“Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” was first published in 2011 in A Book of Horrors, edited by Stephen Jones. When Angela Slatter interviewed you about it before publication, you mentioned the story began as a comedy exploring a problem many of us can relate to: loud neighbors. Can you share a little about the inspiration and development of this story?
It’s a disturbing thing I’d noticed, really ever since I turned forty: That my tolerance for other people was getting more strained. I don’t just mean in the way that neighbours might selfishly blast through the walls with their music once in a while—just as mine do every so often (I live in London, and on balance, for a big city, I suspect I’m luckier with noise than most)—no, it’s more in the way I found myself getting irritated if I even heard my neighbours at all. Low conversation, toilet flushing, footsteps—and not in the middle of the night, but at any time of the day. I began to realise I was deliberately holding my breath so I could strain to hear something, anything—that would make me feel trapped and outraged. It dawned on me that I was the mad one, padding around my own house on tiptoes so I could always have the moral rightness of being angry that they weren’t doing the same. That what was making me seethe wasn’t that the neighbours were being invasive, it’s that I could detect they existed at all.
I really hadn’t been like that when I was younger, you know. I’d been kind and jolly and used to smile a lot.
“Alice” grew out of that pressure cooker madness that I sometimes used to feel surge within me. That if you were to take the irritants of life and let them be magnified, suddenly the whole world would turn grotesque. I found myself with the image of a man who would constantly summon up the necessary rage to go next door to complain about the noise—only to be frustrated each time that they were always silent unmoving mannequins. That made me laugh a lot. I decided to write it down.
“Alice” takes some very strange turns, but some of its most effective tension and horror in it comes from everyday fears, like confronting strangers; the need to meet the expectations of family and coworkers (and worrying about what they think of us); struggling to connect with people, especially when they seem to change their behavior—the mundanity of suburbia, rather than supernatural terrors. What scares you the most?
I think it’s always those mundane irritations that upset me the most. I’m aware I’m making myself sound like a prissy little prig on the verge of a breakdown, but—I find myself not wanting to go to the cinema to see a movie, for example, because I’m convinced there will be someone near me in the theatre who will play on their phone or talk or eat their popcorn too loud, and the thing that frightens me most is that I won’t focus upon the movie at all but on how cross they’re making me feel. I don’t go out to do things I might enjoy for fear that someone will be there who’ll prevent it. I itch for confrontation—but I hate confrontation. I think that’s what “Alice” is born out of—my everyday middle-aged oversensitivity to any slight or insult I may wrongly perceive. I mean, I don’t do anything, I’d never do anything—instead I just try to smile and keep the acid anger down, and build up some internal tumour.
Dear God. This isn’t an interview, it’s a therapy session.
I wish I were afraid of werewolves and vampires and things in my horror stories. But I can’t get to the level where I’m bothered by monsters. Most of my fiction plays off the paranoia that the real world is doing something that is aggressive and mocking, just out of your eyeline. You have to look quickly to the right if you want to catch you doing it. No, quickly—you weren’t fast enough. But there’s something strange going on, you mark my words.
As dark and disturbing as “Alice” gets, its roots in comedy still show throughout, and the humor only adds to the unsettling tone and uncertainty. You do both comedy and horror exceptionally well; why do you think they often work so well together?
Oh, that’s very kind, thank you. My background as a writer is in comedy. For the first ten years I was at this job I worked exclusively in the theatre, coming up with stage plays that were primarily designed to make people laugh. The plays could be pretty dark sometimes, but the realisation of that sort of crept up on me. The horror community has been so kind, and has embraced me with such warmth since my first collection of weird stories came out in 2007—but the truth is, that I thought my prose fiction was cut from the same cloth as my work for the stage or for television. I thought I was writing funny stories. Every time I come up with the idea for a tale, whenever some stray thought of random silliness pops into my head, what makes me put pen to paper is that it makes me laugh. I still find all my horror stories intrinsically comic. I think that I’m a fraud.
Maybe it isn’t so surprising, though. The border between comedy and horror is very ill-defined, and usually comes down to a matter of taste. (My sort of horror anyway, which is about the absurd and the dissonant—I have no taste at all for horror inspired by real life, and I don’t take any interest in serial killer stuff or slasher fiction.) Comedy and horror are the only two genres that try to elicit an audible reaction from the audience—the shock may make you laugh or scream, but it’s the same process of wrongfooting the reader with something that shouldn’t be there.
You’re incredibly prolific, writing short stories, radio dramas, plays, and for television in all genres—including Doctor Who! (I love Doctor Who. Ah, “The Holy Terror”!) And yet so far you’ve only written half of a novel, as you’ve described your story collection Everyone’s Just So So Special. Left to your own devices, how do you decide what medium will best suit the story you want to tell? And apologies if you’ve heard this too often, but can we expect a novel from you someday? Soon?
If you know “The Holy Terror,” my strange audio horror about a talking shapeshifting penguin, then you really do know your Doctor Who! (I love Doctor Who too. I sometimes think there’s nothing from my childhood that I’ve grasped hold of so firmly—and I feel enormously proud that I’ve had the chance to play a little in that glorious sandpit!)
I think most ideas can probably be wrought into different media, at least when they’re at their most basic level. And it’s only when you’ve made the decision to choose one—most often because that medium is what you most fancy working in at the time!—that you develop the idea into a story that specifically seeks to exploit that medium—to take its apparent limitations and turns them into strengths. I mean, there’s almost nothing more limiting, in theory, than the stage—you’ve just got an audience staring in one direction pretty much, and you can’t speed up that interaction with jump cuts the way you can on the screen—but it’s such enormous fun playing with that, making that focus wider or more claustrophobic as you see fit. For most stories nowadays I choose prose, because having avoided it for nearly forty years, I suddenly found I really enjoyed it. I love the way you can control pace through the length of paragraphs, I love how you can speed up time by using reported speech. Odd little moments of joy, maybe, but I take my pleasures where I can.
At the moment I love writing short stories more than anything else, and as soon as I finish one I have this itch to write another one. I think they have such power; they’re these little time bombs you can set to go off in a few thousand words or so. But I do have a novel in mind, and I’ve been preparing it for quite a few years now. It can only work as a novel, and it’s rather weird, and a bit ambitious, and this is the year I put the research aside and focus upon it and give it a chance to live. I’ll never give up the short stories, they’re an addiction—but I do want to see what happens when I put this longer monster on to paper.
I usually ask authors what stories, books, or TV shows excite them at the moment, particularly in their favorite genres—and please feel free to respond to that—but with your theater and radio experience, can you recommend something in those formats that people who love stories (and especially horror) shouldn’t miss?
Well, for radio, I’m going to give a shout out to my old friends at Big Finish. Though they are primarily known for doing Doctor Who radio plays, they’ve branched out into all sorts of other sci-fi and horror avenues. They have a simple motto—“We love stories”—and it’s one of the reasons why they keep winning big industry awards. As for theatre—I have been genuinely frightened many times at the different productions from the company Punchdrunk. They are the exponents of immersive theatre, where the audience are masked and invited to explore a large space on their own looking for the drama. Their different plays are site-specific—but “The Drowned Man,” that played for quite a while in London, and “Sleep No More,” that is still going strong in New York, both managed to unnerve me very badly—and really push at the boundaries of what you expect both theatre and horror to be.
What are you working on now, and what other work should readers look for in the near future?
Well, I’m just putting the finishing touches to my new book, and it’s a ridiculously crazy project that’s taken me a little over five years to write. It’s an attempt to do a modern day Arabian Nights, where you guide a character through a maze of ninety-nine conflicting but interrelated short stories in an attempt to win his wife back from the dead. (It will explain it better to say that “Alice” is one of these ninety-nine stories, and in its full form asks the reader five questions at the end about your reaction to it that’ll determine which story you read next. There are so many ways through the maze, choosing which path to take, that the odds against anyone reading the same book as you are several million to one. I just wanted to show off the short story process as something that is big and wild and adventurous—because I think as a form it’s often seen as the embarrassing baby brother to the novel. It’s called “We All Hear Stories in the Dark” at the moment, and I hope you all get to hear more about it soon.
Then I’m on to a movie, and a new TV series I’ve been asked to develop—and it’s my way of cleaning my brain from straight prose for a while before I write that novel. Because it’s coming. As I keep promising my poor agent.
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