by Simon Kurt Unsworth
This seemed like such a simple proposition; write a short article on my inspirations, about what’s magical to me and how it feeds into my creative process. Aha, thinks I! I list a few good authors, show how my stories are direct descendants of them, and Bob’s your auntie’s live-in-lover, we’re done. But . . . but . . . it’s something much bigger than that, I realize, and suddenly I have a proper task to accomplish. What’s magical to me is bigger than mere influence, and wider and deeper and it’s going to take writing about a range of subjects. Damn.
Although, if I’m honest, books and stories new and old are magical to me, and reading something good is like shucking off the world and all its worries and pressures and all the knowledge of right and wrong and left and right and up and down, and simply loving and be loved by the words. Whether it’s M. R. James, early King, Christopher Fowler’s quite joyous Bryant and May Books, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, David Hutchinson’s short story collections, Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Ito’s Uzumaki, reading (or, often, rereading) them reminds me how much I love stories and makes me want to go back to my own work, to create and then improve my creations, remaking and restructuring them to make them good, better, best. I’m never going to write anything as good Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or King’s ’Salem’s Lot, I suspect, but experiencing them makes me determined that I’m going to damn well try. . . .
And then there’s films. I love film, and respond incredibly well to visual stimuli, and often write doing little more than describing a film I’m seeing in my mind. John Carpenter would, I think, be my director of choice and it’s often his particular visual aesthetic that’s in my mind as I write, simultaneously languorous and yet incredibly tense and capable of graphic, grand yet curiously personal terrors. I don’t mean that my stuff is like his or as good as his early films, so much as I mean that there are things I aspire to and his very visual sense of space and movement and horror is one of them.
See how it unfurls? It’s initially about books and then film comes in and now I have to bring music on board. I never write in silence, not ever; instead, I put my iPod on shuffle and let each piece of music it throws up feed into the writing. The rhythms of it, the energy of even the most dolorous tunes, get into my system and emerge as paragraphs and sentences and chapters and ideas. I’ve written ghost stories to the sombre beats of Massive Attack and to the sinister pop sensibilities of Babybird, written monster stories to the unstoppable roar of Bellowhead and the more delicate sounds of Spiers and Boden (who are playing as I type this, incidentally), written a novel set in Hell with the perfect pop of Take That and Kylie Minogue and Neil Diamond nipping at my heels, and the blasted and mournful sandpaper rasp of late-era Johnny Cash sitting on my shoulders, and I love it all. Music, a thing I lost touch with for a number of years, is my near-constant companion now and I cannot imagine being without it.
Mary My Hope are playing now; if you don’t know who they are, shame on you. Go and find out.
I like places, geographies. I like finding buildings and natural landscapes and thinking about what they might be, what they might hide. I like unexpected dips and hollows, lost places and abandoned structures, and they all trigger ideas, or sometimes single images, some of which make it into my stories. I like to use real geographies in my writing, cursing and haunting the places I know well, and even my invented environments tend to be based on real places. Partly, it’s practical; it makes visualizing them as I write easier, but partly it’s that magic again; real places are fun, and populating them with terrors is a great feeling. After all, what power! To put a demon into a seaside town and watch it wreak havoc. . . .
I’m full of rage and loathing for the unjust and unequal way our political masters attack the weak and protect the strong, and although I’m not an overtly political writer, I suspect some of those feelings find their way into stories. I hope so, anyway.
Oh, my iPod’s playing the Ramones now. Marvelous.
But none of this is where the magic happens, not really. The magic happens in a much harder to define area, one that I’ll call “people.” When I write, even when I write pulp, I can’t escape from the fact that my interests are people’s reactions and inter-reactions, their emotional connections with each other and their own feelings and histories, so the most important thing, the biggest influence on me, are the people in my life. I love a beautiful woman whose touch thrills me and who the sight of can make my shoulders roll back and make me stand straighter, I have a son whose company I adore (although he’s very like me, and we argue too much), I have a family and friends who I love even when they annoy the crap out of me. Versions of these relationships, extrapolations from them, reductions of them, they find their way into everything I write. Without this emotional life to draw on, I wouldn’t be a writer; I’d be, at best, a robot and at worst an amoeba. The magic is there, all around me, in the good relationships and the bad, in the things we do to hurt and love each other, in the kisses we share and the hands we hold and the cross words we shout and the time we spend together, real magic, too powerful to contain or control. All I can do is hope to see its outline and to use it as best I can.
Mumford and Sons now; well done, iPod.
I write horror stories partly because that’s how I see the world, through filters of terror and blood and supernatural shenanigans, but also because it’s a way of exploring where the magic happens. I don’t really care about zombie attacks, but I do care about what being attacked by zombies might mean for someone trying to protect their family, or trying to get back to the woman he loves, and that’s where it gets interesting. If I can hold parts of my life up to the light and explore them, while at the same time hopefully creating narratives that other people will enjoy (well, okay, be scared and disgusted and upset by), then I’m happy. The stories make sense to me because I base them as far as I can on my interpretations of reality, and if I reach an emotional truth in my writing, it’s only because I’m experiencing emotional connections with people away from the words. Magic, see?
The Bad Shepherds, and that seems like a good place to stop, with the sounds of their slightly sinister, threatening version of “Anarchy in the UK” echoing in my ears. You want magic? Look around you, it’s everywhere.
About the Guest Author
Simon Kurt Unsworth
Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 on a night when, despite increasingly desperate research, he can find no evidence of mysterious signs or portents. He currently lives on a hill in the north of England with his wife and child awaiting the coming flood, where he writes essentially grumpy fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story) whilst being tall, grouchier than he should be and owning a wide selection of garish shirts. His latest collection is the critically acclaimed Quiet Houses, and his work has been published in a number of anthologies including At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness, Exotic Gothic 3 and Lovecraft Unbound. He has also appeared in four Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies and also The Very Best of Best New Horror. His first collection of short stories, Lost Places, was released by the Ash Tree Press in 2010 and he has further collections due, Strange Gateways from PS Publishing in 2012 and an as-yet-unnamed collection that will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint in 2013. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook, or in various cafés in Lancaster staring at his MacBook and muttering to himself.