Thursday, September 3, 2009

John Llewellyn Probert Black Glove Interview

Interview conducted by Steve Jensen

SJ: Please give us a little background on yourself and your writing career.
When did you first aspire to become an author?

JLP: I’ve been writing fiction of some sort ever since I could hold a pen, and the gloriously gothic schools I ended up attending inspired me almost as much as the books and films I consumed so voraciously during my youth. At medical school I didn’t write anything other than comedy sketches for the revues I produced. Horror often did find its way onto the stage, though. I remember getting into a lot of trouble for having actual burning crosses in a sketch featuring the Really Very Incompetent Ku Klux Klan (they all proceeded in to the opening title music from Name of the Rose – lovely. I still shudder with pleasure at the atmosphere we created as well as the uneasy responses from an audience who were expecting bum and condom jokes).
My other favourite was a glove puppet version of Wind in the Willows I did with my best friend where Mr Badger was a psychopathic axe-murderer. I also wrote a film screenplay around that time called ‘A Fistful of Cerebellum’, which in keeping with the movies of the period was a crazy piece about a mad scientist biopsying students’ brains to try and resurrect the assassinated President of some Middle-Eastern state. I think there was a ridiculously gory murder at least every ten minutes. I even composed the opening title music and performed it at one of the Medical School’s Young Composer Evenings to the bemusement of many, even though a few weeks before I had treated them to the main theme from Keith Emerson’s Inferno soundtrack at a Classical Music Recital.
When I qualified for the next eleven years I trained to be a surgeon and completed a doctorate thesis. It was only when all that was finished that I was able to sit down and realise I still wanted to write. What really helped me at that point was coming from a world of surgical training that meant I really thought nothing of staying awake for three days on the trot to finish stories. People who end up in such specialties are an interesting breed. When you’re training you really can spend all day in the operating theatre, go home to revise for three hours for your exams, and then go to whatever party may be going on near you until you realise you’d better sleep for a couple of hours because it’s 4am and you have to work the next day. I well remember one December morning being woken by a policeman on a park bench in Ealing having fallen asleep there after the Hammersmith Hospital Dialysis Unit’s Christmas party. I was meant to be on the wards at eight which normally would have been okay, but unfortunately the ward I was meant to be on was in Bristol. But the M4 was pretty empty that morning so I got to work in time. What I’m trying to say here is that I often thought nothing of coming home after a full day’s work and writing 5000 words into the small hours, sleeping for a few hours and then doing the same thing again the next day, and that meant that once I decided to start writing seriously I got a lot finished very quickly.
I was also very lucky in that the first completed story I sent off anywhere (The Trendelenberg Concerto) was accepted by Jenny Barber for issue 2 of her now sadly defunct magazine ‘Here & Now’. My second story, The Sacristy, was written while on holiday in Barbados (not a typical JLP holiday destination, which is probably why I wrote it) and it was picked by David Longhorn for his splendid magazine Supernatural Tales, which is still going strong and for which I have a great deal of respect. In fact I have been very proud to have a couple of my very favourite stories (The Moving Image and Guided Tour) published by him. Neither Sacristy nor Trendelenberg have made it into any of my collections because I think I’ve written much better since. Anyway, after many many thousands of words and hours spent writing them I’ve been able to put together books like The Faculty of Terror, Coffin Nails, and The Catacombs of Fear, all of which I’m very proud of.

SJ: Which writers do you admire?

JLP: Michael Moorcock for his ability to move effortlessly between genres and produce excellent thought provoking work in each one he has lent a hand to. Fritz Leiber for the same. Charles Dickens for being able to manage large numbers of characters and plotlines and somehow tie everything together in a satisfactory way. MR James for perfecting the mixture of academic, antiquarian and ‘corner of the retina’ horror, Robert Aickman for making me feel confused but in the best way, Ramsey Campbell for showing me how to the everyday and the mundane can be viewed as properly upsetting and many, many others.

SJ: What, in particular, inspired you to write The Catacombs of Fear, and did you find it difficult to 'link' all of the stories together?

JLP: Almost as soon as I had finished The Faculty of Terror I thought it would be fun to do another book like it, and I knew I wanted to use a cathedral setting to link the stories. In fact I wrote down a lot of ideas that I never got to use, including a story about a public school next door, one involving a reliquary that was claimed to contain the heart of a fourteenth century bishop, and another about the prayers that get left next to votive candles. Eventually I settled on a sculpture, a visitor to the cathedral, one of the notice boards, the catacombs themselves and of course the organ to get us into the stories but there were so many other things I could have chosen. Because I had that brief framework worked out first, linking the stories wasn’t a problem at all. In fact there was meant to be a sixth – ‘The Iconostasis of Imperfections’ featuring a large religious painting on one of the cathedral’s walls, but it upset the balance of the book so instead it will be going into a collection due out next year.
Some of the stories in ‘Catacombs’ were inspired mainly by events that took place where I was living at the time – a caller petitioning to ‘Stop the Asylum Seekers’ Centre’ and a broken photo booth at the local Co-Op inspired the first two tales, whereas A Dance to the Music of Insanity came about during a drive to Oxford with Bruno Nicolai’s music to ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ playing on the car stereo

SJ: What do you feel is the most important and fully-realised story you've written?

JLP: Well I don’t really consider any of my stories to be ‘important’ At least not within what some might consider the context of ‘serious literature’. I really do write entertainments, which I personally consider just as important a job as writing heavier, more subtext-filled stuff. However if I was pushed there is a story in my forthcoming collection from Atomic Fez. The book will be called ‘Wicked Delights’ and the story is ‘The Mirror of Tears’. It was my attempt to try and tie together some of the emotional themes I’m obsessed with to the kind of pulp narrative I love. Of all the stories I’ve written it’s the one I’m the most pleased with at the moment, and it’s the only one where I cried all the way through writing the last couple of thousand words, and hopefully some of that emotion made to onto the paper!

SJ: Which books have influenced your thinking, and your writing, more than any other? And whose writing style do you aspire to equal?

JLP: I grew up reading anthologies and short story collections rather than novels, and it was British anthologies like the Pan Book of Horror Stories, the Fontana series of the same name, and Mary Danby’s Frighteners that really made their mark on me early on. These books contained a lot of classic horror stories, but there was a lot of unpleasant gratuitous stuff in there too. In fact it was the latter type of story that tended to form the bulk of those books as time went on. What’s interesting is that while I enjoyed reading classics like Dunsany’s Two Bottles of Relish and Stanley Ellin’s The Specialty of the House, it was those really nasty pieces that made the greater impression on me and really shook me up, and to this day I still think that the best horror stories should be akin to a slap across the face in terms of their ability to upset, shock and disturb. I’ve used the term ‘proper horror’ to describe those kinds of stories elsewhere, and while I accept that there’s a place for horror stories that are gentler, more literary and perhaps strive for a feeling of gentle disquietude, nothing says horror to me more than tales in which people do the most awful things and take pleasure in it, which is why I consider a story like Charles Birkin’s A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts to be a genuine classic. Robert Bloch is another author I greatly admire, and his The Opener of the Way was the first single author collection I bought. Now I can read his stories and cringe at some of the terrible puns, but behind the wisecracks I always felt his stories offered a deliciously bleak and bitter view of humanity, laced with a cynicism that was best expressed by using the blackest of humour. A much lighter writer who I also enjoyed was Ron Chetwynd-Hayes who was admittedly more miss than hit, but stories like ‘The Door’, ‘The Labyrinth’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Why Don’t You Wash? Said the Girl With A Hundred Thousand Pounds and No Relatives’ all gave me pointers to the kind of fiction I would myself one day like to writer. Other stories that have made a great impression on me over the years would include David Morrell’s Orange is for Anguish, Blue is For Insanity from Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil anthology, Clive Barker’s ‘Dread’ and Christopher Fowler’s ‘Norman Wisdom and the Angel of Death’.

SJ: Please tell us about your first novel, The Faculty of Terror.

JLP: The Faculty of Terror came about because Gary Fry of Gray Friar Press asked me if I’d like to do a small booklet in the style of the old Amicus anthology films, linking four or five of my stories with a framework and finishing with a twist. The plan was to have it ready for FantasyCon, which at the time was only a few months away. I would write some new stories to accompany a couple he had already printed in his magazine ‘Fusing Horizons’. I loved the idea but managed to convince him that, even though time was short, we should forego the stapled 70 pages he was proposing and do it as a proper paperback. He was delighted with the idea but the time element was a bit dicey. So I then spent six weeks getting very little sleep as I put everything together. The last story – ‘The Kreutzenberg Sonata’ was written in three days and nights, and the framework was written under similar circumstances. Even though the whole thing was very rushed I tend to thrive on that sort of pressure, and it was an absolute thrill to be going for walks at two in the morning trying to work out how to link the stories. I eventually settled on a dinner at an old university because it’s a milieu I know very well, and one in which I’ve given a few speeches myself. So even though the framework is a fair chunk of the book I turned that out very quickly as well.

SJ: You're well-known as a cinephile; which films (and directors) have particularly influenced your stories and how?

JLP: Someone once said that the definition of a film buff is someone who will watch anything that has sprocket holes in it and that was definitely me when I was younger. I could probably be like that again except my time tends to get taken up with other things now. Because I grew up watching so much I think I have a very cinematic imagination, as well as an almost silly encyclopaedic knowledge of stuff no-one was ever meant to retain! Stephen King says in Danse Macabre that horror fans are like gold prospectors, sifting through lots of rubbish to find the occasional nugget to keep them going. So while I have a deep love for the films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, there are a lot of low-budget oddities out there that have my affection as well. I recently caught up with Jean Rollin’s Night of the Hunted and that movie has such a wonderful air of desperate sadness by the end of it, created with only a few non-actors and no money at all that I can’t help but admire it. My long love affair with British horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s is well documented in all my books, and I still think that directors like Pete Walker have influenced me to want to be ‘entertainingly nasty’ for want of a better phrase. It’s rare for me to be unable to find something of interest in almost anything. Right now I’m enjoying the Anchor Bay Coffin Joe boxset

SJ: What are your future writing plans?

JLP: Well my next book will be ‘Against the Darkness’ from Screaming Dreams. It’s a collection of eleven linked stories featuring my supernatural detective couple of Mr Massene Henderson and Miss Samantha Jephcott. They’ve appeared in a few of my stories over the years, probably most notably in ‘The States of the Art’ in The Faculty of Terror. The book reprints previously published adventures but most of it will be new material, with the cases taking them through their first year together. In the introduction I call the book a cross between The Avengers and The X Files and it’s a conscious attempt to write something light hearted and fun as opposed to the grimmer tales that can be found in my other books. March next year will be back to business as usual with the publication of my fifth short story collection, ‘Wicked Delights’. I’ve just delivered it and it’s a collection of grimmer, sexier tales than those that can be found in Coffin Nails or my other books. Right now I’m writing a novel and I’ve just put together the outline for the follow up to The Catacombs of Fear. Other than that I have a few projects in the works that I can’t talk about right at the moment, and as ever I’m waiting for Hollywood to ring, although I don’t think I’d ever want to move to California as it would probably be too warm for me to wear velvet all the time.

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--Steve Jensen