I’m Willie, I’m a Scotsman, and I like horror fiction.
A lot of my work, long and short form, has been set in Scotland, and a lot of it uses the history and folklore. There’s just something about the misty landscapes and old buildings that speaks straight to my soul. (Bloody Celts… we get all sentimental at the least wee thing).
Scottish history goes deep. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a castle or a historic monument or, from further back, a burial mound or standing stone. Five thousand years of living in mist and dampness, wind and snow, lashing rain and high seas leads to the telling of many tales of eldritch beings abroad in the dark nights. Add in the constant risk of invasion and war from Romans, Danes, Irishmen, Vikings and English and you can see that there’s plenty of fertile ground for both fact and fiction to merge into a rich and varied mythology.
I grew up in the West Coast of Scotland in an environment where the supernatural was almost commonplace. My grannie certainly had a touch of “the sight”, always knowing when someone in the family was in trouble. There are numerous stories told of family members meeting other, long dead, family in their dreams, and I myself have had more than a few encounters, with dead family, plus meetings with what I can only class as residents of faerie. I have had several precognitive dreams, one of which saved me from a potentially fatal car crash.
What with all of that, it was only natural that my taste in reading would take a turn towards the spooky.
I think my first close encounter of the Scottish kind must have been with Rabbie Burns. I’m from Ayrshire like Rabbie, and we share a birthday, so he was ever present in my early schooling. I remember learning a recital of the galloping frenzy of Tam o’ Shanter as drunken Tam escapes the witches Sabbath by the skin of his teeth. Walter Scott too wasn’t above slipping wraiths and fairies and fey folk into his romances, and he too was an early sight for me of some old Scots preoccupations with the darker side.
When I started reading seriously for myself, Treasure Island was one of my early favorites, and it led me directly to the man who would be a lifelong companion. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t just anchor a whole sub-culture of horror with Doctor Jeckyll and his alter-ego — he also wrote some of the greatest adventure novels of all time, and some of the most beautifuly constructed short stories you ever did read. He also introduced me to Scottish history in a way that school books had never managed, and through him I was led to Victorian Edinburgh and London, and directly into the arms of another great Scotsman.
Yes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish. No, he wasn’t an English gentleman. Now that’s out of the way… I fell in love with Doyle through Challenger more than Holmes at first, from a love of The Lost World that persists to this day. Holmes came along later, and when I started writing Holmes stories of my own, the supernatural kept creeping into them, which gets me castigated by Sherlockian purists, but I don’t care; as a Scotsman, like Doyle, steeped in the stories told in the mists and dark rooms in old buildings, it feels as natural to me as breathing. Doyle also wrote some top notch horror shorts that were a big favorite of mine in those early years.
Also writing at the same time was Margaret Oliphant, a prolific Scotswoman better known for romantic dramas than supernatural works, but in later years I discovered a ghost stories collection of hers and was delighted to discover that she too shared our kinfolk’s love for the things that live in the dark and foggy nights in the auld country.
My later reading in my early teens before I found Moorcock then Lovecraft then King was almost all sci-fi or thriller based, but there too I found Scots with a taste for the darkside, in John Buchan and especially Alistair MacLean, a man who would have made a great pulp horror writer in different circumstances.
Later still William McIllvaney and Ian Rankin, while ostensibly working in the crime field also showed me more than a few glimpses of their familiarity with the dark and the ways of things that creep in the shadows.
And then, in the Eighties, horror came back to Scotland in full measure, in Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory, in Jonathan Aycliffe’s Edinburgh ghost story, The Matrix, and in the many works of Joe Donnelly, a much missed genre writer who gave us a whole range of Scottish spooks, spectres, bogey-men and monsters in his short horror career during the boom years.
Which brings us round to when I started writing for myself, in the early ’90s. I’ve tried over the years since then to explain in a variety of works what the rich history of Scottish supernatural writing has given me. In my new book, THE GHOST CLUB, I’ve gone right back to basics, and provided as part of it three tales as if told by Stevenson, Oliphant and Doyle, and a wee cameo by Rabbie Burns in another story for good measure. I hope I’ve done them justice.
I’m Willie, I’m a Scotsman, and I write horror fiction.
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