GARY FRY

Interviewed by PETER TENNANT

PT: Okay, youve been doing this editing lark for going on a year now. Youve got three issues of Fusing Horizons under your belt and the magazines got bigger and better with each one, with plenty of positive feedback in the Small Press community and a nomination for a British Fantasy Award, which is good going for such a relatively new magazine. Theres obviously been a steep learning curve here, so looking back over that year what would you say the highs and lows have been, and what advice would you give, in terms of avoiding pitfalls, to anyone seeking to follow in your footsteps?

GF: Yes, I just heard about the nomination, and I'm delighted and surprised in equal measure. (Well, perhaps a tad more surprised.) My intention had always been to fulfil a creative ambition I've harboured since teen-hood when I was into computer games. I used to read the review mags as much as I played the games, and this thing I have - this relentless need to build - prompted me to start up a fanzine, which floundered on account of my inability. Then when I discovered fiction, the same desire went underground for a while - how about fifteen years? - and resurfaced when I had the opportunity, capability and desire. I'd been writing fiction sporadically since my late teens, and after a degree and beginning a PhD, I'd turned to writing pretty much all the time. I got to know the Small Press community concurrently. It was now that I flung myself into that long-term wish.

It wasn't very easy to start. Oh, the poncey stuff was no problem - rob a title from philosophy, contact the best for contributions (Ramsey C, Joel L, et al) - but the technical aspects were challenging. I knew nothing about printing, etc. Still, I had contact with Andrew Hook at Elastic Press and he was able to set me on my way. However, I blush to confess that my earliest attempt to produce FH was from my home PC with an inkjet printer! Impossible! (My ink ran dry after a tenth of a modest print-run!) So I contacted the printing department of my employers - Huddersfield University - who offered a decent service for a fair fee. No stopping me then...or so I thought. Originally I'd intended to produce illustrations, but these looked ropey in pdf. So I ended up ordering the mags loose, myself adding the drawings from my home printer, before stapling the lot! Jeez, what a fool. It's largely why I don't regard illustrations as necessary any more...

So, as you see, online troubleshooting! And you're right to call it a steep learning curve. Still, being of an existential persuasion, I reckon there's really no other way of doing this. It's like life - nobody offers us a guide-book; we just act on the hoof, and it generally works out. And frankly, I'm delighted by what's happened thus far. Highlights include interviews with three heavyweights in the field - M M Smith, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Gallagher. A story from issue one - Diversion End by Sam Hayes - received an honourable mention from the ubiquitous Ellen Datlow. Ramsey Campbell allowed me to reprint a tale hitherto unavailable in the UK since 1990. I believe Andrew Hook's tale Only the Lonely, also from issue one, is on the BFS short-list. Yeah, it's going okay.

In short, my advice to maggy wannabes: seek advice from those nice people doing the same, and then be prepared to be flexible. It's fun! (Really...)

PT: You mentioned getting involved in the Small Press community. To old fogies like me, from a Horror perspective, it seems as if the heyday was the late 90s when we had a raft of fine magazines covering the whole spectrum, from the Jamesian values of Ghosts & Scholars through to the more in your face style of Horror found in Nasty Piece of Work. Just lately I think there have been signs of a mini-revival with new magazines like Supernatural Tales and Horror Express emerging, and Fusing Horizons is a part of that. Youve always been upfront about where the magazine is coming from, with the tagline Dark Fiction for Imaginative Readers, but at the same time one of the things thats impressed me about FH is the eclecticism of its contents, that it cant be slotted into a particular niche within the genre. I wonder how deliberate that is and what you feel are the things that distinguish FH from the other magazines that are available? What are the factors that give FH its unique identity?

GF: Ah, now that's a good question, and it prompts me to reflect immediately on my own literary predilections! You see, I've never read only horror fiction - from Tolstoy to Julian Barnes to John Cleese, to select just a random bunch, my reading has always been eclectic, though I've always perceived the dark undercurrent in all quality work. I mean, it's about life, isn't it, and a big part of life is duress, yes? Death, illness, aging, interrelations: it's all nightmarishly there, and the notion that we read to escape this - or at any rate, confront it at a safe distance - is, in my view, incorrect. It's inescapable; we're lassoed to the world. By virtue of the necessity of dealing with lived experience, all fiction is dark. So here's my answer. I select whatever tales prise back the veneer of self-deception, and these can come from all sensibilities.

Clive Barker shocked me, and Ramsey Campbell branded ineradicable images into my memory. Julian Barnes upset me with the phrase: Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex, while John Cleese got me thinking about human fallibility when he had Basil Fawlty, after reaching another subjective misperception, run up the stairs of his hotel and tell the affronted guests that it was all his wife's doing! There's darkness everywhere, and it comes to me in a great amorphous, multi-coloured, uncategorisable mass. I guess it's that sense of elusiveness that I'm trying to soak into the pages of Fusing Horizons. It's never been conscious until you asked me now, but on further consideration, I guess it's an aspect of my post-modern identity. I've always personally avoided cliché. I've fallen completely away from the modern narrative - I have no car, I rent a house (I'm 32), I'm not married (though live with someone of similar mental bent). You know, what I'm secretly up to is shattering sedimented beliefs. Do you know about Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of Bad Faith: whenever you think what you do is natural, think again, because it's simply a choice you've made? I always knew that. To read it in his work was confirmation. Well, I choose eclecticism, because that's what humans are - free to be 'other'. That's what I want my mag to be, too.

Alternatively, a non-pretentious response: I like what I like, and that's what's added to the contents.

As I say, good question.

One more thing: if you follow my essays in the mag, you'll understand that I believe fiction to be as much a result of the reader's expectations as it is the source material. I wrote in one editorial that I'm providing something for everyone, but not everything for someone. That sums it up nicely, I think. Throw enough stuff in the mix, and some folk'll say, Hmm, liked that, but didn't like this. However, other people will say, Yeah, liked this, but didn't like that. There's no winning, yet no losing either. It's why I try to cram as many tales as possible into 100 pages, and very different stories: violent stuff, tender pieces, comedies and thought-provokers. I want people to realise the full range of the word. I reckon that's the difference between FH and other mags: its editor likes almost everything, provided its watchword is quality.

PT: I suppose you could argue that nearly all fiction involves conflict and therefore the threat of something bad happening, the dark undercurrent you mentioned, is there in even the most anodyne product from Mills & Boon. But if thats the case then what elusive quality is it that makes us regard something, the work of Ramsey Campbell say or Clive Barker, as Horror rather than Thriller or Mainstream? Do you regard genre labels as simply a marketing tool or is there something more to it than that? And, as a second string to that question and by way of narrowing the scope, you yourself come from an academic/scientific background while we live in a world where, if not able to answer all the questions, science likes to suggest that its only a matter of time until, so against such a backdrop do you feel supernatural fiction has any relevance?

GF: Bloody hell, I knew I should have gone with the offer from SMASH HITS - there I'd get to name my favourite food and colour! But seriously...well, my scientific background is not of the positivist variety. Positivism is the form of science which reckons that ultimately the world is knowable. My interests lie in phenomenology - how the world appears to individual consciousnesses. I know my relativism! However, that's not to argue for a kind of hermeneutic circularity, where one person's - or perhaps more importantly in this day and age, one group's - point of view is just as valid and yet just as subjective as anyone's else. I do believe in a sort of structure, an essence, a theme of life. The great (I can't used that word too emphatically) and shamefully under-read philosopher Merleau-Ponty calls such tenuous knowledge an 'index of an enigma'. It's what good science can hope to achieve, and more crucially for this discussion, it's what great literature has always done. We all recognise the Hamlet in us - yes, the details change (the whole experience is often transposed down a social class and across a nation), but there the same feelings are, echoing along the canyons of the centuries: products of our inevitable interrelations, the shape and pattern of existence. This all happens because we're essentially all the same: embodied emotional discursive people who interact in time and space.

Let me put this less portentously. My academic background has taught me that much of pragmatic use has been achieved in psychology and other subjects, yet the grand narratives which seek to capture the TRUTH are essentially bankrupt. All we have are profound elucidations of interminably mysterious experience, and that's why we may as well turn to good fiction. Rigorous empirical science and intuitive art must work in tandem, the better that each benefits from the strengths and supplements the weaknesses of the other (in the former case, a tendency to mechanise everything, in the latter case the old problem of subjectivity).

I mention all this because it strikes me that supernatural fiction, with its frequent reluctance to 'explain', is the genre most sympathetic (is that the word?) to this perspective. Crime fiction likes to tie loose ends together - the psycho is invariably 'understood' by the shrink; mainstream fiction on the whole subscribes to a form of Western rationalism where everything that does happen 'can' happen, as it were. No, what horror does is give a voice to those aspects of experience that do not fit easily into our so-called enlightened paradigm. What about that strange sense of duality - do-it!-don't-do-it!-don't - that seems to haunt our every conscious moment? It's all there in Stevenson, symbolised by the names Jekyll and Hyde; indeed these terms are now part of everyday language, and not because RLS invented anything, rather because he offered us an 'index' of this particular universal 'enigma'. A slippery grip on something hitherto inexplicable. That's all humans can ever do, I fear, and it's what dark fiction does especially well. So yeah, I think this genre is distinct; I reckon its tacit philosophical undergirding is just as I've described. If the label 'horror' is a marketing tool (somewhat counter-productive at present, eh?), then I guess it's a way of telling people in very subtle terms that whatever you've been brought up to take for granted about your personal world is in fact a historically and culturally specific way of framing a squirmy, only partially accessible reality, and on to which only truly great writing (including the best of science) can provide a window. Read on for your delight (if you're fragmented and wish to celebrate that) or at your peril (if you'd prefer to cling to the wreckage of rationalism).

PT: Well move on to your favourite food and colour once I get the simple stuff out of the way. First though You mentioned the universality and essential timelessness of human experience, how such works as Hamlet and Jekyll and Hyde still resonate with modern readers, and that segues neatly into your current project, the themed anthology Poes Progeny, which as I understand it is an attempt to take genre classics, either individual works or archetypes, and give them a modern perspective. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about the original impetus for undertaking such an ambitious, both in terms of its thematic scope and the sheer size of the anthology (350+ pages, I believe), project? And could you also tell us something about the current state of play with the book, what dark delights potential readers have to look forward to?

GF: Look, we all speak a bit of Plato, because his ideas have thoroughly saturated developing thought. We all speak a lot of Freud, because his ideas, whatever we make of them, have seeped in to the modern collective consciousness. Ditto any other major figure - Copernicus, Darwin, et al. Trouble is, few people really appreciate the fact, claiming never to have read these people in the original. For most, social reality is just there, like an objective mass, and the way they think is regarded as natural: a product of their own minds, which predate cultural intervention.

Poppycock!

We're all using voices of the past in order to get a grip on the present, and writers of horror fiction are no exception. So the antho came from that idea - a way of forcing writers to acknowledge that their styles and effects are actually derived from previous masters. Even folk who claim not to read have pulled together a technique (for some, I'd use the term loosely...) that relies on cinematic pacing, which relies (invariably) on linear storytelling, which relies on the early realist novels, etc. Better authors such as Ramsey Campbell have always been upfront about their influences, while recognising that in the process of learning from the greats, they're able to add something themselves, in RC's case, a thorough exploration of contemporary urban decay, schizo-paranoic engagement in this world, the ambiguity of perception, and so much more. He's emerged from his embeddedness in the field, and transformed it as a result of the necessity of considering latter-day issues.

That's what I want the book to achieve. In fact Ramsey was the first person I contacted about the collection, and he replied: It does sound an attractive idea. So I've arranged to have him contribute an original piece from one of today's heavyweights, as it were. All the other folk who have been or will be selected are drawing upon a key figure or source and using the tropes and tricks of this in order to craft something both relevant to today and steeped in tradition. I hope to celebrate three things I hold dear in fiction: sound storytelling (which the former writers made a key part of their work), penetrating characterisation, and acute thematic concern.

Okay, so along with the RC, what treats have I in store for readers? Well, I'm delighted to report that I've just secured a 22,000-word novella from none other than Donald Burleson; he takes on American Gothic gorgeously, with many fine frights along the way. Other 'name' authors I have in the pipeline are Mark Morris tonight-Matthewing as Algernon Blackwood, Tim Lebbon as Arthur Machen, Antony Mann as M R James, Simon Clark as W H Hodgson, Conrad Williams as Lovecraft, and a few others who've yet to decide (e.g., Nicholas Royle). I hope all will be able to finish stuff in time. However, I already have fine pieces from Joel Lane (crime noir/Cornell Woolrich), Andrew Hook (Kafka), Rhys Hughes (an utterly beguiling Borges piece), and a tremendous Twentieth Century vampire novella from newcomer Mel Cartagena. All the others are excellent, too. It's going to be a cracking piece! Michael Marshall Smith has just agreed to write an intro! Lovely!

(I'm using one of my own pieces, too - a rewrite of Jekyll and Hyde. What can I say? It fits. Just don't bite my head off, horror fans: the ignominy of self-publication. Oh shit, who cares? Hardly beheading Stephen King, am I?)

Out next February.

PT: Ramsey Campbell is a name we keep coming back to, inevitable in a discussion of Horror as literature. You are, I believe, a moderator on his website and I think Im correct in saying your first published story Both And (excellent story, by the way) appeared in Gathering the Bones, an anthology edited in part by Ramsey, which is the kind of debut most of us can only dream about (pauses to stick needle in Gary Fry doll). It could be argued that you are a Ramsey Campbell discovery, so Im wondering how youd assess his influence on your own work and what other writers, or thinkers, you feel have had a significant impact on your development as a writer?

GF: Well, thanks first for the comment about Both And, but you didn't have to stick the pin there!

A 'Ramsey Campbell discovery' - oh, those words are sweet to my ear... In short, Ramsey has been my literary God for as long as I can remember, since I began reading in my early teens in fact. For me, he's always expressed the true darkness I've experienced in my everyday life. I'm an anxious person, given to bouts of obsessive compulsive behaviour. These problems (manageable if intrusive) also led me to psychology and then to philosophy. So my fiction is a combination of lived experience, its floundering expression, and ideas related thereof. I often build a plot out of some intellectual point I'm trying to make. For example, in Both And it was about will being a product of consciousnesses in combination. I'd say that this is the Gary Fry way.

Other writers who have influenced me include Roald Dahl for those plots, Ruth Rendell for her perfect combination of character and story, Julian Barnes for the language (particularly his novel Talking It Over), Alan Ayckbourn for his screwy perspective on English mores, John Cleese for his manic insight, Stephen King for the leisurely tale-telling and world-weary point of view which has just enough glitter of optimism to make us live on. My Significant Other is Maurice Merleau-Ponty for his beautiful understanding of the human condition, which often makes me weep when I reread the most important book of the Twentieth Century (IMHO) Phenomenology of Perception.

So apart from all this, it's really been a question of getting down and writing the stuff. I've never had a problem with story ideas - indeed in my teens I thought of some of my best (and worst) - yet the prose has taken a while to hone. I think the shadow of Ramsey is definitely on my language, though that's not to be lamented; in this field, I think any author worth her or his salt would acknowledge his influence. I just keep on doing what I do. In truth, I find it difficult talking about this - I'm struggling now. As Merleau-Ponty would point out, life is something we do, and not something we think.

PT: Earlier you mentioned that the word Horror was maybe counter-productive as a marketing tool and yet it seems to be doing very well on the web and among the independent publishers, albeit more so in the States than over here. It could be argued that this is simply because the genre is doing badly elsewhere and the indies have identified a gap in the market. Set against that though, programmes like The X-Files and Buffy have been among the most innovative and successful television of the past decade, while there seems to be a new Horror movie at a multiplex near you just about every week, with figures like Jason and Freddie who were previously thought past their sell by date gaining a second lease of life. Its only in mainstream publishing that Horror seems to be a dirty word, with people like Ramsey Campbell marginalized and other writers reinventing themselves for the thriller and/or fantasy market. Do you have any thoughts on why that should be? And would you say it was a temporary phenomenon or indicative of some more significant change among the book buying public?

GF: Honestly, I don't know! We need a cultural studies expert there, I think. It's peculiar, isn't it? The horror thing does seem to move in cycles, though whether this is because people have enough of that and wish to move on to something else, or whether it's governed by marketing, I haven't a clue. I'm just along for the ride, hoping the next town up ahead will be dark and creepy!

I remember thinking that after the collapse of communist Russia, the US turned to alien stories - a way of satiating a generation of paranoia perhaps. Maybe there's something cultural going on with horror, too. As you say, there's always some big dripping film at the movies. So the dark stuff is always with us by necessity. But so many of these are smart-arse meta-tales, reflexively aware of their structures and seeking to exploit them intertextually (e.g., Scream). I don't like that. I think that it's the calling-card of those who haven't the talent to do the pure stuff. In fact I reckon postmodernism in general, with its woeful lamentations about nothing-new-under-the-sun, is just an excuse for those lesser individuals who can't put out the good stuff like Ramsey and others. What I mean is this: take a film like Misery - that's great and interesting, however much it relies on formula. What elevates it is the quality of characterisation and theme, those aspects which cannot be reduced to the tropes of the field. I mean, what's so original about, say, The Pianist? It's another war movie. And yet it says something magnificent about chance and survival.

I probably haven't answered your question, but it gave me an opportunity to say something else. Could it be that when horror was hot, all the crap got published as well, as a result of which, people's perception of the genre links it to childishness - sentiments not to be revealed to those who matter. I remember when I started reading King: I did feel the need to hide the cover! We're all obsessed about what others think of us. Maybe a taste for horror is something we'd rather not express, particularly with regard to the common public opinion that it's just silly monsters and grue. But we DO need it. Hence the repression-like flux: it can only be denied for so long before the beast must come out of the closet...

I repeat, I don't know!

PT: And I was so hoping somebody did. Okay, I think were about done here, but before we pull down the curtain I reckon you deserve a chance to blow your own trumpet in return for all the hard work, so how about telling us whats coming from Gary Fry in the near future, a teaser for the next issue of FH perhaps, or what stories you personally have in the pipeline and where theyre due to appear, and, assuming youre no different from every other writer over the age of fifteen, whats the deal with that novel youre working on?

GF: Ah, well, upcoming stories include a crime tale called Single Hit in the nationally distributed US magazine Brutarian; this apparently will appear alongside new work from Joe Lansdale. I'm in the next issue of Lighthouse magazine, which looks like being more horror-y than previous issues. I also have stories in both of their anthologies. I'm in issue three of Midnight Street. I have a tale in the US anthology U-nrestrained K-reations, a collection of British stories (mine is illustrated beautifully!) including rare reprint stuff from Ramsey Campbell, Graham Masterson, and Brian Lumley. Other stuff at Bare Bone, All Hallows, and others. I was in Peep Show Volume 1. Things are going okay.

As to the novel - well, it's finished! It's called I WITNESS, a crime piece involving a young female protagonist who gets caught up in a mesh of tricky circumstances. It twists, it turns. I'm happy with it, a real page-flipper! I'm currently seeking a market. We'll see... Meanwhile I have a stellar idea for a horror novel called BETWEEN OURSELVES. Set in a supermarket, it expands on themes from Both And (consciousnesses in combination and the stuff that might be done), with a rich supernatural element. It fuses my interest in modern social theory with the cosmic capers of Lovecraft and the earthly stuff of Ramsey. I think if I can provide anything new to the genre, it will be to socialise the existential elements of the greats. Me, ambitious? Oh, I like it that way. Again, we'll see if it works out...

Next issue of FH will be packed with stuff, just like the previous issue. You'll like it - honest!

Oh, and before I forget: curry and silver.

Thanks! See ya!


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