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Black Static


John Llewellyn Probert Interviewed

8th Jul, 2013

Author: Peter Tennant

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In Black Static #34 I reviewed John Llewellyn Probert's novelette Ward 19 (Endeavour Press Ltd) and his novel The House That Death Built (Atomic Fez) and by way of a follow up to that I asked John to do an 'identikit interview', with half the questions posed by me and the remainder chosen at random from a 'crowd sourced' pool.

Here's the result:-

PT: Smart arse reviewers like me have compared your characters Henderson and Jephcott to Steed and Peel, Mulder and Scully etc. Did you actually have any fictional exemplars in mind when you created the characters?

JLP: It's probably not going to surprise you at all if I say both those pairs of investigators figured strongly in influencing my two characters. My original desire was to create a British version of The X-Files, in particular using that series' sense that weird things could be happening in any part of the country. With the rich and varied heritage of the UK I thought it would provide an excellent backdrop, and quite a bit of varied scenery, for strange things to take place against. I also took a leaf out of the book of the late, great Fritz Leiber who, when explaining how he went about creating his famous high fantasy characters of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in his Lankhmar books, said he simply cut himself in half down the middle and had the two different facets of his personality argue with each other! So Henderson is my eccentric, good natured, head-in-the-sky side while Samantha has her feet planted firmly on the ground and refuses to believe in anything she can't see of feel. I also thought it would be more interesting to make her the one who had some psychic ability.

PT: With the aptly named character Jeremy Stokes you touch on the subject of TV psychics, and with the rider that he actually develops a genuine talent, foreknowledge of when somebody is to die. What are your thoughts on psychics/mediums? Do you think any of them could actually be genuine? Have you ever attended a séance? Would you like to know the moment of your own death?

JLP: Jeremy Stokes is meant to be a none-too-subtle cross between Jeremy Kyle and Doris Stokes, but nevertheless I'm glad you spotted that. In the same way that I thought it would be interesting to give Samantha the cynic the psychic powers, I thought it would also be fun to give a showbiz charlatan an ability he most definitely didn't want. For my own views on such matters I have to go back to one of my writing idols, Nigel Kneale, who suggests in his Quatermass and the Pit that psychic occurrences could quite possibly be phenomena that have been poorly observed and even more poorly reported on. My entire background is in science and I can only say that while I would love for supernatural phenomena to exist (and I would love to witness some) my innate belief is that it does not. I have never attended a séance and, while I am sure I would find the whole thing fascinating, I can't imagine it would alter my view of such things. As for the moment of my own death, that's quite an interesting one - having given it some thought I'd have to say yes I would. In some ways it would make no difference to me - if it was to be in twenty days or twenty years' time I would still live every minute to the full, but it would be nice to know.

PT: What is the spookiest building you have ever visited, aside from government offices, and why did it unsettle you?

JLP: That's actually an easy one to answer. I was a junior doctor in the days when we used to work 82 hour shifts and every hospital, old or new, Victorian monstrosity or sleek gleaming flagship, has terrifying empty corridors at night when you are exhausted.

PT: What are your feelings about the paranormal? Is it a valid area for scientific study, or just smoke and mirrors? What kind of research into ghost hunting techniques and technology did you undertake before writing the book, if any?

JLP: I'll hold my hands up and admit that I did very little research into ghost-hunting techniques, other than the many examples I've seen on film and television. I've stated my views on the paranormal above. What I think it is very interesting to do is apply science that is well understood to the stuff that you are making up. For example a few years ago now I wrote a key surgical review on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and the background in physics I had to acquire to make a respectable job of it I was able to apply in House That Death Built.

PT: Does mental or physical pain affect or influence your writing?

JLP: The pain of others, certainly! Having dissected an entire human body in my first year at medical school, and having undergone undergraduate training in psychiatry a little later on I know where all the nerves run and the kinds of things people are most terrified of. As to my own, I am well aware that some writers see their work as purging of their own inner demons. I can't say that's something that I do, although if my work is anything to go by perhaps I need to purge myself of outrageous and flamboyant ways of killing people.

PT: What does the phrase 'horror community' mean to you, if anything at all, and do you consider yourself a part of that community?

JLP: I certainly believe there is a horror community in the UK right now, and like any community it's made up of individuals who, while all working independently, are, by the sheer nature of the work they produce, going to create little sub-communities within the overall whole. Therefore what I don't think is that the term can be used to describe a particular kind of horror writing or philosophy. Since beginning to write just over ten years ago I have made so many good friends within this community, many of whom create work that is both wonderful and radically different to my own. To answer your question I both consider myself part of the British horror community and am delighted and proud to be so.

PT: Does music inspire your work?

JLP: Yes, so much so that it's difficult to answer this one quickly! Ever since my mother locked me in the music room to practice as a child I've had music all around me, and I feel as if I was a fan of horror movie soundtracks before soundtrack albums were invented. I used to make C90 cassette tapes of Douglas Gamley's Amicus music and the Hammer scores of James Bernard off the television when my parents had gone to bed. I have always listened to music while I write, in fact this interview has been conducted to the strains of Keith Emerson's Inferno soundtrack and Bruno Nicolai's score to Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have the Key. My dear old mum wanted to make sure I had a career I could fall back on if I didn't get through medical school, so she made sure I was proficient in several musical instruments and was qualified in music theory, orchestration and arrangement before I left school. That's why both music and surgery turn up a lot in my work, by the way! The one thing I have yet to do in life that I would like to is conduct an orchestra.

PT: What can we expect to see from you in the near future? What work do you have in the pipeline?

JLP: Right now I've taken a week's holiday to get cracking on the sequel to my BFS award-nominated novella The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine. It's called The Hammer of Dr Valentine and will feature my anti-hero despatching tabloid newspaper journalists in the style of the deaths in Hammer Horror films. I'm about a third of the way through and if it's possible I'm having even more fun with this than I did with the first. I also have a novella due out very soon from Gray Friar Press. It's called Differently There and is inspired by my own recent surgery for kidney cancer. I've also written an Amicus-style framework for Steve Jones' forthcoming Mammoth Book of Psycho-mania, and Steve was good enough to give me stories by literary heroes of mine like Robert Bloch, R Chetwynd-Hayes, Robert Silverberg and Ramsey Campbell to run into and out of. Otherwise I've a nasty surgical story set in Zanzibar in PS Publishing's Exotic Gothic 5, and a whole bundle of short stories in other anthologies due out later this year. The Parva Corcoran novelette Ward 19 and the follow up novella Bloody Angels have apparently done very well and so I expect I'll be asked to write another at some point. I also hope to write another novel when I have the time, which I suspect will be heavily influence by the work of Nigel Kneale and John Carpenter's movie Prince of Darkness, combining science and the supernatural as I've described above. But right now I have enough short story commissions to keep me busy for some time to come.



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