My Four Solaris Books


There’s not been enough talk about books in these columns lately. Let’s start to remedy that. Last week I was in a delightful old bookshop in Palma with a friend when the bookshop owner asked me, ‘Are you famous?’

Mischievously, I looked at my friend. ‘Am I famous?’

She considered the question. ‘Well,’ she said finally to the bookseller, ‘he’s known.’

I was never mainstream enough to carry reader loyalty in my name alone. You know when that day comes because your name finally goes above the title of the novel. JOYCE CAROL OATES it screams, and underneath there’s a tiny title.

I should have been born a Gemini. My books usually have two protagonists, and I have always tried to work in two areas at once. I never wanted to write criminal procedure  – I leave that to the real experts like Val McDermid, Laura Wilson, Ann Cleves and many others.

While I was gearing up to write murder mysteries I was writing free-standing novels in sets, and of course collections of short stories. The sets were loosely defined as ‘urban’, ‘zeitgeist’, ‘gothic’ and so on, but were really just stories. If you’re not Joyce Carol Oates then you have to either survive on the appeal of the story – ‘A Tale Of Terrifying Suspense!’ or go with a publisher who is a bit mad and will go along with you. The downside of that is your print run. There are probably six people in the world who read my novel ‘Breathe’. It’s as mad as old trousers but I still quite like it.

Plus point being; you get to write whatever you like and it appears as a proper print book. Minus point; the print run is your free copies plus one for the publisher’s mum.

After having Serpent’s Tail as my indie publisher for a while I went to Solaris, a small outfit with the benefit of being part of a much larger one, and they took ‘Plastic’, my ‘mad housewife becomes empowered through murder, shopaholism and plastic surgery, with jokes’ novel. It was not one for the mainstream. Having read quite a few so-called summer novels in the last few weeks I can safely admit I was not chasing an audience. My four Solaris novels are dense, overlaid and very possibly overwrought.

The second, ‘Hell Train’, was my unrepentant homage to Hammer, being the film they never made, and it was a joy to write. The German edition was beautifully produced, although as they went for almost the same image with a new artist I have no idea why they didn’t use Graham Humphries’ excellent artwork.

‘Nyctophobia’ was the ghost story I had been wanting to write for a long time, and typically I decided to shake things up by having it set in bright sunshine rather than darkness. I was inspired by a number of fine Spanish ghost stories; whereas the British used to produce the best  ghost tales in the late 19th/early 20th century, the Spanish now hold that title thanks to their fundamental understanding that the supernatural needs tragedy to create redemption. Solaris printed a number of pages at the front which work like a mini-trailer. Unfortunately they didn’t leave me anywhere to sign that damned thing.

Finally, ‘The Sand Men’ was an homage to JG Ballard, based on my research in the Middle East, concerning the cultural chaos caused by the construction of a futuristic resort. Locus magazine said it contained ‘a useful message; only by empathising with demons can we conquer them.’ The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece that delighted and astounded me, saying it was the book Ballard never wrote, while the embittered critic of a small UK genre magazine tore it to shreds because I was not a proper SF writer.

The lessons learned from writing this quartet proved useful to me. Know your readership. Don’t put too many ideas into one book unless you’re sure they’re compatible. Work on your resolution before you start. Stick to a single theme. And always provide a powerful focal point for the story.

Solaris were good publishers and the relationship was thoroughly enjoyable, but I wish we’d sold a few more copies. Writers tend to think that someone will help guide their careers but no, generally you’re on your own, and it’s only with hindsight that you see where you went wrong. Perhaps there’s an alternative universe where a version of ‘Plastic’ cuts all of its black humour, where ‘Hell Train’ plays it straight and unironic, where ‘Nyctophobia’s central concept is less intellectual, where ‘The Sand Men’s story is more linear, and because of it they all became hits.

But actually, looking back, I wouldn’t change any of them.

9 comments on “My Four Solaris Books”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    No, you wouldn’t want to change anything. I enjoyed Sand Men, although I think I read it differently than you intended. That’s a reader’s prerogative up to a point, but Hell Train was a blast right the way through. I did miss out on Plastic and Nictophobia because I’m just too slow about these things. Think I’ll check and see if there are some copies still lurking somewhere.
    The interesting (to me) thing is that I can hear your voice in both of them but I can’t decide what it is that constitutes that voice. What is important (again, to me) is that I trust that voice, I am convinced that that voice is never going to drive me over any cliffs. I will not get nightmares from anything you’ve written, although why nothing in Hell Train did it I don’t know. Would I feel the same if there were no author’s name on the front? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it and it takes you back to the original question about voice.

  2. admin says:

    That’s an interesting thought, Helen – I’m going to explore it in a new post in the next few days.

  3. Jo W says:

    From those four books,Hell Train is still the best. Having seen all the Hammer films so many times,I could easily read it with all their actors voices going through my head. I read that with a whimsical smile and ‘im indoors asking what was so funny.
    The other three are all vying for second place,so it looks as though a re-read is on the cards!
    Haven’t finished it yet but I’m enjoying The Three Friends,Chris.

  4. Gary Hart says:

    I loved all of these. I think, though, that my favourite has to be Plastic. It is the ultimate weekend from hell. And yet so logical as it progresses. Each step is a reasonable one from the last and yet when you look back over the whole you think “how the hell did we get here?”. Perfect.

    I do have a copy of Breathe here, but I admit I haven’t yet started on it. Although if it really is “Mad as old trousers”, it has suddenly shot up my reading list and will definitely be next.

    Thank you so much for all your hard work. Now hurry up with the next B&M, I’m getting withdrawal.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    Helen’s point about the voice of the author is something that I’d never really thought about, but, now she’s raised it, I can appreciate that it’s very important. For me, reading your books is very much listening to a good friend recount a story and that may be one of the reasons that we are loyal readers (together with many other more obvious aspects).

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    I’m do pop on to a film site about old British horror films and Hell Train is a favoured book and quite a few would love to see a film version I agree Helen, it was a blast. I prefer Nyctophobia myself, very much in the Spanish horror film feeling of recent years. I enjoyed them.

    The Sand Men is still on the to read pile, just near a JB Priestley and Peter Cheyney (I’ve been meaning to read a Lemmy Caution novel for sometime.)


  7. Jonathan Oliver says:

    Goes without saying, but I loved working on these while at Rebellion and bringing Chris to the Solaris fold, a writer I had admired as a fan for quite a while, was a real thrill for me.

  8. admin says:

    That was my editor at Solaris, above, and a proper gent with a taste for fine ales.

  9. Jonathan Oliver says:

    Bless you sir. I now drink only the finest champagnes…. No, actually, still beer.

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