An Interview with John Kaiine
Kaiine, born 1967, artist, photographer, writer and one-time gravedigger,
is the author of metaphysical thriller/horror novel Fossil Circus,
published by Egerton House Publishing. He is also the author of stories
"Dolly Sodom", published in Ellen Datlow's Off Limits: Tales of Alien
Sex, subsequently made into a short film by American film maker
Brandon Dexter, and "Chavi Chori", included in the Ultimate Witch.
"Unlocked" written with Tanith Lee appears in The Mammoth Book Of
New Terror. Comic work includes My Closest Friend illustrated
by Dave McKean for A1 and lead strip in the horror comic Strand
from Trident. Kaiine was a guest at the Octocon in Ireland in 2004 where
he gave a Photoshop workshop. His next novel, Hollow, will be
published by Egerton House in 2005. He lives by the sea with his author
wife Tanith Lee and two black and white cats.
Sarah Singleton: Could
you tell us something about your background? How did you come to be
John Kaiine: I was brought up in a South
West London village called Roehampton. It's situated between Wimbledon
Common and Richmond Park and is mentioned in HG Wells' War of the
Worlds. There were trees everywhere. Centuries of forests
and parkland. Big skies. Beautiful dawns and twilights. However, colossal
Modernist high-rise tower blocks also dominated: early sixties 'models
for urban renovation': the award-winning architects had obviously holidayed
in the Mediterranean and copied the flat roofs seen there. Wonderful.
Only trouble is, that it rains in England. Within 15 years all
the 'shapes of things to come' were rife with damp and were living health
hazards. Le Corbusier's dream gone horribly wrong.
I lived overlooking a vast gothic convent, which backed onto Richmond
Park. Plenty of Catholic iconography, priests and endless nuns who appeared
faceless in massive wimples and long trailing habits: they ministered
to the considerable Down's Syndrome community resident there.
There was a huge hospital: Queen Mary's. It shared its space with the
Limb-Fitting-Centre, the first home of artificial limbs in England.
My excellent mum and brother worked there and I was often brought home
discarded artificial hands and arms to play with. Some early cybernetic,
some beautifully crafted wooden hands perfectly articulated. I still
have some. Amputees were omnipresent. From babies born without limbs
to ex-servicemen who had lost arms, legs or more in battle. The hospital
also housed an extensive burns unit and P1; a psychiatric unit, where
inpatients would regularly escape -- no surprise to see naked loons,
some very violent, wandering the busy roads. Ongoing burns unit
patients were encouraged to live locally, to 'interact' with the public,
so those having their faces and lives 'rebuilt' would be sitting next
to you on the bus or queuing with you in shops. Some didn't have any
face left, their head being held in place by a steel neck brace.
There was also a private psychiatric hospital there: The Priory. Another
white walled gothic structure. Mervyn Peake stayed there for three years,
shortly before his death. It's now a celeb rehab clinic specialising
in 'eating disorders' -- residents from the age of 12 upward.
Roehampton was also on the flight-path for Heathrow, so every few minutes
jumbo jets would be coming in to land, so low sometimes you could actually
see the passengers' faces. Concorde was always an event to see and hear
-- the sonic boom.
In retrospect -- what with dodgy 60's bronze statues dotted about and
stags, foxes, owls and other park/common wildlife strolling through
the windswept concrete piazzas -- it was an extremely surreal place,
but at the time it -- madness, disfigurement, difference, failed futurist,
nature rampant, gothic splendour -- just seemed 'normal' to me. Still
does. There was an overall humour you find with hospital/psychiatric
towns -- a survivor's humour, very black but carried off with great
Childhood was quite a dark affair. Any escape from reality was welcome.
I could read when I was two, Greek Mythology, all mythology and
American comic books. And the Beano and Topper on Wednesdays.
I was always drawing. BBC Radio 4 was constantly on: brilliant comedies
-- Round the Horne, Hancock, The Goons are early memories. It
was the time of Monty Python's Flying Circus (if I'm honest,
that's where the 'Circus' in Fossil Circus comes from) and later,
Fawlty Towers. Basil was, and still remains a great inspiration.
In the early 70's, BBC2 began showing the back catalogue of Universal
Studios Horror Movies. Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, etc.
I couldn't get enough. The first film I consciously remember seeing
was the 1933 King Kong. Carry On Screaming is still one
of my favourite films.
Primary school was ok. I lasted exactly one week at secondary school
-- a 'social experiment' comprehensive on Putney Heath -- I didn't exactly
appreciate the bullying from either the pupils or teachers. So, I left
home every morning and jumped on a different bus and wandered around
London for the day. Museums, galleries, sometimes just riding the tube,
people watching, listening. Taking it all in.
I worked in various art studios, on magazines, worked on film special
effects for a while, that was great fun. I sang in a band in the late
Grave-digging? My then local cemetery -- Putney Vale -- was 45 acres
of Victorian/Edwardian granite and marble, bounded to Wimbledon Common.
I'd played there as a kid, knew most of the names on the headstones:
have used some as character names in Fossil Circus and other
works. It seemed only right (to me) that I should work there. I got
a job there as a gardener, one of many, strimming grass, weeding etc.
Most new graves now are dug by mechanical diggers, but at Putney Vale
there are many old (moneyed) family graves: four or five generations
piled in together and these graves are in extreme proximity of one another
-- so whenever a new burial in an old grave was needed, it had to be
done by hand so as not to destroy the surrounding tombs. I joined two
others and got digging. They had been doing it for years and knew what
was coming -- when we got down to about three feet deep I suddenly,
very violently threw up. They just laughed. We carried on digging. I
threw up again. The stench was unbelievable. Over decades rain had washed
down off the common and flooded the burial ground, rotted the coffins
and all that was left of dozens of families was a communal 'soup.' After
a while, the ground turned to mush and I was sinking into it. Just kept
dry heaving and shovelling out the goop. The most disgusting smell was
the gallons of new and curdled old industrial disinfectant poured
into the grave to mask the stagnant water/rotting flesh.
Could you tell us about the genesis of Fossil Circus?
JK: It just came. After writing different
episodes of Strand, (immortals getting up to no good in real/dark/hidden/mythological
London ) I moved onto another comic idea, which I later wrote as a novel
-- Clay ( gone to hell ) a supernatural gangland thriller also
set in London. I was sketching out characters and scenarios -- all very
downbeat alchemical: various characters suggested themselves, a particular
line (which is the entire premise of Fossil ) and the names Norman
Fish, Roane and Jerusalem Lamb. And that was it.
Originally I thought it was going to be much more 'supernatural' than
I knew 'odd' London, so used what I knew. I wanted a contemporary Gothic
novel (not full of 'goths' or for a 'goth' audience -- that certainly
didn't interest me -- the only faintly gothy character is Roane,
who has the weakest character of all of them) in its truest sense --
an atmosphere of mystery and horror -- I wanted the language to mirror
this, but let it do its own thing. Most of the characters -- Mr Jackson,
Ernie, Fish -- were drawn upon from childhood. As was Jerusalem.
I wanted illustrations, a glossary, an illustration index.
The feel of a Victorian novel, even though it was a paperback,
an event -- not just cover and content, something thrown together in
an afternoon. I like Victorian and earlier novels and travel-logs with
maps, so wanted to include a map or a partial map, which led to a crash
course in Photoshop cartography.
It would have been good to have had a page of Dramatis Personae: Mr
Jackson ~ A northern double amputee with sexually charged
pyromaniac tendencies. Kenneth Schilling ~A chiropodist
with a foot fetish. etc. and also a contents page describing each
chapter scene by scene with a single striking statement: Arrival
At Tookesbury Hall -- The Last Room in the Corridor -- Undertaker's
Shrubbery -- Time's Asylum -- Stained Glass Minds -- etc ... but
I thought that would be giving too much away.
And it would have been great fun to have had a rambling Rowley Birkin
preface: the author dilating at considerable length ... but
my own forward stating how the idea of Fossil Circus was ripped
off by another 'writer' for a crappy radio play was enough for me.
SS: The novel is at
once lyrical and grotesque, with both poetry and bodily fluids aplenty
-- the episode of the man with a foot in his freezer springs unpleasantly
to mind -- what, for you, is the fascination with the horrible?
JK: There isn't one.
I suppose it's what you're used to: the stuff I personally find horrible,
most of the world loves: so-called 'beautiful people' -- either in the
worlds of publishing, movies, art or music -- the mind numbing bullshit
of 'celebrity' -- let alone politics. (As a worrying prediction of such
present dross, and for anyone who hasn't already seen it, I would strongly
suggest Nigel Kneale's superb 1968 film The Year of the Sex Olympics.)
The force feeding of 'fashionable' concepts -- I'd much rather my characters
with their own minds and unique desires were getting their jollies from
amputated feet removed from necessity than being floppy-haired thirty
somethings looking for love in a media-driven London.
When you're dealing-with/writing-about geriatric psychiatrics, you
encounter an awful lot of bodily fluids in one form or another -- they're
used as prop, comic device, metaphor. But sometimes it's just funny.
When in doubt, get 'em out! Although the This snot has bones
'coughing lift-boy' character is another all too real episode from long
It would be all too easy to appear patronising when talking about
characters with 'disabilities', but I will say this -- You want beauty?
Watch a blind woman shaving her legs.
SS: The writing in
Fossil Circus is not straightforward -- with its curious staccato
rhythms it reminded me of Old English poetry, and requires some concentration
from the reader -- did you have a particular intention using this style
or did it simply evolve from the story?
JK: No conscious intention. I
wanted an instant atmosphere of tension -- a rhythm -- heart beats or
slaps. I like sinister. I like alliteration. I'm dyslectic, so I do
things with words that may not occur to others.
I didn't know what was going to happen with the story -- I had the
bare bones, a few scenes in mind, but it became its own being. Constantly
morphing into itself. Characters suggested their own 'dynamic'
and their own 'rhythm'. Always surprising. I found the role of narrator
quite a paternal one.
Old English poetry? (I always wanted Grendel to win.) I suppose Jerusalem's
story could be called contemporary heroic verse. His chapters
could be chanted around an improv 3AM bonfire or burning car. Performance
art! A Care in the Community project perhaps. Any social workers out
I've been making notes for Hollow and one line in particular
stands out very much to me -- Someone in church who sang out of tune
-- nice metre.
I read aloud as I write, perhaps that's where the poetry/performance
correlation comes in; speaking in the different accents of the characters,
acting out the scenes. Working through movements and comic timing of
the slapstick episodes to the ethereal driftings of the dreamlike/drugged
states. It can get a bit manic, especially the 'channel zapping' episode
-- seven mostly pissed characters, one a parrot -- fighting over what
to watch on television. Fists and insults flying. Great fun, but I did
walk away with bruises from that one. Method writing can be taken too
far however -- During the scenes of Yellow Fever, I unintentionally
contracted the European version of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
-- I was bitten by hedgehog fleas -- I didn't know at the time that
I was extremely allergic to them. Great pain in all joints, hideous
skin condition and hallucinations from drinking with the prescribed
tablets: bats in the brick work.
SS: As a writer with
very little in the way of talent in the visual arts, I use writing to
create the pictures I see in my imagination -- how does your work and
outlook as an artist affect your writing?
JK: Enormously. As my writing affects
The creative process of producing a piece of art has always been something
to describe in metaphorical terms -- mixing of paints, stretching canvas,
priming glass, the chemical reaction of spray-paint on liquid solvents
-- a character, a scenario, an accident -- dumb luck. Each is unique.
All are special. It's the same with photography (especially infra-red)
-- seeing everything in different angles, light, perspective. This has
evolved in my writing as of late, the work I have been producing with
Photoshop: computer assisted imaging. Working with boundless layers:
Overlay, Saturation, Linear Burn, lighting effects, filters.
Each suggesting a different possibility. But the secret is in knowing
when to stop. Although, sledgehammer can be more effective than subtle,
When I write I sketch out scenes, almost like a storyboard. Character
sketches too, these often throw up new possibilities -- surprises --
which lead into new thought processes. Dumb luck. I'll go and
take photographs of what I need to write about or produce it on Photoshop.
The more visual input I have, be it research books, pictures, images,
the happier I am.
A visual image should tell a story. A sentence should produce an image.
I see everything as a film -- a vast wraparound screen. Be it walking
by the sea in 'real time', visualising an idea or reading an existing
text -- someone else's vision. It's because of dyslexia, where one part
of my brain 'doesn't work properly' it overcompensates in other areas.
Creative visualisation. It's not a conscious decision. When I write,
especially novels, I see them in terms of film and think of them in
such a manner. A series of stills: photographs, hastily scribbled sketches.
This is why I wanted the seven-page car chase in Fossil Circus.
I'd seen it done in movies, French Connection, Blues Brothers, Bullitt,
but to my knowledge, hadn't been produced in novel form, especially
as it's a metaphysical car chase driven along and by ley-lines!
SS: Who are the artists
and writers you most admire? Who or what has inspired you? Films, poets,
JK: Mervyn Peake as both artist and writer.
He is unsurpassable. Beautiful. Genius. The three Gormenghast
novels and Boy in Shadow (a novella chronicling the journey by
Titus Groan away from Gormenghast) are unbelievably wonderful.
Such an imagination. I could read and reread them, as I have
done many, many times before. There is always something startlingly
new to discover in his words.
Edward Gorey: artist, writer -- sublime. The reason black ink was
Other writers -- in no particular order -- Graham Greene. Angela Carter.
John Fowles. John Banville. Gustav Meyrink (Der Golem, Angel of the
West Window). Kafka. Tennessee Williams. Jean Rhys. Alexei Sayle.
James Joyce. Jorge Luis Borge. MR James. Raymond Chandler. Jeanette
Winterson. Nikolai Gogol. Poe. Goethe. Leonora Carrington. James Hamilton-Patterson.
Peter Ackroyd. Conan Doyle. Will Self. Freya Stark. Flannery O'Connor.
Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Shena Mackay. Ray
Bradbury. Peter Straub (Ghost Story). Isabel Allende. Dickens.
Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen -- Seven Gothic Tales). Nigel
Kneale. Tanith Lee -- I won't go near contemporary SF or Fantasy (and
yes, I know I am probably missing an awful lot of new good stuff) --
but Tanith's work tends to reflect her preoccupations/obsessions with
many things historical, mythical, and the hard nosed psychology of the
here and now. Reading her, to me, isn't like reading fantasy. John Cleese
and Connie Booth for Fawlty Towers. The Monty Python Team.
Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews for Father Ted. All the writing
crews on Hill Street Blues and N.Y.P.D Blue. All
mythologies. And Harry Harrison, as writer and dangerously addictive
Non Fiction: David Icke. Many books for research.
Artists -- Klimt. Durer. Beardsley. Brueghel. Bosch. The late Richard
Dadd (killed his father and painted fairy microcosms in his Bedlam cell).
HR Giger. Howard Pyle, who painted/illustrated pirates. Dave Lloyd:
V for Vendetta. Sydney Paget for his immortalisations of Sherlock
Holmes in the Strand Magazine. Max Ernst for amongst other
things, his 'surreal novel of collage': Une Semaine, dé Bonte.
Charles Keeping. Ainslie Roberts, the painter of Aboriginal Myths. LS
Lowrie. Lewis Edward Booth. And most of the PreRaphaelites.
Poets: Ted Hughes. RS Thomas. Ian Hamilton. Elizabeth Bishop. Most
of the 'War Poets'.
Films: Plunkett and Macleane. Carry on Screaming. Brotherhood
of the Wolf. Photographing Fairies. Blade Runner. The Hitcher. Legend
of the Holy Drinker. Dr Mabuse. The Man Who Laughs. Freaks. The Cabinet
of Dr Caligari. Anything with Lon Chaney Snr. Coppola's Dracula.
Nosferatu (1922). Golem (1920). Dog Soldiers. The Mystery
Men. Leon. SlapShot. Moulin Rouge (2001). American WereWolf in
London. King Kong (1933). Kind Hearts and Coronets. The Man in
the White Suit. Passport to Pimlico. Brazil. Italian Job (1969).
La reine Margot. Lawrence of Arabia. South Park the Movie! The League
of Gentlemen (1960). Alien. Roshomon. All the Quatermass
films. And the beautiful Jeremy Brett televisations of Sherlock
I listen to music when I work -- I very rarely work in silence. I like
songs that tell stories and music that is 'visual'. Gary Numan is perfect
for this, a groundbreaking genius and never ending source of inspiration.
Wonderful live too! Other atmospheric bands, composers include -- Fields
of the Nephilim. Gorecki. The Stranglers. Curve. Elvis Costello. Sulpher.
Bowie. Killing Joke. Tool. Ligeti. Nine Inch Nails. Cocteau Twins (Garlands).
CycleFly. David Sylvian. Faith No More. Depeche Mode. Rammstein (Amerika!).
Sisters of Mercy. Mediaeval Baebes. Dead Can Dance. Pink Floyd's The
Wall. Albinoni. XTC. Talking Heads. David Byrne. Talk Talk. Mark
Hollis. John Foxx. Kraftwerk. Headswim. Gravity Kills. Marilyn Manson.
Sting. And darker pieces by Marillion.
SS: Could you tell
us something about your next novel, Hollow?
JK: An odd 'Prussian' turn of the 19th/20th
century is the original setting. The beautiful art-loving wife and child
of a royal war hero are suddenly, inexplicably found dead in the vast
maze in the grounds of their home. The 'hero' gathers all his wife's
artistic friends together and work begins on a 'fitting tribute to her':
a perfect world called The Rectangle. No war within it, no politics,
no religion, only beauty. 50 years go by, a war rages on in the outside
world and needless to say it all fucks up. Fast forward 500 years
and we see what is happening to all the inhabitants, ghosts and those
who have returned from Without. Hollow is the eponymous
long-white-haired hero. No car chases in this one, but there is a camel
At present for research I'm ploughing through Heinz Hohne's monumental
The Order of the Death's Head, the story of Hitler's SS. Other
research includes every book I can find on Gustav Klimt and the haunting
Jean Rhys novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
Hollow was originally written for the Oxford University Press,
one of the editors there had read and liked my writing and asked if
I could write a cutting edge 'young adult' novel with fantasy elements
for them. Initially I wasn't interested, but very soon the idea, title
and characters were in my head and soon on paper. It only took six months
to write -- it's over 200 pages long, which for me, is extremely quick
-- it just arrived. They had it for months and finally rejected it with
a reader's report bleating of 'the hint of cannibalism' and 'over
use of the word, bloody'. Cutting edge publishing indeed. So
I'm now in the process of making it 'adult' and adding explanations,
extra characters and lots more bloody cannibalism. 8):: ... ...
It owes a lot to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels and the
thought-provoking writings of David Icke.
A three word description of Hollow would be: Minatour as cuckold.
SS: What are you working
Hollow, obviously. I've another 150-200 pages to add. The explanation
of how the Rectangle came to be, its originators and the gradual
decline of it, its denizens and the outside world. It's scheduled for
publication this year -- 2005 -- but I'm a methodical writer, I like
to linger over words and scenes, so I can't see it being finished by
then. (Sorry Egerton.) I'm not a robot or hack. There are also the front
and back covers to produce and all the internal photographs and artwork.
It would be good to design a Hollow font also.
There are always ongoing ideas -- notes, characters, chapters written
-- for other novels -- a metaphysical thriller set in a rundown seaside
town, a harsh Arabian Nights novel of dark mythology, a freak-show
novel, a series of children's illustrated story-books and a vampire
movie screenplay. I'm always making notes and sketching out ideas.
There are book covers, author photographs, short stories and artworks
to be done. And Tanith and I have talked about working together on a
Will start thinking about getting Kaiine.com up and running
too. I want a 'hands on' site where I can exhibit and sell artwork,
photography and writing. I know absolutely nothing about web design
so that should be interesting. I know how I want it to look and
that's most important to me. The practical side of it will be secondary.
It will all get done, but in my own time. Life normally comes along
and delays plans. There's no rush.
I've just spent a few days scanning in snake skeletons and dead spiders
for an ongoing image.
There's always something creative going on.
SS: How does it work
out having a partner who is also a writer? Do you inspire each other,
share ideas? Or do you work entirely separately?
JK: We psychically work entirely separately.
Except that one workroom is above the other and occasionally one or
either of us may hear curses, howls or laughter from the other one in
mid stride. I listen to music when I work, Tanith works in silence,
so most of the time I wear headphones.
We do exchange ideas mostly over lunch or dinner
-- knife, fork, pen -- Tanith will freely admit that she has been unwise
enough to accept and use (mercilessly) a number of ideas I have offered
her. The results often startle me by being quite different from what
I had envisaged. We do help each other too by discussing what each is
working on, or wants to be working on, and reading each other slabs
of the text as we go along. This can help as a kind of initial editing
(probably also audience response).
Tanith has suggested many ideas and solutions for my work over the
In the case of the short story we wrote together -- "Unlocked" --
we were still working separately -- then coming together with the sections
and fusing them.
SS: What makes you
Melon flavoured Geneva (Dutch gin).
3 AM improv bonfires ...
© Sarah Singleton 2005.
Fossil Circus was published in June 2004 by Egerton
House Publishing; ISBN: 0954627563.
Order online using these links and infinity
plus will benefit:
... from Amazon.com
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: