Interview: Charles Wilkinson

‘A Twist in the Eye’ – Egaeus Press (2016)

Readers of Nightscript will no doubt be familiar with the name Charles Wilkinson. He has, after all, appeared in each edition of the anthology since its inception. And for good reason: he is one of the finest practitioners of the weird tale (or “strange story”) currently working today, with numerous publications to his credit. 2016 saw the release of his first Egaeus Press collection, A Twist in the Eye, which is followed this year by Splendid in Ash, currently on sale here. Mr. Wilkinson is a true gentleman and scholar, and was kind enough to answer a few questions about his writing.

Youve established quite a name for yourself in the field of Weird Fiction these last few years, and I would be curious to learn a bit more about your origins as a writer. When did you begin writing and has Weird Fiction always been an abiding interest of yours?

Thanks for asking me to do this interview, C.M. Your encouragement of my work is greatly appreciated.

I started writing poetry when I was around thirteen. Before I left school I published some of my work, which was not very accomplished, in obscure ‘little’ magazines. The first of my poems to appear in a good literary journal was written in my last year at school. Although a horror story of mine appeared in the school magazine, I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was in my thirties. I subscribed to London Magazine, which was edited by the poet Alan Ross. After reading some of the work in there, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story; Alan took the first one I sent him.

Although I remember reading a great number of anthologies of horror and ghost fiction in early adolescence, including the Fontana series edited by Robert Aickman, I was addicted to crime fiction; however, by the time I was in the sixth form I concentrated on set texts and non-genre literary fiction.

As a mature student, I was accepted into an M.A. course in Creative Writing, the only one there was at that time in the U.K. Once, stuck for suitable subject matter, I wrote a ghost story as a way of getting started. The piece went down well and was in my first collection of short stories, The Pain Tree, which appeared from Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions. It included a crime story, as well the supernatural tale, and one piece that was experimental, but the rest of them were ‘dark’ rather than ‘strange’ or ‘weird’.

‘Splendid in Ash’ – Egaeus Press (2018)

I came to focus on ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ fiction rather late. Once I was able to kick the day job into touch, I moved to Birmingham (U.K). I had the idea of writing a series of linked short stories set in that city, where was I born in 1950. When I joined a local writers’ group, I met Joel Lane, a poet and writer of weird fiction who was of great practical assistance to me. His name will no doubt be familiar to many of your readers. I’d just written another ghost story and had no idea where to send it. He put me onto David Longhorn’s Supernatural Tales and subsequently Michael Kelly’s Shadows and Tall Trees, as well as Black Static. He mentioned presses, such as Tartarus and Eibonvale, and introduced me to Thomas Ligotti and other writers I’d not previously come across. I realized there was a range of magazines, writers and small presses that I’d overlooked. Although I didn’t stop writing mainstream fiction and poetry, I gradually moved more in the direction of ‘slipstream’, ‘folk horror’ and ‘the strange’ and ‘the weird’.

I owe Joel a great debt. Tragically he was only fifty when he died and had just won a World Fantasy Award not long before. As we shared the same poetry publisher in Birmingham (Flarestack), we met each other at literary events as well as at the group’s meetings. Although I saw him fairly frequently for two or three years, I was wary of dedicating a volume to his memory as I might have seemed to be claiming a closeness that was never really there; however, when his very good friend, John Howard, agreed to write the introduction to Splendid in Ash I thought it fitting, providing the dedication came from us both. John kindly agreed.

Joel was a very fine writer of novels, short stories, criticism and poetry. He was also a generous supporter of other writers, as I discovered to my great benefit.

Many of your tales remind me, in a way, of the strange storiesof Robert Aickman. They are exceedingly well-written and contain just the right amount of ambiguity, not to mention a bold originality in regard to content and theme. To your mind, what are some of the elements that define a successful weird tale? How do you hope to affect the reader?

The Robert Aickman story I first remember being hugely impressed by was ‘Ringing the Changes.’ Although I’d heard of him, I didn’t get hold of the Tartarus and Faber volumes until Joel Lane told me that he preferred him to M.R. James, who was an early favorite of mine. I think it’s fair to say that some of my strange tales are indebted to both Aickman and James.

I think a good weird tale, like a good poem, contains an element that cannot be neatly paraphrased; in other words, its effect is more than the sum of its narrative. There are plenty of good stories that don’t do this, but to my mind the very best have an elusive quality, perhaps a sense of ‘the other.’

We’ve all read plenty of stories that we’ve enjoyed but haven’t stayed with us for more than a month or so. If some of mine linger in the mind for a little longer, I’d be happy. When I was around thirteen the masters at my school read us Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost,’ Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band,’ and ‘The Alabaster Hand’ by A.L.N Munby, who was an obscure disciple of M.R. James. It was probably about fifty years before I came across the last of those stories again, but I could still remember the ending clearly.

What is the writing process like for you? How does a story develop, and are you a stickler for a routine schedule?

I think it’s important to find the time when one writes best. I’d love to be one of those people who can get up at 6.00 am and have the day’s work done before breakfast at nine, but that doesn’t work for me. I write best in the afternoons and early evening. When I was living by myself in Birmingham, I sometimes managed to put in an hour before lunch; it was a struggle, but later I sometimes got off the mark speedily as a result; I’d miss the evening session if I’d made enough headway.

Now I’m in Wales practically all of the time, I have domestic responsibilities that mean it’s not easy to write at home. I have an office on an industrial estate at the edge of the small town where I live. I go there to work five days a week from around 2.30 to 5.00. At the moment, I’m writing just one or two stories a month; however, I also continue with my poetry when I’m between projects. Of course, quite a few hours are devoted to revision, research and proofreading. There’s no internet connection, which prevents me from being distracted; nevertheless, this does mean that some of the research and fact checking has to be done at home.

What inspires you to write? Who have been some of your greatest influences over the years (writers, artists, filmmakers, etc.)?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was about twelve. Stories can start with an overheard phrase or a recollection of some event in one’s past; at other times it’s being in a particular place – there isn’t a single source. Nowadays, I occasionally respond to a theme chosen by an editor, which was the case for my story in your forthcoming anthology Twice Told: A Collection of Doubles.

As for the writers, they are too many to list! William Trevor was an early influence on my short stories. I’ve read all the novels of Muriel Spark and recently I’ve particularly enjoyed novels by Michel Tournier (The Erl-King) and Curzio Malaparte (Kaput). I’ve already mentioned Aickman and M.R. James. I like the neo-romantic school of British painters: Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton, John Minton, Keith Vaughan and others. I don’t watch as many films as I’d like. Over the years I’ve been impressed by Bergman, Tarkovsky and Peter Greenaway.

Have you lived in Wales your entire life? How important is place to you, and in what way does it inform your writing?

No, I was born in Birmingham and this was home until I went to university. My parents moved first to Worcestershire and then Herefordshire. I went to a boarding school on the Welsh Marches. It was a couple of minutes walk from Shropshire into Wales. I’ve now owned a house in Wales for twenty-five years, although my work took me to other parts of the country, where I lived in rented accommodation. I’ve been in Wales full-time for the past eight years. It takes me two minutes to walk to England. I lived in the Republic if Ireland for a year when I was doing another postgraduate degree, also as a mature student.

Yes, place is very important to me, especially those areas of the United Kingdom where I’ve lived the longest: Birmingham, Norfolk (M.R. James country) and Wales, the Marches in particular. I’m just north of the landscape immortalized by Arthur Machen.

As a follow-up to this, what is the writing community like in Wales? Are you involved in a writing club, and do you attend conventions?

The poetry scene in Wales is lively. I regularly attend events and I also helped to put on a series of readings in the town where I live. My poems appear in Welsh literary magazines. I’m a member of a poetry group, which is based on the Welsh Marches. We meet most frequently in Shropshire in a house that used to belong to the playwright John Osborne. Sometimes we meet in Wales, Hereford and Worcestershire. I have already mentioned that when I lived in Birmingham I was a member of a fiction group. I continued to attend the meetings until last year, when my domestic responsibilities became more arduous. I don’t go to conventions because of these commitments.

Youre known primarily as a short story writer and poet. Im curious to know if you have any desire to write longer works, i.e. novella- or novel-length fiction?

Unfortunately the short story is held in less regard in the United Kingdom than in the U.S.A.; moreover, we don’t have the number of literary magazines, many of them funded by universities, that you have. When I had literary agents, they were always telling me to write a novel as commercial publishers aren’t interested in short stories unless they are by big names who have already published novels. I succumbed and wrote a novel. As I had a day job, it seemed to take me forever – about ten years on and off. It found an agent, but not a publisher. I should have stuck to the stories. The book of linked short stories that I mentioned has a novella in the middle of it. After I retired, I wrote the draft of a novel in four months. The moral is – don’t start a novel unless you have the time to finish it; even then you may be wasting your time if you’re a short story writer and not a natural novelist. There is also another novella that I may work on.

I wonder if you might list at least five of your favorite short stories?

One of my favorites is ‘Un Coeur Simple’ by Flaubert, but I suspect you are thinking of stories in our field. Here are five that have impressed me hugely: ‘The Stalls of Barchester – M.R. James; ‘The Frolic’ – Thomas Ligotti; ‘The Hospice’ – Robert Aickman; The Color Out of Space – H.P. Lovecraft; and one that’s closer to horror than the weird/supernatural: ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ – Angela Carter. I have my doubts about Lovecraft. I also came to him very late and with a degree of skepticism; none the less, as he seems to have invented the term ‘weird fiction’ and his ‘cosmic horror’ is indeed truly distinctive, he deserves his place amongst writers who are in my view his superiors. Ask me tomorrow and I could pick five different tales.

I suspect well be seeing a lot more of your fine fiction in the years to come, but are there any future projects youd like to share?

A collection of my poems is due to come out from Eyewear next year. All of the stories in the book of linked fiction, apart from the novella, have appeared in magazines. It’s a mixture of literary and genre fiction, which could be why it’s having some difficulty in finding a book publisher. I’m hoping next year will bring good news. I’ve completed a ‘calendar’ of weird short stories: one for each month and two for January. I’m placing them at the moment. One is in the current Nightscript. I have enough stories to send another manuscript of stories to Mark Beech, who has done such a wonderful job for me at Egaeus Press, for a third volume of standalone weird and strange tales. Even if he wants to do another book with me, they won’t appear for a while yet. Next year I’m tempted to try my hand at a book-length novella. The two I’ve written were only around 20,000 words each. But I could just as easily chicken out and stay with the stories and poems instead.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Charles. Any parting words of advice to writers just starting out in this genre?

It’s important to write regularly, especially if you’re working in longer forms. Try to find the time that suits you best and stick to it. Don’t get too upset by rejections; everyone gets them. Watch out for places where writers you like are appearing. Duotrope and Submittable are invaluable tools for short story writers and poets. A course or a writers’ group may be of help, but don’t join one if you are too sensitive to criticism or very defensive about your work. You will only upset yourself and annoy everyone else. Show appreciation to the hard-working editors who are bringing your work to the public (thanks, C.M!). Don’t accept all criticism – concentrate on the points that seem fair or helpful; however, if editors keep making the same criticisms, at least consider that they may be right.

Splendid InteriorCharles Wilkinson’s newest offering, Splendid in Ash, is currently available from the fine folks at Egaeus Press.

It is limited to 300 copies.

“Splendid in ash…”
— Sir Thomas Browne, ‘Urn Burial’

Nightly Horror: An Interview

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being interviewed by Gwendolyn Kiste, an accomplished author of dark fiction whose work I have long admired. In the interview, I discuss my origins as a writer, some early and current influences, and of course the continuing saga that is Nightscript, my annual anthology of “strange and darksome” tales. Don’t hesitate to investigate Gwendolyn’s blog, which is an essential resource for new and established writers, featuring as it does numerous author interviews and insights into the writerly life, as well as a list of venues where you can submit your work!

Nightly Horror: An Interview with Gwendolyn Kiste

Clint Smith — Interview

In my previous post, I profiled Clint Smith’s Ghouljaw & Other Stories, which to my mind is one of the finest debuts of 2014. The author, a bright new talent in the field, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.

What dClint Smithraws you to the writing game, and Weird Fiction in general?

Saul Bellow wrote that a writer is a reader moved to emulation, and like many writers (I’d venture to guess) I fell in love with the act of reading before I started making (amateurish) attempts at penning anything considered “work.” Around that same period, I’d exhausted myself (and quite frankly lost intrinsic interest) in dabbling with other artistic mediums—illustration and music among them. I saw writing and poetry as solo crafts, ones that really spoke to those with “loner” tendencies (though this notion is a bit misleading, as the craft is dependent upon human engagement for the whole damn thing to work). Writing was simultaneously solitary and humanistically reciprocal.

The gravitation toward Weird Fiction was, and still is, a pretty natural compulsion. Though, I’d have to say that—owing both how I was regionally socialized (rural legends, agrarian ghost stories) and some of the aesthetic choices I was enamored with as a boy—I am more or less hardwired to literarily drift in the direction of the “weird.” To put another way, the essence of “weird” and “strange” is the taproot of my artistic temperament.

When did your desire to tell stories begin, and who were some of your earliest inspirations?

First, I think being read to as a small child was a tremendously indelible thing for my parents to do. Yes, when you’re little there are pictures portraying action in front of you, but when you begin developing your own day-dream narratives those layered, mental pictures begin to distort themselves and take on new shapes. One book in particular that resonates (in a multitude of ways) from my childhood is The Magical Drawings of Moony B. Finch by David McPhail (I still have the original copy and have passed on the tradition by reading to both my little ones). Eventually, the imagistic “training wheels” are removed when you move on to bigger books and begin pairing those deeply-aesthetics with black-and-white narratives.

Old radio shows, too, had a formative effect. Back when I was a kid, radio stations, late at night, would air broadcasts of old radio shows—mysteries, romances, ghost stories. I’d drift to sleep with stories and soap operas playing out in my little head. This medium of entertainment was important because, similar to reading, listeners are provided with words and action, and it’s the audiences job to do the mental illustration, to formulate images. The Shadow, Dark Fantasy, Inner Sanctum, and The Black Museum are still my favorites.

As a sort of sidebar, though I was not raised in a fundamentally religious home, it was difficult not to have some exposure to biblical texts and tales; and as a kid I confronted some inextricably disturbing horror stories and weird tales in the Bible—chief among them is the seductive betrayal, graphic torture, and revenge of Samson, along with the supernaturally subjective and prolonged abuse of Job.

Something Wicked This Way ComesBut Ray Bradbury, more than anything, stands out most prominently during those formative years. For the sake of brevity, I’ll quickly cite “I Sing the Body Electric” and Something Wicked This Way Comes as having profound aesthetic and thematic influences. Even David Grove’s movie poster artwork for Disney’s adaptation of Something Wicked is vividly tattooed in my imagination with heavy ink.

The story of Something Wicked is itself entertaining, but it was only years later when I re-read the prologue—“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys”—that I was intrigued by the trick of forming images as it related to text. It was the way Bradbury captured places, people, and unfolded stories that now had my attention: “And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” Lines like this made me wonder, How the hell does a writer do that? I wanted to learn the trick, wanted to emulate a similar “illusion.”

Who are your greatest writerly influences, both past and present?

I’ve mentioned Bradbury as a sort of bedrock influence, but after I began to seriously approach the craft of writing (as more of an apprentice than anything else), the authors that placed the most nascent impressions on me were Dan Simmons, Shirley Jackson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Matheson, Poe, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles L. Grant, Lovecraft, Flannery O’Conner, and Nabokov. In particular, I’ll point to the horror and dark stories of Dan Simmons (Summer of Night, Carrion Comfort, and the short fiction in Prayers to Broken Stones) as leading influences still today. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poets Thomas Lux and Charles Simic.

As far as writers who’ve had a more contemporary influence for me—ones that I admire for their voice, style, and narrative approach—are Joe Hill, Stewart O’Nan, Norman Partridge, Benjamin Percy, and fellow Hoosiers Ben H. Winters, Michael Koryta, and Frank Bill. I’m reading Donnybrook by Bill right now. Deliciously ferocious.

In your opinion, what are the ingredients of an effective weird tale?

The “weird tale” is, for me, a class that’s sustained by a deeply-threaded discordance and an impossible-to-erase echo—yes, in part owing to the single-effect that Poe discussed, but what I’m referring to is the reader becomes unsettled by the underlying approach. Maybe some key ingredients would be an element of fatalism, moral or mental deterioration (whatever requires calling into question the accuracy of perception), and maybe a satisfying though indeterminate denouement (something in the vein of classic John Carpenter films).

Joseph Conrad wrote that a writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in their work, and I think that a weird tale works if the fabric of the tale is (whether consciously or not) constructed by someone with intrinsic strangeness, someone who is literarily mercurial—a bit of a wild card. Weird tales don’t really fit in, and neither do their designers.

Are there any particular stories from the “Library of Weird Fiction” (or outside of it) which you feel are worthy of constant study?

I’m certain this comes off as passé but I’ll be brief—I’ll start with Lovecraft. The first story I read of his was “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and the tale provided me with a lot of direction. From there, I would submit “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and (one of my all-time favorites) “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

Shapes of MidnightAnachronistically moving around a bit, I’d devote time to writers like Ambrose Bierce (“Beyond the Wall,” “The Spook House”) and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Mosses From an Old Manse and Twice-told Tales both have marvelous stories. It may be a lesser known name, but Joseph Payne Brennan’s collection The Shapes of Midnight was a real revelation for me, and I’d highly recommend “Canavan’s Back Yard,” “The Corpse of Charlie Rull,” and “The Horror at Chilton Castle” for those seeking satisfying tales. Robert W. Chambers (“The King in Yellow,” “The Yellow Sign”) is an outstanding practitioner, and I think any student of the “weird” would do well to examine “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (supremely sinister) by Clark Ashton Smith. “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen is indefatigably disturbing, and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from it over the years.

In the introduction to Ghouljaw, S.T. Joshi rightly commends your originality in regard to “the weird concept”. Do you fashion your tales around such concepts or do they take shape in the telling? 

Really interesting question. It’s like that adage, I suppose: there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. From an external standpoint, my sensibilities have been so profoundly shaped by weird concepts (in addition to the book-based stories I grew up loving, I also relished Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, both of which are responsible for formative impressions) that it’s difficult not to confront them, in one aspect or another, as I write. And yet—though I’ve mentioned the writerly impulse of emulation—I’m more satisfied by independent assembly.

I have a profound respect for this particular genre or weird “school,” and when I begin to tread too close to what I think is predictable or cliché, I veer off in a different direction. This may cause another dilemma in the narrative, but it’s worth it to mentally construct an alternate route.

The only story I’ve consciously utilized as a sort of scaffolding is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (which it looks like I’ll discuss presently) for the piece, “The Tell-Tale Offal.”

It is evident upon reading your macabre tale “The Tell-Tale Offal” that you have spent a great deal of time in the culinary industry. Is there a correlation between fashioning fiction and food?

Personally, there is a great deal of correlation. I began writing in private around the same time I enrolled in culinary school in Chicago. This was the early 2000s, and at that point I’d already been in the restaurant industry for several years. But it wasn’t until much later that I began to draw parallels between the vocations of writing and culinary arts.

More than anything, writers and chefs have to trust what is on their respective pages and plates. I rely heavily on Henry James’s sentiment that there is only one recipe: to care a great deal for the cookery. In both crafts there are totemic techniques and innumerable ingredients, but it’s how we utilize, balance, and respect those components that creates harmony and lends itself to resonance.

Whether a writer submits a manuscript from a desk, or a cook sends out a meticulously presented plate to a dining room from the kitchen, both have to deliver a satisfying message. Everything should be communicated there—the hours of practice, research, references, tradition, personality. What’s on the plate and what’s on the page should tell you the whole story.

Do you have any personal favorites among the fourteen tales which comprise Ghouljaw? If so, please describe their genesis.

For the sake of sentimentality, I’d point to the titular story, “Ghouljaw.” This is one of my earliest “apprentice” pieces, and it’s the story that I supplied to S.T. Joshi the first time I met him after a lecture he’d given in Indianapolis. A few days later he contacted me about submitting another story (which ended up being “Benthos”).

To pick favorites would be “What About the Little One” for its slowly-constructed conclusion and “The Day of the Earwig” for the small tricks I attempted to imbed within the narrative.

Towns such as New Bethel and Deacon’s Creek appear in many of your stories. Are these real or imagined or a combination of both, and do you plan to create fictional havoc in these locations in the future?

New Bethel is a sort of composite for the best and worst of small town life (more or less a flawed version of Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois), and sometimes the stories and psychologies seem more suited to a place that may provide hope, yet, as perception becomes distorted, may become more of a haunting environment.

But there are definitely more supernatural elements in Deacon’s Creek. I’ve always viewed Deacon’s Creek as fundamentally sinister, sort of a Midwest Bermuda Triangle for monsters.

Readers of Ghouljaw have the option of purchasing a “book soundtrack”, which contains a track for each story. How did this collaboration with Allen Kell come about?

I must say that, in addition to a list of literary comrades and acquaintances, I’m profoundly fortunate to have creatively-driven friends—people I’ve known since childhood who’ve refined their skills in adulthood.

Allen is a good friend with whom I grew up. He lived in the same rural “region” as I did (we’ve heard the same ghost stories, same farmland legends), and I’d venture to say we share many of the same creative sensibilities and appreciate similar aesthetics. I’d never heard of a fiction-music collaboration, and when I began seriously tinkering with the notion, Kell was the first guy that came to mind. As it happens, Kell has been dabbling in this sort of thing as a side-project between creative bouts with his main band, Shadeland. So as grateful as I was (and am) that he agreed to this project, I think he was eager to accept the challenge for the sake of his own creative process.

Are there any current or future writing projects you wish to discuss?

I’m currently completing a short stack of stories (line-editing, some narrative whittling) and drafting two longer tales (a farming-related narrative and a food-related story), one of which will be transformed into a novel.

Additional information pertaining to Clint Smith’s work can be found at his website.

Ghouljaw: The Book is available through Hippocampus, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Ghouljaw: The Soundtrack is available through iTunes or cdbaby.