Monday, June 11, 2018

Interview with Peter Sutton, author of Seven Deadly Swords

 The Speculative Fiction Showcase is pleased to interview Peter Sutton, author of Sick City Syndrome, A Tiding of Magpies and the forthcoming Seven Deadly Swords as well as editor of Far Horizons Magazine and the anthologies The Hotwells Horror & Other Stories and Infinite Dysmorphia.

First up, please can you tell us a little about Seven Deadly Swords, your forthcoming novel from Grimbold Books?

Ah the dreaded, “what’s your book about?” question! Seven Deadly Swords is about Reymond, a farmer’s son who joins the crusade in 1097 and travels to the Holy Land. It’s the story about how the war changes him and the curse he falls foul of which sees him recur through history until in the modern day he must confront his demons and the curse of the seven deadly sins. It’s historical and modern fantasy entwined.

Many of your other stories have a horror bias – is the same true of Seven Deadly Swords?

Interesting question. The short answer is – I don’t know! When I first started writing I was told that my stuff was dark and weird and that was odd because I always assumed that I was writing fantasy, modern, mostly first world sure but still fantastical. I seldom use the supernatural, or rather the supernatural, when it does occur in my stories, is usually not the point. I’m not a big reader of horror but I do like a good horror film. My tastes in horror are more to the ‘weird’ when I do read it. People who have read my stuff and compared it to Neil Gaiman (very flattering) may be on the right track as I am influenced by the same writers as I’ve heard him talking about – Jorge Luis Borges, John Fowles, G K Chesterton.  Others have said my short writing is ‘magic realism’ although I’m not sure that can be true as I’m not Spanish ;-) and certainly that does come across in the first book, Sick City Syndrome. All of that preamble is to say that my oeuvre is generally real life seen slightly askance. That’s something that is within Seven Deadly Swords – but to a lesser extent. With this one it’s history through a distorted lens. But horror? I’m not sure – certainly the curse hinges on a horrific episode and the way it affects him, his slow corruption and fear of losing himself fully to wrath is pretty horrible. I guess the idea behind the Seven Deadly Sins is horror, isn’t it?

Your first novel, Sick City Syndrome, talks about grief and loss in the context of a horror (or ghost) story. The cover shows a tower block –are modern urban environments changing how horror is written?

When I was writing the book I was telling people that it was an “Architectural fantasy” the ghost angle, to me, was a secondary part and an ambiguous one at that. However what was key to the novel was ‘zombie’ buildings – empty and without use but not yet ‘dead’. There are plenty in Bristol, the Carraigeworks and Westmoreland House on Stokes Croft are the most recognisable (and have been empty since the early 80’s so certainly for the entire time I’ve lived in Bristol) but there are others, just as old, lurking in various places. These places are inherently creepy, I feel. Empty buildings with half-forgotten histories have always been a magnet for urban legends and that very much formed the environment of the novel. Isolation is a key part of horror, as is a sense of something that is beyond the normal rules. That is as true of modern urban environments as it is of a spaceship with a dangerous xenomorph loosed upon it, or an Antarctic waste with a ‘Thing’ running wild…

To expand on this question, much vintage horror was set in country houses or, in the US, suburbia or rural areas. What is it about modern cities that makes them uniquely eerie?

As above I don’t think they’re uniquely eerie, and yet. Urbanisation has seen cities grow ever bigger and social changes since the war has meant that there is less communal feeling. People may know their immediate neighbours but no longer everyone on their street. You are never more alone than when in a crowd and this sense of isolation is something we all feel at one time and another. If you mix in malaises like drug and alcohol addiction and crime (not exclusively urban of course) then cities can be frightening places.

Your short story collection, A Tiding of Magpies, was published by Kensington Gore and shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards in 2017.  You mention on your web-site that many of your stories concern magpies – tell us more!

I wrote a short creepy story called ‘Roadkill’ which revolved around a child obsessed with roadkill and the counting magpies song – “One for sorrow etc.” At some point later I revisited the magpie theme in a story about a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Seventh Magpie” and also a ‘consequences’ story called Thunder & Magpies (my original title for the short collection – which was changed, for the better, by my publisher) – threes the charm and I realised I had a recurring motif so then I wrote a bunch of stories to fit that motif and so a short story collection was born.

Wearing one of your other hats, you organise events for Bristolcon, Bristol Festival of Literature and Bristol HorrorCon. Tell us a bit about this and how it affects your writing!

When Bristol Litfest happened in 2011 I nabbed some tickets to some events. On the festival feedback form was a ‘if you’d like to volunteer’ contact – which I did, volunteering for the 2012 festival, at which I ended up on the organising committee and running an event. It’s not a coincidence that 2013 was when I started writing short stories – having stewarded and attended lots of writing workshops and meeting lots of writers! I’ve been going to BristolCon for a few years and last year they needed more committee members and I stepped up. When Bristol HorrorCon was announced I got in touch with the organiser and offered my services. This year it’s being run by a different organiser and I’m no longer involved – it’ll be very different I guess but I hope still a success. At all of these events it’s possible to rub shoulders with experienced, published writers, take part in workshops and panels and certainly if I’d not been involved I’d probably still just have a vague ambition to ‘write someday’.

Is there a firm distinction between modern horror writing and the ghost stories of the past by people such as M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu? 

Tastes change, social mores change, society changes, horror changes – James’s stories (I read the complete collection earlier this year – I’ve read no Le Fanu) are somewhat quaint now but use recognisable tropes. So a different flavour? For sure – you wouldn’t get extreme splatterpunk or bizarre in the past, but a distinction when comparing apples to apples? Not so much imho.

You are a member of Bristol North Writers. How does this contribute to your writing process?

We meet twice a month. The first meeting of the month one of the members runs a workshop aimed at improving an aspect of writing – be it description, character, plot etc. The second meeting we critique each other’s work.  Both are very useful. Having your work critiqued can of course help, but more important is critiquing others. This teaches you to read critically and spot the common mistakes that you yourself have probably been making too. Several of the short stories in A Tiding of Magpies were critiqued by the group.

Much (though not all) contemporary horror appears in the form of short stories, anthologies or collections. Why do you think this is?

Does it? I’ve never really thought about it that way. I note that horror has become ever more niche as crime has gobbled up its market so I’m guessing there are less venues, publishing-wise, to get horror out there? But plenty of anthologies still for writers to get their horror stories into. Certainly attending horrorcons makes me think that there is still a thriving market for horror literature!

What films are you watching at the moment? Any favourites?

My taste in films is as eclectic (and niche?) as my taste in books. I quite like the modern horror that’s been coming out – The Babdook, It Follows etc. Although even though I enjoyed Get Out and A Quiet Place both had problems for me storywise. I very much enjoy a ‘good’ bad film and recommend that people in the Bristol area check out Bristol Bad Film Club (@theotherbbfc) who are showing Tammy and the T-Rex in June. The best films I’ve seen in the last few years are Swiss Army Man by the Daniels and Rams by Grímur Hákonarson. I also very much enjoyed The Ritual, adapted from Adam Nevill’s book and Annihilation adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s book. I like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Werner Herzog, both McDonaghs, Martin & John (although 3 Billboards was problematic with its depiction of racism) and Taika Waititi – I watch a film most weekend nights.

Do you read Fortean Times and are there any Bristol Forteana we should know about?

I haven’t read Fortean Times for a while. I used to read it monthly and went to the UnConvention a few times. There’s a book called Bristol Curiosities by Julian Lea-Jones which has some Forteana in it iirc. Also the much lamented former events mag Venue used to run stories that had some Fortean interest.

What horror (or other writing) are you reading at the moment? Or do you read totally different genres?

I’m an eclectic reader –my taste is generally towards genre, but niche within  - like I said earlier I’m not a big reader of ‘horror’ per se but of the sub-genre of the Weird. I was a big fantasy reader in my teenage years and twenties and I read widely in the genre then but now read a lot less fantasy. I probably read one non-fiction book to every two fiction books and I always have a short story book on the go – I read three short stories every time I finish a novel. Currently I’m reading the complete Roald Dhal, before that I read and very much enjoyed Hollow Shores by Gary Budden. The novel I’m currently reading is Q by Luther Blisset – a historical romp set in the mid 1500’s, before that I read Sunburnt Faces by the Israeli author Shimon Adaf. My last nonfiction book was Paralysed by Fear – the Story of Polio by Gareth Williams (which all antivaxxers should be forced to read!) and before that was The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson which was a gripping tale of true crime and fly fishing lure-making which I’d highly recommend.  Recently last month or so I’ve also read some crime (The Ploughmen, The Far Empty), some scifi (The Spaceman of Bohemia which is excellent and Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, also excellent) and some litfic (of which I’d recommend: If I fall, If I die and A line made by walking).

About Peter Sutton:


Pete Sutton has a not so secret lair in the wilds of Fishponds, Bristol and dreams up stories, many of which are about magpies. He’s had stuff published, online and in book form, including a short story collection called A Tiding of Magpies (Shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award 2017) and the novel Sick City Syndrome. He wrote all about Fishponds for the Naked Guide to Bristol and has made more money from non-fiction than he has from fiction and wonders if that means the gods of publishing are trying to tell him something. Pete is a member of the North Bristol Writers.

You can find him all over social media or worrying about events he’s organised at the Bristol Festival of Literature, Bristol HorrorCon and BristolCon.

Website | Twitter | Author Central | BristolCon | Bristol Festival of Literature

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