John Howard was born in London. His books include The Defeat of Grief, The Lustre of Time, The Silver Voices, Written by Daylight, Cities and Thrones and Powers, and Buried Shadows. Secret Europe and Inner Europe are joint collections written with Mark Valentine. Howard’s essays on fantastic fiction and its classic authors have appeared in Wormwood and other places, and many are gathered in Touchstones: Essays on the Fantastic.
An Interview with John Howard Conducted by Florence Sunnen
Florence Sunnen: Although the stories in A Flowering Wound are consistent in tone and sensibility, your writing is difficult to pin down to a genre. How do you find your writing categorised most often, and how do you feel about these categories?
John Howard: As an unashamed long-time reader of genre fiction (especially science fiction) I’ve never had a problem with being identified with genre. But yes, as you say – which ones, if any? I think most of my work has appeared in places which are clearly genre, but which don’t worry overmuch about exact labels. I suspect my stories are most often characterised as supernatural, fantastic, strange, weird, dark fantasy, horror (and once or twice as sf). I like Robert Aickman’s term “strange stories” – but I’m not bothered by these or any other labels, because that’s all they are. As a reader I know that I want first a good story, and if it’s genre I tend not to feel the need to over-analyse and trouble myself about further subdivisions.
FS: The uncanny often crops up in this collection as a sort of sensory haunting; in “We, the Rescued”, for instance, the protagonist experiences a romance gone wrong as bouts of unseasonal heat. Is the sometimes inexplicable misfiring of the sensory apparatus something that unsettles you?
JH: Yes, I’m sure it would unsettle me a hell of a lot – and if me, then others. However, I think the main impetus behind the heat was that I wrote the story in the depths of winter and was trying to imagine myself warm! As I get older I find extremes of temperature more and more tiresome to have to cope with, even if unavoidable. When it’s hot I get lethargic and want to lie down and sleep; when it’s very cold I want to go to bed!
FS: Do you feel affected by ghost stories? Is there a ghost story (or uncanny story) you have encountered recently that particularly resonated with you?
JH: I don’t find the term “ghost story” very helpful. For me the term is too restrictive – or vague. But yes, a good ghost story (or uncanny story, a much more helpful term) will always be welcome. For a start I try to keep refreshed in the classics: the best of the likes of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Fritz Leiber, Robert Aickman, both Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Thomas Ligotti, Charles L. Grant, Clark Ashton Smith, and so on and on.
Recently I re-read Machen’s The Three Impostors, which always gives me a kick (although usually a different one each time). Inspired by James Machin’s recent book on weird fiction in Britain I’ve been reading my way through John Buchan’s uncanny stories, many of which I’d heard of for years but never read – such fine tales as “The Wind in the Portico” and “Skule Skerry”. I’ve read Francis Brett Young’s Cold Harbour (1924) and To Walk the Night by William Sloane (1937) several times each over the decades, and their chill and subtle otherness has never let me down.
Current writers whose new collections and novels go straight on the to-read pile include Christopher Priest, Nina Allan, Peter Straub, Rosalie Parker, R. B. Russell, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mark Valentine, and Colin Insole. Mark Valentine is one of my oldest friends (and we have collaborated on several stories) so I might be biased, but I think his story “The Fig Garden” is one of the finest evocations of the strange and numinous that I’ve read in years. Stephen Jones reprinted it in his Best New Horror #28, so I’m not alone!
FS: Longing to the point of obsession seems to be a theme in a number of your stories. I’m thinking here of “A Glimpse of the City” and “Ziegler Against the World” where protagonists fall prey to obsessive delusion which lapses into haunting. What does it take to write about obsession, be it with another person, a pattern, an object, or with an action that must be performed?
JH: I think you’re right in noting the recurring themes of longing and obsession. I suppose what it takes to write about them must come from the writer’s personality (however it was shaped, and continues to be). I know that if I am particularly interested in something or someone, then I want to know as much as possible about it or them. I have a strong collecting instinct, and like to seek out and gather things I’m interested in (or obsessed by). Unfortunately for my bank balance and shelf space this applies especially to books by authors I admire!
It seems to me that action is a good way of helping to secure memory. If you meet someone and have a good time, the place is important, and returning there could help to ensure it happened again.
Near where I live there’s a short road lined on both sides with trees which meet overhead, so when the trees are in leaf there’s a tunnel effect. One August evening I was walking past the end of that road. The low angle of the sunlight, the glow of the sky and cloud effects, the shadowy interior of the “tunnel” all went to create a marvellous effect. I experienced what Lovecraft called “adventurous expectancy” and I had to detour for a few minutes and walk along the road under the trees. Then I came to make a sort of ritual of it and went out for a walk at the same time each evening for a week or so in order to try and relive the experience again. And every year since, at about the right time, I’ve done the same. Of course, I never have quite relived those feelings – but it doesn’t matter. And I’ve seen many new things too: you never know what you might come across while out walking in an ordinary suburb!
FS: Do you apply a similar ritual to your writing process? Do you try to write in the same place when working on a story, or are you one of those lucky people who can immerse themselves in their stories no matter where they are?
JH: I get story ideas at any time or anywhere. When I’m working on a story, I often get ideas for plot developments, dialogue, and even endings at the most inopportune times – for example while I’m walking to work. When I get there I have to go straight to my desk and jot things down.
Otherwise, in order to actually get on with producing a story, I find it best to attempt to be disciplined and try to be in front of my laptop at home at roughly same time each evening. If I can write five hundred words or more between about nine and eleven then I’m pleased. It’s the same when I’m revising a story.
FS: In stories like “Portrait in an Unfaded Photograph” and “Twilight of the Airships”, how do you approach story research, especially when they have a particular historical setting? Do you base your research around this, or do the story ideas come to you while researching?
JH: With “Portrait in an Unfaded Photograph”, as that was written for submission to a theme anthology (a tribute to Gustav Meyrink) the extent of my research was to read up on details of his life, looking for any odd or interesting happenings, anecdotes, etc that I could then hang a story on. Thank you, Wikipedia! I think I also did a little research on settings while writing the story – but only to ensure that basic details were right. I was writing a story rather than a travelogue.
“Twilight of the Airships” was set in my fictional town of Steaua de Munte. Since I am its creator, as far as the setting was concerned I didn’t really have any research to do! I just did the usual thing of trying to ensure consistency. So the railway station is always on the north side of the river, Castle Hill is to the east of the town centre, Bruckenthal Square is located in the New Town and not the old walled town, and so on. Early on I drew a basic sketch map showing the river, the major streets, the railway etc. That helps me to maintain consistency, but doesn’t prevent me from adding things and places as and when I think of them.
I have read quite a bit of Romanian history, so when I write I am confident about the background – but when necessary I always double-check dates and the chronology of events. I read up a little on the airship programmes of Germany and the Soviet Union, but as my airships were made-up I did pretty much as I liked. I have been fascinated by the colossal rigid airships of the interwar years since childhood, and was glad to be able to use them in a story.
I’m somewhat wary of research. I think it can be used as a tactic, an excuse, for not getting on and writing the story. So I tend to jump in and get started after minimal (if any) research. I will check facts as I go (as I think I need to) or as part of the revision process. Most times when I begin a story I’m not at all sure how it will end. I trust that the ideas will continue to come.
FS: How important is visual thinking to your writing process? Do you imagine scenes in visual terms, rather than through language?
JH: The visual is highly important. In the first instance at least, a scene or incident or object often comes to mind visually, as a sort of mental snapshot or film clip, and I then have to try to use and build around it in terms of language.
FS: Do you prefer writing about cities and places with which you are very familiar (such as Berlin, in the case of this collection), or places you’ve only come into passing contact with, and whose description makes more demands on your writerly imagination?
JH: If I’m writing about real places, I tend to prefer those I’m familiar with (or think I am). If I’m using a certain location there may well be facts to get right – for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral has a dome, not a spire – and I dread making factual errors. Otherwise it’s a case of writing in general terms – letting the imagination run free. Not making any definite “commitments”, but just the intention to create a sense of a real and definite place.
As a reader, if someone writes a story set in a city I don’t know, or hardly know, as long as it feels right, they’re safe from me. But if I spot an error, that will throw me off-balance for a moment, and I’d be wondering why the author didn’t do a little more research or double-check what they thought they already knew.
FS: Which are your favourite cities to write about? Are they the same as your favourite cities to be in?
JH: I’ve set many stories in London and Berlin – and I’m sure I will continue to do so. London will always be first in my heart, if I can put it that way! And I like being there: I know my way around, speak the language(!) and understand the Tube. I feel at home in London.
In many ways Berlin reminds me of London. It’s a collection of separate places grown and stuck together, it sprawls, a river runs through it, it has a train system with a colourful map as complex as the Tube (but which is really quite simple to use). It’s been some years since I was last there, so even though English is widely spoken I’d want to hope that my German would return!
Steaua de Munte is largely based on aspects of Sibiu and Sighisoara, and those are two cities which, together with Bucharest, made a strong impression on me. Unfortunately time in them was limited, so I was not able to see and explore very much. I would love to return and linger in all three.
Otherwise, unfortunately, I’m not at all well-travelled. In England my favourite cities to be in are places such as Liverpool, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Shrewsbury . . . In particular, Liverpool is always a pleasure to go to. It’s lively and refreshing, and its setting is magnificent.
FS: The stories in A Flowering Wound all amble along a similar path, one evocative of loneliness, difficult communication, sensory distortion, and obsession (with buildings, with people, with patterns). Do you feel that the first and last stories are start and end points of a journey, spanning several decades and countries?
JH: I feel that publishers and editors are better than I am at discerning links and themes. Readers too. The publisher suggested that those particular stories lead-off and conclude the book, and I was happy to agree. I think the notion of reading a collection of stories as also being a journey is a valid one – and am glad that in this instance particular stories helped to create and sustain that idea.
Florence Sunnen was born in Luxembourg City and has lived and studied in Germany and the UK. Her academic background is in philosophy and creative writing. Her stories and collages have appeared in The Learned Pig, Mud Season Review, a glimpse of, Datableed, and Brixton Review of Books. Her story “The Hook” was published by Nightjar Press in 2018. She blogs at interiordasein.wordpress.com
The first thing one learned about Richard Dalby as a person was that Richard didn’t use email. Or at least that was the first thing I learned. Communications came by typed letter, occasionally handwritten (especially the later ones when he was having eye trouble), and even, though less frequently for me at least, by telephone. But let’s face it, there’s something quaint and reassuring about getting correspondence in the post.
Last week I got out all the letters I could find that Richard had sent to me over the years. While I’m sure we started corresponding earlier, I couldn’t find anything dating prior to May 2010. There were no catalogues either—with that little gold return address sticker at the top—which I must have binned after placing my orders. I circled items in Richard’s catalogues the same way I circled toys in the Sears Christmas catalogue when I was a kid. The books always arrived wrapped in brown paper, then newspaper, then another layer of brown paper (this layer bound also with string, sometimes with an added layer of bubble wrap), then under that a plastic bag (carefully taped shut), and then the book. Books Richard sent were wrapped so well they had to be extracted from the packaging by meticulous operation. Nothing ever arrived damaged though. Not once.
Richard’s death last month startled more than a few. I remember exactly what I was doing just before the message came through on my phone. I was at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, flipping through an old issue of All Hallows, looking at the extensive interview I had done with E.F. Bleiler in 2006, thinking Richard would be an excellent subject for a similar career-length interview. The scope of his knowledge and decades of experience, as a scholar, as a book collector and bibliophile, as an editor, and later as a colleague and friend would have made for a fascinating exchange. That’s when my phone buzzed on the nightstand delivering the news.
I first met Richard in Brighton at the World Horror Convention on 27 March 2010. Thinking back now, we certainly must have corresponded before 2010 as conversation was immediately familiar and friendly. I don’t think I’d ever seen a photograph of Richard prior to meeting him in Brighton, so was struck by his boyish appearance. It conflicted with the fact that his publication history goes right the way back. Jesus, how old was this guy? Not that old at all as it turned out.
But Richard wasn’t just boyish in appearance; he had something of that youthful manner about him too. Maybe curiosity is a better word for it. He was inquisitive. After brief salutations and nice-to-finally-meet-yous, Richard immediately launched into questions. I’d been working on Stoker a lot in those days, and he wanted to know what I knew about “X” edition, or if I had ever been able to track down the exact publication date of “Y”. Of course I hadn’t. Sure, I know more than the average person does about Stoker, but Richard’s knowledge far exceeded mine and by no small amount. And yet he asked me questions anyway because that’s how Richard seemed to work. He probed, asked questions, compiled, collected, and collated. I think that’s one of the key qualities Richard possessed that made him such a good researcher, bibliographer, and anthologist.
That’s pretty much how our correspondence went too: Richard would ask me questions and I mostly answered with the written equivalent of a blank stare and a shrug. I asked Richard questions and he responded in more detail and depth of knowledge than I ever would have imagined. He was generous that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who benefited from his knowledge.
So there we were stood in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. He’d just asked me numerous questions on Stoker-related bibliographic mysteries, and what could I say? How could I respond? I opened my bag and took out my well-thumbed Bram Stoker: A Bibliography that Richard had co-written with Bill Hughes. I asked him to sign it. He did. As he wrote in my book, I kept thinking: “Why are you asking me these questions, Richard? You literally wrote the book on the subject.” But he treated me as a colleague right from the start. This Stoker bibliography—which I still consult—is one book of two that I now have in my collection kindly inscribed to me by Richard.
Richard was also kind enough to edit one of Swan River Press’s Bram Stoker Series booklets, To My Dear Friend Hommey-Beg: The Great Friendship of Bram Stoker and Hall Caine, which I published in 2011. Much of our early correspondence centred on Bram Stoker, but also Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and as the years went by an increasing number of more obscure Irish writers. By autumn of 2010, Swan River Press had shifted from publishing chapbooks and booklets to limited edition hardbacks. Not only was Richard enthusiastic about this, but frequently offered his advice and expertise.
I remember Richard was especially keen to see Mervyn Wall back in print, and in advance of Swan River’s reissues of The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey in 2015, Richard allowed me to reprint his article “Mervyn Wall: Irish Author and Satirist” in the second issue of The Green Book. He also sent me a photocopy of Dorothy Macardle’s rare ghost story collection Earth-Bound, which I eventually reprinted in 2016. So too did Richard help fill in my A.E. collection by sending me stray volumes that he accumulated over the years. He was eager to see the sesquicentennial edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems, which I published in early April 2017. I sent him copies of the book—I’d gotten into the habit of sending him a few copies of everything I published—but I did not hear back from him, nor would I. I knew he was still having eye trouble, but I hoped that he had time to open the package and that he liked the book.
Richard’s generosity continued over the years, and even as I look around my office here in Dublin, I see a great number of books he had sent me. He knew I was on the lookout for obscure volumes, mainly Irish, and occasionally Richard would send letters with lists of books he had acquired, offering them with the note “free to you”. I sometimes think he picked up spare copies just so he could send them to people who were looking for them. There are early editions of Stoker and M.R. James from Richard on my shelves, books by Cheiro, some Le Fanu, a cherished first edition of Blackwood’s The Bright Messenger, and an odd little volume, Thirty Stories by Elizabeth Myers (simply because he thought I might like it), among many others.
Not long before his eyesight became even more troublesome, I got another such letter telling me he would soon be “downsizing” his Dunsany and Blackwood collections. Although he never got around to sending me a list of those titles, he wrote that he would soon be getting rid of the first editions which he “no longer needed to keep”—“Free to you,” he added. Generous as always, no doubt, but even then there was an odd hint of closing-time about that handwritten letter. It was always “Free to you”. Richard was either a very good bookseller, or a very bad one—depending on your perspective, I suppose.
Earlier this year I asked Richard if he would contribute to an ambitious project I have embarked on. Inspired by Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers, Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic, and other similar reference books, I’d decided to put together an encyclopaedia of Irish supernatural and fantastical fiction writers. With his scope of knowledge, Richard was one of the first people I approached. I sent him a letter with my list of authors and waited. What came back was a half-page list of ten authors about whom he wanted to write—many on which he’d already written; authors who he had revived and got back into print; authors who were on my list because Richard had introduced me to their work in the first place. Apart from the date in the corner (January 2017), there was no further comment, just the handwritten list. A week or so later I received what would be a short, final letter: a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, a few brief but enthusiastic comments about the encyclopaedia project, and the hope that with regard to his eyesight “all will improve this year”.
The last time I saw Richard was at the Friends of Arthur Machen annual dinner in York on 5 March 2016. I didn’t know he would be there, but was glad to see him again. We chatted a bit about the then forthcoming Dublin Ghost Story Festival, he regretted that he couldn’t make it, but was hoping to attend if we decided to host another. Richard that day wore an oversized jumper and I remember watching him inspect books that were to be auctioned off before the dinner. He picked them up one by one, bringing each one close up to his eyes to read the titles before depositing them back on the table. Richard bought two or three odd volumes costing not more than a few pounds. I don’t remember what the titles were, but I do recall wondering what his interest in them was. As for me, I bought a copy of The Haunted Chair and Other Stories by Richard Marsh, which Richard had edited for Ash Tree Press back in 1997. Richard was sat beside me in his oversized cream-coloured jumper, his hair was whiter than I’d remembered. I asked him if he would sign the book. He did. It’s the second book in my collection inscribed to me by Richard.
He made a quick exit shortly after that. Said he had to catch a bus back to Scarborough. I wish he would have stayed for the dinner.
Richard Dalby has left his scholarly imprint on many hundreds of books and journals, not just those he edited or compiled himself, but those volumes that he shepherded into publication with the generosity of his knowledge and genuine love for supernatural literature. Back in 2014 Richard wrote to me: “I still have around thirty ideas for excellent collections and anthologies.” I suspect he was being modest. And it might be a selfish thing to write, but I hope hints of those books might still be discovered among his papers.
The loss of a friend and colleague is and always will be a horrible thing, and with someone like Richard that loss goes for double—along with him went a vast amount of knowledge. Commiserations regarding Richard’s death have been circulating the literary and small press communities these past weeks, and no doubt the void he left will not be filled any time soon.
I got an email from Peter Bell a few days ago. Like Richard, Peter also signed up to contribute to my Irish encyclopaedia, offering to write the entry on Katharine Tynan. Like many of us, Peter had looked to Richard for advice and assistance. Before he died, Richard gave Peter a copy of Tynan’s 1895 collection An Isle in the Water. “Some time ago,” Peter wrote to me in the email, “I’d asked Richard for more information about Tynan. With strange serendipity I opened the copy of Isle in the Water, and inserted I found notes on her Richard had sent with it . . . As if his spirit were still abroad!” Something tells me we are still in good ghostly company.
Richard, you are missed.
This reminiscence originally appeared in A Ghostly Company Newsletter 58, Summer 2017. Mark Valentine’s obituary for Richard can be read on the Wormwoodiana Blog.