I’ve always thought of Doctor Who as a horror show, as opposed to a sci fi affair, so I would have to say the 70s/80s range of Doctor Who Target novelisations of the TV series. In particular, a story called Terror Of The Autons, in which a man gets eaten by a black plastic chair. That scene disturbed the trousers clean off me as a kid. I’m not sure if I’ve ever allowed myself to watch it in the actual TV series, for fear that 70s special effects simply can’t live up to author Terrance Dicks’ description.
For readers new to horror which 3 books would you recommend they start with?
For starters, I’d suggest a slab of classic Stephen King, such as The Shining. My second choice would be M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, which is of course a brilliant novel full-stop. And then Sarah Lotz’s fabulous scary kids novel, The Three. Great, accessible horror primers.
Do you have a favourite horror sub-genre, and why?
I don’t know if the supernatural counts as a sub-genre, but I do tend to gravitate towards that stuff. There’s just something so gloriously chilling about the dead returning to breathe on the back of your neck. One weirdly nice thing about even the grimmest ghost story, is that they all, by their very nature, suggest there’s an afterlife! I’m also partial to the slasher movie sub-genre, which is a big bag of formulaic fun. I’ve always loved the Friday The 13th movies, which have a classic 80s feel about them. Slasher movies deliver such a fun kinetic kick: you know what’s going to happen, but jolt in your seat anyway.
Most terrifying book you’ve ever read.
That’s quite a tough one, as it’s so rare to find a genuinely terrifying book. But I’d have to go with my desert island horror novel, House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. This extraordinary piece of work doesn’t scare you with ghosts ‘n’ ghouls as such, but envelops the reader in a gigantic wave of creepy madness. The very fact that this enormous book actually exists, full of footnotes and insane text, sometimes only with two or three words per page, is frightening in itself. And that’s before you try to get to grips with the Navidson family’s deeply wrong house.
Your favourite Stephen King book.
Funnily enough, I believe my favourite is one of King’s own least favourites! I should preface this choice by saying I have yet to read every single one of the great man’s books, but anyway it’s Pet Sematary. This is a supremely grim and gruelling read, which does not flinch away from the path it decides to take. That, for me, is what horror’s really all about - dragging you down into the fiery depths of Hell, then typing ‘The End’, patting you on the head and sending you on your way with a few demons dispelled.
Who do you consider the King and Queen of horror fiction?
Sorry, but I’m going to have to cheat and pick two of each. First of all, Stephen King is self-evidently a king – it’s even embedded in his name! He has such a wonderful storytelling style. One thing I really love about King’s work is that he’s no longer trying to impress you with the writing itself. He’s not reaching for that perfect description of a sunset, or striving for some ridiculously outlandish metaphor – he just wants to sit you down by the fire and scare and/or disturb the shit out of you. Some writers just try too hard, and personally speaking, there are really only so many paragraphs of weather description I can take.
My second horror king is Chuck Palahniuk, whose own brand of horror lies in reality. Palahniuk specialises in studying the human condition from the most disturbing angles he can find, and I love that he clearly exercises no self-censorship whatsoever. Or maybe he does! Shudder…
In terms of the queens of horror, I would first have to nominate Sarah Lotz, who gifted the world with The Three, which I touched on earlier. It’s a brilliantly epic horror novel about scary kids, which is being adapted into an eight-part series by the BBC. Sarah’s most recent novel The White Road is also chilling – quite literally, since it mostly takes place up an icy mountain. And then there’s Lauren Beukes, who wrote The Shining Girls, an amazing time-travelling serial killer novel, plus the deliriously weird and wonderful Broken Monsters. Both superb horror authors.
Your favourite horror film (adapted from a book) & why?
That would be John Carpenter’s The Thing, even though it’s not widely known to have been adapted from the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell Jr. The Thing is my second favourite horror film: it’s a wonderful exercise in extreme paranoia, and proves that gore and scares are not mutually exclusive. In case anyone’s wondering, by the way, my favourite horror film is The Evil Dead, which I could probably watch every weekend quite happily.
Horror book that you’d like to see adapted to film & why?
I’d really like to see someone have a go at House Of Leaves. It would be ludicrously hard to do, for many reasons, but I really want to see someone try anyway.
Best horror TV?
The Walking Dead. Took me years to get into that show, because I was sick of the wave of generic zombie fiction to which 28 Days Later inadvertently gave rise. But then I did the classic DVD boxset binge and immersed myself in Robert Kirkman’s world. Like all long-form shows, it’s not without its shortcomings, but its strengths are legion. The first episode of Season Seven was one of the most scarring and disturbing things I’ve ever seen, which is fantastic, given that The Walking Dead is now a mainstream show in terms of audience. That episode felt like a true benchmark in horror fiction.
Did you write in other genres or straight to horror?
I’ve written sci fi before, having tackled official Doctor Who tie-in fiction. That was lots of fun, although funnily enough Doctor Who is the only sci fi show I really love, probably because I think of it as horror, as I said. I’ll probably write something in future that could broadly be called sci fi, but more in a grounded Black Mirror kind of way. Despite being a Doctor Who fan, I’m not all that big on spaceships and space in general.
Tell us briefly about your route to being published.
I’ll tell the story in terms of my own original fiction, because I’d already written tie-in fiction for Doctor Who and Friday The 13th. I then wrote a couple of Kindle Books via Retribution Books, including Beast In The Basement which impressed a friend of a well-placed editor, who introduced me to my well-placed agent, Oli Munson at AM Heath, who in turn introduced me to my well-placed US manager, Lawrence Mattis at Circle Of Confusion. Oli and I waggled The Last Days Of Jack Sparks under various publishers’ noses and we ended up signing with the mighty Orbit Books. And then Lawrence waggled the book under various production companies’ noses and it became optioned by Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. I’m writing the screenplay adaptation as we shriek!
Tell us about your fans
Fact: they are objectively, empirically better than any other people on Earth. In every way. Simple as that. Ha! Genuinely, I love everyone who has bought, read and tweeted about The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, and I would like to apologise, here and now, for any trauma the book has wrought. I swear, it’s safe to sleep with the lights off. Probably.
Do you think horror is ready for a renaissance?
In cinema, horror is an evergreen genre. Production companies continue to make hundreds of horror films every year because they know they’ll sell, to some degree or other. In populist book publishing (and often TV), for some reason, horror sells, but it generally has to wear a mask. It has to masquerade as a chilling thriller, or dark fiction, or something like that. Which is weird, but I suppose it speaks to some fundamental difference between most cinema goers and most book readers. Many readers won’t buy a book if it has the word horror associated with it, and so the books have to be smuggled onto their book shelves under other guises. I’ve come to rather like that, because it actually feels rather subversive, but I don’t see this state of affairs giving way to a renaissance any time soon, if ever.
Tips for new writers of horror fiction.
To quote Chuck Palahniuk: write what upsets you. Also, what scares and worries and disturbs you. Don’t be swayed, in terms of influence, by what everyone else is doing in the genre. Delve deep into your own utterly unique personality, rip out your own guts and splay them across the page. The small print: not literally, obviously. I won’t be responsible for anyone who takes that last piece of advice literally. Thanks, Lounge Books!
‘There’s always something horror-related or –themed in the zeitgeist – serial killers or sexy vampires or just plain old zombie rampages - even if it doesn’t always get the specific ‘horror’ label.’ Meet author Bartholomew Bennett