World Horror Convention 2010

But where were the toilets?

Over four days, and with a strict emphasis on drinking, it is not difficult to imagine the number of visits required. And the hotel is labyrinthine. My launch is in ten minutes. But first, I need to find the toilet.

I have a spatial incapacity: most journeys are guessed at, in a kind of optimistic panic. I am unable to imagine one space connecting to another, and so am more or less permanently spatially baffled. And this is a hotel that, as it happens, I have been coming to for twenty years. I danced here with a debutante at a wedding. I have been drunk here a great many times. And I still can’t find the toilets.

There is someone ahead of me: we get chatting, and then someone else is suddenly lurching in front of us. He is standing at the top of a few steps, and he is tremendously drunk. ‘I’m supposed to be on a panel,’ he attempts to say, several times. ‘I’m supposed…’ Then he is falling, pinwheeling – big fellow, hefty – I grab at his tee-shirt and we stabilise him. Wandering, I find an art exhibition, on a floor the existence of which would have never have occurred to me, had I not got lost on the way to…

The art is wonderful. I flirt with a print, £60! But no, sanity prevails, thank God. I am walking faster and faster, I really could do with finding… I find myself back at Reception and start again. There are signs, but they don’t convince, somehow. They are faint, gold-coloured, they look evasive, hand-painted, untrustworthy. I prefer to trust to instinct. I have a recurring dream of a building that becomes monstrous, limitless, partially ruined. The dream journey becomes harrowing, calamitous. Sometimes I am leading a group, who are depending on me to get them out. (Good luck with that one, guys.) And every journey I make in real life, in this incomprehensible hotel, is a faint echo of the dream.

Then there’s the return journey. I wander for miles, hallway after hallway, thinking, was it this far? Surely it wasn’t this far. Then getting back to where I went wrong. Starting again. Relaxed now, but proceeding with a sense of fury, futility, defiance. Bugger it, I know it’s not this way, but I’m going this way anyway. Bugger it. The right passageway is found, the stairs, I curse them for sitting here the whole time, hidden, mocking me. Smug.

But I make it to my launch. Finally.

And after that, all I have to do is work out how to get out of the building…

Razak and I

 

I had just come out of a period of what I think you could call frenzied activity: 6 novels over 7 years under 2 names. I was waiting for what came next, and it turned out that nothing, actually, came next. I had entered a career lull. But the music industry was waiting to suck me back in.


I had had an unhappy, unresolved affair with the business end of music in the 1980s. I had spent six long years getting precisely nowhere, and the scars were deep. I have always loved music: it hasn’t always loved me back. We had agreed to a sort of uneasy stand off.


Razak started out in my life as a student: he wanted to learn the piano, but had no aptitude and was in a tearing hurry. So I started to play keyboards for him. We spent many nights, Razak and I, in his bedroom studio: the music was trance, synth-heavy and machine-like. The tracks were dance mixes, 10 minutes long and extremely dense. We developed something like a telepathic understanding of each other: I would play, he would record, and I would know just from the way he tapped the computer keys or used the ashtray whether or not it was right. Usually it wasn’t. Raz and me were getting nowhere: the old familiar journey.


But Razak had friends, in particular a DJ who I will refrain from naming. For no particular reason, one hot afternoon we did a ‘session’ with him: I played keyboards, Razak played the computer, and the DJ sat in the producer’s chair, occasionally relieving the monotony by losing something. Division of labour, team work.


The track worked. To my jaded ears it sounded much the same as everything else we had ever done, but the DJ suddenly started jumping up and down and saying, ‘Big track! HUGE track!’. This, apparently, is a good thing. We mastered it there and then, the DJ started talking about Pete Tong and Ibiza, and before I knew what had happened I was hearing it on Radio 1. It was going to be BIG. It was, imaginatively enough, called ‘That Big Track’. (Bigness, as you see, was the theme here.)


But there was more to come: a performer whose name I dimly recalled from a hit in the early 90’s had heard the track and decided he would put a vocal on it. The track could now ‘cross over’ , and within a few months it appeared on dozens of compilations, had charted, and was played a lot even in the kinds of places I would go to. I was hearing it everywhere. I started to quite like it.


Razak and I tried several times to do the ‘follow-up’, but nothing we did came out right. We were a one hit wonder, and we parted company shortly after that.


But it’s still out there. I heard it the other day in the gym I go to, and I still here it in pubs. It goes ‘Daa daa da-da-daa, da-da-da-da, daa da da-da-da’, and you may have heard it too. There is even a video, featuring three women in bikinis (daringly original: watch it here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZZa-xGIMuA).


I have never been tempted back into the music industry, and I never will. My place in history is assured: highest chart ranking = #72. My name is Simon, and I am a one hit wonder.


Why I Wrote Sheep

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In 1991, I went to stay with a friend who was renovating a dilapidated farmhouse in Wales. It was a mammoth task, overwhelming, and he was floundering. Leaking septic tank, internal walls literally running with water, busted roof: it was basically falling down, a terrible mess inside and out. Poor man, he told me how some days he just sat with his head in his hands and was aghast at what he had taken on. The house was called Ty-Gwyneth, and for complicated family reasons his mother had bought it on the understanding that he would bring it up to a saleable condition over the winter, a decision everyone involved in was starting to regret.


The landscape was astonishing: cliffs like the edge of the world, fields as far as the eye could see, and sheep (of course) meandering about everywhere, blank and indifferent and alien.


There was a neighbour to the property, a sheep farmer. He was a handsome man in his fifties (at a guess), polite, but oddly unknowable. I had one brief conversation with him: he was off, he said, to visit his brother who lived nearby. He visited every Sunday and they had dinner together. Apart from this, my friend told me, he had no social contacts of any kind. No wife, no other family. He had no radio or television, read no newspapers: he was, essentially, from another era altogether. And I was absolutely fascinated by him.


Some distant scandal attached to the farmhouse my friend was doing up: a policeman had committed suicide there some time ago. Everything just started to click together in my head.


I had wanted for some time to write a book like The Shining, but different. I knew more about what I didn’t want than what I did: I didn’t want any kind of supernatural events, I didn’t want monsters or werewolves or vampires or ghosts. I wanted to write a book about fear, what it feels like, how it corrodes reason, how it drives people mad. As it turned out, I needed one vaguely supernatural thing to happen: a character needed to have some kind of equivocal communication with the dead ex-resident of the house, but this didn’t bother me too much – it could just as easily have been a hallucination. Every other element in the story was explicable in ordinary human terms and did not require any supernatural thing to occur.


I had read a fair bit of horror by this time, and I was amazed at how ineffective much of it was. Is anyone truly frightened of vampires, werewolves, giant crabs? The books I read seemed like elaborate fairy stories, grotesque and fanciful to be sure, but not remotely frightening: a million miles away from the real fears that I and everyone I knew had – fear of the dark, of failure, of loneliness, fear of ruin and shame, and strongest of all, for me anyway, fear of madness, my own and that of others. Fear of the self. The same fears, of course, that drive The Shining.


The other thing I was preoccupied with at this time (I still am) was religion. I was brought up Roman Catholic by devout parents: I remember a school chemistry lesson in which we were shown a short film that explained that the water molecule, H20, was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. My father had lapsed: my parents had had five children closely spaced and, on a teacher’s salary, more would have been ruinous. The Vatican had recently published a Papal Encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’, which forcefully restated the church’s stance on the evils of contraception. My father lost his faith, and it tormented him until he died.


My initial impulse was to write a sort of satire on religious belief, but the satire morphed into something else. Without giving away too much of the story, I wanted one of my characters to create a completely new religion, with new rituals, but based wholly on Biblical texts. I wanted to show up the selective nature of Christianity, how it picks and chooses the bits of The Bible that suit its agenda, and ignores the rest. My character would do the same, but with different bits of text, creating a monstrous and murderous new rite.


All of these things fused together to create Sheep. I wrote parts of it in a caravan in a field in Wales, with the sheep blundering about outside all day and night. To this day, I don’t like to get too close to them. (Not that I’m scared of them or anything…)