David Hambling is a journalist, traveller, and author of several Lovecraftian horror novels. the Harry Stubbs series amongst these. He took some time off his busy schedule to answer some of my questions!
Hello David, please introduce yourself to our dear readers!
Hi, I’m a writer of SF/horror/fantasy stories – Amazon author page here – – perhaps ’weird fiction’ covers it – and a science/tech journalist and author, based in Norwood, South London. Which turns out to be significant…
How did you become an author? Was it a childhood dream or something you realised you wanted to do in later years? What is the hardest part of being one?
As with many writers, I write because I have to. I have always written. The dream is getting paid for it J. Self-publishing means that anyone can now be an author and find a readership – but I would not recommend writing fiction as a way of paying the bills unless you’re likely to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.
The hardest part of writing for me is always crossing the valleys of doubt. With any story, you start with a tremendous belief driving you forwards. You burst into the story with a surge of enthusiasm. Invariably at some point you decide that the thing is useless, the story is terrible, and you want to give up. This is why there are so many people out there with unfinished novels and manuscripts that trail off at page forty. To be a ’real writer’ you have to cross that valley, push on through and actually finish the thing. If you do press on, the enthusiasm does come back and you get up steam again – until you hit the next valley, chasm or abyss of doubt.
Technically speaking, the process of getting all the plot details to mesh together and the themes to all line up with each other is perhaps hardest. Nothing is random, even if it might seem that way to the reader: it all has to make sense as part of a larger schema. For me, a lot of that is just a matter of working through, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I’ve never been the sort of writer who can turn out a perfect first draft.
I don’t think anyone is that perfect. And I totally understand what you mean about doubt… I’ve been working on my novel for about 10 years now and I am nowhere finishing it… I have a first draft, but I just have to rewrite almost everything, because so much has changed. When I start working on it, doubt hits me and decide the whole thing is just garbage… But I’m determined to finish my short story this year!
Good luck – persistence is the key.
Thanks! :) You mostly write in the horror/historical fiction/SF genres. Where did your interest come from?
My current multi-book project, Shadows From Norwood, involves transplanting the Cthulhu Mythos to this part of the world.
I first arrived here about 18 years ago from North London. The stereotype is that everything interesting is in North london (eg all the tourist attractions from Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, all the theatres and museums) and there is nothing in South London. To North Londoners it is a wasteland; the taxis don’t go there, and there’s no metro. And certainly no history. Do you have a similar division in Budapest?
Certainly. Budapest originally were 2 cities, which were united in 1873. Buda is the older city, with more history going back to the Roman Empire and behind. Buda was always the home of the elite and rich, just look at the palace. If you live in Buda it still holds some kind of status symbol. Even though Pest has its own merits and places worth visiting.
However, after living here a while, I found that this place does have its stories, its characters, its own history, some of it completely hidden – like the old River Effra, which now flows underground, but which can still be traced if you know where to look.
So I wanted to explore this history, and use it for a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s fantastically gripping world. Lots of other authors have done this; Lovecraft encouraged them in his own time, and these days you have people like Ramsey Campbell with his cycle of Mythos stories in the West of England – not to mention Matt Davenport’s gung-ho Andrew Doran series and Charles Phipps’ Mad Max-meets-monsters Cthulhu Armageddon books.
Talking about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. I confess I’m not well informed in the horror genre, but your books are mostly based on Lovecraft’s work, right? Why him? What makes him so influential in horror/SF in your opinion?
The Harry Stubbs series draws directly on individual Lovecraft stories, but the idea is that you do not need to have read any Lovecraft to appreciate them. Aficionados will spot the references and the connections, but to everyone else its just part of the (hopefully) rich background.
Why Lovecraft? He wrote with an incredible, hallucinatory vividness that stays with you. Nobody forgets their first Lovecraft. He also had a horrible prose style and no gift for writing characters or dialogue. That his work has endured so long and has had such influence is surely down to the power of his vision and his committment to cosmic horror. Cosmic horror being basically that it’s tough out there and humans are insignificant specks, which is something most of us can sympathise with.
Lovecraft was a tormented individual, who never felt at home in the 20th century; he was also a xenophobic racist and many other things. I would not defend him as a person, but I don’t think these are separable from his genius.
Because HPL encouraged others to join in and write about his world, there is already a whole community of Cthulhu Mythos writers – and people who want to read their stories.
My own writing in this area had a huge boost from ST Joshi – the greatest living HP Lovecraft scholar, who is also an editor and author – who helped me move from self-published to published. Not that this actually sells any more books…
I’ve been in London twice so far, planning a third trip later this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in South London. Sounds like I missed out on a few things. To my knowledge, you used to travel a lot. Is there something you’ve learned from these trips? Do you use these memories as inspiration? Or the cultures, for that matter.
I really enjoy travelling, and we (wife & I) try to visit a new country or two every year. This attempting to add new countries can lead to some crazed adventures like a rail trip to take in most of the former-Yugoslavia sates, including Kosovo, in one go.
Some of the travel does find its way into stories, but as a writer I’d say the main thing you learn is that it’s a big and varied world. People tend to assume that where they are is normal, that everywhere is like this. It’s not: everywhere is different. When you see people ploughing with water buffalo, you start to appreciate that your idea of ’everyday life’ is far from universal.
So in a sense, travel is all about learning to look at your own home with different eyes. – ’And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ (TS Eliot)
One thing about travel is that it makes the news more personal. Thousands of people died in mudslides in an area of Venezuela a couple of years after we visited it. Seeing places you have visited become war zones – like Yemen – is tragic. You wonder what happened to the people you met, and you realise how fragile everything is.
It’s interesting what you can realise about your own home while you are away. I’ve spent 5 weeks in California, in Santa Barbara to be exact. What I missed the most was the architecture. The feel of old European history. On the other hand though, the people there were so much more welcoming and friendly. Every time I see the news about fire in California I always wonder if that area is safe or not. Visiting other countries really puts your own life into a perspective. Personally I learned the most about myself as a person. Let’s talk about Harry Stubbs. Who was the inspiration for his character? If you should pick a theme song for him, what would it be? (I’m totally not asking this for future reference :P)
The usual Lovecraftian hero is a scholarly, upper-class type who spends most of his time browsing through ancient books and who is a complete loner. I wanted someone who was the opposite, someone who was very physical, uneducated and with a decidedly inferior social status. He’s also not that good on his own – Harry would like to be Sherlock Holmes, but he falls more naturally into the role of Doctor Watson, sidekick.
Harry’s personality is actually a combination of several real-life people. His prose style owes something to Shackleton: a bit ponderous, attempting always to be correct, and with a certain wry humour.
For a theme song I keep coming back to Chumbawamba: Tubthumping („I get knocked down, but I get up again…”)
OMG. I totally forgot about that song! I never knew it had such an… interesting title. Okay, seriously, I like that Harry is not your average MC who is supposed to be the best/the most unique in something. His uniqueness lies in his „averageness”, if you get what I mean. The Harry Stubbs novels can be labeled as historical fictions, featuring people, who really lived, like Shackleton in Elder Ice. Why did you choose him and his story? Where does your interest comes from for history?
I liked the idea of setting the series in the 20’s partly because of the way it gives us some perspective. We can laugh at how ignorant and backward they were in those days – and maybe in the process we can see how we will appear to later generations.
I like the language. You get to use more colourful vocabulary, and there are some nice turns of phrase that you don’t hear any more, so the stories are a sort of a living museum of langauge …the 20’s is also an amazing period because it’s the transition between the great Victorian era of traditional certainty – Dickens and Trollope, not to mention Kipling, Conan Doyle and HG Wells – and the modernists (like TS Eliot) who challenged everything.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was a phenomenal character, a heroic explorer of the old school who went head-on into the impossible – but who always put the welfare of his men first. I think the mentions in the Elder Ice give a taste of his style. Shackleton was a complete amateur, but extremely determined…and very bad with money. An interesting combination.
As I mentioned, the aim was to highlight some of the personalities from local Norwood history , and there are not many places with someone like Shackleton.
I definitely know what you mean about the language. It took me a while to warm up to it, but I love it. Interestingly, I feel the same about Hungarian. I’m not reading in my language anymore, but when I do, I usually go for an older classic. Or something that was translated later than 10-20 years. I just love how colorful our vocabulary was and it’s saddening how much we’ve lost. I think one of the reasons I love Budapest Noir – a Hungarian mystery novel, translated to English – is that although it was written in recent years, tha language takes me back to the 30's, where the story is set. What is your research method? How much work you put in research regarding these people/events?
Basically, insane amounts of background reading. For the Elder Ice I read a couple of books on Shackleton and his Endurance expedition, closely re-read a certain HP Lovecraft story, re-read chunks of the Arabian Nights, a book about modern Antarctic exploration, a whole book about the Arabian nights, and a load of stuff on boxing and the 1920’s. And some sciencey stuff about tardigrades.
This was all for a 120-page novella, and of course I never managed to use most of it. All fascinating though.
Ah, I knew there was something about Arabian Nights! That „Aladdin’s lamp” thing was one of my favorite scenes. Apart from historical events, you also draw from other myths and cultures like the chinese elements in Broken Meats. I love, love, love that scene where Harry visits that family and eats lunch with them. Which cultures/myths you like to work with the most? (Apart from the Cthulhu Mythos of course.) Which culture would you like to learn more about if you had the chance?
That scene was partly inspired by a friend whose parents are from Hong Kong, and whose family home always seemed like a piece of China transplanted to England.
I’ve been to Japan a few times, but I would really like to go back and see more. It’s a totally immersive experience; everything from the toilets to fast food to trains is totally different to home. Even better, it’s all ultra-modern, the people are incredibly polite and friendly, and they all speak English. For example, a street-sweeper in Tokyo helped us with directions to the emperor’s palace…that would not happen you asked for directions in a foreign language in London!
I’m so jealous! Japan and especially Tokyo is absolutely on my bucket list. I really would like to go and explore it. How many books you plan in the Harry Stubbs series? What are you working on right now?
Well, there’s certainly likely to be a fifth one, for which I have a vague outline and some idea of characters and scenes, but there’s still a long way to go. There may also be some Stubbs short stories.
The current fiction I’m working on was supposed to be a short story for a collection, but had grown to about 40k words so it may turn into a short novel – working title is The War of the God-Queen and its an attempt to put some new spin on the old idea of someone thrown into another world and forced to deal with monsters and stuff.
Ooh, sounds interesting. I’m also sad to hear I have to wait a long time for the next Harry Stubbs book L I’m not the patient type… Do you plan to try yourself in other genres too or you are comfortable with where you are right now?
I have a few projects at various stages. I keep thinking about technothrillers, given my other life involves a lot of relevant technology (killer drones etc) but it never seems to get written.
Too many books to write, too little time… Did you ever think of collaborating with another author? Who would you like to work with?
I’m actually involved in a collaboration. It’s all secret at the moment, but hopefully there will be some news later this summer.
Great! Looking forward to hear about it! What do you like to do in your free time? If you have any, that is. With this much research and writing…
It’s absolutely vital to get away from screens for some time every day! As well as travel, I like to potter about in the garden, go walking (or hiking or rambling if that sounds better) and spend a fair amount of time failing to identify birds and getting blurred photographs of them. I’m also fond of poetry – which is partly why TS Eliot and WB Yeats keep getting namechecks in the Stubbs books.
Getting away from screens definitely sounds like something I should do. Thanks for taking the time and doing this interview!
If you’d like to get in contact with David Hambling, you can find him on social media:
The Shadows from Norwood facebook page – with maps, pictures, easter eggs, articles and more, is here — https://www.facebook.com/ShadowsFromNorwood/
Author page on Amazon — https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B0034QC7OO
Get the Harry Stubbs books clicking on the cover!