Vampires, Sand and Horses
Tom Holland interviewed by David Mathew
Cairo was much on my mind as I travelled to meet Tom Holland. Not only had I recently finished reading his new novel, The Sleeper in the Sands, which is set there, but I had spent the academic year 94-95 working there, and reading the book had brought back many memories. It had brought back many memories, even given the fact that the book starts in 1922 and moves backwards through time in a series of take-turns narratives as the search for the solution of the life-threatening puzzle is sought... Perhaps my heightened awareness of Egypt, therefore, was to blame for the fact that I even saw similarities between the country and the conurbation in which Holland lives: Brixton. The excruciating noise levels are certainly similar, or were, at least, on this day; the multi-ethnicity, too; not to mention the kerbside arguments (two black kids were rowing about the relative merits of their yo-yos, with one saying, memorably, "Your string looks like doo-doo, man...").
Although Holland has never lived in Egypt, he has visited the country several times ("a fascinating place, absolutely fascinating"). To my surprise, I found that he has also worked abroad as an English teacher, but in India: "a total culture shock." As it happens (and it doesn't happen often when I'm meeting someone for an interview) Holland and I have much in common. Give or take a year, we are approximately the same age. We have both travelled in Egypt a great deal; his real name sounds a little bit like my pseudonym (or the other way around.) But my disconcerting discovery of a Spice Girls CD should not go unmentioned ("it's not mine!" was swiftly offered.) We had brie, we had wine; and we started.
His writing life began, as many do, during the years of education: "When I was at university I wrote several plays, which did quite well. I wrote a ridiculous first novel, around 200,000 words long and I eventually sold it for about £3500. I thought: this is ridiculous; it's miles below the minimum wage." This first-written piece was Attis: a scandalously forgotten and much underrated novel. "Attis was my first novel - and my attempt to write the great novel of the late twentieth century. I put my heart and soul into it," Holland states, "as most first-time novelists do, I'm sure. I wrote it, sort of, with the frame of mind that this might be the only stab at writing that I might ever get. I'm not sure why. So there were all sorts of elements in it: it was a love story, a thriller, a political thriller, a murder mystery...
"If you read it, and then read some of my other work, there are clearly a number of themes that I've followed up on, later." He has a strong opinion of why this might be. "It's possible there's such a thing as creative DNA; that no matter what you write it might always have certain themes and interests with which you've become associated, somewhere in there. They're trade marks; they're give-aways: call them what you want. Do you see? Certain things are always going to turn up - with a particular novelist, or even short story-writer. In one way or another. Attis was about an ancient Rome that was really modern London. It's about Catullus, the love poet."
While finishing up discussing Attis, Holland spoke a sentence that actually defines his entire oeuvre to date: "I'm very interested in historical anachronism." All of Holland's work takes a period of the past, and then removes its bones as though he was filleting fish. What he puts back in place of the bones is a new set of bones: and they fit the frame but they are carrying some sort of disease, maybe, that will leak into the historical present around them. At the very least they will make the historical period that he describes have a strange limp. By way of illustration of this point, Holland describes the process that led to The Vampyre: Being the True Pilgrimage of George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron (1995) - usually called simply The Vampyre.
"At the same time I'd been doing a PhD on Byron and had been very struck by Byron's profound influence on the vampire myth; and the more I looked at Byron's biography the more it struck me that maybe Byron had been a vampire. So that was the idea behind the first book that got published, The Vampyre. And having written that, of course, I was expected to write something - no pun intended - in a similar vein. The publishers wanted another vampire book." While acknowledging his publisher's requests, Holland was not content to repeat The Vampyre simply under another name and character list. Instead, he looked at some of his early influences and interests: "Well, some of my great childhood enthusiasms had been Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Gray. Cobblestones and Hansom cabs: that sort of thing." And he started work on (in my opinion) his finest novel: Supping With Panthers - and I do not just love it because of its great title!
"What interests me in the supernatural," Holland said, "is its cultural specifics. What I don't like about a lot of vampire fiction, or a lot of horror fiction in general, I suppose, is the idea that you can just transpose the myths of one period onto another, without it being hopeless. Have you seen Ultraviolet? (An ITV show, bringing such issues under a modern spotlight, in the form of fiction, of course.) It's really good! But the problem with vampires in the contemporary is... well, it's like updating Shakespeare. The first matter is: why bother? But the second, and more important, matter is, if you do bother: What do you do with the religious angle? What do you do with the crucifixes, which aren't taken so seriously now? We can't pretend that the past never happened, obviously, or a lot of writers would be out of work. Personally, I've always been interested in seeing what myths mean to specific periods."
By common consensus, the novel that Tom Holland arrived with next was his darkest to date. "Deliver Us From Evil (1997) is set in a period before the word 'vampire' even existed." When I reviewed the book at the beginning of 1998, I used phrases such as "a grim Marlovian parable." The book has old and evil forces arriving at the same historical time as a time of problems with the Commonwealth. A man named Faustus is present, who presents England with a blood-sucking army of the dead...
"Over those three vampire books I was interested in seeing how the myth has evolved. I regard them more as historical novels than horror novels, really. Deliver Us From Evil is set in the 17th Century; there's an awful lot of novels set around the same period, but which suffer from an omniscient 20th Century perspective: that witchcraft didn't actually exist. Which I think is unfair. It's hard to get into the minds of characters if you don't take what they take seriously. So I wanted to take characters and take their fears both seriously and literally."
Tom Holland believes, I think it's fair to say, in the idea of a writer taking responsibility - not only for the work that he has penned (which is fair enough), but also for the way that that same piece of work will make another person feel. For example, he said the following: "When you're writing horror, it's worms and guts, but then of course you have to read it back..." The implication being that an author should be able to deal with his own material in a level-headed manner: but what about those readers who cannot do so? Truly and personally, I don't think this is something that Holland need worry about too much. The sadistic thrill of voyeurism is not something that one might take from his books; few children, for instance, would be able to read and understand his work - they might as well stick to Richard Laymon. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Holland, having defended his work by saying, "I don't write schlock; I've never written schlock," confessed the squeamish side to his nature. I know of one other notable horror writer who cannot stand the sight of blood, but the idea of writing about what cannot endure in this sense seemed amusing.
"I went to ante-natal class yesterday," Holland said. "We were shown a cutaway of the insides of the woman's body. Ugh! Disgusting! And would I like to cut the umbilical chord? No, thank you. I always go slightly faint at the sight of blood. That's why I think that of the first three books I find Deliver Us From Evil the darkest; it's the most upsetting one to read. It's the cruellest; the most remorseless." It does not cover pregnancy as a big issue, but I take his point: it's a gloomy read.
"The new book - The Sleeper in the Sands - is a logical development from my previous novels." It is also a notable departure from these. "There are some vampiric elements, but the vampire is very specifically a 19th Century literary invention. There are obviously analogies in other cultures, and I was interested in looking at those. There are blood-drinking demons in Arabic mythology... It's about how different cultures see the same raw material and interpret it in different ways. For my first three novels, there was no doubt that within the context of the work, vampires do exist, whereas with The Sleeper in the Sands there is doubt.
"Howard Carter (the real-life explorer and archaeologist whose name Holland has used in a fictional setting) is a rationalist, and although most people would think that any book about Tut-ankh-Amen would be about the curse, that was not my primary concern. In the world of Howard Carter the curse doesn't exist; in the world of the Arabian Nights of medieval Cairo it does exist. In the world of Ancient Egypt it does exist as well. In those worlds, things like that were needed. So, what I hoped to do with Sleeper in the Sands was generate tensions between those three periods - so you're always seeing one period in the context of the other two. You're never absolutely certain, because I'm never saying: this is true, or this is true, or this is true. Most horror novels tend to say: this is what's happened; this is what's happening. I don't want to do that."
The novel, in fact, is analogous to walking on the sand that it describes, or has in the background: every now and then the reader sinks through to another level. I've said before that the structure is close to Charles Nodier's Smarra (and others, of course - but Nodier's the best). We are walking on sand; how dare we assume that every step will support our weight? Every now and then we are bound to be whisked through, down onto another stratum, if you like. As it goes, the reader's possible experience - in this sense - chimes in with that of the man who inspired the entire tale.
"Howard Carter was riding on his horse and the horse's hoof went through the roof of a tomb; and there is the occasional story of a tourist wandering off and sinking into a tomb," Holland said. And he had other plans for The Sleeper in the Sands: "Also I wanted the structure of the book to mirror the structure on an Egyptian tomb. The idea of stories within stories is justified by the setting, because not only is Cairo the home of the Arabian nights, it's also where most of the stories were written....
"We can't have a realistic novel set in Ancient Egypt because we just don't know enough about it. If you try to write a realistic Egyptian novel, you'll have a set of people in Egyptian drag. But what we do know about Egyptian literature is, it was very interested in short stories." It still is, I mentioned; although there are some great and good exceptions (Naguib Mahfouz springs to mind: the Cairo Trilogy and Wedding Song, all highly recommended), many contemporary Arabic writers continue to work in the shorter form. And short means a page or a few pages, not 40. Holland's opinion of his technique was: "It was a justified way of trying to get into the Egyptian mind. The main section in The Sleeper in the Sands, about Akh-en-Aten, is narrated by an Arab who doesn't necessarily know as much about ancient Egypt as we do, so mistakes things in a way that we, the modern reader, particularly given the perspective we've received from Howard Carter, won't do. It's all about perceptions." The same is true of much of his output. "There are adaptations of history and even of the great myths, which are translated into Arabic. In The Sleeper in the Sands, Akh-en-Aten is recast as the hero of a medieval tale. In the end, the important fact I'd like to stress is that Sleeper in the Sands displays a similar relationship of the individual to a moment of time as, for example, Attis does. So I suppose I'm reinforcing my own theory about creative DNA. I wonder what any other writers would think..."
We talked some more about genre. It was the first time that Tom Holland had looked a little uncomfortable. "I think genre is very important," he began - but slowly. "Genre shouldn't be simply transparent; genre reflects the period it was written in." But what I'd been getting at, really, was how did he see himself as a horror writer; did he think of himself as occupying a particular spot in the marketplace. And this was better; this was something he could grasp on to. He said, "It's not so much that I'm not a horror writer; it's more that I don't believe 'horror' defines it. Which is not to say I'm above it, or anything like that, although I do think a lot of horror is - I'll say it again - rather schlocky. What I'm interested in, to a great extent, is people's attitudes to horror, and how those attitudes are influenced by the times through which the people are living. Horror, I think in my books, is a means to an end, rather than the end itself."
More as a general question as I was preparing to leave than part of the interview, I asked him how things were going. "Fine. Fine," he replied, and then added: "Please put in here that I said 'not big-headedly, not conceitedly' - something like that... I feel good about a number of things at the moment. I have high hopes for The Sleeper in the Sands, and I really want to promote it well. There'll be a book launch in the British Museum (in fact, it was on November 19, 1998) - in the Egyptian Room. I think it will be the first time that the room will be used to launch a non-Museum Press publication. That's quite exciting. And then I've got the next one to work on: a book set in America. I'm taking horse-riding lessons at the moment so that when I go over to do my research I don't end up looking like a complete tinderfoot, a complete novice. Learning to ride properly is a bit scary, though...
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© David Mathew 19 June 1999