A claustrophobic sense of terror
The Pale Ones is the debut novella from Bartholomew Bennett.
While not specifically exploring the LGBTQ experience, The Pale Ones is a dark story about books, and collecting and will appeal to readers who like a bit of intelligent horror and Twilight Zone style science fiction.
Few books are treasured. Most linger in the dusty purgatory of the bookshelf, the attic, the charity shop, their sallow pages filled with superfluous knowledge. And with stories. Darker than ink, paler than paper, something is rustling through their pages.
Harris loves to collect the unloved. And in helping people. Or so he says. He wonders if you have anything to donate. To his ‘children’. Used books are his game. Neat is sweet; battered is better. Tears, stains, broken spines — ugly doesn’t matter. Not a jot. And if you’ve left a little of yourself between the pages — a receipt or ticket, a mislaid letter, a scrawled note or number — that’s just perfect. He might call back.
I caught up with the author for a between-the-pages look at the work.
When did you start to explore and pursue your passion for writing?
In the sense that it entails a kind of daydreaming or fantasising, then from early childhood. I was a very early and keen reader — so much of the skill-set of writing is entangled with reading, certainly in terms of vocabulary and style, idiom and usage and all that stuff. And exposing yourself to different ideas, of course. In that sense, all of my lifelong reading — and I like books a lot — has been a kind of preparation.
But in terms of actually completing drafts and finished versions of stories and novels, I didn’t really develop that habit until my late twenties. I’d been working for a few years for a software house, writing code but also being involved in project management, and that experience — finding ways to get things done to schedule, improvising workarounds for short-term problems or hold-ups and so on, really helped me to negotiate the bloody-minded side of writing. In one sense, the process of writing is simple — you just sit down and do it until it’s finished. It’s an excellent method of learning and works for a great many things, from tiling a wall to writing a novel. Practice, I think it’s called.
What was your inspiration for the story of The Pale Ones?
It was trading in second-hand books as a supplementary income source. There was an immense pleasure in discovering books, largely at random, that might sell for a great deal more than they cost. Some of the books were quite possibly or obviously valuable, whereas others, which seemed on the face of it rather uninteresting, turned out sometimes to be surprisingly saleable.
A certain proportion of that stock came from charity shops, as described in the novel — although that’s about the extent of the similarity. Doing that as a sideline, amongst other jobs, started me thinking about how the book-selling might expand, and so I came to the idea — a fantasy, really — of a mentor to demonstrate the lore, the tricks, the ins and outs, of it all. And thus, the character Harris.
Of course, I couldn’t help but twist that idea and situation into something darker — much darker.
What was the creative process like?
This particular story started off much shorter — so it was drafted with relative speed. It’s grown a little since then, but the shape of the narrative — a warped there and back again — has remained pretty much constant.
I knew that the midpoint would be Scarborough — I’d been there and been impressed by the kind of dizziness or vertigo induced by the sight of clouds racing in off the North Sea, and had wanted to use that.
I worked on it on and off for a couple of years, filling in time between other projects. During that time, the only thing that really changed substantially was the exact form and cadence of the ending.
Who are some of your horror heroes or inspirations?
I’m a huge admirer of Robert Aickman, and I think his presence rather haunts the pages of the book. In general, it’s that end of horror writing — the allusive, careful and distinctly chilling — that I really love. Short stories from writers like Thomas Ligotti, Dennis Etchison, and M. John Harrison — and also from Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, who are perhaps better known for their novels.
Then there’s certainly a more general influence from an older generation of stories — M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. Finally, those writers whose work contains large swathes of horrific elements but aren’t particularly regarded as ‘horror’ writers — Henry James, Thomas Pynchon, Bret Easton Ellis, and, particularly in terms of the self-regarding narrator, Nabokov.
This is your debut novella — what does it feel like to have your first novel published?
The first of many, I hope! I’m really excited, as you might expect. Inkandescent have done an absolutely first-rate job in terms of design and production, and I felt absolutely ecstatic holding the first hard copy in my hands. Also, I was really immensely pleased to have an endorsement from Ramsey Campbell, who was kind enough to read the book and gift us a quote for the cover.
What do you hope that people feel when reading The Pale Ones?
Well, foremost, I’d like readers to be engaged with the narrative, and immersed in the situation described. But in terms of effect, I suppose I’d wish for a kind of terrified fascination. Awe is, I think, the sort of standard, go-to Lovecraftian response, but that sounds terribly grand, doesn’t it? And I don’t think either that it’s quite the right register for this book. It’s somewhat quieter than that, I think. Smaller — more claustrophobic — the source of terror isn’t out there in some immense, awful cosmos, it’s much closer than that.