DAY TEN: Interview with William Hussey, author of Haunted

Today I am speaking to William Hussey, author of Haunted and the Witchfinder series – and I can’t think of anyone better to welcome into the Lil’ Bookshop of Horrors on Halloween!

downloadQ. Michael Grant has described Haunted as “A nail-biting chiller” and warned readers to “be prepared for some sleepless nights”. I have to say, there were times I regretted reading it just before bedtime! Which books have kept you up reading past midnight and made you want to sleep with the light on?

Firstly, I really have to thank Michael Grant for that quote. I am a HUGE fan of his GONE series: books full of terror, mystery, suspense, and edge-of-your-seat thrills. Books which also get you to think while they entertain. And so have that accolade from a writer I admire is a huge thrill. In fact, my first nomination for a ‘reading-past-midnight’ book has to be the thrilling Gone.

But which others? Oh, there are so many tomes which have kept me turning the pages long into the small hours and have found me elated, if bleary eyed, come morning. My first love was comic books, and years ago my dad bought me a bound collection of EC Comics’ classic series Tales from the Crypt. These were American horror comics written for young people in the 1950s (I read them in the ’80s, by the way – I’m not that old!). By torchlight under the bedcovers, and in the company of the infamous EC storyteller, the Crypt-Keeper, I would pounce from story to story, pursued by the monsters and madmen that populated those macabre and melodramatic yarns.salem's lot

In later years it was writers like Roald Dahl and Stephen King who accompanied me past the Witching Hour. At 12, I was perhaps too young to be reading King classics like Salem’s Lot and The Shining (and I think it’s great that kids today have the horror stepping stones of brilliant writers like Darren Shan, Cliff McNish, Alexander Gordon Smith and many, many others to bridge to gap between the likes of Dahl and King), but I must admit to getting a giddy midnight thrill from reading a proper adult horror book at such a tender age.

These days my reading tastes are so varied the midnight hour can find me the company of historical epics, detective stories, sci-fi sagas, you name it. So long as there’s an intriguing premise and a cast of characters I care about, you’ll find me hooked! Currently, I’m reading Karen Maitland’s excellent novel of the plague years, Company of Liars (so many unexpected twists and turns!).

But the book that really captured my imagination, and which I finished in a single breathless night, was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – probably the best novel I’ve read in the past ten years.

Q. Haunted places your characters in some pretty spooky settings – an abandoned funfair, a creepy rundown house, an old cinema… Are there any places in real life that give you the heebie-jeebies?

funfaurThere’s an old saying that ‘a writer must write of what he knows’, and so those settings you cite from Haunted are very much the ones that creep me out. They might almost be considered horror clichés, but in my case they exist in the book for very special reasons.

Firstly, I actually grew up in a funfair! My parents had a candy floss stall at our local fair and, from the point at which I could turn the pedals of my Big Wheels tricycle unaided, I would cycle around the fair, rumbling between the stalls, sideshows and rides. The only amusement I studiously avoided was the ghost train. Something about those batwing doors flapping shut behind carriages of screeching teenagers – almost as if the ride itself was hungry – never failed to send a chill down my tiny spine.

Powerful memories from childhood haunt us all our lives, and writing is something of an exorcism of those boyhood terrors… Although, in the case of Haunted, I’m not sure that it worked: ghost trains still terrify me! Not the reality of them you understand; so often the jittery automated dummies and fake spider webs disappoint. No, it’s the potential of what might lurk inside that possesses the power to unnerve.

That potential also exists in any abandoned building, and so in Haunted we find our traditional haunted house. However, I wanted to turn this idea a little on its head and make the once dreaded Sparrow House of the novel the hideout of our hero, Nicholas Redway. Towards the end of the book the shunned house actually becomes one of the few safe havens in a town descending into chaos.

Q. What do you do to get yourself in the mood for writing a scary scene?

I know a lot of writers write to music. If they are hoping to pen a scene full of peril and adventure they might stick on the soundtrack to an Indiana Jones movie, for example.

horror sceneI love music, but I find myself too influenced by it. If I listened to the Raiders of the Lost Ark fanfare I’d find myself writing a weak parody of a Spielberg scene. Instead, I require absolute silence. I lock my study door, draw the curtains and stopper my ears with wax plugs. Then I close my eyes for a few minutes and really picture myself in the scene. What is my character thinking and feeling? How is she interpreting the sights and sounds, the smells and atmosphere of her environment? What do such physical stimuli trigger in her memory banks? If I can get fully into her head and make the reader experience everything through the prism of her senses, thoughts and feelings, then I can make them fear for her. Then any external scariness will hit the reader much for forcibly.

What is vital is that the reader cares what happens to the character. If they don’t then, although I might get a few cheap scares through a couple of shocks here and there, the fear will soon pass. I want the reader to be anxious about the fate of my characters. If they are, then they will have to know what happens next and the scares will linger long after the night light is turned off…

Q. Ghostly possession is something that’s always guaranteed to give me the creeps whenever it rears its ugly head in a horror film or book. In Haunted you’ve presented your own take on it by introducing us to the “unmade”. What was your inspiration for this aspect of the book? Did you draw on any traditional beliefs?

To me, the ‘unmade’ reflect a kind of ultimate grief. At the beginning of the book, Emma is frozen as a character by her sense of guilt and grief for what happened to her little brother, Richie. I truly believe that grieving is a terrible but necessary process. We cannot move on with our lives if we don’t grieve properly. Anything that freezes us in grief – anger, guilt, the belief that we can somehow hold on to the dead indefinitely – can be immensely damaging. The Unmade of the book are souls that are frozen. For various reasons, they cannot let go and move on to whatever comes next, and so they symbolise the freezing effect of grief on Emma and other characters.

Certainly traditional beliefs informed my ideas – possession is an old horror trick and the Gates which imprison the Unmade have a shade of Purgatory about them, but for me it was their symbolic nature that mattered.

Q. The fabled Ghost Machine that Nick and Emma are on the hunt for – a telephone to summon the dead said to have been invented by Thomas Edison – sounds like a dangerous piece of equipment if you ask me, especially if it got into the wrong hands. And it really got me thinking about what different people would use it for. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to! If you could make one telephone call to the land of the dead, who would you call and what would you ask them?

telephoneI wouldn’t. As you say, I think it’s an incredibly dangerous idea. Death is terribly sad, of course, but it must be dealt with on a psychological and emotional level or it has the potential to destroy the living. This is why I’m not a huge fan of so-called ‘spiritualists’ and ‘psychics’. If you treat what they supposedly offer – communication with the dead – as a bit of fun, then I guess there’s not much harm in it, but I fear their claims and ‘communications’ have the potential to lock people inside their grief. Bereaved people need to go through this natural process of acceptance and of saying goodbye – over centuries, the brain has developed this as a coping mechanism and as a way for people to go on living. It is simply not healthy to keep returning to ‘dead’ for succour and solace, and that very much is a message and theme in Haunted.

That said, as an exercise in pure fantasy, there are so many people I would love to chat to who have ‘passed over’, but if I had to choose just one it would be Charles Dickens. I’d insist he told me the solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it’s been bugging me for years!

Q. Your descriptions of ghouls and spirits are pretty vivid, which made me wonder, have you ever seen a ghost yourself?

I have! Or have I? You know, I’m not sure!

brown-ladyHere’s the story: my father bought and plot of land and built our first family home… right next to a medieval graveyard! He really was asking for trouble, wasn’t he? Anyway, late one winter’s afternoon, dad was surveying the building – the walls were up to waist-height, doorframes freshly installed. He happened to glance over at what would become a long entrance corridor and saw, by the light of the ghostly sun, a little old woman dressed in black, her face deeply lined. He called out to her. She did not answer. Believing she might have lost her way, he walked through one of the open doorframes and turned towards the corridor. She was gone. Vanished.

The house stood by itself in a great expanse of flat and open farmland. He turned on the spot, scanned the darkening horizon. No figure interrupted the flat vista. He was alone.

Dad decided not to mention this strange visitation to anyone except my mum, who forbade him to tell the story to us kids. Four years passed. The house was finished. The Hussey family installed.

I was eight years old. It was teatime. I took my plate of sandwiches from the kitchen and hurried to the lounge – as a special treat, mum had allowed me to eat my tea while watching Doctor Who in front of the TV. As I passed through the long corridor, I happened to glance to my right… and saw a little old lady standing at the end of the hall, dressed in black, her face deeply lined. My feet kept moving and it took several steps for my brain to catch up with my senses. I jolted to a halt. Took a sharp breath. Backtracked…

There was no one in the hall.

I told the story to mum and dad, who exchanged weary glances. In the end, they told me the tale of the autumn ghost. From that day the little old woman was never seen again.

Now, was she a ghost? Perhaps. It seems like good evidence for the supernatural, doesn’t it? Two witnesses, years apart, who never discussed their ‘sightings’, but who saw the same figure. However…

What if the first sighting, my dad’s, was a trick of the pale sun and autumnal shadows? What if the figure was no more than a conjuration of the thickening twilight? Resting in bed at night, our senses slipping into sleep, we’ve all seen shadows playing tricks, suggesting figures where none exist. Now imagine: what if I actually had overheard my dad telling someone else the story? Maybe I’d been hunched over my homework while he told the tale to a friend in the kitchen – my conscious mind didn’t register it, but the idea of the old lady managed to sink stealthily into my imagination. Then, years later, as I walked through that corridor, the image flickered before my eyes. Suggestion is a powerful thing.

And isn’t a trick of the light and then a misfiring synapse in the brain a more likely explanation than a ghostly presence?

Perhaps. But then what to make the footsteps that sometimes echoed around the house on winter evenings?

Ah, but that’s another story…

witchfinderQ. You’ve already delved deep into the world of horror with your popular Witchfinder series, and now the realms of the supernatural with Haunted. What next? And will we meet Emma and Nick again? Reading the book, I felt like their journey wasn’t quite over…

Haunted is a standalone story, and I always like to engage the reader in the creative process. Emma and Nick’s story goes on, as do the stories of characters in all books (unless they die, of course! And even then…), but most of that story is up to the reader to imagine.

My next book is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Set in a modern high school, it deals with the disturbing and complex issue of cyber-bullying. This book will revisit the Phantasmagorium and Edgar Dritch, but will be a brand new tale with fresh themes and characters. Like Haunted, there will be a supernatural object tied to a famous historical figure, but this book is less about paranormal thrills and spills and more centred on the internal darkness of the characters, as befits the Jekyll & Hyde background.

But one day we may well revisit Emma and Nick. I hope they had a happy ending, but who knows…?

Q. And finally, what would be Nick’s top tips for keeping hungry spooks at bay this Halloween?

Well, always keep a length of iron pipe or a handful of iron shavings handy – spooks hate iron! Also, no messing around with dark powers or suspect telephones. But I guess Nick’s best piece of advice would be, leave the ghost-slaying to the professionals!

Thank you William – I’ll bear that in mind! And thank you for stopping by.

Well, that’s all folks, from the Lil’ Bookshop of Horrors for this year. It’s been a spooktastic ten days and I’d like to thank all the guest posters and authors who have taken part. That leaves me to say just one more thing…

Happy Halloween!!

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1 Comment

  1. Herman

     /  October 31, 2013

    Happy Halloweeeeeen! Fantastic 10 days of posts – this was a great interview too! Right, off to eat some Halloween candy!

    Reply

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