Alternate dream universes peopled with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson and Peter Lorre, ancient vampiric creatures with the power to shape dreams into a pseudo-reality and a modern day messiah, whose aspirations become his followers' reality. Hardly your run-of-the-mill subjects for fiction, but then Kim Newman is not a run-of-the-mill author.
Born in 1959, Newman is today perhaps best known for his early morning slots on Channel 4, reviewing the latest film releases, but the sheer volume of research and work that has seen print mark him as an acknowledged expert in film subjects ranging from the macabre to the western. This love of film and literature spills over into his books, perhaps most evidently in his first novel, The Night Mayor, a whirlwind race through a film noir inspired nightmare. Jago is his most recent novel, with Bad Dreams being published between the two.
If you thought that Newman had just written three novels, you would think wrong, as there are more to discover lurking under the pseudonym of Jack Yeovil. 'I acknowledge all my illegitimate children,' Kim, alias Jack, laughs. 'I make no attempt to conceal the fact that I write as Jack Yeovil as well.
'The reason I write as Jack is not to disassociate myself from that work, I'm just trying to say that these are different types of books. A good example is Ed McBain and Evan Hunter neither of whom are real people. They're really a guy called Sal Lombino, but I tend to see Jack Yeovil as the Ed McBain and Kim Newman as the Evan Hunter.
'There are other, more practical, aspects like, for example, that no-one really wants to publish more than one book by an author a year and I felt that I could write more than one book a year, more than one type of fiction © I could keep two careers going at the same time.'
The first of the Jack Yeovil titles to see print was Drachenfels (Games Workshop 1989). This is an adventure novel with a difference - a play is staged to celebrate the death of the evil Drachenfels, but the players stir up more than cobwebs and dust as the staging of the drama progresses.
I asked Kim what the chronology of his books was. 'I first wrote The Night Mayor in late 1982 as a novella but it became too long so I left it. Then in 1984 or 1985, I completed an initial draft of Bad Dreams which didn't sell and just hung around. Then, getting depressed, I sat down in early 1987 and wrote in a week a book called Bloody Students, which was, I suppose the first Jack Yeovil novel, although it wasn't a Jack Yeovil novel at the time! And from about 1979 onwards I was vaguely working on Jago.Then, in 1988, I decided to write The Night Mayor properly and that sold to Simon and Schuster! On the back of that everything else I had written sold as well.
'The Night Mayor wasn't the first book published though, I think Drachenfels came out first - by about two weeks!'
Jack Yeovil has so far written seven books. Five (Drachenfels, Demon Download, Krokodil Tears, Come Back Tour and Beasts in Velvet) have been published by Games Workshop. A sixth title (Genevieve Undead) is still with them and it should see publication at some future date, and a seventh book is just available from Grafton Books. This is Bloody Students. 'That was written at a time when I'd been writing quite a while and I was just a bit depressed as nobody had bought my stuff,' recalled Kim. 'I reasoned that if I wrote a book in a week then, even if it sold for something pathetic, even if it sold for five hundred pounds, that would still be more than I'd earned in
a week before. And if it didn't sell - what was a week! I didn't actually give up anything - and I even took the weekend off as well.'
Bloody Students concerns a college©full of guys and gals doing what students do - talking, mixing, partying and so on. Then a virus is released and the kids start to succumb to its effects - mainly a feeling of well-being and a hugely enhanced sexual drive. Unfortunately this is followed by aggression and blood-lust - hence the title.
'It is a typical student novel in many ways, but I think I can exclusively reveal that the next Jack Yeovil that I want to do is a teenage slasher novel to be called Judy's Turn to Cry from the Lesley Gore song. It's about teenagers being horrible to each other in a Carrie sort of way.'
Poles apart from slasher novels is Kim's new book (under his own name this time) Jago. I wondered where that fitted into the wider picture. 'It started with various people sitting around the commonroom at Sussex University and talking about what we were going to do when we grew up. I knew I was destined for long term misery and unemployment - this was the first recession, Margaret Thatcher had just been elected, graduate unemployment was at an all time high, and I knew I had no future whatsoever, so it was suggested that I write a big thick bestselling novel.
'All I can say is that Jago is big and thick, and that the original intention was to write a commercial book. I always wanted to produce something that was broader in its appeal than just to genre fans - those people who liked The Night Mayor and Bad Dreams. I also thought it would be nice to have something that didn't need as much explanation as for example The Night Mayor.
'The biggest influence, as with most people of my generation, was Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. It's interesting, but I believe King got most of 'Salem's Lot from Grace Metalious who wrote Peyton Place. If you compare the two there are a lot of parallels that I think King added deliberately. He took the plot of Dracula and the setting of Peyton Place and combined them to superb effect.
'I wanted to do something with that structure: lots of characters, a small community, with a good sense of the history of the community. A lot of feel about the past in it. I also wanted to set it in England, and I grew up close to a village that inspired the one in the book. Once I had the setting, I knew that it had to have a big idea to it and you can't get much bigger than religion. I'm interested in religion, and at the time I was outlining it there was a lot of talk about the Moonies, and subsequently the Scientologists, and that whole cult idea intrigued me a lot.
'The book grew organically rather than being a pot pourri of ideas. It's taken a long time to write, but the central elements and characters have been there since the early '80s when I first outlined it. A lot of the images from the latter half of the book date from that period as well.'
The eponymous Jago is a self-styled messiah with the power to make others believe what he wishes them to believe and is a powerful and dangerous force in the novel. I commented that the reader is never allowed into Jago's head - you never know exactly who or what he is (or thinks he is).
'The literary precedent for that is Dracula, where you never really know Dracula. You see him in different forms but you don't get inside his head. Another influence that I wanted to get in the book was Wells' The Invisible Man. That has a great narrative structure, it has lots and lots of viewpoints but Griffin - the invisible man - isn't one of them, so he is invisible to you, the reader. Wells disguises it brilliantly by having a long section narrated by Griffin where he is telling you something direct - in fact he's telling someone else in the story - which means that you don't have to trust him. I thought that was a great pun on him being invisible, and what being invisible really means.'
With Jago available in hardback, and Bloody Students published in paperback in November, I wondered what we could expect next from Kim/Jack.
'Certainly I think I'll be staying in the horror genre: the next three Kim Newman books I have outlined have horror as their basis, but my whole outlook is that I don't want to write the same novel again. Many authors do, and in some cases I really like the original novel, but I don't want people to say "Oh, it's another Kim Newman book." I want them all to be different, to do something different with each book.
'What I would like to do next is a hardback collection of my short fiction, of which there is a substantial amount now, and I would like another novel out at the same time as Jago is published in paperback. At the moment that is what I am describing as a Steampunk Vampire novel. Victorian set,
alternate world novel with vampires in it. At the moment it's provisionally titled Anno Dracula and a novella, Red Reign, which will form the core of the book, will appear in Steve Jones' Mammoth Book of Vampires.'
Until then, we wish Kim Newman and Jack Yeovil good luck with their respective books ... and may the best man win!