Hello James, it has been a while since we last chatted, and here we are, fresh from your win for Best Short Story at the British Fantasy Awards. Are you still riding the well-deserved high?
Thank you. Good to talk with Ginger Nuts of Horror again! And yes! I’ve calmed down a bit since the ceremony as it was somewhat overwhelming. But the award sits on my writing desk and I always smile when I look at it. Then I spent a few days staring at the award and feeling daunted by it. It feels like something to live up to, I guess.
Then I shut up and started writing again.
What does winning an award of this nature mean to you? On a professional and personal level?
On a professional level, it’s the most recognisable genre accolade we have in the UK. Who knows? It might help when it comes to shifting the novels I’ve written. Mainstream publishing seems a harder game than ever, so that’s how I’m looking at it. I’d like to get these books out there.
On a personal level, it feels like the culmination of seventeen years work. That’s how long I’ve been published professionally and for at least ten of those years most of what I wrote flew under the radar. I favour persistence, however, so I used the time to learn how to become a better writer. Seventeen years ago, the idea of a gay author winning an award for an explicitly gay story would’ve seemed impossible to me, so there’s that too.
I’ve known you for over a decade, and you have always come across as a highly confident person, has winning this award given you an extra drive to try something different with your writing approach?
People tell me that, but confidence is something you learn. Getting published helps. Teaching has helped me master my fear of speaking in front of people. Once you’ve taught teenagers, the toughest crowd imaginable, little can scare you.
In terms of my approach, that’s always been to keep learning, stay excited about stuff and do my best. I’ll never get to a point where I think, ‘That’s it. This is how I write now’. And I’m always looking for ways to become more inclusive. A transwoman found her way into my Lovecraftian yarn in Occult Detective Mythos Special #1 (Cathaven Press, August 2023). Non-binary characters feature in my latest Fantasy, for example. The more diverse, the better.
You have written in multiple genres; what keeps returning you to horror?
Horror is where I started out, to be honest. I had a few stories published in zines like Twisted Tongue, Estronomicon, Icarus and even once on This Is Horror. No one paid much attention to those stories and all but one of those zines has long since vanished. A handful of Fox Spirit Books anthologies led to a major book deal, so I get why readers tend to think of me as a Fantasy author first and foremost.
But I’m a big fan of the darker stuff. King, Koontz, Barker and Poppy Z. Brite were huge influences on me throughout my teens. And Horror seemed the best forum to explore stories told from lived experience, because elements of it seem to lend themselves to that. Readers seem to respond well to both my Horror and my Fantasy stuff, so I keep writing it.
These are the genres I love.
You were traumatised by the 70s remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers as a kid. Do you still feel it’s pull on you today?
Oh yes. Few things freak me out more than a warping of the natural world, things like plants and insects, their intrusion on the human. I revel in Cronenberg movies. You can see those influences in Morta quite clearly where the alien and the entomologic meet in the flesh. This is the kind of Horror that makes me squirm, even to this day. Coupling it with queer romance was a homage to that and it amused me greatly. Morta is a rather tongue-in-cheek story. It’s just the tongue is a proboscis and the cheek is… squishy.
Are there any modern films or books that give you that same feeling of Alienation and transformation?
In recent years, I rather enjoyed Possessor by Brandon Cronenberg. Infinity Pool too, which was quite Ballardian, I thought. Under the Skin, Malignant, The Colour Out of Space, these were all stand out films for me.
When it comes to books, I loved the Southern Reach novels by Jeff Vandermeer. He does the alien transformation schtick in an arresting fashion. Catriona Ward too, who has the edge on the psychological aspect. It’s also great to see queer Horror explore these areas, which is perhaps inevitable. Recent stuff by Hailey Piper, Paula Ashe and Gretchen Felker-Martin have all excited me. All deal with these themes with aplomb.
As a gay man, you have always had queerness to one degree or another in all of your writing. Have you ever been tempted to write a “straight” story to get that acceptance?
Yeah, tried that. The trouble is that folks tend to think of everything you do as queer anyway, because you yourself are queer. It’s hard to get out of that niche, so I leaned into it instead. But the Ben Garston Novels (which are contemporary Fantasy) have a cis het white male MC and the queerness of the supporting characters was subtle at first, more evident in the subsequent books. I thought I was being ironic at the time. I wanted to appeal to the mass market, which didn’t quite go as well as you’d think. The books did OK and it’s great to see them still in bookshops, but I encountered a fair bit of resistance regardless. Things were different then, even back in 2016, and conversations needed to happen.
After those books, I wanted to get some stories out there drawing on lived experience and that’s what I set out to do. I didn’t expect to find myself placing every one of the thirteen tales in the space of a year, including in places like The Dark magazine, and winding up winning a national award for one. All of this stuff was written against the grain to be honest, so the response has been eye-opening to say the least! Times have changed.
The horror genre is an odd one when it comes to the LGBTQI part of it. You either have those of us who are accepting of it or those who are totally against it. Why do you think even now it is so polarising?
Honestly? For the same reason that it’s polarising in society. Our system has been founded on archaic religious ‘norms’ and those norms have been used to establish hierarchy. That filters down into every element of society (without getting too political about it). So why should genre be any different? The same power structures exist, as they’ve been designed to do.
For the longest time, that’s been the status quo, what people are used to and comfortable with. As I get older, it isn’t so much an ‘us and them’ situation for me. We’ve all been conditioned by bigotry and the resulting exclusion of minorities and the marginalised. There are those aware enough to understand that and work hard to dismantle it for a fairer, more inclusive world. And then there are those who cling to the power that they believe serves them, even though it doesn’t serve any of us in the end.
And even within the queer side of the horror community, you still have to deal with the “prudes” who feel that all queer representation must be positive; it must be so tiring.
I like to think we won that argument. As you know, I wrote an essay about it on the previous incarnation of this site. The last thing LGBTQ+ folks need is another set of rigid limitations. People seem to forget that the whole ‘Hays Code/Bury Your Gays’ thing wasn’t established by queer folks. It was established by the patriarchy to portray our experience as wholly negative.
Queer expression – any kind of queer expression, which had been oppressed for so long – isn’t the same thing at all. That whole argument is based on a misapprehension. When readers don’t grasp that, it’s on them.
All queer expression is positive, and infinitely so when it means the inclusion of queer voices, because we haven’t been allowed to exist freely in mainstream entertainment for decades. When I see queer folks writing queer villains and queer characters getting crucified by nail guns, I see that as joyful and positive. I feel the same way about queer folks writing queer romance. I don’t discriminate. I embrace it all.
But shifting to a more positive tone in recent months, we have seen so many LGBTQI authors achieve some fantastic successes, from winning awards to getting great publishing deals, that surely should give us hope for the future of the genre.
Absolutely. There’s work to be done, and a great deal of resistance, but the scene has never looked healthier to me. Queer genre appears to be in boom regardless, because there’s an audience for it and we have a greater amount of awareness among publishers and the like than we’ve ever had before.
And while the media loves buzzwords and breakthroughs, it hasn’t happened overnight. It’s taken decades. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants in that regard. I’m perfectly aware that without the efforts of those who came before, without Oscar Wilde through to Clive Barker, without Highsmith, Brite and Sarah Waters, and many unsung others, none of us would be in this position now, reaping the benefits of their struggle. That matters to me.
But of course it’s a blessing to be writing at this particular time in history and I’m thankful for it.
What advice would you give to a new LGBTQI author looking to get their first story published?
The same as I’d give to any new author. Write. Learn. Find your voice. Know your market. Never give up. And always remember to enjoy it, because it shows on the page.
At the end of the day, the focus of any writer should always be on telling a good story. There are specific challenges that face queer writers, however, but we’re definitely in the best period of history to tell them. So go for it. Scream. Roar.
I hate the term ally, as it puts a picture in my head of some bloke with homemade white armour collecting Badges of all of the causes they support to look cool, but what can places like GNoH do to help make the genre more diverse?
Ha ha! Ally is fine by me. The best thing one can do in this regard is look for ways to focus on queer voices. Include us. Share platforms, particularly where we’ve not previously had them. Give us careers. Respect the difference between representation and giving us space to speak for ourselves. It does matter, considering historic exclusion.
In my experience, Ginger Nuts of Horror has always been aware of the above and supportive, so all I can say is keep doing what you’re doing!
I only recently found out that The Dust of the Red Rose Knight was written expressly for the Books of the Hill Dyslexia Campaign. What made you decide to pitch a story that was dyslexia friendly?
Well, Alistair Sims of BOTH Press approached me about his campaign. We’d discussed dyslexia before and I’d told him I’m a lifelong sufferer of dyscalculia, the numerical form. I seriously struggle with numbers and it’s had quite an impact on my life, so I could empathise. And inclusivity isn’t the sole concern of LGBTQ+ folks. Anywhere I can help to make these genres more open and embracing is going to appeal to me. So I gave it a shot.
How did you approach it? Did you have to make any changes to how you would typically write a story and the structure of it?
Only in terms of brevity. I wanted to write something as accessible as possible, and what’s more accessible than a fairy tale? Then it occurred to me to write something funny and a little rude. Comedy is tricky, but fun to do. The story was written for everyone, but hopefully it’s one that readers with these challenges can enjoy too.
Do you have any plans for more dyslexia-friendly stories?
I’ll write a Red Rose Knight follow-up if Alistair wants one. I keep pestering him about it.
You have moved back to Spain, what’s the appeal of living in Spain?
I could write a book about it. Aside from the gorgeous weather, the comparative cost of living, the radically progressive politics and the generally relaxed pace of life? After living through Section 28, embedded social exclusion, frequent bigotry, violence and unequal rights for forty odd years, Spain was like stepping through a wardrobe door into Narnia. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a place where I didn’t have to feel afraid. In fact, one of the first things anyone said to me in Spain was, ‘You don’t have to worry here’. That opened doors for me, spiritually, professionally. My shoulders fell. I was able to just be for once. I learnt to leave the anger and pain behind, because it’s a poison and they want you to be afraid. Fear cripples lives. It destroys them. As much as humanly possible, I decided to live out the rest of my days without it.
I took a two week holiday to Valencia in 2016 and well, I never looked back.
Apart from yourself, who should we be reading?
That’s a long list. Writers that have set me alight recently are Nicola Griffith with her excellent Arthurian Fantasy Spear. Paula Ashe’s We Are Here to Hurt Each Other is a fresh and mesmeric descendant of Clive Barker. Bored Gay Werewolf by Tony Santorella was a lot of fun. William Hussey writes astonishingly accomplished British YA and adult thrillers. A Good Year by Polis Loizou was a beautifully rendered Cypriot folktale. All the authors in The Book of Queer Saints, including the editor, Mae Murray. John Linwood Grant writes terrific weird tales and some feature three-dimensional queer characters. Polly Schattel is doing interesting, original stuff too. It’s refreshing to have a host of quality peers to point to, because it wasn’t always the case.
The BFS award win must have boosted your desire to write. What are you working on?
It has… once I stopped freaking out about it! The award is wonderful, of course, and I’m beyond grateful to the British Fantasy Society for all their hard work and support. But I never set out to win accolades, just to be read and entertain, so I tend to come back to that.
I’ve just finished editing a sweeping Arthurian Fantasy novel. I squeezed out an Edwardian creature feature just for larks. Next up, I plan to write a nasty little story for the upcoming I Want That Twink Obliterated! anthology, which recently smashed its Kickstarter. And I’m working on an exclusive, tie-it-all-together tale for my collection from Lethe Press next year, entitled Preaching To The Perverted.
No rest for the wicked!
And to finish off the interview, what would be your catchphrase?
You’ll still have doubts, even when you win the Best Legs in Horror for the tenth year running.
James Bennett is a British Fantasy Award winning author. Raised in Sussex and South Africa, his short fiction has appeared internationally. His acclaimed debut ‘Chasing Embers’ came out in 2016, the first of the Ben Garston Novels, a series in which mythological creatures fight for dominance in the modern world. Other works include the well-received ‘The Book of Queer Saints’ and his latest stories can be found in The Dark magazine, BFS Horizons and Occult Detective magazine.
A short story collection ‘Preaching to the Perverted’ should see the light of day in 2024.
James lives in the South of Spain where he’s working on a new novel.
Feel free to follow him on Bluesky: @jamesbennett.bsky.social
Chasing Embers (Ben Garston 1) by James Bennett
‘A thrilling fusion of myth and modernity’ Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid Chronicles
‘Blending together the best of action, adventure and urban fantasy . . . Chasing Embers is one of my highlights!’ The Eloquent Page
Fans of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher will revel in this fiery tale of magic, mayhem and modern-day mythology.
BEHIND EVERY MYTH THERE IS A SPARK OF TRUTH . . .
There’s nothing special about Ben Garston.
Or so he’d have you believe. He won’t tell you, for instance, that he’s also known as Red Ben. Or that the world of myth and legend is more real than you think.
Because it’s his job to keep all that a secret.
But now a centuries-old rivalry has resurfaced, and the delicate balance between his world and ours is about to be shattered.
Something is hiding in the heart of the city – and it’s about to be unleashed.
‘Absolutely loving it. Gorgeous use of language, great humour, characterisation and storyline. New fan!‘ Elizabeth Chadwick