Thanks to the heat, I’ve been operating on around four hours of sleep a night. It’s made the writing pretty delirious and it’s also making me strangely nostalgic. Maybe that’s because I’ve nearly finished the new novel.
Thinking about releasing something new has got me remembering the first novella I published with Kensington Gore Publishing. The Compressionist wasn’t the first horror story I wrote. No, that was The Low Road, back in the days of invisible self publishing. That was followed by The Narrow Doors, which came from attending a cremation and thinking about those patronising advice books they used to publish for girls decades before. Well, that and a first draft ending that freaked me out. The Compressionist found me wanting to try something different.
The Low Road had been me seeing if I could write a classical ghost story. The Narrow Doors was an experiment in asking if you could tell a horror story where all the horror elements hid in the wings. With The Compressionist, I wanted to explore monsters. Neither of my previous stories had featured a clear, villainous presence. Sure, there were unnatural presences, but they remained in the margins. They never looked you straight in the eye. I wanted to tell a story where you spent time in the company of a monster. After all, the classics kept you in close proximity to the dark, beating hearts of their stories. You follow Frankenstein into his lab. You never stray too far from Doctor Jekyll, Count Dracula or The Invisible Man. Dorian Gray is always waiting patiently for his next sitting. I wanted my own tragic beast.
The title came from a typo. I remember looking at the word compressionist and knowing it was meant to be something. It took a while to work it out what it was. It was nearly a race of creatures who corrupted people’s souls in order to create art out of them. I’d actually been pretty happy with that until a friend and fellow writer had reminded me about Clive Barker’s work. Those deviant, immortal creatures did give me one thing however; The Proxy. A book that consumed the soul of its subject.
The recurring dream of fleeing across a moor to reach an old church and escape the Devil came from a place we’d seen in Cornwall. A church that was actually carved out of the rocky face of a hill. It had looked like something from a Mike Mignola illustration and I’d fallen in love with it immediately, storing it away for later use.
The Compressionist himself was a writer because I needed to crawl inside his head and get a finger hold on his motives. I write every day and I’m terrified of death. It wasn’t too hard to use that as a foundation for Richard Cove. Still, for all his terrible actions, I tried to keep him sympathetic. The story worked best when I resisted the urge to fully explain him early on. I wanted to keep the reader guessing about his intentions, not letting them in on his methods until it was too late. Until they felt complicit.
It was also the first story where I borrowed bits of my home town. I’ve sat in the park where Sally Costigan goes to read before work and her office is just a few doors down from a rock club I used to go to every weekend. I hadn’t meant for the story to follow her so closely as Cove took an interest in her, but it became a great way of getting the reader invested before she began to suffer. It also meant their sympathies could mirror Nate’s later on, which allowed his re-entry into the story to run easier.
Originally, Nate was there to keep Cove from getting his hands dirty. He was also a simple way of setting up that this had happened many times before now. Only Nate intrigued me. He spoke with a spooked arrogance I didn’t expect when he first appeared by the ash trees. (And yes, before you ask, those ash trees were all planted by M.R. James.) Nate’s second appearance should’ve been his last, but he came back with a suffering conscience and a hope of redemption. By then, I‘d spent a lot of time torturing Sally and the effects of The Proxy were darker than I’d intended. They called for retribution and Nate could appear capable of providing that.
The story resolved itself by following the twisting path of a noir crime story. It wove itself around the characters with moments of coincidence and moral choice getting us to the moment where the horror could step up to centre stage.
Self published, it didn’t really do a lot, but that was okay. I mean, they call it vanity publishing for a reason, right? When KGP picked me up, they wanted to re-release all my novellas and, due to an issue with Amazon owning some of my other stories for a while, The Compressionist jumped to the front of the queue. Which worried me. I wasn’t sure what people would make of it, especially as a first offering. Thankfully, it seemed to go down well. It actually got me some of the best reviews I’ve had to this day.
Looking back, it still works. It feels dark and different, plus it gets pretty nasty. The pathos and humour don’t hamper the story and there’s a monster here you can empathise with before he (hopefully) horrifies you. And here’s something else you won’t know about The Compressionist. I’m pretty sure Sally works in the same office as Ed Howe, the lead character in my new novel.
(If you fancy reading The Compressionist, it’s available through the shop here or you can purchase it on Amazon. If you buy the novella, it comes with the first part of The Righteous Judges, which features a man being driven mad in his hotel room by a cursed painting of hunting hounds.)