The Friday 13 with David Hambling

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David Hambling is an author and science/technology journalist based in South London. He writes for New Scientist magazine, The Economist, WIRED, Popular Mechanics, The Guardian newspaper and others. 2018 will see the release of “Master of Chaos”, fourth in the Harry Stubbs series of Mythos adventures, as well as the nonfiction “We: Robot – The robots that are changing the world” …both of them are pretty scary.

In The Elder Ice, Harry, a former heavyweight boxer and sometime debt collector now working for a legal firm, is on the trail of a valuable legacy left by Ernest Shackleton (a real-life polar explorer from Norwood). Shackleton died in 1922 leaving huge debts, and also hints of a valuable find; Harry is looking for the reality behind those hints.

The Elder Ice is a novella, and a taster for the rest of the series. It is succeeded by Broken Meats, Alien Stars, and Master of Chaos (out in early 2018), all of which deal with Lovecraftian themes.

1.Why Lovecraft?

As a young teenager I must have read thousands of science fiction and fantasy short stories; the vast majority were completely forgettable, but Lovecraft’s works burned themselves right into my brain. I think they do with most people who read him at that age. His writing is erratic, and some would say downright bad in places, but his work has a hallucinogenic intensity that stays with you.

It’s also pretty dark. Rather than the usual plucky heroes conquering all, Lovecraft’s protagonists are members of a trivial species surrounded by cosmic powers beyond our comprehension which are liable to snuff us out without even noticing. And that if we really understood it, we’d go mad.

I can relate to that.

Lovecraft encouraged other writers to use his creations, with a band of fellow writers – notably Robert Howard, creator of Conan – involved in ‘Yog-Sothothery’ — writing stories of HPLs Cthulhu Mythos. So I’m following in a long tradition.

Having a ready-made shared universe is a good springboard, and introduces you to a body of readers who have some idea what to expect. It also means you have to raise your game because they are a demanding bunch who want something with imaginative depth rather than yet another pastiche of the old themes. I love this sort of challenge, and putting fresh spin on obscure Lovecraftian lore is a joy.

 

Elder Ice 0042.What hints can you give us about the mysterious other party also seeking Shackleton’s fortunes?

Lovecraft’s stories frequently include characters who have come across ancient lore, and realise that the apparently meaningless ramblings are hints at great truths, pointing the way to science far beyond our own pitiful meanderings, to great pre-human civilisations. There are also people who, for a variety of reasons, end up working for alien powers. When there is a priceless relic out there somewhere, one dating back thousands of years, you can expect at least one of these groups to turn up…and they will stop at nothing.

 

3.You’ve crafted a book about a hidden legacy from a real explorer from your actual neighborhood. Are you looking for a treasure?

This area was not much settled until the nineteenth century; before then it was dense woodland, a dangerous place inhabited only by gipsies, outlaws, hermits, charcoal-burners and highwaymen. An unlikely place for treasure, but…

This Beulah Hill Treasure Trove was dug up by a Mrs Hulme in 1953 while she was working in her garden and saw something glinting just a couple of inches below the surface. The stash of coins – gold nobles and silver groats – was dated to 1360. It is strange because it is so far from any known settlement. The hoard might have been some bandit’s loot, or a miser’s way of avoid tax collectors.

I’m after treasure of a different sort though. The more you look through local history the more you find, and the blank spaces between the known history are fertile ground for stories. And the more you dig, the more you find…I’ve been astonished at the weird and occult things that have emerged while I’ve been writing the series.

 

4.Why storytelling? What made you yearn to tell a good story, and how long was this story within you before it came out?

In response to a question about his music, Louis Armstrong is reputed to have said “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”

Storytelling is like that. From a writer’s perspective, it simply feels like the story wants to be told. Anyone who has not felt that push will not understand it, any more than they can understand any other mental illness without experiencing it.

What Armstrong actually replied, by the way, is “Shame on you for asking.” But that’s not such a good answer and never crops up on lists of great quotes.

 

5.Without giving any spoilers, what is your favorite thing about this book?

I’m a great believer in the power writing to constraints as a way of boosting creativity, and this one had a lot of constraints to push me,

The Elder Ice sets out to incorporate a sizable chunk of local history, specifically relating to Ernest Shackleton’s astonishing 1914-17 Endurance voyage to the Antarctic. The other constraint is weaving history together with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as well as extending the Mythos with science unknown in Lovecraft’s age.

Just to make things really challenging I also wanted to incorporate elements from The Arabian Nights, which was a major influence on Lovecraft (and, to some degree, Shackleton) and was perhaps the first work of real imaginative fantasy that I read as a child.

This all provides the background for a 1920s ripping yarn, in which our hero is on the trail of a mysterious item brought back by the explorer, and I wanted to be true to the period adventure stories…while also keeping it more on the noir side, so things do not work out quite so tidily and pleasantly for all concerned.

 

6.Your main character walks into a bar. What happens?

Harry Stubbs walks into bars a lot. As an unmarried 1920s London male, the pub is his natural habitat. He lives in a rented room, so if he has to meet someone socially it will be at his ‘local’, a pub called The Conquering Hero, one of the many Victorian pubs in Norwood.

In the story he interviews a member of the Endurance expedition in the pub, and learns not only about Shackleton’s odd obsession with the Antarctic but also some clues as to what he could have brought back that was worth more than its weight in gold.

However, as he leaves the pub, he finds four men waiting for him. They do not look friendly.

“Mr Harry Stubbs,” says their leader. “We’d be wanting a word with you.”

It’s four against one, but Harry Stubbs is not one to run from a fight, especially after a few drinks…he hangs his jacket and bowler hat on a convenient railing, and the fight begins…

 

7.What is the most fascinating thing about your main character?

Harry Stubbs is a big, ugly guy, an ex-heavyweight boxer with a broken nose and a physique to match. Staying in shape is part of his job. Underneath it though, Harry is still a boy: he dreams of being a private detective like the ones in the stories, of discovering lost cities, of battling monsters, and idolizes his heroes.

Harry is unfailingly polite, and, very aware of his humble social background, he is often overawed by the people he meets in his investigations. And while he is not stupid, Harry is far from educated. Every investigation is an education for him: he never loses his sense of wonder at the world, and to me that makes him rather endearing.

 

8.If you could change any one thing about your work, what would it be?

I would love to be one of those authors who can sit down in the morning and rattle off 2,000 words of flawless prose before their coffee break, and then never even have to think about a second draft, but knock out a few more chapters before lunch.

As it is, I’m more like in the tradition Oscar Wilde, with endless writing and re-writing and never being quite satisfied with the result: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma. In the afternoon—well, I put it back again.”

I love writing, but does it have to be such hard work?

 

9.You’re going to go back and visit yourself when you first started writing, at whatever age it was, and you can give yourself one piece of advice. What would it be?

While there are any number of useful pieces of advice you can hand out about writing what you know, finding your own voice, keeping a notebook or your ideas, reading voraciously and respecting your readers, there is one fundamental bedrock to writing. Which is writing. You have to sit down and get words on a page, and unless you do that, regularly and determinedly, you will forever be one of the millions who “always wanted to write a novel but never got around to it.”

The world is full of people who have a great idea for a story if you could just write it down for them. Here’s the thing: writing is the hard part. What makes you a writer is that willingness to sit down and write.

 

10.How did you find the time to write this book with your busy life? What ideas do you have on how others can make time in their lives?

Everybody has the same 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. What you do with it is up to you.

If you never find time to do something, you really need to look at where it is on your priority list. If you have time to browse social media, or watch box sets, you have time to write. The challenge is finding the discipline to actually do it!

The people who are desperate enough to write are writers….see answer #4 above.

 

11.Describe your workplace.

My desk looks out into the back garden. It is wild and overgrown, which is how we like it, and has a steady traffic of birdlife, squirrels and the occasional fox. Beyond it I can see trees – a little bit of the original Great North Wood which have Norwood its name. It’s a pleasantly green view for such an urban location.

 

12.If we wanted a good story—book, show or movie—one that you didn’t write, where would you send us?

If you want a great read, go to the classic adventures. Writers like Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) or Kipling (Kim) or Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island) produced gripping page-turners with satisfying plots and memorable characters. Modern genre fiction is pretty thin stuff by comparison. It’s great – if sometimes daunting, as writer – to see what fiction can be.

 

13.If you could choose any other writer, living or dead, to be your mentor, whom would you choose and why?

It would have to be ol’ Lovecraft. He was a strange and eccentric character; he had a reputation as a recluse, but in fact he had a wide circle of friends and corresponded with many of them – ST Joshi has collected thousands of pages of his letters – and encouraged them in their writing careers. He was clearly highly inspirational and it would be fantastic just to talk Yog-sotherery, history and science with him. ((I would not bother discussing race, his biggest failing – he would never understand why his antiquated views are so repulsive to people like me, and it’s a bit late to change him now)).

However, he might not be too great as a mentor in commercial terms. Lovecraft viewed himself as a gentleman and could never quite get over the disgust he felt at writing for money, and never made a career of it. He never wrote a novel, and his stories were not collected until after his death. He really lacked any idea of how to sell…Hell, it sounds as should be mentoring him…

 

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