by: Simon Kurt Unsworth
So I offered to do this blog about me and my writing, because I figured it’d be easy (because I’m optimistic) and because all writing is ultimately about ourselves anyway (so I’m told) and it’s about my favourite subject (according to my detractors). And then the deadline is upon me and the Mac’s screen is showing me a lovely white page and I have no idea what to write.
Literally no idea.
I’ve incentivised myself – no pizza or beer until after I’ve finished – which should get my creative juices flowing, but while we wait for that to start I’d better tell you the boring stuff. I’ve been a published author for just under 10 years, have three collections of short stories under my belt (Lost Places, Quiet Houses and Strange Gateways) so far with a fourth (Diseases of the Teeth) on the way in the next couple of months from Black Shuck Books. I’ve been nominated for a World Fantasy Award (didn’t win) for my first published short story, ‘The Church on the Island’ and appeared in seven volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. I’ve appeared in a book alongside Stephen King, Joe Hill, Peter Straub and Harlan Ellison which is a something that makes me happy (and convinced people are reading said book and thinking, We like these proper stories but who’s this Unsworth bozo?). I’m tall, have a beard (when un-groomed I look, according to my mother, like the wild man of Borneo), I’m married (sorry folks, I’m off the market) and have a son and two step-daughters, and I live in a rambling house in England’s Book Town, Sedbergh. I’m mostly cheerful, partly organised and occasionally dreary and I’ve been known to rage about things and use immoderate language. My son calls me “big dude” but only because I call him “little dude”, and my wife calls me “SKU”. I’m in my forties and I like (probably more than I should) good whiskey, dry white wine and Japanese lager (although not all at the same time). I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, and my favourite authors are Stephen King, Junji Ito and M R James.
I write horror.
My first novel, The Devil’s Detective, came out last year in both the US and UK, and while some bookstores put it in the crime section (and my US publishers Doubleday put it out in paperback under their Anchor classic crime imprint), I consider it a horror novel (albeit one that happens to wear a thriller’s clothes). It’s the story of Thomas Fool, one of three Information Men (kind of like policemen) in Hell. It’s not a usual version of Hell, though: it’s more like the New York of Carpenter’s Escape From New York or Taxi Driver with added demons, a place where the underbelly is bigger than any veneer of organisation or order. There are pointless rules, little or no safety and random acts designed to generate hope in the inhabitants, hope which can then be crushed. Demons use people for food or sex or sport and the Bureaucracies of Hell squabble with their heavenly counterparts over various arcane and torturous trade agreements.
And there are deaths. Thomas Fool is tasked with solving a series of particularly brutal murders, and the novel is the story of his growing understanding of the nature of being a policeman and his uncovering of the conspiracy that lies at the heart of the savagery. My own favourite scenes include a man turning into foliage having an orgasm, a demon masturbating in the street and a battle in an orphanage where the babies make the child from It’s Alive look like a particularly cheerful CabbagePatch Doll.
Am I selling it to you yet? Well, if further persuasion is needed, there’s a riot, a mortuary where the dead can talk (after a fashion), a secret love affair and a group of farmhands that fertilise Hell’s earth in a very odd way. A lot of people die during the course of the story, but in Fool the reader can possibly see a hope of redemption and improvement, of victory and autonomy.
Remember what I said about hope?
Then there’s the sequel. I never intended The Devil’s Detective to be part of a series but the publishers were keen for me to do a second book featuring Fool, so my standalone story grew a second instalment, The Devil’s Evidence, which came out earlier this year. When I came to write it, I knew that another murder-mystery in Hell would risk being too similar to the first book, so I made a logical step and sent Fool to Heaven, where he gets involved in more death and destruction and, ultimately, in trying to prevent the war between Heaven and Hell. Along the way he meets the kindest angels (who are lovely) and the saddest ones (who are not). The wild hunt makes a (sort of) appearance, a major character returns and there’s a new demonic villain in the form of Mr Tap, who runs a new department in Hell called The Evidence. The Evidence is staffed (if that’s the right word) by little tusked demons call Bauta, and they’re essentially complete bastards. There’s a character named after one of my comedy heroes (who died while I was writing it) and scenes set in fairgrounds, swimming pools and a cave full of sleepers. There’s a demon made of maggots and creatures that even the demons are wary of. There’s a lot of death.
Heaven is not how you imagine it being.
The Devil’s Evidence was mostly written in cafes, with my iPod on shuffle blocking out the sounds of the people around me, drinking cup after cup of coffee and muttering to myself as I worked out plot points. I treat Fool very, very badly in the book but that’s okay, because he’s used to it: I treated him very, very badly in the first book too. In Heaven and Hell I made worlds that were exactly how I wanted them to be, were exactly as horrifying or confusing as I needed them to be for the story, and I had a whale of a time doing it. Writing is, with the possible exception of pizza taster, probably the best job in the world.
Of course, not everything I wrote was used. There were scenes written that didn’t make it into the final manuscript, and ideas that I’d jotted down that never got written. Books twist and renew themselves as you write them, I’ve found, creating new shapes and taking unexpected turns that force you to react on your literary feet. That sounds like arty, pretentious authorness, doesn’t it? Well, I can’t help that because for me at least it’s true – when I’m writing well, the thoughts and ideas seem to bypass my conscious thought process and jump straight from my brain’s creative centres to my fingertips and into my Mac in rapid, unconscious streams. What emerges often needs neatening (all writing does, to some degree), and the more exuberant bits might have to be massaged into a manageable shape to make it fit the larger narrative, but it’s also when writing is at its most fun. While the real world unspooled outside the café’s windows, I was inside my own head writing about things that I hoped would be creepy, would disgust and appal and thrill, that would make people smile. I was killing people and demons, starting wars, giving a good man a hard time, and I loved every last minute of. I can only hope that some of the fun I had in writing The Devil’s Evidence is felt by the readers too…
In the spirit of sharing, I thought that, rather than simply give you a bit of the book to read, I’d give you the equivalent of a DVD extra. Below is one of the scenes that I started to write that didn’t fit where the book needed to go and much as I liked it, I eventually had to cut it out and start it again. It’s a first draft, very rough and ready, and unfinished but I hope you’ll enjoy it. No context, just roll with the mystery of it all:
The fall into the flames had only lasted a moment. Fool experienced a moment of terrible, searing heat and then it was gone and he was crashing into a hard surface. A bolt of pain, like the memory of his last few days, jolted across him and his head cracked painfully into something’s edge. He lay still for a second or two before risking opening his eyes.
Above him, a huge creature with thousands of eyes and long, insectile legs was hanging in the sky, mouth full of fangs gnashing.
He didn’t have the energy to scream or move. He was too tired, his entire body ached, his head ached, his violated skin prickled against his clothes and he could still taste Rhakshasas in his mouth. If this was it, if this was where he died, then so be it. Let it kill him.
The thing, whatever it was, scuttled sideways, and the multi-jointed claws at the end of its legs scrabbled against a barrier between it and him, invisible yet apparently unbreakable. The more he watched it, the more the creature looked wrong somehow. Not simply ugly or dangerous, Fool was used to that; he saw grotesqueries every day in Hell, demonic flesh twisted into shapes and functions that were terrifying and lethal. No, the creature looked insubstantial somehow, as though it was a projection on the inside of some vast curved surface above him. It was solid, he thought, had a form because he could hear the sound of its feet as they skittered, but it was made of angles and shapes that his eye couldn’t quite hold. He’d almost have it, could see the shape of it in his mind and then it would flip away, be impossible to visualise, as though it was shifting between a shape and the imprint of the same shape, or between A picture seen from one angle and then seen in reverse in a mirror.
Fool closed his eyes, opened them again. How far away was the thing? It looked close to him but he realised it wasn’t, it was distant, was huge. Around it, the space was filled with smaller versions of it and other things, creatures made of tentacles and beaks and claws, all of them shifting and moving, testing the same invisible barrier. The was no space between the creatures, they fitted to each others’ edges, moving in tight formations. They were the colour of oil spilled on water, green and grey and blue, constantly mutating and flowing, and still his perspective on the would not hold, could not grip them. Fool looked away, not liking the way that staring at the things was making him feel.
He was lying on the deck of a boat.
Sitting up, he saw that it was long and narrow. The three demons were sitting on a bench ahead of him, still and silent, and beyond them was a tall, thin figure standing in the prow. It was dressed in a long robe that swirled as it used a pole the move the boat serenely along, digging it into the water on one side of the boat and then on the other. The water the boat sailed through was entirely black, its surface unmarked by ripple or swell. When the boatman took the pole from the water, it did not splash.
“We are sailing on the shadow of all the oceans in all the worlds,” said a voice from behind Fool. Turning, he saw a wooden head, humanlike, carved and rising from the stern. It was handsome, a pointed goatee curving from its chin, its nose long and aquiline.
“This is the river between all worlds,” said the head, its voice a rasp that reminded Fool of the sound of the Man of Plants and Flowers, manipulating stalk and stem to create his speech.
“What are they?”
“They are the things from the Place Outside of Everywhere.”
“The Place Outside of Everywhere?”
“Where there is nothing and no worlds exist.”
“But the things?”
“Do not exist, yet they are there nonetheless.”
I’m talking to a wooden head, he thought, sitting on a boat that’s sailing across a river.
Well, that’s me pretty much done. I never did get any clues as to what to write in this guest blog but hopefully this ramble has diverted you for a few minutes. If it’s whetted your appetite for reading more of my stuff, you can get The Devil’s Evidence from Amazon UK here:
Or from Amazon US here:
And you can pre-order my new collection from here:
But you know what? If you don’t fancy reading my books that’s fine and cool, there are other books to read and love. Go find them, go read them, go love them.
Now, where’s my pizza?