As we draw Indie Author Feature Week to a close, we thought there was no better way to end proceedings than with a glorious, in-depth interview with the main man himself, Benjamin Langley. Grab a nice cup of virgin’s blood…er… I mean, tea, and get cosy with us while I pry into Ben’s life and writing practices.
Dark greetings, and welcome to our tribe, Ben! Let’s start with an easy one – what’s the first horror book you can remember reading?
I’m not sure about ‘first’. I know we had a couple of Ladybird adaptations in the house of Dracula and Hound of the Baskervilles (two novels incredibly suited to be adapted for young children, right?) but I also remember reading some ghost stories by Robert Westall while in primary school. I have to also mention the short-lived Scream Comic. It was awesome. I picked up collections of their Monster and The Thirteenth Floor strips. They were surprisingly brutal.
Do you have a favourite sub-genre?
I lean more towards supernatural and folk horror, though any story can grab me.
What about your first horror film? Did it scare you?
It was almost certainly a Hammer Horror starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. We (my siblings and I) used to watch them on a weekend evening with my mum and my nan. I don’t remember being scared, as such, more of a sense of fascination.
We’re with you there. The Curse of Frankenstein is one of our favourites! Which author/work has had the greatest influence on you as a writer, do you think?
Stephen King – though I was mainly reading his short stories at first. I also got through a lot of Fighting Fantasy books. They’re probably what kept me reading most in that transition from primary to secondary school. I remember reading a lot of Point Horror too. I also used to borrow Shaun Hutson novels from my nan!
Your nan sounds cool. This wouldn’t be a horror author interview unless we also ask this – what scares YOU?
Literally everything. I jump at jump scares in things that spoof horror. Beyond that, it’s the idea of bad things happening to people you love, and being powerless to do anything about that.
Do you have a writing routine or process?
As I teach, my weeks can be hectic, so where possible, I like to do huge chunks of work during holidays. This might be a first draft of something big, or a large editing process. A lot of it stays in my head if I have a prolonged period just to focus on that thing. I write first, through to the end of the first draft. If I think there’s something wrong, or I come up with something that needs to happen earlier, I make a note of it (usually in a notebook rather than digitally). If I’m stuck, I’ll often go to a piece of paper and write down what needs to happen, and put in steps to get from A to B. The second draft is about sorting out the plot. Depending upon time constraints, there could be a number of drafts that come next. These include shaping characters to make them distinct and developing the setting. After that comes the language level, taking out unnecessary words, improving vocab choices. The final draft tends to be a read aloud to pick up awkward phrases, close repetitions and anything that jars.
Do you write to music?
Not always, and when I do. it’s very dependent on mood, or if I’m trying to drown out an annoying sound from somewhere. I have a melancholy playlist. I have more up-tempo lists. Sometimes I’ll pick a specific band (some of my tastes are a bit stuck in the 90s). Sometimes, if I don’t want the music to pull me out of the moment too much, I might stick on some movie soundtracks.
Are you more of a plotter or a discovery writer?
It depends of the project. Guy Fawkes: Demon Hunter has had these strict moments in history that have had to be kept, though some events have surprised me along the way. As Normal had 4 view-points, I always had an idea of the next 10 chapters of so. With Dead Branches I had the endpoint all along, but then more stuff ended up happening after!
Have you ever written something and then shut it away in a drawer to never again see the light of day?
My first couple of novel attempts… The first was about someone who had psychic powers, and dreamt content for a celebrity gossip column. Very flawed, but I learned from the experience. The second was a fictional footballer’s autobiography. Totally overwritten nonsense for NaNoWriMo one year. They’re not salvageable, but the experience was valuable.
Is there a central theme to your work, or something that you find just comes out subconsciously when you write?
Themes haven’t been intentional when I set out on any of my works. While the first three novels (and the novella) all have missing people and parental relationships are a huge part of them, it certainly wasn’t a deliberate intention. I think when you start exploring an idea though, it can then emerge in other works, though perhaps from a different angle.
You write about painful, fractured family relationships particularly well, with a lot of empathy – I think a lot of readers find comfort in being able to relate, even though it’s not the most pleasant thing to relate to. Do you think the writing process of such topics is therapeutic in a way, as reading it can be for many people?
Writing is, to some degree, an exploration of the self. I find writing can be cathartic, even though my writing is not particularly autobiographical. You can draw from yourself and others but transpose events and experiences. There are a lot of imaged traumas which can be hard to put yourself through when writing, but it’s what comes out the other side. I’ve been very emotional about a lot of the endings to my stories. They’ve all mattered to me. There’s a lot going on subconsciously, and I’m not sure I ever really know what I’m really writing. I’m not sure to what extend I’d want to carve myself open and peer inside!
Is there a subject matter you refuse to tackle? Is anything off-limits to you?
Without being too specific, I’d say there were things I wouldn’t want to write directly about, but you can deal with some things in writing without being explicit, exploring hurt in other ways.
Is there a subgenre you’d love to explore, that you just don’t yet have an idea for?
I would have said folk horror 10 days ago, but since FantasyCon and the Darkness in the Fields event, I may have an idea for something I could work on in 2023.
I’m still cursing myself for mixing my dates up and missing that event. Do you have a favourite out of your own works?
I have a favourite short story, which is ‘While My Guitar Gently Bleeds’ because it’s ridiculously fun. With my novels, I’ve put so much into all of them that it’s hard to pick one out. Dead Branches was my first published novel, and there were seven years between me writing the first words and publication. The setting is that of my own childhood, so it means a great deal. With Is She Dead in Your Dreams? I wanted to do something that was more of a straightforward supernatural story. I had a real Eureka! Moment with it in terms of a plot element that wasn’t working and I was so happy with the way it came together. Normal is the first time I’ve used multiple narratives, and I got to explore so much with that one. I ended up becoming very fond of the character whose story I was least sure of. Lola became the heart of that novel for me.
That brings me nicely to my next round of questioning, which is more specific to the (truly excellent) works we’ve reviewed this week. So, of all historical figures, why Guy Fawkes?
I think it’s the extremity of the act for which he’s known. Attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament is a pretty big deal. Imagine what must be going through your head if you’re trying to justify an act that will kill hundreds. Of course, if it’s the home of evil, there’s your reason.
How much research did you do for the time period, history, etc?
I’ve read some books that have gone to some pretty weird places. The Real Guy Fawkes by Nick Holland is amazing. It was a key source for plotting out Guy’s life. There was a great book in the house on fashion through the ages which I used to get the look right. I visited York, walking in Guy Fawkes footsteps from his house out through Bootham Bar, the route he would have taken to go to school. Then there’s York Minster, and The Shambles – there’s a shrine to Margaret Clitherow in what was once her house and butchers. There’s also a translation of Oswald Tesimond’s account from the 1600s which has been more useful for the end of the story.
Then there’s the other side. The occult stuff. I’ve read King James I’s Daemonology, which shows a lot about what was going on in supposedly educated people’s heads. The Reverend Montague Summers’ Witchcraft and Black Magic is absolutely fascinating. It’s incredibly well researched. The scary thing is how in earnest he seems about demons when writing in the 1940s. A lot of weird rituals and practices that ended up in the books are things I learned about through there. It sounds like he was a pretty disturbed man.
Do you enjoy research?
Having banged on about it so much in the previous answer, yes! I do get a little caught up in, delving into more and more strange things. It’s amazing what you uncover. When I discovered the story of Margaret Clitherow, I had to intertwine that with Guy’s narrative.
What’s your favourite scene in the book?
It’s really hard to say. I’ve just been doing the final edit on book 2, and there are some moments in there which are some of my favourite things I’ve ever written. In book one it might be something to do with Margaret Clitherow and the impact on the city. Or Guy fighting demons on a barn roof.
Did you map the entire trilogy out before you sat down to write the first one, or have you been planning them separately?
There was a broad plan, largely dictated by history, most of that history linked to deaths. The shape of the trilogy came together quite naturally by looking at where Guy was when. There’s his time in York in the first book. There’s his time in Europe and the return to London for book 3 and the Gunpowder Plot. Book 2 probably had most gaps to fill, but Holland’s book gave me ideas of where he may have been at various times, and the plot developed from there. It means each book sees Guy travel further, and the risk grows with it.
I can’t wait to see what Guy does next! If we can move on to Dead Branches – I’ve noticed that there’s a bit of theme running through your work – difficult child/paternal relationships. Is this a conscious decision or something that just works its way in?
It was probably most conscious in Dead Branches. The difficult relationship between Tom and his father was something which was present all the way through, from the earliest, very different drafts. Part of the reason The Fen Witch of GooseFeather Split exists though, is because I didn’t feel I’d quite finished exploring some of those relationships.
I love the past/present chapters and story-telling of this book – did you play around with different styles or always know that this was how you would write it? And also, why this sort of format?
Dead Branches went through a lot of changes. The very first draft was supposed to be in thirds, starting in the present, going back to 1990, and returning to the present in the last chunk. I binned 10 000 words and started over when I realised the most interesting part of the story was in 1990. I had a version of the novel that was only this aspect, but it felt like it was missing something. I eventually settled on the larger chunks of memory from 1990 coming between the present-day narrative. I’m glad I got there in the end, as I think this helps explore those relationships between generations better.
Did you always know how it would end, and whether or not the childhood trauma was caused by natural or supernatural events? You set the possibilities up so well that I had no idea which way it would go but would I have been satisfied with any explanation.
I wanted to leave it ambiguous as far as possible, and because of that, I think I remained undecided entirely myself. I want people to be able to read in and try to persuade themselves that nothing supernatural really happened, but left with lingering doubts. Funnily enough, this one I had an end in sight all along, but it’s not the actual ending of the novel. It was all supposed to come to a stop on the night of the World Cup Semi Final with what happens late at night. But then it kept going and we had the episode with Shaky Jake and the events at the old water treatment station.
The Fen Witch of Goosefeather Split was mysterious like that too. Speaking of, let’s talk about it this glorious novella! Do you have a preference between writing novellas and novels?
The Fen Witch of GooseFeather Split was my first attempt at one, but they do seem to work well in horror. I’ve another one knocking about that I need to seek publication for, a bit of a cosmic psychological thing about a widow whose twin steals her husband. I enjoy the form. I think I always expected Fen Witch to be a novella and I enjoyed the process of getting there quickly. I wouldn’t say I had a preference, but it’s certainly enjoyable to mix it up once in a while.
How/Is the writing process different when writing a novella?
The shape of the story differs as you’re seeking to bring it all round that little bit quicker, which means far fewer sub-plots. I think it would be hard to have too many narrative voices in a novella and give them enough room. It did need some discipline, and I did plan it out roughly into chapters before I started to try to keep it within a target word count.
You went more sparingly with characters but you did hit a lot of themes here: childhood trauma, homophobia, general small-town prejudice, the loss of a parent at a young age, etc. How in the unholy hell are you able to give us a book with themes like this, and still make it an enjoyable read?!
I often ask myself how would something like that affect someone. When I start on a story, I want things to escalate. Kurt Vonnegut talked about being a sadist to your characters, and I tend to try to play with that, wondering what could make the situation worse. But with some of those themes, I like to think there’s a character battling through to do the right thing. Without some kind of morality, I might struggle to write the story.
Did anything in particular inspire the witch character?
I live in the Fens, and the area has a huge history of witchcraft, largely because so much of it was isolated when it was flooded. The marshiness of some of the areas meant she was always going to rise from the water. Fantasy stories that use wild witches cut off from society were almost certainly on my mind. There’s also a description out there of a Fen witch from Dungeons and Dragons which also contributed to the look.
That’s awesome. Okay Ben, the grilling is almost complete. I just have a few more questions. What are you working on next?
Guy Fawkes Book 2 is now with the publisher. I’ll be editing book 3 (first draft is done) in October. I’ve a secret project to work on in November. In 2023, there’s a short story I want to work into a novella. Working title is Things in Bags. It’s about a mysterious movie that may or may not really exist and leads to people doing bad things. Then there’s the folk horror project. I might finish collecting my Sherlock Holmes stories together. There’s also a change my pseudonym might hijack my body again, but I can’t talk about that.
Is there anything you’d like you readers to know about you that I haven’t already pried out of you?
This might surprise people who’ve seen me dressed up to do readings, but I’m a massive introvert. In the past, I’ve found going up to people and introducing myself and starting questions really difficult. I fear this sometimes makes me look aloof or antisocial. Despite this, I absolutely love talking writing and horror, so come up to me and say hello.
And finally, what can readers/fans do to help spread the word?
Reviews are great, and they can just be a few words. Tell your friends. Share social media posts.
And with that, we wrap up the interrogation… I mean “interview”.
I’d like to thank Benjamin Langley for all of his contributions this week, and for sharing his wonderful work with us. Reviewing his books really was a pleasure, as was speaking with him for this interview.
We hope you’ll support Ben by spreading the word about his books and leaving reviews online, if you’ve read his work. If you’re a Langley virgin, we encourage you to pick up one of his books and check out his website here:
BENJAMIN LANGLEY’S SUPER DUPER AWESOME WEBSITE
Leave a Reply