Gary McMahon’s 2010 horror-thriller Pretty Little Dead Things raised the bar for supernatural fiction with its spooky spin on the traditional private investigator role. Its protaganist, Thomas Usher, and the haunted, tortured quest upon which he’s thrust combined to create a powerful read. A recent BFS Fantasy Award nomination for that book is a definite nod toward McMahon’s growing credentials as a horror fiction writer of note.
Likewise, McMahon’s recently published The Concrete Grove, the first in a trilogy of the same name, is a strong horror book. That uses the brutalist housing estate as centre-point in what looks to be a terrific series. Blending terrors of the human kind – as well as those of a supernatural inclination – it’s a must-read for the horror fiction fan.
Luckily for Spooky Reads, and our readers, we were able to grab a slice of Gary’s time and get his input on several areas of the contemporary, and historical, horror novel, as well as introspectives upon his own work. Covering areas from atmosphere to architecture, nature to humming birds and beyond, this is an insightful interview and definitely of interest to the fan of supernatural and dread fiction.
The whole grove concept in The Concrete Grove is moody, steeped in furtive atmosphere, and dangerous, yet kind of exciting in the curiosity it piques. As such it’s hugely mysterious too. Is it hard to hold back on unravelling too much information on those more mysterious set pieces in your writing – is there reward (for reader and writer) in restraint? And how do you balance what to keep secret?
It’s strange, but the ideas that fuel the Concrete Grove stories are all just bumbling around in my head, waiting to connect. I don’t even know how it all pans out yet, so it’s pretty easy to keep the reader guessing. I’m simply trusting in what little talent I have that everything will come together during the writing process. It’s a big, messy story that’s been gestating for something like twenty-six years, and the books are kind of a way to tidy up that mess.
Economically, politically and socially we’re going through a bumpy time both in the U.K. and globally. Given the prevalence of the subject matter out there in the wild, and mentions of such in past and present in Pretty Little Dead Things as well as The Concrete Grove, may I ask how much the socio-political aspects of the world influence your work?
I think it’s difficult not to be influenced by what’s going on in society, and indeed in the world. I’m not a big fan of the kind of genre fiction that acts as an escape from reality; I like stories that confront reality, and then throw it up for inspection, utilising whatever metaphors are available – then proceeds to kick the crap out of that reality.
In my review of The Concrete Grove I labelled the book as being brutalist. Your body of work is not tied to any particular style in that regard, but do you have a preference for more ‘in your face’ style writing (and in the stuff you read), with manifest horror, or those more subtle works?
Brutalist. I love that. Like the school of Architecture, you mean? Gateshead car park – the one seen in the film Get Carter – has actually influenced, both directly and indirectly, a lot of my work (I even wrote a story about it once, called Brutal Spirits), and that’s a great example of Brutalist architecture.
I don’t have a preference either way when it comes to in-your-face horror writing or more subtle chills. Whatever works for the story, I guess. For me, though, atmosphere is king in horror fiction. I actually like both the styles you mention, as a writer and as a reader: for example, I love Robert Aickman’s stories and I also love Jack Ketchum’s more confrontational approach. My two main criteria as a reader are that a book be well written and engage my emotions.
At times, when reading, I got a feel of the haunted house or tormented house, or tower block, albeit more a William Hope Hodgson (I think I got this from the Slitten) sense than a Matheson-style Hell House from ‘The Concrete Grove’. Would you say you’ve been influenced from this section of the genre in the writing of this particular book at all?
Funny you should mention it, but Hodgeson’s Carnacki was a very early influence on the character of Thomas Usher when I first started writing about him – it was my aim to create a kind of modern, working class version of a very reluctant supernatural detective. But he evolved beyond that initial premise rather quickly and became…well, I don’t know. A miserable bastard who sees ghosts, I suppose.
Hell House, Hill House, the Danvers asylum…these were all huge influences on the Needle – the derelict tower block in The Concrete Grove. I have this long held fascination with haunted people meeting haunted places. The tension that juxtaposition creates on the page can be amazing.
I loved the hummingbirds of The Concrete Grove, and I found myself ‘Googling’ during my reading both out of general curiosity and also to figure out what might be going on plotwise. They were really cool; so different, and so eerie and well implemented. It looks like you had a more involved research session there, or was that a professional avian interest seeping through?
Thanks…I’m very proud of the hummingbirds. To be honest, the hummingbirds came about as a personal dare. I always challenge myself to do difficult things in my novels – I wrote a 93,000-word zombie story without mentioning the Z Word; the ghosts Thomas Usher sees are never allowed to speak to him; and with The Concrete Grove I set myself the task of making a hummingbird, surely one of the most beautiful sights on the planet, scary.
I hope I succeeded in that aim. I did very little research, just looked at a few hummingbird related websites and ran with the idea of them being avatars of another place, a realm that exists outside our own. Rest assured, there’s more from the hummingbirds in the other two books. But read T.S. Elliot’s incredible poem Marina for a hint at what the birds mean in terms of the novels.
The nature aspect as presented in The Concrete Grove was enigmatic and I am confident (I hope without being presumptuous) that there’s more to be revealed in the second book. What inspires more fear for you personally – the man-made terrors or constructs of nature?
Oh, I’m much more afraid of (and yet feel very much at home around) man made constructs. Nature is terrifying in a different way, but it also represents something I believe we, as a species, have lost or left behind: something primal and essential to our nature. And that’s left a huge gap, one that we seem to be trying to fill by raping nature instead of embracing it.
What interests me is the intersection between man and nature, the prosaic colliding with the ethereal. In many ways, that’s what The Concrete Grove is all about. Another big influence in this respect is the superb 1978 Australian film Long Weekend.
The housing estate presents a powerful image; at once both communal but also from common media portrayal – especially in the news – a place deemed threatening and inharmonious. Do you think we’re becoming numb from such bombardments to the point that traditional ‘scary’ things of literature and films just don’t scare us?
That’s a good point, and I’d have to say that there’s a lot of truth in it. Kids these days aren’t scared of the things we were back when we were growing up. They’re possibly savvier, more streetwise, but in other ways there a lot less sophisticated than we were at that age. We were afraid of the monster under the bed, the devil in the toilet bowl, and these days they fear the man with the knife or the gang on the street corner. My own son – he’s seven now – is never scared of the things I expect him to be.
Talking of scary things – have you seen the music video for ‘Come to Daddy’ by Aphex Twin? (I swear that could almost be the book trailer for The Concrete Grove.)
God, yes – that’s a brilliant video. I have this fascination with anything urban and scary. That Chris Cunningham video, among a million other images, probably seeped into the bubbling mind-soup that forms The Concrete Grove. Cunningham also made a film called Rubber Johnny that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. It’s brilliant.
The take on ghosts in Pretty Little Dead Things was genuinely interesting. A mix of the traditional trappings one might come to expect from lore and literature over the years, with a bit of string-theory/multiple worlds spin on the ghost concept. Were you inspired by any particular work or idea, or did it evolve naturally?
Like much of my work, it all evolved organically – on the hoof, as some might say. Initially I just wanted to write a modern version of those old ghost stories where a man would turn up and try to solve the mystery behind a supposed haunting. In my stories, though, most of the time he’d fail, and people would get hurt.
Then, as I realised that the character was demanding a novel, the whole mythos began to develop – the stuff about consensus reality, the fact that sometimes ghosts aren’t simply the spirits of dead human beings, and also Usher revealed to me that he wasn’t the normal workaday guy I’d originally envisaged. There’s something…special about him. You’ll find out a lot more about that in the second book, Dead Bad Things.
I thought of your short story Diving Deep at times – that edge-of-reality and Lovecraftian-on-acid vibe that sometime lingers in ideas and between sentences in your work. In Diving Deep there was that sense of the truly universal horror. In Thomas Hardy style, may I ask, about our planet: which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
Thanks, that’s very much appreciated. To answer your question, I think we live on a splendid planet that’s been blighted by humanity – by us. I always say: give people something beautiful and they’ll make it ugly. I’m yet to see anything that makes me change my mind on that theory, and it breaks my heart. People don’t want beauty; they want to make their mark, even if that means defacing something lovely to the point that it turns to shit.
Thomas Usher has a few aspects of the traditional hard-boiled street-stomping gumshoe about him, with his own innerpainful demons (and literal ones from the present) ever lurking. Do you have a favourite detective-noir book?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a favourite detective noir book per se, but I do have a favourite noir writer: Jim Thompson. For me, Thompson’s body of work embodies the kind of odd, heartbroken, sick-and-tired-of-filthy-humanity fiction that really inspires me. He liked to play on that thin line between horror and absurdity, and that’s my favourite playground, too.
What are your plans for Thomas Usher. Do you have a set number of books in your mind for that series, as you have with The Concrete Grove?
I do have ideas for at least two more Usher novels, but it’s up to Angry Robot if they want to publish them. If these first two books do well, then I’d like to think they’d be open to taking the series further. If the books drop like a stone, then it’s probably all over for Thomas Usher just as it’s beginning…
Usher’s a man alone: the take-out food, simple bare-bones kind of guy. The single bloke lifestyle. The type of chap who might be partial to a Pot Noodle, for convenience sake. Were you to partake of a Pot Noodle – what would your favourite flavour be?
I haven’t eaten Pot Noodle in decades. Literally, decades. I don’t even know what flavours are available, but I do remember that it tasted like molten plastic…I much preferred the gastronomic horror that was Pot Mash.
In The Concrete Grove you have Monty Bright and his ‘exercise book’ to which he has added scribblings, pictures and such. Have you a similar tome (likely not of the manic-obsessive nature), or one which escorts you wherever you might go?
No, not really – I do always carry a notebook, and am constantly scribbling notes on Post-its and bits of paper, and I have a cork board in my study where I pin weird stuff that relates to whatever project I’m working on.
Monty’s notebook is probably a reflection of my mind. It’s full of odd, seemingly random ideas that are actually connected somehow – but I don’t even see the connections myself until they appear on my computer screen.