This week I interviewed the fantastic Benedict J Jones, author of Skewered, Pennies for Charon, Slaughter Beach and Ride the Dark Country, who specialises in crime, horror and western fiction.
So first off please tell me about your writing style. Why do you focus on darker themes within your novels and stories?
Benedict: I would say my style is stripped back and heavily influenced by noir fiction. I think it is important to really distil the essence of what you want to say and then just say that – without all the flowery adornments. In some ways the style changes between the Charlie Bars books and my other work being that they are heavily first person and grounded in that style while some of my other works evoke a different style of storytelling.
The dark has always drawn me to it both for writing and reading fiction. I think, perhaps, that it has something to do with exploring the human condition and finding it easier to do that by looking at humanity at its most base.
How did you get into writing fiction? What was your background and how did you settle on crime and horror?
Benedict: Storytelling has always been hugely important to me and it felt like a natural progression from making up stories in my head to putting them down on paper. It took quite a while before I even sent anything out and I think a lot of the early stories was just me telling myself tales and creating worlds.
I think I fell into crime and horror for a number of reasons. One was my own reading which involved a lot of both of those genres. I think when I first started to work on my own stuff the biggest influences on me were Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Chester Himes’ The Harlem Cycle. To me those are just perfect sets of books and were really inspiring to me as a young writer to try and push myself.
You have four books published currently- Skewered, Pennies for Charon, Slaughter Beach and Ride the Dark Country. Please give me an overview of these books and why you think they have been so popular.
Benedict: Skewered; And Other London Cruelties is really a book of two halves. There’s the novella Skewered which is the meat of the book and introduces the reader to my private-eye/ex-con character in a dark case of kidnapping and a family at war with itself. While the rest of the book is made up of ten short stories. Two of them also feature Charlie Bars but the others are a mix of original works and reprints of stories that appeared in various venues. The stories run the gamut of crime and horror with quite a few mash-ups of both genres.
Pennies for Charon sees Charlie return in a full length outing. It is firmly rooted in the noir genre but there are enough nods to horror and hints of the occult that it seemed to please the horror hounds. It starts as a missing person inquiry but Charlie soon finds himself walking a much darker path.
Slaughter Beach is a novella that I pretty much wrote for myself. Initially I had an idea for a real splatter-punk era pulp nasty and, in a way, that is exactly what this is but as I wrote it I tried to subvert some of the tropes that were so popular in that genre. The reception the book received surprised me somewhat as I really did just write this one for me but I’m really happy it has connected with so many people.
Ride the Dark Country collects a bunch of my weird/horror westerns with a bunch of original tales and is a beautifully produced volume.
People have seemed to really connect with Charlie Bars as a character. When I wrote the first few stories I was worried he was too much of an anti-hero but stuck with it and readers have really got behind him. I think they realise that no matter how bad the things are that he has done there are much worse people out there and when the chips are down Charlie is the kind of man you want to have your back.
How do you go about researching your books? What information do you feel is essential before you settle in to writing a new piece?
It really depends on what I’m writing. The westerns take a lot of research sometimes as I don’t want them to be plastic – if someone pulls a gun I want it to be the right one, if there’s a horse I want to be able to tell you the exact type, I want the world around the story to be right.
The Charlie Bars books are different in that I know a lot of the places involved and the types of people I’m talking about. I try to use as few fictional places in them as I can and thoroughly ground them in the real world.
What genres do you enjoy reading yourself? How do the books you read influence your own writing?
Perhaps unsurprisingly I read a lot in the genres that I write in; horror, crime and the western. Apart from those I also like history books, thrillers, plays, and some literary fiction – that said, I’ll read pretty much anything I find.
I often find myself marvelling at the style of other authors and try to pin point exactly how they illicit the feelings they do from me. As well as that reading often inspires a train of thought in me that sets up the bones of a story for me, I find this especially true with reading history books.
What do you believe is the appeal of crime fiction, and why has the genre- which relies heavily on recycled tropes and themes- held such wide popularity for such a long time?
Benedict: I think that crime holds its popularity because it is such a broad church. There’s something for everyone in the crime genre from cosy whodunnits to bleak stripped back nihilist noir.
Also, a lot of it has to do with fear. Since time immemorial people have liked to be scared and crime fiction does that; it shows us the people who lurk in the dark places always ready to leap into our happy pleasant lives and smash what we have built. This goes for the horror genre as well.
Some people like the idea of a paladin-like figure coming to set everything right and a lot of crime fiction plays to that. In some ways you can see how the western took on the role of the knightly tales of old and this in turn was superseded by the police inspector and the private detective. That questing figure is one that runs through fiction since the early Greek epic poems and it is clearly still with us today.
With the theme of recycled genre techniques in mind, how do you go about ensuring your writing always stands out from the crowd and really draws the reader in?
Benedict: Firstly, I think you have to know the genre that you are working in and to do that you need to be widely read in it. You need to make sure that you don’t repeat the mistakes of other authors and also that you don’t simply repeat what has already been done. But, if you are going to repeat things that have come before (and a lot of fiction does) then you had better do it in style.
For me tropes are there to be subverted where possible. Give the reader something they know and recognise and then turn it on its head.
I think if you produce your best work and really par it down until it zings then that’s something that readers can see. You need to have faith that readers will feel your vision. Characters that are real and that a reader can believe in, a world they can lose themselves in, and failing that give them violence, something really memorable. I still have people talking about the iron in Skewered and the coat hangers in Pennies…
With regards to genre mash-ups, what do you believe readers gain from books with tropes from multiple styles?
Benedict: The not knowing is one of the most important things. For example; in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel you start with a pretty standard private-eye thriller that takes an occult turn and by the end you have horror gold. The reader is a passenger and Hjortsberg takes them on a wild ride where they don’t know what will appear next – something mundane or something much darker.
Crime fiction is often a key element to many genre mash-ups. Why do you think this is? Is there an aspect of the genre’s style that lends itself to being combined with others?
I think crime, horror, and the western are all perfect to mash-up – especially together (but then I would say that…). I think with those genres you can tell any story and draw in the elements of other genres; the romantic- western, the comedy-horror, and as we have already discussed the multiple compartments within the crime genre.
My dad always told me you could tell any story with a western and that is true for all those genres and because of that they combine well from the horror-crime brilliance of Kill List to the western-horror of The Burrowers and some of Joe Lansdale’s books. Mainly though, they just seem to work and to the reader I think that will always be the most important thing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to break into the fiction market?
Benedict: Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Repeat. That’s the basics and if you aren’t doing those then you need to be. Keep at it and stick with it. The publishing/writing game is one of the slowest out there. Self-publishing has changed that somewhat but not always for the good. If you aren’t going that way then be prepared to play the waiting game. Persistence and patience does pay off.
If you’re writing short fiction then don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. We’d all like to be paid for all our work but the reality is you won’t be. I started off writing for ‘zines and was lucky enough to get paid for some of my early stories (once in beer, which was fine) but this was with markets that vanished a year later. From there I climbed into anthologies and then finally a book with just my name on the cover. The trick is to stay with it. Write stories you want to write, but always write.
Also get involved in the genre(s) that you write in. There is no secret old boys network BUT if people know you, know your work, know you aren’t a problem then they are more likely to come to you and want to work with you. The myth of the lone author just typing stories and sending them out into the ether is, on the whole, just that – a myth. Get involved in the community and see where it takes you.
Have you any plans for new books or stories? Are you researching anything exciting at the moment?
Benedict: Well, I have a new Charlie Bars novel, The Devil’s Brew, coming out in late-summer/early-autumn from Crime Wave Press. Charlie heads out of London up to the bleak beauty of Northumberland. I tell people it’s like The Wicker Man meets Get Carter and hopefully fans of folk horror won’t be disappointed.
I’ve also just finished a third Charlie Bars novel and at the moment am trying to finish off a raft of shorter works that I had on hold while I finished that off.
I’m working on a crime/horror thriller set during world war two which I hope will make it to novella length at least, a few more Charlie Bars short stories, and a few other bits as well.
Within the broader writing community, are there any up and coming fellow authors or books you are excited about in the future?
Benedict: Yes, quite a few; Chris DeWildt’s new novel Kill ‘Em With Kindness is just out and I loved his Love You to a Pulp, Donald Ray Pollack’s new one is almost here and his The Devil All The Time is bloody amazing, and Adam Nevill is always an author that I watch for and he finally has a collection of short fiction dropping.
In terms of authors that might have less noise around them; I hope Matt Mattila puts something longer out soon, Anthony Watson deserves a collection soon, the Sinister Horror Company lads are putting out some great books at the moment. There really is a tonne of great stuff out there, under the radar, at the minute.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Benedict: Just to say a big THANK YOU to you Hannah, it’s been great.
Many thanks to Benedict for talking to me. Check out his website HERE to find out more about Benedict and Charlie Bars.