“The Man in the Ditch” first appeared in A Book of Horror (ed. Stephen Jones, 2011, Jo Fletcher Books). What inspired it?
The original inspiration was the photograph of one of the “bog bodies”—ancient, mummified corpses found in a Danish peat-bog. I don’t know much about them, although there have been books written about them, but my memory of it is that there were different theories about how they came to be there—some thought they were ritual sacrifices, others that they’d been executed for some crime and then dumped in the bog, where the effect of minerals in the soil kept them in an amazing state of preservation for centuries. Anyway, I just imagined how spooky it would be to be haunted by a similar-looking corpse.
You’re a very prolific author. What is your writing process like? How did “The Man in the Ditch” develop from inspiration to publication?
I don’t think of myself as that prolific compared to many other writers—but I guess if you stick around long enough and keep writing, eventually the accumulated output may give someone that impression! Not sure how to answer the question in general about my writing process, but I can be specific about “The Man in the Ditch”—which took considerably longer to finish than most of my stories do. I began writing a draft of it many years ago—I’m not sure of the exact year, but it was before I had a computer because I wrote it on my old IBM Selectric (which was pretty high-tech to me, in the 1970s). But the story kept getting longer, and somehow I never managed to finish it to my satisfaction (even though I had an ending in mind), so I put it aside. Yet the urge to write this story never went away. Finally, more than thirty years later, travelling by car from Scotland to England for a funeral, driving through the flat, bleak, winter landscape of the Norfolk fens, I found myself remembering that long-ago idea . . . as it struck me that this place, probably not dissimilar to the Danish bogs where those mummified corpses were found, was the background setting I needed. And so, when I got home, I sat down to write the story—and at that point it went very smoothly from start to finish.
In this story, Linzi and J.D.’s flaws are apparent to the reader, and it can be difficult to sympathize with either of them. Do you like your characters when you’re writing a horror story, or is some amount of judgment necessary in order to punish them?
In many of my stories I identify very strongly with a main character (or narrator), but not in this case; although I hope didn’t come across as too “judgmental” about Linzi or J.D., because that isn’t how I felt, or what I intended . . . I did feel sympathetic to Linzi, and I don’t think either of them were horrible people; just, as you say, flawed. There is a type of horror fiction in which the main character is depicted deliberately as very unlikeable or even outright evil so the reader can get some vicarious pleasure from his or her destruction—I have to say, that’s not my preference, neither as a reader or as a writer, but sometimes it just works out that way. But, to me, the horror of a story is even more powerful when the reader can feel “it could have happened to me” rather than “well, he got what he deserved!”
In the introduction to your collection Objects in Dreams: Imaginings Book 4 (2013, NewCon Press), in which this story also appears, you state that your stories “are not generally pleasant, and rarely have happy endings; in fact, they are usually nightmares.” What attracts you to dark fiction and horror?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? I really don’t know—it goes back a long way. Do you know what attracts you to it?
I enjoy the unsettling nature of horror stories and how often the confrontation of dark, supernatural experiences can force the protagonist—and readers—to confront their own fears and dark instincts. But when the story is over, you’re still safe and sound!
What work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you writing now?
I am about halfway through a novel set in 1890s London, about a pair of detectives who get involved with psychic phenomena while attempting to solve the mystery of why a number of mediums have disappeared. The characters—Jasper Jesperson and Miss Lane—previously appeared in two published stories, the most recent being “The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” in Rogues, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, published in June by Bantam.
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