I am delighted to welcome Karl Drinkwater to Grab This Book as I have the honour to kick off the They Move Below blog tour. My review of They Move Below follows this post but before you scroll down, Karl has kindly taken time to answer a few of my questions.
Were you always most likely to write horror stories or are there other genres you enjoy?
I was always a horror fiend, and had no intention of writing anything else. “Darkness or nothing,” I would mutter. But then I did English Literature at A level and university, and was forced to read other books. I recently wrote about how that changed my attitude to Shakespeare; the same happened with Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens and so on. At one point I studied Byron and the cult surrounding him for a full year. I learnt to appreciate other modes of expression, and thus began my strange writing career where I alternate between horror and literary/contemporary fiction.
When we talk horror stories the name that most people jump to is Stephen King. Are we overlooking other great horror writers?
Absolutely. I love and respect King’s work, but the danger in any genre is that some authors are so successful and shine so brightly that it is hard to make out the struggling waifs in the shadows. There are so many great writers in every genre. When I came across The Descent by Jeff Long I was amazed – it had one of the best-written and tense (yet understated) openings of any book I’d read, which was then backed up by an imaginative plot that kept growing in scope. My own Claws Truth Forebear was probably inspired by it subconsciously.
Should a horror tale ever have a happy ending?
Yes. A horror tale only implies you have to experience horror and fear, but doesn’t define whether that is at the start, mid-point, end, or any combination of those. In fact, it’s a common pattern to front-load the horror but resolve things and restore order (for writers in the “horror is a conservative genre” school). Let’s take Stephen King’s The Shining. People seem to remember the ending of the film more: coldness, Dick Hallorann being axed, endless evil. But in the novel Dick Hallorann survives, and the novel ends in the sunshine with Wendy, Danny and Dick on a kind of holiday by a lake. Their strength is rewarded with life.
What do you feel makes a good horror story?
You need to feel fear. It’s almost physical – a shudder, the hairs on your neck raising, faster breathing. That comes from being able to imagine yourself in the position of a character. It is a team effort between the reader (suspending belief) and the writer (creating the convincing narrative). Horror is very different from the baser effects such as revulsion.
I tend not to read many short stories and I find that when I do I turn most often to collections of ghost stories. Do you think “scary” stories are more effective as a short story (perhaps shades of campfire tales)?
I remember loving ghost story collections: I think I read everything by Algernon Blackwood, possibly by M.R. James too. Often short stories do work better. With limited words we are unlikely to have everything explained, so you finish it and look around nervously, your subconscious tricked into believing it has experienced a slice of reality. With a novel, where things are usually tidily-wrapped up, the sense of closure can often weaken the feeling of horror. “That’s all over then, well done Guvnor, another case closed.” If horror is about uncertainty, then closure is an end to horror.
Which horror tales do you rate most highly? Are there favourites you revisit?
Here are a few!
- Lot (Ward Moore, 1953). End-of-the-world panic. It’s as unsettling as you’d expect.
- Children Of The Corn (Stephen King, 1978, in Night Shift). A gripping horror that captures a sense of place brilliantly (and happens to be one of the many inspirations for Turner).
- To Build A Fire (Jack London, 1908). I read it as a child and decided I would rather freeze to death than burn.
- Weekend (Fay Weldon, 1978). I count this as horror, even though I may be the only person to do so. [Can’t find a good link about it.]
- More Tomorrow (Michael Marshall Smith, 1995). Internet horror. You put this one down with a mix of relief and horror.
- Splatter Of Black (Charles A. Gramlich, 1995). A great example of how to write an action-packed tale.
Have you ever experienced a supernatural phenomenon?
I’ve never been asked this before, but … yes. Even though I’m a rational person, there are things I’ve experienced which I would count as supernatural. All were in my childhood and teenage years, when strange events seemed to follow us from house to house. We moved home a lot. My family was made up of me, my mother, my sister (Sarah); my father died when I was young. If there was a single event it might be easier to block it out, but this was a sustained sequence of events that can’t be easily explained. Hauntings? A poltergeist that followed us? The element that stands out was that this wasn’t just creepy things in the night (though there were those) experienced by the same three people; many things occurred in broad daylight, when other people were present. People who didn’t believe in the supernatural, but who were so shaken afterwards that their views had changed. My best friend of the time (I was 14 or 15) was with me during one of them, and his opinion that I was being over-imaginative totally reversed one night when something happened that left him visibly pale, afraid to cross a room, and admitting that he believed us totally; I don’t think he was helped by my calm statement that it wasn’t out of the ordinary and we should just go back to my computer and that we’d be okay as long as we didn’t go near the dark end of the kitchen. My first girlfriend a year or so later was a creature of awe to me; I couldn’t believe this beautiful and tough woman had somehow fallen for a nerd like myself; but when she told me what she’d heard downstairs in the night, and that she couldn’t wake me up, and she also now believed in the things she’d scoffed at before, I realised that it wasn’t just my imagination. Some time ago I met up with her after many years of being out of touch, and she mentioned again, unprompted, how scared she’d been. It was still with her over 25 years later.
Okay, I’ve skirted round any details. It’s too big a topic. I could fill a book with it, and no-one would believe half the stuff we came to take for granted. I’m going to tell you about one thing, quite minor in many ways, but I’ve never written about this before.
I was about 15. We lived in a council house on Barton Road in Stretford, Manchester. There was only me and Mum and the dogs in the house. It was a grey day, had been drizzling earlier, but wasn’t particularly creepy: just Manchester. I was watching TV in the living room downstairs. Mum was hoovering upstairs, the drone of the subdued vacuum cleaner somehow comforting. We had two dogs back then, Toby and Tiny, Yorkshire Terriers. They wanted to go on the back garden so I opened the French door and let them out. I could see them through the glass trotting round and sniffing and taking it in turns to wee on the same spots. I usually left them out for a quarter of an hour, or until one of them came back to the door. I lay on the floor in front of the TV again. I heard a noise upstairs, like furniture being moved. All so normal. The hoover stopped. Footsteps coming down the stairs. Measured and slow. Nothing to make me look up.
“Karl,” said my Mum from the doorway. “Where are the dogs?”
“Outside. I just let them out.” I could see them near the bushes.
“Will you come upstairs with me for a minute?”
I was now following her up the stairs.
“There was a noise under my bed. I just want someone with me when I look.”
I nearly laughed. A noise! In daytime!
We went into Mum’s bedroom. The vacuum cleaner was still plugged in but off. We stepped over the cable. The bed was on low legs, so there was a dark shadowed area underneath that you couldn’t see into while stood up. I wasn’t in the least bit perturbed. We both started to kneel. Then there was a growl from under the bed. A deep, rumbling, throaty growl like nothing I’ve heard before.
To my shame I didn’t stay with my mum. I pegged it out of there and pretty much flew down the stairs and out the front door, stood by the main road and ready to run even further, leaving my mum to follow calmly. “What’s the point of running?” she asked me later. It was half an hour before I went back in the house.
Mum let the dogs back in. Both of them.
I wouldn’t go in her room for a long time.
If you wanted to be rational, you could maybe argue that the floorboards there creaked in some way. They never creaked like that at any other point in the years we lived there, even when you knelt on that same spot. But it could be an explanation, even if my gut tells me it’s wrong.
After writing that I have just dug out my old diaries. It took me nearly two hours to track down a mention of the event – but I was pleased to find it, because so many things in my diary of the time seem to be just about boardgames, role playing games, computer games, money, and school, and the weird events rarely got a mention. I cringe a bit to read them, but here’s the entry. (Actually, I cringe a lot to type it up, but it also makes it seem more real to see it in a record that’s been closed for about 28 years!) My memories actually differ from the entry, but the gist is the same; there were some surrounding details in the diary entry I’d totally forgotten.
Monday 14th March 1988
I write this with beating heart. Last night Sarah woke up screaming, Mum and Eddy heard noises, smelt burning and sensed something and when I got home today I heard a noise. Mum asked if it was me. We went upstairs to make Mum’s bed and she bent down to look under it. We then heard a horrible growl and ran for fuck. I feel a bit like crying – there have been noises all night. Sarah is in my room tonight and some medium people have contacted us.
Tuesday 15th March 1988
Nothing too bad has happened so far tonight except for knockings outside. Last night I only got 3 ½ hours sleep. I was well scared. On a lighter note, I completed Monty On The Run. A gas mask & rope help.
[Then some normal entries, then this.]
Friday 18th March 1988
Paul likes BMX Simulator as much as me – it is ace. The vicar came round with his friend and daughter. I felt strange after a while and could not help breathing deeply and quickly. I started shaking and crying – I don’t know why. It was really bad. I hated it.
By the way, just in case you suspect I’m making this up – I have attached a photo of the diary entry I took just now. It’s like unearthing the past!
My most sincere thanks to Karl. I can honestly say that no question I have asked in a Q&A has ever returned such a surprising reply and nobody has ever shared their diary either!
You can find and order all of Karl’s books by clicking through this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Karl-Drinkwater/e/B006JZWOPE/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1467407789&sr=1-2-ent