My guest today is Steve Emmett – man who has worn many hats in his time but is currently very happily sporting the snap brimmed fedora of the writer, reviewer, enabler for other authors and general all round good egg. His own work in the horror genre wends its way from creepy through disturbing to gut-churning horror via sleepless nights. A gay man, happily partnered, he lives in the north of England, though his mind excurses to some pretty scary places.
Welcome Steve and thanks for answering my questions.
Elin: Can you tell me a little about yourself? For instance, do you have to have a day job as well as being a writer?
Steve: Well, I don’t HAVE to have one but after a couple of years of being completely solitary I made the decision to look for a worthwhile part-time job. For more than twenty-five years I met people from all walks of life on a daily basis, attended meetings, spoke at events and so on. Whilst I enjoy solitude I found – and I will admit it was to my surprise – that I need regular contact with other people in order to grow. And before anyone says I’m too big already, I don’t mean my waist size! If one is totally cut off from life, how can one be alive? I have to say that living where I do in the middle of nowhere, finding something ‘worthwhile’ proved difficult. I didn’t want to stand in a shed packing boxes, or serve in a shop, nor did I want to be a salesman or involved in the financial sector. My background (as I think everyone knows by now) is property – I studied architecture at university, and sold country homes and estates in Italy from 1987 to 2009, with the odd foray into Spain, Portugal, France, Greece and Cyprus. Over the years I came to hate it. The pursuit of money, enabling the rich to become even richer, disturbed me more and more. I became ashamed of what I did and so disillusioned I gave it all up – to write.
I wanted to do something more intellectually challenging, make a cultural contribution. And it was this need to add value to society, and to use the experience and knowledge I had gained, that I sought to satisfy also in any job I took on outside my writing. Eventually something perfect came along, working with landlords in York to ensure the highest possible standards in student accommodation. As you may know, York has two universities. So two days a week I do that, and enjoy it, and five days a week I write. Don’t forget; every new person I meet is potential material for my stories.
Elin: As a horror writer you will have seen the recent post on the Guardian book blog about the dilution of horror as a genre and how it needs some revivivication. True, not true, pile of steaming crap?
Steve: I totally agree with the article and I’ve been saying it for some time. Last year I talked about it in my presentation at the Northampton booQfest and recently wrote about it on my website here.
I find it very hard to locate horror that I want to read. I download endless samples on to my Kindle and often never even finish them before deleting them, let alone buy the book. I review for the New York Journal of Books and wish I could do more; take a look at my page there.
I despair that I have written so few reviews, and some of those are less than complimentary, but the reason is that when I scour lists of forthcoming releases I simply have no interest in them. So much horror fiction today is crap, to put it bluntly, and it isn’t all to blame on self-publishing. Too many gore-soaked crime thrillers are marketed as horror. I am as sick to death of reading crime, reading about serial killers, as I am of reading about fluffy, sparkly villains. Get real. Horror needs no likeable characters, nor a happy ending. Better to hate every person in the story, to fear them, and be revolted – even bereft – by the climax. I know there are writers producing good work (some say I am one of them, but I’m too shy to comment on that) like Gary McMahon who still hasn’t had the recognition he deserves, and John Lindqvist, but the problem lies with the agents and publishers who seem to be afraid of taking the material on. One agent recently wrote to me and said how well I am doing on my own and don’t need him, and anyway he has always ‘been hopeless at selling horror’. Another said she loved my work but wouldn’t know where to start ‘in this market’. So many publishers who claim to handle horror don’t actually pass scrutiny; so much being crime, fantasy no more scary than The Hobbit, or – for me the worst of all – paranormal romance and women’s/teen girls ghost stories – more haberdashery than horror. Those who like real horror buy books, too! Or would, if they could find them.
Elin: How do you pique the jaded palates of potential readers used to extremes of blood gore and anguish in video games?
Steve: Hmm. I am not convinced that, on the whole, people who play video games read the kind of books we are talking about. The assumption that they do stems from the mistake made by many people who don’t like horror themselves: that violence is needed to create horror. As the work of M R James continues to show, you don’t need blood to scare people. Anguish is defined as severe mental or physical pain or suffering. This is what I seek to transmit in my writing and I like to do it subtly so that the reader is barely aware of the goose bumps on their arms, of the hairs on their neck rising, until it is too late. And then they will be utterly shocked if I’ve done my job properly, and people who don’t like horror will lambast me for writing unlikeable characters.
Elin: Are you one of those people constantly dodging strokes of inspiration or do you have to work hard for your writing ideas?
Steve: I dodge book titles and core ideas – but then I spend months and years agonising over the other 90,000 words.
Elin: Do your characters arrive fully fledged and ready to fly or do they develop as you work with them?
Steve: Oh, they develop. Once I get to the end of the first draft my next job is to go right back to page one and work on the early scenes so that each character fits with how she/he is in the latter part of the book. This is very clear in the novel I am finishing now together with fellow horror author Julia Kavan; my MC is a psychiatrist who, shall we say, falls by the wayside. Right now, near the bitter end, I am living in his skin, seeing with his eyes, feeling what he feels. I know he has changed and he is meant to, but when I go back to page one I can guarantee he’ll need a makeover.
Elin: Is there anything you can’t write without? Perfectly sharpened 2H pencils and a Moleskine notebook? Merlot? Lucky boxers?
Steve: I am a minimalist, Elin, and my handwriting is illegible. I can’t even jot down notes when out and about as I can’t read my own writing after 30 seconds. It makes shopping interesting at times! So my necessities are: 1. Silence (not even birdsong). 2. A computer. If I am in a comfortable, dry place that helps but isn’t essential.
Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?
Steve: You may wish you hadn’t asked because I read a few things at the same time. Which I turn to depends on the time of day, my mood, how tired I am, deadlines. So right now my list includes: Let The OId Dreams Die by John Lindqvist; The Still Point by Amy Sackville; The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates. And in the non-fiction category: Thinking About Death by Peter Cave and Brendan Larvor; The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens; The Smelliest Man Alive by Ken Shakin; The Good Book by A C Grayling; The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. And by the way – most of these on Kindle rather than print!
Elin: What are you working on at the moment? Can you discuss it or do you prefer to keep it a secret until it’s finished.
Steve: I can tell you, as I have, that it is co-authored with Julia Kavan, and that it’s a psycho-sexual thriller about a psychiatrist who has a chance meeting with a young woman who changes his life. We are almost at the end of the first draft and I have to say I am loving it. I hope the market will, when the time comes.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
Steve: Since you ask so politely, Elin, I’ll give you an exclusive. When I’ve finished the current book with Julia, I will go back to a work-in-progress called I Love You To Bits. Here is an excerpt from Chapter One, and it is first draft so excuse any silly bits.
The sky had all the appeal of a moth eaten lamp shade, insipid light leaking through random patches between black and grey clouds. Rain and hail hammered down on the car and blurred the windshield, the wipers thudding rhythmically as they fought to part the sea of ice and grease. Thud, squeak. Thud, squeak.
“We need to get the wiper blades changed,” said Paul, fighting off the condensation on the inside of the glass with a yellow duster while the fan roared at full speed to no avail.
“Whatever.” I concentrated on avoiding the crowd. The usual Friday masses swelled by hundreds of Muslims on their way to prayers, their white smocks dripping beneath the hems of dark coats as they dashed between the crawling traffic in an attempt to beat the downpour.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Paul stuff the duster into the door pocket then turn to me. “Do you think she will even recognise you?” His voice had that tone you might use when asking a hard-up friend if they really expected to win with that lottery ticket they were determined to buy.
“Dunno. Last time she did.”
“That’s how long ago? Six months?”
“Not that long. Four, maybe.” It sounded like an awful long time. I winced as a bus shot past in the opposite direction catapulting a wave of brown over the car. It seemed to pass through the window and consume me in a torrent of guilt.
“You okay, love?” Paul reached over the centre console and squeezed my thigh. It was his way of showing affection, so long as no one could see into the car.
“I dread what I’m going to find, that’s all.”
“If she doesn’t know you, there’s not a lot of point in putting yourself through it.”
I took my eyes off the melee in the road and glanced at him. “That’s an awful thing to say.”
“Look out!” Paul grabbed at the steering wheel and sounded the horn. “Idiot.”
The terrified man jumped back onto the kerb, his eyes bright with shock.
“He’s only trying to go about his business,” I said, my head throbbing from the adrenaline rush. The heavy traffic forced us to crawl, but on a normal day I’d have been going faster. Fast enough, I thought, to have had a real chance of ending the poor sod’s life. Just a split second. That’s all it takes to make the lights go out. The thought lodged in my brain and put down roots.
“All I’m saying is, if this time she’s too far gone to have any idea you are there—”
“I know what you’re saying.” My voice came out too loud and made the back of my neck tingle. “I know,” I said again, quieter this time. “But I couldn’t not come and see her. She was always good to me.” I swallowed. “The only one.”
The KwikFit garage appeared out of the gloom and I turned left into the road just before it, squeezing between the columns of parked cars on either side. Beyond them, the dense red bricks of the run down terraced houses glistened as the rain slid down them to mingle with dog shit, chewing gum and litter.
“What a dump. How come she ended up in this place?”
“No room anywhere closer to home, apparently.” The woman at social services had told me they’d been lucky to find anywhere at all, but I cringed at the thought of her spending her last days here. “At least the home isn’t too bad. And she hasn’t a clue where she is.”
“Just as well,” said Paul, peering out of the window, his top lip curled at the corner.
I turned into the empty car park and stopped close to the main entrance. The old people’s nursing home had been recently built on a vacant site in the middle of Victorian workers’ cottages that should have been demolished long ago. Yellow brick walls with stripes of something blue, lime green window frames and red gutters. It sat in the grim surroundings like a birthday cake on a dung heap.
“See,” I said, unfastening my seat belt. “Not bad at all.”
“I’ll wait here.”
“You’re not coming in?” I wanted him with me but I couldn’t insist. In his shoes I wouldn’t want to go through this. Paul had come into my life relatively recently and my aunt, despite meeting him, had forgotten all about him.
Paul shook his head and squeezed my hand. His eyes glistened with tears. “I’m here for you.”
I smiled. “I know.”
I grabbed the plastic bag from the back seat. Dark chocolates. Her favourites. I wished I could have thought of something better, but what? I opened the door. The rain had eased a bit. The air had that neutral smell of electricity mingled with a hint of curry.
“Take as long as you need,” said Paul, as I closed the door.
I’d been in these places before. Well, not quite like this one. My grandfather had succumbed to Alzheimer’s before so much was known about it and had been confined in a rambling Victorian mental institution. The Mad House as we’d always called it when I was a child. How one quickly regrets these things when they come home to roost. Political correctness has gone too far, in my opinion, but back in those days it seemed our parents and the society of which they were part lurched in the opposite direction. I’d only managed to visit my grandfather once in The Mad House as he died within a few days of being admitted. Some other patient, and I use the term loosely, had thumped him and broken his jaw. But once was enough to remember the stench of piss and shit, the smell of school dinners, the cries of help that fell on deaf ears, and those staring eyes that seemed common to every one of the inmates. Eyes that followed the visitors, pleading silently for rescue.
My grandmother, when her number came up, had an even worse end. Her mind remained with her to the last but her body gave up. I cannot think how many times I’d heard her say over the years, “Don’t let them take me to the Grubber.” The Grubber being the name her generation had given to the ex-workhouse, which by then had become the local geriatric unit of the nearby district hospital. Her generation, born when Victoria still reigned, remembered the workhouse in its heyday. My grandfather had grown up in it. Yet when her doctor decided the time had come, to The Grubber she went and, as a child, I was powerless to prevent it. The image of her clinging to the door frame of her house as the ambulance men dragged her to their waiting vehicle would be forever etched on my memory. Another of those dark gems set in my brain, along with the same stench of the ward where she died, and the jealous eyes that watched from the nearby beds.
A short, spherical nurse in a green uniform and cream tights leaned against the reception desk. Her chubby cheeks had the florid complexion of an outdoor worker and the overall effect was of an apple lolly on a stick.
“I’ve come to see Mrs. Lund,” I said, resting the plastic carrier bag on the Formica counter.
“And you are?” She looked at me over the top of her glasses.
Suddenly her face brightened. “Are you Timothy?”
I nodded. “In person.”
“She talks about you all the time.” The nurse scurried behind the desk and lifted a telephone. “I’ll get someone to take you up to her, if you’d just like to take a seat over there.” She pointed to a cluster of high-backed chairs upholstered in pink and green vinyl.
I sat between a too-tall rubber plant and a drinks dispenser with a dodgy light that winked at me perversely. The leaves on the plant shone, reflecting and intensifying the irregular flashes. They had obviously been recently polished. In fact the whole place looked clean and I realised then that something was missing. The stench of stale urine.
An auxiliary soon appeared, a white plastic apron tied around her slender body and her blonde hair tucked into a paper cap. “You’ve come to see Mrs. Lund? Follow me.”
She led me down a corridor and into a lift big enough to take two stretchers. My nostrils detected an aroma of school dinners, but nothing worse. At the second floor we passed down a passage lined with doors on either side, each bearing a handwritten name on a card slotted into a chrome holder. I looked for my aunt’s name but didn’t find it.
We entered a big room filled with the same kind of chairs that I’d been sitting on in reception, a muted television, some tables and chairs, and a few lonely walking frames. A glass panel in the wall to my right revealed the patients in an adjacent room. Some slumped in chairs, saliva dribbling from their gaping mouths. Others promenaded as if on a day out at the seaside, their limbs trembling from a non-existent wind. At the far side of the room a hand shot up into the air like a child vying for teacher’s attention. My aunt. She’d recognised me, and from at least thirty feet away.
“Wait here and I’ll fetch her through. It’ll be quieter in here.”
I watched as the auxiliary found a male nurse to help her lift my aunt out of the chair. One at each side, they dragged her towards me. Her feet touched the vinyl flooring but contributed nothing to the journey. The last time I’d seen her she could get about with the aid of a walking frame. As they neared, tears welled up in my eyes. With her steel-grey hair flat to her head and empty grin, my aunt looked more like Macbeth’s third witch than the woman I’d known for almost forty-five years. That woman went to the hairdresser every Friday afternoon without fail and never set foot outside without her dentures.
“You’re late,” she said, her words had that draughty sound made by passing over toothless gums.
“Am I?” I felt shy, uncomfortable. I knew I needed to shout but couldn’t quite manage it with the members of staff there. I had inherited social awkwardness.
“I said, am I?”
My aunt laughed. “Are you what?”
She laughed again. “You daft bugger. ‘Course you’re not late.”
As the nurses lowered her into a chair by the window she broke wind violently, it had a disturbingly liquid tone, and started laughing again. “Whatever have I done to deserve this?” She looked at me and the laughter turned to tears. She held her arms out to me and I bent down to hug her. She wrapped her arms around my neck and covered my face with sloppy kisses. I pulled her close and shock froze me. She had become nothing more than a bag of skin and bones that smelled like a baby in need of a nappy change.
“How long are you stopping?” she asked, finally releasing me.
I took my coat off, suddenly aware of the stifling heat, and sat in a chair in front of her. “As long as I can.”
I raised my voice. We were alone now. “I’ll stay as long as I can.” The urge to get out brewed already and I felt guilty. I couldn’t help hating these places.
“I’m glad you’ve come. I told them you were coming.”
“I brought you these.” I took the chocolates out of the carrier bag and put them on her lap. The box hissed as it slid across the nylon regulation pants.
“Ooh, bloody hell! I’ll have diarrhoea if I eat these.” Her hands ran over the box trying to find a way in through the cellophane wrapper. “Open it for me.”
I opened it and she sat looking at the tray of chocolates as if they were the Crown Jewels.
“Shall I give you one?”
“Find me a soft one. I can’t manage hard ones without me teeth.”
“Why don’t you have your teeth in?”
“Where are your teeth?”
She laughed so much her body shook and I had to stop the box of chocolates falling to the floor. “You daft thing. They’re in me head, where do you think they are?”
I stuck a strawberry crème between her lips and her eyes sparkled. She turned her head to the window and I followed her gaze. The room looked out at the roofs of tumble down houses with bent TV aerials, lopsided chimney pots, missing slates and shiny satellite dishes. The rain had stopped but dark clouds sailed like the bellies of sinister galleons over the hills in the far distance.
“It’s a nice day,” she said, chocolaty saliva spilling over her bottom lip. “I might go for a walk later.”
“Do they take you out?” I took a tissue from my pocket and wiped her mouth.
“You’re auntie Jean does.”
Auntie Jean had been dead for at least ten years and they hadn’t spoken a word to each other for the ten before that. “Does she come often?”
“Who? Jean? Yes. I see her walking in those fields.” She pointed towards the rooftops.
“Does anyone else come to see you?”
“Does anybody else visit you?”
She shook her head. “No. Nobody comes except you. I see Jean in those fields but she never shows her face. She always was a nasty bitch.” She reached over and took my hand, her fingers like warm bones. “I’m glad you’ve come. I told them you were coming. I thought you might have brought me mother with you, though. She’s not poorly, is she?”
I took a deep breath. I’d heard that it’s better to be brutally honest in these situations, though I wondered if it wasn’t better just to play along with the fantasy. I swallowed hard. “Your mother’s dead.”
She looked like a hare caught in the headlights of a car. “Dead?”
“She’s been dead thirty years.”
She didn’t speak. Her eyes looked out over the roofs. Her face showed no expression and I sat quietly, letting her digest the news and grieve for the umpteenth time. “I bet your auntie Jean doesn’t know,” she said, once she’d gummed the chocolate to death. “I’d better tell her next time she passes.” She turned back to me. “How’s Susan?”
“You are still together, aren’t you?”
I shuffled in my chair. “Yes. Why wouldn’t we be?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes flitted about. “There’s something. Something not right.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
She lifted her head and sat upright. “Was there somebody else?”
“You know what I mean, daft bugger. Somebody else, other than Susan.”
I laughed nervously. “Of course not.”
“Are you sure?”
A frail old man shuffled into the room, steadying himself on the furniture. I sighed with relief when my aunt’s attention turned to him. “He’s a silly old bugger,” she said. “Doesn’t know which day of the week it is. He can’t get about. At least I can get about on my own.”
“Can you walk, then?” I asked.
“I can walk. I go for a walk every day. Not like him.” She nodded at the man who was by then shuffling his way to the other room. “Silly old bugger. They are all. I feel sorry them.”
I glanced at my watch and she saw me.
“That’s nice,” she said, leaning over to examine the time piece. “What is it?”
“Never heard of it.” She took hold of my wrist and twisted it so that the light reflected off the lens. “Bet it cost a bob or two, knowing you.”
“It’s the one you bought me for my twenty-first.”
“I bought you? Funny, I don’t remember that.” Her scrawny fingers found their way back to her lap. “Are you leaving now?”
“I’d better, I suppose. We… I’ve a long way to go and the weather looks bad.”
“It’s been an awful day. Always is. I never get out.”
I got to my feet and shucked on my coat. “I’ll see you next time.”
“If I’m still here.”
“You’ll be here.”
“I hope not.”
“Don’t say that.” I bent to kiss her and she hugged me with what little strength lurked in her withered body.
“It’s bothering me now.”
I stood and looked down at her. I could see her scalp, jaundiced and flaky where the hair had fallen out. “What is?”
She turned her face up to me. She looked so small and feeble and at least a hundred and twenty years old. “I can’t think but… there was somebody else.” She shook her head. “There was. I’ll not settle now.”
You can find Steve here:
Steve’s first horror novel, Diavolino, is available in paperback and eBook from a number of sellers worldwide, including Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Diavolino-ebook/dp/B004NIFIC0
He’s also published a humorous eBooklet on Amazon called the A-Z of Understanding Italians: