You Can’t Go Back?
I was a relative latecomer in terms of falling in love with horror. The mainstay of my reading back then was more fantastical than horrific, with my shelves weighed down by a mountain of Moorcock, Louise Cooper, Hugh Cook, Lyndon Hardy, Jonathan Wylie, Susan Dexter, Peter Morwood, David Gemmell, David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson and more. I lived and breathed the stuff. Hell, just taking the time to bring some of those names to mind just filled my soul with a warm nostalgic glow.
Rather like the main character in Scavenger Summer I’ve got a lot of memories of the time, but they all kinda blur when it comes to a timeline. I didn’t grow up doing campfire horrors. I wasn’t the kid in the playground who entertained his mates with plagiarised retellings of the old Pan Book of Horror stories (that was Russell…he’s now a radio presenter in London). I wasn’t even from a ‘reading’ house. I was all about the football, cricket, tennis, rugby, or whatever competitive sport was on at the time. There were seasons when I was hooked on snooker, on boxing, darts… you name it, all of that came before reading. But, see, when I say that, which is the truth as I recall it, one of my earliest memories is of not talking to my family for 4 days over Christmas in 1980 because my stepmum had bought me Lord of the Rings and I read the entire thing cover to cover, all toys ignored until it was finished. And I can remember Sunday afternoons slumped on the couch reading Splinter in the Minds Eye and Han Solo’s Revenge, but somewhere around 14 reading became a chore. It was only for assigned schoolbooks like Great Expectations and The Cruel Sea, and it took an age to read a chapter. And, again, see that’s just not right, because there’s another abiding memory of skipping lunch at school for three days, and walking home rather than get the bus so I could save the money to buy the paperback of Pet Sematary… And I remember reading it under the covers at night, absolutely beside myself at some of the horrors. That scene waking up in bed with muddy feet…
So, my memory is unreliable. It’s like that thing when I’m sure I listened to one song during the summer of 85 but it wasn’t released until the autumn, stuff like that. And the fact I didn’t read another horror novel after Pet Sematary for probably four years, until I had a long National Express journey from Bristol to Newcastle to schlep back from dad’s to mum’s, so probably summer ’88 or ‘89, when the bus has pulled in at the Services halfway, and when I’d gone in to buy myself some food I’d grabbed a tape of The Alarm’s latest album and a paperback of Stephen King’s Misery because I’d finished the book I had been reading. Even this is tricky, because the album I thought I bought came out in ’89, but I really thought I bought the paperback Misery when I at college, not University, so it should have been ’87 or ’88.
I find it fascinating how I still possess all of these very clear memories, and I can’t actually trust any of them, even when it comes to something as important to the guy I became because they pretty much shaped him.
The thing is, I can actually remember very clearly the tipping point, the book that took me from being a fantasy fan to a horror reader and turned it into an obsession.
Stephen Gallagher’s Rain. It was that start blue cover with the silver streaks of rain. I kept seeing it on the table in Waterstones, and at a tenner it was more than I would ever pay for a book, but I just kept picking it up, day after day for a week or so before it finally came home with me and everything changed. I chased down his other stuff, Valley of Lights, Down River, Oktober… and then scrambled about for other stuff that would fill the void, discovering Stephen Laws was signing at a little prefab hut of a bookstore, Timeslip, in Newcastle. He was the first author I’d ever met, and it was a wonderful experience. He was signing the paperback of The Wyrm and invited me along to an event he was doing with a writing group. They had a challenge, to write a horror story inspired by their guest. I wrote something called Stranger Loves the Blues, a performance piece, first person, kinda riffing off Billy Joel’s piano man… a pianist in a blues bar who is a serial killer. I read it with great gusto, really living the part. I practiced and practiced, taking it so seriously I could deliver it without actually looking down at the 1500 words on the paper.
They asked me not to come back.
But I had the bug then. I wanted to write, and instead of those early stories I’d tried, like the comic fantasy Old Yawn and the Wizard’s Banana (a cursed town, drowning beneath an eternal rain spell and a magic system that flourished for the essence of the land, so fresh fruit was really powerful, yeah don’t ask, it was full of terrible puns, too) and stuff that never got finished, like The Hallelujah Man’s Circus, I found my imagination gravitating to darker places and darker stories. I tell this joke when I do events, when I was growing up I had to walk along the outside of an enormous graveyard (we are talking half a mile in length) and no one ever tells you the grave diggers dig the holes for the following day during those early evening hours, so I’d be happily walking along and someone would suddenly rise up out of the grave and I’d take off like a bullet… heart pounding… back then Friday nights, Channel 4 would show the old Hammer horrors, but I had a strict bedtime, so in my world Dracula never died, the House never stopped Bleeding to Death, there was no catharsis. The good guys never won. This stuff shapes your imagination.
So, I’m reading more and more of this stuff, and I pick up a book, Resurrection Dreams, by Richard Laymon, which I absolutely devour. Love him or hate him, Dick wrote the cleanest, most pared back prose, with plots that raced along. He also had a gift for naming characters. He could present you a character and you’d know their place in a story with their name alone. It was a gift in terms of characterisation. This was 1990, the book was brand new. It was the Steve Crisp cover that snagged me. I read it in a day and found myself sitting down and writing a letter to Laymon, probably 2,000-3,000 words, just chatting about stuff in the book, wanting to be a writer, and stuff. I didn’t have an address or a hope of it finding him. So, I called directory enquiries to get the phone number for Headline, called them and asked at reception for the name of Laymon’s editor. Then posted the letter to Dick care of Headline. Three or four months later I came downstairs to find a very thick airmail envelope, on that wonderful blue whisper thin paper with the red white and blue fringe. It was a wonder letter, three pages long, from Dick, talking about writing horror, about what he tried to do in his books, his admiration for some authors and their characters, like John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, and this became the foundation for a correspondence that ran four or five years, a few letters a year. Dick read a few of my early short stories, and wrote my first ever blurb, which I still cherish even though it was never used ‘Reminiscent of a young Ramsey Campbell.’ At this point Ramsey was pretty much my hero, I was absolutely obsessed with his novels. And I remember sharing a comment Ramsey had made about Dick’s short, Mess Hall, in FEAR with him when he was discussing the vile nature of horror that was the new trend of violence post-American Psycho. I thought his reaction to the comment was a wonderful lesson in how to deal with criticism, too, as rather than be upset, you could imagine him grinning as he wrote ‘I love that Ramsey Campbell has heard of me!’
It was a great time for me, back then. I was testing lots of ideas out, and Dick basically mentored me through the writing of this massive nasty horror novel, The Sufferer’s Song (which you can’t buy, as it’s never really been out, but there is an audio version of it) and owes a lot to him.
A couple of years back I got a letter from a Laymon fan who had just read In the Dark. The opening line was ‘Are you that S. Savile…’ the killer from In the Dark, whose name was a clue to his true nature… change one letter and you knew the truth… he was So vile… It still tickles me when people read that novel and spot the connection.
What always struck me as strange was how, because of a quirk of fate, I got to write a handful of ‘horror’ fantasy novels for Games Workshop in 2005 I suddenly became a fantasy writer despite what must have been a decade of toiling away in the small horror presses, and now if you ask most folks they’d say I wrote fantasy or thrillers, as it’s been so long since I wrote a horror story. The last one, another novella, Shiftling, was put out in the US seven years ago, but was written closer to a decade back, and will for me always be One Summer, which was my original title but was deemed not horror enough…
It feels strange after so long away, and yet, last year saw me finishing off TM Wright’s last story, which became Mallam Cross, which is out with PS Publishing in a really lovely hardcover, and Scavenger Summer, which Horrific Tales are just putting out now with another really lovely Ben Baldwin cover, so with a ghost story and now this story of a mind unravelling it really feels like I’ve come home again. I may not be the same kid who was asked not to go back to the Newcastle Writers Group because my serial killer as a bit too believable, or the one who used to run along the outskirts of the graveyard in Epsom, fleeing from the gravediggers, the poor bastard who never saw the demons slain, the vampires powdered, but he’s in me somewhere, down in all those memories I can’t quite bring back in the right order, the stories and the songs that have begun to slip and slide into each other while time slips around them and my place in their world.
Who says you can’t go back?
The summer of 1986. A summer of beachcombing and skinny dipping, of amusement arcades, karate games and Penny Falls, of first loves, fumbled experiences, excitement, and possibilities. A summer where anything could happen. Those teenage days truly were the best ones of my life.
Right up until the moment I found my mother’s body washed up on the beach.
Steven Savile has written for Doctor Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Stargate, Warhammer, Slaine, Fireborn, Pathfinder, Arkham Horror, Rogue Angel, and other popular game and comic worlds. He won the International Media Association of Tie-In Writers award for his novel, SHADOW OF THE JAGUAR, and the inaugural Lifeboat to the Stars award for TAU CETI (co-authored with International Bestselling novelist Kevin J. Anderson). Writing as Matt Langley his young adult novel BLACK FLAG was a finalist for the People’s Book Prize 2015.
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