Q & A with John Harwood about Gothic Thriller The Asylum

John Harwood is author of The Asylum, The Séance, The Ghost Writer.

John Harwood is author of The Asylum, The Séance, The Ghost Writer

Pleasing Terror

John Harwood has written a spine-tingling gothic thriller in The Asylum (Vintage, June). This is my Q & A with the author and you can read my review of the book here.

When did you first fall in love with horror stories and gothic novels? What are some of your favourites?

It goes all the way back to my childhood in Hobart. The old town, with its stone warehouses and dark alleyways, the rivulet running through a dank, rat-infested tunnel beneath the streets, seemed very like the London of Oliver Twist or the Sherlock Holmes stories. I used to terrify myself to sleep with a huge anthology called The Second Century of Creepy Stories (Hugh Walpole, Hutchinson), or the ghost stories of M R James, and that ‘pleasing terror,’ as James described it, has never lost its hold on me.

James is the great master of the classic English ghost story, which depends very much on atmosphere, and his ‘Casting the Runes’, ‘Count Magnus’, ‘Mr Humphrey’s Inheritance’ and ‘A View From A Hill’ will always be amongst my favourites. Another is Walter de La Mare’s ‘All Hallows’, set in an isolated Welsh cathedral which—according to the old verger who leads us through it—is being taken over by demonic powers. All we actually see is a piece of canvas quivering slightly, but the effect is extraordinary.

Even though I’m often classified as a horror writer, contemporary horror fiction tends to be too explicitly gruesome for my taste: I prefer stories in which as much as possible is left to the reader’s imagination. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the paradigm here, because it’s irresolvably ambiguous. We don’t know whether the children really are being pursued by ghosts, or whether the governess who thinks she’s protecting them is actually insane, and that’s where the real terror lies.

The same goes for many of my favourites, like Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, especially in Nicolas Roeg’s chilling adaptation: is this a ghost story, or a psychological study … or both? Sarah Waters keeps the uncertainty alive throughout The Little Stranger, all the way to a perfectly balanced final sentence. I’d say more, but I musn’t give anything away …


★★★★ ISBN 9781742757278
Published June 2013
by Vintage Paperback $32.95

“Writing poetry was an excellent training in compression and precision.”

One of the main characters in the novel keeps a detailed journal; another writes letters. Do you keep a journal and if so, have you used it as a source for your writing?

I used to keep a journal, but haven’t done so for years. For each novel I have a sort of rolling log, partly on screen and partly in notebooks, which fills up day by day with ideas and drafts and sketches; by the end it might run to several hundred thousand words. But it’s all about the book.

You write about women and the world of women extremely well; what is it like to write from their perspective?

My ideal as a novelist is to make myself invisible, transparent to my story and my characters. I prefer working with narrators who are quite different from me, which may be why so many of my narrators are young women. I do a great deal of preliminary work, trying out names and combing through anthologies of old photographs and paintings, building up my characters’ histories piece by piece. But once that’s done, they do seem to take on a life of their own.

As a poet (and the son of one of our great poets, Gwen Harwood), can you tell us something about the way in which poetry has influenced you as a novelist and reader? Would you ever consider writing a verse novel?

Writing poetry was an excellent training in compression and precision. I worked in a strict stanza form which gave me just 18 lines to tell a story in miniature, and still, whenever I’ve drafted a scene, my first impulse is to cut, take out every phrase that doesn’t contribute to the action or the atmosphere. I don’t think I’d ever write a verse novel, but I can certainly imagine writing a novel about a poet, in which the poet’s work becomes part of the story.

What was the last book you read and loved?

Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations (Picador), an extraordinary journey through the varieties of hallucinatory experience. halluncinations







© Paula Grunseit 2013 ©  Thorpe-Bowker

This feature was first published in Issue 2 2013 of Books+Publishing magazine.

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