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Titan Books, 14 May 2019
I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of James Brogden's latest book The Plague Stones, in which the sins of the past come back haunt a complacent suburb, and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. The Plague Stones is out now and you can buy it from your local bookshop, including via Hive books, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon or directly from Titan Books (where there is also more info on the book).
I'm ESPECIALLY grateful to James himself for agreeing to answer some of my questions. So without any more messing around, let's hear from him about the book and his writing.
After that I'll give my review. (Spoiler: buy this book!)
James - I’d just like to say first how honoured I am that you’re answering some questions for the blog.
You’re very welcome.
I enjoy the way you give your stories so much spirit of place, and make the reader think twice about the past of what might seem like a perfectly ordinary modern landscape (such as the Birmingham of Hekla’s Children). How did you (do you) find your way into that? Is it that something in a place speaks to you – or is it that a plot, idea, or character calls for a particular sort of place?
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question this; which came first, the setting or the story? Sometimes I’ll get struck by something weird or compelling about a location – for example the initial idea for The Narrows came when I was travelling home from work in the Pallisades (as it was then) to Selly Oak on the train, which stops and starts through a series of tunnels, and during one of the stops I had an image of the door opening and a ragged homeless girl climbing up from the tracks, out of breath and being chased by someone, and the whole story spooled outwards from that. With Hekla’s Children it was a bit different – a load of influences were coalescing in my brain (climate change, Bronze Age bog mummies, school expeditions etc) and I actually had to search for a setting where all of that would make sense, which turned out to be Sutton Park. So it varies from story to story, but the one thing that’s consistent is that yes, it’s usually a place where the skin of the world seems to be thin, and you might poke your way through with a little effort.
I like to ask authors about all the arduous travel they must have undertaken in far-flung places for research purposes… I would have assumed that for The Plague Stones this wasn’t needed, but in your acknowledgements you do mention certain rambles in Worcestershire. Were these actually useful fact-gathering trips?
Oh most definitely. Saint Sebastian’s church in The Plague Stones is lifted pretty much wholesale from St Kenelm’s near the Clent Hills (though I’ve moved the holy well inside the church for Reasons). There’s a bit in Hekla’s Children where the character of Nathan is wandering through a snowy wasteland and comes across a ridge of granite outcroppings, which is the Stiper Stones near the Welsh border. When my editor suggested that we shift the story of Bella to make it more fictional in The Hollow Tree, it was easy to transpose the action to the Lickey Hills. I wouldn’t say that many facts were gathered at the Dodford Inn or the Old Hare and Hounds at the end of one of these rambles, but it’s good to talk through ideas with a mate.
Do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you always know how things were going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself? (For example, did the characters change much as you wrote the book? Did they take over the story? Or are they as you first imagined them?)
If I’m being left to my own devices I have a set of key scenes or landmarks that I try to connect with a coherent narrative, and see where that goes. That was how I wrote The Narrows and Hekla’s Children, but without an externally imposed deadline the process is quite a bit slower. Since I’ve been working for Titan, my editors like to see a fully realised outline so they can get an idea of how to market it and make suggestions, which is fine with me because I have no clue about marketing and I’m happy to take advice from other professionals who want to make the book as successful as possible. It also forces me off my backside to actually get the thing done in a reasonable time-frame. Sometimes characters will change in the process of writing, no matter how strictly planned they might be; I didn’t know that Rachel Cooper worked for the Highways Agency, for example, but then it made perfect sense given what happens to her in the epilogue of The Hollow Tree.
Mythological themes are a clear inspiration in The Plague Stones (I hope that’s not a spoiler). Did any other writing (or media) particularly inspire the book?
Tons. I’m a total magpie for ideas. Or thief, if you prefer. As cheesy as this is going to sound, a big influence was John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, because right at the bottom of everything I’m a child of eighties video horror. I knew I wanted to write something about the dead seeking vengeance on the living for their ancestors’ crimes, but I didn’t want to write a standard zombie fest, and something about the way that the undead Captain Blake was simultaneously both ghostly but could also physically kill his enemies was interesting. So leprosy became the Black Death and Antonio Bay became a privileged city neighbourhood.
What were you trying to achieve with the book - beyond writing a great story? (It’s perfectly OK to say ‘I don’t know!’ or ‘Go and read it if you want to find out!’)
Is there anything beyond writing a great story? I don’t know if me saying anything about the book having a Purpose would be a helpful idea – not so much the whole ‘death of the author’ thing, but as an English teacher I’m wary of encouraging my students to think that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of reading a text, because once it’s out there I have no control over what people make of it, and I don’t think I should. I will say, however, that I am very angry about a lot of things that are happening to this country, and in particular the way that the powerless are treated, and anybody who wants to read it as a political book is welcome to do so. But it’s also, I hope, just a bloody good scare.
It is! Now turning away from the "bloody good scare" - what inspired you to write in the first place (particular books, something that happened...) and how did you get started writing?
I’ve always written, because I’ve always read, and the two go together inevitably. My parents made sure that our home was full of books from as early as I can remember. As to how did I get published, the short answer is perserverance and luck. Let’s just say that I had a lot of false starts until Snowbooks picked up The Narrows.
And what did you expect from it? How does the reality compare with that?
When I started, all I wanted was to see my books on the shelf of a bookshop, and if I never published anything again, I could still say that I’d done it. But then I started going to conventions and meeting other writers, and I’ve found everyone to be lovely and friendly and supportive - from the unpublished strugglers to the million-selling A-listers with movies made from their books. Sitting down and having a beer with people whose books you’ve been enjoying for years never fails to be a delight. On a purely egotistical level I never expected to see a book I’d written advertised on the Tube; that was surreal but fun.
Which writer(s) do you admire most?
Graham Joyce and Neil Gaiman, for the revelation that you can unnerve and enchant without having to adhere to simplistic genre tropes. Clive Barker, for the similar idea that you can be disturbing, lyrical, nightmarish and poetic all at the same time. Susan Cooper and Julian May for showing me that myths can take living, breathing form in stories. Christopher Fowler for making me cry with laughter while scaring the pants off me. Stephen King, obviously, for making it look so bloody easy and so much fun.
What's your writing day/ routine like? And where do you write best?
Because I have a mortgage-paying job as a teacher I basically have two types of writing day. During term time, when my brain is thoroughly fried after a day of attempting to hold the attention of nearly two hundred adolescent boys, let alone teach them anything, the most I can do after I get home is maybe a bit of work on the outline, wrangling out plot points, making character notes, details of settings and what have you. Creating actual sentences isn’t going to happen.
By the time the ‘holiday’ rolls around, hopefully I’ve got enough of a structure that I can sit down and bash out the story. Then I’ll work from about 8 in the morning until lunchtime, run errands or go to the gym in the afternoon, watch Tipping Point and have my tea, then aim for another hour or two in the evening. If after that I come away with 3000 words I’ll consider it a good day.
Do you have a book locked away that you wrote when you were 15? If so, is there any chance of it seeing the light? Or will it get the Terry Pratchett steamroller treatment? (I suppose that's a roundabout way of asking—are you on the side of those who always want to know more about the writing process, or do you think a line needs to be drawn?)
I genuinely don’t. I mean it took me twenty years to get The Narrows from start to published, so if it I was going to mothball anything it should have been that, but I suppose I was just too stubborn to let it go.
Where do you stand on genre (every time I look there seem to be more of them) - useful in writing or more of a marketing label?
Genre is the narrow point of an hourglass. Feeding in from the top, writers think more in terms of story and character rather than marketing, while at the narrow point an editor has a very clear idea of how a book needs to be marketed to be sold and so shapes it into a form which bookshops can label for their shelves. Out the other end, readers don’t think of themselves in genre terms but at the same time are attracted by covers designed by publishers to very carefully communicate genre expectations, however unconsciously. Genre is a selling tool, basically. In a nutshell, if you want to read or write books it doesn't matter, but if you actually want to SELL them it's crucial.
Finally... you’ve stumbled into a devious plot while travelling far afield (or at least, into the next county) researching a new novel, as a result of which you’re trapped in a lonely forest tower. A rescue party is on its way but will take several days to reach you. You have plenty of food and water, and you can have one Lego set with you. Which would it be?
I would have a Lego set which turns out to be an exact scale model of the tower I’m currently trapped in. Whereas one would normally build from the ground level up, unusually this starts with the topmost room – where there’s even a little figure of me – and works down through floor after floor until I get to the crypt. Then it gets weird, because the bits that are left seem to make some kind of creature – there are lots of tentacles and teeth, but the bits don’t want to fit together properly, and when I finish the creature it hurts to look at too closely. Then I realise that there aren’t any doors on any of the levels - nothing to stop the creature from roaming freely throughout the tower. Then I hear the slithering noise from outside my room.
James - thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. (I think you may now have written the world's scariest Lego horror story. Perhaps that could be Lego Movie 3?)
So - what did I make of The Plague Stones?
First I should say that I've simply loved Brogden's previous two books, Hekla's Children and The Hollow Tree. He has a real gift for grafting the present onto past weirdness, creating a shifty, unsettling atmosphere and confronting the oh so rational denizens of the 21st century with truths they just don't want to face.
In The Plague Stones, Brogden puts a further twist on that.
Haleswell - named for its healing spring - is special. Located on the edge of the city (I think, Birmingham) it has its own, semiautonomous status under its own Trust, seemingly plenty of money available, and an idyllic, country-village atmosphere. When Trish Feenan is not only invited to join the Trust but offered a charming cottage to go with it, she sees a chance to get away from the scuzzy area where she, her husband Peter and son Toby live - especially welcome after Toby is beaten up in the course of a burglary.
Of course, we know there will be a catch. Isn't there always a catch? Broaden is upfront about one aspect of this. Interspersed in this story are chapters dealing with a young woman, Hester, living nearby during the 14th century, the time of the Great Plague. Those chapters make grim reading, and really bring home the impact of the Plague, not only medical but societal. (As one character comments here, if you want to know what it's like living in a post-apocalyptic society, that's what we are doing now - only several centuries on). It becomes clear in the first chapter that there is a supernatural threat to Haleswell, a spectral woman who is only kept at bay by a fragile circuit of ancient boundary markers which it is the Trustees' obligation to maintain. Why Haleswell in particular is menaced slowly becomes clear, all I will say is that it isn't an abstract or random thing, the two times and places are linked.
So much for the obvious danger. But it's what Brogden does alongside that which really gives this book its kick. In a very modern take on horror we see services stretched to breaking point, food banks, long queues in A&E, schools ground down, people housed in shoddy, dangerous conditions subject to grasping landlords who treat their tenants like dirt - all while the fortunate inhabitants of Haleswell live in their pleasant bubble. Our guides in this are the Feenans, who have been translated from one world to the other. Resentments fester - as when Toby becomes friendly with a girl whose brother dismisses him as a "little landlord" - and they can last a long time. The two aspects feed on one another, the bitterness giving past hatreds a way into present hearts and minds and blood. Nothing ever really goes away.
The theme here is perhaps that now or then, denial of humanity, of hospitality and rob espect have consequences and that there WILL be a reckoning. In The Plague Stones that reckoning begins to be worked out, in blood and fear, but in a way the most chilling moment of the book is when we realise that what's portrayed here may only be the beginning. And not all evils are ancient.
Intelligent horror which delivers a succession of increasingly shocking turns, weaving the everyday dilemmas of family life and parenting - concern over a child getting into trouble, money troubles, poor housing - with both supernatural evil and the real wickedness inherent in how society is structured.
And it's not at all clear who the real villains in that are.
A reminder that you can buy The Plague Stones from your local bookshop, including via Hive books, from Blackwell's, Waterstones or Amazon or directly from Titan Books. And you should.
The blogtour continues! See the poster for all the stops...
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