Q&A: Author Gary McMahon on Melancholy Ghost Story, “THE BONES OF YOU”
Acclaimed as being in the vanguard of the new wave of British horror writers, Gary McMahon has been publishing novels and short stories at a prolific clip for over a decade now. He writes about damaged, dysfunctional people struggling to deal with the real world, who find themselves unlucky enough to stumble into its dark, unreal corners along the way.
His new book THE BONES OF YOU is a dirty realist take on the haunted house novel; a taut tale of the darker aspects of love and family (although McMahon is careful to give his characters a hope of redemption, despite being a self-confessed miserabilist). FANGORIA spoke to him about whether the light at the end of the tunnel is simply that of the oncoming train…
FANGORIA: What were your aims when you began writing THE BONES OF YOU?
GARY MCMAHON: Basically, I wanted to write a genuinely creepy story. I also wanted to say something about duty and parenthood, and the ties that bind a family together. The final element was betrayal. I love ghost stories, and feel that they’re often underutilised as a way of examining themes like these ones. So I suppose that’s what I tried to do – use the mechanics of a ghost story to examine themes of duty, parenthood and betrayal.
FANG: The novella is not a particularly common form these days—I’d imagine they’re a tough sell—what attracted you to writing a story at that length?
MCMAHON: It’s 60,000 words in length, so I’d call THE BONES OF YOU a short novel rather than a novella. I’m happier at that length; I’ve always written short. Give me a target of 90,000 words and I start shitting myself. I think horror fiction works best with brevity: get in, do your thing, and get back out again quickly.
FANG: I’d agree—I think much the same can be said about horror films—but I wonder why that is? Is there a sense that horror works best in short bursts, that it’s such an intense emotion that it’s difficult to sustain over the long haul? And yet you have Stephen King writing these huge novels that define literary horror for a lot of people.
MCMAHON: That’s a good point, and you might be right about the short bursts being more effective. Also, the suspension of disbelief is necessary in most supernatural horror, so perhaps that’s a factor: we can only suspend our disbelief for a finite amount of time before it all starts getting a bit silly? King’s a special case for me. I much prefer short novels, but I’d argue that what a lot of people call “bloat” in King’s novels tends to be better than 90% of the rest of the horror genre.
FANG: On the one hand, the story has quite a classical genre setup; on the other, you ground it in a lot of very gritty, real world concerns that give it a dramatic impact beyond the simply horrific. Was this a conscious attempt to mix two different styles?
MCMAHON: Not really. Most of my work has that mix. It’s just the way I work. I’m less interested in straight horror than I am in using horror conventions to examine facets of the real world, problems that we all encounter every day. I see horror as a great tool to use if you want to dig deep and get to the core of a given theme. I love horror, but I want it to do more than give me a superficial jolt.
FANG: Your work seems very strongly rooted in the urban and the quotidian – do you think horror is more effective when placed amongst the everyday?
MCMAHON: For me personally, yes it is. Always. I’m much more afraid of something creepy in a concrete underpass than I am of something slinking through a fantasy landscape. Real life is terrifying. People are terrifying. Add in the supernatural, and you’ve got something that might just scare the hell out of people.
FANG: So do you enjoy classical gothic horror at all? Or is there a sense that its time has passed, that it’s simply too stylised a setting to work anymore?
MCMAHON: Oh, yes, I love a lot of classic horror. That’s the first kind of horror I ever read. DRACULA was a life-changing book for me when I read it as a young lad, and I adore Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. I like a lot of Algernon Blackwood’s work. The ghost stories of M.R. James have always been a particular influence. Robert Aickman—although he isn’t strictly “classical”—is one of the best writers who ever worked in the genre. Although I like to read classical horror, it’s not really my area when it comes to writing. I’m after a different effect, I use a different voice, but I like to think I’m always influenced by the greats.
FANG: Structurally, I found it interesting just how long you delay the horror. There are moments of supernatural weirdness along the way, but for the most part it’s largely a piece of social realist fiction, almost. Was this planned, or simply something that happened in the writing?
MCMAHON: Again, it’s just how I like to work. The episodes of horror are actually the parts I’m least interested in when I write. I’m fascinated by my characters, how they move, how they live, what they do in their daily lives, and how the horror either comes from that or impinges upon it. I wanted the supernatural elements to be integral to, and spring from, the characters and their psychological states.
FANG: So, are you tempted to write a non-genre work? Is there a sense that you’re using horror as a saleable vehicle to ‘smuggle’ in the more character-based concerns that you really want to write about?
MCMAHON: The very notion of horror being “saleable” is funny beyond words. Whatever I write seems to be horrific, so even if I did decide to work on something that I felt was outside the genre it would be a horror story. Those elements would be there. I actually have a project in mind – a novel called PUNCH – that on the surface isn’t a horror novel at all. It’s about a group of forty-something wasters, male violence, infidelity, social ennui, and myth-making. But deep down, when all’s said and done, there will always be horror in my work. It’s the prism through which I see the world.
FANG: One of the most striking things about the novella is how deeply sad it is— the sense of people trying (and often failing) to escape the traps that have been made for them, whether by others or themselves. Do you think the melancholic and the horrific can comfortably exist side by side? Do you think the human horrors of the book are almost more impactful than the ghostly ones?
MCMAHON: I think ghost stories specifically need a sense of the melancholy. I’m a very melancholic (my wife would say miserable) person, so it’s kind of a default position for me. I’ve always said that the best ghost stories feature a haunted person meeting a haunted place. Ghosts are a great metaphor for the human horrors we each hold inside us and I like to explore that liminal area – the spaces between the natural and the supernatural. There’s also a profound sadness about the notion of spirits hanging around after the body has gone to dust.
FANG: Whilst I’m guessing you don’t believe in actual ghosts, have you ever visited anywhere that felt profoundly ‘haunted’ to you? I’m talking more in a tangible sense of a building’s atmosphere being affected by prior people or events, rather than any literal rattling chains or the like.
MCMAHON: I once lived in a house in [London’s] Bounds Green that I’m absolutely convinced was haunted. I had difficulty sleeping there if I was alone – to the point that I’d sit downstairs all night with the TV on and fight sleep rather than close my eyes. There was a genuine sense of dread, a feeling that I wasn’t alone in there. At night I used to hear banging noises directly under my bed, as if someone were hammering on the underside of the floorboards. The guy who had the room below mine never heard a thing. I’d wake up and think that someone was sitting perched on the edge of the bed – I even felt their weight on my feet. Whenever I entered my room, I never felt alone. It was terrifying. But, oddly, I don’t believe in ghosts.
FANG: What are some of your favorite ghost stories? Was there anything that was a specific influence on this book at all?
MCMAHON: My favorite ghost stories are James’ OH, WHISTLE, AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD; ONLY PARTLY THERE by Lucius Shepard; a lot of tales by Ramsey Campbell (particularly THE OLD SCHOOL), and many more that I could mention if I had the space to do so.
THE BONES OF YOU wasn’t really influenced by any particular ghost story, but it was directly inspired by a real-life murder case in Soham, Cambridgeshire. Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, was convicted of the murders of two young girls. I wrote a short story called PUMPKIN NIGHT that was inspired directly by my feelings about the case, and a few years later I expanded the story into the novel.
FANG: The protagonist’s circumstances are obviously not your own, but the book does feel deeply personal. Was there any sense that you were writing about yourself, to a certain extent? If so, was that a painful/disturbing process?
MCMAHON: All of my writing is deeply personal, even if I’m not writing directly about myself. I’m a deeply confessional writer; I cannibalise elements of my life and use them in whatever project I’m working on at the time. It’s like therapy, but a lot cheaper. Writing exhausts me, both physically and emotionally. I think that’s why, because I’m always digging deep inside myself for material. On a lighter note, I often write about things that are important to me at the time. In THE BONES OF YOU, it’s karate, cats and the difficulties in maintaining a good parent/child relationship.
FANG: I remarked to you after reading it that the book felt like a film waiting to happen, and I know how big an influence cinema is on you… so go on, who would direct and star in your fantasy film adaptation of THE BONES OF YOU?
MCMAHON: Tim Roth would be the protagonist, Adam – I’d have him in everything because he’s such a great actor. Chloë Moretz would be great for the role of Pru – do you think she can do an English accent? Just to put you on the spot, I think you’d make a great job of directing this – it’s a cinematic landscape you know well. But if I couldn’t get you, I’d have Ben Wheatley, Paddy Considine (who’d be my second choice as main actor) or Shane Meadows. None of your Hollywood high-flyers: just honest-to-God British talent.
FANG: OK, I’ll get my people to talk to your people! So – what’s next?
MCMAHON: I have no idea. Honestly. I’ve been working on a novel – another ghost story – for over two years. I’d like to get that finished, but it’s proving to be a difficult task. This December a publisher is reprinting an out-of-print collection of mine (with additional new fiction) under the title of WHERE YOU LIVE. I have another short novel coming out early next year called THE END. Outside of writing, I’ve just passed my 5th kyu (purple belt) grading in karate, and am focusing on eventually achieving a black belt.
THE BONES OF YOU is published by Earthling Publications this Halloween.