In “At Lorn Hall,” the setting is so vividly rendered that the mansion is almost a character unto itself. How important is setting in the horror genre?
Pretty crucial ever since Ann Radcliffe used it as a source of atmosphere in her novels. The method was refined and focused by Poe—look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the setting can even be said to share its spirit with those who dwell there. Several of Lovecraft’s greatest tales are inspired by real American locations, while others have their roots in his imaginative notions of places he hadn’t visited—Australia, the Antarctic. Fritz Leiber discovered the supernatural in the modern city—“Smoke Ghost” is a crucial turning point in the genre. There’s a fine anthology, The Architecture of Fear, edited by Kathryn Cramer and Peter Pautz, where the settings (as you said) take on the significance of actual characters. As for me, I’ve been using parts of Liverpool in particular as a source for nearly fifty years, nowhere more so than in Creatures of the Pool.
There are hints that Lord Crowcross suffered through family dysfunction and a traumatic childhood, making him a more complex villain. Do you typically round out your antagonists by providing backstory or a possible motivation for their bad behaviour?
Motivation often, but in general I don’t believe it’s an excuse for them—I very much believe we choose what we do and by extension the consequences of it. I suppose John Horridge in The Face That Must Die is my first study in maladjustment and obsession—there it was a matter of trying to make the reader look out through his eyes and listen to his thoughts. In general my human villains have their reasons—we all do, after all—but I’m not trying to justify them to you, just to show them as clearly as possible.
I’ve read that one of the overarching themes in your work is personal responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that follow. Might things have worked out better for Randolph if he’d made better choices? It seems at least one other visitor to the hall escaped; was there something about Randolph that made escape impossible for him?
I don’t think this tale is so much about mistaken choices (though I’m not saying you can’t read it that way) as an example of one of my notions of horror—that terrible things befall people for little or no reason. I’m not much of a writer of tales of poetic justice—I generally think that a story about a villain who suffers a horrible but deserved fate at the end isn’t really horror, at least not my kind. But then again, maybe you’re right about something in the character preventing his escape, perhaps the way that Crowcross is to some extent a version of himself writ very large? Very often in my stuff the supernatural may confront the characters with something they prefer not to acknowledge about themselves.
It made me chuckle that the concerns of Randolph’s wife and children were proven valid, despite his thoughts to the contrary. Do you often add touches of humor to your horror?
I don’t add it—I find it there! I think it’s been lurking in the imagery for a long time but really came into its own with Needing Ghosts in 1989, immediately followed by The Count of Eleven (which attracted one of my favourite reviews—“If Stan Laurel had been a serial killer this might have been the story.”). Since then quite a few of my novels have been comedies of paranoia, especially The Grin of the Dark and Ghosts Know, and I think the comic element has become more pronounced in the short stories too.
What are you working on now?
Right now, a novella—The Last Revelation of Glaaki—for PS Publishing, which will be followed by a novel, Bad Thoughts. I can never be sure of anything of mine before it’s written, but I suspect that may be another comedy of paranoia.