Welcome to my writing!

For a long time I've wanted to set up an online repository of my interviews, reviews and other writings ... and here it is! Use the Subject List to the right to select an author/topic and you will get all the entries which relate to the selected subject. Have fun browsing through!

Friday, 3 May 2013

Judas Tree


David J Howe meets horror author Simon Clark and finds out more about his latest novel Judas Tree.

Simon Clark is currently one of the few horror authors still being published in the UK. And for good reason – he’s one of the best. He made quite a name for himself through small press magazines and his first collection of short stories, Blood and Grit was widely acclaimed.

His latest novel, Judas Tree, is something of a departure. Moving away from the trappings of more traditional physical horror, it is a melancholy ghost story in which the haunting and strangeness is revealed only very slowly.

‘When I was fourteen I'd baby-sit at my sister's 16th Century cottage which stood ten paces from an ancient graveyard,’ explains Simon when asked about the novel’s origins. ‘Through the windows I could see the rotting gravestones in eerie silhouette. I didn't believe in ghosts. I wasn't blabbing in terror but as I sat there alone, my nephew asleep upstairs, the noises would start. The clicks, the creak of floorboards settling, and all the time I'd glance from the television through the windows to the gravestones all grimly hunched there in the darkened cemetery. By then, a kind of creeping paralysis set in. I daren't move. I certainly daren't look back over my shoulder because I was convinced there'd be some monstrous shape lurking in the kitchen doorway. After two hours of this my sister and her husband would return. The relief was immense!

‘With Judas Tree I wanted to recapture that dread of being convinced that something terrible lurks in just the next room, but not knowing what it is. For me what's frightening in a film or story isn't the character coming face to face with the monster, but just catching a glimpse of some sinister shape in the corner of their eye.’

That’s relatively straightforward for a film-maker, but how do you do that in print?

‘Technique. That's the posh word for it! But there's also an element of the conjuror's trick. Maybe I'm in danger of destroying the mystique if I explain it in detail, but you can see how it works in a terrific film like The Haunting (Robert Wise version) where moody lighting and camera angles alone are enough to send a whole stampede shivers up your spine. To create the scares in print without revealing the monster is really down to 'the power of suggestion' by repeating key words such as 'dark ... eerie ... ghostly.' Writers like Blackwood and Shirley Jackson were experts at this. They virtually hypnotises the reader. Blackwood wouldn't simply have written 'Harry saw the mountains' instead he'd transform the sight of them into something dark and ominious, such as: 'Harry saw icey peaks that forever shake their dark terror in the sky.' Now that can be tricky to pull off. If it's over-done it becomes ludicrous purple prose. But it it's done right it feels like ice being injected into your veins.’

All of Simon’s novels to date have featured widely differing subjects and locations. I wondered if this was deliberate on the part of the author, or if it was something that just happened. ‘I didn't want to get stuck in a rut. The commercial success of Vampyrrhic took me by surprise and maybe I could have cashed in by writing, say, a five book series with vampire-like creature but I love the challenge of tackling different subjects, so my writing tends to venture through some borderland between horror and Sci-Fi. The Fall, for example, was a time travel story with no traditional supernatural element. With Judas Tree a kind of gut instinct drove me to tackle a novel, with a modern setting, yet drawing on classic ghost story techniques. Stephen King did this with The Shining to stunning effect.

‘I decided to set it on a remote Greek island that is home to a bunch of odd-ball eccentrics. Slowly their minds are being influenced by something intangible and unnamed that haunts the island. Everyone is becoming stranger – and madder – but the process is so gradual that they or their neighbours don't notice. Only an outsider would realise anything is seriously wrong with the islanders.

‘Enter a girl who is trying to escape both from a gloomy northern town and a failed romance. The girl finds herself pitted against whatever haunts the island as it battles to assume control of her personality. Just as it has done with the other islanders. I deliberately set out to create scenes that a reader would find suspenseful, chilling, even down-right frightening; yet in such a subliminal way they didn't know exactly what was frightening them.’

I commented that everyone was different, and surely different things would act to frighten different readers. If you’re trying to do something subtle, isn’t there a danger that people won’t ‘get’ it? Simon thought for a long while before answering with a smile.

‘Writing a story is like making love.

‘First, there should be foreplay. That is, taking time to set up the promise of what is to come. But it's important to do this in such a vibrant and tantalizing way that this sense of ‘promise’ builds like an electrical charge. Then comes the hard-hitting action with – if it's a novel anyway – multiple climaxes, building to the earth-moving, firework-exploding, heart-hammering, pulse-racing final climax. So, yes, there is a danger in relying totally on subtle atmospheric scenes. Equally there's a danger in having too many big explosive action sequences crammed together. And like making love, timing is hugely important.

‘I don't try and guess what frightens people. I ask myself what frightens me. And largely, I think most people are frightened of the same things. After all, different cultures might not be able to agree on what is beautiful, what is funny. Fear, however, tends to be universal. Most people balancing on a parapet on the top of the Empire State Building would admit to fearing heights, as most would experience a shiver or two if invited to look into an open coffin in a funeral parlour. And often it's our imagination that frightens us. When we expect to be frightened we usually end up being frightened. Try it for yourself. Take a midnight stroll to the graveyard tonight with the intention of sitting there alone for ten minutes. Now, what's going to go through your mind on your lonely walk through the gloomy streets? You'll imagine all kinds of eerie sights, perhaps anticipate a nasty encounter in some desolate alley-way? Probably there are no ghosts out there in the cold shadows, but they'll be running riot inside your head.

‘In Judas Tree I set out to recreate those fears, sometimes in a quieter more suspenseful way, but all the time steadily building toward a crescendo in the big, dramatic scenes.’

Simon’s next work to see publication is a supernatural horror novel called Darkness Demands, which is being published first by Cemetery Dance in America in the summer of 2000, and then an American paperback edition from Leisure in 2001. ‘I’d love to tell people about my next book due out in the UK ... But I'm not allowed to say. I apologise for sounding mysteriously cloak and dagger – but I'm under contract to keep the title and contents secret for the time being. I can say that this book is a real labour of love for me and I'm enjoying every minute of writing it.’

Judas Tree is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton.

David J Howe