May 17, 2023
Our new HWA-GV Co-Chair for 2023/24, Phil Harris has a wealth of writing experience under his belt. A speculative fiction author and video game developer, his first publication, Letter From a Victim, appeared in the award winning magazine, Peeping Tom, in 1995. Since then he’s been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Garbled Transmissions, So Long, and Thanks for All The Brains and James Ward Kirk’s Best of Horror 2013. His science fiction novel, Glitch Mitchell and the Unseen Planet, is a homage to the old Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. You can find free fiction and his blog at his website: solitarymindset.com
To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to write dark speculative fiction?
I’m going to blame my Generation X background. English bookshops in the 80s still had a real horror section with the likes of Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Shaun Hutson, and Steve Harris (no relation). The 80s also gave us classic horror movies like Hellraiser, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Re-Animator, The Fly, An American Werewolf in London and countless others, all available from the video rental store down the street.
Even now, the movies, TV and books I pick almost always have a dark edge to them. Add to that the famed GenX self-reliance, (slight) cynicism, my love of 80s/90s goth music and a dark sense of humour and you have all the makings of a writer of dark fiction.
You’re also a video game developer. Are there any parallels that exist between creating a novel and developing a video game?
There are certainly similarities. Video game stories and novels both need strong characters, interesting hooks, the right atmosphere, and perfect pacing to draw people in and keep them interested. I use the same techniques for outlining video game stories and characters as I do for novels.
But from there, things diverge significantly. With a novel I’m focused on telling the story I want to tell in the best way I can. There’ll be editor or early reader feedback but generally I’m in charge. Video games are collaborative. I work with a team of writers, artists and game designers on the story, and everything goes through multiple rounds of feedback that we use to try to find the “right” story for the game.
Video games also take a lot longer than a novel (at least for me). A big video game can take 3-5 years to make compared to six months or so for me to write a polished draft of a novel.
Do you make a conscious effort to include particular material or circumstances in your creative work and if so, what do you want to portray?
It’s not always conscious, but memories play a big part in a lot of my stories. From creatures that can only live if someone remembers them to travelling memory salesmen, I keep drawing on the impact memories have on our lives. And because I write horror, they tend to be memories that haunt or cause pain in some way.
To me, memories are little angels and devils nestled at the back of our brains just waiting to crawl into our conscious thoughts to either delight or torment us. And I can’t be the only one who finds that it’s the devilish memories that are the most persistent. I still remember meaningless little mistakes I made twenty-five years ago, but I can’t recall much from the films I watched at the horror film festival my wife and I attended during our much more recent honeymoon. Even though I know I enjoyed them. One was set on a ski lift… and there were zombies at some point. That was a different film, though, I think.
How does your non-writing life play into your fiction writing and your game development?
Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest are appearing more and more in my writing, in both novels and video games. The book I’m working on at the moment is set in an unnamed city that is closely modelled on Vancouver, and I recently designed a game character with a background that was loosely connected to British Columbia.
Who are some of your favourite characters in horror? Authors you recommend?
I’m going to have to start with Pinhead. The original Hellraiser is one of my favourite movies and it really cemented my love of horror. Pinhead is such an iconic character and has always appealed to me. And I love Clive Barker’s writing. More recently, I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lector in the Hannibal TV series. In fact the whole cast was fantastic. The writing on that show is amazing and I’m still sad it’s ended.
My go-to author recommendation is Caitlin R. Kiernan. She writes amazing, poetic dark fantasy and science fiction that is so good it almost makes me want to quit writing. My favourites of her novels are Murder of Angels and Daughter of Hounds, but she’s also written a huge number of great short stories. They can be tricky to get hold of, but Subterranean Press has put out several collections.
Cassandra Khaw is another fantastic author. Their haunted house novella, Nothing But Blackened Teeth, was a British Fantasy, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson and Bram Stoker Award finalist but they’ve also written a lot of great short stories and have a collection out called Breakable Things. Oh, and they also write video games.
What’s one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Don’t ignore storytelling in video games. There are a lot of video games out there that tell really interesting stories in unique ways. The interactivity of games forces writers to approach story in a different way and games like Alan Wake and Control tell outstanding, original stories (and can often be genuinely creepy).