Shaun Hutson is one of the great survivors from the boom in horror during the 1980s. He first crashed onto the scene with a ground-breaking novel called Slugs in 1982 (in the same year he also published a novel called The Skull under his own name, and a book called Sledgehammer under the name Wolf Kruger, and as Kruger had also published Blood and Honour the year before) and has followed this with approaching fifty books of blood and carnage, making his own distinctive mark on the genre. He has written under several pseudonyms (including one used currently which he will not divulge) and has worked in the Crime and Western genres as well as Horror.
David J Howe caught up with Hutson to discuss his new titles, which firmly place him back in horror territory after a number of novels which seemed to leave more supernatural horrors behind in favour of that which real life can throw at you. Hutson isn’t buying that though. ‘I wasn’t aware that I’d left the horror genre behind for a while,’ he comments, ‘but I know what you mean with the thrillers. I think it just depends on what you call horror. To me, a werewolf or a vampire aren’t as horrifying as someone having a mental breakdown or someone finding out they’ve got a terrible disease. The horror of physical violence is, in my humble opinion, as terrifying as any haunted house or graveyard full of zombies … Using films as an example (I’ll have to because I’m not much of a reader) a film like Se7en is more terrifying than Night Of The Living Dead because it’s about real people, identifiable people not bloody zombies … Raging Bull or Taxi Driver as as horrific in their own ways as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes (in my opinion). Stuff that’s likely to happen to you is infinitely more terrifying than something that will never happen in a million years …’
Anyone who has read his books will know that Hutson is not afraid to speak his mind, and the same is true when being interviewed. He writes what he wants to write, and always has done. ‘My moves back, sideways or up my own arse have always been driven by what I want to write, not by a conscious decision to do something different that’ll reach a wider audience. If that happens then great, but, all I can do is write what I want to write and hope that someone wants to read it.
‘My advice for someone wanting to write horror these days would be don’t … I think horror is a dead genre. It’s been killed by books like Silence Of The Lambs and by the millions of crime books that are around now. People read Silence Of The Lambs and thought they’d read a horror novel. They hadn’t, they’d read something that was horrific. Same with Misery. It wasn’t a horror book, it was horrific. There’s a crucial difference. Horror had it’s golden age in the mid-seventies and early eighties but I honestly believe it’s dead and buried now. I wish I was wrong. You can’t go to the pictures without seeing some new second rate piece of horror every week but that trend hasn’t spilled over into books and won’t as long as there are so many serial killer books around. No zombie can compete with a human monster …
Human monsters are what mark out Hutson’s current two titles, even though they also mix a healthy dose of the supernatural into the format. Available in paperback is Dying Words, a novel about revenge and also about the publishing industry. In the book’s foreword (Hutson always supplies a lengthy commentary at the start of his books) he mentions that the book came about because of a random idea during a discussion about writing.
‘The idea and the genesis for Dying Words came about after I’d been talking to one of my reps about having writer’s block. Normally I don’t suffer with this (well, to tell the truth I suffer with it every bloody morning when I sit down in front of my keyboard but that’s another matter) and I hadn’t had a block so bad since Victims back in 1987. I had a good idea what kind of characters I wanted to write about but I hadn’t got a clue what kind of book to put them in. That’s what usually happens now, I think of something I’d like to write about or issues I’d like to examine and then have to find the right book to do that kind of navel fluff examining in (if you’re still with me..)
‘With Dying Words, I got this thing in my mind about paintings that came to life or being able to enter a specific painting (I’d been browsing through a book of military paintings when that little gem hit me) but then I thought, no, that’s been done too many times before so I thought that something about a haunted library might be ok, and I suppose the two strands of ideas crossed over, I had a brainstorm, thought “entering a book”, and that was it, really.
‘Not every book has such tortuous beginnings, the ideas usually come pretty easily but maybe that’s why Dying Words was so easy to write once I got going. I was so bloody relieved to have a book to do that I started enjoying myself …’
Dying Words features a popular horror novelist as one of the main characters … ‘The immensely successful, good looking and rich horror writer in the book is a complete figment of my imagination and is in no way, shape or form based on me in any way whatsoever, honest, guv …’ chuckles Hutson. ‘I knew that having a horror writer as one of the central characters was going to get people thinking it was me and I suppose there’s bits of him in me, or vice versa. I don’t mix with other authors so he’s definitely not based on anyone else. I think that whatever you write, some of yourself gets into the central character (and sometimes into the peripheral ones too), you can’t help it. I’m a horror writer, John Paxton in the book is a horror writer, there were bound to be similarities somewhere. Maybe he’s what I’d like to be … (I’d settle for good looking and rich, in fact, I’d just settle for rich …)’
I wondered how Hutson felt that horror writers were viewed. ‘I think people tend to assume that the writer is like the books they write. For instance, Jackie Collins writes about rich, spoiled bastards in Hollywood so everyone expects her to be like one of her characters. Thomas Harris writes about serial killers but I don’t think he’s ever murdered anyone … I write about sick, twisted shit so people expect me to be warped like my books (er … actually, they might have a point …) What I also find is that people tend to expect me to be seven feet tall, dressed in black leather, carry an axe everywhere and spend all my time watching horror films. Sorry to disappoint you, folks …’
And what about how horror fiction is viewed by the publishers, distributors and booksellers? ‘I think horror has always been treated with derision by the book trade in general, not proper literature and all that. Maybe it isn’t but, in my humble opinion, it’s certainly no worse than the piles of chick-lit polluting the shelves … Sorry, better shut up there, I’m getting on my soap box …’
Dying Words features the concept of physically being able to step into a book … where would Hutson like to be able to go if he could step into any book? ‘The idea of being able to retreat into a book is quite good really. I’d probably retreat into Michelle Pfeiffer’s autobiography given the choice … Either that or the latest edition of Playboy … Books I’d definitely like to avoid becoming a part of would be War And Peace (too dangerous) or one of my own novels as people tend to die horribly … The whole of Dying Words was fun because it was the first time I’d ever written a book set in the publishing business. It was a really enjoyable experience writing it, as opposed to the grind of most novels. I had more freedom because so much of it was fantasy, I suppose. Like the ending, I could create locations and put people in them at will.’
The main location for the ending of the book is a dilapidated fairground. Where did this concept come from? ‘I think that fairgrounds are really scary places. The one in the book is based on the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth where I spent many holidays as a kid and even the laughing sailor outside the funhouse is there … I know it’s a cliché but I like it. Writing this kind of thing you can’t help but deal in clichés sometimes but it’s how you deal with them, which angle you come at them from that determines whether they work or not. I hate the cliché of people going to a deserted house in the middle of nowhere and getting killed one by one...That was what I was trying to avoid in Twisted Souls a couple of years ago. I didn’t want people going to a run down, dirty house with a horrible history (I hate that) I wanted people going to a new, lovely house with no history at all until they themselves created it. The same with the fairground in Dying Words, it’s been used before I know but, hopefully, not in the same way. The disfigured monster cliché is the same. I don’t normally have monsters in my books, but I thought, fuck it, why not? I think that these days, it’s impossible to write anything that’s completely original, you just have to take old established clichés and twist them to suit your own style. Subvert them if you like, I prefer to take the piss …
Within Dying Words, we learn that one of the horror author John Paxton’s novels is called Unmarked Graves … and then this happens to be your next book … ‘Yes, the name check for Unmarked Graves within Dying Words is an in-joke … sorry … To be honest, I had about as much trouble thinking up fictional titles for Paxton’s work in Dying Words as I do for my own novels in real life … I can’t start work without a title, you see. I could have the greatest idea in the history of the world but, if I haven’t got a title, I can’t write a word …’
Unmarked Graves is a brave novel from Hutson as it deals with a very ‘hot’ topic, that of racial abuse and racism. ‘Thank you for calling Unmarked Graves a brave novel. Very much appreciated. Right from the beginning I saw it as Plague Of The Zombies meets Mississippi Burning …(well, something like that anyway). I didn’t write it as a comment on our society or any other noble reason, it just seemed to work as an idea. I never, contrary to what some people think, set out to shock or outrage (that’s just a pleasant by-product). I decide on a subject that interests me and I write about it. I was intrigued by racism. Why people find it so bloody hard to see past someone’s colour, religion or beliefs and I just went deeper and deeper into it. What I didn’t want were clichés as far as the characters were concerned. That would have been an easy trap to fall into. I hope to God I’ve avoided it. It wasn’t really a race thing either. It was just why some people get so worked up about what others do. Personally speaking, I couldn’t give a toss if my next door neighbours are Satanists who spend all day shagging goats and eating their own shit. As long as they keep it to themselves I’m happy. If they ask me over for a cup of tea that’s fine, as long as they don’t ask me to hold the goat while they cut its throat or tell me that my own beliefs are wrong, then I can handle that too. My philosophy in life is live your own life and let other people live theirs … or, keep your fucking nose out of my business unless you want it broken … But anyway …
‘Unmarked Graves is rooted very firmly in reality. All my books are. If I’d set it in the nineteenth century in some quaint village in the middle of nowhere then the idea of voodoo and the living dead wouldn’t have had the impact it has in a small town in modern day England. Like I said earlier, you take the clichés and twist them to your own purposes. The racism had to be viewed from both sides to give a balanced view. In every book I think you have to have both sides of an argument. That’s why I try to have my central characters with as many flaws as the so-called bad characters. I just think it’s fun to blur that line between what’s good and what’s evil, hardly original but very necessary as far as I’m concerned … It is rooted in reality, in cases in the news and also some things that I myself have encountered. I know people like the ones who exist in Unmarked Graves … but then again, so do lots of others probably.’
With a new paperback and a hardback out now, along with a new paperback collection of two of his earlier titles (Shadows and Nemesis), what is next for Shaun Hutson? ‘What can you expect from me next is a good question … I’m working on next year’s book which hasn’t actually got a title (I know I gave you all that bullshit earlier about not being able to write a novel without having a title but this is the first time I’ve done it). I’ve just finished a kids horror book (my fourth) under a pseudonym and I’ll carry on writing my own stuff as long as anyone wants to read it. Believe me, I’m grateful they still do …
Unmarked Graves and Dying Words are published by Orbit and are available now.
David J Howe