Weird Noir; or, The Full Monty

Monty James, aka “Father of the English Ghost Story”

My first novel, The Printer’s Devil, was in the pure English Ghost Story tradition. Even though I am not writing in that style these days, my “apprenticeship” as an author in the tradition of M.R.James, known to his fans as Monty— with a cheery familiarity he would probably hate— still informs my work. Malevolence and terror – check. (Demons ‘R’ Us. And werewolves, zombies, sorcerers, golems, trickster gods, you name it.) Slight haze of distance – check. (The years before the Great War.) Clear-cut detail – check. But the tone of voice has changed, and so has the milieu. The Da Silva Tales have little place for academics (except a certain Montague Pierce… note the name!), being set in their own “surrealistic and macabre, yet amusing and slightly crazy world” (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36), yet they were born in a typically Jamesian piece, as Cats & Architecture was until the Captain barged in and took over my writing life. So the frame story features a writer working in off-season Venice and being led astray in traditional fashion by near-fatal curiosity, when the past intrudes and suddenly here’s Luís da Silva dashing about, fighting demons and kissing dead necromancers.

It’s interesting to look back now (the story was written in 2000 and has been followed by, at the time of writing, 19 more short stories and four-and-a-half novels) and see how the style has evolved. That central section of Cats & Architecture was still at least nodding to its antecedents; later tales, as soon as I had the Captain start narrating them, move to the “salty, choppy diction of the seaman” (Jim Rockhill, All Hallows 32) and are influenced more by Raymond Chandler than M.R. James, to the extent that Rick Kennett coined the description “Weird Noir” (a term I love) for them. The other main difference is in pace, of course. James’s advice, peerless for traditional ghost stories, “Into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage”, has gone right out the window!

And yet, now and then the Jamesian creeps back, as if it’s my default mode. Witness the story María Lisboa: “Kidd’s deft command of ‘Jamesian’ techniques and themes is on display… M.R. James is also evoked in the demonic theme: pursuit by things unpleasant and references to an order based on that ill-omened place, Chorazin, which features in Count Magnus… it is clever the way the ‘Jamesian’ motif is incorporated into the world of da Silva” (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36). The only deliberate thing was the Chorazin reference, and I wasn’t even thinking of Monty’s use of it at the time! But I do borrow Jamesian references as much as any other source: the chest in Arkright’s Tale* is straight out of Count Magnus, and there’s a Casting the Runes moment in Heart of Darkness, to name but a couple.

I approach MRJ’s aesthetics unconsciously, I think: they are ingrained, as they should be in every writer of supernatural fiction. How we choose to use them is up to us. Which, come to think of it, applies to a lot of things, including language: you need to know the rules before you break ’em.

*Arkright’s Tale can be found in Rick Kennett’s and my anthology of “Carnacki” stories, No.472 Cheyne Walk, published by Ash-Tree Press.

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