John Meaney's writing tips

He made his name with far-future SF, but John Meaney’s latest novel, Bone Song adds horror to the mix. In another interview to help aspiring Pulp Idol writers, Meaney offers his thoughts on scaring people silly...

SFX: How do you ‘research’ horror? Is it, for example, important to read around psychology?
John Meaney: “Every writer is a reader first. I think it’s important (and stupendous fun) to read around whatever interests you, and if that happens to be psychology, then great. Did you know that schizophrenics often hallucinate spiders boiling out of their eyes? Talking to people – I got that snippet from my niece Emily, who works in a secure psychiatric facility – and just living your life, interacting with people and keeping all your senses open, that’s the other kind of research, and it enriches your time in the universe.”

SFX: Horror is traditionally seen as a genre that’s all about manipulating people's feelings, but how important is it to have a rigor about your central ideas when writing horror stories?
JM: “I dreamt up the dark, Gothic background of Bone Song as if it were hard science fiction, with reactor piles whose cores contain stacked bones of the dead, of a thousand people or more. Necroflux resonates back and forth, trapped, replaying a chaos of agonized memories and feelings... and that’s how the living enjoy warmth and lighting and civilisation. From the madness of the central idea, everything proceeds with insane yet rigorous logic.”

SFX: Have you any tips on establishing mood and sense of place?
JM: “Know the setting with all your senses. Move through it, in your mind, as if in a dream. Allow the reader to build that world with you by noting the colour, or texture, or sound of one particular thing. Reduce the detail on the rest.

SFX: Balancing gore and psychological horror - any tips?
JM: “Balancing Gore and Bush? It’s too late for... Oh, right. I see what you mean. Lose the gore, until every reader feels for your character. Then let a razor slit the soft skin lightly, if you must, to reveal that slick redness around wet, shiny intestines... True horror is... Oh. Did you notice? Something black and fragmentary just moved at the edge of your vision. There... No, there... And is that a sense of crawling fingers, or maybe a thousand tiny legs, moving up the vulnerable skin of your back right now?”

SFX: Have you ever scared yourself when writing?
JW: “The voices say I shouldn’t answer that one... Damn them! Write about what you fear. And it’s not fright, but grief that is powerful. If you’re crying because of what your characters have just been through, you’ve gone deep. It almost certainly takes a novel to get you there. For a short story, a shiver is enough...”

SFX: If you had one piece of advice to give to budding horror short story writers, what would it be?
JM: “Read On Writing by Stephen King, then act on it.”

John Meaney was speaking with Jonathan Wright. You can read more tips for horror writers, geared towards those entering our Pulp Idol competition , in the latest issue of SFX, on sale now.