To an extent the choice was made for me. By the time I came on board some of the juicier commandments – murder, adultery etc. – had already been bagsied. That said, I’m not sure I’d have picked them anyway. I’ve written plenty about murder, and with adultery one might be tempted to focus more upon the details of the act than on the retribution. I wanted to avoid the purely religious sins, like blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath, so bearing false witness seemed like a good option.
And there’s something particular about lying, in that we all know it’s wrong, and yet we do it all the time. Or is it just me?
2) I have to ask – what led you to go for the second-person perspective? It’s a risk in a story, but one that comes off brilliantly here.
I’m not sure I really planned it in advance; it just seemed to fall into place quite naturally. The first few sentences of the story don’t refer to the protagonist at all – they’re simply observations going through his mind. The first time I did refer to him, it just felt appropriate to use ‘you’ in the present tense. And that worked for the rest of the story.
Generally I’m a big fan of writing in the first person, but it’s a misconception to think that it is somehow more authentic. It’s the version of the story that the narrator wants you to hear, filtered to make sure that the reader’s perception coincides with theirs. Even if they’re not as unreliable as, say, Roger Ackroyd’s murderer, Dr Sheppard, they will spin every event so that they may be viewed in a better – or sometimes worse – light. But they have no duty of neutrality.
The second person – as I’ve used it here – is much more intimate. It reflects the internal dialogue that goes on in our minds, much like what’s portrayed in Pixar’s Inside Out (or, for older readers, in the TV sitcom Herman’s Head) except that in this case there’s only a single voice, rather than multiple, disputing opinions.
Additionally there is an ambiguity as to who the ‘you’ refers to. While clearly it primarily means the character in the story, the reader cannot help but feel the sense in which ‘you’ refers to themselves. Thus they become complicit in the story and the protagonist’s actions, even though they don’t approve of them – just as he doesn’t approve of them himself. If it works it results in a lingering – and entirely unfair – sense of guilt in the reader.
It is a risk, because the second person is uncomfortable to read – both for the reasons mentioned above, and also because it’s simply less familiar than the first or third person in the past tense. Thankfully a short story is a good place to take risks, and I think here it’s paid off. Whether I could make the same sort of thing work for an entire novel, I’m not so sure.
3) You’ve hit on something here about social media’s place in society – how do you feel about Twitter, Facebook etc?
I think that Facebook and Twitter are rather different from one another, but in both cases the problem is a lack of moderation. In normal conversation one instinctively tests the water in terms of what is acceptable by perhaps saying something very mild, to which one will immediately receive non-verbal feedback of both approval and opprobrium. In this way one learns what is acceptable – and discovers that this may vary with different groups of friends.
With social media it is very difficult to express disapproval. Even if there were a ‘dislike’ button it would be too aggressive an act to use it, just as it would be to actually post an objection. It may be just a British thing, but any disapproval stronger than a raised eyebrow or a stifled cough can be seen as more offensive than the original target of the objection.
Without the facility for subtle disapproval the disapprovers do nothing and the only feedback is positive, reinforcing the behaviour. It’s only when someone says something utterly outrageous that people will feel obliged to voice their disapproval, and by that point it’s too late to settle the issue amicably.
Friends on Facebook tend to be people you genuinely know or have some connection with, and so although Facebook itself is not good for feeding back disapproval, it is supplemented by our interaction with our friends in person. Thus, in my experience, Facebook doesn’t tend to get out of hand so much. Even so, on Facebook we can forget that in reality we have sub-groups of friends, and what we might in the real world only announce to a select few, we’ll say to everyone on Facebook.
On Twitter posts can be seen by anyone, and followers are more often than not complete strangers. So even the moderating influences that there are on Facebook have gone, leaving only the self-restraint of the tweeter, which can sometimes be lacking.
I’m on Twitter, but I don’t use it much. Because of this (and perhaps also because I’m male) I’ve avoided directly witnessing some of the more vile behaviour that I’ve read about in the news – the things that The Tangled Web is loosely based on. I’m not sure I really see the point of Twitter. There are some things that it’s very useful for: as a public noticeboard, giving information about traffic jams, bad weather, lost pets etc. But when it comes to what it’s mostly used for – expressing opinions – it just seems to me to be generating a whole lot of noise.
4) Do you think we’ll be seeing more stories employing social media as a means of storytelling?
I think the stories are already there, both in terms of social media as means and as a subject. As subject matter, I suspect they’ll become as widely used in fiction as mobile phones already are. They’re an aspect of modern life and therefore will appear in contemporary novels just for the sake of realism – plus they have many aspects that lend themselves well to being used as plot devices.
As a means of storytelling, that’s already happening, with Twitter being used for collective writing with each participant able to add only 140 characters at a time, which seems to me one of the more sensible uses of Twitter.
5) Are you – or have you – ever been religious? What’s your view on religion?
I’m an atheist. Richard Dawkins posits a scale of 1 to 7 for how religious or atheistic a person can be. He marked himself as 6.0. I think I’m somewhere around a 6.9.
My father is an atheist and my mother Church of England, and so although I was brought up with a fairly typical religious education for the time I was never in the position of not being aware that it wasn’t necessarily so. By my early teens I’d pretty much decided there was no God, and since then my opinions have only strengthened.
It can be something of a problem for a horror writer to be an atheist. While it’s one thing to write about monsters that don’t exist in reality, it’s harder to create a world which contains a god whom one believes cannot exist. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about vampires, which classically are very much tied to religion, being creatures which lack a soul. Thankfully it’s fairly easy to remove the religious aspects and simply make vampires a part of nature – monsters which could exist but in this universe happen not to. Indeed it’s one of the themes of Twelve that just because we are forced to abandon our disbelief in vampires doesn’t mean we should abandon all our disbeliefs, such as our scepticism about God.
The new series of novels I’m working on is about Satanism and witchcraft. Far more than with vampires, a world that allows for the existence of Satan must also allow the existence of God. Such a world is difficult to create, both because of the self-contradictions implied by an omnipotent, omniscient, supremely good deity and also because of dullness of any story that contains a creature that is both good and omnipotent – ‘They all lived happily ever after’ is inevitably the first line, rather than the last.
The solution has been utilized many times. Gods are more like the Olympians, powerful but not omnipotent, bound by rules just as we are and motivated by selfish, albeit unearthly desires. Even the authors of the Bible conceded as much. The God of the Old Testament in particular may have some supernatural powers, but is limited in His abilities and arbitrary as to whose side He is on. What other kind of God would have come up with, as His first commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’?