His writing is dark and tense and among his other writing credits are short stories published in Cemetery Dance, Surreal Magazine, Dark Discoveries and Shadowed Realms.
‘The Kult’ was optioned for film by Gharial Productions. His next novel ‘Fangtooth’ will be released by Dark Regions Press shortly.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about monsters and the current world of publishing.
Do you think the worst monsters are humans?
Absolutely. When dealing with human monsters such as serial killers, they actually exist. These are no made up ghouls. They could very well be out there now undertaking everything from cannibalism to ritual murder. Some people have no moral compass and that is a terrifying thought. Even more terrifying is that you or I could very easily be their next victim.
Dictators have turned to cannibalism. To what extent do you think the ultimate manifestation of control is the desire to consume another’s body and what does this illustrate about the horrors fiction authors write about?
I guess that would be called ruling with an iron stomach. If it’s not for a survival purpose such as during famine, then cannibalism seems to be more to do with esoteric purposes, acquiring the power of the person they consume in the same way that people will eat animals such as tigers in the belief that they will become as strong or virile as said animal. In horror fiction, I believe writers want to get underneath a readers skin (rather than eating it) and cannibalism is one of the greatest taboos, so it makes for a disturbing subject with which to illustrate horror in its rawest state.
Do you think that horror fiction is the literature of subversion?
It’s not so much about rebelling as much as it is about getting to the root of fears and giving them form. To me horror fiction should elicit an emotional response. It’s the stuff of nightmare, the stuff that should make you look over your shoulder; check that the doors are locked; leave the light on. By writing and reading about that which scares us we are in some way facing those fears. And it’s a safe way of achieving this aim without risking life and limb.
Ultimately this is a good thing and it stems back to primordial times I guess when we would have been chased by sabre toothed tigers and such like, providing the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response necessary for survival. Now that we don’t face as many natural predators, and unless you put yourself in dangerous predicaments, I think that fiction and film can still help us tap into that emotion and give it an airing.
Who are your literary influences?
I started reading from an early age and used to devour books. I still prefer reading a good book to watching a film as it’s a much more intimate and personal adventure. As a kid, I distinctly remember enjoying books, such as The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. Imaginative books such as this opened my eyes to the power of words. Then in my teens I discovered short story collections such as The Pan Book of Horror Stories edited by Herbert Van Thal, which featured lurid, gory tales that I thought were absolutely fantastic (I remember borrowing a friend a book called The Satyr’s Head and Other Tales of Terror and said friend having to give the book back to me because it had scared him too much. I found this quite funny at the time, but again it made me realise how powerful words can be).
Then I started reading authors such as Guy N. Smith, James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Graham Masterton, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King etc, so I guess my early literary influences were from what I think of as the golden age of horror, when new books seemed to appear all the time, books with cheesy covers that epitomised their pulp status. I guess add to that the fact that I grew up in a house in a cemetery and I was never going to be writing for Mills and Boon.
Do you think it is possible to write a made for film novel and if so what are its characteristics?
Interesting question as I get a lot of people saying that my novels are ‘cinematic’ in nature and that they feel that they are watching a horror film – I guess that might be the reason why The Kult has just been filmed by an independent production company called, Gharial Productions, and I was lucky enough to fly out to the US last year to see some of the shoot. I think that to write a ‘made for film’ novel it has to be very visual in its execution and that said novel has to paint a picture with words that make people believe they can ‘see’ the image you are describing. The story has to come alive on the page and it has to be engaging. As with anything to do with literature, it’s all about the words. Finding the right word to describe what you are trying to get across. Some people have a knack for it. I wouldn’t personally put myself in that category, but other people seem to think so and who am I to argue?
Do you think that certain types of murder are sexually motivated and what do you think the pathologies behind them are?
Yes, without a doubt. There are numerous high profile sexually motivated serial killers, people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Peter Sutcliffe and the Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
It’s reported that many of the perpetrators come from broken homes and have a history of being neglected or abused as children. This is why they pray on vulnerable victims such as children, young women, prostitutes, and adolescents. Of course this isn’t true of everyone that has been raised in these circumstances. Learning plays a big part in the way a person behaves; as does their true personality, which comes down to the nature or nurture argument.
Are people born evil (nature) or made evil (nurture). Some scientists believe that people behave as they do according to genetic predispositions. This is known as the “nature” theory. Other scientists believe that people think and behave in certain ways because they are taught to do so. This is known as the “nurture” theory. I found this a fascinating subject, enough so that my latest novel featuring the protagonist from The Kult, is based around this theory and questions whether killers can be nurtured, or whether it’s something they have to be born with.
In my opinion, the pathologies behind these crimes are a combination of both nurture and nature. The seeds are probably already there, but something happens that makes them sprout.
Tell us about ‘The Kult’.
OK, without reciting the back blurb verbatim, it’s a story about Prosper Snow who made a pact with his school friends to exact revenge on anyone that wronged them. This usually took the form of anonymous beatings, but then once they’ve grown up, a member of the group comes and asks for their help. But this time he doesn’t want someone beaten up. He wants them killed. This of course poses moral dilemmas, not least because Prosper is a police officer sworn to uphold the law. Blackmailed into helping, Prosper and his friends try to get away with the murder by blaming the crime on an active serial killer called The Oracle, but then things go from bad to worse when the serial killer starts hunting them down.
As I mentioned, the book was optioned for film and was shot last year around San Diego . Post production has just finished and although I don’t know all the details, I guess they are now looking for a distributor. Sadly since then the original publisher of the novel has gone bankrupt, but the book is available for download via all the major eBook distributors such as Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble etc. The story is quite graphic in the vein of Saw or Se7en, so it’s not for the easily disturbed, but it’s the book that I’m most proud of, and which I think is my favourite of all my works because I tried to make the characters as real as I could. Prosper is not an inherently bad man, but when he tries to do the right thing, things invariably go wrong and he ends up breaking more laws than he upholds. I’ve just finished a second novel featuring Prosper that once again puts him in a difficult position. It’s a stand alone novel, but obviously events from The Kult have shaped who he now is. I’ve already signed a contract for the novel, so I’m hoping to see it released later in the year.
Elias Canetti in ‘Crowds And Power’ writes: ‘In the mental disease whose processes most closely resemble the workings of power the urge to unmask appearances becomes a kind of tyranny. This disease is Paranoia and there are two characteristics by which, among others, it is particularly distinguished; one of these, in psychiatry, is called dissimulation… paranoiacs are so skilful at dissembling that many of them are never identified as such. The other characteristic is the continual urge to unmask enemies.’ How relevant do you think this observation is to crime and horror writing and the characterisation of the pathologies that inhabit it?
All writers are crazy. They have to be as writing is hard work, often for little reward. I remember seeing a sign that said, ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’. That should hang above every author’s desk.
Now whether consciously or not, I think authors dispel a lot of their demons through their work, so perhaps this is us ‘unmasking our enemies’, enemies in this case being those internal dilemmas that need a form of release. As the old adage says, ‘write what you know about’, so it’s easy to imagine that authors the world over are putting a little bit of themselves in all they write, writing what they know, which is their thoughts and deeds. Whether these are dressed up in sci-fi, crime, horror or fantasy, all stories have characters, and all characters are given life by the author.
What do you think about the current world of publishing?
The past few years have seen vast changes. The internet has opened up whole new avenues, first with the way work can be submitted, and now with the way it’s published. Before the advent of the internet I used to submit all my work by snail mail, and then waited weeks or months for a response. Now most markets allow an emailed submission, which means that your work and your enquiries arrive almost immediately (of course the responses can still take weeks or months). And then now of course we have the arrival of the eBook, a format that many authors are taking advantage of. This has both good and bad points. Some authors are making a lot of money via eBooks, while others linger in obscurity. What was once thought of as taboo is now becoming acceptable: self-publishing.
And of course, while there are some good books available, there is also an awful lot of unedited dross. In this brave new world it’s also not true that the cream will always rise to the top, as some of these works are priced so cheaply that people buy them anyway if it’s something they think they might like. The marketplace is huge, as we’re talking the whole world where anybody can download a book at the click of a button and have it delivered immediately, but competition is fierce.
With this in mind I think that publishers should be worried. Bookshops are going bankrupt and many high profile authors such as JA Konrath are becoming ambassadors for the merits of self-publishing (and Barry Eisler reportedly turned down a $500k publishing deal in favour of self-publishing his next book) and while there might only be one out of every 1000 authors that has a modicum of success, there are thousands more stretching their literary wings and bypassing the conventional route of agents and publishers and going it alone in search of fortune and fame.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
Although I’m not familiar with the quote, I think he probably meant that authors sometimes have to be cruel. We create characters and situations that need emotional involvement, but as the creators of said characters we sometimes have to kill our babies. It can be hard to do this when you’ve spent so long creating them, and so sometimes it’s not just a piece of ice that we harbour, it’s a whole chunk. I guess it could also refer to the kind of detachment a writer has to have, to be able to look at a something objectively, no matter how disturbing the subject matter may be. We also create situations that most people wouldn’t like to ponder, as a good story is all about conflict, and to do that can take a certain detachment. I guess we’re all cold hearted to some extent. Some more than others.
Thank you Shaun for giving a perceptive and informed interview.
Visit the online home of horror writer Shaun Jeffrey here.
‘”The Kult” – People are predictable. That’s what makes them so easy to kill.’
Read a sample of ‘The Kult’ here.