Not long ago, my mother said to me, “The problem with you is that most of your friends are dead.” Old now she might be, and away with the fairies most days, occasionally she still has the unsettling habit of putting her finger on a certain truth.
Back in 2013, just as I had begun work on my novel The Willow Woman, three of my friends – all about the age of 50 – died suddenly. I say friends in the loosest sense, as two of them I had lost touch with years before for various reasons and the other had refused to see me for the final two months of his life, embarrassed I suppose at his sudden physical decline.
I cannot say for sure if any of their deaths affected the writing of the novel. I don’t consider myself a particularly sentimental person and I hardly ever find myself mulling over the past. The past is done – what else is there to say? But maybe it is instructive to note that the main character in the book, Philip Ye – who not only sees ghosts but also spends a lot of time mourning the past – is named after one of those departed friends, and each of the other important characters is trying to escape their pasts and build a new life.
The creation of characters is a mystery to me. A character just pops into my mind and I just listen to what they have to say – as I would any living person. It doesn’t bother me much where they have come from, from what dark, unconscious recesses of my mind they might have emerged. All that is important is the story they have to tell and the contribution to the overall plot they have to make. Naturally, not everything they have to say makes it into the mix. But there is time enough, I tell them, for other tales to be told, other grievances to be aired, in novels yet to come.
So, in dealing with characters – apart from considering them as actual real people – I don’t particularly worry much at all.
But what happens if one day YOU discover yourself to be a character in someone else’s story?
Back in school I had this good friend, Joel. He was a writer – or at least that’s what he wanted to be. Horror and fantasy was his thing: H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Ramsey Campbell and Fritz Leiber, to name but a few. I never saw the point to horror – still don’t to this day – but I wanted to be a writer too, so very good friends we became. We talked about writing a lot. We even started a school magazine together, its pages populated with our own stories, of course. Were the stories any good? Some, maybe – his more than mine.
Sometimes he would put me into one of his stories, giving me a slightly different name – Jason Westwood, say – for a joke. When he did this I think I always came to a bad end. Or at least that’s how I remember it. The memory gets incredibly tricky as the years go by; what was true, and what I imagine was true, all pretty much the same.
We went to different universities and our lives took different paths. We wrote some – handwritten letters then, not a mobile phone to be found. His home life was difficult and unsettled, he said, his time at university not much easier. I wrote back and probably said all the right things. And then we lost touch completely. Sad, really – though I didn’t realise so at the time. I was busy doing stuff and assumed he was busy doing stuff too.
Skip forward thirty years to 2013 and quite by accident I came across an obituary for him. He had been having many health problems, so it was said. He had gone to sleep one night and had never woken up, so it was said. He was just fifty years old.
Though I am not a sentimental guy, I decided on a whim to buy his last collection of short stories, for which he had won the World Fantasy Award 2013: WHERE FURNACES BURN. As I have already said, horror is not my thing, so I was planning just to stick it in my bookcase – some sort of memento, I suppose. But as I was flicking through the pages, I caught the name ‘Jason Westwood’ in the story entitled ‘A Mouth to Feed’. And sure enough, at the end of the story, Jason Westwood came to a bad end.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I thought. Not only did he still remember me but I am still a character in one of his stories!!!
And there had been just enough time for one last joke before he had fallen sleep forever.