James Brogden is a horror author who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia, and moved back to the UK to terrorize the world with his writing. His latest work ‘Hekla’s Children‘ has just been released through Titan Books and today we’ll be talking a little bit about that as well as other random fun things such as Lego.
Science Fiction (SF): Thank you for joining us today. First, if you could share a little with our readers about what ‘Hekla’s Children’ is all about?
James Brogden (JB): Hekla’s Children is about a group of teenagers who go missing on a day’s hike in an urban nature reserve. They are snatched out of the world by an ancient supernatural force which wants to enlist them in its eternal fight against a demonic entity called the afaugh, and the story follows efforts to find and rescue them.
SF: In the novel, there is a direct link to the past through the ancient evil they are going up against, did you have to do any research or did you craft the history to suit the story’s needs?
JB: Oh, tons. I try to keep things as close to reality as I can, so that included everything from the nature of the monster – which is based on the Buddhist idea of the ‘hungry ghost’ – to tiny details of how a Bronze Age farmstead might have worked, and everything in between. The fiddliest stuff was about mummification; there’s a bog mummy in the story, and I had to make sure that the archaeological timeline was consistent. Because the story is set in Sutton Park in Birmingham, I had to be reasonably confident that there could have been a peat bog there 3000 years ago – I don’t think anybody would have noticed or cared, except possibly for a few militant archaeologists, so I could have fudged that easily, but it pleases me if the obviously fantastical elements can be wedded as closely as possible to the real world.
SF: The story blends aspects of both fantasy and a modern thriller. Were the two genres purposely set together or did they come about as ‘Hekla’s Children’ evolved?
JB: It was always there from the start. I wanted to write something which would start as something like a police procedural (the cliché of the dog-walker finding the body, the scientists and police bickering over jurisdiction, etc), and then gradually slide in the supernatural elements while everybody’s looking the other way. My inspiration was Picnic At Hanging Rock, another character-driven mystery about disappearing students, but I wanted to explore more about where the kids actually went to, and I felt like I needed the readers to come with me on a journey of believable real-world detail before leading them into the weirdness.
SF: The characters are truly the heart of the story. Did you have to work at creating them or did they appear fully formed on page for you?
JB: I’m very fortunate in my day-job as a teacher to work with a wide spectrum of humanity – both adolescent and adult – so it was relatively easy to cherry pick bits and pieces of personalities I’ve met to build up the characters. I absolutely include myself in this, by the way. The fact that the protagonist is a teacher is simply a point of least resistance for me because I don’t have to research so much about what his job entails. In contrast, writing an archaeologist was a bit of a nightmare because like I say, I’m a details freak, and I get hung up on things like exactly how does the carbon-14 dating process work? But the banter and the bickering between the teenagers is just what I hear around me all the time, so it came a bit more easily.
SF: Most of your novels to date have strongly dwelled in the realm of Urban Fantasy. How was it to have an increase in horror in your writing?
JB: I don’t see it as that much of an increase, to be honest. ‘The Narrows’ has skavags, gargoyle-like creatures from an entropic sub-reality which prey on homeless people. ‘Tourmaline’ and ‘The Realt’ have, amongst many grotesque creatures, two of my favourites: The Swarm – a man possessed by a swarm of hornets who can disassemble his body into a flying cloud of bone and flesh fragments – and the Hradix, a 12-year old boy possessed by a voracious tree-dwelling reptile who can only be pacified by being continually fed Extra-Strong Mints. Then there’s the Brood of Lilivet, who are just plain nasty. There’s a fair amount of brutal violence in my stories because I think visceral physicality is the essential counterpoint to spiritual wonder.
SF: You’ve written both short stories as well as full novels. How do you feel about each style of writing? Do you have a preference between the two?
JB: I tend to treat short stories as sketches. Some of them stay sketches and work well on that level. Some have the potential to be worked up into larger pieces, which is what I’m currently doing with ‘The Hollow Tree’; its seed is a little 500-word short I wrote for a Den of Geek Hallowe’en competition. I’d like to write more short stories, but the hours that my teaching job requires mean that when I get home at the end of the day I really only have time to write about 1000 words max, so it’s challenging enough putting a novel together.
SF: What authors or books have been more influential on your work and who are your favorite authors to read?
JB: In terms of ‘Hekla’s Children’ I was, as I say, heavily influenced by Joan Lindsay’s ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock,’ but also Robert Holdstock’s ‘Mythago Wood’ cycle. More generally, I’m a big fan of the late lamented Graham Joyce, John Connolly, Sarah Pinborough, and Christopher Fowler. And obviously Clive Barker.
SF: There are rumors that you are a huge Lego fan. What is your favorite set of Legos? Have you ever built scenes from your works out of them?
JB: It’s just Lego! Sorry, I have a twitchy pedantry nerve when it comes to using ‘legos’ as a plural. This may be a British/American thing; I don’t know. You can call them ‘lego bricks’ if necessary, but saying ‘set of Legos’ is like asking me if I have a favourite CD of musics, or if I would like a glass of waters.
Anyway, I’m not allowed any more Lego. I know this is going to sound pathetic, but there’s no more space for it in the house. I have several large storage boxes of it under the bed and more in the loft, and each Christmas I have a festive village which I like to build, with lights and everything, but that’s it. Definitely. No more. I’ve never actually tried building anything from one of my books out of Lego, but I do use the minifigures for role-playing games with my friends. Which is obviously much more grown-up.
SF: Now that ‘Hekla’s Children’ is out in the wild, can you share what you’re working on next with us?
JB: I’m currently working on a novel called ‘The Hollow Tree,’ which is a more straightforward supernatural ghost story combined with historical mystery. It’s based on the legend of Bella in the Wych Elm, which is a local story about a real unsolved murder – towards the end of World War 2 a woman’s skeleton was found stuffed into a hollow tree in woodland on the outskirts of Birmingham. Nobody was ever convicted and even the woman’s identity was never discovered, but shortly after her body was found, strange graffiti began to appear around the city, saying ‘Who put Bella in the wych elm?’ It’s a gift for a horror writer, really.
SF: Again, thank you for joining us today. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
JB: Well, if the readers of this interview get nothing more than that I’m a lazy, pedantic magpie of a writer who will steal ideas from anyone and anywhere, that seems fair.