It’s always been a pleasure to be invited along to Meghan’s House of Books Halloween Extravaganza. I’ve enjoyed it each and every time. This year I thought I’d do a short article about guising or, more particularly, masks.
On reading up on guising it seems that the tradition grew as a way for children, and adults, to avoid the dead when they visited on Halloween. Or something along those lines. Now I like that as a concept but there’s a different take I wanted to present to you, dear reader. And perhaps as much to myself.
We all hide our true selves from time to time. Some more than others. Often dependent on the situation we are in. So, your work persona might be very different to your persona with friends which again may be different to your round the house personality and so on. Some masks may be worn for self-protection in a world where prejudice is rife and the anonymity of social media (a mask in itself) emboldens the bigots who are out there. That is not my story to tell.
For many, masks develop in childhood. I was bullied as a kid. A lot of people were and, sadly, continue to be. For me, it was mainly for being a bit of a nerd (bright kid, crap clothes). That was probably the first time I learned to wear a mask. I learnt to dumb down and hide the fact I was clever. I know I am not alone in this.
Now somewhere along the line I got into horror. Probably around the age of 15 or so. I remember having the Gremlins Read Along audiobook as a vague dabbling into horror and progressed from there. Ended up reading the book adaptation of Nightmare on Elm Street long before seeing the films and have to admit my imagination worked far more effectively than the films in the end. So, where is the mask here, I hear you cry. Well, this is the mask from my family. My Dad didn’t really get horror and couldn’t really understand what I got from it. So, I don’t really talk to my family about my horror writing and therefore hide it away. Even when up for awards I don’t mention it. Whether this is really a mask or just hiding from a situation; discuss amongst yourselves.
With the advent of social media, as noted above, it is interesting to see the persona some people adopt and the masks people choose to wear (or indeed the masks people drop behind the distance a screen and keyboard present). So much can be hidden behind that avatar, so much of us presented as the best versions of ourselves. The thing is that you risk getting lost in this other you of your own making; a smiling personality which may be drowning in tears on the inside. And there is a fear of judgement should that mask slip and our vulnerability be revealed.
Okay, so the link to Halloween, and thanks for sticking with me so far, is that this is a day when we get to wear masks as we go out and about on the streets asking neighbours and strangers for treats. Yet, I would claim here that some of the masks out there are people being free to express the true them and drop their day-to-day societal masks. Societal norms are abandoned and we can fully embrace “us”. The same, I find is true of horror conventions. Places where I know I have found my tribe. A place, other than at home with my wife or out with close friends, where I feel I can be me. There is a natural coming together of the like-minded and, what I have found personally, the welcoming.
As said, this was a short musing as an offering to Meghan’s celebrations. There may be pieces in the above which chimed with you. Equally, there may have been rolling of eyes and a note of “just be yourself and let the world accept you for who you are”. This is sound advice. Yet there is something drilled into a lot of us as kids that fitting in is what is required. And it takes time to feel comfortable to let those masks slip – and there are always multiple masks – where that vulnerability dissipates and all that is left is the wonder that is you.
So maybe we should hold on to that freedom that the 31st October brings with it and take that as a mantra through the entirety of the year. I know it is something I shall certainly ponder.
Boo-graphy Phil Sloman is a writer of dark psychological fiction. His first story was published in 2014 and he has been writing ever since. In 2017 Phil was shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Newcomer for his novella Becoming David, and was part of Imposter Syndrome from Dark Minds Press shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Anthology in 2018, and edited the 2020 British Fantasy Award shortlisted anthology The Woods. Phil regularly appears on several reviewers’ Best of Year lists.
Richard leads a simple, uncomplicated life in the suburbs of London where anonymity is a virtue. His life has a routine. His cleaner visits twice a week. He works out in his basement, where he occasionally he kills people. Everything is as Richard wants it until David enters his life. What happens next changes his existence in its entirety and the lives of those around him. Is he able to trust anything to be true? And will he be able to escape David or will David take over Richard’s life completely?
Meghan: Hi, Phil! Welcome back! It’s always a pleasure having you here. It’s been awhile since we sat down together. What’s been going on since we last spoke?
Phil Sloman: Thanks for having me back, Meghan. Always a pleasure to be round at your place.
So, what’s been going on since we last sat down together? Life has been life with varying ups and downs, things which seemed important at the time but now have drifted from my memory. Every day the kids get older and I seem to get greyer but things are pretty good. Writing wise I’ve been lucky enough to have folks keep coming to me asking for stories so there’s a little bit more of my work spread across the literary landscape. I also had my first collection – well, micro-collection – put out by Black Shuck Books which has had a lot of love from readers and reviewers alike. The collection is called Broken on the Inside and deals a lot with mental health and psychological breakdown. As well as that I also recently guest edited a five story anthology in Hersham Horror Books’ Pentanth range. The anthology is called The Woods and features amazing stories from Cate Gardner, Mark West, Penny Jones, and James Everington as well as an editor’s story from me as is traditional with the series. And I guess one other thing I should note is winning Best Legs in Horror 2018 so am looking to defend my crown – or is that garter – this year.
Meghan: Who are you outside of writing?
Phil Sloman: In my day job I work as a disability rights campaigner working to remove societal barriers experienced by disabled people. Beyond that I am a father with two amazing boys and husband to an amazing wife. Lots of our time is taken up with nature stuff: birdwatching, fossil hunting, mushroom foraging though that has its perils. I remember once last year having brought back some mushrooms with an unknown mushroom to identify. My pulse started racing when I thought I had contaminated the gathered mushrooms with a Death Cap (they have the name for an incredibly good reason!). Fortunately I had picked the non-poisonous False Death Cap but it still made me very aware of my internal bowel movements for the next few days. As well as foraging, I’ve recently got into making my own cider. We have an allotment with a few apple trees on and it seems a shame to let them go to waste.I’m also a keen sportsman and play tennis and football (soccer for my friends in the US) for local teams. I’m not bad at tennis and have won a few trophies, football less so but I enjoy the run about!
Oh, and I also lead a band of heroes called the Slomanites trying to save the world from the evils of coffee creams, fighting the good fight against the tyrannical Jim McLeod of Ginger Nuts of Horror fame but that’s another story.
Meghan: How do you feel about friends and close relatives reading your work?
Phil Sloman: With my writer friends I’m quite relaxed about it as they write similar things. It’s when friends and family outside of that sphere discover that I’m a writer, and especially a horror writer, that I get a complex about my work. Or more particularly, the horror aspect of it; something I really need to get over. None of my family reads or watches horror that I am aware of, and only a limited number of my non-writing friends do too, so I think there must be a reason why they don’t. That then morphs into they must think anyone who writes horror is a serial killer waiting to pounce and before you know it I am ordering a false passport and a suitcase of money with non-sequential bills for me to flee the country with. The reality is that those who have read my stuff think it’s great which highlights to me the personal neuroses which I really need to get under control.
Meghan: Is being a writer a gift or a curse?
Phil Sloman: I’m going to do that typical thing of coming up with an option three! I think it depends on you as a writer and your circumstances. I know some people who connect intensely with their writing to the point that it affects their moods and their very being. Others who treat it as a job and switch off after a day at the writing desk.
For me I find it more gift than curse but it depends on which day you ask me. The opportunity to create all these fantastic stories and play around with concepts then getting them down on paper is brilliant. That’s the great side. Plus when you get someone come up to you and tell you they loved your story; there’s a lot of personal reward right there. Yet there is also the frustration and pressure which can build if you find your writing dries up or that you find you are not enjoying it. I think sometimes people are reluctant to say that they are not finding any joy from what they are doing while still producing amazing writing. There is that worry of people jumping on the situation and saying, ‘Well, I’d love to be a writer so stop moaning word-monkey and just keep typing’. Obviously I am overegging this but the pressure is there and often for very little financial reward plus you will find a good few writers, especially as they are establishing themselves, having to work a full-time job alongside the writing which can impact on family, friends and relationships as well as physically draining the author. And for those writers who do this as a full-time career, there are the pressures of getting the next gig, will their next book soar or flop, will they get paid as contracted or will the publisher fail to deliver on the contract and a hundred other pressures I am not aware of.
Meghan: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?
Phil Sloman: Completely. I often get asked about why I write horror. The simple answer is the 70s and 80s. Growing up as a kid back then there was the threat of nuclear war. I remember being taught at school about what to do in the event of the bombs dropping and seeing maps of England showing where the blast radius and fall out would cover if they hit London and where might be deemed ‘safe’. I think we were on the periphery of that ‘safe’ zone. We also had these public service advertisements to teach kids to be safe which invariably showed kids of my age at the time getting killed in varying ways usually involved quicksand or having entered building sites. To this day I have yet to find a patch of quicksand in the UK. So all of that was definitely starter fluid for where I am today. We also lived on a farm where our nearest neighbor was a mile away and school friends a good drive so that meant I was often left to amuse myself. I’d spend long periods of time roaming the local woods and fields on my own which I think built a more introspective character than I may have developed otherwise.
Meghan: What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for your books?
Phil Sloman: I once had to Google the decomposition process of a body left in a bath of acid. This was for my novella Becoming David from Hersham Horror Books. The book revolves around a serial killer and I needed a way for the bodies to be disposed of. Turns out that the human body will break down into effectively a brown sludge eventually, the bones gelatinous along the way. Now it’s things like this which make me wonder a) how people find this stuff out and b) just how writers would have found the answer to questions like that pre-internet. I have images of an author sidling up to a police officer and quietly whispering in their ear, “Excuse me, Officer, I know this may sound strange, but would you happen to know the best way to dispose of a body”; the other alternative, personal experimentation, doesn’t bear thinking about!
Meghan: Which do you find the hardest to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?
Phil Sloman: Definitely the middle. The beginning and the end are the A to B on your road map for the story. It’s a bit like fishing. The beginning is where you are sorting out your bait and equipment, choosing the right spot to cast-off from (and there is a lot of skill in doing all that), the end is where you’ve reeled in your catch and have it in the net ready to show off to friends, making sure it doesn’t slip the hook before the net is in place). The middle is all the hard work where you’re trying to make sure the reader – sorry, fish – takes the bait, that you’re able to keep them on the hook, knowing that you’re going to have to put a lot of effort in to make sure they don’t wriggle off at the last moment and you’ve lost them forever, letting the line play out a bit and then reeling in once more.
Meghan: Do you outline? Do you start with characters or plot? Do you just sit down and start writing? What works best for you?
Phil Sloman: It depends on the length of the story. For short stories I tend to think through the story, work out my start point and end point then let the words take me where they will along the way. For novellas and novels I have to plot. I will write down a chapter by chapter outline, nothing too detailed, mainly things like Chapter 4: Richard meets David in a local pub, Chapter 7: police find out and come calling, that kind of thing. There’s still freedom to change things as necessary as you go but at least you have markers to keep you on that route from A to B.
In terms of characters or plot first, well I generally go with an inkling of a plot, more of a what if as it were. So, for Virtually Famous, which was published in Imposter Syndrome from Dark Minds Press and also in my collection, I asked the question of ‘What if someone was the face of a virtual reality game about them and saw themselves dying day after day, how would they react, how would people react playing the celebrity, where would it all lead?’. The answer is it leads to a very dark place, very dark indeed. It was after those questions that the character of Chet developed, his personality, the people around him, and so forth.
Meghan: What do you do when characters don’t follow the outline/plan?
Phil Sloman: I sit them down in a dark room and have a ‘friendly’ chat with them.
Seriously though, sometimes it is for a reason and you have to go with it. I’m not one for saying ‘the character made me do it’ but I am very aware that there are layers you are revealing as you get to know the make-up of your characters better, those little tics and traits which reveal themselves, which mean the story needs to bend to a degree to accommodate that. Sometimes I’ve had to include characters I hadn’t even considered from the start as I realize we need a certain motivator to occur or something to show a different side of our protagonist.
Meghan: What do you do to motivate yourself to sit down and write?
Phil Sloman: Deadlines are good. I have been very lucky in that people approach me to write stories for them but that comes with the pressure of having to meet your end of the bargain. Part of that pressure is that you want to be known as someone who delivers what you were asked to when you were asked to do it. There will sometimes be extenuating circumstances which may impact this, for example a serious family illness which is sadly something we are currently going through, and at those times you need to be honest with yourself and the publisher as you would with any employer.
I find it harder when not writing to a specific target or open call. Those days you just have to sit yourself down in the chair and write. However, I also think that you need to be kind to yourself. Day jobs tend to be five days a week with two days off yet the mantra is ‘write every day’. There are many writers who achieve writing every day but I also know people who burn out and writing becomes a chore, something they hate as I mentioned earlier, so you need to work out what is right for you while still hitting those deadlines when you have them.
Meghan: Are you an avid reader?
Phil Sloman: Yes but I find myself increasingly time poor nowadays but that is self-inflicted; trying to fit too much into life around the day job. I tend to have several books on the go at once, usually a novel alongside two or three short story collections. I’ve just downloaded Kindle on to my phone which now means I always have a book with me wherever I go. I generally read horror fiction but will pick up books in other genres if recommended to me by friends. I know people say you should expand beyond your genre but there really is a vast diversity in the styles and offerings within horror that I don’t find myself feeling limited by it.
Meghan: What kind of books do you absolutely love to read?
Phil Sloman: I tend to like an anti-hero. Those protagonists who have no redeeming characteristics yet there is this charisma about them which makes you root for them. A great example would be Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter. You won’t get a much more reprehensible character yet we find ourselves feeling pleased when he escapes the clutches of the authorities. Also books which make you feel a bit grimy reading them. By that, I don’t mean in a sleazy sexual way, more an uncomfortable read due to the personalities of the characters on the page than necessarily their actions. Examples would be things like Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie, Netsuke by Rikki Ducornet, or Ritual by David Pinner.
Meghan: How do you feel about movies based on books?
Phil Sloman: It depends on the book! If it is a book I love then it is hard to separate that from the movie in so much as I have all these preconceptions of how the characters should act, the way the story HAS to be told and all of that. Sometimes directors do something with the movie which you weren’t expecting and it works fantastically, other times they fail (or at least in the eyes of me as a viewer) and you feel disappointed but I guess that’s all about our interpretations. Recently Mike Flanagan adapted The Haunting of Hill House which is right up there in my top books of all time and I have to say that I think he nailed it, taking the television series in a different direction to the book yet keeping faith with the feel of the original story. Overall though, I think movie adaptations of books are a good thing. They bring these fantastic stories to a wider audience and, one would hope, increase the readership of that book and the author.
Meghan: Have you ever killed a main character?
Phil Sloman: I think perhaps the question should be when haven’t you killed a main character! I am ticking off characters in my head thinking who have I killed off and who survives and I am pretty sure the dead column is stacked a lot higher than the survivors one. Perhaps there’s a reason I don’t tend to write romance or comedies!
I quite like having the option to kill off characters, it keeps the reader on their toes. There’s a thing for me where if you take that off the table, like in some thriller series where the hero always survives, that you remove the peril from the story as there will always be some plot device providing a miraculous escape.
Meghan : Do you enjoy making your characters suffer?
Phil Sloman: No, I definitely don’t enjoy making them suffer. Sometimes I am ambivalent towards it. I am usually quite good at compartmentalizing things, recognizing that the words I am putting down on the page are fiction, that no one is actually getting hurt. At other times I find myself slightly nauseous about what I am writing, more so when I am getting in the head of the character, when there is more emotional distress rather than physical harm. Those are the times when I need to close my laptop and walk away for a bit.
Meghan: What’s the weirdest character concept that you’ve ever come up with?
Phil Sloman: I once had a talking burger meal as a character in the opening to the story. Burger, fries and onion rings talking, and singing, to the main character in my story Discomfort Food. Effectively they were the beating heart of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the conscience of our protagonist haunting her psyche. I also created some anthropomorphic foxes in my story The Man Who Fed the Foxes who come to help this guy called Paul find his missing wife. Otherwise my characters tend to be broken individuals either fighting against their own personal demons or visiting their demons on others.
Meghan: What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
Phil Sloman: The best piece of feedback was to trust your readers. If you write well then the story will explain itself. I had a habit of overwriting, just the occasional extra sentence here and there, to make sure the reader was definitely keeping up. Now my writing is tighter and all the better for it.
The worst feedback I had was from a story called Gifts which was rejected by one publisher – it found a home since in The Black Room Manuscripts 3 from the Sinister Horror Company – where the rejecting publisher said the story needed the main characters to be stronger or less flawed which kind of missed the point, for me, of the essence of the story where this marriage had reached breaking point and simply needed a nudge to have it all come crumbling down.
Meghan: What do your fans mean to you?
Phil Sloman: Fans are amazing. It’s brilliant to know that people are out there and regularly buying your work and enjoying it. It’s such a fantastic boost. But it’s also really strange to hear the phrase fans in relation to my writing. Like a lot of writers I experience imposter syndrome, that feeling where someone is going to suddenly find out you’ve been getting lucky this whole time and that really you can barely write a shopping list. Having someone come up to me at conventions or online and tell me that they’ve loved something I’ve written is such a boost. It also keeps you honest as a writer in that people are spending their dollar on your words. So you owe it to them to make your work the best it can be.
Meghan: If you could steal one character from another author and make them yours, who would it be and why?
Phil Sloman: I think Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. She is such a perfect character even if she is amazingly fractured, if that is the right word. So confident and self-assured at such a young age yet probably as dark as you can get. Layers within layers within layers.
Meghan: If you could write the next book in a series, which one would it be, and what would you make the book about?
Phil Sloman: Now that’s a tough question. I’d be tempted to be audacious and do a sequel to Lord of the Rings where evil has found its way back into Middle-Earth again, but I think that path is laden with doom via judgment from fandom and picking your way through the legalities of the Tolkien estate!
There could be quite a good story in exploring the world of I Am Legend, but the style I think would have to be quite different as you couldn’t write about the lone survivor again. Perhaps there’s something about other survivors or more about the evolution of the vampires though I fear I am straying into Walking Dead territory here.
Otherwise, from my own writing, I keep pondering about writing a sequel to Becoming David. There’s definitely potential there but I’d need to have a proper sit down and plot it through.
Meghan: If you could write a collaboration with another author, who would it be and what would you write about?
Phil Sloman: I would love to write something with Mark Z. Danielewski. I think House of Leaves is brilliant and I became incredibly obsessed with it when reading the book for the first time a few years back. What would we write about? Not sure, undoubtedly something which would broach on a form of madness, maybe an interconnectivity of a city, or borough, spread across a disparate group of people impacting each other’s lives unwittingly.
Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?
Beyond that, I’m currently outlining a novel about street kids, some of whom go missing for reasons to be revealed, evil conglomerates and corruption. There’s a lot of working out who to trust and the like. This will be my first novel so I’m sure there will be a lot of learning for me along the way.
Meghan: Where can we find you?
Phil Sloman: I’m generally on Facebook or Twitter wasting valuable writing time but I have fun so I’m not complaining. I have a blog which I need to really update more often here.
And if anyone fancies buying any of my books then feel free to have a browse at the following big river links: Amazon US ** Amazon UK
Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview or the last?
Phil Sloman: For fans out there, simply thank you for buying what I write and for the kind reviews which are always hugely appreciated. For anyone considering being a writer, don’t wait for permission to be a writer, just go and do it, the clock is ticking so take the opportunity and get some words down. For the rest of you, avoid the perils of coffee creams; that way lies danger!
And finally, thanks again to you, Meghan, for having me over. Some great questions and I hope I’ve done them justice.
Phil Sloman is a writer of dark psychological fiction. He was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Society Best Newcomer award in 2017 for his novella Becoming David. His short stories can be found throughout various anthologies and his collection Broken on the Inside has received widespread praise. In the humdrum of everyday life, Phil lives with an understanding wife and a trio of vagrant cats who tolerate their human slaves. There are no bodies buried beneath the patio as far as he is aware. Occasionally Phil can be found lurking here or wasting time on social media – come say hi.
Richard leads a simple, uncomplicated life in the suburbs of London where anonymity is a virtue. His life has a routine. His cleaner visits twice a week. He works out in his basement, where he occasionally he kills people. Everything is as Richard wants it until David enters his life. What happens next changes his existence in its entirety and the lives of those around him. Is he able to trust anything to be true? And will he be able to escape David or will David take over Richard’s life completely? A Novella from Hersham Horror Books