[Today, we sit down with horror and occult detective author, William Meikle. Here, he discusses his love of monsters; his Scottish private investigator, Derek Adams; his occult Sigils and Totems series; and his up-coming projects.]
evOke: What roles do mythology, occultism, and folklore play in your stories? Do you find yourself drawn to any one particular mythos, or does it vary by the story?
William Meikle: Being an old fart, I grew up and was a teenager at the tail end of the hippy movement and the resulting New Age boom. I was avidly interested in everything weird, from fairies to witchcraft, ancient alien theories and astral projection, and of course, folklore; Scottish folklore, in particular. I still am drawn to all that stuff, especially the cryptozoological side. I love wondering what weird and wonderful animals we might yet discover, or have already discovered and forgotten — that’s one of the main things that drives a lot of my fiction, most currently in my S-Squad series.
The other lifelong obsession has been with ideas of the afterlife. I was brought up Church of Scotland, Church and Sunday School every Sunday, religious instruction classes at normal school, and parents who were also churchgoing regulars. I liked the singing, but the rest of it didn’t take.
Something about survival after death continued to interest me though, and over the years I’ve done a lot of reading…and some experimenting with Ouija boards and the like. A lot of the ideas I’ve played around with in this area are currently coalescing in my Sigils and Totems and Carnacki works.
evOke: You have a degree in Biological Sciences. How does your degree influence your writing, and how have you worked your academic studies into your stories?
WM: I was once, almost, a scientist.
Even from an early age it was what I wanted to do. Actually, I wanted to be a spaceman (the fastest man alive), but when I started studying in the ’70s, I found myself drawn towards biology and chemistry more than to maths and physics. I’ve retained a life-long love of all things pertaining to outer space, but when it came to time to choose a path beyond school, I went with the Biological Sciences and graduated in Botany from Glasgow University. I even made a stab at some real science for a couple of years before I was caught in the IT trap in the early ’80s and became a corporate drone building IT systems for banks and insurance companies in London.
And there the science dream ended.
Thirteen years ago, I escaped the world of corporate IT, came to Newfoundland, and science crept in again, this time in my writing. Scientists began to show up in the likes of The Creeping Kelp, Night of the Wendigo, The Dunfield Terror, Fungoid, and my Professor Challengerpastiches; and since then they’ve been getting even louder still.
So to answer your question, the degree as such doesn’t really influence my writing much as it was so long ago now, but the enthusiasm for natural science shows through in a lot of my work, and I’m sure there’s more of it to come in what time I have left.
evOke: Many of your stories deal with monsters, mutations, and humans fighting for survival under extreme circumstances. What do you find so appealing about these sorts of stories? And which monster that appears in your work is your favorite?
WM: Most of my monster love comes from an early age and childhood trips to Saturday matinees at our local cinema where I first saw most of the Japanese Godzilla movies along with things like “One Million Years B.C.” and “Valley of the Gwangi.” Alongside that I was reading things like The War of The Worlds, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and then The Lord of the Rings around the same time. Couple that with TV watching of stuff like Doctor Who, Lost in Space, and the early Gerry Anderson productions like Stingray and Thunderbirds, then a wee bit later Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, and on to Hammer horror movies on late night TV on the BBC and you can see where a lot of my action-orientated monster mash material was born. It’s a childhood obsession that’s come along into later life with me, and I’m very happy to still have it.
As for my favorite of my own monsters, I think that has to be The Creeping Kelp. It’s possibly the most direct product of my merging of my scientific background and monster love. An experiment goes wrong and a mixture of seaweed, jellyfish, and something discovered in the Antarctic melds into a rampaging carpet of creeping flesh. It’s kelp, it creeps, and I love it deeply.
evOke: The Sigils and Totems series centers around mysterious, magical houses where people can (maybe, sometimes) contact their deceased loved ones, or even parallel universe versions of their loved ones. Where did this idea come from, and how many stories are you planning for this series? Or is there no end in sight?
WM: As I said earlier on, a lot of the Sigils and Totems material comes from ideas I’ve dredged up from my reading and experimenting with the occult. But it started with a novella, Broken Sigil, and that one started with a dream, or rather a nightmare.
The black bird has been with me for a long time — 50 years and more now. I think I first saw The Maltese Falcon in around 1963.
My granddad was a big Bogart fan, and I remember long Sunday afternoons spent sitting at his feet watching movies on the tiny black and white TV that was the norm back in the UK in the early Sixties. Back then everything in Britain was still in black and white — the Beatles were about to change all that, but Bogey would stay eternally gray and eternally Sam Spade for me. Even at that early age there was something about the snappy dialogue and the larger than life character that spoke to me.
I saw the film several times before I got round to reading the book — aged around 12 so about 1970. In much the same way as the film had, the bookalso spoke to me, touched something in me — the stuff that dreams are made of if you like.
When I started writing for myself, back in school, my voice was heavily influenced by teenage longings — I hadn’t learned enough of the ways of the world to be confident and sparse, I wanted to be flowery and intense and intellectual.
University, then ten years of being a corporate drone quickly drummed that nonsense out of me. I developed cynicism and from that my own voice started to emerge, enough to ensure I could cope with being an adult but not yet enough to turn me into a writer.
The booze did that. Booze and nightmares and a new wife that understood me better than I did myself.
The booze is part and parcel of being brought up in a working class environment in the West of Scotland. Beer came easy to me in my late teens, a love affair I still have to this day. Whisky I had to work a little harder at, but I persevered and developed a taste for single malts that means my habit is largely curtailed by the expense. It doesn’t mean I don’t get the thirst though.
The nightmare? I’ve been having it off and on since I was a boy. It’s of a bird — a huge, black bird. The stuff that dreams are made of.
In the nightmare I’m on the edge of a high sea cliff. I feel the wind on my face, taste salt spray, smell cut grass and flowers. I feel like if I could just give myself to the wind I could fly. Then it comes, from blue, snow covered mountains way to the north, a black speck at first, getting bigger fast. Before I know it, it is on me, enfolding me in feathers. It lowers its head, almost like a dragon, and puts its beak near my ear. It whispers.
I had the dream many times, and always woke up at this point.
Then, in 1991, I heard what it said.
“Will we talk about the black bird?”
The next morning, for the first time since 1976, I wrote a story. It wasn’t a very good story, but something had been woken up, and the day after that I wrote another, a wee ghost story. It didn’t have a black bird in it, but it did have some jazz, and a sultry broad, a murder, and some dancing. When that one made me 100 pounds in a ghost story competition, I was on my way.
The bird comes back and whispers to me every couple of years — I’ve come to think of it as my spirit guide. Although it terrifies me, it also reassures me in a weird kind of way. As long as it’s around, I’ll still be a writer and not just a drunk with weird ideas he can’t express.
One of the bird’s recent appearances was a few years back, and the next morning I had an idea that fused my own history, my favorite movie, and my bad habits into one coherent whole — Broken Sigil is the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s also among my favorites of all my works.
It sparked the basic premise in my head, and I was off and running into a mythos that’s still growing and gives me lots of things to play with. To even get inside a room, you need a sigil; a tattoo or carving on your skin, and a totem, a memento of your loved one. Then there’s the fact that your loved one might be a parallel universe version rather than the one you actually know.
And where do these houses come from? What’s behind the walls? How do they work? Why do they work? And who chooses the concierges who run them? Or fixes them when they don’t work?
So I’ve got all that to play with, plus the fact that the houses can exist anywhere, at any time. They’re like lots of boxy, multi-faceted Tardises, spread across space-time, places, and situations into which I can hook in characters and stories.
I’ve also started linking it through to some of my other characters and ongoing work, so there’s Sigils and Totems stories featuring members of the Seton family; Derek Adams the Midnight Eye; and Carnacki. Augustus Seton will be getting involved in 16th C Scotland soon, too.
I think I’ve stumbled into something that could keep me busy for a few years.
The novellas that used the concept (Broken Sigil, The Job, and Pentacle) were well received and are in standalone ebooks, and also collected in a single omnibus edition. There are two novels that expand the idea further, Songs of Dreaming Gods, where a house is lying empty in the town center of St. Johns, Newfoundland after a brutal ritual murder; and The Boathouse, where the rooms are on an old whaling boat in a derelict shed and seem connected to an old chess set, and the arrival of a hurricane. Alongside them, there are two new novellas on Amazon, Green Door and Seventh Sigil, and a growing number of short stories, including the title story in my Carnacki collection, The Edinburgh Townhouse.
I’ve also got an idea for a big honking fantasy trilogy using the concept, but that’ll have to wait until I’ve got time to do it justice.
evOke: You have written several stories featuring the classic occult detective, Carnacki. How did you discover Carnacki, and what draws you to the occult detective genre?
WM: I first read Carnacki in a UK paperback edition way back in the early 70s, and was hooked immediately. Several of the stories have a Lovecraftian viewpoint, with cosmic entities that have no regard for the doings of mankind. The background Hodgson proposes fits with some of my own viewpoint on the ways the Universe might function, and the slightly formal Edwardian language seems to be a “voice” I fall into naturally. I write them because of love, pure and simple. I’ve written more than several 🙂 There are fifty Meikle Carnacki stories in print now.
The stories appear the collections Heaven and Hell from Dark Regions Press, and The Watcher at the Gate from Dark Renaissance. Both volumes are in limited edition hardcovers, trade paperbacks and ebooks, all fully illustrated by the great Wayne Miller. A third volume, The Edinburgh Townhouse, appears in trade paperback and ebook from the Lovecraft Ezine’s fiction imprint and the fourth, Starry Wisdom, is coming soon from Dark Regions Press in trade paperback and ebook.
You may notice while reading that Carnacki likes a drink and a smoke, and a hearty meal with his friends gathered round.
This dovetails perfectly with my own idea of a good time. And although I no longer smoke, writing about characters who do allows me a small vicarious reminder of my own younger days.
I wish I had Carnacki’s library, his toys, but most of all, I envy him his regular visits from his tight group of friends, all more than willing to listen to his tales of adventure into the weird places of the world while drinking his Scotch and smoking his cigarettes.
evOke: In your stories, Carnacki meets several real historical people, most notably Winston Churchill. How much research went into these stories? How did you work Carnacki into and around real historical events?
WM: Carnacki and Churchill spark off each other in my stories. I’ve long been fascinated by Churchill. I was seven years old when he died and his funeral dominated the news in the UK for a while. That sparked in me a desire to know more about him and over the years I’ve read several biographies, and a lot of his own writings. He was obviously a great man, but equally obviously a bit of a monster who stopped at nothing to get his way, including inflicting a great deal of misery on other countries in the Commonwealth in order to protect his own interest in Britain.
Carnacki senses this dichotomy in a younger Churchill when they have adventures together in my stories before the First World War. He doesn’t much like the man. Neither do I. But he’s a great character in his own right, and a perfect entry point to getting Carnacki out of his library and onto the streets to help save his city from menaces.
evOke: Your own occult detective, Derek Adams, stars in The Midnight Eyeseries. What sorts of horrors does he run into in the course of his investigations? And how much fun is it to put your own character through the wringer?
WM: Derek, like Carnacki, protects his city from menaces, but Derek’s city is modern day Glasgow. Or rather, it’s my rose-tinted spectacles view of Glasgow as it was when I was a student back in the late 70s, but brought into today through Derek.
He’s run into a gamut of beasties over the years now, from Lovecraftian entities to selkies, werewolves to zombies, warlocks and demon worshipers, and even the Devil himself. There are three novels, a handful of novellas, and a bunch of short stories featuring him, and probably more to come.
Derek’s my tribute to those Bogart movies I mentioned earlier, but he’s as Scottish as they come, likes a drink and a smoke, loves Glasgow and Bogart, and is a big softie at heart. He’s my Mary Sue character — who I’d be if I’d stayed in Glasgow, become a P.I., and fallen further into occult studies.
evOke: Your short story “When the Stars Are Right” mixes science fiction, occult lore, and Lovecraftian horror. How did you come up with that combination, and are you planning more stories that mix-and-match different genre elements?
WM: I’ve already done a few, most notably in The Dunfield Terror, which merges weird science with Lovecraftian horror and time travel; and The Plasm, which expands the short story you mentioned with more lore, more science, and a big blobby thing on Mars.
I’ve also done some weird westerns in The Ravine and The Valley, mixing cowboys and monsters.
And of course the S-Squad series mixes a military squad with big beasties. There’s bits of the likes of Aliens and, in particular, Dog Soldiers, running through the whole series.
Mixing genres is kinda who I am.
It’s what I do.
evOke: Your “Watchers” series recasts Bonnie Prince Charlie as a savage vampire intent on claiming the throne of the British Isles. As a Scotsman yourself, how much fun was it to play around with Scottish history and vampire lore? And what was your favorite part about writing this series?
WM: Watchers was an early work. I started it sometime in 1996, finished it around 2000, and it was mostly written during a long train commute I had at the time, hunted and pecked out on a hand-held organiser.
The idea came to me on a trip to a section of Hadrian’s Wall. I wondered, what if it wasn’t Romans, but Cromwell’s army protecting the wall, and what if the hordes beyond weren’t Pictish tribes, but Bonnie Prince Charlie bringing an undead army south to claim the throne back for the Stuarts? By the time my walk was done and I was in the pub having a few beers, the basic idea was almost fully fledged in my head. Then all I had to do was write it. 🙂
I mentioned early reading above. A lot of my teenage reading was Sword and Sorcery, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stuff in particular. That’s where the battle scenes in Watchers come from in the main. The historical backbone of the Jacobite Rebellion gave me a rough series of events that I could mirror and I was off and away.
I made up an historical framework for how the vamps came about using some ideas from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the history of Rosslyn Chapel (before Dan Brown did it) and had an awful lot of fun writing it.
It’s a swashbuckler full of blood and thunder with vast battle hordes of rampaging vamps, love found and lost, and mixes in one of the pivotal moments of Scottish history. I’d love to see it done as a big budget movie, as that’s how it runs in my head.
Twenty years on it’s still in print, ebook and audiobook, and still sells for me. Not a bad pay off for an idea that came over a walk and a few pints of beer.
evOke: Where can curious readers find your work?
WM: My website is at williammeikle.com and has potted notes on all the books and links through to the online sites to buy them.
I mostly hang out on Facebook and Twitter at @williemeikle. Mostly.
evOke: What other projects are you working on?
WM: I’m up to number tenin my creature feature series featuring the S-Squad, the bunch of wee sweary Scottish squaddies who fight monsters. Operation: North Sea is my current work in progress, and sees them coming up against an angry aquatic beastie that’s attacking North Sea oil rigs. This is me having fun. Lots of it.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published work can be found there.]