.  There have been post-modern explorations, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Death and the Compass’, and a recent fascination with the villain or anti-hero with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter spurring a deluge of imitation serial killer fiction in his wake.  Illustrating that the genre is as popular as ever, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has been in the charts for months.  But why do we like these stories?

Why read detective fiction?

Partly it is the duality of detective fiction that appeals to us; the criminal represents the id, acting out selfish desires, whereas the detective is the superego keeping this in check.  We enjoy the crimes of the villain vicariously, but we also enjoy the parallel between detective and reader, solving the puzzle at the same time as the hero.  If we can’t solve it, then the logical process of the detective allows us to think we could have solved it had we paid more attention.  It is as Dupin says in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles”.  It’s a story that combines the gothic with a fondness for intellectual reasoning typical of the enlightenment.

There is also comfort to be had in seeing the crimes solved.  In her autobiography, Agatha Christie says she turned to detective fiction because Evil could be contained and hunted down whilst Good could triumph.  Poe, in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, reassures the reader by making the killer quite literally an animal rather than human (representing our primitive desires, perhaps), and the solving of the locked room puzzle diverts us from the horror and brutality.  Classic detective fiction takes something morally and socially wrong, something worrying, and makes it controllable, solvable, restoring order in having the criminal brought to justice.  The detective figure is one promising safety: there’s no duping Dupin and Doyle’s detective offers us a sure lock on our homes.  The hardboiled Marlowe reassures us less regarding social order, indeed he highlights the flaws in society, but he does show that at least one person can be trusted to do the right thing, and like all detectives he offers the satisfaction of a resolved narrative.

The very nature of narrative itself imposes order, the plot of detective fiction requiring careful structure on the part of the writer.  “People think them more ingenious than they are,” said Poe modestly of his detective stories, “Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unravelling?”  Yet this highlights the fact that though we marvel at the detective’s ingenuity we forget the writer’s own in crafting such an engaging story.  When the Prefect in Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’ explains how a scroll can be hidden in a chair leg, the narrator says “but could not the cavity be detected by sounding?” to which the Prefect replies, “By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient wadding of cotton be placed around it”.  Here he has provided an apt analogy for detective fiction –  the important details need to be surrounded by inconsequential ones.  The reading process is an act of dis-covering things, social order restored by establishing a narrative one, and only when the reading is complete does the careful plot seem as obvious as the purloined letter, there before our eyes all along.

The Private ‘I’

A character like Dupin or Holmes is perhaps difficult for readers to relate to, and so we have the filter of a narrator, someone as passive as the reader.  The confidant in Poe’s tales and Watson in those of Doyle’s give us someone to identify with whilst ensuring the detective figure remains isolated as a special individual.  Chandler’s Marlowe, on the other hand, is different.  With Chandler the detective narrative evolves so that whilst it retains the first person perspective it removes the sidekick, a combination that makes the detective’s relationship with the reader all the more intimate.  Marlowe is very much a private ‘I’, living the same self-imposed seclusion of earlier detective characters but with a world-weary tone and directness that has nothing of their arrogance.

Marlowe began in Black Mask magazine, though first he was Carmady and John Dalmas, whereas Strand Magazine saw a lot of the early Sherlock Holmes stories.  Short stories were the ideal form for detective narratives, allowing investigations to reach a neat resolution in a single-sitting.  Of the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, all but four were short stories.  But just as Christie developed the genre into novel form, so too did Chandler, Marlowe narrating investigations for the duration of  seven novels, eight if you include Poodle Springs which Chandler didn’t finish.  Marlowe’s stories need this extended length because of how the genre was developing; the hardboiled detective narrative is as much about what will happen as what has happened.

Chandler famously said that to liven up a story he would have a man enter the room with a gun.  Violence is a key part of hardboiled detective fiction, the action driving much of the plot.  Even as early as ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’ Dupin actively makes his own enquiries which results in him awaiting a potentially dangerous man, ready with pistols, but it is recent fiction that really emphasises the brutality of the crime.  Consider Larsson’s Lisbeth who has suffered various abuse, or the The Silence of the Lambs in which Starling is investigating a brutal case where the killer skins his victims, all the while trying to keep one step ahead of the cannibal Hannibal Lecter who escapes during the novel.

Lecter proved to be such an intriguing character that Harris was forced to write more novels to appease public demand, much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Holmes from the dead for outraged readers (some readers wore a black band of mourning after Holmes took his fateful fall in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ and even today many people believe the detective was a real person).  Agatha Christie’s detectives returned again and again and endure today in new stories for television.  Currently it is Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander who appeals to readers, her repeated appearances cut short only by the death of her author.  It seems a familiarity with recurring characters is a reason in itself for reading crime fiction, be the character detective, criminal, or somewhere in between.

The detective

With Dupin, Poe created the first criminal profiler and private investigator, a character standing apart from the common man. Yet he also stands apart from the Parisian police force.  Whilst the policeman collects the pieces of the puzzle, the detective is able to see the patterns connecting them and assembles the full picture.  The tradition continues with Marple and Poirot, and the hardboiled detectives of Chandler and Hammett are ‘private’.  Marlowe, a combination of the analyst and strongman Dupin mentions in ‘Murders of the Rue Morgue’, worked for the district attorney’s office but was fired for “talking back” and even when the detective figure is part of the police force they are often a rogue character, a maverick within the system.  A notable exception to this is Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series in which we follow a variety of policemen from novel to novel.

Harris emphasised the outsider idea in making his detective female in The Silence of the Lambs, and a trainee. A good deal of conflict Clarice Starling faces consists of interdepartmental politics based around her gender and she is very much seen as a woman in a ‘man’s world’, particularly in the sequel Hannibal.  Sara Paretsky’s detective V. I. Warshawski experiences similar prejudice, the use of her initials rather than a first name on business cards often leading to a surprise from male characters.  Most recently, though, it is Larsson’s female investigator Lisbeth Salander who has captivated readers, appearing first in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, originally titled tellingly as ‘Men Who Hate Women’.  Lisbeth comes from a background of domestic abuse to which her response is violent revenge.  She is committed to a mental health facility and later sexually victimised by her guardian, for which again she seeks violent vengeance.  She is a character who is first victim then attacker, an agent more of moral justice than legal, blurring the line between the law and crime. 

Just as the form of telling their stories has changed, so too have the detectives.  From privileged upper class individuals to a working police force, from men to women, heterosexual to gay and bisexual, the detective has adapted to appeal to a modern reader.

The criminal mind

There is a particular duality to the genre of detective fiction.  As the narrative moves forward towards an explanation of the crime, so it moves backwards from the crime in order to reach this explanation.  Similarly, there is a duality between detective and criminal, hero and villain.  In ‘The Purloined Letter’, for example, the criminal goes only by the name Minister D, sharing an initial with the detective Dupin.  When told D is a poet, Dupin admits “I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself” and the note Dupin leaves his adversary at the end of the story translates as ‘if such a sinister design isn’t worthy of Atreus, it is worthy of Thyestes’, emphasising their close relationship; Atreus and Thyestes were twins.  The clues pointing towards this dual nature appear as early as Dupin’s first story in which the narrator suspects Dupin possesses “a diseased intelligence”, noting that his investigations are for “amusement”, a term even the narrator feels odd.  Dupin’s “freak fancy” is “to be enamoured of the Night” and darkness is part of Dupin’s process; “we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark” he says, perhaps in order to experience the world as the criminal sees it.  But where, exactly, does his knowledge of drowned bodies come from, as detailed in ‘The Mystery Of Marie Roget’?  There is as much forensic knowledge here as you’re likely to find in something by Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs.  You have to wonder what this great detective would do, what he might become, if faced with boredom.

Boredom is why Lecter is so easily manipulated to play detective in The Silence of the Lambs, and the attendant Barney even notes boredom as the only threat that is effective when dealing with the man.  Once a psychiatric doctor, Lecter was someone people would invite into their heads, something he does as easily as Dupin and Holmes before him.  He is civilised, educated, and yet murderous and cannibalistic, a remarkable anti-hero character behind bars for his crimes but using his intellect to help solve others, all for his own amusement.  Having seen the politics of the police force, and having experienced the despicable character of Dr Chilton, it is frighteningly easy to empathise with Dr Lecter.

The police who supposedly represent law and order are equally as despicable in Chandler’s fiction.  Corrupt and untrustworthy, or at least incompetent, the police highlight Marlowe’s role as a noble figure, but he has more in common with the criminal than Chandler may like to admit.  Marlowe frequently kills as often as the criminals, and while he may not be eager to lie he is adept at concealing things: “I’m telling you the family secrets” says General Sternwood in The Big Sleep; “They’re still secrets” is Marlowe’s reply.  Keeping a secret may mark him as a noble figure in a city that rife with corruption, but his decision to keep a secret at the end of the novel, a criminal secret, only serves to make him “part of the nastiness”.  Chandler wrote, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” but the detective and the criminal have more in common than he may have supposed.

A final note

Reading detective fiction only as a puzzle risks missing a wealth of other aspects worth reading it for.  Not only do detective stories provide intellectual mysteries, they reveal much about society’s fears at different points in history and provide characters that, admirable or despicable (or both at once), engage a reader’s interest and develop over a period of stories.  Poe’s purloined letter is found but never read, frustrating the reader in a story that can easily be read (pun fully intended) as an apt warning against looking for a solution at the expense of the content.  Henry James may have condemned the genre as the work of science rather than of literature but it seems he must have been looking for the letter rather than enjoying the search. 

Further reading:

…And Always a Detective, by R F Stewart

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Essays on Detective Fiction, ed Bernard Benstock

Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction, Stephen Knight

‘The Simple Art of Murder’, by Raymond Chandler

‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, by Tzvetan Todorov, in The Poetics of Prose

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