Sunday, April 19, 2009

Are Things Really That Bad?

Well, not for me, because last week brought the long-anticipated release (in paperback) of Bad Things, the fifth novel from British author and screenwriter Michael Marshall. That can only be good--unless you’re a person who scares easily.

You’re not like that, are you?

Marshall, whose real name is Michael Marshall Smith, started out in the mid-1990s penning horror and science fiction. In 2002, his terrifying thriller, The Straw Men, saw print, launching a trilogy that subsequently added The Lonely Dead (2004) and Blood of Angels (2005). It also led to a comic-book adaptation and a rumored film adaptation. I came to his work early, attracted by his quirky, parallax-ed view of reality as well as what he sees lurking in the shadows. But I’ve since been joined in my appreciation of Marshall’s fiction by such readers as best-selling American novelist Richard Montanari (Play Dead, aka Badlands), who said in a recent interview with The Rap Sheet that he finds Marshall’s work “so interesting, because when you start one of his books, you think it is about one thing, an overarching story which takes the shape of a crime novel, a conflict; but in reality there is something much bigger at work there, and it is much more frightening. I just think he is a terrific writer who makes you question things.”

Marshall has been fairly busy over the last couple of years. Early 2007 saw the release of his surreal novel, The Intruders, which blended crime-thriller conventions with significantly more sinister elements, and wound up on January Magazine’s list of favorite books published during that twelvemonth. Then, 2008 brought the appearance of The Servants, a mesmerizing story for young adults that Marshall published under yet another version of his name, “M.M. Smith.” It was a highly personal bit of fiction, as the author explained in an interview with the UK SF Book News site:
The Servants introduces us to eleven-year-old Mark, who is trying to come to terms with the break up of his parents, dealing with his new step-dad and having to move from London to Brighton away from his friends and familiar life. His mother’s strange behaviour and an argument with his step-dad sends him fleeing the house and he finds himself having tea with the old lady in the basement flat--the flat she shares with the ghosts of the servants that ran the whole house a long time ago ...

There’s an intriguing sliver of Smith’s own experience in his new story: “Part of it was my reaction to the death of my mother,” he said. “The idea for The Servants popped into my head, fully formed, one day when I was in Brighton, a few months after she passed away. It took nearly three years before I wrote it, though--I’m not sure why.

“When I did, it came out very quickly indeed, as if it was time I properly went through those emotions. So probably the main theme is the love that exists between the generations--passing in both directions--and the scariness of its intensity.

“The essence of the parent/child relationship is both its profundity and strength and the fact that (in most cases) one knows which one’s going to die, and which is going to be left behind, to outlive the other. And what child hasn’t wanted to somehow negate that terrible portent?”
I have known Marshall (Smith) for many years now and marveled at the insights contained within his fiction. So whenever a new work of his is released, I clear my table and settle in for a dark ride of a read. His latest offering, Bad Things, is no less entrancing than his previous novels, painting a vision of America as a quiet patch of personal hell. Even though I had an idea what was in store, the narrative was riddled with such dread, that I was still caught off-guard as the story meandered toward its conclusion.

Bad Things centers on the worst “bad thing” that can befall a parent--the loss of his or her child, a situation made worse in these pages by the inexplicable nature of that event. John Henderson works in a pizza joint in small-town USA. It’s obvious that he is over-qualified to be a waiter-cum-barman, but he has retreated to this spot, hoping to forget the death of his 4-year-old son, Scott. It seems that one day the toddler just walked onto a jetty by a lake adjacent to the Hendersons’ house, and collapsed. John watched his son’s face as the life drained from him, and he felt the thud of the boy’s body as it hit the decking. That thud also destroyed John Henderson’s marriage to Carol, his wife.

In the aftermath, John heads back to remote Black Ridge, in Washington state. The best he can hope to do is reclaim some fragments of his previous life, in the place where that life began. The return to his hometown reveals the context of John Henderson’s existence, as well as how Black Ridge and the actions of Henderson’s family have interacted with forces of which he has been ignorant. Further flavoring this story mix--this cauldron of conspiracies and bubbling evil--are Becki, the daughter of the restaurant owners who employ Henderson; her boyfriend, minor-league drug dealer Kyle; and some mysterious inhabitants of the aptly named Black Ridge. To reveal more about Bad Things’ plot would be altogether unfair. Suffice it to say that Henderson’s journey home may provide a modicum of redemption, but also reveal more than his traumatized mind should have to endure. This is a complex novel about the collision between morality and darker forces, and how we carry with us the seeds of our own destruction.

Bad Things left me with much to ponder. It also provoked me to ring up Marshall and ask him a few questions about this new book, his interest in devious machinations, and the progress of some projects related to his previous novels.

Ali Karim: This novel, Bad Things, arrived somewhat mysteriously. Can you tell us a little about its genesis?

Michael Marshall: Bad Things arrived the way most of my books do: with the sudden delivery into my head (from I know not where) of a couple of key scenes, some characters, and an underlying idea. One of those harbinger scenes was the Prologue. At the point where I wrote it down, I had only a vague idea of the events that had led up to it, and what would unfold as a result. I prefer working this way, as it means the books are almost as much of a voyage of discovery for me as for the reader. Though it can mean you spend some long periods tangled in the woods ...

AK: As a parent, I found it hard to read your story in places, because it features, at its heart, the loss of a child. You’re a family man yourself. Tell me what the writing process was like for you.

MM: As much as that part of the novel is about losing someone, it’s about gaining other things: gaining perspective, the will to go on, an understanding of the forces that work in the background of our lives and minds, structuring our existences. You can’t go through life protecting yourself from all harm--that way neurosis lies, as it does for one of the characters in the novel. The truth is there are Bad Things out there in everyone’s lives, waiting for us, lurking in the shadows. The best you can do is try to understand and withstand them, using the human spirit, the courage and support of friends--and a little humor--to bring light into the dark. So while the process of writing Bad Things was sometimes like ploughing through the darker end of the mind’s forests, there was always that glow at the end to head toward.

AK: Bad Things carries a terrible sense of foreboding, but the specific threat is not revealed until the closing sections of your new tale. How hard was it to avoid revealing those secrets too early?

MM: Most suspense novels operate in one of two ways. Either through holding back a number of reveals--the eventual unfolding of which explain but also complicate what you’ve been experiencing in the meantime; or by dropping the key reveals at the beginning, and then developing tension through watching what happens after that--which is what the [filmmaking] Coen brothers often do. I guess in Bad Things I wanted to try to do a little bit of both. So it starts with a big event, but then delivers other reveals as and when appropriate. I believe there’s something psychologically true about thriller and suspense novels that’s rarely seen in other genres, and this process of discovery--the timing of the reveals--is key to it.

AK: The cover art for Bad Things drops a subtle hint of what may lie in store for protagonist John Henderson. Did that concern you?

MM: It did, a little bit, at first. As an image, I perhaps prefer the upcoming U.S. version [scheduled for release by William Morrow and Company in May], which is more oblique. But I’ve spent enough time in the industry to know that the image I prefer may not be the one that works best on the shelves. The UK jacket has a strong message, great typography, and really stands out. That’s all good, and the fact it provides a hint of what’s to come, some foreshadowing and foreboding, is not a bad thing at all.

AK: As in true in much of your work, there is a conspiracy--of sorts--at the heart of Bad Things. So tell us, which modern conspiracy theories intrigue you the most?

MM: If I told you that, I’d have to kill you. I tend not to be taken with the major-league conspiracies. Don’t care who killed JFK, don’t believe Princess Di’s death was anything more than a combination of bad driving and parasitical photographers, and find it hard to credit [that] anyone is running everything behind the scenes--or anyone competent, at least. What I find far more interesting is the fact that all of us, to one degree or another, have a deep-seated suspicion that Something Is Going on That We Don’t Know About. Partly this is just a kind of Gnostic anxiety, but it’s also true that there are aspects of situations and other people we’ll simply never know, and that introduces a dissonance into everything we experience. That feeling is part of being human--our unspoken understanding of the difference between the world as we perceive it, and the world as it is--and it’s that which I’m most interested in.

AK: In some respects, there is an echo, or coda, of The Servants in Bad Things. So tell us a little about why writing The Servants was important to you, since it is nothing like the main body of your work.

MM: The Servants was a bit of a departure for me, it’s true. It’s set in the UK, it’s built wholly around the experience of an 11-year-old boy, and it’s neither crime, horror, nor science fiction. It’s basically a story about a boy, away from home, dealing with real-life scary stuff--the illness of his mother. The idea came to me not long after my own mother died, and it’s probably the most personal piece I’ve written in a long time.

AK: And is that why you chose another variation of your name for The Servants? Or was that your publisher’s idea?

MM: It was a publishing decision in the UK to bring The Servants out under the name M.M. Smith. In some ways it makes sense, as the book bears little evident relation to the kind of material I write as Michael Marshall, nor yet to the novels I wrote as Michael Marshall Smith. And yet ... it kind of does. The Servants is, to me, clearly recognizable as the kind of short novel that might have been written by the Michael Marshall Smith who wrote the short stories in What You Make It [1999] or More Tomorrow & Other Stories [2003]. It’s also not inconsistent with the Michael Marshall who writes some of the more reflective parts of his novels. But there’s a view, rightly or wrongly, that readers and booksellers like their ducks in a row, and do not like authors to stray over the lines. For this reason, amongst others, the decision was taken in the U.S. to release the novel under Michael Marshall Smith. I have no idea what impact either of these naming decisions had on sales--it’s often hard to make that call, as publishing is not in the habit of undertaking double-blind control experiments. I’d love to stop the proliferation of names, however, and get back to just having one!

AK: I hear that The Intruders may be turned into a British TV series. Where does that project stand?

MM: The BBC have been developing The Intruders for about two years now. I was very involved in the process at the beginning, and preparing to write the scripts--before I decided I wasn’t the right person to re-imagine the story for not just another medium, but [to be set in] another country. I stepped back and another writer was assigned. He wrote a very good script, but the feeling was that it hadn’t quite been cracked, especially after American co-production interest emerged, which reopened the idea of some or all of the action taking place in the States, where the book was originally set. Just after Christmas I had meetings at the BBC with two American screenwriters who are hopefully going to take the project onto the next level. I was hugely impressed with both these guys, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

AK: How do you feel about the comic-book version of The Straw Men?

MM: I’m all for it! I love that the story of The Straw Men is being translated into this format, and I think [writer] Joe [Brusha] and his team are doing a great job of the adaptation so far. It was this which helped stimulate the current film interest, too.

AK: And any updates on the film version of The Straw Men?

MM: I exchanged e-mails with one of the principals just the other day. A writer is at work on an outline of the movie, and once that’s agreed [upon] he’ll embark on a screenplay. Because the novels have been out for a little while, we need to go to script to really start moving forward.

AK: Oh, and is there any news about the other film work you’re associated with, such as Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut, Hell Hath Enlarged Herself, or Monstermania?

MM: All represent various facets of the reality of working in film and television. One’s in limbo, the other’s approaching turnaround, and with Monstermania we’re currently awaiting [the] director’s notes, having done a second draft earlier in the year. I’m fairly sanguine on all counts. In film and TV you have to sow a lot of seeds in the hope some will eventually grow. And some years, the entire crop simply fails. So it goes.

AK: I see that you’ve dedicated Bad Things to [horror-fiction anthologist] Stephen Jones. Tell us a little about your relationship with Jones, and are you involved in next year’s World Horror Convention, to be held in Brighton, England?

MM: Ah, Stephen Jones. Steve and I have known each other for nearly 20 years. He was the first person to start publishing my short fiction. I have enormous respect for him--I’ve never met anyone who works harder, has done more to advocate horror fiction, or is more professional in what he does. He’d be the first to admit he’s not always the easiest person in the world to get on with if you don’t meet the standards he sets himself, but he and I have always got on great, and I’m seldom happier than when sitting in a pub chewing the fat with him.

I’m delighted to be working together as a committee member of the 2010 World Horror Convention. To be bringing that to the UK and Europe for the first time is quite a big deal, and I’ve always been wary of the professional/fan distinction which is enshrined in so many of these events. I owe a lot to having attended conventions in the past, and I’m glad to finally be giving something back through helping to organize this one. The planning is going extremely well, and we have some stuff coming up which will make this a horror convention like none that have gone before. Trust me--if you’re a horror fan, this is an event you really don’t want to miss.

AK: Since you’re a writer who incorporates technological themes into your work, were you a follower of the late Michael Crichton?

MM: I have to admit I’ve never actually read a Michael Crichton [book]. I guess my techno themes tended to play out in a slightly more science-fictional environment. I do very much enjoy the work of Paul McAuley; however, who’s started to wander into similar territories, though with the power of someone who brings a sense of intellectual wonder to everything he does. Everyone should check out his White Devils and Cowboy Angels--both are fabulous.

AK: Have the people at your UK publisher, HarperCollins, mentioned that Crichton--who was another of their authors--left behind an uncompleted techno thriller, and they are looking for a high-profile author to complete that work?

MM: Um, that’s a new one on me ... I’m not sure I’d be the guy to help, of course, as knowing me, the story would end up taking a walk into dark woods by the end. I’m not good at sticking to the path. Never have been.

AK: I see that you have become a Twitter user. How long have you been “twittering,” and what does that networking system offer you?

MM: I joined Twitter about six months ago, had a quick look around, and didn’t really get it--you don’t, until there’re a few people you know on there, or before you gain the confidence to start responding to the utterances of people you don’t know. I tried again at the beginning of this year, and this time found myself sucked into it quickly. This was maybe a month or two before the whole thing really kicked off, and became the only thing everyone was talking about, so there was still a feeling of being out on some geeky frontier.

What I get out of it now is a random and free-form way of communicating with lots of people, made more immediate and direct through that 140-character limit. I like being able to be in contact with people who’ve read stuff and previously had no way of saying “hi.” And I love getting involved in freewheeling banter with folks from all corners of the world--almost all of whom I’ve never met, and will probably never meet. As someone who’s generally rather unsociable, it’s quite an eye-opener, and a great way of meeting interesting people--plus a few complete nutcases, of course. It’s a genuinely new medium of communication between individuals, and as such [is] very interesting.

AK: So what’s next on the docket for Michael Marshall, Michael Marshall Smith, and M.M. Smith?

MM: Michael Marshall is just starting a new novel. Michael Marshall Smith is working on television projects and hoping to get down to writing more short stories than he has for a while. M.M. Smith has a novel idea already on deck, and is just hoping he’s going to get the time to write it this year ... though Michael Marshall Smith has an idea for book-length project too, finally, and is jockeying for position.


Author said...

Hi Ali, thanks for a great interview with Mr Smith (another name for you - but it saves confusion). I'm a huge fan of his books and am at this moment on reading Bad Things. I was reading the intro to thi thinking 'I hope there's no spoilers in here' and you did a great job in keeping everything mysterious. I was unaware of The Servant and will go out and find myself a copy. One thing I'd have loved to have known; is there any chance of the characters from the Straw men trilogy coming back, I always felt it was a little open ended and expected further books. maybe next time you speak to Mr Smith you can ask him.
Great, insightful stuff. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Matt

Randy Johnson said...

I haven't picked up The Servants or Bad Things yet, but I started way back with him as Smith. I loved Spares and thought the premise was unique(several books and a movie have since used it). When The Straw Men came out, I was stunned once again at the writing. I must get those last two as soon as possible.