Recently, we were contacted by Mike regarding his new collection of four novellas, Fourtold. As a fan of horror and dark fantasy, I read and instantly loved these stories, and had to invite Mike over for a chat!
The Book Smugglers: First and foremost, thanks for taking the time to sit and “chat” with us! And congratulations on the second printing of Fourtold!
Mike: Glad to be here, and thank you for the positive book review.
The Book Smugglers: Your stories in Fourtold range from tales of redemption, self-mutilation, an ancient curse, and the stuff of nightmares. Could you tell us a bit about the concept for the Fourtold collection, and why you decided to include such a range of stories?
Mike: Initially, the collection was going to feature a dozen stories — including “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark” novella — under the heading The Light Knight Returns and Other Transformations. Then I approached the artist Stephen Player (www.playergallery.com) and asked if he would do me the honour of illustrating the cover. To my utter delight he said yes and pitched a few ideas, one of them being a man with mouths for eyes. The misplaced mouth was certainly inspired by the “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark”, but Steve also knew of my visual problems and wanted to make the illustration relevant to me. He even had me photographing my mouth in several poses. (That’s right, the nose and the mouths and teeth on the cover are mine!)
He created the picture on a Saturday, sending me drafts as he went along. It was very exciting watching this incredible image take shape and being able to add a little input here and there. When I saw the finished results the old ToC went out of the window to be replaced, in my mind at least, by four stories. I didn’t really expect my publisher to share my enthusiasm – we’d spent ages assembling the original ToC – but to his credit he read and approved the three novellas I wanted to accompany “Kasper Clark”.
And that’s how Fourtold was born. It’s probably the only time a cover illustration has not only decided the title of a book but shaped the ToC as well. I just need to find a publisher for The Light Knight Returns and Other Transformations now!
The Book Smugglers: “San Ferry Ann” follows two men in the aftermath of the Great War, dealing with their own perceptions of guilt and lost faith. This story is much more character driven than the others in the book—can you tell us about your inspiration for writing the characters of Mackenzie and Spencer and their relationship?
Mike: A few years ago there was an anthology where several authors would be invited to submit a chapter to a book using characters named and described in the guidelines – one of them was a fire-eating medicine man, another was an English nurse suffering shellshock, another guy never wore any clothes, and there was a massive Scottish woman who pulled the troupe’s caravan. Anyone who has read “San Ferry Ann” will recognize many of these characteristics and that’s because the first draft of the story was (optimistically as it turned out) written for this antho. Sadly, the editors didn’t invite me to take part in the project so “La Grippe”, as my story was called, went into the electronic equivalent of the bottom drawer. Until one day in I took it out, blew the dust off it and thought, Y’know, it’s a shame to waste this…
It took a drastic rewrite. For example, Spencer and Mackenzie were originally one character – an American, fire-eating medicine man — and the mysterious naked woman that stumbles into their camp was an Austrian man who thought he was a dog. This second version of the story was entitled “Porridge and Uppers”. It would take yet another rewrite before I had “San Ferry Ann”.
Maybe that’s why there is such a strong bond between Spencer and Mackenzie, because they started life as one character, or because the first two drafts of the story contained no fantasy elements and I worked harder on the characters, or maybe it’s simply the camaraderie you’d expect between two ex-soldiers? It could be a combination of all three.
The Book Smugglers: “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark” is my favorite of the four tales—and certainly the most disturbing, as it evokes images comparable to Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” with your vivid descriptions. Do you use any visual influences, like Bosch’s paintings, for your writing? What fueled your depiction of Hell here?
Mike: “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark” took a year to write, and thus contains a year’s worth of odd thoughts and daydreams.
The concept was inspired by a nightmare. In it my wife packed me off to a cosmetic surgeon because I had an anus in the small of my back. To get to the cosmetic surgeon I had to scramble up a mountainside past grotesque statues, and when I entered the clinic I was met by the Devil who spat on me between the shoulder blades. His spittle burned a new hole. My wife, when she saw the results, was not pleased and sent me back for repairs.
Actually, this is the first time I’ve told anybody about the dream. If you know what it symbolizes I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself. I really don’t want to know.
The Book Smugglers: “The Terracotta Warrior” is more of a traditional horror story, much more action filled and almost cinematic in comparison to the others in this collection. If you could make a movie out of this story, who would you cast as your leading characters?
Mike: Before I had a story I had a strong mental picture of the main character, Solomon Barley, in his tan leather greatcoat and goggles — charging around on a motorcycle and wielding a flamethrower — as illustrated by someone like Brian Bolland (early 2000AD, Camelot 3000, The Killing Joke etc). Another drawing I could see was of a demonic warrior in makeshift armour of motorcycle parts.
As to who’d play the roles in a film, I’d ask Daniel Craig to step into Solomon Barley’s riding boots and Sean Connery to play Major Morris.
The Book Smugglers: “Lemon Man” is, in a word, haunting. And bizarre. In a wonderful way. It also is different from the other tales in this collection as it tells two stories in parallel, never really converging until the end. Can you tell us a bit about “Lemon Man” and your decision to write the story in this fashion?
Mike: Like “San Ferry Ann”, “Lemon Man” started life in another form – this time as a 90k novel. Lemon was a very, ahem, ambitious book. In it the main character was inspired by his nightmares to write short stories, which appeared in the framework of the novel as metafiction. It was mostly first-person narrative, except for the epilogue which had four chapters and was written in third-person.
Not long after I finished Lemon I cannibalized it: the metafictions — “The Colour of Lemons”, “Memory Bones”, “Quiescent” and “The Bridge” – all found homes in magazines and anthologies, while another scene formed the nucleus of a story called “Japanese Motorcycle Clob”.
The remains languished in a folder, unloved and untouched for a few years until one day I took it out, blew the dust off it and thought, Y’know, it’s a shame to waste this… I had the bright idea of cherry-picking the best scenes and juxtaposing the mundane with the otherworldly. It was a very difficult project and I gave up on it several times. But 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and all that.
The Book Smugglers: While still on “Lemon Man”, Russell Hamilton’s fate seems predestined whereas in “Kasper Clark” and “San Ferry Ann”, the idea of free will (whether it is in self-recreation or in self-forgiveness) prevails. Could you tell us a bit about Russell’s fate? Is there room here for free will?
Mike: Russell certainly appears to have been doomed from the outset, but I know how he can get out of his predicament and one day I’d like to write a sequel to “Lemon Man”. Actually, the follow-up would be a sequel and a prequel at one and the same time … and be horribly complicated to boot!
The Book Smugglers: In two of your stories, “Terracotta Warrior” and “Lemon Man”, you talk about motorbikes, going into some detail about the models and specifics. Are you a bike enthusiast?
Mike: I used to be. Between the ages of 17 and 35 I owned about twenty different bikes, but my dwindling eyesight meant selling my last bike, a Yamaha TDM850, just days before my 35th birthday. On dry days I still yearn to be bombing along a twisty lane on a big lump of iron. If by some miracle my eyesight was restored, the first thing I’d do is buy a motorbike.
My first bike, incidentally, was a purple Yamaha FS1-E, a Fizzie, the very bike that gets Russell Hamilton into so much trouble.
The Book Smugglers: So…you knew this question was coming—which of the four stories is your favorite and why?
Mike: Aagh, which is my favourite child? Um, it’s a toss-up between “The Reconstruction of Kasper Clark” and “San Ferry Ann”. Probably.
The Book Smugglers: What projects do you have on the horizon? Any new stories or books we should be on the lookout for?
Mike: Last year I wrote a children’s fantasy novel called Heather Berry and the Battle for Turner’s Wood and although I’ve yet to find a publisher for it I’m already writing a sequel: talk about putting all my eggs in one basket. I still bang out the occasional short story, usually dark fantasy, and I’m also co-editing a Top Secret project that promises to be huge.
The Book Smugglers: Who, or what, are your influences as a writer?
Mike: Well, anything can spark a story. It might be a word, a line in a song, a dream, a picture in a magazine …
As for who, I’d have to name Graham Joyce (author of Tooth Fairy, Facts of Life, Limits of Enchantment) as my biggest influence. The day I read The Tooth Fairy for the first time is the day I knew I wanted to write. Joyce deserves all his British and World Fantasy Awards and I can’t tell you how chuffed I was when he agreed to read Fourtold. He came back with, “Michael Stone is a vivid and exuberant writer and a terrific storyteller”. That quote takes pride of place on the paperback cover and my website. His favourite story, incidentally, was “Lemon Man”.
Another influence is Garry Kilworth, whose varied and prolific output just astonishes me.
The Book Smugglers: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring five books with you, what books would you bring?
Mike: Aagh, another favourite children question! I’m tempted to say anything with thick absorbent pages or “How to Attract Spotter Planes”, but okay I’ll bite. In many respects, this is a continuation of my answer to the previous question. These are my influences:
The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce (obviously). I’d take something by Terry Pratchett, probably Night Watch or Good Omens. My all-time favourite fantasy series is Garry Kilworth’s Navigator Kings, so I’d slip those in and pretend to be deaf when someone points out that they count as three books. I think I’d want an Iain Banks novel, so The Bridge would probably find its way into my flight bag. Room for just one more? This is tough. Okay, I’d take an autobiography: Gary Numan’s Praying to the Aliens as – like The Tooth Fairy – it takes me back to my misspent youth.
The Book Smugglers: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us!
Mike: My pleasure.
Michael Stone was born in 1966 in what is widely acknowledged as the fairest city of all England, Stoke-on-Trent. He still lives there with his wife and daughter and has no intention of ever leaving. Why would he when it’s so fair?
Michael’s work has appeared in numerous organs. Most recently Dunesteef, Dred, Pseudopod, Triangulation, TQR, Strange Stories of Sand and Sea and The Beast Within. In 2008 Baysgarth Publications published Fourtold, a collection of his novellas with a foreword by award-winning fantasist Garry Kilworth.
His website is at www.mylefteye.net and he has a Live Journal — username “mylefteye”. His journal is widely acknowledged as the fairest on the Web.