We welcome James Marx to the Short Sharp Shocks! series with The Cliff House – which is book number 53. Here at DEMAIN we’d heard great things about James and his work so it’s brilliant he’s now joined the family (so to speak). The ebook, with a cover by Adrian Baldwin, is published on the 18th September but is now available for pre-sales. Prior to publication, Dean and James sat down and spoke about it.
DEMAIN PUBLISHING: Hello James, welcome to DEMAIN. Let’s get down to it, can you tell us a little about yourself and why you became a writer?
JAMES MARX: Hello! To be fair it’s only recently I’ve had the courage to properly call myself a ‘writer’. I’ve always been an avid reader of stories right from a very early age, especially myths and legends like Beowulf and the tales of Greek heroes, and have been blessed with an active imagination, so I guess it makes sense I’d write as well. From schooldays and all the way through my working life I’ve written stories, most of which were utter rubbish, but it all helped slowly develop my writing skills and techniques. You keep learning all the time. But it was redundancy a few years ago along, with little prospect of finding any future job, that gave me the opportunity to concentrate on my writing.
DP: And your background, has that had some influence on you as a writer would you say?
JM: Most of my working life has been wasted in IT and Project Management. I say wasted because it was incredibly boring, gave me no joy or satisfaction and ultimately led to a career dead end. It paid the mortgage and allowed me to buy ‘toys’ like various cars including a TVR sports car, but it was a very shallow existence. I stuck with it because it paid the bills, but in retrospect I think being made redundant was the best thing that could have happened to me. As far as influence goes I would say it had none. Yet it was the path I took to arrive at where I am today – and I have no regrets about that.
DP: By the sounds of it, that’s exactly the way to look at it! What was your first introduction to the horror genre?
JM: Aside from the scares as a child watching Doctor Who in the 70s I think it was reading James Herbert’s The Rats at an age I probably shouldn’t have. A friend’s dad had a small second-hand bookshop and as pre-teens we used to hang out in there browsing through all the titles and reading snippets. If there was something I found interesting I’d borrow, read and then return it. Like a little personal library. I discovered old copies of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, small hardback books that seemed like long lost secrets. The stories had a old world style that I still like to this day, but it was the slow creeping terror that really got my imagination going. Then of course you also have Stephen King, who I rate as an equal of Poe and Lovecraft. His Night Shift and Skeleton Crew short story collections are inspiring to this day, and easy books to dip into to re-read favourites. As you can probably tell, I really like the short story and novella format for horror.
DP: Ah, another author who talks about The Rats. And Skeleton Crew – I’ve said in previous interviews I’m not the greatest of King fans but that one’s a doozy. With regards to your (brilliant) Short Sharp Shocks! can you tell us a little about it?
JM: Of course I don’t want to give too much away but it turned out to be a story about emotional turmoil, loneliness and possession all set on a beautiful and quiet stretch of Greek shoreline. I wanted the readers to get to know the characters, feel the tension build, and wonder what was going to happen, right up to the final horrific events.
DP: I really enjoyed reading it as there were elements that reminded me of two of my favourite books, The Magus by John Fowles and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco – well done for that. Did you have to do much research when writing it?
JM: There wasn’t much in the way of technical details to get right, most of it was down to geography. Google maps and memories of holidays were the main resources there. The Cliff House itself was a series of sketches I made, almost plans but not quite. That helped bring it to life in my mind when writing.
DP: I think that’s the first time an author has told me about going to that level of detail – tell me, did you find The Cliff House particularly difficult to write?
JM: Fortunately the plot was one of those creative moments (probably helped by some wine) where I wondered what would this person in that situation choose to do. I always have great difficulty writing anything to do with emotions. A lot of that is because I have Asperger’s Syndrome which in my case makes it difficult to deal with feelings, so they get suppressed until I have time to process, or allow myself to experience them. However the great thing about writing is that you can take that time to really think about how something would affect a character. It has meant I’ve gone through burning rage, crying with utter despair, and felt blissfully high with love all in the same day, which can be exhausting. Worth it though.
DP: 100%. Totally agree with you. The life of a writer hey?! You mentioned earlier a couple of names but what books / authors do you read and do they influence you?
JM: I’ve already mentioned Poe and Lovecraft and Stephen King, but I’m also a fan of action-thrillers too, my recent favourite reads in that line being Matt Hilton and Andy McDermott. Heading back into the world of the supernatural and magic there’s Jim Butcher (Dresden Files) and more vampire hunting with Laurell K Hamilton (The Anita Blake series). In fact I’m sure the amount of books my wife and I have ‘to read’ is greater than our life expectancy. Yet we still buy more! It’s the best sort of madness. I could talk for ages on all the different books we have to read from all sorts of genres and authors but now is not the time. As far as influences go, I think I tend more towards noticing narrative techniques used in different books and being drawn towards using those than I am to any particular style or theme. Then again I’m sure whatever I’m currently reading has to have a subconscious effect. It must do.
DP: I’m with you, I think everything we see / read is locked away somewhere in our brains and for us creatives we are able to draw upon it when needed (most of the time anyway!). In terms of ‘horror’ what does that word to James Marx?
JM: In the context of entertainment, it’s that chill of realisation that the situation is not at all what you thought. It is something either much worse or so far beyond the boundaries of normal comprehension that you simply don’t know how to deal with it. It provokes the classic fight or flight response but your body and mind are locked solid. You need to know what happens next but at the same time you don’t want to know. Look away, cover your ears, hide behind the sofa. It may be just a book or a film or TV show, but you experience a mild version of a life or death thrill and come out the other side shaken but relieved. Hey, let’s do that again.
DP: Again, a cracking answer! Is the horror genre affected by world events? Do you ever put world events in your work?
JM: What happens in the world has to have an effect on people’s psyche, and this must have a knock on to the sort of horror that becomes most popular. I’m no psychologist so don’t ask me to say what type of horror the current world situation favours, but I think we’re moving away from the fully visceral and gory and more towards tales that are socially and morally driven. But as a writer you have to write what you want to write, not pander to current trends or try to predict them. Personally I avoid using recent real world events in my stories because you immediately date the tale. Fine if you want to fix things at a set point in history, but I think you have to be very mindful and respectful of any victims of those events.
DP: Actually that point is well made. I’m currently working on a project with another writer now and we were keen to tell a ‘covid’ story but instead of setting it in 2020 we’re actually setting it a couple of hundred years before-hand. We’re having great fun putting that together. Is there a particular book / film you’re looking forward to?
JM: I have Vamphyrric Rites by Simon Clark I’d like to read at some point soon. I’ve been saving that for a rainy or stormy day because it would feel better reading it while rain lashes the windows. I loved his Vamphyrric so hope the follow on lives up to that. There have been very few horror films that have impressed me recently. Some great ideas that fell over in their execution. Maybe it’s the ever-questioning writer in me, but so many films get me going “so why didn’t they just...” – which is frustrating. I’d accept throwaway lines that explained why, but don’t leave plot holes I could fly a Borg Cube through let alone the Millennium Falcon. And I have sooo mixed up my genres there on purpose. Some folks’ heads will have just exploded.
DP: Haha – nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror movie which has really knocked it out of the park for me. I don’t know why that is actually perhaps it’s just my own sensibilities and I’ve been more ‘comfortable’ watching (bingeing) tv series. I’ve been watching A LOT of non-British tv programmes (mainly from France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland) which have been influencing me / my work quite a bit. With this in mind, there have been rumours amongst the community that ‘horror is dead’ – would you agree?
JM: No. I believe horror stories have been with us since tales were first told around the fire at the mouth of a cave, and will be with us as long as the human race exists. We love feeling that thrill and chill of being scared. I do think the popularity of different sub-genres of horror waxes and wanes. It’s probably depending on a lot of social, economic and maybe even political factors - things that have a subconscious psychological effect on us. No doubt someone far more intelligent than me will have already written a paper on the subject. Horror will always be there. Even if it’s just lurking in the closet for a while deciding which mask to wear next.
DP: Again, that’s a fair point, the genre is alive and well but some of the sub-genres need rebidding perhaps…what is James Marx afraid of?
JM: I have Acrophobia which is a fear of heights. I can just about go up a small ladder if needing to do some work on the garage roof but even then I feel shaky. As for that Mission Impossible scene with Tom Cruise on the Burj Khalifa [um, you’re not the only one – DP]...gives me the shivers! Okay, heights are not as creepy or horrific as having an 8-inch Vietnamese centipede crawl over your scalp and down your face. But give me the choice and Mister Poisonous Multilegs can strut his stuff rather than me dangle off a skyscraper at over eight hundred metres. I guess that’s just me though. Lie still, try to relax, let the critter make his way off your face and over your chest. Stay calm. Remember Sean Connery in Dr No? Oh crikey! Where’s it off to now? Oh no! Not down there! Is it too late to take the heights option? Actually there is plenty that freaks me out. Some stuff you think you could cope with but a lot that hits the big red fear button. As for it making its way into my stories...
Sure. You just probably haven’t read it yet.
DP: I know what you mean about thinking you can cope – I support Spurs and we’ve just introduced a ‘skywalk’ at the new ground. Apparently you can walk on the roof, in the rafters. Looks amazing. I was going to book tickets, then watched a video made by somebody doing it and my stomach left the building – there’s no chance am I going up there. NO CHANCE. Ha ha ha ha. Let’s move on quickly. Creatively is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet? If so – what is it?
JM: Crumbs! How long have you got? I have a story concept at outline stage that is a mix of classic horror, action and thriller with a touch of crime thrown in for good measure. Plenty of characterisation and world building done but I want to have a number of strong plot options before launching into it. I’d love to do a Blake’s 7 story but that would have to be fan fiction, and the idea of writing a decent Bond story greatly appeals too. Mainly because I’ve been disappointed with the plots of the recent films. These are in the maybe, someday, category. There are also plenty more horror ideas swimming around my head like dark shadowy eels and I’m sure they’re breeding. I’m going to have to let them out sooner rather than later...
DP: I’d love to do a Bond too – Tim Dalton is my favourite Bond so I’d love to write one for him. In terms of writing (and thinking about one of your earlier answers), is a long term or short term career for you?
JM: Definitely long term, though whether I can call it a career yet is another matter. I write because I feel the need to create and tell stories, I challenge myself to write stuff that I think is entertaining and fun for others to read. Sure, it would be great to make some money out of it, but that isn’t the point of writing for me. I’d still be writing stories even if I won the lottery simply because I love doing it and have a need to do it.
DP: I definitely have a need too. So, the lockdown, how was it for you?
JM: I have to say I’ve liked the lockdown. I’ll quantify that by breaking it down into a series of points:
Well we’ll leave it there – thank you so much for your time James, brilliant answers there, I enjoyed that. The best of luck with The Cliff House.
If you’d like to connect with James direct:
Dean M. Drinkel