After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been able to find the time to bring back my popular series of interviews with authors and editors that I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer over the years; and I’m absolutely delighted to continue this new tranche of interviews by speaking with two of my favourite horror authors – Anthony Watson and Benedict J. Jones. Anthony Watson is the author of the novelette Shattered and novel The Fallen both published by Demain Publishing, as well as many other short stories and novellas; and Benedict J. Jones has written the novelette The Devil’s Portion released by Demain Publishing, the novel Pennies for Charon, as well as Hell Ship for Sinister Horror Company, as well as numerous short stories. Most recently the two authors have collaborated on their new occult horror series The Damocles Files, set during the Second World, with the second novel in the series due to be released later this year. They were both kind enough to find time in their schedules to agree to answer some questions from me about their backgrounds and life experiences, and how those have influenced their writing and goals as authors; the inspirations behind their various individual stories; how they decided to collaborate on The Damocles Files series and the collaborative process; writing stories across multiple genres; and what their plans are for the future
Hello to both of you, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
AW/BJJ: Hello! Thanks for having us.
Perhaps we could start by asking each of you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
AW: I worked in an NHS pathology lab for thirty five years before taking early retirement in 2020 when the service I was part of was reorganised. A couple of weeks later the country went into the first lockdown but I can assure the two events are not connected.
I live in a beautiful part of the world, north Northumberland, with my wife Judith and our two dogs and am constantly inspired by the landscape around me.
I’ve always enjoyed writing and started doing it “properly” back in the pre-internet days of the early nineties. I got to the point of being asked by a publisher to submit a full MS for a novel I’d written but unfortunately nothing came of it and, not long after, real life got in the way and the writing was put on hold for a few years. When I took up the pen again, huge changes had taken place – most notably the internet was now a thing which opened up a whole new world of opportunities for having work seen and published. I joined a horror writers’ forum and it’s there that I first met up with Ben.
BJJ; I’m a writer from London and mainly work in the genres of crime and horror – with the odd foray into the western and other historical genres, albeit usually with a strong horror or crime flavour. I started off with a lot of short fiction before eventually having my first novel published – Pennies for Charon, which is a hardboiled crime story with some occult undercurrents. I think I’ve always written, created might be a better word as it often spanned different medias and styles, because of a deep seated want to tell stories.
When you both started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
AW: Horror was always my first choice of reading and one advantage of being as old as I am is that I got to experience the (relative) boom years for the genre in the seventies and eighties where there was a huge range of lurid, pulp horror to choose from alongside the more refined examples. James Herbert was my gateway drug, along with Guy N Smith but then King and Barker came along and broadened my horizons. It’s inevitable that what you read will rub off on your own work but I think the authors who have most influenced my style (I use the term loosely) were Stephen Laws and Joe Donnelly. The former is a local hero of mine and I was lucky enough to meet him a few times at book signings in Newcastle. I recently re-read his Ghost Train and was amazed at how much of the imagery in it had lodged itself into my subconscious. Joe’s books mainly used the “ancient horror awakened” trope which is one I love and use a fair bit myself.
The majority of what I write is set in the past though I think that comes from my interest in history generally rather than any specific authors I’ve read.
BJJ: Whilst I’ve always read both crime and horror initially it was crime authors that really inspired me to want to write. People like Chester Himes and Victor Headley. Stylistically Himes had a huge effect on me. But at the same time I was immersing myself in a lot of short horror fiction; King, Barker, Poe, Lovecraft. Consequentially it was mainly horror that I wrote to start with before branching out into hardboiled crime and noir. London has long been a huge inspiration to my fiction and features heavily in a lot of my works – despite the rather exotic settings for some of my later stories! I long had a hankering to write western-horror and it was these stories that gradually moved me away from London settings and also deeper down the historical fiction path. As well as two volumes of Dark Frontiers with Anthony (each featuring a pair of novellas) some of my western fiction was collected in Ride the Dark Country from Dark Minds Press. In regards to the westerns I think Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was the biggest influence but things like Lonesome Dove (McMurty), Butcher’s Crossing (Williams), and True Grit (Portis) all fed into the mix.
Discovering the world of the small presses and independent publishers was also a big thing for me. For several years I was working in a vacuum really and then I suddenly discovered all these other people that were doing the same. With the expansion of the internet it suddenly became a lot easier to find venues for the work and also to discover new authors.
The Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst was a huge influence on some of the Damocles stuff. Likewise things by Greene, Ambler, and Orwell.
I thought I’d ask each of you in turn about your individual works, before moving onto your new collaborative series. Anthony – I can see that you’ve primarily focused on horror writing in your career so far – I first encountered your work with the superb novelette Shattered in Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! series which told a bloody tale of revenge across the ages and the link between a mysterious mirror and a squad of thuggish Nazi stormtroopers terrorizing the Jewish population in Vienna during the infamous Kristallnacht. You’ve also written a novel – The Fallen – which was also published by Demain Publishing and contributed short stories to a host of anthologies and collections. What attracted you to the horror genre in the first place? And what keeps you in that genre compared to any others?
AW: Thank you for the kind words! Seeing those two titles referenced in the same paragraph, I realise that the narrative structure I used for both was the same; nested stories starting at point A, going back to point B then back again to point C before coming back again, through B to A. I may need to convince Dean at Demain to publish something else of mine to show that I’m not a one trick pony…
As I mentioned above, horror was – and still is – my first love when it comes to reading so it was only natural that it would be the genre I wrote in. I’m of the opinion that you should write what you enjoy and that’s what I do. Writing is a hobby so I’m not going to make it something that’s a struggle or harder than it needs to be.
That said, horror is such a wide field that there’s plenty room to try out different things within it and add a little variety to what I’m writing. The majority of what I write is historical horror, and crafting a tale set within a specific time period brings its own challenges and stimulation. I’ve written shorts, novellas and novels that are also war stories and westerns – they just happen to have a supernatural aspect to them.
Benedict – your first novel was Pennies for Charon which was a blend of crime and occult horror, and you’ve then moved further into the horror genre in general with Slaughter Beach, The Devil’s Portion (also in the Short Sharp Shocks! series) and a number of short stories, as well as the novel Hell Ship where I first discovered you; set during the Second World War, shipwrecked survivors encounter a deserted vessel which has clearly been the site of a bizarre occult ritual aimed at helping Imperial Japan against the Allied onslaught, with terrifying implications for the survivors. What made you make the jump from the crime genre to horror? And what keeps you in that genre compared to any others?
BJJ; I think my horror and crime works have always gone hand-in-hand. I have always dabbled with both. Most of my earliest published short fiction was horror and a combination of crime with horror. Sometimes it feels like I concentrate on one genre more than the other but I’m always interested in pursuing both. Both genres allow focus on the darker aspects of human nature which have always fascinated me and besides that it gives you the opportunity to tell a really thrilling tale.
The other thing is with the odd nature of timing in publishing things don’t always come out in the order they were written. So whilst it may seem that I was writing mainly horror for a period there were actually crime shorts and novels also being written in those time frames.
Perhaps we could now move onto your current project – the collaborative work known as The Damocles Files, a series that so far has released a novella (Wings in the Darkness) and a full-length novel (Ragnarok Rising) and will soon see the release of a second novel (Seeds of Destruction). The Damocles Files are set during the Second World War, and focus on a ‘shadow war’ fought in the background of the titanic struggle between Allied and Axis forces, as a small band of Allied academics and special forces operatives struggle to keep occult artifacts out of the hands of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and prevent them from unleashing occult powers to win the war and possibly even end the world itself. What led the two of you to collaborate together in the first place – and then what made you both decide to craft an occult Second World War series?
AW: As I mentioned earlier, I first “met” Ben when we were members of a writing forum. I think that was when we both discovered that we had very similar tastes in what we read/write and a bond formed between us which has developed into a friendship.
Ben’s always my first reader and I do the same for him so we know each other’s work inside out so it wasn’t that much of a step for us to actually work on something together. Our first real collaboration were the Dark Frontiers series of horror westerns. There are two volumes containing four novellas. Volume Two has the novella A Lonely Place to Die which was one we co-wrote as opposed to writing the novellas individually and publishing them alongside each other.
The Damocles Files was Ben’s idea and he approached me to see if I was interested in writing some stories for what was originally going to be a collection rather than a novel. I of course leapt at the offer. It was after we had a couple of stories under our belts that the idea was mooted to turn the collection into a novel with an overarching storyline – which then informed the stories we wrote subsequently and involved a little bit of retro-fitting the ones we already had.
BJJ: I think the initial idea came because we were both working on military horror short stories. I was working on a Burma set story that was a riff on the film The Long and the short and the tall (with added Asian ogres…) and thought it would be nice to try and write enough for a collection. Then I wondered if Anthony might be interested in collaborating. At that point it was simply a themed collection rather than anything grander. However, one of the stories I had planned was what became The Amsterdam Incident in Ragnarok Rising and that story seemed to open up a much bigger and wider narrative. I mentioned this to Anthony and then suddenly a world was under construction!
When I wrote Hell Ship the idea was to write a second horror novella set during the Second World War but this never really got going – however some of the bones of it will be appearing in Damocles 3 hopefully (if I manage to actually write it…). My earlier novella Slaughter Beach also had its roots in World War Two so I think that for a long time I was working towards something like Damocles, subconsciously perhaps.
I certainly got the impression – from the distinctive styling of the fantastic cover art for Ragnarok Rising and Seeds of Destruction, as well as the focus of many of the stories within both novels – that you might have been influenced by the Commando War Comic collection (still going as of 2022!) and its competitors, such as Warlord and War Picture Library. As someone who near-obsessively read Commando, Warlord and a host of other comics in my youth, I’m curious as to whether either of you had ever read any of them – and how they might have influenced the development of The Damocles Files both visually and narratively?
AW: Yes, absolutely! The Commando comics as well as Warlord and Valiant were a major part of my childhood (and beyond…) and obviously planted seeds in my subconscious which would grow into my love of the military action genre. Alongside these influences are all the war films I watched during my formative years (and still do), regular features on TV back in the day of three channels, especially on Sunday afternoons I seem to remember. I think the Damocles Files are very cinematic in style and that’s absolutely a reflection of those movies and I’d like to think we’ve captured the unironic portrayal of heroism and bravery that were a feature of them. The books are certainly my tribute to those movies and, of course, the real life heroes who inspired them.
The actual idea for the Commando-esque cover design came from Peter Frain the artist and designer. I’d mooted a couple of ideas which, in retrospect I’m so glad were rejected as I think the covers Peter has come up with are among his best work and completely capture the spirit of the books.
BJJ; Yes, the influence was definitely there and I’ve certainly read my share of Commando comics! Recently I’ve been picking issues up again and seeing if they match up with my previous memories of them. As well as Commando I used to read the Eagle which republished a lot of other “war” series from comics that had amalgamated with the Eagle (Battle! Etc). The one that probably had the most influence on me was Charley’s War – which is again something I’ve returned to recently buying the collector’s editions of the series. For me Charley’s War is still the pinnacle of war comics with its mix of action, history and humanity.
I think Peter has done an amazing job with the covers and has caught the essence of the books better than anything we could have imagined.
Ragnarok Rising spanned the entire course of the Second World War in the West, and Seeds of Destruction seems poised to do the same for the Pacific and Far East. Now that you’ve covered the two principal theatres in that conflict, do you foresee yourselves going forward in time to the Cold War? Or are there perhaps still tales to be told during the war that you’d still like to go back to before anything else?
AW: When we started work on Volume One, the idea was to cover the Pacific theatre in book two and then set book three during the Cold War years. We even had some ideas for what would happen in the third book.
I think that we had enjoyed writing the first book, and the characters we had created, that we decided that the Cold War book would seem like an end to things and that we really wanted to spend more time in the Damocles universe. As such, we’re postponing the Cold War book and concentrating on doing more World War Two stories first – there are still so many areas we haven’t explored yet and, as I write this, we’re already a good way into Volume Three which follows the same war-spanning format but takes us to a lot of different places and conflicts.
I have to say a big part of the pleasure of writing Seeds of Destruction and the as yet unnamed Volume Three had been revisiting the characters we created in Ragnarok Rising. It’s no real spoiler to say that not all of them survive to the end of Volume One so it was great to go back on time and give them some new adventures.
BJJ: As Anthony said the initial plan was to go into the cold war with volume three but there was simply so much material generated for the Second World War in volumes one and two that it seemed a shame to stop mining such a rich vein. There’s still a lot I’d like to investigate regarding the activities of Damocles, The Black Sun, Office 49, The Black Ocean and a plethora of other smaller groups and organizations but I’m sure that we will eventually step beyond VE and VJ day.
There seems to be a trend at the moment in the horror genre for settings to be expanded with other author’s contributions. For example Demain Publishing, who you’ve both worked for, have recently published A Silent Dystopia, a multi-author anthology that expands Dave Jeffery’s superb post-apocalyptic series A Quiet Apocalypse. As the two of you have now collaborated on three titles for The Damocles Files and turned it into a highly successful series, is there the possibility of inviting other authors into the setting and expanding its focus in that way? Would that be something you’re interested in for the future?
AW: I have to admit it’s not something I’ve considered. I guess it would be interesting to see other people’s takes on the characters and what they might do with them.
That said, I’m not sure how practical it would be. Unlike Dave’s post-apocalyptic world, the world of Damocles is a lot more confined and restricted with a limited cast of characters and only so much time available to them. We already have a spreadsheet set up which lists when the various missions take place and who is involved in them. When we were writing Volumes Two and Three we had to keep referring to it constantly to make sure that the characters we wanted to use were actually available and not tied up on another mission.
One last question on The Damocles Files, if I may – you’ve taken the decision to self-publish the series compared to working with any specific publishers. Has that given you any benefits compared to ‘traditional’ publishing? Are there any drawbacks to that decision – and any lessons you’ve learnt?
AW: We did approach publishers first and got quite close at one point but I think the fractured narrative device we used was possibly a little too controversial. Also, we had always planned this as a series of books – which is a big ask for any publisher to take on. I was a co-founder of Dark Minds Press alongside Ross Warren so I had some experience of publishing which was a factor in ultimately making the decision to self-publish.
The big drawback is that you have to do all the work yourself! That said, the work does bring its own rewards; formatting a book is a nightmare, a frustrating exercise that can have you tearing your hair out but, when its done, there’s a massive sense of achievement.
Having control is the biggest benefit. The content and look of the books is all down to us and there aren’t any arguments as to whether this scene or that story should be included. Not in the final edit that is, there’s plenty discussion during the writing process! We know that everything we write is going to get published too, that’s all the novels in the main series but also any additional novellas, short stories which we write as standalones.
BJJ: I think the big bonus is the sense of freedom and the ability to keep control od the entire project. I think that we’ve got quite good at editing each other in the sense that if Anthony tells me he thinks there’s something flawed in what I’ve written I will go and see how to fix it rather than trying to defend the piece. That said we both know when we can stand firm and keep something in that we really like.
The promotion of the work all comes down to you but then these days you’ll be doing a lot of that if your work is put out by any small to medium publisher.
Luckily Anthony does the formatting and I get to coo over the finished product.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
AW: We do have a bedroom that’s been converted into an office in the house but, since Covid, my wife has been working a lot from home so she’s set up her computer there and uses it as a workspace. I’ve been relegated to a corner of the living room where I have a small desk and my laptop.
Retirement has meant I have the huge luxury of being able to write whenever I want to and most days I’ll be there at the desk waiting for the muse to start whispering. I’ll sometimes listen to music, sometimes not but if I do it’ll be movie soundtracks, anything with words is too much of a distraction.
Writing in public isn’t really something that appeals although when we were nearing the end of Ragnarok Rising I had so much momentum that I would write longhand on my train commutes to work.
The solitary nature of writing is where much of its appeal lies for me but I have to say the collaborative process has been great, helping each other out of corners and sparking ideas back and forth.
BJJ: Likewise, I don’t tend to write out in the wild. Normally I can be found with the radio on tapping away at home. I do like to have some background noise whilst I work.
Following on from that, would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novels and now entire series with the advent of Ragnarok Rising?
AW: It’s certainly a different process writing short or long form pieces. I started off writing short stories (as I’m sure most people do) but as time has gone on I’ve found I’m more comfortable writing longer works. (Presumably I’m becoming more and more long-winded). With Damocles it’s an odd situation as, although we’re writing novels, the books are actually made up of a combination of short stories, novelettes and even novellas with a linking narrative so I guess we have the best of all worlds.
Generally, I think my writing has become pulpier as time has gone on. In the early days I think I probably tried a little bit too hard to be stylish but I’ve now settled happily into a way of writing I’m comfortable with and which is therefore, presumably, my style. I do like to play around with form though, prior to Damocles my two published novels employ very non-standard narrative techniques.
BJJ: I think as I’ve produced more work the style of my writing has definitely changed. I feel a lot more confident in it these days. One of the major changes is that now I feel a lot freer to just write and keep writing whereas previously I’ve always tried hard to keep it as tight as possible.
When we consider the works produced by both authors, you’ve primarily written horror titles that delve into a variety of subgenres. Are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
AW: I can’t say that there are really, as I say I write what I enjoy writing and there’s nothing nagging away at me demanding that I have a go. Also, as mentioned earlier, the horror genre is wide enough to allow a lot of different approaches.
Crime fiction is something I haven’t tried yet and which is probably the most likely contender to distract me from horror. Damocles does provide the opportunity to create some investigative stuff though, laying a trail of clues for the characters and readers to follow so maybe one day I’ll branch out in that direction.
BJJ: Oddly some of the things I have considered the least commercially viable have turned out to be the works of mine that are the most popular so what do I know. Slaughter Beach wasn’t something I really thought there was much of a market for but it received a fantastic reception. I’ve got a few things that are half finished and seem rather niche; an Elizabethan horror/fantasy mash up with an attempt at dialogue contemporary to the time, a Victorian were-monster tale set in India – whether any of these will actually get finished is one for the Muses…
As for other genres I’m currently reading a lot of Japanese murder mysteries and find myself having a hankering to write a proper whodunnit but it may be that I take things from that genre and meld them with something else.
Finally, to close out the interview – what does the future hold for the both of you – both collaboratively and individually? Do either of you have any works due to come out in 2022 that you can discuss? Or any super-secret projects that you’re working on that can’t see the light of day at the moment?
AW: Well, Damocles Files Volume Two: Seeds of Destruction is coming soon and we’ve already started on Volume Three so that may sneak out this year too. There’s also the possibility of a Damoclean short story collection too.
Other than that I personally have nothing that’s guaranteed publication. I do have a backlog of stuff to sub out but finding the right market is difficult given I don’t write stories that scream commercial viability. I have a couple of novellas completed, one is basically Rogue Male meets folk horror and is set in 1920’s Fenland whilst the other is set in Calcutta of the 1880’s and concerns the efforts of an agent of the East India Company investigating strange happenings at an opium farm.
I’ve also completed one novel and am halfway through a second of a planned trilogy. They’re probably even more niche than the novellas as they’re supernatural thrillers set in early sixteenth century Northumberland. I’m sure there’s a market for them somewhere, just probably not a huge one…
BJJ: There are a couple of things around previously published works I’m hoping to see in 2022 but they are rather hush hush at the moment and I don’t want to jinx them. Apart from that we’ll be cracking on with the third volume of Damocles and I am hoping to try and get another Charlie Bars novel completed.