Friday, November 06, 2015

Primed for Darkness

(Editor’s note: The following piece comes from Ali Karim, our resident expert on the more hair-raising side of modern fiction.)

While I gravitate toward crime and thriller novels in general, I have a particular interest in the border where mystery fiction meets “horror and the weird.” Much of my early reading was within the horror genre--not only classic works but also Gothic and contemporary. And some narratives that are commonly shelved in bookstores under Crime & Mystery might just as well be placed in the Horror & Science Fiction section. Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, for instances, traverse the two genres, as do some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more Gothic yarns. Like a number of teenage boys, I went through (and survived) my obsession with H.P. Lovecraft; in fact, the celebrated novelist Ramsey Campbell (whose early work was highly Lovecraftian in theme) was the first author I ever interviewed (together with my friend John Parker) back in the ’80s on behalf of David Anthony Craft’s Comics Interview magazine.

More recently I became rather fanatical about Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective TV series (at least Season 1; let’s not even bring up the subject of Season 2). Fusing the police procedural with cosmic horror, and spiked with a liberal dose of philosophy (in particular, antinatalism), it introduced me to the contemporary horror fiction of Thomas Ligotti, whose books I began collecting in out-of-print editions until I had them all.

And then earlier this year, before I had to turn so much attention to my programming duties for Bouchercon 2015, I attended the latest CrimeFest convention in Bristol, England. While there, I was drawn to one event that I eventually mentioned in my report for The Rap Sheet:
There was also a very interesting Spotlight Session featuring horror writer-turned-crime fictionist Conrad Williams (Dust and Desire), who talked about the line that separates--or binds--those two literary genres. Not surprisingly, Nic Pizzolatto’s TV series, True Detective, merited a mention, as many of us are awaiting the start of its Season 2 with impatience and expectation.
I was already then planning a panel discussion for Bouchercon in Raleigh titled “Where Crime & Mystery Meet Horror & the Weird,” to be moderated by my dear friend Nanci Kalanta, so I had a professional interest in hearing what Williams had to say. Well, this bloke knew his mustard, as the saying goes. He was erudite and well-read, and his analysis of the subject flowed down the same pathways as my own. After the event, I went up to thank Williams for his part in the presentation and said that I would pick up one of his novels in the convention book room. (I was embarrassed to admit to a complete unfamiliarity with his work, which I later learned has a distinct cult following). He smiled at my enthusiasm, and then said, “You’re Ali, aren’t you?” In response to my nod he continued, “You probably don’t remember, but I e-mailed you several months ago--via a mutual friend--that I was wondering if you’d be interested in reading my first crime novel.” And then the penny dropped.

Like most people who are reading this, I receive a large quantity of e-mail every day, and I can only do my best in trying to weed through it all. And I have to be ruthless in managing my reading time and accepting review copies of books. I remembered that I’d turned down Williams’ novel, as a consequence of my heavy workload judging the contenders for this years’ Goldsboro Gold Dagger award. He expressed sympathy and added that if I’d still like a copy of his new book, Dust and Desire (Titan), he would get one into my hands. I agreed.

It wasn’t until after last month’s Bouchercon, though, that I finally picked up Williams’ story--and polished it off in two sittings.

I concur with the Publishers Weekly review, which called it a “highly effective series launch” and went on to explain that it’s “a serial killer thriller set in and around London.”
[T]he mysterious Kara Geenan hires P.I. Joel Sorrell to locate her 18-year-old brother, Jason Pythian. “She was crazier than a purse full of whelks,” Sorrell observes, illustrating his pithy Chandlerisms, which require a command of British slang to fully decode. Sorrell, an ex-cop whose only companion is his cat, is tormented both by the vicious murder of his wife, Rebecca, three years earlier and the subsequent disappearance of his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah. After Sorrell endures a frightful beating, he tries to untangle an array of corpses that somehow are connected to the case of the missing Jason. Williams (The Unblemished) expertly limns Sorrell’s self-destructive tendencies in his bitter asides, but the book’s greatest strength is its portrait of Wire, the young serial killer whose horrible childhood ultimately sets him on his monstrous path.
(Kirkus Reviews offers its own take on the novel here.)

One of the factors that most appealed to me about Williams’ debut work of crime fiction was its unsettling atmosphere. The narrative is hypnotic but in equal measure tense, leaving the reader with a foreboding that lingers like a London fog. It reminded me of Derek Raymond’s bleak Factory novels, though Williams’ tale is also sprinkled with the sardonic humor and clever turns of phrase more common among American private eyes such as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser.

After enjoying Dust and Desire, I went looking for more information about its author. There’s an excellent interview with him at the Web site maintained by Scotland’s University of Stirling. From that I gleaned some basic information: “Conrad Williams [born in 1969] is the author of seven novels: Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished, One, Decay Inevitable, Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation; four novellas: Nearly People, Game, Rain and The Scalding Rooms, and around 80 short stories (a number of which appeared in his collection, Use Once Then Destroy). He has won the International Horror Guild Award (2007, Best Novel--The Unblemished) and several British Fantasy Awards (1993, Best Newcomer; 2008, Best Novella--The Scalding Rooms; 2010, Best Novel--One). He lives in Manchester [England] with his wife and three sons.”

(Left) Conrad Williams (photo supplied by the author)

However, I still had some questions of my own. So though his UK-based publisher, Titan, I tracked Williams down for a bit of a chat. In the course of that we discussed his history and his interest in subjects ranging from horror fiction, the prizes his writing has won, and the aforementioned Derek Raymond to True Detective and the marked change of direction his fiction has taken with Dust and Desire.

Ali Karim: Conrad, you are new writer to me, and perhaps to many others who enjoy the crime and mystery genre. So tell us a little about your upbringing and what (or who) motivated you to become a reader.

Conrad Williams: Both of my parents were police officers. It’s how they met. I grew up in Warrington [in North West England] during the 1970s and became very aware of--either through my parents’ professional interest in, or my own heightened sensitivity towards--the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper. I was 8 years old when he crossed the Pennines and killed in Manchester for the first time. I remember fearing for my mother’s safety--by that time she was working in a pub 10 minutes down the road--and I wouldn’t be able to rest until I heard her key in the lock each night. So I think I was primed for this kind of darkness from quite a young age.

There were always books in our house. Mainly non-fiction titles to do with my dad’s passions: travel, the Second World War, and true crime. When I became interested in books, I remember picking through these shelves and so, from an early age, I was aware of such disparate horrors as Mary Bell, the Holocaust, the work of Bernard Spilsbury. But there were also novels. Dad liked a fat thriller, and he read Joseph Wambaugh. But there was also [John] le Carré and [Len] Deighton and James Jones. Some of the covers of the books he read stick in my mind, too. There was Tattoo, by Earl Thompson (a thick, red paperback with a tattooed hand on the cover, ostensibly flipping the reader the bird), Amok (“more terrifying than Jaws!”), by George Fox: a white cover and a Samurai sword cutting a red swathe through the title. Kinflicks, by Lisa Alther: another white cover with a young, scantily dressed woman wearing an orgasmic expression. I was a member of a nationwide school book club called Bookworm. There was some kind of catalogue and you could buy books at a discount. I was drawn to an Armada paperback anthology edited by Peter Haining called The Restless Bones and Other True Mysteries. It had a striking cover, a skeleton wearing a Roman centurion’s helmet. I guess I was hooked on grim pages from those early days.

AK: Tell us about your earliest reading experiences, and were there any special books that perhaps steered you toward picking up a pen or keyboard and giving your imagination a workout?

CW: I read quite a bit of children’s literature when I was young, mainly borrowed from the library--Ian Serraillier, David Line, C.S. Lewis. But Dad’s selections always seemed much more interesting. I started reading horror novels when I was around 12--mainly Stephen King and James Herbert (pretty much all that was available in the local W.H. Smith’s). Later, I discovered Ramsey Campbell and M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest, writers with a peculiarly British slant to their work. I was hugely influenced by them, and many of my early attempts at fiction were shaped by their work. I’d always enjoyed writing short stories at school, and was encouraged by my teachers (although I did tend towards the bleaker end of the spectrum even then … so much so that my headmaster took me to one side--I was 9 or 10 at the time--to suggest that it was OK, sometimes, for good things to happen in fiction too).

AK: What was it about the horror-fiction genre that attracted you?

CW: Probably the atmosphere, and the building of tension, the thrill of that. It was fiction to get your heart pounding. I was drawn to the quirky British stuff. Horror gets a bad press because of the flooding of the genre that occurred during the 1970s and ’80s on the heels of Stephen King’s phenomenal success. Quality control was not as stringent as it might have been. But there was some great writing, weird and original: Ramsey Campbell’s The Face that Must Die, Thomas Tessier’s Finishing Touches (Tessier is an American, but this book is set in London), M. John Harrison’s The Ice Monkey, Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, Joel Lane’s short stories.

AK: I read that you started out composing short stories, and then novellas, before ever embarking on a novel. Is that because the horror genre lends itself to the short form more than lengthier works, or am I generalizing overmuch?

CW: I started with short stories only because I didn’t feel I had a novel in me. And yes, horror has a great short-story tradition. Writing short stories gave me a sense of achievement, and didn’t take as long as a novel. Now, of course, having racked up a number of longer works, I wouldn’t say it’s easier to write a short story. The novel is more forgiving in many ways. With a short story, you’re much more exposed as a writer. You have to be on the ball.

AK: I see that you have recognition from your peers in the form of awards. What have those commendations meant to you as a writer?

CW: To win the [1993] British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, aged 23, in a room filled with writers I admired was overwhelming. It’s great to win an award, even to be nominated. I find it an extraordinary boost to confidence and a great inspiration (because, let’s face it, all writers are convinced they’re shit from time to time).

AK: I noticed you have a soft spot for Derek Raymond’s Factory series, a very dark collection of novels--and favorites for many of us. How did you first find his work, and which of his books do you particular relish?

CW: It was probably a discussion with Joel Lane, who wrote horror stories predominantly, but also had a foot in the crime camp. When I read my first Factory novel, The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), I was blown away. I’m not saying that I had any preconceived ideas about crime fiction, that it was all cozy, bloodless, cut and dried--I came to Raymond post Red Dragon and Cracker--but nothing had prepared me for this. It was profane, shocking, disturbing and, in places, very funny. I scooted through all five in a couple of weeks. And then I read his autobiography and hunted down a second-hand copy of his last novel, Not Till the Red Fog Rises [1994]. [The Devil’s Home on Leave] and I Was Dora Suarez are the standouts, bleak beyond words, but all five have a special place in my heart. Here, in the unnamed Detective Sergeant, is a man who has been wrecked domestically, really put through the mill, and who carries a nasty tongue in his head, but who is driven to empathize and defend--to an obsessive degree--the innocents of the world who are caught up in atrocities. I suppose I realized there was very little difference between what I was trying to write and what some of the darker voices in crime were doing. Crime is horror, isn’t it? Which is what my talk at CrimeFest was about.

AK: I found your presentation at this year’s CrimeFest (titled “The Shadow Line Between Crime and Horror Fiction”) to be most interesting. It made me pick up Dust and Desire, which is a departure from your previous work. So tell us a little about your writing of this London-based crime novel, which finds a damaged ex-cop hunting for a missing brother in the shadow of a serial killer.

CW: Well, a departure only in terms of where you’ll find the book in the shops! I wrote Joel Sorrell off the back of reading those black novels by Raymond. It gave me license, I suppose. I was living in London at the time I conceived of the book, so it made sense to set it there. I wanted to write about a P.I. rather than somebody directly involved with the police. I was drawn to the idea of a maverick, a lone wolf, someone who operates sometimes on the wrong side of the law. I wanted him to have a weakness for missing persons--Sarah, his teenage daughter ran away when she was 13, after the murder of her mother, Sorrell’s wife--which is how he gets drawn into the story in Dust and Desire. And no matter what he’s doing, he’s always hunting for his child.

AK: I must concur that Sorrell’s worldview echoes that of the American hard-boiled private eyes. Have you read the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and other authors who made the P.I. genre what it is today?

CW: Yes, I went through a Chandler phase when I was in my teens, and read all the novels. I’ve dipped into Hammett. I also read some of James M. Cain’s work. Some of Philip Marlowe’s observations are beautiful … I’m also inspired by novels that might be firmly entrenched in, or merely flirt with the crime genre but have an existential edge. (I’m thinking of Russell Celyn Jones’ The Eros Hunter, pretty much anything by James Sallis, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, Jim Crace’s Being Dead).

AK: Publishers Weekly has compared Joe Sorrell’s dialogue favorably with Philip Marlowe’s, but with a British Spin. I, though, think of Sorrell as being more like Parker’s Spenser or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. How do you feel about critics making such comparisons?

CW: I’m deeply flattered, obviously. It’s fun to tease out character through dialogue, but you have to be careful. You don’t want what is said to have the look of a script about it. It has to sound off-the-cuff, naturalistic. I just wanted to create a potty-mouthed smartarse who disdains any form of authority: he’s me, basically, making up for a youth in which I was too shy, too quiet, and far too polite.

AK: You fill Dust and Desire with some very unsavory characters and disturbing events. Even your man Sorrell has his moments, giving the novel an unsettling atmosphere, revealing a London that’s far from the Expedia guide to our capital. Did you plot this tale heavily, or did you just have a sketch or outline to follow in writing it?

CW: Thanks, I’m glad you think so. I like to see a location treated with the same care as any character in fiction. It’s not just a backdrop. Done right, a strong sense of place gives you something extra. The city becomes another character almost. I think this comes from a grounding in the urban horror I started writing in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s, influenced by Campbell and Lane, where even drifts of litter on a cold, unlit street seem to possess agency. My protagonist is just as cruel and damaged as the people he’s trying to put behind bars. But, like Raymond’s Detective Sergeant, his heart is in the right place.

I didn’t plan the book out in too much depth. I had a hero and I had what I hoped was an unusual, compelling bad guy. I had an end point. And Sorrell’s back story shadowed everything. It was really a voyage of discovery for me, putting this new character up against different people and different situations, seeing how he reacted, how driven he was, how low he might go in order to get traction on the case.

AK: Although Dust and Desire starts in conventional P.I. territory with a (perhaps) untrustworthy femme fatale asking Sorrell to search for her missing brother, it soon leaves that well-worn path, offering some insights into not just our damaged P.I. protagonist, but also the damaged mind of a serial killer. This makes me wonder about the human attraction to noir yarns and other dark fiction. Why, as writers and readers, do you think we’re drawn to such stories?

CW: I really enjoyed writing that middle section about the killer, The Four Year Old. I liked his edge, his conviction. He’s influenced to some degree by William Goldman’s Scylla (a legendary assassin hobbled by self-doubt), who appears in the novels Marathon Man and Brothers. I wanted to create someone who is so determined on a course of action that he lives an almost monastic life. He knows that in order to achieve his goal he must work his body to its athletic best. He’s focused and committed, but there are deep fault lines of insecurity running through him. He’s on that shadowline between childhood and becoming an adult, and both sides have their claws in him.

I think part of the reason we enjoy this stuff is because it skates so close to reality while remaining entrenched in a fantasy world. We’ve all been affected by crime in some way, either directly or indirectly. But the serial killers in fiction, though fascinating, tend in real life to be dull as ditchwater. And they’re pretty rare. I suppose we all crave that good-versus-bad tale. There’s something vicarious in it, but at the same time it echoes what we really do go through from day to day.

AK: Do you plan to write more than one book, or perhaps a series, about Joel Sorrell? Or was that not part of the publishing deal you made with Titan Books?

CW: I always wanted to write a five-book series (another nod to Derek Raymond). Joel would clash with various monsters while getting ever closer to finding out what happened to his daughter. I was thrilled when Titan offered me a three-book deal, and it made sense to turn this pursuit of Sarah into a trilogy. Sonata of the Dead, the sequel to Dust and Desire, is written, and I’ve started work on the third book, Hell Is Empty. But I have plans to write more after that.

AK: How supportive have the folks at Titan--which is usually associated with science/horror fiction and graphic novels--folks been about your foray into crime fiction?

CW: Titan are great champions of genre fiction. You only have to look at what they’re doing with [Charles Ardai’s] Hard Case Crime imprint to know that here is a publisher whose heart is invested in the material they publish. Producing their own original crime list seems a natural progression. I’m very lucky to be with them.

AK: Can you tell us about what books, films, and television programs you have most enjoyed recently?

CW: I loved the first season of True Detective. Matthew McConaughy is a brilliant actor, as is Woody Harrelson. Great casting, and a great story, although the compelling weirdness of the first two-thirds seemed to be sacrificed for a fairly conventional (albeit gripping) confrontation at the end. I read Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston afterwards and was deeply impressed, although it would appear we’ve lost a brilliant prose voice to television. But I hope that’s not the case. I also watched the first season of Fargo, which was great fun. Martin Freeman is a cracking actor, but he was eclipsed by Billy Bob Thornton’s balls-out psycho.

I’ve been working steadily through James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels. Just a gorgeous writer. And I recently read [Stephen] King’s Mr. Mercedes.

AK: Did you get as obsessed as I did with True Detective? And did you pick up on the Thomas Ligotti connection?

CW: I watch less and less scheduled TV these days; I tend to hoover it up in big chunks when the boxed [DVD] sets become available, or I can work through a few episodes at a time on the various streaming players. So I came to True Detective some time after the palaver regarding alleged plagiarism of Ligotti’s work, and the links to Robert W. Chambers’ The Yellow King. Of course, I’d like to think I’d have noticed it, but it probably would have sailed over my head. I’m currently scooting through House of Cards and Homeland, and catching up with River on the BBC. There’s some stunning TV around at the moment. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to take it all in.

AK: And what about the car crash that was True Detective Season 2?

CW: I’ve yet to watch it, although your pejorative Facebook references have been giving me second thoughts!

READ MORE:Will the Real Conrad Williams Please Stand Up,” by Shaun Hamilton (The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog); Why I Write: Conrad Williams (Publishers Weekly); “A Conversation with Conrad Williams,” by Jeff VanderMeer (SF Site).

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