By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed a chilling book entitled The Hunting Ground, noting that “Cliff McNish writes with confidence, intent on telling his own unique ghost story rather than simply falling back upon genre conventions such as slow build-ups and excessive gore.” It is therefore a pleasure to welcome Mr McNish to AMO for an exclusive online interview!
Hello Mr McNish! Thank you for your time and welcome to AMO! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I came to writing late, and never thought about being a novelist when I was young. I was average at English at school. I’m hopeless at crosswords. Word games bore me, probably because I’m poor at them. Despite these congenital defects, which should invalidate me as a writer by profession, I persist. I guess doggedness is a bit of a trait. Actually persistence is the single most important trait of nearly all artists. Talent is a close second.
When did you first start writing fiction?
When I about 36/37. I wanted to be in closer contact with my 9 year-old daughter, from whom I was separated. She loved witches. I decided to write her a little story about one. It just got bigger and bigger – and I found, quite by chance, that I enjoyed creating monsters…
What did you do before you became an author?
I worked in I.T. for twenty years. I found it intensely boring and stressful but made some money. I probably gave the best, most agile mental years of my life to something I disliked. It’s a common human story. Luckily I got out just before I died completely.
You seem to have written most prominently within the fantasy and horror genres. What makes you lean towards these genres and which do you prefer the most?
I love both equally, actually. Fantasy with a dark horror edge sits very naturally with me. As for why I like these genres, who can say? All I know is that unless I include a powerful element of real fantasy in my work I lose interest in it. And while some people would say that I am often writing ‘horror’ I don’t see it as simplistically as that. My imagination does incline me towards dumping my characters into deeper and deeper trouble, but I think there are good writerly, structural, plot-related reasons why this makes sense. On the other hand, I can’t deny that at some primal level heading for the dark side appeals to me, and I’ve no idea why. I guess I’d feel more comfortable turning the question around to other novelists, and asking why they prefer, often, not to do that? I mean, why bother writing about happy friendly ghosts when you can do the scary stuff?
What can you tell us about your latest book, The Hunting Ground?
It’s about two teenage brothers who go to a new mansion house and discover a ghost there so terrifying that other ghosts have stayed behind just to contain it. In my first ghost novel, BREATHE, I created what is sometimes known in the trade as a ‘good-bad’ character, a ghost mother. You can take your pick on where morally you think she deserves to end up. In THE HUNTING GROUND the ghost is an undiluted menace. I’ve spent more than ten years creating villains, and though it’s fun to give them more rounded personalities, reasons why they are villains that ameliorate their actions and lead us to a certain level of sympathy with them etc, sometimes it’s good to do exactly the opposite – create a heart of unmitigated darkness and night.
Actually, the great thing, fictionally, about an out-and-out villain is that there is no limit to what they will do to get what they want. The reader knows this. It gives your story a terrific amount of tension that more watered down villains simply can’t ramp up. It’s also good, as a reader, to be given permission to hate a character without reservation or limit. Adults sometimes say to me that this is something that kids like – bad guys/good guy dichotomies; simplicities. My experience is that while shades of grey can be very interesting, adults enjoy a classic bad guy/girl just as much as their younger counterparts. Nobody knew that better than Shakespeare. Look at Iago. Look at Gonerill.
Do you believe in ghosts in real life?
No, though I’m keeping an open mind. Hold on, what’s that dark thing moving just behind my curtain…?
What do you think appeals to readers about the horror genre? Is it fun to be frightened?
It’s never fun to be genuinely frightened. We always baulk at that – though we sometimes learn something from such experiences. I’m not sure why so many people like to read about the dark side. I suspect that at some primal level it reminds us that we are alive.
Without wanting to come across all morbid, I believe that horror is true at some fundamental level, by which I mean that the world is not a safe, predictable place that has our interests at heart. It is far from that. It’s a more indifferent place than that. Most of the rules for living in it are made up by others for reasons that have nothing to do with us. In that sense it is a place of fear. We have remarkably little control over nearly everything; even our own state of mind is difficult to keep tabs on or grasp, let alone the activities and mental states of people we never meet or have no possibility of influencing.
I believe that most people, if they are honest with themselves, are never deeply comfortable in almost any aspect of their life – either professionally or in their personal relationships, or even their own feelings about themselves. Or if they do feel good about some of those things, they have a nasty feeling that some sneak is going to pull the safety blanket away any moment. So, in that sense, horror feels real, it feels in its essence like real life, because the crux of horror as a genre is that nothing is clear, everything has a dangerous feel, and you can’t understand the rules, or even if you can they’re made to benefit someone else.
Actually, I think this is why so many adults turn away from the horror genre as they age – they recognise too much of it in their own lives, thank you very much. It’s one reason teenagers read far more dark fiction than most adults as well. Generally speaking, they’re a bit less infected than the adults by world-weariness. They’re taking new risks all the time as they work out what kind of personalities they have, what their identify is going to be, and all of that is scary as hell. Horror, in that setting, is strangely a kind of comfort blanket. A sympathetic friend along for the ride.
How much research is involved when you write your books? Glebe House as described in The Hunting Ground almost feels like a real place!
For my first ghost novel BREATHE I did quite a bit of research into certain aspects of burial etc – almost none of which actually got used. I didn’t do any research of real mansion houses for THE HUNTING GROUND. I just pooled my knowledge of such places together, and then used a few specific details to make it feel real. Actually, there’s a trick of the trade here: you revisit a place, in a slightly different way, like the East Wing, and those nuanced differences in a by-now familiar setting (since you’ve read about it once) make it feel more real.
How long does it usually take you to write a book?
Generally about 9 months, 3-4 months to do a first draft, then the rest to get all the revisions done and dusted. But my horror novel SAVANAH GREY took 2 years. Its writing became a horror story!
What inspires you as a writer and where do your ideas come from?
My inspiration comes largely from other writers. When I see what they do – how they create these extraordinary edifices from nothing – I’m deeply awed and inspired to attempt in my own small way to emulate them. As for where my ideas come from, in the end we’re all saturated in the same cultural environments, books, TV, film, interpersonal relationships – and the ideas filter out of some kind of hash of those things in a piecemeal, impossible-to-fathom way.
Your books are written specifically for young adults. Do you think older readers can enjoy them too?
Actually, quite a lot of my readers are adults. I’m pleased about that, because I do include themes in my fiction which younger readers might not yet have the experience to fully appreciate. Someone once pointed out to me that there’s a strong theme of guilt running through my fiction. Guilt is not an emotion or mental state unique to adults, but adults have more experience of its forms than most younger people simply because they have been alive longer. You have seen more guilt; you have felt it yourself. That leads you into other regions: forgiveness, for example, and all its attributes.
Are there any other genres you would like to explore in the future?
I’m quite happy for now working within the horror/science fiction/fantasy genres or hybrids thereof. I have no ambition to move outside of them and write, say, a romance, or historical fiction. I suppose if I did move elsewhere it would be into pure thriller/crime writing. But I love creating monsters too much ever to stray for too long from fantasy writing of some kind!
What is next for you Mr McNish?
I’ve just completed the first draft of a large-scale pure fantasy, set on another world full of elves, dragons and all the other usual fantasy tropes. It’s a pure adventure really, and felt very liberating to write after the claustrophobia of THE HUNTING GROUND. The provisional title is ARAMANTH (the name of the world it is set on). I’ve somehow got to come up with a better title than this. Help me out someone!
Thank you for your time!