The Mask by Carl Hughes (Issue 2) is a truly horrifying story. It is the kind of story that nightmares are made of. The kind of story that doesn’t just give you the chills, but gives you the shudders. It is, in point of fact, the kind of story that is perfect for THE DAEK SIRE. Faced with that quality of horror, that quality of terror, and that quality of writing, TDS has come up with some questions that true fans of the Horror genre might like to ask and Mr. Hughes was kind enough to take the time to answer them.
TDS: What served as your inspiration for this story?
Carl Hughes: There are a number of stately homes around Britain that exhibit wax casts of the death mask of Oliver Cromwell, who installed himself as Lord Protector of England after having King Charles I beheaded on Whitehall in London in 1649. One of those masks is in the Tower of London and, as you might imagine, it’s quite a striking and even gruesome object. It was during a visit to the Tower, when as a journalist I was researching an article for The Times newspaper, that one of the famous Beefeaters showed me Cromwell’s death mask. I was smitten immediately by the idea of writing a short story that would feature such a mask – a mask that would come with its own especially grim and horrific story.
TDS: How did you decide on the setting/location of this story?
Carl Hughes: There’s a coastal village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales called Trearddur Bay which in winter is constantly storm-lashed by wind and rain that rages in from the Irish Sea. While staying in this village one November, and loving anything even vaguely gothic, I stood for a long time simply gazing at a greystone place, reminiscent of a miniature castle, that stood on a slight promontory at the edge of the sea. The Spookery, I dubbed it whimsically. On that bleak and stormy day it appeared wonderfully sinister as the wind and sea lashed its walls. I realised instantly that it would form a perfect setting for a gothic horror story. It inspired me to get writing but I decided to set the tale in Scotland rather than Wales. I have a great admiration for the Scots, whose writers and scientists have given so much to the world, but many Scots have in recent decades formed an unfortunate (to my mind) loathing of the English. So I thought it might be a good idea to turn the tables and have an Englishman mete out vengeance to an irascible Scot. One of my passions is a study of past-life memories, or reincarnation, and I decided to bring that into play in my story.
TDS: How did you come up with the backstory to "The Mask?" Was it difficult to write a story that took place in two different times and find a way to weave them together and wrap up the story perfectly?
Carl Hughes: I have in my files literally hundreds of story ideas, and almost as many full outlines, but I’ll never get around to writing most of them as life simply isn’t long enough to accommodate them all. In this case I decided to combine two of those ideas, one set in the 17th century and concerning the torture of an English Royalist by a fanatical Scot who opposed the union of the two nations. The other idea came from a desire to portray something of the growing sense of Scottish patriotism that vilifies anything English and desires to break up the United Kingdom. Throw in a dash of horror, a helping of gothic, and I had my recipe for something really rather nasty.
TDS: What does your writing process look like? Do you plan your stories ahead of time or write as you go?
Carl Hughes: I’m not one of those people who fly by the seat of their pants. I have to know in advance how the story will start, how it will progress and how it will end, although the journey in getting from beginning to end can diverge down many byways as the writing goes on. I don’t have a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story, merely an outline that can vary from 200 words to more than 1000. I find it best to work this way rather than start off with no clear ‘destination’ in mind, only to find I’m either running out of steam/ideas or realise that I’ve started in the wrong place, so have to begin all over again. That strikes me as a great waste of time and mightily unprofessional. As a journalist, I’m accustomed to working to tight deadlines and there’s no time to keep going back, having second thoughts, and restarting from scratch. I build that into my fiction-writing regimen. Sometimes, however, as with a story I’m working on at the moment, the realisation strikes me that the ending isn’t the most appropriate and so it has to be rethought.
TDS: What risks have you taken with your stories that have paid off?
Carl Hughes: Not so much paid off as not paid off. I’m not of the woke generation and frankly I have little patience for political correctness in its many minacious forms. I’m a great believer in free speech, which means the ability to state an idea or a thought process even though some might consider it unfashionable or even offensive. I’ve written stories featuring black characters and had them rejected because as a white man I’m said not to have knowledge of how a black character would feel. I’ve even been accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ – the latest buzz phrase. My belief is that all human beings are equal and aspire pretty much to the same ideals whatever their colour or heritage. No one ‘owns’ a particular culture, type of clothing, hairstyle or mode of speech. I’ve also written stories from a female point of view and been told that I can’t possibly understand how a woman would feel, say, in a bad marriage. By the same token, I don’t know how Tolkien, for instance, could understand the workings of a Hobbit’s mind but he didn’t make such a bad job of it, did he? As for George Orwell and Richard Adams with those animals – well, enough said.
TDS: Your story, The Mask, has a folktale/legend vibe. Is there a local legend or folktale that helped inspire you to write this story?
Carl Hughes: Not a folk tale but history certainly. The English king, Richard II, was murdered at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire in 1327 by having a white-hot poker thrust into his anus, thereby roasting his bowels. A chronicler recorded, ‘His screams could be heard for miles around.’ That image always struck me as peculiarly hideous and no one would deny that it was an extraordinarily cruel way to perish. As soon as I learned that bit of morbid history I decided that one day I’d incorporate something similar into a story of my own. And I did.
TDS: Is writing a part of your daily routine, or do you only write when you feel like you have an idea you want to work with?
Carl Hughes: It’s often been said by writing tutors that you should write every day, even if you’re sick or you’ve just suffered a bereavement. It doesn’t matter what you write, or how bad it is, just as long as you get something down. That’s the mantra. I don’t go along with it, certainly as a fiction writer though naturally journalism is by definition different. Frankly, I’d prefer to write no fiction than write rubbish, then have to go back the following day and redo it. I’d much rather wait for a few hours until I feel in good writing form, then go at it for as long as the creative juices flow. As a general rule I write every day but I’m not one of those who can put in a stint of eight or ten hours at a throw. I find I’ve pretty much squeezed out of myself all I have to give after two or, at most, three hours. Any more than that and it leaves me feeling hung over next day. I do write quickly, however (my journalism training, no doubt), and find that during those three hours I might get down 10,000 words. I reckon that isn’t bad for a day’s work. It means that in ten days I’ve created the equivalent of a good-sized novel.
TDS: Who are some authors who influenced your work? Who are some authors that made you want to be a writer?
Carl Hughes: At school we were made to read the classics, which in those days meant such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy and Trollope. I could never get into Shakespeare. Poetry just doesn’t float my boat and, frankly, I have a hard job understanding most of it. As for Hardy and Trollope, their flowery and discursive writing was fine for its day, no doubt, but not very instructive for our times. Dickens was the most flowery and discursive of all, frequently building five or six clauses with many semicolons into a single sentence. But his mastery of characterisation, atmosphere and description were second to none. So yes, I learned a lot from Dickens. Of contemporary writers, I massively admire the intricate plots and devious designs of Dean Koontz’s novels of the 1980s; I enjoy Stephen King’s short stories for their grittiness and couldn’t-give-a-damn characters with whom most of us can readily identify; and on the ‘literary’ side I most admire Kazuo Ishiguro and Rose Tremain. Ishiguro’s work appears on the surface to be so simple, yet its undercurrents are profound. Best of all, he doesn’t try to baffle his reader by injecting liberal doses of the dictionary into his stories. You never find, with Ishiguro, that you’re left scratching your head and wondering what the hell this word or that word means. As for Rose Tremain, she’s brilliant at plot and characterisation whether writing historical fiction or setting her themes in the present. On the negative side, she fills her novels with anachronisms, which smacks of non-research. To give one example, she has Beatles discs dominating the airwaves long before the Fab Four had even been heard of outside Liverpool. If you can live with that and many other instances like it, I heartily recommend her books.
TDS: Are you a member of any writing organization or community? If so, which ones? What benefits do you see from belonging to a community that encourages writers?
Carl Hughes: I was once persuaded to undertake a correspondence course in creative writing, as the British government was offering to pay half the cost. I’m afraid I was sadly disillusioned, as the tutor (who came with great credentials, it has to be said, and was touted as being an expert on all forms of short fiction) proved to understand far less of the current requirements of a short story than I did. Worse, her grasp of grammar and punctuation were atrocious. It seemed she was only interested in romance and women’s magazine fiction – she scorned anything other than that. Never again. As for writing groups and circles, I’ve heard that some are great and some are abysmal, with lots of backbiting and jealousy. I have never been a member of a writing group. I prefer to park my backside behind a computer and get on with the business of writing rather than sit around talking about it.
TDS: What message do you hope readers take away from this story?
Carl Hughes: In the past I’ve written many ‘literary’ stories in which I tried to embody a message and a load of symbolism. That’s par for the course with that genre. I don’t find the need or desire to emulate such a process with a horror story. I just hope my readers will relish the yarn for what it is – a piece of creepy or escapist fiction to be enjoyed, not studied and analysed. If there’s a hidden message in ‘The Mask’ I’d be interest to know what it is, as I haven’t a clue what it could be!
TDS: Have you published any books?
Carl Hughes: I have lots of novels and books of short stories published in e-format for the Kindle and on other digital platforms such as Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo. I don’t claim, as do far too many self-published authors, to be ‘an international bestseller’. I write only to entertain and hope that readers will enjoy what I’ve written without feeling they’ve had to pay through the nose for the privilege. If they decide they’ve passed a pleasant and grisly or spooky hour with my prose, then I’m satisfied at a job well done.
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If you have any questions for Carl Hughes, please leave them in the comments sections and THE DARK SIRE will be happy to get them answered for you.
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