Interview with Gary McMahon for Ghost Appreciation Month

25 10 2010

[Conducted by Ghost Appreciation Month team member, Sharon Ring]

SR – We’re enjoying Ghost Appreciation Month at Beyond Fiction right now so I guess the first question has to be whether or not you believe in ghosts?

GM – The rational side of me says, no. The only people who claim to have seen ghosts always see them at night, and usually when they’re either half asleep or in a state of anxiety. But then another tiny part of me, the back-brain being, says “Hang on. Why even try to rationalise this?”

Plus, I’ve had my own “ghostly” encounter.

SR – Well, you can’t just leave it at that. Care to elaborate?

GM – Oh, okay then.

When I first lived in London I shared a big old house with two mates. My room was on the first floor, at the back of the house. At night I started to hear what sounded like pipes banging on the underside of the floorboards. Or fists.

This went on for several nights, and when I queried my housemates (one whose room was directly beneath mine) they’d heard nothing. But the sound was almost deafening it was so loud – it would wake me up.

Then I started having the sensation of someone sitting on the end of the bed, on my feet. Really heavily, as if they were throwing themselves down. And one of my housemates admitted to hearing kids in the garden when he was in a room at the back of the house one afternoon. When he looked out of the window, there was nobody there.

This did start around the time I saw The Blair Witch Project…so maybe it was just my overactive imagination triggered by the film (which scared the shit out of me).

SRSo, how did it all end? Did you move house and not give it much though after that? Or is it something which creeps back into your mind once in a while?

GM – We did move out not long after, but it actually reached the point where I was terrified to go to sleep – obviously, this anxiety led to more of that bed-sitting action (that’s how I explain it, anyway). Admittedly, it was a very weird experience, and I was genuinely frightened. I do think of it now and then, but only when I tell people the story.

SR – Has it never made an appearance in any of your stories then?

GM – I don’t think that particular episode has, no, but others have – things people have told me. There was the time a friend of mine woke up in the night, saw a girl in a long white dress standing at the end of the bed. The girl said “Do you like my dress?” My friend – a very unflappable and down-to-earth girl – said “Yes, it’s lovely.” The girl replied “It’s the one they buried me in.” and walked out of the room. Amazingly, my friend just woke her husband, told him, and then went back to sleep. The husband sat up the rest of the night, shitting himself.

I sort of collect people’s ghostly experiences…they fascinate me.

SR – David Mitchell said, in a recent Guardian article, that the English have a rather peculiar obsession with ghosts. Do you think this is true? And isn’t every culture just as obsessed?

GM – Yes. Well, I read that article and to be honest I thought it was very uninformed. It riled me when he said that the literature of the ghost story was rubbish, and admitted he was basing this assumption on half a collection of MR James stories. I like Mitchell as a comedian…perhaps he should just keep to being a funny man.

But, to answer your question, I don’t think we’re as obsessed with ghosts as much as, say, the Chinese or the people of south-east Asia.

In China ghosts are seen as a part of life; the spirit world exists side-by-side with the corporeal world.

Japan, Tibet, South America, all these cultures are in tune with their ghosts.

SR – So with the English, perhaps, it might be more that we enjoy being sceptics, or that deep down the thought of another existence beyond the corporeal world is just that little bit too scary, so we end up mocking it, making a joke out of it?

GM – Perhaps: there is a rich traditional of humour in English ghostly tales. But I think a lot of it is also mixed up with our sense of history. That gothic element, with mist-shrouded moors and crumbling castles. Our history almost demands to be haunted, to have its ghosts.

Just to drop this one you: I think all fictional ghosts are metaphors anyway.

SR – Can you explain what you mean by fictional ghosts as metaphors?

GM – Well, because I don’t believe in ghosts I can only take them seriously as metaphor. For example, Fritz Leiber’s ghost in “Smoke Ghost” is a metaphor for the city, how it shapes its own reality. Ramsey Campbell’s ghosts are metaphors for whatever kind of psychological area he’s exploring in a certain tale.

For me, a ghost story must have this psychological aspect for it to work beyond a cheap scare. The ghosts have to mean something.

SR – How do modern writers move away from the traditional methods of telling ghost stories? There aren’t many people living in castles these days, how do we move ghosts into the high-rise blocks and housing estates?

GM – Fritz Leiber did this with “Smoke Ghost”, but even MR James was doing it in stories like “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad” – my favourite ever ghost story. Leiber’s ghosts were both created by and made from the city – industrial smoke, litter, dead dreams of the people crammed into grotty tenements. James’s ghosts (whatever David Mitchell might think) had a deeply psychological aspect – they represented, or were summoned by, the characters’ mental state, by their anxieties. Scratch the surface of a James’ spook-ride and what you have is a fractured mind conjuring phantoms.

I’ve always thought the best equation for a ghost story is when a haunted person meets a haunted place.

James did that, Leiber did that, Campbell, King, Shirley Jackson…they all mastered that equation.

SR – How do you think ghost stories fare in the modern market when compared with say, flouncy vampires or, at the other extreme, full-on gore movies? Do ghostly tales get short shrift in mainstream horror?

GM – It’s difficult to say – I’m going to admit that I don’t read much mainstream horror fiction. I haven’t touched any of the teen-vampire stuff because it leaves me cold – I loved Justin Cronin’s “The Passage”, though. There’s some good zombie fiction out there (zombies are the latest craze, because they’re a catch-all metaphor themselves, and we’re living in what feels like apocalyptic times). A lot of ghostly fiction seems to stem from the literary end of the market.

Some of the best ghost stories I’ve read recently have certainly been marketed as mainstream fiction rather than genre.

SR – Care to share a title or two?

GM – Well, the best one is “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski. And there’s “The Body Artist” by Don Delillo. The latter is a ghost story without a ghost – which is something that interests me greatly.

Neither of these was ever marketed as “horror” fiction.

“Death of a Murderer” by Rupert Thomson is another.

SR – Your latest book, Pretty Little Dead Things, is a ghost story. What got you started on it and how did Thomas Usher come into being?

GM – About 5 years ago I started writing a bunch of short stories about Thomas Usher – an ordinary man who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and somehow gained an ability to see the dead. I’ve now written 13 stories about him, and two novels. Pretty Little Dead Things was an attempt to break out of the constrictive format I’d made for myself in the short stories (basically, Usher investigating weird events) and create a sort of mythology. It’s the easiest novel I’ve ever written – everything just blossomed, and I learned a lot about Thomas Usher.

In the sequel, Dead Bad Things, I even learned about the genesis of Usher’s ability.

SR – So, while writing Pretty Little Dead Things, this was something which had yet to develop fully in your own thoughts? That must be quite the experience then, understanding you have more to learn about the character as each book is written?

GM – That’s exactly what happened: I started off with a rough idea of the plot, and Usher’s role in it, but the book just expanded and took its own shape. It was fascinating, and I also learned a lot about how my mind works when I’m writing. It does mean, though, that I’m going to have to do slight rewrites of all the stories to make them fit in with the character’s mythology. I wrote the shorts when I barely knew anything about Usher, and now that some of his secrets have been revealed I realise that some tweaks are required.

The character started out, in the short stories, as my modern version of a Carnacki or a John Silence, but in the novels he kind of warped into a supernatural Travis Bickle.

I was reading a lot of crime fiction when I started writing the novels, and some of that – especially David Peace’s Red Riding books – sort of filtered into the Usher novels, helping to solidify Usher’s voice and his motivations.

SR – One last question, Gary. Any chance of giving Beyond Fiction readers a hint or two of what’s coming up in the next Thomas Usher novel?

GM – Usher is in London, gone underground after the events in the first book. He starts receiving messages – a clockwork voice on the phone, a Rwandan psychic who hears voices, hellish visions in a derelict riverside warehouse. He slowly realises that the answers to these riddles, and perhaps to the questions he has never dared ask about his personal history, will only be revealed if he returns home to Leeds…

Once there his path will cross with Trevor Dove, a young police constable called Sarah Doherty, and the Pilgrim, in a confrontation that threatens the fabric of reality.

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