In the year 1885, when I was a schoolboy, we went for our summer holiday to a furnished house between Ventnor and Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight. St Boniface House was modest, possessing one of the most charming small gardens I ever saw.

Ghosts soon declared themselves. The manifestations were pronounced and various. My sisters were visited in the night by a figure walking in their room and, when it came between their beds, they fled shrieking.

A figure passed the housemaids in the corridor, cold hands were laid on hands lying outside the counterpane, bells rang without being pulled.

The village priest came with book and holy water, the spirits were effectually laid and we slept in peace.

Now I have read, in Mrs Stirling’s The Diaries of Dummer (1934), an account of similar manifestations at the same house in 1851. The old house has been pulled down, but I hope its garden still shelters the poor houseless shades that wander by night.

W.S.J.
Country Life, letters page 13th March 1937

ghosts

March 23, 2020

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever.

H. Rider Haggard
King Solomon’s Mines

I grew up with a love for the Surrealists which has never faded: in particular, the works of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Hans Bellmer, and Paul Delvaux, along with those adopted by or close to the Surrealists, like Edward Burra, James Ensor, and Frida Kahlo. Graphic artists like Piranesi, Dürer, Escher, Bellmer’s pen-and-ink work, Mervyn Peake, Tenniell, and so on, are influential. As to modern comics and graphic art, I admire David Sandlin, Charles Burns, Kim Dietsch, Julie Doucet, and Chris Ware; from the post-punk comics underground, Burne Hogarth; and more mainstream British children’s comic artists like Ken Reid. I draw myself, pen and ink stuff, often illustrating my own stories.

I was always into everything to do with sf, fantasy, horror (as well as things set under the sea, which, along with dinosaurs, is honorary fantasy). I grew up on children’s sf by people like Douglas Hill and Nicholas Fisk, as well as horror comics, which were, in retrospect, deeply odd and unpleasant. Michael de Larrabeiti’s BORRIBLES books [The Borribles (1976), The Borribles Go For Broke (1981), and Across the Dark Metropolis (1986)] were massively influential. When I was a kid I read pretty much any sf I could get my hands on, so there was a lot of good pulp along with the classics—people like Lloyd Biggle, Jr. and Linsday Gutteridge — and that reveling in genre influenced me a lot. I read a review of Perdido Street Station which said that for a Clarke winner it’s surprisingly unashamed of its roots, which I take as a massive compliment. Overall, though, what I liked best was the aesthetic of alienation, of the macabre and grotesque, so I preferred New Worlds-type stuff to American Golden Age: Aldiss, Harrison, Moorcock, Disch, Ballard, and the like are all heroes of mine.

I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon [the setting of Perdido Street Station] is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry [1976] and Tim Powers’s Anubis Gates [1983], but they’d permeated me so deeply I was initially less conscious of them than of other influences. The very first (never-ever-to-see-the-light-of-day) New Crobuzon story I wrote was about the invention of photography in a fantasy city—which is precisely the plot of Aldiss’s book. I’d forgotten that I was remembering it. I’m still scared of inadvertently ripping people off.

I always loved classic ghost stories, like Henry James’s and Robert Aikman’s. I liked Lovecraft, and then maybe eight years ago I started getting very interested in early weird fiction: Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, E.H. Visiak, William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith, David Lindsay (though he’s not in quite the same tradition, there are shared aesthetics). There were two things I found particularly compelling about this work. One was the peculiarities of pulp style. If you look at the way critics describe Lovecraft, for example, they often say he’s purple, overwritten, overblown, verbose, but it’s unputdownable. There’s something about that kind of hallucinatorily intense purple prose which completely breaches all rules of “good writing,” but is somehow utterly compulsive and affecting. That pulp aesthetic of language is something very tenuous, which all too easily simply becomes shit, but is fascinating where it works. Though I also love much more minimalist writers, it’s that lush approach that I’m drawn to in terms of my own writing, for good and bad.

The other thing I liked about weird fiction was its location at the intersection of sf, fantasy, and horror. Lovecraft’s monsters do magic, but they’re time-traveling aliens with über-science, who do horrific things. Hodgson’s are similar (though less scientifically savvy). David Lindsay’s “spaceship” travels back to Arcturus by totally spurious—and not even remotely convincing—science, but it masquerades as sf. I find that bleeding of genre edges completely compelling. There’s been a (to my mind rather scholastic and sterile) debate about whether Perdido Street Station is sf or fantasy (or even horror—it made the long-list for the Bram Stoker Award). I always say that what I write is weird fiction, in that it is self-consciously at the intersection.

Some writers loom in my consciousness for single works, some for their whole oeuvre. M. John Harrison I consider one of the greatest living writers in any genre, and his influence on me is immense. Mervyn Peake, for his combination of lush language and aesthetic austerity; Gene Wolfe, for oddly similar reasons; all of Iain Sinclair’s books, but particularly Downriver [1991]; Alasdair Gray, especially Lanark [1981]; Russell Hoban, especially Riddley Walker [1980]; a book called Junglist by people calling themselves “Two Fingers” and “James T. Kirk” [1997]. I find Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre [1847] continually astonishing.

I love short stories, and there are writers like Borges, Calvino, and Stefan Grabinski whose short work is a constant reference, but there are others who loom large for me on the strength of a single piece: Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over,” E.L. White’s “Lukundoo,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Saki’s “Sredni Vastar.” I just finished Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen [2001], and can already feel her influencing me. Writers I’ve come to more recently include John Crowley, Unica Zürn (Hans Bellmer’s partner), Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffrey Thomas.

The biggest recent influence on me, though, is not an sf writer: it’s the Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera, who died fourteen years ago. I first read him a decade ago, but came back to him recently and read all his published work. He’s quite astonishing. His influences are radically different from the folklorist tradition that one often associates with African literature. He writes in the tradition of the Beats, the Surrealists, the Symbolists, and he marshals their tools to talk about the freedom struggle, the iniquities of post-independence Zimbabwe, racism, loneliness, and so on. His poetry and prose are almost painfully intense and suffer from all the problems you’d imagine—the writing can be prolix and clunky—but the way he constantly wrestles with English (which wasn’t his first language) is extraordinary. He demands sustained effort from the reader, so that the work is almost interactive—reading it is an active process of collaboration with the writer—and the metaphors are simultaneously so unclichéd and so apt that he reinvigorates the language. The epigram to The Scar is taken from his most obscure book, Black Sunlight [1980], and he is a very strong presence throughout my recent writing.

China Miéville
Interviewed by Joan Gordon, November 2003

Ghosts

March 4, 2020

Do I believe in ghosts?” You know…I’ve had my experiences. After my parents divorced my dad moved into a house where the woman who owned it previously died shortly before. The doors used to slam very loudly. Objects would move when I left the room. Eventually I got fed up and shouted “REALLY?” when I found the remote on top of our fridge.

Despite that though, I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. Maybe not in the sense that horror fiction portrays them. And perhaps because I never saw anything. I heard stuff. But I never saw anything! No apparitions, no wraiths. And now that I say that, I hope I never do. I can’t honestly know how I would handle it.

S.L. Edwards
Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts: an interview with S.L. Edwards by William Tea, 16th July 2019

heat-haze mirage

February 11, 2020

Shrugging in annoyance he picked up his scythe and turned back to the grass; to become aware of a short, squat figure watching him from beneath the tree. For an instant he thought it was a dense cloud of the little gnats that had been pestering him, drawn to his perspiration; then he thought it was a heat-haze mirage. Whatever it was, its scrutiny had the effect of immobilizing him while it drew nearer.

David G. Rowlands
The Apples of Sodom

Last Summer

The cove is not much visited. It is isolated, hard to reach and haunted by the restless souls of shipwrecked sailors, drowned when their vessels were torn apart on the treacherous rocks hereabouts. The story goes that on certain windswept nights a ghost ship rides the wild surf and the screams of the drowning sailors can still be heard above the roar of the tumbling waves.

On the walk to the cove we pass through a hanging river valley: it’s been cut short of sloping into the sea due to erosion of the cliffs by the wild Atlantic waves. The day is full of sun and the sea calm. The valley is rich in wildflowers and heathland butterflies. A species of wild Chamomile grows abundantly here, but is very rare throughout the rest of the UK. It is a good place to pause for a while, make love without fear of interruption, and afterwards picnic on sandwiches and champagne.

During stormy weather, sea foam is driven into the cove by the wind and vortices form against the sheer cliffs resulting in small tornadoes of sea foam. This spume at twilight resembles myriad dancing phantoms…

P

quite harmless

January 12, 2020

‘….I imagine it’s been going on for hundreds of years. It’s quite harmless, just a vision of something from the past that is permanently or temporarily fixed in this place. I doubt that even Groves could capture it on film: I expect it’s something that produces an image in our brains. . . .’

David G. Rowlands
A Job Not Done

I asked her if she never thought she saw anything to account for the sounds she heard. She told me, no more than once, on the darkest evening she ever came through the Wood; and then she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with the two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast, and at that she ran for the stile, and tore her gown all to flinders getting over it.

M.R. James
A Neighbour’s Landmark

This church felt wrong. I do not say this lightly. Dealers are undertakers of a sort. When a man dies, the undertaker comes for his body, and quite often the dealer comes for the rest. How often I have been left alone to break up the home a man has built up over fifty years, and sell the pieces where I can. As I break up the home, I know the man. I have known a cracked teapot yield enough evidence of adultery to satisfy ten divorce-court judges. I learn that he was mean from his boots; that trapped for ever inside the sepia photographs are seven of his children. From his diary, that he believed in God or the Devil or Carter’s Little Liver Pills. I deal in dead men’s clocks, pipes, swords and velvet breeches. And passing through my hands, they give off joy and loneliness, fear and optimism. I have known more evil in a set of false teeth than in any so-called haunted house in England.

….I couldn’t keep still in that place. It wasn’t just the cold. I thought I’d come prepared for that, with a quilted anorak and three sweaters. No, I kept having, not delusions, not even fears, but odd little anxieties . . . preoccupations. I had the conviction the walls weren’t vertical . . . or was it the floor, that seemed to slope down towards the middle of the nave? Certainly the floor was hollow; no one could walk on it and listen to the echo of his footsteps without realizing that. Then . . . the windows didn’t seem to be letting in as much light as they should. I kept going outside to check if the sky was getting cloudy, but it was still bright and sunny, thank God, and I went back feeling the better for it.

Then I stared at the cross in a side-chapel. It just looked like two bits of wood nailed together. I mean, it was just two bits of wood nailed together; but though I’m not a religious sort, I tend to see any cross as a bit more than two bits of wood nailed together.

And that smell. Or niff, as Henry would have it. It wasn’t strong, but it was everywhere; you never got it out of your nostrils. The only thing I can liken it to was when I got in a new lavatory-bowl at the shop; it had to be left for the sealant to dry overnight, so the builder stuffed wet paper down the hole, but the biting black smell of the sewer filled my shop and dreams all night.

Robert Westall
The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux