After a warning that ‘some poor sod I did an interview with once thought he’d recorded it, but when he checked at the end of the session, nothing had come out’, well known author Shaun Hutson kindly let roving reporter Justin Richards interview him when the two met at Scotland’s premier horror film festival, Dead by Dawn, back in 2004. Shaun was involved in the BBC’s ‘End of Story’ writing competition at the time and had just finished his book Necessary Evil. Here’s what he had to say about both those projects and a whole lot more…
How many novels have you written in total?
As I was saying I was at one of these writer’s workshops at the BBC for the End of Story thing and the author that I was with, I think, had written two novels and some one asked ‘How many have you written Shaun?’ I said I think its 51 or 52 that I’ve had published now. So after that I got most of the questions about novel writing… It is a lot, a fucking lot – to use the technical terminology!
There are six more novels that are in print at the moment, written under a pseudonym that I won’t disclose. I can’t tell you now, and I’m not going to! I can’t actually remember how many I’ve written now. Graham, who runs the website, has asked me how many books have I had published and I think it is 52, which includes the six under a pseudonym I work under that I won’t disclose. I mean the ones, which are out of print, are the old Wolf Krugers, Nick Blakes, Frank Taylors, the Tom Lamberts and the Samuel Bishops. I don’t mind owning up to them because I don’t mind my readers having as much of my stuff as they can possibly get.
How do you come up with the pseudonyms?
Oh, god, that was the hardest part. You see the thing is all these war books were originally done under my name and published in hardback by Robert Hale. But then a lot of them, like the ‘Sledgehammer’ ones, were bought up by WH Allen, who first published me under the name of Wolf Kruger. There was one, Sabres in the Snow, written from the Russian point of view, which was published under the name of Stefan Rostov. That novel took five days to write and it took me about two weeks to think of the pseudonym. It took longer to think of the fucking name than it did to do the book!
Samuel P. Bishop came about through my absolute worship of Peckinpah, which accounts for the Sam; the P is Pike Bishop, which is William Holden’s character in The Wild Bunch. Tom Lambert is actually the central character in Death Day, which was one of my first novels, which I wrote when I was seventeen. Frank Taylor, I think, was a character in Erebus – I can’t even remember the characters in my own books! I’m not sure where Nick Blake came from – I’m vague on the others… Wolf Kruger originally was going to be called Wolf Steiner, after the character of Sergeant Steiner that James Coburn plays in Cross of Iron. But an editor said to me you can’t use the name Steiner because it’s Jewish, and I said well he can’t be fuckin’ Jewish because Peckinpah called him Steiner in Cross of Iron. How dare you argue with the great man! So it became Wolf Kruger because they said it sounded more German, which I suppose it does with the benefit of hindsight.
How do you fit into the BBC End of Story competition, which appears to be pretty high profile?
It’s bloody high profile! It’s a lot bigger than even I’d realised. I did this workshop thing recently, and I’m doing another one in Manchester on the 9/10th May. I didn’t realise when I first went into it how big it was, thank god. When my agent rang me up and said I was doing it I said ‘who are the other authors?’, and she read them out and I thought Jesus Christ, they’re that well known, even I’ve heard of them! I don’t read a lot so when she was reading names off the list like Fay Weldon, Joanne Harris and people like that I thought, Jesus Christ, this really is going to be big. Apparently the W.H. Smith’s writing competition gets 3,000 entries a year and the BBC is anticipating a minimum of 30,000. The Guinness Book of Records is keeping an eye on it as the biggest short story competition that’s ever been launched.
How did you get involved with it?
Thanks to my very new and very wonderful agent. There were only two authors even approached in the horror category, which is a plaudit in itself to me. Thank God, I got the gig, so that was fine. As far as I know she’d been working on it three or four months before I found out about it in January. I said: ‘Well, when do they want the story by?’ and they said ‘by the end of February and, by the way, they’ll be at your house to film in the middle of February’. There’s more filming at the workshops – they were filming on Tuesday and they’ll be filming again in Manchester. I think some of the people who are entering are doing video diaries so they’re integrating all that and then they’ll film me talking to the three finalists.
It was quite funny, it said in the contract that the three finalists will be coached on how to talk to the author and I said to my agent: ‘I’m not being funny, but I’m not the most difficult guy to talk to, I’m not unapproachable’. And she said: ‘No Shaun, the thing is it might be somebody who’s incredibly well educated and well spoken who’s got to be taught to swear as profusely as you do!’ And I said: ‘Well, yes, I guess you’ve got a point there.’
I just hope the judging process doesn’t turn out to be a fucking ‘pop idol’ type of thing. If they’re going to start picking them up and reading bits out and picking them to pieces then I’d find that very annoying if they’re going to do that. I mean it’s bad enough trying to be a bloody author anyway without that sort of embarrassment thrown at you.
So how do you think they picked the ‘celebrity’ judges?
From the fucking phone book, I think! Giles Coran, I think is one, who said on the launch programme that he didn’t like any of the men’s stories. That’s Alan Coran’s son – nice to see nepotism alive and well! Muriel Gray has of course written two horror books so I guess she’s qualified; there’s the one with the silly haircut, who’s an agent anyway, who actually turned me down for representation a while back and someone from a bloody soap opera!
Yes, they are, inordinately well actually. The profile raising aspect of it is also important to me. In fact I probably stand to benefit from it more than the other seven do. I mean, with all due respect, Ed McBain, Fay Weldon, Ian Rankin; people like that probably don’t need the extra publicity. Unfortunately, it showed in their reactions to it. Out of the eight featured authors there’s only myself and Joanne Harris who are doing any of these workshops, which I can’t understand. I mean you’re involved in this programme irrespective of whether you’re selling shit loads of books anyway. It’s still helping you, why then ignore it? – I can’t understand that.
Surely it’s also about helping up-and-coming writers?
Exactly, it’s like giving a bit back for Christ’s sake. I wondered how many of the 150 strong audience on Tuesday night had read any of my books. A few had read my books after what I heard afterwards on Tuesday night. I said to them: ‘Has any of this actually been of any use to you?’ And their response was: ‘Yes, it’s been quite inspirational to know that you had 40 rejections when you started’! I mean if I’d had had an easy ride I don’t think I’d have had the right to have been sitting there; as it is I do have the right to tell them what it’s like to be a struggling author. I mean having over 40 rejections, and writing for £150 a book, with no royalties, which is what Robert Hale used to pay me, then, yeah, I know what it’s like. At the time I’d have been happy to do ten of those a year just to say, yeah, I’m a writer. So yeah, it’s giving a bit back for Christ’s sake, and it is bloody hard.
The thing that I was worried about, and the thing that I do worry about, is that to a degree you’ve got to be truthful so it’s like I’m going to tell you the bad bit first – that only one first novel in every 8,000 is accepted – that’s the bad news. Is there any good news? Well not really! I guess once you’re in, you’re in, to a certain degree, but getting in is bloody hard. Also, when you look at a lot of authors, they’ve been editors or journalists, but now you’ve got all these so called celebrities who can hardly string a sentence together winning awards for books they didn’t really write - that annoys me. Even Jordan’s got one out. Sorry, I could just rant for two hours on the subject!
Do you think there are enough initiatives for aspiring writers and do you think horror writers are at a disadvantage in most writing competitions?
No, and yes, in that order. I think horror is still looked down on in the literary world in general. A lot of shops, particularly many Smiths’ branches, don’t have a horror section at all. We’re all lumped in with general fiction, which in some ways is good, because some people who wouldn’t usually look at your book will be forced to go past them on the shelves, but then you think that the people who are waiting for the new ones don’t necessarily know where to find them. I mean what’s wrong with having them in the horror section and in the general section too? But unfortunately booksellers are notoriously stupid and things slip quietly out of sight. The horror cubbyhole, for example, has been shut.
You look at shops that have got a horror section (if they’ve got one), and I always look when I’m out and about signing stuff, nine out of ten times it’s the same five or six names that keep cropping up. It’s been the same since I started. There’s myself, King, Koontz, Herbert, Layman (the poor bastard’s dead now), Masterton and they’ll be a couple of Clive Barker’s, and that’s it. There’s very little else.
There’s also Marc Morris and Simon Clark?
Yes, that’s right. You’ll see them in a good branch of Ottakers, Waterstones or something, where you’ve got a good buyer in charge of that horror section. Then, yes, they’ll have a lot of everybody sort of thing. It also, I guess, goes on volume of work too. That’s how Smith’s look at it – Herbert’s done 20 books, King’s done about 700, Koontz has done a lot and I’ve done 25, so even if you’ve got only half of those that’s your horror stock for that purchase order sorted. And there’s Anne Rice of course.
Then you’ve got all the old authors like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H. P. Lovecraft…
Yes, exactly, and you’ve got to have those. And they make up the rest of what space is left on the shelf, even after you’ve got just, say, four of us and half our back catalogue.
No. I don’t read at all! I’m not proud to say it. There’s five books sitting on my little table, sitting beside my chair at home and I know they’ll still be there this time next year unread. They’ve all got bookmarks in them, but I know they’ll never get read! The ones that are there are all non-fiction, they’re film books. There’s a couple there about Peckinpah, there’s another about the Mexican revolution, but I know they’ll never get read. I just can’t be bothered. When the end of the working day comes, it’s like, ‘fuck it, put the telly on’ or play on the Playstation.
So how do you unwind from your work as an author?
Very easily actually! I’m not one of those authors that carries his work around with him, in his head all the time. It used to be a lot easier actually. I used to just literally shut the office door at the end of the day, bang, and I’d switch off straight away. Over the last two to three years it’s not been quite as easy to do as that. Some of that, certainly over the last year or so, I put down to my agent being a terrible pain and making me rewrite stuff, and it’s made me think about it a lot more, which is very irritating to someone who is used to completing books in three months and just giving it to an editor and saying: ‘Just tell me what’s wrong with it, I’ll put it right’, do it and then here you go, here’s the finished manuscript. I don’t want to see that again until it’s in the shops or until the proofs come in. I do find rewriting very hard; I don’t enjoy that at all, it’s very frustrating.
That’s another reason why I never read my own books. It’s a bit like actors who can’t watch themselves on screen. The only time I ever do it is when I have to. I had to read a bit of my short story for the BBC on Tuesday night and you think, ‘shit’, you think ‘I could have done that differently’, or ‘I should have done that better’! The only time I ever read my own books is when they arrive in proof form, when I’ve got to correct the proofs. It’s even got to the stage now where I skim read through, which I know is a terrible thing to say, because I know that there’s two other proof readers going through them so I know that nine out of ten times there aren’t going to be any typos or grammatical errors because they’ve been gone through by my agent and editors before. So by the time it gets to me that’s all you’re doing it for.
I guess you’re sick of looking at it?
Yes, I’m sick of the sight of the fucking thing by the time it gets to that stage! And again you get to the stage where you think I could have done that differently there, I should have changed that, and that could be better…
When I’m writing dialogue I speak it out loud, which is what I like to think is one of my strongest points, probably because I do that. But then sometimes when you read it back again…! That’s one of the reasons, when I get invited along to do a talk, I won’t do readings. I’m not standing there and fucking reading five or six pages from my books. A) I haven’t got the accent for it and B) I didn’t write them to be read aloud, because everybody’s going to have a different voice. I think that’s another reason why other authors don’t like doing events with me.
I did one with a guy called Simon Clarke and a woman called Sammy Spedding. She’d only written a couple of books and was a bit weird. She was convinced that in a past life she’d been walled up alive, by the inquisition, in a chateau in Spain. Now as soon as she started, I’m like, ‘Jesus’ and I couldn’t take it seriously. I think my complete inability to take this business seriously has, I think, turned other authors against me! The fact that I will not stand there and say ‘it’s so specialised and only us authors that can do it.’
They get a bit pretentious about it then?
A BIT, Jesus Christ! Writing, or anything creative, lends itself to pretention so easily and the writing business is as guilty, if not the most guilty of that, of any of the branches of the entertainment business. And that is all it is – mass-market fiction is part of the entertainment business. And that’s how I’ve always looked at it and that’s how it should be looked at. They’re disposable commodities and they’re bloody expensive commodities! I mean you’re asking people to fork out six or seven quid for a paperback and fifteen, sixteen quid, or more, for a hardback, unless it’s discounted. For that sort of money, you’ve got to give them their money’s worth; you can’t just chuck out any sort of crap time and time again. That’s what I think, but I’ll get off my soapbox and let you get on with the next question!
Going back to the End of Story competition, I noticed, when you were on television being filmed at home, that you were sat in a chair surrounded by lots of stuff including something that looked like a holster of some kind…
Yes, I was casually surrounded by lots of horror things; they’re so original aren’t they! The gun is a perfect replica of a .44 magnum and yes it is mine. It looks quite convincing when you’re looking at the other end of it! I bought it years and years ago. I used to shoot pistols for a hobby anyway. Me and my wife both did, before they were banned by the government’s knee jerk reaction to Dunblane. Don’t get me wrong, what happened was absolutely appalling, I feel that even more so now that I’ve got a little girl of my own, but I do think they reacted too quickly and too dramatically to what had gone on. They tried to do the same thing with Michael Ryan because the guy was a member of a gun club. The only problem with that is that they learnt to shoot. Unfortunately, with Ryan, and Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane, they knew how to shoot properly. A gun is a lethal weapon in the hands of someone who knows how to aim the fucker correctly. But ultimately it’s what you do with them that’s the issue, not their existence.
You’ve got the interesting moniker of the ‘godfather of gore’ which you share with Hershall Gordon Lewis. Do you mind that?
I don’t mind that one. I prefer the ‘Shakespeare of splatter’ though! That was one of the metal magazines that called me that.
The website that you do is very informative and fan friendly, was that your idea?
It’s not me that does that; I take no credit or responsibility for that at all. The guy that puts it together volunteered to do it; all of it was done off the backs of three or four of them, who did all the research. It even amazes me, the odd times that I look at it. I don’t need to look very often because it’s about me and I know what I’m doing! I looked at it the other day, because my agent said there’s something there that you need to check, and there’s a section on there of quotes from every book I’ve ever fuckin’ written, and where it comes from, and what amazes me is to do that and to do that as a labour of love, and not to get paid for it – I guess with me being such a mercenary, who won’t do anything unless it’s for money – I have nothing but admiration for these guys.
I mean anybody who does things purely for the love of what they’re doing is great. This makes me sound like I only write because I’m in it for the money, which isn’t true; I love what I do and I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world. However, it is first and foremost a job; I’m just lucky – I earn a reasonable living doing what I would otherwise be doing as a hobby. It’s something I know that a lot of other people would love to be doing for a living so I count myself as very lucky to be doing it myself. I think that’s one of the reasons why I can’t take it too seriously. Right from the start, as a born pessimist, I’ve always said to the Mrs: ‘I wonder when the time will come when it will all be snatched away?’
I’ve got a mate, who’s got his own business, and both of us were expelled, about the same time, from school, and we were both told that we’d never amount to anything. And he’s got an incredibly successful photographic business and obviously I’ve done OK, and he’s still my best friend; we’ve known each other for 40 years, and we very often have a laugh about that when we’re out together. But we’ve both got the same fear – we’ve got it, but are we going to be able to keep it? Most people usually have a mid-life crisis where they look at what they’ve got and want more, him and I sit around and look at what we’ve got and think: ‘I wonder when we’re going to lose it’!
If you’re a pessimist everything’s a bonus, that’s what I think. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and she said: ‘I think I’m too trusting’ and I said: ‘Be like me, trust no one until they prove themselves worthy of trust, then you don’t have that problem’. You think everything is going to be a downer and then everything’s a fucking bonus after that!
I actually turned professional when Spawn came out, which was 1983. Slugs was the first one that really anyone took any notice of, and was the first best seller. At that time I’d had four war books published by Robert Hale and I’d also had The Skull published in paperback by what was then Hamlyn Paperbacks, so I’d already got five out. So around that time I thought ‘I need an agent because I don’t really know enough about this business’. I still don’t – that’s why I’ve got one now!
The agency I went to, thank god, had an incredible conflict of interests, looking at it from an outsider point of view. The guy who ran it was also the managing director of the publishers W.H. Allen. But this was brilliant for me. God knows how he used to do the negotiations on my behalf, he must have gone round one side of the table and said: ‘Can we have this much?’ and then have gone round the other side of the table to reply! He was making money for the publishers from my sales and then he’s on 10% as an agent of my sales as well, but it made no difference to me as I got all the big publicity campaigns; they would plough that money into my campaigns. That was fantastic.
So 1983 was when I turned professional. Someone once said to me, not long ago actually, that I’m one of the few authors that’s never had any other career but writing, which is true. I’ve had proper jobs – I was a barman, I’ve stacked shelves in a supermarket, I was on the dole for 18 months, I worked in a cinema, I sold jeans and stuff like that, but I’ve never had a career. I started as a professional author, when I was 24 and that’s all I’ve done since. That used to be one of my biggest selling points – the youngest professional author in the country. It’s really depressing nowadays that I can’t use that title!
What’s the next book you’ve got coming out?
The next book is called Necessary Evil and that comes out on the 1st July. I’m trying to remember what it’s about! Ain’t it lovely working with publishing professionals? The main story looks like a gangland thriller and it starts off with this firm who’ve been working together for years. They’re going to knock over a Securicor van and there’s a big build up to the time when they actually hit the van. The thing is when they run it off the road and blow the back off instead of the expected £2.5 million in cash there are 43 dead bodies in there which have had their heads, hands and feet removed. Now, while they’re still standing on the rain soaked tarmac looking at these dead bodies thinking ‘what the fuck is this’, two of them get their heads blown off by unseen snipers. The ones that survive leg it, as you’d expect and they’re killed off one by one.
The whole time they’re trying to think who might want them dead; it starts to look more and more like a set up and, of course, then they’re trying to figure out was it another firm that wanted them wiped out, and it gets to the stage where there’s one of them left, a guy called Matt Franklin, and all the families have been wiped out as well, including his girlfriend and, at that point, when he finds her dead he thinks ‘fuck this I’m sick of being the hunted, I’m going after the bastards who’ve wiped out all my mates and killed the only woman I’ve ever loved’.
And the rest of it is his odyssey through gangland and what have you, and strangely enough, and rather topically, it mixes in a cell of Middle Eastern suicide bombers working in London. Because when the bombs went off in Madrid my agent said we should get them to bring the publication forward because this is so topical, but I said: ‘With all due respect they’re still going to be buying bags of fertiliser in July.’ They’re probably ban fertiliser soon and Alan Titchmarsh will be out of a job; in fact I suspect him! But it’s got a sort of ‘ripped from the headlines’ feel to it.
I mean Saddam Hussain is in it at the beginning – the first sequence starts in the first Iraq war; there’s an Iraqi scientist who’s trying to perfect super soldiers; it’s very hard to describe, mainly because I can’t remember it! He’s been working for Saddam’s regime and trying to perfect these super soldiers to fight against the impending invasion that was coming from the British and Americans so it’s got political intrigue and Christ knows what. It’s also got a lot of what I used to do years and years ago and what people have been expecting me to go back to doing since books like Exit Wounds, Compulsion and Warhol’s Prophecy and such like. That sort of return to…
Yeah, but Exit Wounds, particularly at the end, is extremely violent and is probably the most violent ending of any book I’ve ever written. However, I do think that what the individual’s own definition of what is and isn’t horror comes into it there, and I always have to use films as an example, because I don’t read, but to me, and I’ve said this before, a film like Taxi Driver or a film like Raging Bull is in its own way as horrific as a film like The Exorcist or Dawn of the Dead.
Probably more so…
Yeah, cause it’s real. Well Raging Bull was because Jake LaMotta was a real person. There’s been this tendency, which you probably know about better than me, since The Silence of the Lambs, by writers and filmmakers, to try and walk that line between horror and thriller. And even the films here at this year’s festival, compared with the stuff that I was watching 15 years ago, the so-called ‘video nasties’, many of these have very strong psychological elements in them as well as lots of blood.
There does seem to be a trend moving away from traditional horror films and more towards urban terror films.
Yes, terror is a more cerebral thing rather than going for the ‘from the gut’ puke factor. Some of the violence last night in that Switchblade Romance film was fuckin’ strong!
That was probably nastier than ‘The Last House on the Left’…
Yes, ten times nastier than Last House. Actually, I didn’t see Last House when it first came out and then, when they re-released it, I said to the wife: ‘I’ve got to see that to see if it’s that bad’ and it wasn’t that bad. Maybe at the time it was released it was really something…
It depends on if it was the cut version you saw. However, they did let quite a bit through. I think they’d cut a couple of more extreme bits out such as an intestine getting ripped out of one of the girl’s abdomens and Krug cutting his name on one of the girl’s chests.
There was none of that in there so it must have been the cut version I saw. I know when it had finished we thought ‘bloody hell, what was all the fuss about!’
Staying on the subject of horror things, have you seen a French film called Baise Moi? I tell you what, I’d not heard of it and I picked it up in Blockbusters one Saturday afternoon, and it had ‘This is the strongest film you’ll ever see legally’ blurb written on it so I thought I’d take a look, just out of curiosity, and I’m not kidding, but me and the wife were watching it and thinking where was the fuckin’ censor when this came through!
And they had actually cut some of that down from the initial cinema release, including hardcore footage from the actual initial rape and one of the main characters sodomising a guy with a gun and the resultant blast!
Yeah, I’d heard it was cut, but even so! I was that stunned and went out and bought it on the Monday! I gave it to a mate of mine and said: ‘Take a look at that’. I phoned him up a couple of days later and said: ‘Have you watched it?’ and he said: ‘Yeah, four fucking times, I can’t believe it!’
You can now get it for a fiver or less – I noticed it in Edinburgh at HMV.
Yeah, you can get it for two for the price of one!
Just goes to show how much things have changed, although the BBFC are still cutting massive chunks out of hardcore videos, but that doesn’t really affect me.
Me neither! I was immensely relieved when they finally saw sense and released the full version of ‘Straw Dogs’, one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen; I love that. That’s one of the few films I could actually get pretentious about; it works on so many levels. I’ve seen it so many times and I wrote a review for it years ago and you know that scene where the cat’s been killed and she’s pestering him to go and confront them. On his desk, in the background, there’s two revolving magnets, which never seem to meet, and the moment he gets up to go and talk to these workmen Peckinpah moves in for a close shot of these two magnets, which then finally lock. And I remember putting in my review something like: ‘And this symbolises the irrevocable meeting of the base world of the louts and the polite world of Dustin Hoffman.’ That’s one film I would quite happily sit and talk bollocks about for ages ‘cause I just love that fuckin’ film.
As Shaun removes his head from his arse...!
Yes certainly – makes noises like someone with their head shoved up an arse…
Talking of things that influence you, going back to a time when you did read you said on your website that you really rated The Exorcist, The Keep and a book called Headhunter, which I hadn’t heard of.
Yes, it was written by a guy called Michael Slade, which was a pseudonym used by three Canadian lawyers, and it’s been out of print for a long, long time, but that was published by W.H. Allen Star books, who were unbelievably down market. I shouldn’t really slag them off, but they don’t exist anymore so I can. They did start me off and having said that, they were also the first to publish Dean Koontz. He shared the same agent with me at the beginning as well. Headhunter was just fantastic, The Exorcist and also Legion, the sequel, were great – I really don’t know why William Peter Blatty hasn’t written more books. At the time I thought The Exorcist was a fantastic book and I’ve read it since and I think it’s a fucking masterpiece, I really do. I saw the film, and the third one, which should have been called Legion. I keep forgetting about Exorcist 2. Adele (the organiser of the Dead by Dawn film festival) was actually trying to get it for tomorrow night, when she thought I was here for the whole time, and I was going to introduce it myself, but she couldn’t get hold of a print of it. She said: ‘If I you had to pick one, which would it be’? And I said Exorcist 3. It really scared the shit out of me!
There’s the scene in the hospital with the woman crawling across the ceiling…
Yeah, I know. But when you’ve watched as much horror as we have you kind of know what’s coming, you’ve got all the angles covered. If there’s too much space at that side of the frame you know something’s going to appear in it; you know the villain, even though he’s got 15 bullets in him, a pitchfork through him and an axe in his fuckin’ head, is still going to sit up and go ‘Arghh’ at the end, which I hate.
That film, Exorcist 3, to its credit, hasn’t got a soundtrack to it telling you when to be scared. And there’s that long sequence with a nurse where she can hear a weird sound and it turns out to be glass melting in a patient’s room, and she goes in and you know at some stage he’s going to pop up and frighten her and you’re thinking, right he’ll come in from that angle, no, that angle, no, and somehow Blatty still manages to fuck you up when she walks out into the corridor and this thing walks out behind her with an enormous pair of shears about to cut her head off. When my wife and I saw it at the pictures, and we saw that, we hit the fuckin’ roof! And it was like, thank you for that!
I think that film is brilliant; I think a lot of the horror is in the dialogue; I do love that.
That’s why I love Alien. It’s still scary. I think that’s almost a perfect film. It was made in 1979 and you watch it again thinking where are the flaws and I still can’t see them. It’s a phenomenal film. But to me the scarier bits are in the dialogue. Like when Sigourney Weaver says: ‘Mother has decided that’s not an SOS message, but a warning’, you think ‘fuck, what are they going to find?’ Things like that are a lot scarier than seeing someone’s head actually cut off.
It’s often what you don’t show that can be more disturbing than what you do. Look at something like the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s hardly any blood in it at all.
No, compared to the remake, which is a lot bloodier than the original.
Films like The Haunting still work, which don’t use any overt violence.
Yeah. Just that sequence with the banging of the door, and they’re so scared, and so are we. And then you look at the remake and want to kill yourself (laughing).
Knowing you’re a movie buff, one of my questions was going to be what films, in any genre, have impressed you the most and why?
The scary things is, pun intended, that as Adele (organiser of Dead by Dawn) pointed out, whenever I’m asked to list my top ten films there’s never any horror films on the list. That’s because I don’t particularly like horror films. I know that’s heresy; that’s almost as bad as standing up and saying I thought the remake of Dawn of the Dead was better than the original. I’m not a huge fan of horror films per se and I think that’s because when the splatter boom was at its height we used to live just round the corner to a video shop, like two minutes away... And every time I went in there I’d get the latest video nasty. ‘Look’, I’d say, ‘we have SS Experiment Camp to watch tonight, and I Spit on Your Grave for tomorrow night’, it was every film we watched. We took special trips to London to see The Evil Dead at the pictures. I bought that on DVD when it came out and I tried watching it again and I thought to myself, I really don’t like this anymore. I don’t think that’s held up as well as things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist. And when you think that’s not 30 years old, it says a lot. Looking at Psycho again this morning, it’s over 40 years old (1960), but it still holds up well – it’s a timeless classic. When it had finished you felt like walking up to the people who hadn’t seen it before and saying: ‘You can go home now, you won’t see anything better.’
I think during the 1980s filmmakers got very lazy and rarely came up with any new ideas.
I think it’s like that in every genre now, in films. I mean the amount of sequels, prequels, remakes around these days is just ridiculous. It’s just playing safe all the time.
Occasionally you’ll get a few films, which come out, that are original, like Donnie Darko, for example, but those are the minority, unfortunately.
Yeah, and they make no money. I remember coming out from seeing a film, possibly Donnie Darko, and wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen, but thinking it was very good and then walking past a queue of people waiting to get in to see American Pie part 85 or whatever, and thinking ‘oh god, this is so depressing! Unfortunately, that’s so often the way.
I noticed in your books you acknowledge Cineworld – is that your local cinema?
Yes, it is. I do spend a lot of time there. I watch every single film that comes out; it doesn’t matter what it is. It started with me just acknowledging them because I was there so much, but now I continue to do it to make sure I keep getting let in for nothing! All the staff there know me; I’m in there more than they are most of the fuckin’ time. The guy behind the cash counter has my drink ready for me when I arrive - ‘Cappuccino mate?’, ‘Yes, ta mate’. They used to call me ‘Cappuccino man’.
Then one of them saw me, either on telly or in a book, or something, and recognised me and I went in one day and one of them came over with a hardback copy of Hybrid (I was very impressed, fuckin’ hell someone’s forked out £16) and said: ‘Can you sign this for someone?’ I said: ‘What, someone working here?’ They said: ‘No it’s for Al Alvarez’, and I thought are you winding me up – he sounds like an extra out of The Wild Bunch or something! But apparently this guy is the assistant managing director of the entire Cineworld chain in the UK, and he’d been reading my books and seen all the mentions of Cineworld, and of course they couldn’t afford publicity like that, in every book, which is going to be read by 100,000s of people, saying how great the local Cineworld is, so he’s sent a message down along with the book to ask me to sign it, thank me for the mentions and to say that I’m never to pay again!
So for the past 15 months I haven’t paid to see anything at all. It saves me about £15 a week and, when Liverpool haven’t got a game on at the weekend, I take my little girl as well and it’s got to the stage where I don’t pay for her either. It’s a really big perk. The next thing I need to do is get very, very pally at Liverpool to get my season ticket halved as it’s getting very expensive.
(Coughs) Shaun coughs at the realisation that someone has bothered to read his website! After pulling his head out of his arse first of course!
Good question; let’s see if I remember… I’m glad this isn’t live!
I’m sure KISS many years ago recorded an album, which was only released in the States, called Chikara, and I thought at the time that it meant ‘power’. And I thought that sounds all right, that will do. I mentioned it to my agent at the time and he thought no one would understand it so it became Captives! So there never was a book called Chikara. However, if you go onto Amazon there’s supposedly a book there called The Butcher’s Window, which is attributed to me, which is odd because it’s never been written! It has actually cropped up on Amazon’s mailing list, which is very strange. I did write a book years ago called The Butcher’s Window, but it was never published. I don’t know how it got there.
What was that about?
It was a two hander, if you’ll pardon the expression! It was about a sadomasochistic relationship between a woman journalist, who worked for a London ‘What’s On’ type of magazine, and a stand-up comedian. It was subtitled ‘An everyday story of sex, violence and stand-up comedy’. Logically the furthest point you could take a sadomasochistic relationship to would be for the sadistic side to kill somebody and for the masochistic side to die. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I’d come out of a relationship/involvement with somebody and just needed to clear my head out and I wrote it for that reason. It’s the one book I’ve mine I could bullshit and philosophise about! I didn’t really kill anyone, but it was mental therapy!
All my books, every single one of them, there’s stuff in there, about me; more so in the last ten years. At the time I wrote Slugs I didn’t have any mental problems, apart from having these wonderful images of flesh eating slugs coming out of toilets, that is! Certainly, in the last ten years, most of the characters have got some kind of problem – they’re fucked up in some kind of way, mentally, which, at that time, I was fucked up with too. They are therapeutic; I make no bones about it. Better move onto the next question before my head disappears completely up my arse – when it happens, when I’m talking about my own books, it’s very embarrassing!
Which of your books best represents your body of work?
Not that one. Mmm, that’s a good question. You bastard! That’s a really hard question. It’s just so unusual to come across someone who knows your work; nine times out of ten you’re doing promotional tours and you go onto a radio station and they haven’t read your book. If you’re doing a long tour, by the end of the second day you’ve got a script in your head, which you can then use in every single interview because they all ask you the same questions - how did you start writing, why do we like reading horror and it’s like - insert standard answer here, but then every now and then some fucker will have read the book and say: ‘Well, what about that scene in chapter 10, paragraph two, where…’ and you think, oh bollocks, I’ve got to think again. It’s even more embarrassing if it’s live!
What was the question again – you see, you totally threw me! I’d be tempted to say Renegades, mainly because I can’t remember them all and because it walks that line, that I was talking about earlier, between thriller and horror. I think it was the first time, trying to look back, that I’d actually done that. I think Assassin is still a horror novel, although it was set in gangland. Renegades marks that move from out and out horror.
It’s actually my favourite novel of yours.
I’ve actually brought a copy for you to sign!
Oh, wonderful. What a cunning link!
I’m just quickly, mentally running through all my novels and I would have to say that Renegades is the one. Thanks for asking because if any other bastards ask me that I’ll keep that in mind.
I think, for me personally, that was when I noticed your writing style changed, matured, and your characters, dare I say it, got more interesting; from Nemesis through to Renegades, around that time anyway.
Well, thank you. (Laughs)
Your writing improved around that time.
No, I would agree with you. I’d be the first to admit that some of my early stuff was…
Someone recently asked me if I would ever go back to writing similar novels to my early work and I’m not sure if I could do that now. I’d like to think that if someone said: ‘There’s going to be a massive upsurge in splatter novels, you’re the ‘godfather of gore’, do you think you could go back to doing it?’ that I could do it. I would like to think that I could sit down and write Slugs 3, if there was a real need for it, but I think they would be better because the people being killed would be more than just slug fodder. I’m under no illusions that that’s all they were in the first Slugs book. In all the books, leading up to Nemesis and Renegades, most of the characters were just there to be killed in the most inventive and disgusting ways possible. That does not offend me at all.
Unfortunately, you’re spot on, that’s right! My writing did change. I was 22 when I wrote Slugs; my experience of the world wasn’t what it was when I wrote Renegades; I was thirty-odd then. And that’s why I write about the stuff I write about now, there’s different things that get to me up here, in my head, that didn’t get to me when I was younger. I don’t think that you can help it.
I think it’s the same if you use the old music analogy. People say ‘Metallica have got soft, but you can’t play at a 100mph for the whole of your life, they got older. Iron Maiden, who are about the same age as me, I have a lot of respect for. I’ve seen them grow as a band, but they can still do it, they can still melt your fuckin’ face when they need to! I think it’s wrong for people to expect them to still be recording stuff like Phantom of the Opera, from their first album, and it’s wrong for people to still expect Metallica to still be recording stuff only like Kill ‘Em All; they’ve grown up, you can’t help that.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you worked on a script with Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson – what happened to it?
My god, you were thorough! I wrote it, Bruce looked at it and said: ‘That would be a good idea’, so I said: ‘Do you want to have a go at it?’ and nothing happened. Rod Smallwood, their manager, said to me that he wanted to move Maiden into films; basically, he was looking at them doing a soundtrack. What they needed was a vehicle to do that. They wanted to use Eddie, their mascot. This was around 86/87 during the Somewhere in Time tour, when we were talking. He wanted to move them into films and because I knew them and wrote horror he said: ‘Is there any chance of doing us a script?’ No money in it, tight bastard! But I was so pleased to have been asked, and to know them, that that wasn’t an issue. I had a couple of back stage passes and party invites so that was fine. At the time Bruce hadn’t yet written his novel and didn’t then fancy himself as a writer, (he is a fine guy, I hasten to add - I did say to him, the last time we met: ‘You’re not still pursuing this ridiculous literary career of yours, are you?’ and he said: ‘No, no, no’), so that’s how that came about.
The last time I did something with them was when I did something for their website about two years ago. Rod rang me one morning (I hadn’t spoken to him in about two years), and they were just about to launch the ‘Metal is’ website and he asked me if I’d do them a short story for that, and an interactive story, so they could put it up.
The script was an abortive attempt, by Rod, who’d had one of his brilliant ideas, to get them into the movies, but it faded away. I don’t even know where the script is to be honest.
On a related note, I was approached, just before Christmas, by a record company called Demolition, by a guy called Eric Cook, who used to manage Venom and these other thrash metal bands, and he said someone’s just offered us a load of money to make a film and I need a script so that my bands can go off and record a soundtrack. He said what the band had come up with was a story about a band taking over the world with their heavy metal music and I’m sitting their taking notes and said to him: ‘Eric, you do realise that that’s probably the most unoriginal story that anyone’s ever come up with’, but he asked me nicely so I sat down for half a day putting this story together with all these rock clichés in about this guitar that was sculpted out of bone, which was possessed, and sent him this treatment, so that’s another one of my possible forays into the rock music/film world!
On your website you didn’t seem to like Quentin Tarrantino…
Really, I suppose it was a bit of a giveaway when I called him a chinny little twat! It’s a bit tiring hearing critics say he reinvented action cinema. A lot of critics are saying how well he does violence, but Sam Peckinpah was doing this 30/40 years ago and much better. I mean the guy who directed Amores Perros, and also 21 Grams; now that is how you should do screen violence. I read a quote from him saying how much he didn’t like Tarantino’s violence with the funny throwaway lines, and I thought, I agree with you mate, violence should not be done like that.
So you don’t watch the Stallone and Schwarzenegger films?
Oh yeah, I watch them, but I hate the way they portray violence. I mean violence is nasty, and that’s one of the things I like about Peckinpah. When someone got shot you saw what it looked like. Amores Perros is the same, when someone gets shot it’s horrible, it’s realistic – that’s what I want to see. The other thing I hate is the old John Woo flying through the air with two guns, sideways, kind of scene. Having fired a pistol, if you fire one sideways, you ain’t going to hit shit. You’re going to break your wrist and hit fuck all. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been in firefights and they stand about four feet apart and they don’t last more than three seconds. I like everything realistic: violence, sex, swearing, whatever.
What do you think of Milton Keynes, knowing that you live there?
Milton Keynes, it’s got concrete cows and a 13-screen cinema; what more do you want? It’s easy to get to London; it’s 40 minutes on the train, on the direct line. We’ve lived there now for about 18 years. I like it there; it’s a nice place to live.
Do you buy any film magazines?
I buy Total Film religiously, but I think Empire is shit. Total Film’s got a good sense of humour. There are a couple of journalists who write for Empire who I particularly dislike and if I read a review by them and they said this film is great I know that I’ll probably hate it. Then if they say they’re shit I know I’ll like it. That’s why I don’t read the reviews until I’ve seen the film.
I heard rumours that someone had bought up the film rights to your book Compulsion, is that true?
No. I wish it were true though.
I think it would make a great movie.
So do I, but as usual you get people coming up to you and saying: ‘We have this ‘project’’, which means ‘we have no money’, at which point I say: ‘Speak to my agent.’ The rights haven’t been bought, but someone is trying to adapt it as a script though.
There is a possibility of a film though. There’s an Irish guy, a Jason Figgis, whose Mike Figgis’s cousin, who’s interested in adapting one of my books.
What would you have written on your tombstone and how would you want to be remembered?
Well hopefully, in about 90 years’ time - I hope it will be that long - I’d be happy to have: ‘He never compromised’ written on my tombstone, off the top of my head. How would I like to be remembered – I’d just like to be remembered. That’s it; I’d just like to be remembered! End of story!
Shaun has also written under the pseudonym of Robert Neville, which is the name he first wrote Deathday under.
Shaun’s story for the End of Story writing competition was entitled The Tunnel and is available to read on his official website.
The judges for End of Story were Kwame Kwei-Armah (actor), Giles Coran (restaurant critic), Murial Gray (music journalist/author) and Carole Blake (literary agent).
The writers who took part in End of Story were Ed McBain, Fay Weldon, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris, Marian Keyes, Sue Townsend, Alexei Sayle and Shaun Hutson.