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’

Of Dreams & Decay

samuels-written_in_darknessIn the introduction to Written in Darkness, Reggie Oliver declares Mark Samuels “the poet and prophet of technological dehumanization.” Having read the majority of this London-based author’s work, I tend to agree. Of course, this is not the only decrepit alley down which Mr. Samuels has trod. There are others as well, those whose bleak entries bear the age-worn signage of decay, decadence, transformation, and dreams.

The first tale, “A Call to Greatness,” finds a modern-day (and highly disillusioned) bureaucrat in a Paris cafe, encouraged by a mysterious stranger to read a 1921 account of a fanatical leader and his failed efforts to wipe out Bolshevism. The majority of “Greatness” is a replica of this document, and in it we learn of the leader’s almost supernatural ability not only to tell friend from foe but to miraculously avoid injury during his various incursions. When we are thrust back to the bureaucrat’s world we cannot help but wonder if his ragged companion is linked in some way to the figure he has just read about. Thankfully, Samuels fashions a darkly humorous denouement which leaves no clear answers.

In “The Other Tenant,” we encounter a truly despicable individual named Robert Zachary, suffering at present an “undiagnosed organic illness” which has forced him into retirement. His previous job saw him as a trade union rep who “[possessed no] real sympathy for his fellow man.” Zachary moves into a new flat, with which he is almost immediately displeased because of an adjacent renter’s blaring late-night television (“a devotee of strange and disturbing pre-recorded programs of a macabre, even deranged nature”). Zachary’s issuing of a complaint proves useless, for the flat in question turns out to be mysteriously untenanted. Zachary thus takes it upon himself to break inside one evening, only to discover little else but the blaring object of his fury. The television, however, is the least of his concerns. There is an empty chair, a claw-hammer, and thirty nine-inch nails awaiting him. The imagination reels at these carefully arranged descriptors. Suffice it to say, Zachary gets his comeuppance, and in a most unusual way.

Said technological dehumanization comes into play in “An Hourglass of the Soul,” which to my mind was executed to perfection. Robert Drax, newly hired by Deregand Computer Systems (headhunted, in fact; a term used to mind-numbing effect here), is sent on a mysterious mission only days into his employment. The owner of the company sends Drax an email implying that failure to comply to this simple request will result in immediate expulsion. And so, in a matter of hours our frazzled hero is shuttled to Mongolia and from there to a city called Gholraqy, where the company has recently established operations. His required task is to test “a new type of mainframe device,” which in the hands of Samuels becomes something truly sinister…as in Philip K. Dick/David Cronenberg sinister.

The influence of Thomas Ligotti comes to the fore in “The Ruins of Reality,” perhaps the bleakest of the nine tales. In it we witness the effects of a catastrophic economic collapse, where mass unemployment and suicides have become the norm. A company calling itself the “N Factory” rises from the ashes, offering steady employment and “regeneration” from the horrors (both mental and physical) currently suffered by the populace. The narrator, having no choice but to sign on, has this to say about his employer: “Time spent on the production line was akin to a state of dreaming so horrible that the mind blots out the recollection.” And this is only one of many new adjustments our protagonist can look forward to in this dystopic new dreamworld. If this tale could be matched to a visual equivalent, it would be to the art of Aeron Alfrey.

Probably my favorite, “Alistair,” begins with a wonderfully atmospheric description of Gryme House (built in 1706): “Rotten and festering, projecting from the thorny undergrowth in the manner of a colossal fungus.” Herein we encounter James Thorpe and his wife Amelia Gryme, inheritors of the place, as well as their young child, Alistair. James has a terrible time adapting to the rundown environment, while Amelia and Alistair thrive. Such distancing also crops up in James’ feelings (or lack thereof) toward his son, which Samuels, in a brilliant piece of foreshadowing, phrases “[as having] no genetic continuity with the boy.” A few years pass, and one night, when Alistair gains the dexterity to look out his nursery window, he glimpses nocturnal creatures (in his terminology, “strange dogs”) wandering about the cemetery on the hill. His curiosity is piqued, and he finds himself compelled to join the festivities. Samuels does a wonderful (and quite humorous) job of infusing cultural references into what is essentially a Gothic tale of the highest order.

The theme of amnesia is played to brilliant and horrific effect in “My World Has No Memories,” where a man awakens on a small vessel at sea without a clue as to how he got there. His only link to his past seems to be his golden wedding band. Connection to the outside world has been severed, as in “all compasses aboard were wildly unreliable, their needles pointing in differing directions.” Investigating the vessel, the man discovers a jar in the hold containing a monstrous white rose “that had suffered some hideous malformation or disease,” and which shares an almost telepathic link with him. Disgusted by the alien visions flooding his mind, he tosses the jar overboard, only to experience a migraine so excruciating that he passes out. When he wakes again, he finds the flower returned to its original place, along with others. And from here the tale begins to riff rather wickedly off The Body Snatchers. Though believe me, Samuels’ vision is even more terrifying.

In “Outside Interference,” the longest tale of the collection, we encounter a select few employees of the Bloy Company (“the most unfortunate and ill-regarded”) performing “the last rites of transfer to new premises”—essentially digitizing all of the remaining paper documents from the old building. Days into their task, they become completely snowed in, and soon discover something fantastically strange about the building itself. The lift seems connected in some strange way to a previously unknown subterranean passage. Those who unwittingly descend are transformed into “burnt men with white eyes” who begin refashioning the soon-to-be-abandoned building into a new kind of workplace. This tale is a perfect example of Samuels’ at his best, fashioning metaphorical horror to make us think twice about the way we live now.

“My Heretical Existence” culls the life and work of the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, with a firm nod to the films of the Brothers Quay. The narrator, reporting from the “city of exiles,” becomes fixated on the idea of “hidden tribes” existing within the metropolis: “Certain families…had dwelt in this quarter for generation after generation.” In a pub he learns of a certain Sartor Street, a place that even locals avoid; those who do go never come back. Wandering about one evening, he enters a Schulz-inspired hostelry called “Under the Sign of the Hourglass Stilled,” and is shocked by the appearance of the patrons within, who in turn are equally astounded by his appearance. He comes to realize who (or perhaps what) he is destined to become.

In the final tale, “In Eternity Two Lines Intersect,” the essence of Arthur Machen comes into play. The narrator is released from an asylum and given temporary housing in a flat during his “reintegration into society.” The living quarters, vacated quite abruptly by the previous tenant, contains all of the vanished man’s things. The narrator is extraordinarily grateful, for he has little to no possessions of his own. In time he begins wearing the clothing (which is decades old) of the lost tenant, and begins to experience strange dreams which deliver into his reality items of an historical nature. His life thus becomes entwined by reality and dream, all leading him toward a mystical realization concerning his true self.

To conclude, I must turn the spotlight on Egaeus Press, who should be commended not only for manufacturing such a beautiful book, but for keeping the fictional focus on such a fantastic and influential writer. Written in Darkness is a perfect fusion between author and publisher, wherein words and design elevate and enliven the whole. I’m not certain I can sum up any better than Reggie Oliver does when he states: “[Mark Samuels’] work has a passionate intensity and integrity. His vision can be bleak, but it is realized with a kind of grandeur that makes it inspiring. You emerge from it, as you emerge from Dante’s Inferno, purged by pity and terror, and strangely uplifted.”

Written in Darkness is available direct from the publisher, Egaeus Press.