In the Shadows at the Door interview hot-seat today we have horror author Christopher Long.
When did your first fall in love with the horror genre?
It didn’t happen quickly for me. I think it was more of a slow seduction. For a long time I was aware of it but I wouldn’t say I chased after it. A lot of my friends were obsessed with trying to see the latest instalment of every popular 80s horror franchise going but it didn’t really appeal to me. I guess it took discovering some of the more interesting forms of horror for it to really capture my imagination. Roald Dahl’s The Witches certainly started something when I was a kid, along with a lot of the folktales the Henson company used when they created The Storyteller. Frankenstein as well. There was something really haunting about that story to me, from the first time I came across it. I remember not being convinced the monster was truly a monster at all. To me, the scientist was the one you really had to be scared of. But, even then, you could understand his motivations. That was a lightbulb moment. Also it was intriguing to see all the various versions of that story that has come to pass. The recycling of a monster made out of recycled parts. I like the symmetry of that.
The one that really got me, though, was Kubrick’s version of The Shining. That really got me thinking seriously about horror. It made me start to see the sort of stories you could tell through the lens of the supernatural trespassing into the lives of ordinary people. It helped me to understand that you can truly study a character once they’re trapped within a world they no longer understand. It gives you an opportunity to look at relationships and faith in a very unique way. Also, you know, that movie scared the living hell out of me and it still does.
Which subgenre/s of horror would you say your work falls into?
My work definitely lies in the world of ghost story. There’s rarely a huge amount of gore or shock jumps in my stories. Instead I like to ease people into the shadows and then leave them for a while, wondering what they can see. Or what can see them. I really strive for something akin to a nightmare in that sense. I think the best horror can come from twisting the everyday into a different shape or form, into something unexpected. Particularly when you’re writing a short story. Those are still my favourite things to write.
I’m really proud of the fact that some of my short stories have left the reader surprised by what they went through and where the story took them. That’s always a great feeling.
What is it about the horror genre that appeals to you as a reader and as a writer?
I think horror offers some great opportunities for storytelling. Not just in the form of scares or atmosphere, but I think it has the potential to leave something buried deep under the reader’s skin for a long time after they’re done with a story. It can keep you thinking about what you went through and keep you a little off your guard for a while. I love that feeling. That sense of almost waiting, almost hoping to be scared. I hate reading a flat, totally contained horror story. Or one that is clearly straining to reach the next sequel. That just isn’t scary to me. A great horror story is almost a trick of a light, almost too spectral to be inspected closely. It needs that to allow it to live on in you afterwards. It needs to have the strength to raise questions and make you a little unsure about what might be in the dark.
I truly hope some of my stories will be able to make people feel like that. It’d be great to know that something you created still has the power to scare people years from now, maybe even keep on scaring them. That would be really special.
What are some of your favourite horror stories?
Man, that’s tricky. So many of M. R. James's works are absolute masterclasses in how to tell a horror story. I’d struggle to choose between them. Like I said before, Frankenstein really got hold of my attention and never let it go. Neil Gaiman has created some really chilling moments in books like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski did some spectacular things with my imagination and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series may be one of the cleverest pieces of fan fiction ever written.
Do you remember being scared by a particular story growing up?
Of all the many things that scared the hell out of me as a kid the one I will never shake wasn’t really a story at all. It was, of all things, a music video. Or, at least, one moment from a music video. My parents were huge Kate Bush fans back in the 80s and they bought a collection of her music videos. One of them was Experiment IV. It had this story running through it about a team of scientists creating a sound that could kill. In the video there’s a moment where this siren like creature suddenly turns into some monstrous form and they would never let me see it. I would be made to look away or close my eyes whenever they watched it. I know it sounds crazy but that really stuck with me. In fact, last year, I remembered this and realised I could easily watch the video online. Only I decided I didn’t want to see it. No matter what that thing looks like, it will never live up to the creature I created in my head. I suppose that taught me a lot about being scared and how to scare people. The way I’ve started to see it as that horror writers are really exposed nerves. We should get a little scared by everything. Then it’s really down to us to figure out how best to use that to entertain and scare other people.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
After reading James and The Giant Peach. I was at primary school and a friend of my parents gave me a copy of the book to read. Up until then I’d been so bored by the books my teachers kept foisting on me but Roald Dahl just reached in and switched my brain on. His way of taking the dull and every day and fabricating a dream world out of it was just something else to me. The fun and the frights and the sense of humour were all so captivating. It blew me away. I started to write my own stories not long after and then I found out you could actually write for a living. From the moment I heard that I didn’t understand why every adult I knew wasn’t writing books. To be honest, I still don’t.
Are there any writers who have particularly influenced you?
Oh man, there are so many of them. Dahl, I think, we’ve covered. Neil Gaiman. M. R. James. Arthur C. Clarke. Mark Z. Danielewski. David Mitchell. Christopher Fowler. Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams. P. G. Wodehouse. Magnus Mills.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some authors who are absolute giants to me but I think all authors and all stories should offer something up that can be considered or studied. Sometimes there’s nothing worse than reading a book or a short story and finding nothing I can take away from it. It makes me wonder how the writer felt whilst they were writing it. It’s as if you can sense their boredom with their own work. I dread ever being like that.
Tell us a bit about your previous writing work.
Well, for a long time, I just wrote for myself really. I rarely showed my work to anyone. I was stuck in this loop of wanting people to read my stories but also not wanting to hear that I was no good and that I should stop. I wrote a novel length story in the late 90s about a man who could heal the sick people but actually found he was the personification of Death. I was brave enough to let a few people take a look at and they seemed to like it well enough, although publishers didn’t.
After that I spent a long time trying to wrangle something together out of an old fantasy idea that was bugging me. Oddly, for all that time, I never thought about trying my hand at a ghost story. In the end that happened really rather quickly. An idea hit me about a reappearing figure seen on motorway bridges at night and I wrote the first draft in around a week. Something made me put that story, The Low Road, onto the Kindle and then I added another four over the next few months. Some of them seemed to write themselves. It was such a great feeling. One of them, The Final Restoration of Wendell Pruce, came from a nightmare I had. That story really showed me I could write a decent ghost story if I put my mind to it. It also taught me a lot about character, plot and a growing sense of doom.
Not long after that I was lucky enough to be signed with Kensington Gore Publishing. They re-released all those stories and asked for a brand new story to go with each of them. I ended up writing a set of seven interlinked novellas called The Righteous Judges, which was a real challenge but it sharpened my writing no end. I was doing one a month and trying to make sure the paths of the characters all intersected nicely without feeling forced. Then, once that was done, I had to turn my attention to writing a novel for KGP. Something Needs Bleeding was a hell of a test as well, but I like to think it really worked. It’s a story that tried to deal with the true horrors that can inspire a ghost story. So, on the surface, you have this final collection of a recently deceased horror author. Only there are all these linking themes and character names running through them which are all explained at the end, with an afterword written by the author himself. Hopefully that means, if you ever read it again, you should pick up on these clues and hidden meanings. I was really proud of that one.
How do you feel about being part of the Shadows at the Door Anthology?
I’m so excited to be working on a story for this anthology. When I started writing horror stories and looking online it didn’t take me long to stumble across Shadows at the Door. It struck me immediately as such a brilliant idea and they were doing great work. They still are. The stories they’re releasing on the website are all brilliant, blood chilling tales and I was honoured to be invited to write a couple of ghost stories for Christmas for them. Now, being able to put a story of mine into a book they’re releasing, is a real dream come true for me. From what I’ve seen of the other stories that going into this anthology, I think we are going to have something absolutely fantastic to release into the world. I can’t wait to see what people make of it. I’m quietly predicting great things for this collection.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
At the minute I’m working on a second novel. I did send a short story off to a competition to The Guardian ran which, sadly, didn’t win. It revolved around the idea of someone who may, or may not, be the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. At some point I want to clean that up and give it a try somewhere else. I also entered a story into a sci-fi competition they’re running in Glasgow. Again, if that misses the mark, I’ll probably try and do something with that. I had a huge amount of fun trying something in another genre. That said, it’s all systems go on the novel at the moment. It’s taken me a while to get something I’m happy with but it’s making progress now. All I can say is that, if nothing changes, it’ll look at how people cope after they survive the events of a very archetypal horror scenario. I want to try and explore what it means to have survived something like that. I want to see what would happen after the movie finishes or after you close the book. Just how would someone look at the normal, everyday world after they’ve seen what might be lurking behind it at any given moment? That really appeals to me.