August 24, 2014 by spinechillers
It is LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, and in the body-filled distance of the ExCel Centre I can see Kim Newman. He sits at the book-signing table, looking ahead into the milling throng, quietly awaiting his fans.
When I approach Kim already seems to know who I am and smiles before telling me that I’m thirteen minutes early. He tells me he has to stay for the duration of the signing but will be free soon. My eye catches the cover of his new book An English Ghost Story. It gleams elegantly from the plain domestic table top and I’m almost tempted to steal a read.
After taking a thirteen-minute stroll, I return and Kim waits politely as I set up my recording equipment.
Kim Newman is a writer and best-known reviewer of all things horror. He has written reviews for Empire magazine since its first publication. He has produced documentaries on horror and directed a short film which you can find on his website. He is a human horror encyclopaedia and it’s clear from the offset just how much there is to learn through his specialist knowledge.
‘I was just one of those kids who liked monsters,’ he said when I asked him about his earliest memories of horror. ‘I was eleven when I saw the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula on the television, late night on a Friday and being allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch it.’
‘I was a fan of old Universal horror movies in particular, but I quickly started reading the books and became interested in literature and cinema. For me horror was a gateway to all of culture. But I did spend most of my teenage years in love with monsters.’
The youthful journey of the macabre seems to attract us all. But where most wander from the path, Kim continued steadily on. It was accompanied by a gradual recognition that these works of horror had creators, tropes and themes. And that there was more to horror than shock and bloodshed.
‘I saw the last of the Hammer films, well they’re back now but the original run, I’m not sure what particularly appealed to me about it, but I’ve always had a macabre taste. It was the 1970’s and there was a really interesting sea change there.’
‘Previously I was interested in comic books and there was a lot of stuff on TV then like early Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and The Avengers, but that was a completely mainstream interest and it wasn’t strange for a kid to like that stuff and all the kids I knew did, but when I was a teenager and getting interested in horror in particular, I realised that it was becoming a niche or a minority or a cult interest and I eventually discovered the beginnings of organised fandom, but it was a step out of mainstream culture into the esoteric.’
I swapped stories about the seeds of my own interest. Movies like Clash of the Titans, The Ten Commandments, Arabian Nights, The Lost World, King Kong and many more which also held strong elements of horror through fantasy and adventure.
‘Ray Harryhausen movies were really big for kids in the 60’s. I suppose it’s that period before Star Wars when again that was a huge mainstream thing, but there were other things that we liked, Jason and the Argonauts, Seven Voyages of Sinbad, we watched them over and over again. The first movie I remember being taken to see at the cinema was First Man on the Moon and I suppose that set me on the road to where I am now.’
With monster inspiration nestled close to his heart, Kim started writing short story anthologies under his pseudo Jack Yeovil. Drachenfels and Demon Download are just a couple to name before he ventured into novel writing. In particular the award-winning Anno Dracula series, an alternate history juxtaposing a variety of real and fictional characters.
‘Anno Dracula which was a book that took me a long time between having the idea and actually writing it and that was one of the things I sort of realised that because I wanted to write something with a historical background. I was writing the first chapter which is about the Jack the Ripper murders and I was looking at the boring history books and I wondering which Jack the Ripper murder do I start with and none of the real ones actually fit.’
‘Then I remembered that in Pandora’s Box a play by Frank Wedekind which was made into a movie by G.W. Pabst, Lulu the heroine is a Jack the Ripper victim and it occurred to me that she meant so much more to me than any of the real people. I thought that’s how the book’s going to work, everybody is either going to be a historical character or a borrowed fiction character. You spend a whole morning paging through old books and references trying to find somebody to be that policeman when frankly you can just make up a name and only I would know the difference. But having set the ground rules, I’ve enjoyed doing it.’
Kim tells me that he’s developing a new book that will blend characters from different worlds in one setting. It sounds like zany intellectual madness but I bet it’ll be fabulous!
‘I’ve borrowed characters from 19th century literature. It’s going to be called Angels of Music. It’s a rip off of Charlie’s Angels with The Phantom of the Opera.’
‘I like engaging with free existing characters because it’s not just giving them further adventures, but sometimes just looking at them from a different angle and thinking what does that actually mean. Quite often I’m not really in sympathy with what the authors who created them, particularly the ones that come from different eras where we don’t really approve of their attitudes anymore. I like to think there’s a serious element in there somewhere, I did an English literature degree so there’s an element of criticism too.’
Using characters from popular literature in TV series is on the rise again with Grimm and the UK’s very own Penny Dreadful. But where is Anno Dracula in this new desire for televised horror?
‘I was a bit annoyed by Penny Dreadful because Anno Dracula was in development as a TV show and then Penny Dreadful came out and then we couldn’t sell it, so I won’t be watching that for some years. I will eventually watch it, but the wound is too deep at the moment. The rights are back with me now but there’s always interest.’
At this point someone comes and asks for an autograph. He’s a fan from the USA with many of Kim’s books piled up in is arms. It just shows how much of an inspiration Kim has on others and I wonder which books inspired and fortified Kim’s own love for writing.
‘It’s probably Dracula because I’ve read it so much, but I have a kind of emotional attachment. I think of the classic ones, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the best book. For something that’s so short, it’s absolutely perfect. I really like I am Legend by Richard Matheson from the 1950’s.’
‘The book I really like is a collection of short stories by Robert Bloch who wrote Psycho and The House of the Hatchet and it was the first contemporary horror I had read. When I first got into horror I read Frankenstein and Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and all those old books. My mum got me this paperback of contemporary horror stories, but actually they weren’t that contemporary and most of them had been written in the 40’s and 50’s but it was a big revelation to me that you could be scary within a modern settings.’
Kim was commissioned to write a sequel to one the stories in Weird Tales, called Yours Truly Jack the Ripper.
‘It was a career highlight for me to go back to something that meant so much to me when I was young. I’ve got all of my old paperbacks and all the really old battered editions of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R James.’
I ask Kim a question that I’m sure he’s been asked many a time, but I’m just bursting with curiosity.
‘Because this is a question people ask, I do have answers. My favourite film which I was rather reminded of in a melancholy way is To Have And Have Not by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I think my favourite horror film is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death from 1971, not very well known but really worth seeking out. It’s very creepy, although I endlessly watch all of those Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe movies, Hammer films and Universal films.’
‘There’s a late 60’s, early 70’s horror which coincides exactly at the point when I was getting into horror which I now like because of the weird hippy counter culture vibe that they have. The ones with music like Scream and Scream Again, Dracula A.D. 1972 has always been a favourite of mine. My idea of a perfectly pleasurable weekend is just sitting down and watching lots of movies.’
With all of his film knowledge, it’d be quite natural to make the transition from writer to film director, especially knowing about what makes a good scare. His short film Missing Girl can be seen on his website.
‘I wouldn’t have done it except it was one of those weird challenges some TV show put out to get people who were film critics to make films. It had to be 100 seconds long from conception to finish and completed inside 24 hours. So it’s kind of like a reality show challenge.’
‘I realise the enormous sense of power that comes with being a film director. I was recently offered a film to direct but I hedged and thought, I’m not sure at my age I could get up in the mornings for the week. I’m much more interested in writing right now. But I might warm up to it.’
He is a man with fingers and maybe even toes in many different projects. His work ethic is inspiring as he continues to immerse himself and keep up to date with horror trends.
‘I’ve started writing comics recently. I did a play. Every year I try and do something that I’ve not done before and I did a West End play although when I say West End it was a very small theatre.’
Kim started writing plays in his youth, he even wrote one with his friend and fellow author Neil Gaiman. He talks about his experience writing the play Hallowe’en Sessions.
‘My early experiences in theatre, although interesting in some ways, probably put me off it for nearly thirty years and it was a revelation going back to working with professional actors, as I suppose to that whole thing of trying to get the band together which was fun for a time. But I did get to the point where I realised that I’d rather be doing something where I relied on me. But getting back into theatre was fun.’
We speak about West End theatre productions like Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories and Let the Right One In, horror plays that are proving to be just as effective for audiences as traditional screenings at the cinema.
‘Unlike the films, it’s really there and you know that you can’t turn it off and most people don’t walk out of plays unless for the extreme. It’s happening in real time and also being sat around a whole audience of people screaming is great!’
Analysing a good scream must be second nature to Kim. He’s been running his Video Dungeon column in Empire magazine for over 20 years now with fanatics and filmmakers sending their home made movies for critiquing. Specialising in B-Movies it has attracted fans worldwide.
‘Now that’s a time sink if ever there was.’
‘I like covering rubbish. I’m happy to watch anything with running around tunnels with monsters all that kind of stuff, but I like the fact that every month some horror film comes through or action film by somebody I’ve never heard from and often from a country I wouldn’t have considered watching a film from. I’m happy to sit and watch Jean Claude Van Damme beat somebody up for an afternoon and then write about it. I do think that somebody has to see everything to write.’
‘I’m going to do a book of it with much more detailed reviews, all the giant spiders movies that I’ve seen, the mutant sharks films and all of that stuff. Actually I’m getting a bit fed up of mutant sharks.’
I ask Kim whether he’ll watch my first short horror film Newborn to which he nods politely before saying ‘Only if you watch mine.’
It’s no surprise that Kim will be at FrightFest this weekend gorging out on the latest movies.
‘I’m looking forward to Zombeavers, I’ve already seen Wolf Cop I liked that. I keep up with what’s going on in the genre. Wolf Cop has one effect I’ve never seen before, it’s really funny but I won’t spoil it.’
‘Babadook is the best horror film of the year. It has all the kind of scary stuff that you get in your Oculos, The Conjuring or Insidious but it’s got a really strong character type story as well. It’s going to connect with audiences, but I think people are going to be doing the Babadook sounds and the voices for a long time! It’s nice that every once in a while something comes along and restores your faith. The trouble is, in order for that to happen I have to watch 10 films in which people are tied up in basements and tortured or zombie films made in somebody’s garden. But I love it.’
It’s no secret that men are the leading consumers of horror, but women in horror are on the rise especially with filmmakers like the Soska Sisters, it won’t be long before we’re on par statistically speaking with our male counterparts! But who’s Kim’s favourite female horror writer?
‘I keep lists of what I read and I found that a little over a third of the stuff I read is by women. I like Lisa Tuttle, Lauren Beukes and Pat Cadigan. I have to say these are all my friends. I read a lot of old Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson. I like mystery writers like Dorothy B. Hughes.’
Just before we finish I give Kim a present. He smiles and laughs whilst trying open it.
‘Is this going to upset me?’ It’s very kind of slimy,’ he chuckles away.
I explain to him that it’s alien pustules from my film Newborn and he laughs again. I tell him that it was covered in horrible goo.
‘I don’t have much film stuff although people have given me things. The weirdest bit of film memorabilia I have is a square of linoleum and it’s from The Green Mile. A friend of mine worked on that film and when they were breaking the sets at the end said ‘that’s the actual Green Mile‘ and so I own a bit of that.’
I ask Kim whether he ever considered doing anything else in his life.
‘This is what I ended up doing. I still sometimes think that my assumption would be this this is the sort of stuff I would do on the side while I had a real job, but the real job never happened. I’m lucky that my parents came from an artistic background, they’re potters and they had the arguments with their parents about what a real job was so I didn’t get any heat about that.’
‘I’m not sure if it’s a career, but it’s a life. The downside is that I don’t really have any hobbies, this is what I do all the time. I’m trying to find more time which will involve me just lying down thinking.’
My time with Kim has been thoroughly enjoyable, I’ve not only learned how a master of horror develops, works and lives within the confines of his craft, but also how he pushes it to new limits. It’s also impossible to spend any time with Kim without learning things about horror that you never knew. I now have even more films and books to add to my list. Thank you Kim Newman, Britain’s greatest hunter of horror, a man who finds diamonds in rocks and jewels in the bloodied crown of our favourite genre.
To keep up to date with Kim Newman’s work, check out his website here.
And you can order a copy of Kim’s latest book An English Ghost Story here.