AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Today is a rather special day. Why’s that I hear you ask? Well today’s the day I get to interview my discovery of the year, John Llewellyn Probert. Yes I know I am a little slow on the uptake. So sit back and enjoy this great interview with the man who Ellen Datlow has called “Horrific and charming in equal measure”
Hello John, how are things with you?
Hi Jim it’s lovely to be here. Writing-wise things are very busy at the moment, in fact this has been my busiest year yet, which is great and I hope it continues. I’ve just finished one project and before I start the next it’s a pleasure to be doing this interview with you.
Could you give the readers a little bit of background information on yourself?
Well I live close to Bristol in an eccentric Victorian house that was originally built to house its owner’s collection of weird things he’d picked up on his trips around the world. Some of the intricately carved doors are seventeenth century and were apparently brought over from a deconsecrated church on the continent. I’m not making any of this up and believe me it’s an amazing and inspiring place to live. I live there with Kate aka Lady Probert aka the horror writer Thana Niveau who I will be marrying on Halloween this year. Words cannot begin to describe just how happy I am about that!
What first attracted you to the horror genre?
I could probably spend a very long time answering that question, but I’ll keep it short by saying that I was a very intelligent, very imaginative and very nervous child. I had a fantastic childhood but I was able to find fear in almost anything and horror very much helped me cope with that and made me realise I wasn’t alone. My first experiences of the horror genre would be Dr Who on television, and in literature probably the Armada Ghost Books edited by Christine Bernard and Mary Danby, which contained great stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Ogden Nash and R Chetwynd-Hayes among many others
I think we both grew up round about the same time period, do you like me still think the 1960’s and 1970’s were the Golden Age of Horror, especially in terms of horror films?
I think there have been many ‘Golden Ages’ of horror films, actually, from the German silents to the Universal Horrors, Hammer and beyond. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my own favourite period in horror film history in Britain in the 1970s because I don’t think any other country in any other era produced such a range of different kinds of very good films – everything from THE DEVILS to THEATRE OF BLOOD to HOUSE OF WHIPCORD. I also love the US renaissance of the late 1970s to mid 1980s which gave us HALLOWEEN, THE HOWLING, EVIL DEAD, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, REANIMATOR and HELLRAISER (which had US finance even though it was made in the UK
Would you agree that the problem with most modern horror films is the fact that they have lost their heart?
I think there’s an awful lot of good stuff out there at the moment. In fact I’m surprised how much there is. Sometimes it’s finding it that’s the problem! Especially as there is a lot of rubbish out there too. The only movies that I have really had little time for have been the flood of rather soulless remakes, which seem to be calming down a little bit now. I quite liked the remake of THE THING, though,
What was the last great horror film you watched?
I suppose it depends on how you define great! Over the past twelve months I’ve seen some stuff that has made me feel very positive about the future of the horror movies at the moment. Films that have made me want to tell everyone about them have included GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, Nicholas McCarthy’s THE PACT, Stephen Miller’s THE AGGRESSION SCALE and Drew Goddard’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Movies that I thought were great but might have slightly more limited appeal have included THE THEATRE BIZARRE, TUCKER AND DALE VS EVIL and GUILTY OF ROMANCE
Your love of horror films resulted in you setting up House of Mortal Cinema website. What is the main purpose of the site?
To provide some love and appreciation for horror films that I don’t feel have been given a fair reception by other reviewers, and to communicate some of the enthusiasm I feel for these pictures by writing reviews that are entertaining and that hopefully tell people exactly what kind of a film it is. I was reading film reviews way before I started reading fiction and it just feels terribly natural to me to want to write about anything I’ve just seen. I used to post my comments on internet forums but as the comments got longer and longer I realised it probably wasn’t fair to clutter up message boards with them. The site has been going for exactly a year now and I’m close to my one hundredth review. It’s had a very good reception, a healthy number of hits, and it’s even made me a few friends, including the directors of some of the films I’ve reviewed, which is great because if anything the one individual who needs to know there’s some love out there for what they’ve done is the person who made it.
Are their only good films and bad films? Or do you believe some films are so bad they are good?
I think it depends how much you love film, to be honest. It’s very rare that I come across a horror film that I hate, because I love the genre so much. Even films that are considered bad by many can have redeeming features. The only horror films I would call truly bad are those that make me feel stupid and embarrassed for having watched them, and then make me worry that anyone who hates horror might see them because it would simply confirm everything that they think.
Could you give us an example of what you think best epitomises these types of films?
Like I said I’ve seen very few films that would fit the above description, but PIRANHA 3DD is quite possibly the most appalling and embarrassing experience I have ever had in a cinema.
In a recent article you talk about how British TV horror made you into the man you are today. In it you mention how British comedy had at times a dark and scary undercurrent, is this something that is unique to British culture, and why do you think that is?
I think we’re very good at finding scary things funny without any of their scariness being diminished. Many of our great comedy icons would be properly scary if we actually encountered them, all the way from Basil Fawlty at his most manic to pretty much everything in The League of Gentlemen. We’re also much greater fans of the kind of things Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan are so good at, and Sacha Baron Cohen as well, where they create a comic situation out of the most appalling awkwardness and misery of a character with absolutely no apology or happy ever after for anyone.
Again a lot of it harks back to the 1970’s, do you think we are looking back at that decade through rose tinted glasses or does it stand up to today’s standards?
I’m surprised, not just at how much it stands up, but how much more effective much of what was made then is than what is on offer now. I think that rapid editing techniques and flashy visuals have done a lot to undermine horror television. It could be very, very good indeed – the recent updating of SHERLOCK showed how to use modern techniques to work for a programme rather than against it, but at the moment my scariest television moments are still from the 1970s.
What’s your view on remakes?
There’s nothing wrong with them in principle. There are some great remakes out there – John Carpenter’s THE THING, David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, Hammer’s DRACULA which I watched again recently and realised it’s almost not the book at all, which I think is a good thing. Most remakes are awful because they don’t do what each of those films I’ve mentioned achieve so perfectly – they take the central idea and do it in a completely different way, making it relevant to the audience of the day while still incorporating all the little nuances that make a particular film special. There’s been talk of a remake of Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME. Now rather than roll my eyes I can see the potential in that – it could be something really rather special. Likewise the HELLRAISER remake that was proposed a couple of years ago which was to be directed by Pascal Laugier. Can you imagine that? HELLRAISER directed by the man who did MARTYRS? I’d go and watch that, definitely. And I would be disappointed if I wasn’t horrified.
Out of the current crop of horror films, what would you recommend to someone who has become jaded with he whole scene.
After recently attending FrightFest in London’s Leicester Square I would point everyone in the direction of a film called SINISTER starring Ethan Hawke. I can honestly say it’s one of the scariest films I have ever seen. There’s not much blood but there’s a lot of corner of the retina horror and a sustained atmosphere of dread that becomes almost unbearable by the end.
Did you love of horror fiction develop in tandem with your love of horror films?
Yes absolutely. While my first brushes with horror were anthologies like the Armada and a little bit later the Pan horrors, it was very much the movies that made me seek out works by Robert Bloch and R Chetwynd-Hayes. I even went through my Dad’s Complete Shakespeare when I was eleven to see if all the quotes used in THEATRE OF BLOOD were actually in the plays!
Can you remember what the first horror book you read was? And what about it captured your imagination?
The first proper horror book I read was The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories and it had a profound effect on me, as did many of the other books in that series. But let’s go back to volume nine, which had some stories in it that definitely influenced me. I won;t go through them all but I loved Lindsay Stewart’s Strictly for the Birds, about an old man who is rotting and feeding himself to the pigeons in the park, and Martin Waddell’s Bloodthirsty which is a hilarious and blood spattered vampire tale. Eddy C Bertin’s The Whispering Horror is one of my all-time favourite stories too.
And how did your reading tastes branch out from this initial encounter?
Well as I’ve said it was really film and television that pointed the way. I got all the Pan horror and whatever collections of the authors I’ve mentioned above I could find. Television adaptations of MR James and Roald Dahl meant I got those, too, and Nigel Kneale became a hero of mine from a very early age. I absolutely adored his work and I read the script to Quatermass and the Pit over and over again.
As young man, how did you satisfy you horror needs? There is now a generation of fans who don’t realise that the latest fix of horror wasn’t just a click of a mouse away. We had to actually go out and discover it for ourselves?
I grew up in Abergavenny and to be honest from the horror point of view living somewhere like that was rubbish. My family didn’t get out much and as a result reading wise I was limited to what I could get in WH Smiths. Once I discovered the Exchange and Mart I started writing to used booksellers around the country to try and get what I wanted. I picked up the entire set of Sphere Hammer novelisations and a lot of other stuff that way. But it really was quite difficult. Stephen King was just becoming popular but if you didn’t like James Herbert or Guy N Smith you were a bit stuck, especially as trying to order something from a bookshop usually produced a blank stare.
And who do you read now?
Right at this moment I’m ploughing through George R R Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire which is quite marvellous. I’m a big fan of adult epic fantasy – Moorcock, Jack Vance, E R Eddison and the like, but it’s difficult to do well. Martin’s books have a huge cast but like Dickens he’s absolutely masterly at keeping control of everything. At least so far! I read about 70 books a year and that’s a mixture of old and new. So far this year some of the best stuff I’ve read has been by Karl Edward Wagner, Ed Gorman (great crime writer!), Charles L Grant, Algys Budrys, William Hjortsberg, Paul Finch, Christopher Fowler and Richard Gavin. Current favourites have to include Reggie Oliver, who is a lovely man and who writes the kind of stories I to aspire to. Tim Lees’ Frankenstein’s Prescription was my favourite novel of last year and books by Rob Shearman, Gary McMahon and Graham Joyce were in my top ten as well.
Do you still take time to revisit your favourite reads from a bygone era?
When I can. I read my favourites by authors like M R James, H P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch fairly regularly, and I recently read the entire short stories of Charles Birkin aloud to Lady P over a number of weeks.
Can you remember what first motivated you to pick up a pen a start writing?
It was a number of things, but mainly the fact that there wasn’t a lot of horror fiction currently being written that was the kind that I liked the most. It also didn’t look as if any was likely to appear unless I did it myself, so I decided to take the plunge and set myself what I consider to be quite a kind and modest goal, in that if I hadn’t had anything published five years from when I decided to start I would give up. I didn’t have to wait anywhere near that long, which was very encouraging.
And has this motivation changed over the years?
That particular motivation is still definitely there, but I really am very delighted indeed that my stories entertain so many people, and that’s a very strong motivating factor now as well. When I started I was writing for myself because I didn’t think anyone else would get to read it. Now I’m very consciously writing to entertain an audience as well, and I love that, I really do.
How long was it between becoming serious as a writer and actually becoming a published writer?
If you want me to be honest here I’m going to have to say it was six months between me first deciding I wanted to be a writer and my story The Trendelenberg Concerto being published in Jenny Barber’s magazine Here & Now Issue 2. I even got paid for it! Shortly after that David Longhorn published a story of mine called The Sacristy in his excellent Supernatural Tales magazine. It was a while before anything else got accepted anywhere, but those two were the key to me keeping going when the rejection slips were piling up. Do you know I used to keep all of them? In a great bit document folder? I’ve thrown them all away now. They served a purpose for a while but after that I didn’t feel the need to hang onto them
How would you describe your writing style? Would you say there is a unifying stylistic element that links all of your work? Or does it change from project to project?
My wife Kate says that anything I write ends up being a JLP story no matter what the subject matter is, and I certainly think there’s some truth to that. Some of my stories are nastier, some are lighter, but I think the thing that unifies them stylistically is that they’re all sound as if they’re being told to the reader by me while I’m sitting in a lovely leather backed armchair by the fire with a decent glass of Shiraz or Amaretto while I relate something really quite horrific. I always wanted to be Rod Serling in another life, or possibly Roald Dahl when he got to introduce his Tales of the Unexpected. There isn’t enough of that sort of thing.
And how do you go about writing? Do you write when you feel like it, or do you set aside a set amount of time each day?
I can’t possibly write every day, or even every week, because of everything else that keeps me busy in life. I will paraphrase the late great Oliver Reed here who, when asked about his legendary alcohol consumption denied that he drank all the time. “But when I drink,” he said, “I DRINK.” And when I write I WRITE. I don’t allow myself to leave the desk until I’ve done at least a couple of thousand words and usually much more than that. And it doesn’t matter whether I feel like it or not because I know I may not get the chance again for a while.
And do you plot out each of the stories or do you just sit down and see where the story takes you?
I at least know the major marks I need to hit with each story before starting it, and I always know the end. Sometimes everything gets plotted out in algorithms and flow diagrams with silly pictures and comments and that’s terrific fun. Occasionally things deviate a little from what I plan but not by much. I’m very much the one who is in control as a writer and the only time anything changes is when I feel that what I’ve done so far is lifeless and obviously isn’t the actual story that I want to tell. Then I have to sit down and have a chat with myself about what the story’s really supposed to be about and once that’s resolved I can crack on.
How critical of your own work are you? And at what point in the proceedings do you hand he manuscript over to the publisher or editor?
Very critical indeed, but only up to a point, that point being where I’ve got the story as good as I can possibly get it. Then I read it through once more and if I nod and think hey this isn’t bad! then it gets sent off. But not before.
Do you work on more than one story at a time?
Oh yes! I like to have three or four stories on the go at once – it’s far more fun that way, and because my brain needs the challenge I actually relish keeping track of four or more different projects at the same time. Plus it’s very helpful for when I sit down to write because even if I don’t feel like doing a thousand words on Project A then I will on Project B, and so on.
I know authors hate being asked about where they get their inspiration from, but you have said in another interview that many of the stories in Catacombswere inspired by real events, such as a broken photo booth. Does this sort of thing happen to you a lot?
I’ve never really had a problem being asked about the inspiration for my stories because it comes from all and any aspects of the life I live – life events, books I read, films I see, snatches of dialogue overheard in a restaurant. Someone once said that to be a writer you need to spend the first forty years living life to the full so you have plenty of experience to draw on and I’ve certainly done that, too. I remember as a boy reading interviews with people like David Lynch who would say the problem was more one of stopping the ideas from coming than trying to think of new stuff and I know what he meant.
Could you tell us about your first book The Faculty of Terror?
Gary Fry had formed Gray Friar Press and had had a lot of success with an excellent anthology he had edited called Poe’s Progeny, as well as his fiction magazine Fusing Horizons. He wanted a single author title he could launch at the next FantasyCon but the deadline was very tight. He asked me if I would be interested and I said yes even though I had no idea what the book was going to be about or what it was called. I promised him that by the end of the day he’d have the outline. I went for a walk and did the ‘chatting to myself about what I really, really wanted to do’ thing that I’ve described above, and what I had always, all my life, more than anything else, wanted to do was write an Amicus anthology film. By the time I got home I had an outline and a title and Gary was happy to go with it. Then I wrote like a man possessed for about a month and had a rough first draft which, with a bit of polishing, became my first book. It’s difficult to explain how pleased and proud I was when I first saw it, and I can still remember that feeling now.
As with Catacombs, this is a linked short story novel, whereas if I’m not wrong Coffin Nails is a short story collection. How do you decide if the book you are working on will be a portmanteau collection or just a straight forward collection?
Faculty of Terror and Catacombs of Fear were always planned as ‘linked story’ novels. Coffin Nails was put together specifically for Ash-Tree Press and therefore it was deliberately a collection of supernatural tales. At the same time I was prepping Wicked Delights with the intention of that book containing the nastier sorts of stories that have found their way into The Black Book of Horror and the like
Have you ever changed your mind halfway through the writing process?
I am a big fan of Catacombs of Fear. And in particular At First Sight. It was a truly chilling tale. I couldn’t help but picture David Warner in his youth as the story’s protagonist. When you write do you have a cast of characters fleeting in and around your mind as you write?
That’s very kind of you – thank you! I’m glad you like that book as I think it’s more accomplished and not quite as raw as the first one. A lot of people like At First Sight which is interesting as it was written at a time when I wasn’t a very happy chap at all and I suspect some of that integrity comes through in the piece! I can’t say I’d want to revisit that state again, even if a very good story did come out of it. I do sometimes have a cast of characters, but not usually well known actors. If anything they tend to be bit part players from BBC Play for Todays that I vaguely remember from my youth. Except that the Dean of The Faculty of Terror is Peter Cushing (in a red gown like in Incense for the Damned) and Bishop Straker from Catacombs of Fear is Christopher Lee.
Against The Darkness, features your velvet jacketed hero Mr Massene Henderson, now I have a sneaky suspicion that he is more than slightly based on you. You do own a number of velvet smoking jackets don’t you?
I do – at the moment I have a blue one, a black one with silver pinstripe, and a burgundy one which is my favourite and was the first one I ever bought. It’s looking a bit worn now but I cannot bear to part with it.
How would you describe this book, it’s one I sadly haven’t read yet?
I wanted to do a series of adventures that could work as one-hour TV episodes – a sort of cross between The X Files but with the style and joie de vivre of The Avengers. The stories were meant to be just about Henderson but in the second one, A Fear of Fitness, Samantha Jephcott turned up and the whole thing pretty much wrote itself. I keep meaning to turn it into a screenplay.
Will there be further adventures of Mr Massene Henderson?
My first novel, The House That Death Built, which is out very soon indeed, continues the adventures of the two of them. I wanted to do a haunted house tale where, to paraphrase Richard Matheson when he was talking about Hell House, you had absolutely no doubt at all that the place was haunted. Whether or not there will be any more will depend on how this one does
Are there any plans for a sixth printing of your Atomic Fez collection Wicked delights?
I don’t know! Certainly I think it’s done quite well and gone through several printings, but you’d have to ask my publisher!
One thing I’ve noticed is your are a fan of the authors note, and the actually talking about the genesis of the stories in your books. Why is that? As a fan and a reader I find these things fascinating?
Well I view my books as entertainment packages and as part of that I think it’s nice if there’s a piece in there telling you about how the story or stories came about. If the reader wants to ignore that bit they can but it’s there if you want it. Basically the story notes are often an excuse for me to recount various episodes from my own life that have played a part (however small!) in whichever story I’m supposed to be talking about. It’s my way of writing my memoirs without ever having to actually formally do it, if you see what I mean! The acknowledgements section is the same – it’s never just a list but has been put together carefully so it’s worth reading if you don’t know any of the people involved.
I’ve also noticed from my own reading and from a lot of the reviews of your books, is that your stories manage to tread that thin line between being fun filled adventures, and actually being terrifying? How hard do you have to work to keep them on the straight and narrow? It’s what I love about your writing?
Oh goodness! Again I’ll have to be honest & say I don’t work at it very much at all! The stories just come out like that! Certainly I have an innate sense of how I want a story to play out and so I suppose that’s the closest I come to trusting my instincts when I’m writing.
Which brings us to your latest release, The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine. I get the feeling that this is the story you have been building up to write ever since you first picked up a pen.
To some extent yes you’re right. The idea has been with me almost since I started writing but for many years I was saving it so that if I ever got really stuck for ideas I could use that one! In the end, though, I finally felt I had the confidence to do it justice and so I suggested the project to Simon Marshall-Jones of Spectral Press and he was just brilliant – he was so encouraging from the start that it didn’t take me very long to write it at all.
Could you tell the readers what the book is about?
It’s a tribute to films like The Abominable Dr Phibes and Theatre of Blood, which are two classic British horror films in which Vincent Price stars as a brilliant but insane character who is wronged in each film by a group of individuals whom he then kills in a variety of outrageous and creative ways that have a connecting theme – the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt in the first and the plays of William Shakespeare in the second. I loved these films when I was young – the style, the flamboyance, the colour, and I thought wouldn’t it be great if there was a book or film like this that involved someone murdering people in the style of films in which Vincent Price starred? So that’s what the book is about. And I’ve set it in Bristol because I live close by and there aren’t enough fun flamboyant outrageous murder mysteries set there.
Will his be a standalone book, or have you plans for any of the books characters o make further appearances?
Well the first book has already done so well and had such a marvellous critical reception that the thoughts I’ve had about a sequel are fast beginning to coalesce into something that’s really rather special and which I hope I’ll be able to get to work on next year.
What is it about Vincent Price, that has caused him to find such a warm place in your heart? It’s his penchant for velvet smoking jackets isn’t it?
Not really, and it’s not even him specifically. The book is dedicated to him but in the acknowledgements I thank all the principle creative talents involved in the two films I’ve mentioned above because without any of them those films wouldn’t have been quite the same. But Price is marvellous in them – a true film star and a very talented man indeed.
Is there a message to the book?
Goodness me what a question! I’ll say now that I leave it to writers far better than I am to write books that have subtext and messages. I just hope that for the couple of hours you spend reading something of mine that it takes you away from the everyday and into a world where everything is scary, fun, and entertaining and that when you put the book down you feel that you’ve managed to lose yourself in my world for a little while.
The hardback edition of the book has just sold out hasn’t it? ( I’ve got my copy ordered folks), however there is a paperback edition in the pipe line as well, is that right?
There is, and I believe that the print run on that won’t be limited. At least I hope not!
Are there any future projects that you can tell us about?
This is the busiest year I have ever had writing. When I got together with Kate I was a bit worried that all my energies would go elsewhere & I would lose the desire to write. Actually the opposite has been the case and I feel I want to write now more than ever. To that end, as well as The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine and The House That Death Built which should be coming out very soon, The LIttle Book of House of Mortal Cinema will be coming out from Pendragon Press at World Fantasy in 2013. That’s going to be filled with essays that were a bit too long to go on the blog and you’ll be able to read my thoughts on all kinds of weird and obscure horror cinema like Damned in Venice, Lorna the Exorcist and Invasion of the Blood Farmers as well as more modern fare like the Saw series, the Final Destination films, Valhalla Rising, Melancholia and others. Then there are a number of anthologies that I will be appearing in that apparently I’m not allowed to talk about yet, but one is a mass market anthology that I’m very excited about because I’m playing a major part in it and I couldn’t be more chuffed.
John this has been an absolute blast do you have any final words for the readers?
Jim thanks for coming up with so many excellent questions. All I would say to anyone out there reading this is that if you’ve read anything by me and come away having had a good time with it then remember – that story was written for you, and I thank you so much for picking it up and taking the time to read it.
I urge you, if you haven’t already check out John’s books, they are wonderful.
You can purchase his books by clicking the links below