We’re pretty faithless to formal definitions of what’s gothic and what isn’t. If you strip away the tropes and the familiar imagery, what do you feel is at the heart of gothic literature?
This is a really interesting question that could lead to so many different answers, but I’m going to settle on a “sense of unease”. For me, the best gothic literature creates a state of disquietude in the reader. When I pick up a gothic story I’m really hoping for that crescendo: a slow build towards an almost claustrophobic feeling of dread by the end. This is often driven by a willingness in the characters to seek out and confront what they shouldn’t. In gothic literature we see people doing what their entire being tells them not to—knowing that they shouldn’t explore the noise upstairs, for example, but doing it anyway. These characters confront fear in a way that I don’t think many people do in real life. Maybe there’s something in that too.
How do you feel “Passengers” fits into that conception of gothic literature?
I can’t really comment on whether “Passengers” achieves that crescendo of dread, though I certainly set out to build it throughout the story. But in terms of characters doing what their entire being tells them not to, there are a few points in “Passengers” where the protagonist knows he should run, but doesn’t. Or thinks he should phone the police, but doesn’t want to be seen to be overreacting. In this sense it’s not bravery that makes him go down a certain path in the story, but a social pressure. I think we often fight against our gut instinct in order to do what is socially acceptable—even if our gut is telling us that the situation we’re in is potentially dangerous. That was my way of keeping him moving in a certain direction, while hopefully still making his decisions believable. He doesn’t really want to confront fear, but feels that he may be judged if he doesn’t.
Can you speak to any inspirations or influences for the piece, or your work more generally?
The inspiration for “Passengers” came while travelling by train from Swansea to Bristol late at night a few years ago. We made a prolonged stop at Severn Tunnel Junction, which is the last station before the train plunges under the River Severn to make the crossing between Wales and England. It was the early hours of the morning and the uncovered platform was bleak and empty. Even though it wasn’t raining the station had this eerie dampness to it, being so close to the banks of a tidal river, and it felt like it might be the most isolated station on the island: perfect for the setting of a modern gothic story. But when I later came to write that story, I was disappointed to learn that Severn Tunnel Junction is surrounded by a small village, and so part of the isolation and eeriness I’d felt there slipped away. I looked for another station along the line but none seemed suitable, so I created a disused one instead and the story grew from there.
Even though this disused station is imagined, the ferry it was built to serve was very real: Black Rock was an important crossing point on the River Severn, in use centuries before its railway tunnel and road bridges. When I was writing “Passengers” earlier this year, Wales was in the midst of a national lockdown, and so Black Rock as a setting came from researching the area online. I loved the name, and when I saw photos of the rusted lighthouse sitting upon jagged rocks on the river I knew I’d found the place to conclude the story. Wales has begun to open back up now after our winter lockdown, and I recently drove to Black Rock to see it in person. It was so odd to arrive for the first time at a place that I felt I’d already been to, having explored it extensively using photographs and Google Street View. However, unlike Severn Tunnel Junction, Black Rock lived up to my expectations: bleak, moody, otherworldly.
“Passengers” is also partly influenced by my interest in the idea of ‘non-places’: the term coined by Marc Augé to describe places of transience (airports, hotel rooms, motorways, train stations, etc.) where human beings become anonymous and things like history and identity are erased. These ‘non-places’ are characterised by constant transition and temporality, but they often feel like they exist outside of linear time too. I grew up on a pretty anonymous housing estate next to a motorway, and this interest in ‘non-places’ seeps into a lot of my writing, so it wasn’t a surprise to find myself unconsciously putting elements of it into this story.
What piece of writing advice do you hold most dear?
In his long poem ‘Advice to a Young Poet’, Nigel Jenkins writes “[it] may sometimes be there, but here is rarely too small a place.” This is a piece of advice that’s never too far from my mind when I’m writing: simply the idea that writing will always travel, no matter where it’s set. I think that’s a good thing to remember if you’re ever tempted—or told—to set your story somewhere better known. In the UK the publishing industry has always been centred upon London, and there are many stories of Welsh writers being told to move books out of Welsh settings to make them more marketable across the border. Penny Thomas of Firefly Press recently wrote a piece in The Bookseller where she revealed that one of her writers was advised by an agent to shift their contemporary ghost story—rooted in Welsh history—to Ireland to make it more appealing. Elsewhere, the city of Cardiff can apparently be easily changed to Bristol, and a story about a Welsh mining community can be transplanted to Yorkshire.
Homogenisation has been a common criticism of mainstream UK publishing for years, though the tide does seem to be finally turning—helped, no doubt, by publishers like Penny Thomas writing articles that highlight just how ridiculous it all is. But giving stories Welsh settings still feels like a small protest. I’m under no illusion that “Passengers” is going to rock the boat of the UK publishing industry, but it matters to me that it’s set on the banks of the River Severn, not the Thames. And the fact that “Passengers” has been published by a US-based magazine proves that stories with unashamedly Welsh settings can and do travel. There have always been Welsh writers who have written about Wales, but I think there’s a wider generation of writers here now who are realising that it’s absurd to think anywhere is too small to write about.
We hope this magazine assists in blurring the lines between so-called “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” As a writer, do you embrace one of these categories over another? Why?
I don’t think I embrace one over the other, but as a writer I’m very aware that lots of literary magazines won’t accept submissions of so-called “genre fiction.” I also write poetry and I think it’s interesting that there isn’t really a restrictive categorisation going on with that form of literature, at least not when it’s on the page. A poem seems to generally be allowed to be a poem, whereas publishers feel the need to pigeonhole fiction into “literary” and “non-literary”. It just leads to readers missing out. So I’m all for the blurring of those lines, both as a writer and as a reader.
We love learning about writers who have “gothic/weird” tendencies but who typically aren’t labeled as “gothic.” Who’s someone you recommend we check out?
I’m from the same Welsh city as Dylan Thomas, and he’s rightly celebrated here as both a writer and cultural icon. He’s perhaps best-known for his poems and plays, but he also has a strong reputation for short stories. His better-known stories are semi-autobiographical—“A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “The Outing”, “Return Journey”, etc.—and are often steeped in wit and nostalgia. However, recently I’ve discovered that he wrote darker fiction too—some of the stories so grotesque that his publisher backed out of printing them because they feared an obscenity trial. Amongst them “The Dress” is a nightmarish story about a hunted man hiding in the mist on the hills, “The Burning Baby” a disturbing folk horror centred upon a repulsive reverend and his changeling son, and “The Horse’s Ha” a weird tale of plague riding into a village on the back of a white horse (this one even features a zombie horde). There’s also “The Followers”, a ghost story set on a wet winter’s evening, where two young voyeurs follow a woman home to watch her through the window and then wish that they hadn’t. A pamphlet version of “The Followers” was published in the 1970s with a set of wonderfully gloomy black-and-white illustrations by Meg Stevens—it’s out of print now, but I’d recommend searching for the illustrations online.
Dylan Thomas is definitely Swansea’s most famous writer, but there are others to celebrate here too: including Jane Fraser, who writes stories set on the nearby Gower peninsula. Gower boasts a dramatic coastline, and in the summer months its beaches are filled with tourists. But Jane Fraser’s stories are set out of season, and focus on the peninsula’s darker corners. Her 2019 collection “The South Westerlies” wasn’t really marketed as such, but it contains some brilliantly gothic slices of Gower life, often bringing the strangeness of local myth and folklore into modern settings. I think the title story is my favourite: about an older couple who buy a house that coincidentally contains an oak table from the wife’s first marriage. The table becomes an overbearing presence in their lives, and at night its wood cracks and groans as the house is filled with the smell of a particular brand of cigarettes. The whole collection is brilliant, but it’s worth reading for that haunting story alone.