Anne Billson: A Few Words with the New Queen of Horror

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It was at a funfair, early one summer evening, amongst the lights and music, the calls to “Try your strength and win a prize”, the coconut shies, and bird-like squeals of laughter and fear, that my love for horror began.

The sign read: “Do You Dare To Enter The Corridor of Fear?!?!” I was 6 and perhaps too young to have blagged my way into this gruesome diversion. Taller than my years, I knew confidence paid out more than acquiescence. I also had an older brother as surety. We bought our tickets and made our way to the short flight of stairs up to a drab, curtained door, beyond which was an unimaginable world of terror. Or, so I hoped.

Inside was a long a darkened, corridor, its metal walls glistening with luminous paintings of vampires, werewolves, unholy creatures, and living dead. Hidden in the walls were a series of sliding panels from whence malevolent-masked carnies pounced, to grab and grope, prod and tickle, the unsuspecting marks.

At the top of the stairs, two teenagers who laughed nervously and shoved each other, too scared to enter inside. I pushed forward and saw the cause of their concern- a panel slid open and a skull-headed figure reached out. I held back, and once the panel closed, the youths ran into the darkness. My brother and I followed. Adjusting to the dark, I saw limned ahead the youths being goosed by a green glowing monster. There was a feeling of dread, of terror, and now anger as hard fists hit flesh. The mood had changed from panic to anger. I turned, there was no curtained exit, instead a wall had opened and partitioned us in. From inside this wall, a leering skull, its boney hands reached out towards me. I ducked the embrace, and crawled on hands and knees through the legs in front. Above, the struggle seemed no longer a game – harsh, menacing voices, breathless pleas. My brother followed and we escaped into daylight - heart racing, weak-limbed, face drained of color, I’d never felt more alive.

My love of horror started then, and still continues today, looking for that great sense of exhilaration and fun.

One writer who certainly knows how to mix the best of horror with a deliciously wicked sense of fun is Anne Billson, who has 3 superb novels, The Ex, Stiff Lips, and Suckers, just released as e-books.

Billson knows her genre better than most, and is a highly respected film critic, writing for the Guardian and Sunday Telegraph, who has specialized in writing definitive critiques on Let the Right One In, John Carpenter’s The Thing, as well as Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

In her fictions, Billson confounds all expectations by re-inventing the accepted traditions of the Horror genre, creating her own distinct and authorative voice.

When her first novel Suckers was originally published in1993, it was hailed as a startling and original debut, which contained “one of the most chilling moments in all Vampire Literature.” It was also highly praised by Salman Rushdie, who described the novel as a witty assault on 1980’s Thatcherite greed. The books success led to Billson being named as one of Granta’s prestigious “Best Young British Novelists”.

In 1997, Anne wrote the chilling and darkly comic ghost story Stiff Lips, which led to even better reviews and greater praise. Both of these novels are being re-released along with Anne’s latest horror, a ghost story The Ex, which is set to build upon the success of the first two.

I contacted Anne at her home in Brussels, to ask what attracted her to Horror fiction?

“I don’t think I’ve ever grown out of fairytales; the best fairytales are already quite dark, and horror just takes it further. I like stories where anything can happen, and which appeal to the subconscious as much as to the intellect.”

Do you think that where once it was Science-Fiction, it is now Horror that offers the best way to comment on the contemporary world?

“I think so. Horror provides us with a way of reflecting on subjects which in their unadulterated form would probably be too vast, distressing or embarrassing to contemplate - and which could be boring or pretentious in a more realist or self-consciously literary genre. But horror increasingly overlaps with SF, as well as with crime and other genres - particularly in this era of mash-ups. It’s getting harder to slot things easily into distinct categories.”

How do you define yourself as a novelist?

“I write a kind of horror comedy, though I’m reluctant to use the word comedy because I certainly don’t set out to be funny, which would be the kiss of death. Maybe it’s my worldview, which is a little odd, I don’t know.

“Publishers in the past have tried to pigeonhole what I write as satire or chick-lit - and I don’t think it’s either of those. Maybe a new term is needed.

“I feel very in tune with that streak of British comedy which is often more scary or surreal than funny - The League of Gentlemen, Shaun of the Dead, Spaced, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and so on. It might be presumptuous on my part, but I think we have something in common.”

What are your influences?

“How much time have you got? The usual suspects - MR James, Robert Aickman, The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (of which Aickman used to be an editor), Fritz Leiber, Philip K Dick, Nigel Kneale. And films, of course - Night of the Demon, The Innocents, The Haunting, Cronenberg, Romero… as well as Vincent Price films like Theatre of Blood and The Abominable Dr Phibes, and Amicus portmanteau horror films like The Vault of Horror and Asylum. Plus I’ve stolen ideas from Conrad and Balzac. Astute readers can probably spot the more blatant borrowings.”

Where some writers fight shy of their association with the Horror genre, Anne has no such qualms:

“If I had to choose between being categorized as a Horror writer or a Literary author, I would opt for Horror writer every time.

“Horror writers seem to be nicer, more generous and more convivial than Literary authors. Perhaps it’s because they direct all their fears and insecurities into their work, which makes them better company.”

The Ex, Stiff Lips, and Suckers are available here.

Anne is on twitter and her blog site Multiglom is always worth reading as are her Guardian columns.

Spoliers a collection of Anne Billson’s film writing is also available.
 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion