Today I am interviewing Simon Bestwick, author of the Black Road series of novels, and his latest book, The Feast of All Souls.
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DJ: Hey Simon! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Simon Bestwick: Hi there. Sure – I’m based in the North-West of England. I grew up in Manchester and lived in Salford until a couple of years ago, until I moved to Liverpool with my then-girlfriend. Now I still live around Merseyside, on the Wirral. And the girlfriend? Reader, I married her…
The Feast Of All Souls is my fifth novel; I’ve also published four story collections and a chapbook. Most of my work tends to fall into the horror category, with occasional forays into urban fantasy, dystopian/post-apocalyptic SF, and crime.
DJ: What is The Feast of All Souls about?
Simon: It’s about 400 pages long. Sorry, couldn’t resist. It’s about Alice Collier, who moves back to Crawbeck, a part of Salford where she used to live, when her marriage breaks up following the death of her daughter Emily. Strange things start happening in the house she moves into: ghostly children, a mysterious figure in red, and sometimes when she looks out of the windows or goes out through the door, the world outside the house is a different one – somewhere far in the past. Because she’s had mental health issues since losing her daughter, she’s afraid she’s going mad, and eventually contacts an old boyfriend, John Revell, who’s a paranormal investigator, in the hope of getting to the bottom of things. And that’s when stuff gets really weird.
Meanwhile, there’s another storyline, from nearly two hundred years earlier, in the same location: Mary Carson, on her own following the death of her father, comes to Springcross House in Crawbeck to work as a secretary to a mill-owner called Arodias Thorne. She gets drawn into a relationship with him – and all of this connects both with what Alice is going through in the present day and with the various legends and bits of folklore that have surrounded Crawbeck for centuries.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Feast of All Souls?
Simon: I was influenced more by a particular kind of British fantasy fiction than by horror for this book: Alan Garner’s novels, particularly Red Shift, Elidor and The Owl Service which are very much rooted in the world we see around us, but that draw very strongly on a sense of place and on English (or in the case of The Owl Service, Welsh) folklore, and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series particularly spring to mind. I was also partly influenced by Nigel Kneale and his approach of treating the paranormal/supernatural as scientific phenomena, ‘poorly observed and wrongly explained’, as Andrew Keir puts it in Quatermass and the Pit.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Simon: Alice is a scientist, and a rationalist. One of the reasons she and John split up was because of his interest in the paranormal – she regarded investigating it as a waste of time, as weakness and superstition. Now she’s in a situation where her whole world has fallen apart, but she’s determined to stay true to her beliefs and deal with the fact that her daughter is gone forever. She’s struggled with depression and similar issues since losing Emily, so she doesn’t automatically accept the things that happen to her as real – she’s afraid she’s having a full-scale breakdown. It takes a lot before she gets to the point where she’s willing to reconnect with John and ask for his help. She’s a damaged, but very strong character, I think.
John Revell was raised a Christian, but he and Alice were students together, studying hard sciences; he found that and his religion very hard to square, and lost his faith as a result. When his mother died very suddenly, he turned to paranormal investigation – he was determined to find scientific proof of an afterlife. He hasn’t found that, and now he’s as much of a skeptic as Alice ever was. In fact, he’s at the point of giving up investigation in favour of a proper scientific career, but then Alice gets in touch. Even though they broke up years ago, he still cares for her and carries a bit of a torch.
Mary Carson is the daughter of an Anglican priest who was involved in the Abolitionist movement. After he dies, she finds herself alone in the world, unmarried and facing poverty, so she jumps at the chance of working for Arodias Thorne; even though her father would have hated him, it’s a chance to find some security and save for her old age. She’s in her thirties by then and unmarried, and she’s pretty much given up on that ever changing, but then this romance blossoms between her and Arodias.
Arodias Thorne is older than Mary, and pretty forbidding at first glance. Mill-owners back then were a pretty hard breed of men, and he has a particularly harsh reputation- but there’s more to him than meets the eye.
DJ: What is the world of The Feast of All Souls like?
Simon: The world in the book is basically the one we live in now – or in the case of the Mary Carson storyline, the one our ancestors did. The big difference, of course, is that there’s a lot of weird stuff happening in it!
Some of that weird stuff is rooted in folklore of one kind of another. Most of that is my own invention, but based around existing English myths of one kind or another, especially ones relating to Salford, where I lived for about twelve years. The rest of the weird stuff is rooted in science, to some extent – that’s the Nigel Kneale influence showing, trying to find a quasi-scientific rationale for what’s going on that doesn’t actually diminish the weird or scary aspect.
Some of the research for that, though, involved reading up on concepts relating to quantum physics – if you’ve ever tried to get your head around them, it can be damned hard work! As a result, I have now told Jon Oliver [commissioning editor at Solaris] that if I ever mention using quantum physics in another novel he has my permission to hit me over the head with a frying pan until I come to my senses…!
DJ: The book’s back cover also alludes to a gateway to another world. Anyway you can talk about what that other world is, without spoiling any of the good stuff?
Simon: As I said, it’s more about our world in the past than a different one – but the past, as L.P. Hartley said, is another country. Two hundred years ago, prehistory – it’s somewhere very different. But it’s also how we got to where we are: understanding the past is key to understanding the present, and doing that is your only chance of seeing the way things will or might go in the future, and being in a position to influence that. So it’s about what’s under the surface of things.
DJ: There are many different definitions of horror in genre, so I’m curious, when you write “horror”, how is it that you try to scare your readers? Do for gore? Shock? Maybe build in tense moments? Or perhaps is the unknown?
Simon: That’s a good question. With The Feast of All Souls, I decided I didn’t want to try and scare people at all – I just wanted to write a novel about these people and this world. Just let the material be whatever it wanted to be. Having said that, there are a few scenes in there that genuinely creep me out, but they just happened that way!
When it comes to gore, I’ll use it if I need to and describe as much or as little as is needed by the story. Each short story or novel is different, its own thing, so to an extent the rules change for each one and you have to figure them out.
In the past, I’ve written a lot of ghost stories, and in both Tide of Souls and, in particular, The Faceless, I made a concerted effort to make the supernatural elements as frightening as I could – tension plays a part, certainly, but it’s also about finding the imagery that I found the most unsettling, working out why it unsettled me and working with that. The Faceless is one of the grimmest, bleakest things I’ve written; The Feast of All Souls is a move away from that, to something with more of a range of colours.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Feast of All Souls?
Simon: There were lots of parts I enjoyed, but I always love it when a character comes to life on you and starts talking. There was some of that in the Mary Carson scenes – she’s dictating her story to her solicitor as an old woman, and I really enjoyed that voice. But I particularly enjoyed writing one character, Reverend Sixsmythe – I’m not a hundred per cent sure where she came from, but she took on a life of her own when I was writing her and had quite a lot to say.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Simon: I have absolutely no idea! Like I said, it’s very different to a lot of my previous stuff, so I’ll be very interested to see what readers make of it. My wife thinks it’s the best thing I’ve done yet, so let’s see how many people agree with her!
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing The Feast of All Souls? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it?
Simon: Message? Not really, no. In fact, I wanted to try and get away from that. Both Tide Of Souls and The Faceless work on a fairly big canvas and go into pretty apocalyptic territory – and the Black Road novels are fairly large-scale novels set in the aftermath of a nuclear war. So I wanted to write something that wasn’t about destroying the world, and if anything to move away from the social commentary and political anger that’s driven a lot of my work on the past to write something that smaller, more private, than my other stuff. It’s about these flawed, very human characters trying to come to terms with what’s happened to them and to find some sort of purpose in life, to try work how they might be able to heal.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Feast of All Souls that you can share with us?
Simon: I’ll give you two quotes: one good-sized sample to give you a feel for the novel, and a soundbite from one of the characters.
From Chapter Three:
‘All of a sudden the trees around her felt cloying, oppressive; she strode faster, clear of them, onto the open ground and into the light and clear, fresh air with just a hint of the river’s yeasty scent.
She walked across open heath towards the river, trying to determine what had changed. Because something had, beyond doubt. Something felt different.
She stared down the river. Yes, something had changed. There was a footbridge over the river, and further down, two tower blocks rose. She’d seen them from the Brow before coming down the steps, but now they were gone. In their place she could only see rolling heath and running water.
Hallucination. It had to be. Some sort of side effect from the medication. Anti-depressants could do that sometimes. She’d best get home.
Alice turned the other way – back the way she’d come, towards the house – but the view had changed there, too. The ground still rose where the river bent round – the hillside where Higher Crawbeck stood, rising to a summit at her house – but there were no buildings there either. No telegraph poles, no streetlights, just the green-furred shoulder of the hillside, knabbed here and there with rocks. A big, crooked one stood roughly where her house had been; beside it something was afire, sending a long stream of flames twenty or so feet up into the air.
Alice rubbed her eyes. Not real, it wasn’t real – it couldn’t be – but when she looked again, the view was still the same.
Over to her left there were noises: the crash and rustle of something back trampling its way through undergrowth. Twigs and branches snapped; Alice felt the ground underfoot shiver, and the branches around the entrance to the path she’d just left shook, leaves drifting downward. Beyond them, she had an impression of movement; something big, bigger than a man, was forcing its way through the woods towards her.
And then there was a sound. Afterwards, Alice could never be sure what it was; it was as if she’d forgotten it almost as soon as she’d heard it. Sometimes she thought it had been a shout, a song, a chant; at other times, the blast of a horn or the sounding of a gong. All she knew was that it sounded, and the air grew still; she looked at the trees and they were motionless, only a last few dislodged leaves still drifting to the ground. But up ahead, the fire still burnt upon the naked hill.’
And one quote from a character:
“I’m the one displaying the breadth of her learning here, you know. It’s considered very ill-mannered – for obvious anatomical reasons – to get into a pissing content with a lady.” – Revd. Galatea Sixsmythe.
DJ: Now that The Feast of All Souls is released, what is next for you?
Simon: I’m currently working on the third Black Road novel, Wolf’s Hill. After that there’s one more book in the series, Road’s End, where I’ll try and tie up everything that’s been going on satisfactorily. I have a crime novel with my agent at the moment, that’s currently doing the rounds with publishers. In between times, I’ll be trying to write some short fiction, and hopefully I’ll have a new story collection to announce soon.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00355JO22
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The Feast of All Souls that we haven’t talked about yet?
Simon: Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for anyone. But as I said above, wait till you meet Reverend Sixsmythe. I’m very fond of her. 🙂
DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?
Simon: I can’t resist making a quick mention of the second book in the Black Road series, Devil’s Highway, which is also out now in hardback and ebook. The paperback will be released in February. And of course the first book in the series, Hell’s Ditch, is still available. The Black Road’s about as different as you can get from The Feast of All Souls – it’s a very action-packed blend of post-apocalyptic fiction and supernatural horror, set against the backdrop of an uprising against an evil, fascist regime. I’m very proud of it, though, and I hope people will want to give it a try.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
Simon: Thanks for asking them!
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*** The Feast of All Souls is published by Solaris and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
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Alice’s house stands at a gateway between worlds. Now something has awoken on the other side – and she’s in its way…
378 Collarmill Road looks like an ordinary house. But sometimes, the world outside the windows isn’t the one you expect to see. And sometimes you’ll turn around and find you’re not alone.
The suburb of Crawbeck, on a hill outside the English city of Manchester, overlooks the woodlands of Browton Vale. Alice Collier was happy here, once, but following the end of her marriage and loss of her daughter, she’s come back to pick up the threads of her life.
John Revell, an old flame of Alice’s, reluctantly comes to her aid when the house begins to reveal its secrets. The hill on which it sits is a place of legends – of Old Harry, the Beast of Crawbeck, of the Virgin of the Height and of the mysterious Red Man – and home to the secrets of the shadowy Arodias Thorne.
And now Alice and John stand between him and rest of our world…
[Bestwick] is one of the best writers- of any genre- currently plying their trade…a perfect combination of style and substance.’ – Dark Musings
Two-time shortlistee for the British Fantasy Award, Simon Bestwick, was raised in Manchester and studied at Salford University. He is the published author of several novels, including The Faceless (Solaris Books, 2012) and Black Mountain – Spectral Press, 2014; and has had several anthologies of his short stories published. A full list of Simon’s published works is available here.
He now lives in the Wirral, where he is working on his scorching debut crime-thriller, DEVIL IN RED.