The first interview on this blog, with John Linwood Grant, writer and editor of weird fiction, sharer of space with lurchers, and creator of several strange characters who live and move and have their being in and around the London of Sherlock Holmes (who also makes his appearance in several of his works). He has also reviewed a book of mine and interviewed me – and in the interest of balance it is only fair to let him present his side of the story.
I could have edited this as Mr Grant suggested, but I found it all to be so interesting that it didn’t need cutting down to size. So here goes:
Q. On Facebook, you are well known as the creator of possible relative John Linseed Grant, who lives close to the village of St Botolph in the Wolds, with the under-gardener Mshindi (who also takes an intelligent interest in the stock market), several plots of psychopathic root vegetables, The Dog that is Born of Kangaroo, several blood relatives who seem to be missing vital parts of their anatomy and/or rational thought processes, and many ducks. How much of this narrative corresponds to your everyday life?
Quite a lot of it corresponds rather well. I spend most days working alone in a house that is falling apart, accompanied only by the models for the black dog and the Dog that is Born of Kangaroo – my lurchers. I’m also at constant war with the carrots, who do complain about the soil and insist on growing into shapes unsuitable for the pot – or polite company.
I grew up in a Wolds village, and we’re on the edge of the Dales now, so these things blur into a kind of reality. Village life in the sixties and seventies had a surreal quality which never left me – I was surrounded by a mixture of war-time leftovers, ancient village pumps and stories, and a suspicion of new devices. Bullocks strayed into the garden; vicars were eccentric; the village pond had a bad reputation, and many of the villagers were distinctly odd, though perhaps not quite as odd as those in St Botolph’s. I daren’t name names for fear they might still be peering through their net curtains. I am, however, tragically short on ducks these days.
Q. Another of your Facebook characters is the enchantingly-named pony, Mr Bubbles, who comes across as one of the most violent and self-centred literary characters since Hannibal Lecter. If his rampages were confined to stamping out (with iron-shod hooves) the supernatural and paranormal “folk” who seem to infest St. Botolph’s, he would be a hero. Unfortunately, innocent creatures who cross his path are also likely to fall foul of him. Will we ever see more of him and his friends Sandra and Mary in a book? Have any movie producers shown interest in Paddington 3: Mr Bubbles visits Darkest Peru?
Despite my best efforts to produce weird and dark fiction, I receive far more feedback on Mr Bubbles than any other character, and I have taken to posting very short tales of his exploits on social media to keep people mollified. My slightly psychotic pony was born out of a passing whimsy, and took control, as he usually does. I’m not entirely sure why he’s popular – I think it’s his begrudging but continuing loyalty to his teenage companion Sandra, and his dismissive attitude to almost everyone and everything else. Mr Bubbles can demolish those situations where we feel annoyed or bored. He can also demolish brick walls (and people’s skulls) with a swift kick, so very few are inclined to argue with him.
As to longer exploits, it’s hard to know where to start. Some more substantial tales are on my greydogtales.com website, usually with a cast of hundreds edging round his night-maned presence very carefully. He’s one of the few things in existence respected by St Botolph’s pack of feral Girl Guides, which tells you a lot, given their usual Brasso and lemonade fueled rampages across the village. Eventually, if my brain holds out, I suspect there will have to be an entire St Botolph’s book, unveiling the horror of the Wolds to all, and I’ll have little choice but to give Mr Bubbles a starring role.
Q. More seriously, your Edwin Dry is in many ways one of the most terrifying characters I have encountered. A professional killer who takes no pleasure in killing, other than in the satisfaction of a job well done, and a man who is capable of becoming invisible while in plain sight of everyone. He is so ordinary and so average, other than the nature of his profession, that he might be you or me, and that is the nature of his anti-hero appeal, I think.
Mr Dry is certainly a different kettle of knives, and you’ve hit on the key points there. He describes himself as a journeyman, one who follows a craft and a trade. He is egalitarian and professional. One crucial aspect of Edwin Dry is that he is sane – rational and orderly. No malice; no ‘red rages’, tragic back story, or unpleasant fetishes. I believe there is a point where he does ask himself if he is the only journeyman, the only one able to be what he is without developing those warped qualities seen in other killers.
Dry does not seek the understanding of others, nor do I ever suggest he should be seen as appealing, or a figure for any sympathy. At times he does things of which you might approve, but such approval may be misplaced. He’s largely indifferent to the personal turmoil of others, though he has his own version of morality – for example, he has a strong antipathy to those who take pleasure from cruelty or the act of murder. He sees that as highly suspect and totally unprofessional (one of the reasons for his dislike of the Whitechapel Murderer).
He is an ordinary man who has taught himself to do things which some see as extraordinary. One commentator described him as a force of nature, which may be apt but would probably not interest Mr Dry, who dislikes emotive or philosophical terms. If he is a force of nature, he is one which prides itself on a properly ironed shirt and a clean collar, on not getting embroiled in emotional trivia. An anti-anti-hero, perhaps.
Q. Sherlock Holmes, sometimes in a slightly non-Canonical guise, also makes an appearance in your writing. What, other than the historical setting, appeals to you about Holmes? Everyone who writes about him adds something new to the character, or emphasizes some point that Conan Doyle mentioned but didn’t expand on. What new angles does your Holmes bring to the table?
My Holmesian work was initially an accident, requested by a publisher, but it turned out to be an obvious extension of my dark Edwardian fiction. The lives and histories of my ‘Tales of the Last Edwardian’ characters go back as far as the 1870s, so there is a degree of crossover. Surprisingly, virtually all of my Holmes stories are canonical – if there are supernatural elements, they are either bogus, or Holmes is not forced to acknowledge them.
I do play with doubt, but that’s usually in the mind of Dr Watson, who is more inclined to accept a different slant. I did deviate with a single steampunk Holmes tale ‘The Hounds of Anuket’, which I did for amusement, and even that lacks any ghosts, being more an alternative social and technological setting for the canonical characters much as they were. Excepting that it has Holmes and Watson estranged, for perfectly good, mundane reasons.
If I bring anything substantially new, I’m not sure. Some readers, I’ve found, specifically don’t want anything ‘new’. They want more Conan Doyle adventures. As in ‘Tales of the Last Edwardian’, I do lean towards noting social attitudes, the more active agency of women, and so on. My Holmes is usually a little more reflective, perhaps. And I like re-interpretations based on canonical evidence, and new settings – I’ve written two long stories so far on Holmes in the Middle East, during the Great Hiatus. But if I wanted to write an entirely different kind of detective, I’d simply write more stories of Captain Redvers Blake or one of my other characters.
Q. You also edit weird fiction as well as writing it. What constitutes “weird” in your view, and how do people develop the worlds of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and William Hope Hodgson in the 21st century? What trends do you see developing in that field? Are there any contemporary writers of weird fiction who have particularly struck you in any way?
Modern weird fiction is an almost indefinable beast, with qualities drawn from all over – ‘literary’ fiction, magical realism, surrealism, postmodernism, noir, horror, and supernatural fiction. You sort of know it when you see it. It can be disturbing, evocative, and disquieting.
Weird fiction allows for ambiguity and for degrees of dissociation from commonly-understood rules of human behaviour, psychology, form and environment, often to question and re-examine them. Or just to worry the reader. Unlike other speculative genres or sub-genres, weird tends to distort the world as it is, eschewing the technological or secondary-world material of SF or fantasy, and the somewhat standardised monster tropes of much straight horror fiction. It’s its own thing.
How it has developed from its assumed historical roots, the weird tales of 1900-1940, is an interesting question – and as with Holmes, there are still readers who just want more Lovecraft, Smith, Hope Hodgson and others. All three writers you mention have stylistic failings and issues (Smith is arguably the most poetic and accomplished of the three in his use of language). More importantly, Lovecraft is problematic in terms of an underlying racism to some of his work, and in a lack of female characters or viewpoints. For his part, Hope Hodgson’s is also a very male world. I had to wrestle a lot with such aspects. One of the obvious ways forward from these writers, if you see them as relevant to what you yourself are producing, is to look further at their underlying themes, and reflect on those in the light of other days.
And so I’ve written the occasional story that (I hope) adds to that growing body of work on ‘cosmic horror’ which is inclusive and wide-reaching, writing which a far wider audience could approach – and thus in the end says more about the human condition. Where the horrors of what might lie behind mundane reality are relevant to and experienced by people of every gender identity, sexual preference and skin colour, for example. I didn’t go there to make a political statement (though I’m not averse to doing so), I went there initially because it seemed obvious. If humanity is at risk, it’s all humanity. Denying black people, or women, or LGBTQ+ folk any agency in fiction is just a reflection of various historical and societal prejudices, and pretty stupid for a writer, because it ultimately eats itself, to no purpose.
Having got that out of the way, much modern weird fiction, and a good chunk of my own, has little if anything to do with those guys. I relate to Saki. E.G. Swain and E.F. Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’, with maybe a touch of Edith Sitwell’s dissonances, far more than to Lovecraft; I find Hope Hodgson’s concepts inspirational, but not his ill-judged range of styles. My contemporaries, if they draw their influences from previous writers, do so from an astonishing range of sources, including South American literature, occultist schools, fin-de-siecle poetry, political thought, contemporary urban narratives and so on.
If I understood trends, I’d probably be writing them, so I have no idea. I’m fortunate to know and have read many writers who are far better informed than I am, and far more ‘in the zone’. Every name I use should be matched by five more who ought to be mentioned, but in terms of ‘pure’ weird that I’ve read in the last year or two, I have a particular fondness for the stories of Matthew M Bartlett, Gwendolyn Kiste and Jon Padgett, who regularly achieve the depths of that dissociation I mentioned. Nadia Bulkin and S.P. Miskowski are excellent, as are Ted E Grau, Priya Sharma, John Langan, Mike Griffin, Jayaprakash Satyamurthy and Michael Wehunt. I find the weird fiction of people like Farah Rose Smith absolutely fascinating, but that’s a branch of weird which is sometimes beyond me – I’m no breed of intellectual whatsoever. Other writers go for a blend of modern weird and traditional narrative, very effectively – Sam Gafford does this well – but there are too many for me to name-check here, sadly.
And I should point out that outside of editing for anthologies or magazines, I read surprisingly little weird or Holmesian fiction when I’m working, which is most of the time. I read forgotten late Victorian classics, graphic novels, Golden Age crime, Oor Wullie annuals and books on the conditions aboard Edwardian fishing trawlers.
Q. I guess there should be a question or two about lurchers. Let’s start with an easy two or three. How many? What are their names? And why are they called that? And the difficult one: why lurchers anyway?
We’ve had lurchers since the late nineteen nineties, along with a few other rescues. Jade was our first, a quite mad Bedlington cross found on the streets of London, who never stopped being disturbed and anxious, but who was the perfect family dog, utterly loyal. Our current two are Chilli, a dominant black female, and Django, a bumbling non-dominant male – we got them via the excellent Lurcher Link rescue organisation in West Yorkshire, already named, but we liked the names. Both are deerhound crosses, but with very different coats. Many lurchers are crosses between a working dog and a sighthound – ours are sighthound x sighthound, some of the fastest, and also called longdogs.
Lurchers are the finest of beasts. They’re fast, quirky, and generally intelligent and excellent with people, bonding very closely. I also happen to think they’re quite beautiful to watch, running or dozing. They sleep upside down or contorted in weird positions, and always where you wanted to sit or sleep. Everything in the house belongs to them, while the garden can be a riot of destruction. Their only drawback is that they have a strong prey instinct, and need a degree of training and gentle management to stop them chasing things, from a dropped pork-pie to a passing deer. Once you understand them, you love them.
Q. [bonus question] Do you now or have you ever taken service with the Belgian Navy?
Sadly no, though my somewhat eccentric father, after being in the Royal Marines, joined the Royal Navy Reserves and would have happily gone with the Belgians, I think, if there’d been an opening. He may even have sailed there in his little seventeen-footer, but he never disclosed that secret to me. I believe he worried the Dutch a few times.
Mr Grant’s Web site is at www.greydogtales.com – Mr Bubbles and the other inhabitants of St Botolph in the Wolds may be fleetingly glimpsed from time to time on Facebook and of course his books are to be found on Amazon and purveyors of fine literature.