Author Francis G Cottam is a paranormal/horror author who has released many titles over recent years, from the chilling The House of Lost Souls, to Dark Echo and The Waiting Room. His creepy stories are often filled with an overwhelming tension, so much so, it fills the reader with an almost palpable sense of dread.
I have admired his writing for some time, and have slowly started making my way through his catalogue of work.
I invited Cottam to discuss his writing, his attitude to the horror genre and the techniques he uses when approaching a new story. To find out that and more, follow our interview below….
Francis G. Cottam
Francis, can you begin by telling readers what inspired you to pursue a career as a novelist? Was it something you always felt drawn to doing?
Writing novels was something I was certain I would do from the age of about eight. This certainty, though, made me over-confident and caused me to procrastinate. I was in my late30s when I one day thought, ‘You’d better get on with it then’
You have released several creepy novels over the years (one of my favourite horror books of all time is House of Lost Souls, as you know) and I wondered what it was about dark fiction that excites you as a writer? Are you a big fan of reading and watching horror and paranormal genres yourself?
I devoured the Pan -published horror anthologies and Dennis Wheatley’s black magic-themed novels as a teenager. I also liked the creepier stories in comics. The 1945 portmanteau film Dead of Night was a big influence – particularly the story about the delinquent ventriloquist’s dummy. And I really like the idea of there being something extraordinary just out of our grasp. I summed this up in two lines in my novel The Memory of Trees: ‘Magic is a door to which we have lost the key. But the door is there.’
You have a history of working in journalism. How does your life as a fiction author compare to life as a journalist? Do you miss writing for magazine publications at all?
I worked in men’s magazines during their early 90s evolution into the mainstream. We were literally making up a new publishing sector as we went along. It was tremendously exhilarating but couldn’t be replicated now. The internet means magazines are no longer influential. The impact they had is gone, so I don’t miss it. Editing has given my own writing discipline and structure. I wrote one of my early novels in six weeks, though I wouldn’t do that now!
One thing I have noticed in what I have read of your work, is that you really seem to know how to drip creepy atmosphere and tension on each page: there’s almost a relentless fear that carries on and on….and I think that’s quite remarkable. Do you find it quite easy to bring fear to life in your fiction? You make it seem like second nature!
My process is so straightforward it’s almost simplistic. I imagine the scene cinematically and describe it in accumulative detail. The layering of the physical stuff works best when the prose has rhythm. Weather is often an important feature because it can be dark, hostile and brooding. And the soundtrack is absolutely crucial. There’s quite a lot of music gate-crashing my scarier scenes. There’s some internal logic to this. A spectre from the 1920s would naturally be accompanied by frenetic jazz played on shellac 78s, the brittle music emanating from a gramophone horn.
You have released many titles, including The Waiting Room, Dark Echo, The Memory of Trees and the aforementioned House of Lost Souls. Looking back at all you have written so far, which story do you feel most fond of?
This is the bit where I’m supposed to say, ‘They’re like my children, I love them all.’ But actually, only my real children (both of them) are anything like my children. I like my novella The Going and the Rise, which I think is well-structured and introduces one of my favourite characters in Ruthie Gillespie. I think The Memory of Trees my most original novel. But to be perfectly honest, my critical take on individual titles varies pretty much from day to day. Writing this, now, I think Dark Echo my best book. But I’m unlikely to think that tomorrow.
Were there certain titles that proved more difficult to write/finish – if so, why?
I wrote 30, 000 words of The Lucifer Chord and read them back and they were inert, dead on the page. So I more or less abandoned it for three years. Then I created Ruthie Gillespie. When I put her at the centre of the story as my main protagonist, I felt it really took off. She gave it the depth, momentum and tension it had previously lacked. And because she is a compassionate and flawed character, she gave the story a welcome dose of emotional resonance.
What are some of your own favourite paranormal/horror novels?
T.E.D Kline’s The Ceremonies is a neglected masterpiece. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is very good. Then there are the usual suspects; King’s The Shining and Straub’s Ghost Story. And though they’re classified as crime, Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series does the folkloric paranormal extremely well. Phil imbues his fiction with such a vivid sense of place, the landscape almost becomes a character.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?
I said I’d never go back to New Hope Island, the Hebridean location of my Colony trilogy. But I’m 27, 000 words into a new novel set there, so never say never. The head of a Moscow based centre for psychic research thinks New Hope the ideal location for some paranormal experimentation. He’s badly mistaken in this assumption.
Do you think the avalanche of self-published titles and the rise of e-book sales has had a positive or negative impact on the writing industry?
Almost wholly positive. Obviously, some rubbish gets self-published. But self-publishing has democratised a culture that was too narrow and elitist. It’s provided some genuine talents with welcome exposure. E-books are great in giving readers immediate and conveniently packaged access, but I’m honestly more excited about audiobooks. They’re the growth area in fiction now that the prices are becoming more sensible.
As a writer, do you have a “plan” that you stick to when approaching a new novel? For instance, do you outline and plot your chapters, or do you write more freely? Do you edit afterwards, or as you go along? I’d love to know more about your actual approach to writing.
I aim for about 2, 000 words a day, but the story gathers momentum as I go along. I write best very early in the morning and run out of steam by about midday. I’ll edit what I’ve written that morning in the afternoon. If I get stuck or feel stale, I’ll go for a run or a long walk. I’m fortunate to live close to a scenic and rural stretch of the Thames. I make it all up as I go along, rarely having anything mapped out beyond the chapter I’m writing. I’d like to do it the other way, but can’t. This makes it a tightrope walk, but so far, I’ve always got safely to the other end. I type two-fingered on a laptop. I’d describe my ideas, or premises, as like having a postcard drop through your door from someone you’d forgotten you knew.
May I ask – as many readers of this interview will be interested in horror and the paranormal, have you ever had any weird experiences of your own?
Once. Returning to West London from a holiday on Wight. Two adults and a young child in the car. We pulled up at an anonymous A-road layby and were overwhelmed by a sense of corruption so strong it was like a stench. To this day I think something evil was done at that bland and seemingly innocent spot.
Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
Anyone interested can find F.G. Cottam on Twitter and Facebook. My novella The Going and the Rise can be downloaded free at fgcottam.com (an introduction to both Ruthie Gillespie and her nemesis the Jericho Society). I’m also on Goodreads, again as F.G. Cottam.
Fiona Dodwell has been writing fiction for almost 10 years, with several horror/paranormal titles released under various publishers. Alongside this, she is a freelance writer for various websites and magazines. She has written features for Warner Music, Made In Shoreditch Magazine, Music-news.com and Tremr.
Fiona has studied Psychology, Film Studies, Theology and Health & Social Care.
Her biggest passion is reading dark fiction, as well as creating new stories of her own – the creepier the better!
To find out more about Fiona:
Books: Amazon Store
Madison Walter thought she had everything.
A good job. A perfect husband. A baby on the way.
When a terrible tragedy turns her life upside down, Madison knows things will never be the same again.
Intent on saving her marriage, she joins her husband on a luxury trip abroad. However, a week in the sun turns into an abyss of despair and horror.
Can Madison save her life, her sanity and her family before it’s too late?
You can buy The Given from Amazon UK & Amazon US
I have been reading and enjoying F G Cottam’s horror novels for years, indeed the first one of The Colony series nearly convinced me it was historical fact, it was that good. Really enjoyed the interview. Thanks to Fiona for asking the interesting questions.