We ventured over to Oxford to catch up with Abaddon and Solaris’ Editor-in-Chief, Jonathan Oliver, and find out about his latest anthology House of Fear. Jonathan Oliver has an MA in Science Fiction, was once a stand-up comic and has a novel out in the shape of Twilight of Kerberos: Call of Kerberos, with the follow-up, Wrath of Kerberos, to be released in January 2012.
What is it that attracted you to the subject matter of the haunted house?
JO: Supernatural fiction is my favourite form of horror fiction. My favourite writer in the genre is probably Ramsey Campbell – his supernatural horror is my favourite of his fiction.
After completing The End of the Line, I wanted to do an anthology of haunted house stories. I’m a fan of the traditional masters such as MR James and HP Lovecraft, but I wanted to do something that played with the themes of the traditional ghost story, while also presenting more unusual takes on the form. Rob Shearman’s ‘The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World’, for example, is hard to classify, it’s about love and relationships depicted in a surreal way. Adam Nevill’s ‘Florrie’ is a more traditional haunting; the set up is amazing and the last line terrifying. House of Fear brings together the best disciplines of supernatural fiction into an anthology of writers I love.
What do you think are the greatest haunted house tales of all time?
JO: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a stunning novel, and it’s got the most brilliant opening paragraph of any work of literature. Jackson realises that the characters and human elements are as important as the supernatural elements of the story. There is an argument that nothing supernatural is going on in The Haunting of Hill House and it’s all down to Eleanor’s paranoia, suspicions and repressed sexuality. That said, it’s still one of the most frightening novels I’ve ever read. I’ve watched Robert Wise’s The Haunting ten or fifteen times, and I love it to bits. Not once do you see a ghost on screen, but it’s still really bloody scary and effective. When Eleanor wakes up after sharing a bed with Theo [played by Claire Bloom] and asks ‘who’s holding my hand’ and you see Theo standing on the other side of the room… it may be just one line of dialogue, but it’s really frightening. Similarly, I read The Shining by Stephen King when I was a teenager, and there’s a passage in the novel that utterly froze me with fear. It’s about three-quarters through when the breakdown is becoming apparent and everything’s going to shit. The Torrance family are having a raging argument in one of the corridors, whilst there’s a party going on downstairs – in spite of them being the only ‘residents’ in the hotel. Suddenly the party stops dead and there’s complete silence. Then they hear the lift coming up the shaft, the doors open and confetti falls out. It’s as if there’s an entity saying, ‘we know what you’re doing, we know you’re here.’ Ramsey Campbell, as I said, is also a master of the form. The House on Nazareth Hill is probably Ramsey Campbell’s best haunted house story. He has written many fine supernatural tales and the one that sticks most in my mind is ‘Mackintosh Willy’ in which a tramp who had his eyes gouged out haunts a park; both vile and really scary.
In terms of films, the Japanese showed us that the supernatural works best when it’s set against that mundane.
“The West had seen nothing like the image of Sadako [in Ringu] crawling from the television before, it was stunning for its contrast between the normal and the paranormal; to think that you could watch television only for something to crawl out of it is bloody frightening.”
The Grudge is particularly effective as it is set in middle-class, average suburbia. If you consider ‘true’ hauntings, the ones that are scariest are the ones that are closest to home, such as the Enfield Poltergeist [in ’77 – ’78]. Whilst there’s an argument that it was all fabricated, the reason it was frightening – and the reason the newspapers got onto it – was that it happened not in an old rectory or mansion, but on a council estate. The Exorcist is the same when you think about it – it’s set against a real backdrop. When you talk to fans of the film it’s not the possession that they’ll cite as the scariest bit, but the hospital tests, because they’re authentic.
When does and doesn’t adding a supernatural element to a story work?
JO: Joel Lane is a horror writer who also writes ‘literature’ for want of a better term. His novels aren’t supernatural fiction, but sometimes the supernatural slips in. His first novel, From Blue to Black, is about a rock band and their surrounding relationships and, at one point, there is a sighting of a ghost in the rain. Atmosphere is everything in supernatural fiction, so you can have a really atmospheric tale that feels like it should be a ghost story but isn’t. A lot of crime fiction has that feeling. The supernatural’s not going to work in everything, it works best when it’s subtle. I was speaking to Gary McMahon and he said supernatural fiction works best when a haunted person meets a haunted place.
“It’s no good just having a woman in white or a spirit clanking chains, the haunting must play off on a human being.”
It’s worth remembering that ghosts are human as well, so they’re very human stories.
Do you think a reader’s and writer’s supernatural beliefs shape how they read and write a tale?
JO: I think most horror writers aren’t believers, although I don’t want to speak for any horror writers on their personal beliefs as I could get it horribly wrong. I’m a Christian and therefore have certain spiritual beliefs, but I’m not entirely sure what ghosts are. I’ve been in places that are supposedly haunted and places that have an atmosphere, but I haven’t seen a ghost. I’m going to keep an open mind. Ghost stories can give you a fright, but there’s also something comforting about them, because if the supernatural does exist then it suggests there is something more to death, which could be seen as a cosy idea. Traditional supernatural tales –set in academic Oxford, Cambridge or old houses – have a comfortable element to them, they’re a little bit Last of the Summer Wine.
I don’t think you need to believe in the supernatural to be scared by a ghost story. The popularity of the supernatural is absolutely clear. Of course, you have god-awful shows like Most Haunted in which some guys spend five hours in an old house and then the make-up girl freaks out because someone knocked over a camera stand – that’s as exciting as it gets! But, bringing it back to The Exorcist for a moment, that film works best on those who believe in supernatural and spiritual evil. Gary McMahon would dispute this as he thinks it’s one of the most frightening films ever and he doesn’t believe in the supernatural, God or heaven, but personally I think you really have to buy into that mindset to get something from that movie. Despite having been formerly banned in this country, it’s a really conservative movie, and what it says is not remotely controversial or kicking against tradition. It says there is a God, a Devil, and the way to absolution is through Jesus Christ and the way to damnation is through Satan.
“The ghost is a tool to talk about our fears and good supernatural fiction will tap into that.”
A good ghost story scares us because we recognise something within ourselves in the figure of the ghost. In The Haunting of Hill House Eleanor is clearly a victim of familial abuse. When she goes to Hill House, she thinks it’s wonderful and never wants to leave. It’s terrifying because she cannot escape her own neuroses. The ghosts are secondary to her inner battle. Spirits traditionally manifest because there’s been great grief or wrong-doing, and it’s that idea that you’ll never be able to escape the chain of abuse that is frightening in Jackson’s novel. In House of Fear, Stephen Volk’s story, ‘Pied-a-terre’, is a genuinely creepy and moving tale about abuse. When I read the last paragraph, I sat at my desk crying, and I e-mailed Steve to tell him what a punch in the guts it was. It’s a real story of hope though, and that’s why it’s effective. The supernatural reveals something to the character the character doesn’t know about herself. Steve is not a believer himself, but someone who finds the supernatural a brilliant way of talking about our own fears. His film, The Awakening, is coming out soon.
Please talk us through the selection process for House of Fear
JO: It was an invite only anthology, so I sat down with a list of authors that I wanted to approach and ninety percent of the people I asked said yes. I knew I wanted to use Joe Lansdale. I’d originally asked him for The End of the Line, but the deadline was too tight for him. This time around I asked him straight away, once I was given the green light for the anthology, and gave him a year-long deadline, so he was in from the start. I didn’t use everybody from The End of the Line – that’s not a judgement on any of them because I think they’re all incredible authors. I wanted to use Stephen Volk again because he’s got Ghostwatch under his belt – the television faux-documentary based on the Enfield poltergeist. Adam Nevill was an easy choice as he’s known for the supernatural. After meeting Lisa Tuttle at World Horror Con, in Brighton, I knew I wanted her involved. I also wanted to use Rebecca Levene, she’s a brilliant writer who deserves a wider audience. Her short story in House of Fear is particularly effective, it’s a really vicious tale set in a prison. I wanted to use more American writers this time around also. I think Weston Ochse is a great short story writer. His story ‘Driving the Milky Way’ is a real mix of Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. It’s really American, which is what I like about the story, and couldn’t have been written by anyone other than Weston. It’s quite a moving story with horrific imagery at its heart.
I’m pleased with how diverse the stories are, because when you choose the theme there’s always the concern that you might get five stories that are about the same thing. Fortunately none of the stories are like each other, which shows the diversity of supernatural fiction. The most traditional story in there is Garry Kilworth’s ‘Moretta’, whereas the most obscure is Rob’s. I asked Rob Shearman because I was blown away by his short story collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. He’s someone who loves short stories too. I find sometimes people are a little shy of short stories and there aren’t that many publishers prepared to take a risk on an anthology or a collection. Certainly none of the mainstream publishers are, unless it’s a Stephen King or Clive Barker collection. I love short stories and think they’re as relevant as they’ve ever been. In this age of Kindle, short stories should be having a renaissance – the short form is perfect for a train journey. As Jasper Bark once said to me, ‘there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, but you can find a perfect story.’
There are relatively new writers in House of Fear too, like Paul Meloy. His collection Islington Crocodiles is one of the best things I’ve read in years. I’m green with envy at how good a writer he is. Paul writes both profoundly moving prose while also managing to make you laugh out loud at times, see ‘Bullroarer’ in The End of The Line for example.
Jonathan Green did a short Pax Britannia piece on Alice in Wonderland set in a virtual reality emporium, which was really spooky and genuinely horrifying. Realising he can do dark very well, I asked him for House of Fear. His story’s probably the grimmest in the collection, it’s like one of those old Pan Book of Horror stories.
Who are the heavyweights of supernatural fiction?
JO: MR James, HP Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson. Stephen King, simply because he wrote The Shining and it’s massively important to horror. King said of The Shining, when he wrote it he didn’t realise it was about his own alcoholism, it’s almost a novel he didn’t remember writing and that scared him so fucking much. It’s about a man having a massive nervous breakdown. Ramsey Campbell is a giant of horror literature – nobody writes like him. If you took his name off one of his stories and were given it, you’d know it as Ramsey straight away, his voice is that distinctive. In terms of supernatural literature what he does with the genre is both different and important. His novel The Grin of the Dark, I think, is one of the best things he’s ever done. It’s one of the most remarkable supernatural horror novels ever written and it’s a crime that it isn’t more widely known. Adam Nevill’s The Ritual is also brilliant and it’s great to see a relatively new writer bringing supernatural fiction to a wider audience.