M.M. MacLeod presents a Q&A with writer and editor, Matthew G. Rees.
Horla, the Home of Intelligent Horror, is an online magazine I discovered thanks to some of its contributors also being featured in Frost Zone Zine. The name, as stated on the website, comes from the story, ‘Le Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant. Founding editor, Matthew G. Rees is a former journalist, and teacher, who writes short fiction, as well as theatre drama. Upon reading some of Matthew’s work, I was delighted to find he writes about that space between the known and the unknown; ‘between what is and what might be.’* His writing is truly imaginative, dark, but also at times darkly amusing.
M.M.: Matthew, welcome. So glad you could join us here at Frost Zone Zine. Let us begin by talking a bit about Horla. How and why did you come about starting Horla?
Matthew: Thanks so much for having me. It’s good to be with you. Horla launched in 2018. I was in the latter stages of a PhD in the field of short fiction at the University of Swansea, Wales. Setting up the website was simply something I felt like doing. A factor was the way my fiction was leaning at that time: a growing engagement with the supernatural and the liminal. I also liked the idea of writers in the same genre coming together via a platform for authors globally, some of whom might – for one reason or another – be having difficulty getting their voices heard.
M.M.: The online magazine is called Horla, The Home of Intelligent Horror – How would you define intelligent horror?
Matthew: The ‘tag’ came from a desire to help the site stand out, and to inform readers and writers of what I felt the site was about. Its spirit – pun intended – might be said to derive from Maupassant’s classic terror story of a haunting. The site isn’t a place for gore, exploitative or formulaic material. I think intelligent horror writing is writing that respects the intelligence of readers: we’re talking, I hope, about narrative that avoids the obvious and which, above all, brings something original to the page. On the whole, we’d prefer our contributors sidestep pools of blood, avoid hospitals – especially ‘old’ ones – for the criminally insane, keep out of creepy houses on corners, and leave lonely log cabins in woods well alone. Now and again, done well, these things are okay – but not on a regular basis. Similarly, if, a story gets to the stage of a knife being plunged into someone’s chest, then there’s a case for saying that it’s a piece that – in Horla horror terms – has failed or lost its way.
M.M.: Are there subgenres of horror fiction that you prefer, and some you are not particularly fond of? I am also interested in how you would describe ‘quiet horror’, which I believe could be applied to some pieces published in Horla.
Matthew: ‘Slasher’ doesn’t do it for me. I’m not sure I see the need: there’s sufficient awfulness in the world. Science fiction and Tolkienesque fantasy aren’t usually go-to choices of mine but, same as everyone (I hope), I can be won over by good writing. I’m slightly skeptical about contemporary authors attempting period fiction, by which I mean Edwardian and further back. In general, I like a story that illuminates, causes me to take stock and haunts me (but not in the sense of giving me nightmares).
Your term ‘quiet horror’ makes me think of the non-loud but effective story-writing of Walter de la Mare, whose chill factor comes from his creation of atmosphere and, at his best, a style that contrives to be both vivid and understated (even though some of his stories can be long by contemporary standards). I suppose ‘quiet horror’ is the opposite of the grotesque (though that’s something that can be entertaining in the right hands – Le Fanu, for one). Flannery O’Connor, with her Southern Gothic, wrote brilliantly at times. I think ‘quiet horror’ is generally of a piece with the uncanny and the unsettling: the sort of writing that can be found in ‘The Rook’ by L.A.G. Strong, and certain of Rudyard Kipling’s more challenging stories (‘Mrs Bathurst’ and ‘Mary Postgate’). Katherine Mansfield, John Cheever and Henry James (‘The Jolly Corner’) come to mind. ‘Quiet horror’ draws its strength not so much from what is said but from what the writer leaves unsaid.
M.M.: Moving on to your own writing now, do you recall when you first started writing fiction? Did you begin by writing horror fiction?
Matthew: I was mid-teens when others seemed to think there might be something ‘going on’ with the fiction I was writing. On a couple of occasions, teachers read out stories I had written for schoolwork – something I found a little uncomfortable. What I was writing was doubtless heavily influenced by what I was reading. I remember, particularly, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; also ‘The Destructors’ and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, and the poetry of Ted Hughes. Then came the classics. But the lasting influence – I believe – has been that of the likes of Golding and Greene, and to some extent Raymond Carver.
My adolescence in the Welsh Marches, on the edge of a small, cathedral city endowed with much history, was also influential. The fusion of these and other things perhaps set me on a course of writing stories leaning to the supernatural and the liminal (spheres with which the short story form has always been associated).
Perhaps the biggest influence remains my years on newspapers, with their inherent fondness for man-bites-dog eccentricity. Although I’ve been told my stories can be genuinely unsettling, I’ve never thought of myself as an out-and-out horror writer. Kipling’s ‘They’ is an example of a ghost story that isn’t horror. Arthur Machen, a famous son of the Welsh Marches, and Daphne du Maurier are others who weren’t merely conjurors of the macabre. They were inquisitive, I think. And I hope that that ethos shows in my own writing at times.
M.M.: How important is setting in your stories?
Matthew: It’s probably up there as one of the most important things. When reading other writers, I value the evocation of ‘place’. For a wonderful example in a short piece of writing (albeit not strictly a story) search out Laurie Lee’s ‘A Drink with a Witch’. It’s important in a story not to go overboard with reams of description: a short story needs to get on with the business of telling its story. But meaningful, sensorial things need to be brought (economically) into play. I hope this is the case with the stories in my collection Keyhole (Three Impostors press, 2019), set in Wales and its borderlands.
I’d pick out stories such as ‘Bluecoat’, which involves a derelict country house once used as a hospital for war-wounded servicemen. Also, ‘Rain’, which is about small children on a drought-stricken farm. Another would be ‘The Press’, which tells of an isolated young man whose dirt-poor holding is invaded by travellers led by a mysterious brother and sister. I want readers to feel they are there. As a writer of short fiction, you have to work at that, remembering that you’re writing a story (possibly meant to be read in one sitting), not a novel.
M.M.: Your writing, as said on your website, is often triggered by imagery. How much of the story takes shape in your mind before you start writing?
Matthew: Imagery is important to me, as I believe it is to many writers. In this context, I’m talking about imagery held in the mind. I call such mental pictures ‘insistent images’, for the way that they demand to be written about. Sometimes they’re a reproduction of something that seems to have clearly come from the past; other times their origins are vague, having taken up their lodgings unannounced, so to speak. There’s a term for this: ‘unbidden perception’. I find
myself agreeing with those writers – Flannery O’Connor, particularly – who’ve stressed the centrality of the unconscious in the writing process. When I started my story ‘The Press’, in Keyhole, I had a strong mental image of a boy riding bareback on a horse, with sunlight behind the youth and his mount. Other than a farmer spying him from a field, I had only the faintest notion of what might occur. Without plotting, the story fell into place. Mavis Gallant has written eloquently about how this can happen. Greene, Carver, Stephen King, William Trevor, and Vladimir Nabokov have – in different ways – touched on it.
M.M.: Your newest collection: Smoke House & Other Stories, is comprised of your short stories, and photographs you have taken while travelling. Related to the imagery question above, and your process, did the stories come to you as you travelled – or did they come later, when revisiting through the photographs?
Matthew: There’s a long history linking story-writing and photography. The short story really began to flower as a literary form at the time that photography was taking off. Victorian-era writers such as Conan Doyle were very interested in it. The stress that authors such as V.S. Pritchett have put on the short story as being akin to a glimpse has heightened this sense of connection. I’ve long enjoyed taking photographs, invariably with a cheap and simple pocket
My stories, however, are very much works of fiction. The images that interleave them in Smoke House and Keyhole are there because I find them interesting on their own account. I take photographs – often of somewhat curious things – for personal pleasure rather than as prompts for stories. It’s been said authors sometimes write best about a place when they’re away from it. A story comes to a writer when it wants to. It can’t be forced.
M.M.: Which is one of your favourite stories in Smoke House & Other Stories? Can you tell us a bit about the story behind the story?
Matthew: That’s a toughie. ‘Frayed’ is one that people seem, particularly, to like. It’s set in Wales – land of my fathers and mothers – where a failing London writer finds himself very much a fish out of water. In a mad way, the story addresses (wildly exaggerated) aspects of the modern ‘book world’. I find it hard to pick a personal favourite. The range of the stories somehow precludes it: spanning the ‘quiet horror’ – to use our earlier term – of my Russia-set story ‘The Glass’, to the weirdly explosive tale of a town’s Christmas lights in ‘A Shining Beacon’. Between, are the likes of ‘Thirteen’ (rooted in rural Wales) and the (I hope) unsettling case of a marsh-dwelling birdwatcher in ‘Hide’. Elsewhere, there are perhaps more mystical stories, such as ‘The Gate’ and ‘Under-Wall’. Thematically, all fourteen are about people and/or places that have separated from society’s mainstream.
M.M.: Do you have any writing rituals? A set time for writing; a routine?
Matthew: As already mentioned, a story, or part of a story, or the seeding of a play, will come when it wants to. Sometimes this can be at a very inconvenient moment: in those last stages of the day, for example, when I’m winding down for sleep. This can necessitate the sudden writing of notes. I prefer it when something comes to me on a walk somewhere quiet, alone: the riff of a few lines, that I’ll either write down on a scrap of paper, if I have one, or try to remember. At other times, as Nabokov has noted, it’s a question of a kind of epiphany, perhaps a physical shudder, and a search for a notepad. I think my brain is probably at its sharpest in the mornings. There’s no real ritual. Life can, and does, get in the way. Walking with my thoughts is important. Normally a beach, wood, or parkland, but urban wanders can also help.
M.M.: Is there anything new planned for Horla? What can we look forward to from your writing — do you have any new projects in the works?
Matthew: My hope is that I’ll be able to keep Horla going for another year. As anyone who’s run a site will know, it can be time-consuming. Essentially, it’s my unpaid hobby. The rewards have been getting to know people and their writing, a little, around the world. In terms of my own writing, I’m editing an intended collection of stories which I hope will be published in due course. Separate from that, I’m halfway through writing a themed collection of dark tales. I also have the outline of a play which – if written – will complete a thematic trilogy of plays connected with Wales. A short novel and an editing collaboration are also in the mix. That sounds a lot: I hope I can get everything done!
M.M.: Thank you so much for your time, Matthew. I look forward to reading whatever you have in store for us next, as well as the work of writers you publish in Horla.
Matthew G. Rees grew up in a Welsh family in the border country between Wales and England known as the Marches. He trained as a journalist and worked for ten years on newspapers in the UK. Later he entered teaching which included a period in Moscow. During a varied life, other diverse employment has included time as a night-shift cab driver. He is the author of the story collections Smoke House & Other Stories and Keyhole, the novelette Type, and the short story chapbooks The Word and The Tip. Two plays by him, Dragonfly and Sand Dancer, have been performed professionally. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea. More about him and his books and how to obtain them can be found at:
his website www.matthewgrees.com He is on Facebook
He edits the website Horla at www.horla.org
All photos/images ©, provided by Matthew G. Rees