infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Mike Ashley: researching the fantastic

an interview by Iain Rowan

Starlight Man coverA quick search on Amazon UK credits Mike Ashley with over sixty titles: many anthologies, on subjects as diverse as comic fantasy and Napoleonic naval fiction, reference works, such as the Encyclopaedia Of Modern Crime Fiction and a range of factual books for children on subjects such as Deadly Dinosaurs and Hairy Humans. Ashley is also the author of the well-received biography of Algernon Blackwood, The Starlight Man (reviewed elsewhere at infinity plus). However, in this interview, conducted by email in September and October 2002, Mike insists that he is first and foremost a researcher, not an editor, describes the current projects that he is working on that will become invaluable resources to others editing, researching or studying in the genre, and explains why there is still so much research still to do.

IR: Your work covers an extraordinary range of subjects. What projects are you involved with at the moment?

MA: As usual I tend to have several projects on the go at once, including several large ones. I am still researching for my revised three-volume History Of The Science Fiction Magazine. The first volumeTime Machines cover, The Time Machines was published two years ago and the second volume, Transformations, is complete and awaiting publication. But the third volume, Gateways To Forever, is taking longer to research than anticipated because it covers a greater diversity -- not just printed sf magazines but webzines, audiozines and the mass of small press. Also it shares time with two other big projects. One is The Mammoth Book Of King Arthur, which I have to finish by next November. The Dark Ages in Britain has long fascinated me and this book will bring together all of the historical and mythical aspects about the Arthurian world to give the most comprehensive coverage possible.

I also have a huge project on the go for the British Library. This falls into two parts. Firstly there is the Guide To British Popular Fiction Magazines, which I'm compiling with David Pringle, and which will provide detailed entries on some 70 to 80 British fiction magazines from 1880 to 1950, plus briefer details on a hundred or so others. Then, as a companion to this is a six-volume Index To British Popular Fiction Magazines which I'm doing with William G. Contento and which will index over 10,000 issues of these same magazines. The Guide has to be delivered by next February, whilst the Index is an ongoing project over the next four or five years. So there's plenty going on, in addition to my anthologies and various articles for magazines.

IR: Do you enjoy the research that you are doing for the Index To British Popular Fiction Magazines as much as your more traditional editing role? How about your role as biographer -- are we going to see any other Mike Ashley biographies?

MA: You say my more "traditional editing role", but I've never thought of myself that way. I am, first and foremost, a researcher, and bibliographies are one of the spin-offs of that role. Compiling anthologies is something else I do because I enjoy doing it, but I've never seen it as a central role. And I certainly enjoy the work of research and bibliography far more than that of editing because so often that research is breaking new ground. As for any more full-length biographies, I don't yet know. Unlikely, but not impossible. But I have always liked producing author profiles and career summaries and hope to be doing a lot more of those. There are certainly two authors -- Vera Chapman and Douglas Newton -- on whom I am doing a lot more work and there are plenty more round the corner.

I find that people tend to link me with one thing or another and usually that's with science fiction or with being an anthologist. All too few people see me in the "round" so to speak, and perhaps that's not easy because I have very diverse and wide ranging interests and all too few of those emerge in print. People who know me for my science fiction are surprised when Incredible Monsters coverthey discover I've written a book on The Seven Wonders Of The World and another on British Kings & Queens, or that I have done such children's books as All The Incredible Facts You'll Ever Need To Know or Incredible Monsters. My interest, first and foremost, is in research into those areas of interest that I find most fascinating, and that's either the unknown or the long forgotten. So I'm fascinated by the far reaches of space, by the ancient past, by the far future, by the supernatural and by the unexplained. These take the forms of both factual research and how those ideas may be explored in fiction, hence the obvious interests in sf, fantasy and the supernatural and that aspect alone takes me down side roads into the history of those genres, where I become intrigued by the writers themselves.

I tend to think that anyone interested in ghost stories or science fiction must share, somewhere, common interests with me, and if I find that then I'm sure I'll learn something from that or benefit in some way from that discovery. There is scarcely a day goes past when I do not discover something new, either in my research into history or writers or "the unknown", or in the delight in reading a new story or novel which opens up a new light on an author. One of the real pleasures in compiling my Mammoth Encyclopedia Of Modern Crime Fiction was to get the opportunity to catch up on so many writers I had not had a chance to pursue, and it was a real delight. The problem, of course, is keeping up with them all. Because my interests are so wide I know I shall never be able to read all the fiction I want to read, let alone all the non-fiction, but it means I always have things to look forward to. I am never bored, and I don't understand anyone who says they are. There is so much of interest in this world, and so many opportunities these days for getting involved in any area of interest, that anyone who says they are bored is clearly lazy or lazy-minded, and it's a major failing of the educational system these days that children are not inspired enough to discover and explore their interests.

IR: Is there a thrill to rediscover, in the course of your research, some forgotten fiction that is worth reprinting?

MA: The thrill isn't in discovering forgotten fiction worthy of reprinting -- though if I can get it back into print that's a bonus. The thrill is really like getting together all the pieces of a jigsaw. What I find remarkable is how little we often know about an author's output. That's not so bad in science fiction where there have always been good indexes and bibliographies, but in general fiction (and I'd include a lot of ghost stories and fantasy in this) we do not have the complete picture. Thankfully researchers like Richard Dalby and Jack Adrian have done remarkable work in bringing together the works of writers like E.F. Benson or A.M. Burrage or Mrs Riddell, and it's only when you have access to everything -- the good and the bad -- that you can accurately assess an author's output and their contribution to and place in literature. I wish I had a pound for every time someone has said to me how clever Jules Verne or H.G. Wells were at predicting scientific developments in their fiction. Apart from the fact that they weren't -- they were pretty hopeless at it -- most of what they did "predict" had already been used in earlier stories, but because these stories were lost to anyone but a dedicated researcher no one realized it. And that's the same in general fiction. There are lots and lots of good writers and good fiction out there but it's been forgotten because those authors have dropped out of print. My intent, in producing bibliographies or anthologies or any reference work I do, is to try and redress the balance a little and shine a light back down those aisles of literature and remind people what's there.

IR: You're now working on the third volume of The History Of The Science Fiction Magazine, covering not just the established print magazines but webzines, audiozines and the small press. This sounds like an ever-moving target, especially given the ephemeral nature of some web-based publications.

MA: The third volume is far more complicated than the first two because there's so much more in other media. It's simple enough covering the remaining history of the standard sf magazines, but so much else has happened and it's important to follow those threads to see where they're going -- if anywhere. No, I'm not going to try and cover every webzine. As you say many are too ephemeral and of even less value than the most amateurish of fanzines. It was never my intention to cover all fanzines (web-based or hardcopy) but to trace the trend and I shall be doing that along with identifying the major webzines to emerge, even though I still think we're in the earliest days of this. The criterion is the same as it is for any amateur magazine -- and there was a profusion of semi-professional zines in this final period of the history (1970-date) -- and that is that it has done something of significance, either in terms of material published, authors developed or progress made. I've not yet determined which ones I shall be covering in detail as there's still a lot of research in that area to do.

IR: Another major project of yours concerned with the early days of SF has been The Gernsback Days. What period does The Gernsback Days cover?

MA: In chronological terms it follows Gernsback's early life, but really gets going in 1905 and stops in 1936.

IR: Was it difficult to research?

MA: Very. I did most of the research during the mid-eighties before I had a computer and so had no internet access to things which now open up the world completely. I had two problems. One was tracing the authors from the 1920s and early 30s. A few were easy but the vast majority had vanished without trace. Thanks enormously to Forry Ackerman, I found quite a few -- or their relatives. The second was finding archive material, but here it was easier once I started on the road, and I steadily found a lot of material which I obtained copies of. I now have copies of the entire correspondence of Gernsback between a lot of his main authors.

IR: How detailed is it?

MA: Again, very. The book falls into two parts. The first is my own historical survey of the Gernsback days showing just why Gernsback turned to developing scientific fiction in his magazines from 1908 onwards and then how he handled sf once he'd created his form of it. It looks in detail at what went wrong and, more importantly, how Gernsback -- with editor David Lasser -- did a remarkable job in setting sf back on the road after it had devolved into space opera (though the term hadn't been coined then) during the very early 1930s. The second part is the work of Robert A.W. Lowndes -- and it's a shame he didn't live long enough to see it published. RAWL provided a personal survey of his own memories of reading the stories when they first appeared and provides a progressive summary of all of the major stories, issues by issue. Together these two sections provide the most thorough coverage of the Gernsback days than anything written before, including the very excellent books by E.F. Bleiler, SF: The Gernsback Years.

IR: What do you think sets it apart from other works on early short sf?

MA: I'd say its completeness. Whereas most works are brief and sometimes analytical, this study is thorough (the book is around 230,000 words) and comprehensive. Also, unlike the Bleiler book which is a summary of each story in alphabetical order by author, this is a complete historical survey of the growth and evolution of sf. In the process it dismisses a lot of myths that have grown up about the early days and it provides a more complete picture so that the true position of sf can be evaluated.

IR: Why did it take so long between completion and publication?

MA: That was unfortunate. The book was finished in about 1990 for Starmount House and Ted Dikty was going to publish a beautiful fully illustrated edition. I provided him with masses of cover prints and author photos. Alas, only a few weeks after he got the final copy Ted died. His projects passed to Rob Reginald at Borgo Press. Rob had a full-time job and so the wheels ground very slowly. Rob got as far as setting the book in print and I checked the proofs but then, due to personal problems, Rob wound up Borgo. So the project passed to Wildside Press. By now it was ten years since I'd written it so when John Betancourt re-did the proofs I then had to re-index it and check it for any changes in the intervening years, like authors passing away or the discovery of new facts about them.

IR: What are the particular challenges of researching this era of sf history?

MA: Increasingly it's gaining access to the data. I was amazed at just what papers I did amass, but that took time. Also so many of the writers had died or their memories faded that you couldn't always be sure you were getting accurate data. It was better to rely on the letters written at the time and much of the history is drawn from that and the individual magazines themselves. Also, sf has changed immeasurably since Gernsback's time and to understand it properly you have to place yourself back in that era. It's no good reading an sf story from 1920 and viewing it through 21st century eyes. You have to see it in context and that means getting an understanding of the 1920s and seeing what it meant to discover this fiction in that time.

IR: What's the quality of the fiction like?

MA: The writing is pretty dreadful. Few of the writers wrote professionally. They were either scientists -- so produced something like an academic paper -- or fans who hadn't quite grasped the principles of writing. Also many of them were only first generation Americans and still wrote as if English was their second language. But you have to forget the writing, as I was saying just now. The magic of science fiction then was in the ideas and once the authors had got past coming up with 1001 new uses for radio then the sense of wonder grew. There's an awe and appeal about the sf of the late 1920s and certainly the period 1932-36 (and beyond in Astounding) that is just not present in modern-day sf because we are no longer overawed by the magic of science. We almost expect all these changes and get disappointed when science doesn't perform miracles. We've lost that innocence of scientific achievement. But the sf of the 1920s is full of it.

IR: Do you think there is any research on this era left undone?

MA: Oh yes, there always is, and some of it may never be done, now. Thanks to the internet I have since discovered that there were quite a few writers whom I never traced but who were still alive up until the mid-1990s. They've gone now and I suspect their papers have gone, so research into some of these early writers can now only be indirect. Their personal account is lost forever. In some ways I wish I'd done more in depth research earlier, but there's only so much you can do. I'm just glad I did what I did. There's barely a handful of writers still alive now from the Gernsback days.

IR: You're also working on The Mammoth Book Of King Arthur. This won't be your first publication on this subject, and you mentioned earlier your fascination for the Dark Ages. What is it about this period that fascinates you -- is it because it is a time when history and fantasy both seem to be irretrievably entwined?

MA: No, the Dark Ages don't fascinate because it's where fantasy and history become entwined, though I suppose there's an element in unravelling the legend to find the truth behind that is very enjoyable. The real pleasure is, as in any research, plundering the unknown to see what may be rescued. There is so much myth and misunderstanding involved with many great heroic figures, not just Arthur, but Robin Hood, Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, and so on, that it's fascinating to try and get at the truth behind these legends. I aim to complete the Mammoth Book Of King Arthur by next November and the research, which I've been doing on and off for the last ten years or so, is going very well. In fact the effort isn't really into Arthur, which is a fairly easy mystery to solve in comparison to some of the others, like the true identities of Lancelot, Gawain, Bedivere and others, but I'm getting there.

IR: You've edited anthologies featuring some very iconic figures, such as Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur. Do you feel there have been any new icons created in the last twenty years that might have a literary legacy as lasting as Holmes?

MA: Hmm, you may wish you hadn't asked this question. These days there are too many character 'icons', promoted by TV and films for a public that seem to be hungry for contemporary or larger-than-life heroes and heroines. But very few of them are original and most of them are very shallow, and I doubt they will survive much beyond the end of a TV and film series run. I'm surprised that Dr. Who became quite such the cult character that it did and that's been around long enough that I reckon it will survive a whole lot longer. Possibly characters like Darth Vader (more so than Luke Skywalker) and Mr Spock will have a fairly long shelf life. But generally I'm not in favour of the ongoing fascination with literary or comic-book characters. It causes devotees to become too imitative and lacking in originality. I confess I have a fascination for the concept and character of Sherlock Holmes, so I can understand why there will be similar fascination for such characters as Tarzan, Conan, James Bond or even Buffy, but that doesn't mean I want to keep on reading stories about them. It stifles rather than liberates the field and what we need is more originality and less imitation.

IR: Do you think that the short genre fiction scene is in a healthy state?

MA: My answer differs not only between genres but also in distinguishing between the quality of fiction being produced and the publication of it. It isn't a simple answer, really. I don't think the scene is as healthy as it was in, say, the 1950s, certainly not for science fiction or horror. It's better for crime fiction which has always had a better market for short fiction. There has always been a strong correlation between the diversity and quality of fiction being produced, along with the rise of new authors, and the abundance of markets. The number of good markets for short science fiction and horror is grim these days, especially in Britain. It's only marginally better in America. Quality markets are down. There are still plenty of small press markets and, of course, the internet, but on the whole the quality control in these markets is low. But, having said that, I do think the quantity of top quality sf has improved in the last ten years, really against the markets, but it still falls short of being fighting fit.

IR: Which current short fiction publications The Mammoth Book of SF coverimpress you most with the quality of their fiction?

MA: Well, I have a big problem keeping up with reading all the short fiction that's about, and I'm woefully behind in the small press area, so I don't think I can answer this with much authority. I am certainly impressed with the fiction appearing in The Third Alternative and Crimewave in Britain, whilst Interzone, Asimov's and F&SF continue to impress for science fiction and fantasy.

IR: You mentioned that you thought that the sf and horror short fiction scenes are not doing as well as crime fiction. There are many more markets for sf/h short fiction than there are for crime -- is this very much a matter of quality vs. quantity?

MA: Yes, it was quality that I meant. A profusion of sub-standard markets does nothing for the field at all and there really aren't sufficient quality markets for any genre short fiction, really. And there's little point in a good story appearing in some obscure publication because all too few people will read it unless it's lucky enough to be rescued for an annual 'best' volume by Gardner Dozois, David Hartwell, or others.

IR: What do you think has driven this downward trend in the number of quality markets?

MA: Poor distribution, poor retail outlets, poor marketing. And that's been the problem since the death of the pulps. It's poor enough in the States but it's diabolical here because we are in a stranglehold of a few major outlets and distributors few of whom believe there is a market for short fiction magazines any more. And it's become a near impenetrable barrier because the short-sightedness of distributors and retailers -- and as a consequence publishers -- over the years has created this self-perpetuating prophecy that short fiction doesn't sell. Well, it won't if you don't get it on the shelves, properly displayed and properly promoted. I think I've been very lucky with some of my anthologies where Robinson Publishing aimed at a particular niche, promoted the books well in the trade and initial interest prompted good displays. It hasn't happened with every book, but when it's all come together the sales have been excellent. The market's there if only those in the trade opened their eyes and looked.

IR: Will the short fiction market ever recover to what it was in the 50s?

MA: No, there's no way that it can. The short story as we once knew it has been superseded by the TV episode. Most half-hour or hour-long episodes are no longer than a short story and it's a more convenient way of presenting it. My argument is, and always has been, that there's room for all these things. The written word, in a short story or novel can do things that a TV or film can't, and vice versa, and each needs to play to its strengths. There's room for everything, but it's far too easy for the short story market to get squeezed out of the picture. If the internet is the route for survival, then so be it, but I hope it isn't solely that.

IR: Does the internet represent a fundamental shift in the way we read and market fiction, or is it simply the world's largest slush pile?

MA: I regard the internet as the greatest research tool ever invented and just could not do without it, but I don't hold it in high regard as a means of accessing short fiction. I suspect this is a generational thing, but I have no interest in reading fiction on a screen and certainly not in printing it out where it ends up seeming just like any other manuscript. I want to read my fiction in books and magazines, and I hope that continues for a long time to come. But I suspect as access to the internet becomes easier and more portable we will be using it more and more to read the latest stories and novels by whoever wants to employ that medium. It certainly won't go away, but it doesn't attract me yet. But for non-fiction and for accessing archival material, that's another matter entirely. I'd still rather have the original document but if I can't then the internet is a wonderful alternative.

IR: Will the development of print on demand technologies lead to instant dial-your-own anthologies, where a browser in a bookshop or at home can select their own stories, and then order a book containing them? Would such a development harm the traditional anthology or do you think that there will always be a market for careful selections of fiction which the reader might not have encountered had it not been for the research of the editor?

MA: I'm sure all of these technological advances will yield some fascinating results in the future and the best of them being, so far as I can see, to (a) get rare old books back into print and (b) get promising new writers into print who are ignored by the major houses. In neither case may it mean big sales, and I suppose it could even harm the career of a new writer if he puts too much hope into a small outlet, but I like to think that real talent will always surface in the end. But I don't think that this is really the central point. The internet is an excellent means of research and a good way for downloading brief articles and so on, but I don't want to read a novel that way. As for dial-your-own anthologies -- sure, why not. The more we can access stories the better, provided, and I emphasise this very strongly, that copyright is not transgressed and that the authors are getting proper recompense for their work. At the moment there are far too many people putting material on to the internet who are totally ignorant of copyright laws and who are pirating material.

IR: You've edited collections of The Mammoth Book of Seriously Comic Fantasy covercomic fantasy: is good comic fantasy harder to find than simply good fantasy?

MA: Not necessarily. It's all in the eye of the beholder, isn't it. What makes me laugh won't make everyone laugh, and that's the same for what may unnerve me, horrify me or make me cry. The ability to do that requires a tremendous command of the language and there are few writers who can do that. But a great writer can achieve all of those things, and I'm afraid there are all too few of those about.

IR: Who does make you laugh, in fantasy and in wider fiction?

MA: Oh, that's never easy to answer. I love the absurd and the surreal, humour that in my memory came down from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear and through such film geniuses as the Marx Brothers (especially Harpo Marx -- one of the greatest of all comic geniuses) and of course through the Goons and Monty Python. It's this same continuum that gave birth to Terry Pratchett's fiction. In fact fantasy is ideal for comedy because it can be so surreal. You only have to listen to certain episodes of the Goons where Neddy Seagoon is trying to get a piano over the Alps or is trying to set the English Channel on fire to get the insurance, and you have pure surreal fantasy. I also enjoy cleverly worded humour -- the English language is wonderful at creating innuendo, sarcasm, contrast and pathos all of which can juxtapose humour and sadness side by side to tremendous effect. David Renwick is probably one of the best modern exponents of this in One Foot In The Grave and the Jonathan Creek series, which border on fantasy at times. You won't get it better anywhere though than in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan where you have moments of high tragedy, such as the madness of the Earl, set against moments of pure slapstick, such as the boys playing their game of diving out of the window off one of the floorboards and the dire consequence of that for the Head Teacher. But then Peake was another genius. And outside of fantasy I must mention P.G. Wodehouse who was the complete and total genius at the creation of wordplay.

IR: A major project of yours has come to fruition with the publication of Starlight Man, a biography of Algernon Blackwood. What prompted your initial interest in Blackwood, and then turned that initial interest into a lifetime's work? What was it that first drew you from Blackwood's work to Blackwood the man?

MA: It didn't happen overnight, and the first one or two stories of Blackwood's that I read didn't impress me at all. Then I got into the John Silence stories and "The Willows" and "The Wendigo" and realized that here was a writer who had a remarkable gift for atmosphere. You can taste, smell, feel his stories and his command of the language, when he gets it right, is overpowering. The more Blackwood I read the more I realized that here was a writer who was unique in his field. He still is. No one explored the supernatural and nature mysticism in fiction like Blackwood did. When I was compiling my Who's Who In Horror & Fantasy Fiction I realized that nothing much had been written about him (unlike, say, Machen or M.R. James or William Hope Hodgson and certainly unlike Lovecraft). When I came across a brief note by Blackwood which said that everything he wrote about had been based on something either he or someone he knew had experienced, that was when I knew I had to explore that person's life. I didn't expect it to become a lifetime's work, but that's how things happen.

IR: Has the process of writing the biography changed the way you view the man or his work?

MA: Immensely. As I mentioned earlier the more I understood Blackwood's life the more I could see the different levels in his stories. Getting down to the deep mystical level of a book like The Centaur isn't easy but it comes through a greater understanding of the man and a wider reading of his work.

IR: Did you manage to speak to anyone who knew Blackwood?

MA: Yes, a lot of people, but most of them were children when they knew him, or at least when he was in the prime of life. The furthest I could go back with a direct memory was 1916, but that was not with someone who knew him especially well. I really only got most personal memories from about 1926 onwards and Blackwood was past his great writing years then and was approaching 60.

IR: Are there any parts of his life that you felt that you weren't able to pin down in the biography in as much detail as you'd have liked?

MA: Oh plenty, particularly his exploits as an Intelligence Agent in the Great War and his investigations of haunted houses for the Society for Psychical Research. Blackwood left precious few personal papers when he died, which was why it took me so long to research his life, and I'm only too well aware of gaps in my research that I may never be able to fill. There comes a point when you have to put pen to paper and write the book or you'll never do it, as the research is unending.

IR: Are you still going to continue your research, trying to uncover a little more about these hidden areas ? If there's more information out there, can we expect to see a supplement to The Starlight Man at some point?

MA: I shall still undertake research into Blackwood but I'm a long way off considering a supplement to Starlight Man. What I'd rather do at some stage is compile a book of essays, by me and others, looking in more detail at different aspects of Blackwood's life and work which was not possible to do in the biography because it would have been out of place. This would certainly include his work for British Intelligence or the SPR if ever any more comes to light. I'm not concentrating on that research at the moment, but neither have I let it drop altogether. I'll grab any opportunity that presents itself.

IR: How easy was it to convince a publisher that there would be a market for the biography? Did Blackwood's more-remarkable-than-fiction life (his travels, occult interests, experiences in the US, time as a secret agent etc) help as much as his place in literary history?

MA: It wasn't easy. Most publishers I mentioned it to over the years weren't interested. I am extremely grateful to Constable for taking the plunge and publishing it. Nick Robinson, the head of Constable, said that there are some books which ought to be published, whether or not they make money, and he felt this was one of them, and I am much indebted to him for that.

IR: Was Nick Robinson a Blackwood fan?

MA: No, he's not, so far as I'm aware. Nick Robinson, as with any other publisher, has to look to the commercial value of what he's publishing, otherwise he won't stay in business for long, but he's also got sufficient vision to recognize that there are some books which will not earn a lot of money but which have an intrinsic value and need to be in print. I'm grateful to him that he saw that in Starlight Man.

IR: Which of Blackwood's stories do you think have aged well, and which are now dated?

MA: Thankfully little by Blackwood has dated. Okay, some of the social context is harder to relate to these days, but most of Blackwood's best fiction is not set in a standard social setting. His strength is in depicting the wider world beyond our everyday comprehension and that does not date. Stories like "The Willows" read every bit as well today as they did nearly 100 years ago. The few that have dated are those that are fixed more in the world about him. A Prisoner In Fairyland strikes me as rather dated and The Wave, which is a pretty impenetrable book anyway, has certainly lost something over the years.

IR: Much of his work is out of print -- are you involved in any plans to bring it back into print?

MA: Some of it is coming back into print, especially thanks to the House of Stratus in the UK and Wildside Press in the US. I'm not involved in either of those projects, but I am working with Ash-Tree Press with the idea of producing a definitive 'library' of Blackwood's short fiction.

IR: Is there any of his fiction that you don't own, or have never read?

MA: Well, I've read all that I know exists and have photocopies of some of the children's stories where I don't own the volumes in which they appeared. But I strongly suspect there are some other as yet unreprinted stories out there in old newspapers, and certainly some undiscovered non-fiction by Blackwood. The task of wading through old newspapers, especially on microfilm, is exhausting and even when you've gone through umpteen years worth and found nothing you start to get this horrible feeling that at some stage your eyes glazed over and your concentration wavered and you missed something!

IR: Are you familiar with any dramatisations of Blackwood's work in film, TV or radio? Which Blackwood story would you most like to see filmed or brought to radio, and who by?

MA: I don't think Blackwood does adapt that well to TV. Some of it works. There was an excellent adaptation of "The Listener", starring Edward Woodward, which went out on ITV back in 1968. There was the earlier Tales Of Mystery series, hosted by John Laurie, that I'm just old enough to remember, but not with a critical eye. I think his work is best suited to radio, where the mind's eye can conjure up the images. Sheila Hodgson did some good adaptations of some of the John Silence stories about twenty years ago which could do with being repeated or released on audiotape. I do think that in the right hands "The Willows" would make a good short film, and perhaps Julius Le Vallon and The Human Chord.

IR. Blackwood still has a reputation as a writer of weird fiction -- but I would guess that he is almost unknown as a writer of children's fiction. Do you think his children's stories are deserving of wider attention?

MA: Well, his stories written for children are fairly minor works. However there are some books, such as The Education Of Uncle Paul, The Extra Day and The Fruit Stoners which may seem to be children's books on the surface but which are books about childhood and how children perceive the world. These are certainly deserving of a wider attention, especially The Education Of Uncle Paul which is a remarkable book about imagination and wonder.

IR: Do you feel that Blackwood's philosophical and spiritual interests at times intrude on his work to its detriment?

MA: That depends at what level you are reading his fiction and what you expect. If you are reading it superficially simply for the 'thrill' of a spooky or horror story then, yes, his deeper interests can intrude on the story, but that's because he wanted the story to be more than a superficial vicarious thrill. He's a writer you have to work with and the more you do the more his stories will give back in return. It's interesting that there are several of his stories that on first reading I found tedious and long winded, but on second reading and certainly later readings when preparing the biography, I began to appreciate the secondary and other depths to them. That is most true of his novels such as The Bright Messenger, which disappointed me hugely when I first read it. But when I read it again (for the third time) for the biography, it suddenly opened up for me and I appreciated at last what Blackwood was trying to do. And then the book engulfed me, as so much of his great work does. If anyone reading this has not read much Blackwood I would ask them to persevere and to try out stories like "Sand" (in Pan's Garden) and "A Descent Into Egypt" (in Incredible Adventures) and his novels Julius Levallon and The Centaur as these are his very best work.

IR: Who do you particularly enjoy reading from amongst Blackwood's peers?

MA: If you mean his contemporary writers of the supernatural then it's the fairly standard list of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Conan Doyle, A.M. Burrage and so on. If you mean other writers who were Blackwood's contemporaries, then the list is pretty long, since Blackwood lived a long life, and I enjoy much from Lord Dunsany through to P.G. Wodehouse.

IR: Blackwood was a prolific wanderer, and in Starlight Man you show how his travels made a great impact on his fiction. Have you managed to visit many of the places that made such a mark on him?

MA: No, I haven't. Much though I would like to follow his trail in the Caucasus, it's a very different world now than then and although you can follow some earthly landmarks it's the spiritual world you really want to follow, and I'm not ready to go there yet!

Mike Ashley's books are widely available in the shops.

Order online using these links and infinity plus will benefit: / Internet Bookshop.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)