Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Jonathan Aycliffe Interview

Some years back I interviewed the great writer of horror himself. This was published in the British Fantasy Society's Prism Magazine. Here it is in full...

Ghost Writer - An Interview with Jonathan Aycliffe (2003)

By Paul McAvoy

This horror writer is a classic example of how size most certainly does not matter. Whilst many authors tend to create books that could double up as door stoppers, Jonathan Aycliffe’s are of an average 240 pages. They are quick doses of terror, and are apt to send shivers down your back and cause you to look over your shoulder in case the ghosts from the pages might just manifest themselves into actual beings…

Of those 'padded' out novels, Mr Aycliffe has his own theories and views.

'This business of padding has worsened badly since the advent of the word processor,' he says. 'There are writers like (Stephen) King who seem to believe that more is better, whether in the length of an individual book, or in the sheer number of books. The truth is that certain genres benefit from length, such as thrillers or sagas. In a thriller, plot is everything, and as one writes, it tends to grow more complex, and one ends up with something around 600 pages or more. But for detective fiction, for example, that sort of length (which is growing common) just makes things tedious, because you don't have the opportunities for action that exist for the thriller-writer. Supernatural fiction depends not so much on action or character as on atmosphere, and good atmosphere does not require pages and pages. Most of the really good ghost stories are short, and none of James's are more than, what, ten pages or so. The Turn of the Screw is just a novella.'

I feel his books are a perfect length and he was pleased to hear this. 'I decided to try my hand at a novel-length ghost story after reading Susan Hill's A Woman in Black, which I adored,' he told me. 'I think the short novel can do things that aren't possible for the short story, mainly in terms of development of character, in having the luxury to develop the plot. The short story works just as effectively, mainly by evoking atmosphere and a sense of place. The one thing that won't work is the huge padded story. Writers who pad tend, in my experience, to be not very literate, and this inability to structure language properly… generally defeats their purpose, so that what should have been terrifying turns out flat and banal.'

Jonathan Aycliffe was born in Belfast in 1949. Real name Denis McEoin and also known as Daniel Easterman (the thriller writer of many books), this three times British Fantasy best novel nominee is the author of several tense and brooding classical horror novels. There was no specific reason as to why he chose the name Jonathan Aycliffe as an alter ego, but when we spoke I told him that although I love the Aycliffe books I could never seem to get into his 'Easterman' novels. Does this happen often? 'Usually not,' he told me, to my immediate shame. 'At least not that has been reported to me. A lot of people are big fans of both. Although they are in very different genres, the books have things in common. You'll notice that Easterman uses supernatural ideas and effects, even if they do turn out to have rational explanations. And there's quite a lot of horror in Easterman: dark labyrinths, giant spiders, ancient tombs, horrid deaths, and so on. Try harder, you don't know what you're missing.' Think I'd better!

But what actually goes into making a great ghost story, something he seems to do with ease? 'Language,' is his view. 'Horror stories, which are another thing entirely, rely on blatant explication, shouting their story as loudly as possible. In the ghost story, everything is much quieter, and in that half-silence words take effect. The right word, spoken or imagined with the right cadence, can send shivers right through the hearer or listener. Even very simple words or sentences when set in the right context can take on dreadful meanings. Many horror stories fail this test, because their authors simply can't handle language well enough. The best ghost story writers, like MR James or Henry James, had a good feeling for language and speech. I don't write in a deliberately archaic style, but I'm conscious that hyper-modern language dispels some of the formality that is essential to a chilling tale.

'The setting is also important. While I don't rule out a wholly modern setting, I prefer either a period one or a modern one that links directly to the past. Some of the reasons are obvious. The electric light has dispelled the darkness in even the creepiest of old houses. Having nothing between you and the darkness but a flickering candle flame must have been deeply unsettling. The same would have applied to strange sounds in the darkness, or blurred movement in the near-dark. This contrast between modernity and the past is particularly addressed in Naomi's Room,' he says. This was the first book to appear baring the Aycliffe name, published in 1991. 'Here we see the attic as it is, then, in photographs, as it was, followed by a scene in which the modern attic shifts and becomes the old attic.

'I also think a good ghost story should take itself seriously. Any hint of a tongue too far in the cheek, of deliberate irony, or inappropriate humour can tilt a story in the wrong direction. In a political thriller, say, or crime fiction, there's room for that kind of thing, because most of what happens is within the limits of reality, and you don't have to persuade the reader to engage in more than a little suspension of disbelief. Bring on the ghosts, however, and you have to engage the reader in a conspiracy to abandon scepticism, to be frightened by something they know does not exist. Part of that process of convincing the reader to believe in the supernatural for the duration of the story is attention to the detail of the context. MR James did this, for example, when he used Latin quotations and bibliographical references to impress on readers the 'truth' of his tale. I've done this in both my Easterman stories and in my Aycliffes. For example, if you turn to The Matrix, you'll find a title page of the MATRIX AETERITATIS, the book that comes to light in the Theosophical Society library. In fact, there is no such book. But the Latin is accurate, as is the Arabic, as is the 17th-century system of transliterating the Arabic, as is the overall design of the title page, which was done by HarperCollins art department, using models from the period. This differs from the approach of Lovecraft, whose book titles and general names are pure nonsense and which detract from the stories. In The Lost, the Romanian is genuine, the historical details of Romania are genuine, the strigoi are based on real Romanian legends, and so on.

'I've always been keen to research my novels closely, sometimes taking much more time to build my background than to do the writing. This comes, naturally, from having been an academic and still taking a lively interest in my academic field of Persian, Arabic, and Islamic Studies. I don't think it's much of a surprise to find that King's College, Cambridge boasts a total of three published writers of ghost stories: MR James, ANL Munby, and Aycliffe. All three of us have worked, at some point in our careers, on bibliographies. I think this relates to the way all three of us have moved in the very down-to-earth world of university research, yet retained a strong sense of the imaginary.

'Good ghost stories (indeed, practically all ghost stories) are rooted in the world we all experience, unlike fantasy tales, which are purely imaginary. It's precisely this juxtaposition of the 'real' and the 'unreal' that lends that uncanny feeling to all that happens. I think this is a throwback to our children fears, when even the most ordinary object or event is fraught with uncertainty. As children we depend on adults for our information about the world: if they tell us there is a Santa Claus, we have no means of disbelieving them (or the inclination); ditto fairies, hobgoblins, and ghosts. As adults, we learn to reason that, since we have seen no fairies or hobgoblins, they do not exist. They don't trouble us. But we may very well hear stories told by someone who 'saw a ghost'. And we're back to that children situation, in which our ghost-seeing friend seems to know something we don't. '

But does Jonathan Aycliffe believe in ghosts? 'No. I remember attending a meeting of the Ghost Story Society, when this same question was put: no one put his or her arm up. They all loved reading stories about ghosts, but that didn't mean they had to believe in them! For myself, not believing in ghosts is all part of my wider world view: I don't believe in God, angels, spirits, demons, and so on. Having said that, I might be persuaded to believe that certain localities, buildings, etc. contain some sort of 'memory' of events, much in the way I do believe homeopathic medicines contain a 'memory' of the original molecules which were diluted and shaken. With the homeopathic pills, I can say that I've seen convincing examples of their efficacy (my wife is an eminent homeopath). But not for the ghosts.

'There's more to this, however. Rationally, I can't accept the existence of the non-material. But emotionally, it's a different thing. I don't like being stranded on my own in the dark. I would never spend the night in one of the 'haunted houses' so brilliantly photographed by Simon Marsden. A primitive, childish part of me does believe in ghosts. It's undoubtedly the part that comes into play when I conjure up my horrors in the stories. Obviously, too, we all have inner fears, many of them, as I've said, dating back to childhood, and in the process of writing, the imagination can open up to let some of them through, albeit changed into a different form, be that a Gestapo torturer, George Bush, or, at the most basic level, a malign ghost or demon. Is it all psychology? Probably.'

As I mentioned, Naomi’s Room started the ball rolling in 1991, a tale of ghostly horror. There then followed Whispers In the Dark the following year, the story about Charlotte, a child in late Victorian England and her time spent in apparent safety with relatives when she hears strange noises at night a sees weird apparitions.

The Vanishment (1993) is the tale of a haunted house in England. Others that followed are The Matrix (1994); The Lost (1996); The Talisman (1999); and his most recent A Shadow on the Wall, published in 2000.

Quite a surprise for me when I was researching this author was that the fountain of all knowledge that is the World Wide Web offered no website for this man. I can now see a rush of fans lurching for their Dream Weavers and other web such designers dreaming up home pages as they read these words! A website seems apt as he is such a talented spinner of fearful yarns. I put this to him and he told me there are no plans for one at this moment in time but, 'I actually use the Internet a lot, mainly for research, and I have the deepest respect for it and its powers. I have toyed with constructing my own website (I really need three), but never done so with the right software (which is hard to find for Apple). But I wouldn't be surprised to find an Aycliffe site up and running by the end of the year. Of course, if there's anyone out there who'd like to try his or her hand...'

Five or six years ago, Jonathan Aycliffe books adorned the shelves of most book shops. They sat prominently alongside the Kings, the Herberts and the Rices. Sadly horror literature has taken a downhill slide for reasons unbeknownst to all horror fans and if you want one of his books you have to search the Internet or order them in bookshops. This has happened to several other authors, including Mark Morris and even Graham Masterton. What does Jonathan Aycliffe think about this?

'I have enough views on this to fill a volume,' he says. 'Aycliffe very nearly became very big indeed, but for a marketing campaign that went disastrously wrong. Overall, modern publishing has become very unfriendly to writers, to the point where it's hard to make writing a career for more than a short stretch of time. Even very big names are experiencing a 50% drop in their sales. It's a combination of things. Publishers don't want to know about good quality middle-aged writers with a respectable sales history: they want good-looking 20-year-olds who will tour, paying stupid sums up front for a first novel, when the likelihood is that book two will sink without a trace. The old-fashioned method of building an author slowly, so that he and the publisher would both be earning well after thirty years or more has been chucked out the windows by the massive corporations that now control the business. For the most part, bestsellers (which is all they're interested in) don't just happen, they are made by doing deals with WH Smith and the chains. It's a jungle run by some cold and brutal people.'

A lot of his spare time is spent helping his wife at her practice, he is the chairman of the UK's Natural Medicines Society (a post he says he has held 'for ever') and occasionally writes on medical subjects.

He also serves as a magistrate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he lives. 'At times it's thoroughly frustrating (parking fines!), at others fascinating (a plot to supply false passports for a flight to the US, a few months after 9/11). Unfortunately, I don't get to wear a wig.'

Strangely enough, he does not read much supernatural fiction. 'I did that when I was in my teens and early twenties.' Well we are certainly glad he still likes to write in this genre! He has numerous favourite writers: 'If I chose one per genre, it would be Yeats for poetry, Patricia Highsmith for crime (or maybe Donna Tartt), Flann O'Brien and Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford for comedy, Tolkien for fantasy (alongside Alan Garner, Ursula le Guinn, and Susan Cooper), Hardy for classic fiction, Cormac McCarthy for modern serious fiction, MR James for supernatural fiction, Mario Soldati for Italian fiction (mainly for Lo Smeraldo), Alain-Fournier for French (for Le Grand Meaulnes ‹ and if anybody knows how to get hold of a tape of the film....), Karl Popper for his philosophical writings on society and science (and for changing my life in the process), Herman Hesse (for The Glass Bead Game), Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov (still in my opinion, the greatest prose stylist of the English language in the 20th century), Evelyn Waugh, Leonard for his lyrics and his one great novel, Olivia Manning (the least recognised utterly great writer of the post-war period), and on and on.

'But I have plans for Aycliffe,' he states, 'and some real hopes that he can be brought back, perhaps more strongly than ever.'

So, can we expect any Aycliffe books soon? 'I'm finishing off another project at the moment, but it's quite possible I'll move after that to write a new Aycliffe or return to one I left half-finished, called The Shot Tower. My dream would be to write two a year.'

Since this interview was undertaken, many of you will know that The Shot Tower was published under the name A Garden Lost in Time in 2004 - let's look forward to the next one!

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