At the end of April my latest full novel The Flesh Market was given the once over by Anna McGrail over at The Edinburgh Book Review. It’s a bit of a mixed review as these things go. I’m glad Anna found stuff to enjoy, and a little sad that it missed the mark for her in other ways. I get the feeling that she would have preferred a more traditional sort of zombie novel than I provided (I hope she stumbles across Thy Fearful Symmetry someday, as I suspect the final third of that book would satisfy her much more). It’s the sort of review at which I shrug and move on out of necessity. I’m pleased and grateful that she took the time to read and review it, and a little disappointed not to have fully won her over. Hey ho. You can’t win them all.
There’s one point in there that has stuck with me though, and that’s the assumption that I’m trying to lead the author to feel pity for William Burke and so provide a hero for the novel. Anna rightly doesn’t buy it. Burke’s problems don’t in any way justify his actions. He’s no more a hero than his partner in crime. and I’m definitely not trying to set him up as one. I’m not even sure I want you to pity him. The problems he encounters, that lead him to slide into a morass of murder and fear, are almost all of his own devising. A better man would not have ended up so deep in the gutter. I find him piteous. He’s a part of me (all my characters are, in some way) that I have a huge amount of contempt for. That doesn’t mean I don’t or shouldn’t try to understand him of course. Much of the book is about his journey from being one type of man to another.
So if Burke isn’t the hero of The Flesh Market, who is?
Nobody. There are no heroes in the novel. None at all. It’s not that sort of book. I didn’t set out to write a novel about, in Anna’s words, “zombies and murder” (although I can forgive anybody for assuming so as both are present and correct). I wanted to write a book about people. In this case the people aren’t particularly nice, because beneath the hood this is a story about obsession and addiction. Both are traits that can make us monstrous, and in The Flesh Market that is exactly what happens to each of the principal characters in different ways.
Most of the positive reviews the book has had so far come from people who ‘don’t usually read that sort of thing’ and make a point of saying so on Amazon. By this, I suspect most of them are people who wouldn’t normally pick up one of the many (many, many, many) zombie novels that are currently stifling the horror genre with their repetition. Fair enough. The typical zombie story has had its day. There’s always room for something radical and new within that sub-genre, but most releases aren’t trying to provide it. Instead they’re catering to readers with an appetite for more of the same. That’s not a crime at all, but for better or worse The Flesh Market isn’t ‘more of the same’.
It puts me in an odd position when it comes to marketing. Zombie lovers might not be satisfied by the book. Zombie loathers might not pick it up in the first place. How do you market a book with zombies in for people who don’t usually read things with zombies in?
Of course, as marketing problems go that’s an adjunct to a larger one I’ve struggled with for the last nine months or so. For a long time I’ve been to all intents and purposes a horror author. But am I really?
I can’t remember the last time I wrote a story in order to scare people, or a scene because I wanted a reader to recoil. Of the novels I’ve written the only one which I consider to be a proper ‘horror novel’ is my first, Cuckoo. I don’t know whether I’ve lost track of what the genre is about, whether it’s changed into something I no longer quite match, or what. Maybe I’m wrong, and I really do fit snugly into the genre. That would be fine with me too. I’d just like to know. Given that my last three novels have included zombies, a haunted house, and an apocalypse, what am I if I’m not a horror author? Does just working with a genre’s tropes place you in that genre, or does there have to be more?
Serious question then. You’ve read some of my stuff I hope (if you haven’t… um… here it is, go and buy something). Am I a horror author? Do I write horror? I’ll be perfectly satisfied if the answer is ‘yes’. It’s a genre I’ve always loved. I just don’t know if it’s where my own stories really lie anymore.
Answers below, if you have them. I’ll come back to this on Thursday I think, when my head’s a little clearer.
On the subject of reviews, I have a request. If you’ve read one of my books then please pop along to Amazon and leave a short review and rating. It doesn’t have to be much, but it helps the book along in all sorts of ways. Firstly, other customers will read it. You might be the one that convinces them to buy a copy for themselves. Secondly, Amazon keeps count of these things. If a book has a few reviews, it sometimes recommends it to other people who might like it. Thirdly, behind the scenes, a book needs reviews in order to qualify for various promotional things that help it to find readers. The Flesh Remembers doesn’t currently have enough reviews for those alas, so if you can add one more then you will be helping me out enormously. The same goes for any of my books that you read. Some of you do this as a matter of course, for me and other authors too – thank you! Everybody else, please join in…