Wednesday 26 April 2023

Submissions Window: The Black Beacon Book of Ghost Stories

Our next submissions window will be for The Black Beacon Book of Ghost Stories from Halloween to Christmas Eve, 2023. We'll be looking for atmospheric ghost stories that give the reader a chill. Those familiar with our anthologies (this should mean you!) will know that we prefer subtlety over overstatement and creepiness over shock. We want the slow turn of the screw, perhaps with a twist at the end. If you make the editor shiver or shed a tear, you're in with a shot. 

Read the full submission details on the submissions page and don't submit outside of the window.

Friday 21 April 2023

An Interview with Harris Coverley

Harris Coverley will be contributing a story to the first volume of The Black Beacon Books of Horror this Halloween. To get you warmed up and hungry for more, we've invited him to answer a few questions about his previous work, inspiration, and writing process.

What is the most difficult part of your writing process?

It’s gaining the will to write in the first place. I have plenty of ideas to work off, even done considerable research for certain prospective stories, but I have to admit often a lack of will stops me putting digit to screen. I have to constantly remind myself that, by-and-large, I like writing—it’s a marvellous ride, once you get going. The first few hundred words that are put down are the hardest, forced out almost, and that’s all the mind seems to remember at first. Another problem is that as you actually begin to construct the actual prose, what you had in your head in the initial conception and what you are actually coming out with frequently conflict, and that can be very disheartening: the idealised image of the story not matching with the product of your physical activity at the keyboard. Naturally, you can always improve things in editing, but that can prove to be just as difficult a part of the whole process—agonising over word choice; wondering whether a sentence flows correctly, or whether a character’s described actions are clear to the reader. (I am in no way a ‘grammarian’—I go entirely by instinct as a writer and a reader. If it’s something I would find distasteful if I read it in another’s work, I either reform it, or delete it and start again.)

What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?

A good flow, releasing the pressure slowly, with occasional pops and squeaks, coming to either an explosive end (with a quiet epilogue to cap it off), or a further gradual deceleration down to a finish. A prose style that matches the narrative and its characters (for example: don’t be so grand with words when your primary characters are a bunch of twenty-something drunks). Having the character’s physical activities be clear to the reader (nothing worse than when you don’t actually know what a character is actually up to as they are doing something or moving around), but not necessarily their motivations or goals, which are best revealed indirectly or bit-by-bit. Striving for novelty rather than falling back onto tropes or formula (it’s okay if you fall short of true originality—the striving for uniqueness is what the reader appreciates). If you’re going for realism, actually have dialogue that represents something approximating a real conversation (seriously, sit in a cafĂ© and listen to real everyday people talk to each other (most of them do it loudly enough)—it’s the best all-purpose research a writer can undertake). Still, a lot of it arises out of the continuous practice of the craft of writing, and cannot be narrowed down to discrete parts—it is holistic, emergent. It’s not a science—it’s a philosophy, or what Aristotle called phronesis (practical wisdom).

How do you develop your plot and characters?

Plots I mostly figure out in the rough before writing a story. Of course, as it develops, it can go in different, unexpected directions. The visualised ending may be unworkable as the narrative has developed—characters you plotted for death suddenly want to be alive, and vice versa. Sometimes you even shock yourself with what’s happening on the screen—other times you find yourself boring yourself, and you have to go back a bit and start afresh. It may sound goofy, but when it comes to characters I’ve found myself in the past few years doing the Ray Bradbury thing: letting the character effectively come to me, let them tell me what they would do, what they want to do, what they would say, how they would say it. In reality, it’s really a question of imagining a human being, and then getting inside of their fictive heads, living through them, feeling what their bodies must feel like, sometimes to a slightly scary degree (especially if it’s a character that lacks empathy or has a moral framework which is alien to most other people including yourself). As the writer I can push them in certain directions, but only so far. I have to ask myself of them: what do they value? What are their concerns? What about them makes them individuals? Makes them human (or indeed, abhuman)? Sometimes, a landscape is visualised and the characters just walk straight into it out of the nothing. With both plot and character, there is a certain subconscious or unconscious influence on how they are realised. A proponent of psilocybinic mushrooms I once talked to spoke of the “fractal elves”—the little beings one meets on psychoactive trips—and hypothesised that they were segments of the unconscious mind taking on temporary autonomous form in the conscious mind of the tripper. In reflection, I have to wonder if the process of writing fiction is a bit like that: letting the elements of the under-mind rise up and take form on the screen.

What was your hardest scene to write, and why?

I have an unpublished story set on Halloween that opens with the central character, a young schoolboy, being mercilessly and brutally bullied by his classmates, which drew directly on my memories of school life. I wrote that whole tale in one sitting, and although that opening scene was only the first few hundred words, the antipathy and dread bubbles throughout the whole piece. I swear it was one of the most physically intense experiences in my whole life. My blood pressure went through the roof, my pulse thundered, I felt light-headed, and as soon as I had stopped typing I had to go outside into the autumn air to cool off. I don’t regret writing it though—it’s a good scene, and it sets the mood perfectly for the rest of the work. A related issue other than specific scenes is that sometimes one can get too deep into the mind of a particularly nasty protagonist as the narrative builds, especially those first person shorter stories where there are no scene breaks to act as a productive rest point. In trying to realise a truly scary character such as the narrator of “Purification” (published originally at the now sadly defunct, a man who kills the entire families of those he considers uncouth and ‘unclean’, or the protagonist of “Neck of the Woods” (published in Black Petals, Issue 102, Spring 2023), a young man directed in his deadly actions by a disembodied, psychopathic voice, you can find yourself being absorbed, mind-melded almost, above all if you start off with something based on a personal experience, and by the time you realise what’s happening and you can just about stop writing and take a break, there’s already been a great deal of exhausting psychological and physical stress on the body, and you were in the zone too much to cut it off earlier. It doesn’t occur too often, but it can be a strain.

What is your kryptonite as a writer?

You can have in your head very strong ideas of the main segments of a story, but sometimes the bridge between those segments can be very unclear, or feel very dissatisfying to write, and that can completely turn you off. I’m dealing with that problem right now with an unfinished story that’s in a more ‘literary-realist’ category than most of what I write (sometimes I do play at Raymond Carver). I’ve written the beginning, and I can properly visualise the middle, but the path between the two is very vague, very misty, possibly a bit dangerous—deadly to a good narrative. Another ‘kryptonite’ that kills the process is a growing feeling that what you’re writing at that moment is trite, unoriginal, unsavable…it can fester until work jerks to a stop, and you just can’t gather the wits to go back to it, and you have to sling it into the trunk. Maybe it will be resurrected one day, but most likely the germinal magic has gone.

Have you ever tried to write a short story for a genre you rarely or never read? 

A few years ago I wrote my first and so far only Western short story “One Hell of a Shot”, even though my reading of any Western-related fiction has been minimal at best. I just wanted to give it a try, and against all odds, it was actually published in the 134th issue of Frontier Tales, who are basically the only ‘pure’ Western fiction ezine left. The central character, the cowardly, pathetic, alcohol-riddled yet strangely endearing Eli the Greek, has been someone I’ve wanted to write more about, but have not up till now had the opportunity to. In all honesty as well, although I primarily write horror and weird fiction, there is still a lot of literature in that genre I’ve still not read: I’ve not read (or finished reading) the great trio of 19th century gothic novels Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and
Mr Hyde; I have never read a novel by Ramsey Campbell, or Brian Lumley, or Jack Ketchum, or Charles L. Grant, or Joe R. Lansdale, or Gene Wolfe, even though I’ve always enjoyed their short stories. I try to read widely, but that does mean that your own proficiency in reading in your own genre can suffer.

What book (or books) are you currently reading? 

I’ve been dipping into August Derleth’s classic anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (in the lovely Grafton edition), in which I just re-read Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for the first time in about a decade-and-a-half. It still holds up, although I think a few sections are a bit protracted and not as smooth as Lovecraft thought they were. I’ve been alternating with stories out of Robert Sheckley’s collection Shards of Space (tales like “Prospector’s Special” and “Forever” are underappreciated SF classics). I’ve also been reading Steven Volk’s book of columns Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror, which I purchased at a talk he gave a couple of months ago and which he graciously signed for me. I do need to get back to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which I put down a number of months ago and still haven’t picked back up yet. The last novel I finished was Georges Simenon’s The Neighbours, a psychological thriller from the ‘other side’ of things—it’s as though a big criminal scheme is going on in 1960s Paris, and we’re being told the story from the point of view of Emile Jovis, a minor, incidental character. The novelist and critic Scott Bradfield recommended it to me as a book to read in order to better one’s writing, and I would say it’s already had a big positive effect on how I do things.

What do the words “literary success” mean to you? How do you picture it?

I’ve got a sizeable bibliography behind me, but I know that getting a whole book published would be the next big step. I’ve considered a few small presses that might just publish a collection of my better stories, but really I finally need to write that novel I’ve been telling people about for five-odd years. I love all the small and micro-presses who do great work, but getting a contract with a major publisher would be a massive leap forward, opening up possibilities of mainstream recognition, financial success as a writer, and the freedom to move around the creative industries with ease, with the potentiality of new projects. It’s a wide-eyed dream, every fiction writer’s if they’re honest, but it’s still a possibility nonetheless.

Who has been the biggest supporter of your writing?

My mother no doubt. She really does believe in my work and she gives me the time and the space to attempt it, even though frankly there’s often not that much to show for my labours (although, of course, I must say that getting into The Black Beacon Book of Horror is a pretty big boon).

From art galleries on the Cornish coast to fun fairs in Blackpool, your fiction has an eerie folk horror edge to it, where did this come from?

I have to admit that, although I know Black Beacon Books has a special concern for the sub-genre, I’m a bit suspicious of the term “folk horror” and the cultural products that are attached to it. Films like The Witch (2015) and Men (2022) have not really wowed me like they have many others (although I do appreciate some of their better qualities). All horror relates to folk tradition as commonly understood: the undead coming back to haunt us, whether as ghosts or as revenants. The monsters that lurk in the forest (or were they once gods, like the Pan of Machen and Saki?). The primordial serpent of Indo-European mythology. Humbaba of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Urban legends of serial killers and madmen with hook-hands and masks—what are Sweeney Todd and Spring-Heeled Jack if not folk anti-heroes? To be sure, I don’t “oppose” folk horror. Who isn’t a fan of The Wicker Man (1973)? I even have a soft spot for the remake with Nicolas Cage (“HOW’D IT GET BURNED?!” “YOU BITCHES!”). I appreciate that there is a renewed desire to root horror deeper in the history and folklore of a culture, a nation, a region. My own particular stories just draw on my experiences wherever I’ve been—as with my characters, they begin to emerge and take shape. True intentionality is rare. I do however undertake research to build up my ideas if I feel it’s necessary. I’m actually working on a story at the moment inspired by the myth of the Green Man, but the nucleus for the idea came less from the myth itself and more from my mother buying four different ornaments depicting the Green Man from a garden centre, which are now randomly strewn around the backyard. To take proper shape the story will require more research on the mythology, but really the plot is fully-formed at this point.

Do childhood memories or fears play a role in your creative process?

All writers have to take from their own life experiences at least part of the time. I’ve already mentioned that bullying scene as a specifically acute case, but I draw constantly on childhood memories. Sometimes they simply materialise out of the mental aether and merge with an idea. Other times I will purposely ‘mine’ my own memories for details, even just to add a bit of colour to a scene. When it comes to childhood fears, that’s much more of a conscious, open process. Your worst fears always exist in childhood, when you don’t know enough about the world to have a good sense of how to move through it with a degree of confidence. The world is big and scary and chaotic, and the adults on TV or in the street or in the kitchen are always shouting, perhaps even striking each other. Every adult outside of your immediate family is subject to suspicion—or maybe you feel you can’t even trust your own parents or older siblings. You fall over and get your first big scars, maybe get your first broken bones, and you end up in the hospital alone for the first time. One night you watch a documentary about juvenile cancer—that messes you up for a week! You lie in bed thinking about it, and you ask your mother difficult questions that she can’t clearly answer. You wonder about shadows and what could be hiding in them. We are introduced to the very concept of death, and struggle to understand it. We fear violence, new and greater pains, abandonment, the unknown, the terrors of the truth about growing up—all of these are the foundations of how we experience horror in adolescence and then in adulthood. They are the things that stay with us for the rest of our lives, and they influence my own work always. At the exact same time, particularly adult fears can be a big source too. The fear of growing even older, becoming crippled or diseased (my new novelette “The Scorpion”, out now in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, #73, deals directly with this). The fear of relationship breakdown is another I often come back to (“Landslide” very much starts off with this, but so does “The Scorpion” as well). Poverty, paranoia, unfulfillment, and alienation all make reoccurring appearances in my stories, buttressing or enhancing the supernatural element.

Thanks for your time, Harris. Looking forward to talking to you again later in the year.

Find Harris on Twitter at: @ha_coverley