Craig Saunders is a prolific British horror and fantasy author who has published over 30 novels and novellas that explore when brutal supernatural horrors impact ordinary life. His books include Rain, A Stranger’s Grave, Deadlift and Vigil while his short fiction has appeared in the Aeon Press anthology Box of Delights and in issue 36 of Albedo One. He lives in Norfolk, England, with his wife and three children. Craig recently caught up with David Conyers to discuss what it takes to be a dedicated writer of horror.
David: How would you describe the type of horror fiction that you write?
Craig: I didn’t want to write about teenagers on camping trips … just wasn’t my thing. As a reader I enjoy characters that feel more realistic, more relevant to me. Not heroes, not outstanding people, but ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I think that’s what I’m trying to do – create characters that readers can empathise with, and hopefully care about.
Early in my (*cough*) career, someone told me my characters were rubbish … I can’t even remember who (probably my wife – she’s a pretty tough critic!). I tried to see my way around that, and make the characters the focus of my fiction. Obviously there’s all the other stuff that makes a story … not sure what that stuff is, but it probably involves plots and narratives and points-of-view … I just make the stories up. Fortunately I don’t have to teach these things to college students.
Other than the characters, I suppose my horror tends toward the supernatural and the mythological … mostly, I veer away from serial killers, mass murders and torture and the like. Nothing wrong with it … people do ultra-violence very well, but I prefer a supernatural edge when I’m writing fiction. Masters of Blood and Bone, A Stranger’s Grave … these are more my comfort zone that stories like Insulation, or Unit 731 which rely almost solely on man’s violence toward others … I can write about people being horrible, and often do, but I prefer a hopeful ending, I think, to sheer brutality.
David: What scares you? Do your fears come through in your writing?
Craig: I’m afraid of almost everything. Being in the car, the dark spot round the side of the house when I take out the bins at night, other people, random acts of violence, breaking my neck while I’m home alone, burning alive, insects (all of them), rogue dogs, feral cats, gangsters, drunk Kung Fu experts, death by pretty much any means, danger to my family, small pieces of unidentified gristle in sausages, tomatoes, bad coffee…
I’m scared all the time.
Sometimes, I write purely for the joy of invention, and I find writing those stories enjoyable. I think the fears that come through in my stories of a more personal nature are the hardest to write. They often make me uncomfortable. Flesh and Coin, The Walls of Madness … stories about infirmity, mental health, memory … these things scare me more than most. The kind of story in which the narrator is untrustworthy because they may or may not be insane are the most powerful for me. Films like Memento, or Shutter Island tend to freak me out more than something that would traditionally be described as ‘horror.’
Craig: Well, I think there are tropes and there are conventions. The distinction probably isn’t always clear, but it’s nice, in a way, to take a genre you enjoy (I quite like vampires and zombies as far as the traditional monsters go…) and just play with it. Vigil was an odd story for me, and not my usual. I’m happy wandering different worlds and realities, but not so comfortable with science fiction elements. My brain just doesn’t lean that way. So to take vampires and put them in a kind of science fiction mash-up, have them travel through time, then to take snippets out of time and follow the vampires … it was an interesting way to write a story. The vampires are still vampires, of course. They don’t like the sunlight, they like blood … but they’re violent and nasty and blowing them up works just as well as a stake through the heart … seriously, you’re super-powerful and undead and you’re scared of pointy sticks and garlic? Pfft.
Is it fresh? I don’t know – it’s hard to judge what I write. But for me, a story could be about zombies, werewolves or vampires, even after it’s been done a thousand or more times, and I’ll enjoy it if it’s got interesting characters, a good set up, and a bit of pace. Personally, I think it’s more about the story than the actual monsters … as a reader, I have to be invested in the characters … if I’m not even the greatest idea ever will fall flat.
David: You have a prolific output. What are some of your better known novels and what are they about?
Craig: I hate to sound too disingenuous, David, but I’m not sure I have any better known novels! I think a few probably have some more reviews that others – Deadlift (a novella) seems to have gone down reasonably well. That’s about a power-lifter named David Lowe who puts a hit on his wife, mistakenly thinking she’s having an affair. He realises he’s made a terrible mistake, and we find him holding up a blown elevator, trying to save his wife. Obviously, there’s a little more going on than that (a weird mask, the hired killer, a crazed murderer…). Because, a guy holding a lift would get pretty dull after a few pages…
Otherwise, Vigil’s done okay, in review stakes, but we’ve covered that. A Stranger’s Grave and Rain aren’t doing too bad – A Stranger’s Grave concerns an ex-convicts Elton Burlock, who in an attempt to return to society gets a job as groundskeeper at a cemetery … unfortunately, it’s haunted by some pretty nasty ghostly women who also happen to have been witches on the other side of life. That one, I guess, is a ghost story. Rain’s more survival horror; a bookshop owner and a cast of delinquents take on a powerful elemental entity while trying to save their town from destruction…
I like those stories a lot – they’re the kind of horror I would read. A bit of death and destruction, but under all that a vein of hope.
A side note to this answer, I think, regarding output; when I wrote my first story, I thought I’d get the massive deal, a big publisher, write maybe a story a year – that was what people did, right? Of course, I was massively misinformed. Pretty soon, my writing heroes became the workers, those writers who put out consistently good work, and sit in front of their PCs or notepads working hard. I think being prolific isn’t, for me, what I’m aiming to be … but if I’m going to work at writing, I’m going to work hard. Tim Lebbon, William Meikle, Alan Dean Foster, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Brian Keene, Matt Shaw … they put out a lot of work (or used to). They’re the kind of writers I’d like to be … it’s not about work ethic, as such … I just think writing is work, and that’s how I approach it. And, I enjoy it, which helps!
Craig: Pretty damn important these days. If it’s not ancient creatures or gods or monsters from mythology, I’ll create my own, but something with a history or its own mythos. Like I mentioned earlier, I do write stories where the monsters are simply human, but I prefer an otherworldly vibe for my stories. I started out writing fantasy, but people say you write what you read (well, maybe one person said that. Once. I don’t know if that axiom’s anything like true). I read pretty much everything up until around ten years ago. Certain writers affected the things I write simply because I enjoyed their work. I want people to enjoy what I write. That’s why I do it … I don’t want people to slit their wrists when they reach the last page. Hope, like I said before, is important (although some of the darker stories don’t end so well … but I try. Honest). I was going to talk about some other writers who influenced and impressed me, but I see that’s covered later, so I’ll save myself for that.
I don’t think ‘horror’ as a genre is as cut-and-dried as perhaps it was once thought – I don’t think there has to be a supernatural element for something to be horrific. Some of Cormac McCarthy’s stuff is pretty frightening or shocking, and dark enough in places. Horror’s pretty broad. I don’t feel I have to put anything supernatural in the mix … I just like it.
And (!), while I’m on the subject, most of the time, a story is just a story. I don’t plot or plan, so if it turns out dark and terrifying, or horrific and somehow uplifting, then the story sort of decides that, rather than me. I know it sounds trite to say that, but a story just goes where it wants. Whenever I try to force a story into a shape that I want, it doesn’t feel natural. Equally, mid-story I might be tempted to change something, worried the reader might not like it … I don’t. That never ends up feeling right.
David: Many of your characters are family men, and many are seeking redemption for past deeds. Why is this theme important to you?
Craig: Ha! Because I’m an unrepentant reprobate! Well, maybe repentant. Honestly, I don’t know … I think the main characters in A Stranger’s Grave, A Home by the Sea, The Estate … yes, they have unresolved issues and the events they experience, in a way, help them to come to peace with their past. I guess it was a phase … I don’t know. On a personal level, probably working out some of my own issues in those novels, exploring themes like redemption and sacrifice and family and love … things important to me. It’s a learning process, though (writing, that is) and I don’t tend to write those sort of stories anymore. Not saying I won’t at some point in the future, but I think now that perhaps I’m writing … bigger stories? I’m not entirely convinced that’s the right explanation, but those were smaller-scale novels, exploring very small snippets in time and very local. As I get a little more adventurous, I think my characters and settings are broadening out, too. Those stories were all set in Norfolk, England (my home county). Maybe I was afraid to write bigger, with a wider scope. In a way, they’re almost ‘shy’ novels. I like them, but there’s a limit to how long I was going to want to set stories in Norfolk about broken people without venturing elsewhere with regard to locale, and themes, too …
David: Your stories often follow the structure of crime thrillers: there is a mystery to be solved. What is it about this style that appeals to you?
Craig: I can’t say I’ve thought about it as such, but I read pretty much anything and everything between about the age of ten to thirty. Not so much these days, as I tend to read only what I want or have time for. But back then? Tons. I’d read three or four books a week, maybe, pretty much for the whole of those twenty or so years.
Plenty of novels had an impact on me, but it was crime/noir novels I really got into the most. Easy reads, page turners, with good, decent characters (the ‘anti-hero’ was fairly rare, I seem to remember). They were simple characters, in a way – the mystery, the crime, that was the star of the show. The Spencer novels, Ed McBain, Fletch, even. The fantasy I read around the same time. The macabre probably came later (I think Headhunter (Michael Slade) was the first of those).
But, as far as influences go, those crime novels were where I learned a lot about storytelling, even if I didn’t realise I was learning at the time. I just thought they were fun … but then fun stuff’s probably the best way to learn.
I like plots with a little depth, I suppose, and something that perhaps challenges me. Sometimes a story might simply be about a fight for survival … but often, I think the why of the fight is important … I could put that up front, take the mystery element out of it … but why would I? It’s a good element. I don’t read a lot of writers on writing, but there are a few rules that stuck with me – Elmore Leonard’s ten rules on writing are the ones I remember most. They’re pretty good guidelines. Not concrete, obviously, but the gist is ‘take out the parts that readers don’t read’ … paraphrased, obviously. Do that, keep the detail down, and the mystery can just sit there for the ride … it doesn’t have to be central at all.
David: Are there any particular authors and their specific novels that made you first want to write horror fiction? Who are they and what do you like about their works?
Craig: There are two parts to that, for me – authors I read, enjoyed, and learned from. And then, there are authors who made my think, ‘I want to do that.’ Most of them aren’t horror writers at all.
The first of those is a long, long list, and far too many to mention, but Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell, Tad Williams, Douglas Adams, Gary McMahon, Joe Abercrombie, Bill Hussey, Carl Sagan, Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, Lee Child, Alastair Reynolds, Bill Hussey, Tim Curran and Keith Deininger are all definitely influences.
The second part, those authors who actively inspired me to write, to want to entertain but make my stories as good as I could? Clive Barker (Weaveworld, The Damnation Game), Iain Banks (The Crow Road and others) and Iain M. Banks (The Culture novels, in particular), Charlie Huston (the Hank Thompson novels), Robert McCammon (A Boy’s Life, Swan Song), Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood), Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (most of his, but Cat’s Cradle (I seem to remember it being titled ‘Ice Nine’ in the version I read) and Welcome to the Monkey House), and Annie Proulx (The Shipping News).
I’m fairly sure there are loads more I’m forgetting right now, too. Books that have blown me away are few and far between, but those in the second camp have all written something that I found affecting enough to be memorable.
Craig: You mentioned output earlier … I spend most of my waking hours writing. I’m happier writing than doing other things. Unfortunately, I know I can’t just write, so I sleep (I’m quite bad at that) and eat (at that, I’m a champion). Now, after a few health scares, I exercise around five or six times a week in a vaguely optimistic attempt to live a little longer. I quite enjoy exercising. I read a little, watch a film sometimes if I’m really bored or restless. Mostly, spare time outside of work I spend with my family. Other than that, I tend to have ‘fallow’ periods, when I work very little. Then, I’ll play a game on the PC and do very little else until I’m ready to work again. Sometimes I’ll play for a couple of months, sometimes I’ll play for a couple of days and then think, ‘I’d rather be working … ‘ Whenever I start feeling like I want to work, I’ll start typing again.
If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing or feeling guilty about not writing … I hate that sense of wasting time, and downtime almost always feels like a waste. I’d rather sit in my shed and make up stories than watch pretty much anything on television.
I’m pretty dull when it comes to free time … sorry!
David: What is next for Craig Saunders?
Craig: Well, I’d certainly like to sell a few more books … but I’m happy enough just writing stories.
This year (2015) I’ve a novel out (Masters of Blood and Bone) in February, a novella (Flesh and Coin) out in March, and reissue (A Scarecrow to Watch over Her) in April and another reissue (Insulation) in May. Later in the year another novel (Left to Darkness) and novella (Unit 731) are due out from Darkfuse.
I have some unfinished business including second drafts to do on a novella (tentatively titled The Mulrones’ Vampire, though that will change), and two novels (Dead Days and Highwayman). Two partials need sorting out (Ghost Voices and The Temple of Art). I’m collaborating with Ryan C. Thomas on a novel, too.
After that, probably a sequel to one of the Darkfuse novels, a third Spiggot novel for Grand Mal Press, and the conclusion to The Rythe Quadrilogy.
I hope to tie up those projects by the end of this year, although if it takes me into 2016 I won’t be too upset. 2016, without anything unfortunate getting in the way, I suppose I’ll keep bashing away until my fingers drop off.
Read a review of Vigil on the Albedo One website here.