Neil Snowdon, UK resident, was introduced to me, California resident, on Facebook by a mutual Australian friend. How’s that for international connection? After I learned a little about him, I couldn’t believe my luck: not only is Neil a cinema fiend in some of the same weird avenues I frequent, but he runs a small press in the UK that produces short books fully focused on a single “midnight movie” each. This was exactly like a project I’d considered writing (about Plan 9 from Outer Space, as it happens), but rejected as too weird an idea.
Neil is also the editor of a popular anthology about Nigel Kneale, a sci-fi and television writer legendary in the UK but largely unknown in the US. Somehow, he talked me into writing about Kneale for the next installment of the anthology, and I don’t know how. Maybe what won me was his unassuming charm, or his encyclopedic knowledge of cult film, or his pure and genuine love for books. Or some combination thereof. In any event, he was willing to chat with me about books he doesn’t love, and for that I am grateful.
What kinds of books do you hate?
I’ve thought long and hard about this interview. I’ve procrastinated and prevaricated to the point where I wasn’t sure that I could answer questions about books I hate because hatred just isn’t part of my life, especially when it comes to books. I mean, I’m even glad (well, maybe not glad) that something like Mein Kampf exists, because it means we can get a look inside the mind of the kind of person who would write it.
If there’s anything my life as it exists now is about, it’s passion, love and positivity. That sentence makes me cringe, because it sounds ridiculous and fluffy, and I’m already worried that your readers will be rolling their eyes. But it’s also the truth. Everything I’ve done, everything I’ve achieved in recent years is a direct result of being honest and passionate, and loving what I do. Doing it because I love it, and letting that be its own end.
I’m 41 years old and it took a lot of wrong turns, dead ends, and finally a head-on collision with depression before I finally found my way. That way is passion.
It’s the only way I know how to do the thing. Every time I’ve tried to do something as a means to an end, toward getting something else, it hasn’t worked. Every time I’ve tried to do something for money, thinking once I have that, then I can do the real thing that I want to do, it’s been a failure. But every time I’ve done something for the love of it, it’s worked out, and it’s even paid me back, offered up another opportunity, opened a door I didn’t even know was there and given me the confidence to step through it.
Hate just isn’t part of my life.
It’s so not a part of my life in fact, that I’ve spent a few hundred words explaining why I’m not sure that I can answer your seemingly very simple question.
Okay, let’s try going granular. Are there particular kinds of books that have earned your…negative attention?
Fuck. Okay, so, I work in Waterstones, one of the last remaining bookstore chains in the UK, and there are at least a couple of sections of the shop that really get my goat: business books and self-help. Not all, but certain kinds of books within.
Usually, in Business it’s the marketing and sales book that have a guy in a slick suit with a tan (and often as not a hint of cosmetic surgery) offering to tell me how to sell ANYTHING. In self-help, it’s the ones that are clearly filled with utter fluff. The Little Book of Laughter/Happiness/Tidying/Joy/et cetera. But do I HATE them? I’m not sure.
Why do these books get your goat?
I guess because they represent the opposite of what I value in people and in books.
There are a lot of genuinely helpful business books out there. But the ones I dislike the most, that get a gut reaction from me just looking at the cover, are the ones that promise something meaningless and money-oriented. It’s sales and marketing for their own sake. “I can sell you anything” tells me that the person behind it doesn’t care about the product, about whether the thing itself holds any value. It tells me that he/she wants to part people from their money no matter what. I find that unethical, hollow and morally bankrupt, and it’s that I cannot stand. That turns my stomach and makes me angry.
That’s about as close as I come to hatred. Hate is such an active emotion, and my time is too limited, and my passions too great, to ever waste the time. Hate requires that I spend time actively thinking and feeling about people and things I neither like nor respect. Hate wears you down. All emotion has a physical and mental toll to pay. Finding time to actively think or worry over something or someone I have neither love nor respect for–that’s something or someone I literally have no time for. My life is too short to waste it on these things, or to let these people have any control over me, over what I value and what I do.
You’ve kind of cut this interview series off at the knees, Neil.
I find myself torn between throwing myself to the floor and begging your forgiveness, and being perversely pleased…which in itself may say a lot about me.
Philosophical objections aside, can you give me three examples of hated books?
Oh c’mon, THREE!? I couldn’t even give you one above. Can we arm-wrestle instead? Actually, no, I’d probably lose that too.
Well, according to the arm-wrestling rules of Over the Top, we’d have to go double elimination, so maybe you’d win on the odds.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have encountered the work of genius that is Over the Top at an impressionable age, and though it may not quite be Stallone’s finest moment (step forward Tango & Cash?), I am delighted that it should come to my aid in this hour of need.
Do you think the books that get your goat have altered your reading preferences?
Not really. I have specific tastes, for sure; I know what I respond to, I know what speaks to me most. But I’ve always been pretty specific in how I view and read things. It’s always been the case, even as a child, that I’d say I don’t like that musical, or that silent film. I don’t like that Bond movie, or that book, while finding others in the genre that I do. There are romantic comedies that I love, just as there are romantic comedies I loathe. I love horror movies and the fantastique generally, but there are plenty in the genre that just leave me cold. That goes for books as well.
Ah, now we’re on track. The specific books or films you dislike are what I’m getting at, even if they are within a genre you like.
See, it’s all about the wording…and that may be pedantic, but I’m a writer and an editor, so y’know, WORDS!. Hate is too strong and too active a word, and even DISLIKE seems more active than I’m comfortable with.
But okay, I’ll bite.
I love horror as a genre but often find myself at odds with what’s being published or made within the genre. So much so that I sometimes wonder if I can legitimately call myself a horror fan. I’m so disinterested in the mass of what’s being made at the moment film-wise, though in books there’s a generally better balance.
A lot of what passes for horror now seems to be about endurance. About what you can take as a viewer, with the audience in the chair and the book or movie seemingly trying to hurt you. That doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Which is not to say I’m against material that disturbs or unsettles me, but I want to be awed more than I want to be repulsed. I want poetry and I want beauty in my horror. That may be why I’m so drawn to the classical Gothic and the Romantic, to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, to Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. There can be beauty in terror and I need that. For me it’s about the place where the two meet, and always has been, the frisson that brings. At its best, the emotions and ideas evoked by imagery in horror have the effect of images by Caspar David Friedrich, of Breughel and Bosch. There’s a vertiginous thrill that is physical, emotional and intellectual at once.
There’s also something in horror, as a genre, that remains connected to fairy tales, I think. And fairytales are, I believe, fundamental. They are embedded somewhere deep within us as people and as culture. We NEED fairy tales. I think that’s why I responded so strongly to Hammer movies as a youth, and to Terence Fisher’s films especially. They really are fairytales for adults. It’s also why, among horror writers, I’m most excited by people like Angela Slatter, who engage with folklore and fairytale overtly (her The Bitterwood Bible is to die for) to create something that just makes my heart sing. Her writing pushes all the right buttons for me.
I’m drawn to images that are frightening and beautiful at once. I don’t need help finding degradation and brutality, that’s all over the place out there in the world. I want my art to transcend. I want the sublime.
I wish everyone had such expansive and useful feelings about horror. Do you think objectionable books have altered anything about your work as a writer or editor?
They have absolutely influenced the way I write, and what I look for when I’m editing and commissioning new writers. I write fiction, but what I’m known for (if I’m known at all), and what I’m doing most of, is non-fiction books about film. In that realm I’m definitely influenced by what I didn’t like in books I’ve bought or read, especially in those formative years before I started creating art myself. Those years of initial discovery and revelation.
I’ve got no interest in books—especially glossy expensive books—that are little more than chronologies, at least not when they pretend to be more than that. Histories of specific genres or similar that offer little or no critical depth or insight don’t do much for me. They’re not much more than lists. They have their place, and it’s incredibly important, if you want to understand a film, to know what came before and after it. Especially with genre film. But reading a list is tedious.
Of course, it’s unrealistic to suggest that a book that you can still lift, even with both hands, ever would have a lot of depth, given the number of movies they have to cover in order to be comprehensive. And in the days before the internet, these kinds of books were sort of essential. So maybe it’s more the way these books and their authors position themselves that I have a problem with.
PS Publishing handles the hardbacks for the Midnight Movie Monograph series I edit at Electric Dreamhouse. They know their business well, and they’re amazing to work with, but I can’t pretend that the £20 price tag they put on the books didn’t give me pause. But then, after the hardback, we’ll have an unlimited more affordable paperback and an even lower priced ebook, so the content will remain accessible to all. Content is king. And the aim is always for something that will last, something that won’t date and that people might return to.
No doubt most of my grumbling about comprehensive list-books relates to the fact that I could rarely afford them as a young fan. I find I’m always incredibly conscious of what a book offers given the money it will cost someone to buy it.
Completely agree. This week I finally invested in an anthology of writing that I’d previously read most of online for free. The physical version, a paperback of about 650 pages, was nearly $50. I get why anthologies of writing cost that much (rights, royalties, production cost), but I’m also annoyed that I have to pay it.
I’ve also always felt let down by the kind of books I think of as “trainspotters’ guides.” This kind of book is especially prevalent in relation to Hammer movies and Doctor Who (both of which I happen to adore), books that collect every last fact about when and where things were shot, using which camera, at what time, on which day and who made the tea. There’s a point beyond which I just don’t care about that stuff. Now, that’s personal taste as much as anything. I’m interested in the art, the artists, and the effect the work has on me/us. And while that includes how it was made—because I’m interested in how the artists/filmmakers achieved the effects which so move and inspire us—facts and figures without critical insight leave me cold.
[Note for global readers: “Trainspotting” in this sense has nothing to do with the book by Irvine Welsh or the 1996 movie that was made from it. Rather it refers to the hobby of “spotting” trains, the different types and classes of rolling stock; locomotives, carriages, etc., recording and exchanging information with other “trainspotters.” If you’re traveling by train in the UK and see groups of men (and they are always men, usually middle-aged and older) clustered at one end of the platform, holding notebooks, thermos flasks, and cameras, that’s what they are. As hobbies go, I think this is on the wane. It was more common in the past, hence the reason that 9 times out of 10 the only “trainspotters” you run into are men of a certain age.]
What was the last book you recommended to another person?
I recommend books all the time. It’s the most meaningful and satisfying part of my day job selling books. My go-to book is almost always The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce, one of my favorite novels by one of my most cherished authors, but John Baxter’s Paris at the End of the World and Luc Sante’s The Other Paris were the most recent books I read that I would recommend.
I do a lot of reading related to the books I’ve commissioned and am editing. I commission writers who can do a better job than me, or have a better angle on something than I do. I commission them because I think they’ll be good, or exciting, or because, quite selfishly, I want to read what they might write on a given topic. But I still need to be well-versed enough in the subject to be able to note things they might have missed and suggest directions they might also explore. That way they can get the most from their material.
In this case, I have novelist Tim Major writing about the 1917 silent serial Les Vampires, which was being made in Paris while the First World War was raging 40 miles away. So I’m reading about Paris and the War to get a better grip on the place and culture and events that would have influenced the writing, the production, and the mood of the film.
In this case I got especially lucky because both books were fantastically interesting, accessible and evocative books. Irrespective of the reason I’ve been reading them, I’d recommend them to anyone.
I’m thrilled that Les Vampires will have an MMM. It first came to my attention in the early 2000s, and knowledge of it made me able to look indulgent and smile knowingly when people said that serial dramatic television (a la The Sopranos and Breaking Bad) was something brand-new to media.
See, this is where I point people at Nigel Kneale, who really set the bar for what we think of as modern serial TV drama with Quatermass, then upped the ante with each of the Quatermass sequels. It’s one of the reasons I was so set on putting together a book about him. His influence is enormous, but his name is not well known.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I’m generally a keeper. But I’ve had to sell parts of my collection at various times, so I’ve become less precious about it as the years go on. That said, I’ve always regretted it sooner or later when I’ve sold off books that meant something to me, even if I thought I didn’t need them anymore. It’s a pleasure to give books away, though. When you can put the right book in the right hands at the right time, it’s something special.
For all that, I’ve never felt comfortable in a house I’ve occupied until the books are unpacked and on the shelves. I like to be surrounded by them, and I don’t tend to do a lot of organizing. I like to see the unusual juxtapositions. It’s a manifestation of the inside of my head.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
Katie Hopkins [ed. for US readers: she is a little like Ann Coulter with a touch of Kate Gosselin] has an autobiography out. I saw it on the shop floor and I felt my stomach turn. I tossed it into the bin and felt good about it because she’s such a callous, hate-filled woman (see, we’ve come full circle!), but I fished it out again ten minutes later. I could have left it there and no one would have been the wiser. But what would that make me? She and her opinions make me physically ill, but if there’s a place for Mein Kampf on our shelves, I guess there’s a place for Katie Hopkins.
Very noble of you. What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading Christopher Frayling’s Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years and Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud and loving both of them.