Interview with Simon Crook (SILVERWEED ROAD)
Simon Crook has been a film journalist for over twenty years, visiting film sets and interviewing talent for Empire magazine.
A new and exciting voice in domestic horror, he is perfectly placed to translate the recent successes of the genre from the silver screen to the written word – while adding something new and wholly his own.
Social links: @sicrook on Twitter
Welcome to the Hive, Simon. Firstly congratulations on your debut Silverweed Road. Can you tell us all about it, what can readers expect?
Silverweed Road is a horror short story collection set on a cursed street in Kent. The pitch I originally sent HarperVoyager was ‘A New Horror Behind Every Door’, and that logline ended up on the book’s front cover. It’s a real Devil’s pick and mix – the ten horror stories range from were-foxes to predatory swimming pools, mutant cuttlefish to cursed rings, vengeful urns to demonic jackdaws, plus a darts player who makes a deal with the Devil himself. I guess what sets it apart from the standard anthology format is the way the stories link together: characters and events interweave, turning the street into this weird horror eco-system. Silverweed exists in its own little purgatory, itching between classic horror anthology and a splintered novel.
What can readers expect? Horror. Weirdness. Madness. Laughter. Fear. Chills. And hopefully, an unsettling sense that anything can happen. I tend to see the horror genre as a booby-trapped playground. Of all the genres, it’s the most unpredictable. Definitely the most fun to write.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Oh, God. The idea of listening to music while I’m writing brings me out in hives. I’m blessed and cursed with the hearing of a bat. Play me a tune, and I can pretty much instantly play it on piano, so if music’s playing as I write, my brain will start analysing the bass line, the hi-hat or whether the guitar is panned right or left. If I do listen to anything, it’s white noise. But not any white noise. It has to be a 10-hour track on YouTube called Celestial. The monotonous blur sharpens the focus. Admittedly, it sounds like a ghost yawning, but it works for me.
Other than that, it’s good old-fashioned graft. I’ve been a magazine journalist since I was 24, and deadlines have to be met, whether you feel like writing or not. I’ll drag my feet, like everyone else, but with procrastination comes guilt, and that drags you back to the desk.
When I’m writing a feature, I’ll always outline, and it’s the same for fiction. Writing’s an act of discovery, but rather than grope around in the dark, I like to light the path ahead so at least I know where my story is going.
Having said that, I’m a big fan of the William Gibson Method: if isn’t happening, have a nap. A brief nap does wonders for your subconscious: it seems to magically untangle any problems.
Don’t just take it from me. Salvador Dali used to go to sleep on a chair, holding a spoon with a bucket by his feet. The moment he entered a woozy dream state, his hand would relax and the spoon would drop, hit the bucket, the clang would wake him up and he’d start painting. His weirdest, darkest, most surreal art were all created in that fuggy waking-dream state.
So, yeah, naps. Naps and coffee. Lots of coffee.
Speaking of worlds, what initially inspired you to write a collection of horror stories set on a cursed street in Britain? Were there any particular spooky experiences or favourite urban myths which you always planned to write about from the beginning?
This goes right back to my childhood. Late at night, during Christmas, the BBC would air horror films in the late-night slot – either classic Hammer or an Amicus anthology. I was a mutinous little tyke back then, so I’d sneak out of bed and watch them while everyone else was asleep. It’s like a Proustian nightmare, I guess: I’ve never shaken off the sense that horror feels forbidden.
Silverweed Road was inspired by those Amicus portmanteaus, and a genuine love of horror short stories. My Damascus moment was less about the stories than where to contain them. Once I realised a street had never been used as a horror anthology location, I knew I was onto something. Silverweed Road is a real street on a housing estate, by the way, close to where I grew up. All the roads are named after obscure plants with really peculiar folklore connotations: Yarrow Road, Speedwell Avenue, Valerian Way and, of course, Silverweed Road. That struck me as weirdly magical: this otherwise banal suburban estate with these vaguely occult street names.
But then Kent is weird and ancient, especially the Medway Towns. Everywhere you turn, there’s a ghost story lurking. Seen at a certain angle, the Garden of England resembles a graveyard. Rochester’s Coopers Arms, where I used to drink, is home to a monk who was walled-up alive. Mote Park, where I used to play, is haunted by a girl in a white nightdress. And most notorious of all, less than a mile from Silverweed Road, is Bluebell Hill: the most haunted highway in Britain. There’s been over 50 sightings of its hitchhiking phantom – most often a bride, soaked in rain – who begs a lift only to vanish from the backseat. I was obsessed with that story as a kid.
Ok, remind me never to visit these places! *shivers*
It gets weirder though. At the bottom of Bluebell Hill is Kits Coty: a neolithic long barrow that predates Stone Henge and is said to be haunted by a trio of witches. All of those legends seeped into me as a child, and helped shape the curse that wrecks Silverweed Road. I love that idea: that wherever we walk, others have walked before, and their dark histories creep up from the pavements.
If you had to be transported into one of your own stories, which would you choose and how do you think you would fare?
Nice! So you’re basically asking me to imagine my own death?! Practically every story ends with a horrific fatality.
Well you know, it is the spooky season after all, we had to get a touch macabre with our questions!
I definitely wouldn’t want to end up like poor Cleo Marsh in ‘The Pool’, or Leo Harbinger in ‘Dust’. I’m obsessed with cuttlefish, so Erik Akoto’s experimental aquarium appeals… until I think about what happens to him. No, it would have to be ‘Darts With The Devil’. Darts is sorely underrepresented in literature – aside from Martin Amis’ London Fields, I can’t recall it ever appearing in fiction, and I love the sport. I used to be pretty handy with the arrows in my youth, but I’m a solid 26-er nowadays. So the idea of a darts player making a Faustian pact to hit any number he likes was basically wish-fulfilment. As long as I don’t the suffer fate, I’ll take Terry Slater’s demonic darting superpower.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Did you have a favourite character you particularly enjoyed writing? Or one you found the most difficult to craft?
OK, so here’s the thing with short stories. Unlike novels, it’s the plot that drives the story, not the character. Clive Barker said it best. When he wrote Books Of Blood, he didn’t care what his protagonist had for breakfast. What mattered was the set-up, the horror, then the twist. It sounds counter-intuitive and arse-over-elbow, but you plot first, then throw in a character best (or least equipped) to deal with the horror. That’s where the fun starts.
Augustus Fry, the antagonist in ‘Caught Red-Handed’, was a scream to write: a pompous, greedy antiques grifter who gets his comeuppance when he all but steals a cursed ring. He was basically late-stage capitalism made flesh, so I went full-scale Roald Dahl-villain with him.
I find anger, especially masculine anger, both terrifying and perversely funny so a lot of Silverweed’s residents have lost control before the horror even starts (a classic example would be my irascible gardener, Victor Hagman, in ‘The Jackdaw’).
Oh yes, Victor had some serious anger issues!
I suppose Silverweed Road is a world without heroes: all of the characters are tragic, scarred or deeply flawed, so I still feel a pinch of guilt for putting my gentler residents – Shanta Kapoor in ‘Crash Flowers’, Cleo Marsh in ‘The Pool’ – through the mill. I’m equal opportunities when it comes to horror, but it’s very much by design the smartest characters in the book are all women.
Who (or what) have been your most significant horror influences? Are there any creators who inspired you the most in Silverweed Road?
I avoided reading any fiction while I was writing Silverweed Road – I didn’t want to risk inviting any influence. What I DID read in-between stories was poetry – specifically, Philip Larkin. Larkin has this supernatural talent for painting incredibly vivid images in very few words, and was a crucial reminder in the power of economy. Short stories are a very direct discipline, so if I ever felt I was getting verbose or too indulgent, I’d inhale some Larkin to snap me out of it. That said, there’s bound to be an element of subconscious influence on the stories. I’ve since realised ‘Caught Red-Handed’ was channelling MR James, and I adore Ramsay Campbell and Clive Barker, so their influence is probably lurking in there somewhere.
How do you feel your experience as a film journalist, particularly in the horror cinema genre, has helped shape you as a writer? And I have to ask, who was the most interesting celebrity you have interviewed? (Was it Kermit the Frog?!)
Ha! Oh, Kermit. I spent a day at the Tower Of London, where a Muppets film was being shot. I met Kermit in the Muppets storeroom, with all these spare body parts everywhere, like a Muppet Chainsaw Massacre. Kermit’s ‘helper’, the puppeteer Steve Whitmire, sat down with me in full view, Kermit on his lap with his black arm stick visible, and I thought, well that’s the magic gone. The moment Kermit spoke, Whitmire vanished, and somehow, I was talking to a frog. It was pure Muppet voodoo. We chatted about chicken visas, Kermit’s favourite road (the A40 [Editor: AGREED. The Welsh bits anyway]), the tuxedo he was wearing (“The size is Extra Spindly”). Kermit is real and I’ll take those 50 magical minutes to the grave. Everyone should have a go. There should be walk-in Kermit booths on the streets.
Oh this is brilliant!! I’d love to meet Kermit!
Whenever I visit a film set for Empire, I talk to everyone – from the carpenters to the costumers – because everyone has a story and everyone is interesting. Despite being a film journalist for 20 odd years, it still feels a bit vulgar and name-droppy talking about it, but I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredible people while they’re working on set. Jeff Bridges sat sketching me while we chatted. I spent a day hanging out with Jack Black (very chilled and the opposite of his screen persona). Michael Caine is a walking anecdote machine. David Cronenberg is a big softie and one of the smartest people alive. Interviewing Mike Leigh is like going into battle and Ray Winstone made me laugh so hard I choked on one his toffees. This will disappoint the easily scandalised, but apart from Miss Piggy, I’ve never met anyone you’d class as ‘Difficult’.
As for writing Silverweed Road – I live and breath horror cinema but I consciously avoided ‘borrowing’ film imagery. The book is, for my sins, the product of my own weird imagination. I guess the transformation scene in the were-fox story, ‘The Vanslow Fox’, was a warped homage to An American Werewolf In London, and the burning wallpaper in ‘Caught Red-Handed’ was inspired by the hotel corridor sequence in Barton Fink. Otherwise, that’s it.
I’m a visual writer, so art played a far more important role. ‘The Pool’ was inspired by a Mark Rothko painting, and Goya’s Ghostly Vision inspired the grimoire in ‘The Mogon’. As for the jackdaws, that comes from real-life. One winter, every day for two months, a flock of jackdaws would fly directly over the house during twilight. It was an amazing spectacle – so many jackdaws, the sky would actually go dark. I’ve never forgotten it, and they ended up in the book. I guess I was plagiarising nature.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
All of the above. There’s that old chestnut: ‘writing is rewriting’, but I think there’s more to it than that. You have to play the Man With Two Brains. When you’re writing, you’re inviting your subconscious to take control. Editing is more like the Ice Bucket Challenge: your brain splashes from its waking-dream state and your analytical side kicks in.
Just knowing they’re two entirely different processes is part of the battle. And it is a battle: you’re basically at war with your past self, and it takes guts (and time) to admit where you’ve gone wrong. ‘Kill your babies’ is a brutal saying all writers are familiar with – most often, that will involve sacrificing a finely sculptured paragraph you’ve chipped at for months. If it slows down the pace, it’s probably self-indulgent and begging for a mercy killing.
Editing wise, there was a fair bit of benevolent butchery involved. The original manuscript had 14 stories, but the deadline was looming, and it felt right to kill a few tales and focus on the survivors. The biggest change came with the final draft. I’d originally kicked off the anthology with an opening statement from Detective Chief Inspector Heath. My editor suggested we make the detective a regular character, either introducing each story or providing a footnote at the end, so I went for the latter. Editing isn’t always about the red pen: it’s about adding stuff too. It was a genius suggestion from my very smart editor, and despite the extra work, a scream to write. DCI Heath’s post-script really glued the story world together (most of his theories are wrong about the culprit behind each story, so it had the added bonus of making the reader feel smart).
This one is just fun and is one of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Ha! OK… I’d ride on the back of Medusa, wielding a sledgehammer. She can turn the enemies to stone, and I can demolish them. And if that doesn’t pan out, there’s always Kermit The Frog as back-up.
Kermit for the win!! Haha!
Tell us about a horror book you love. What should our readers add to their Halloween TBR?
Haunted house novels are a spooky season staple aren’t they? If you want something modern, I’d recommend Anne River Siddons’ The House Next Door in a heartbeat. And if you’re after something more gothic, try Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece The Haunting Of Hill House. I’ve genuinely lost count how many times I’ve read her novel. “God! Whose hand was I holding?” is, for my money, the scariest line in literature.
Horror short stories are my wheelhouse, obviously, so the list of recommendations would fill the internet. In terms of Pleasure Shivers, you can’t beat MR James, but I’ll go for a story a little less celebrated: Marghanita Laski’s ‘The Tower’. I turned pale as milk the first time I read that.
As for me, I’ll likely be re-reading Clive Barker’s Books Of Blood this Halloween. Six volumes. Thirty stories. All of them black gold. It’s the apex predator of horror anthologies.
What’s next for you, Simon? Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
Oh, I’ve got a bunch of horror projects on the burn – and something Silverweed Road-related that could be quite fun.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual or in-person events our readers may be interested in?
There are radio interviews and podcasts lined up, and some fun tie-in features for Time Out and The Guardian. And I’m really looking forward to an event with the brilliant CJ Tudor. It’s quite freakish: both of us have horror anthologies out on the same day, both of us have gnarly trees on the cover and, even spookier, both of us have a story called ‘Dust’ in our collections. CJ’s a legend, so chatting horror with her will be a giggle and an honour.
It’s funny, really: in terms of horror, the publishing world has lagged about five years behind TV and cinema, where the genre’s still experiencing a second golden age. With brilliant writers like Paul Tremblay, CJ Tudor and Catriona Ward getting their due, I sense a dark tide rising, and a growing appetite for literary horror. Fingers and eyes crossed, the future is black.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
If just one Silverweed story results in a creepy Pleasure Shiver, then I’ve done my job.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
It’s been an absolute pleasure. Stay shivery.
Silverweed Road is out today from HarperVoyager. You can find a copy HERE