brought to book

Haunt­ing words… Kim New­man of­fers his take on the English spook tale

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Front page - Words by jonathan wright por­trait by will i re­land

Kim New­man talks bad be­hav­iour in Som­er­set.

The English ghost story has a proud tra­di­tion, but it’s a tra­di­tion largely as­so­ci­ated with au­thors long dead, such as MR James, and disturbing scenes played out in Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian draw­ing rooms. So can it be re­sus­ci­tated? Or, at the very least, can we com­mune with its spirit? Nov­el­ist Kim New­man thinks so, which in great part ex­plains why his new book is called, well, An English Ghost Story.

“Some­how the best [ spooky] sto­ries are English,” New­man says. “Eng­land is a haunted coun­try.” Cer­tainly, that’s true of the iso­lated Som­er­set home, the Hol­lows, which pro­vides the set­ting for New­man’s at­mo­spheric novel. It’s here a dys­func­tional fam­ily (“the clas­sic English story is the un­happy fam­ily”) makes a new start after leav­ing London. Ini­tially, it seems like an idyl­lic spot, a place of heal­ing, but grad­u­ally it be­comes clear the house, pre­vi­ously the home of chil­dren’s au­thor Louise Tea­zle, is turn­ing on its in­hab­i­tants.

It’s a novel New­man ini­tially wrote as a con­tem­po­rary piece in the 1990s, but never sold to a pub­lisher and put aside after it was op­tioned for a film ver­sion that got lost in pre- pro­duc­tion. He’s re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to set the novel in the 21st cen­tury. In­stead, An English Ghost Story is set at an un­spec­i­fied point in those pre- 9/ 11 years “after Tony Blair got elected, but be­fore every­body got fed up with him, that cool Bri­tan­nia pe­riod”, a time that was also “the era of dial- up in­ter­net” where “peo­ple are on­line but it’s kind of creaky”.

There were good rea­sons for this choice. Partly, New­man says, the ad­vent of broad­band, smart­phones and so­cial me­dia meant that while the book “worked dra­mat­i­cally, it just wouldn’t play in terms of a story hap­pen­ing now” if he’d sim­ply al­tered the dates and cul­tural ref­er­ences. Be­sides, he adds, “One of the curses of con­tem­po­rary hor­ror fic­tion is the scene where somebody goes on the in­ter­net and finds out the his­tory of the crimes in the area or haunted house. It’s one of the most bor­ing things imag­in­able in dra­matic terms and yet it hap­pens all the time.”

But none of this means the novel is a pe­riod piece lazily dug out from a dusty drawer. It’s too well writ­ten for a start, plus one of its main themes is what it means to be English. This is, of course, a sub­ject brought to the fore both by the ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence and the rise of UKIP. Whether by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, New­man’s book catches the zeit­geist in 2014. So what’s New­man’s take here?

“The best ghost sto­ries are English. Eng­land is a haunted coun­try”

“English­ness has al­ways been kind of neb­u­lous be­cause English peo­ple have been kind of em­bar­rassed to de­fine it,” he says. “And there’s also this aw­ful thing where the kind of peo­ple who most paint them­selves with Saint George flags and go around call­ing them­selves English are ut­ter scum. It’s kind of like be­ing rep­re­sented by the worst part of your coun­try.”

In con­trast, New­man iden­ti­fies with “an English mys­tic strain” that “man­i­fests in au­thors like Den­nis Pot­ter”. This in it­self is an in­trigu­ing name to men­tion. Bri­tain’s most fa­mous TV scriptwriter re­turned again and again to the For­est of Dean, where he grew up, as a set­ting for his work, no­tably Blue Re­mem­bered Hills ( 1979). Sim­i­larly, child­hood haunt Som­er­set – specif­i­cally Sut­ton Mal­let – re­curs in New­man’s work; it’s the set­ting for An English Ghost Story, and played into a scene in New­man’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel Quorum, where the devil shows up in the vil­lage. New­man first stum­bled on the lo­ca­tion – but not Satan, he cheer­ily stresses – as a teenager.

“It’s [ a story] in­volv­ing bad driv­ing and be­ing an idiot to be hon­est,” he re­mem­bers. “One night, my­self and a friend of mine drove around Som­er­set tak­ing down Tory elec­tion posters in the dead of night. There were blue posters ev­ery­where and we were go­ing through a kind of ob­nox­ious rad­i­cal phase.” Things started to go awry when the duo got lost and New­man thought he spot­ted a sign for the town of Shep­ton Mal­let ( pop­u­la­tion circa 10,000): “We fol­lowed the sign­posts, and the road got smaller and smaller un­til we got to a big sign that said, ‘ Wel­come to Sut­ton Mal­let.’” It proved to be a for­tu­nate mis­read­ing in terms of New­man’s ca­reer: “In the mid­dle of the night it had a weird, strange, ghostly feel­ing to it. In my work, I have re­turned to it as a mag­i­cal, strange lo­ca­tion.”

As for the wider work of writ­ing, it be­gan when New­man was still a teenager, as he scrib­bled sto­ries and film reviews. In 1980, he grad­u­ated, only to find Thatcherism in full swing. Un­able to get a full­time job, he wrote for fanzines and did some the­atre work. By 1982, he’d be­gun to sell film jour­nal­ism and sto­ries to In­ter­zone. Ten years later, Anno Drac­ula, the first book in his on­go­ing al­ter­nate his­tory vam­pire se­ries, made his name. He has sub­se­quently be­come a fa­mil­iar fig­ure on TV too.

He re­fuses to see his ap­pren­tice­ship as es­pe­cially bur­den­some. “Many of the things that en­abled me to get started as a writer no longer ex­ist, like a ben­e­fits sys­tem that en­abled me to leave home and move to London,” he says. “That would now be im­pos­si­ble for somebody in my po­si­tion.”

An English Ghost Story is out now from Ti­tan Books.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.