We’re fortunate to have been granted exclusive access to the normally reclusive Vladimir Poignard, writer of some of the most chilling horror stories to have appeared this century. Poignard is consciously part of a tradition which stretches back to Poe, Wilkie Collins and even encompasses the excrescences penned by the Divine Marquis himself. When I went to meet him, I was surprised to be shown into the parlour of a small terraced house in
Wigan by a woman in her seventies. She sat me down, brought through two cups of tea and a plate of shortbread biscuits, settled herself opposite me and said ‘Well, shall we get started?’.
In the course of the interview which followed, nothing compared with this revelation that the purveyor of some of the most explicit violence and psyche-shattering episodes in the whole of western literature was, in fact, Ethel Gringe, 78. Her three husbands had all died in mysterious circumstances but left her with a comfortable inheritance and all the free time she needed to write. When the shock of this discovery had subsided, I switched on my recorder and began.
BK: Thank you so much for agreeing to see me, Mrs Gringe, but I must confess that you don’t fit the image I had of Vladimir Poignard.
EG: I know, dear, and that’s why I decided to come clean at last. I’m getting rather tired of all these emails from young women who want to marry me, or at least spend some time in the dank cellar they think I have here. Goodness knows where they get such ideas.
BK: Well, that’s surely a tribute to the authenticity you achieve with your novels – the gory cellar sequence in Unbridled Chastity, for example. When Letitia vomited up the spectral essence and made it eat her sister’s eyeballs – that was pretty explicit.
EG: Explicit, yes, but also absurd. And deliberately so.
BK: In what way?
EG: Well, what would you say that book’s about?
BK: Evil, primarily. I mean, Letitia’s elimination of the members of her family in progressively more chilling ways – the scalding, the epidermal peeling, the induced prolapses. It’s a chronicle of undiluted savagery.
EG: Nonsense, I was just poking a bit of gentle fun at the point of view brigade.
BK: Hmm, I’m not sure I got that from it.
EG: Not even when the eyeball sees the saliva on the essence’s tongue? Or we take that journey down the oesophagus with it? I mean, the optic nerve’s been severed, after all, and the sister’s in no condition to be a passive observer anyway. She’s only got sockets, for goodness’ sake. I thought it was just an amusing way of debunking one of those persistent creative writing myths.
BK: Yes, I suppose that’s what I should have started with – your decision to become a writer. Your first book, Wolf Baby, wasn’t published until 2002. Surely you’d written lots before then.
EG: Yes, mainly romance. Remember Nurse Gossamer? It was adapted for TV. That was one of mine.
BK: Really? So why the change of genre?
EG: I suppose it started when I was watching my grandson, Charlie, eviscerate a cat.
BK: A real cat?
EG: Of course. What’s the point of dragging the entrails from an imaginary cat? Charlie’s always been curious about things. In the end, his parents had to stop buying him pets. It’s a pity. I got some of my best ideas watching him play with various defenceless little animals. And that time with the cat … well, when you’ve spent years writing about lips and fingers caressing the soft flesh of whichever part of the body that particular publisher was comfortable with, the idea of penetrating that flesh, folding back layers of it to find the real people beneath it, serving it to lovers with cauliflower cheese before they unleash their demons … well, it’s very attractive.
BK: You mention demons. Can I ask about your beliefs? It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the morality operating in the worlds you create.
EG: Oh, come, Mr Kirton. Morality and moron – they’re obviously from the same root.
BK: Well, no actually. I think morality comes from Latin and moron from Greek. But are you saying your writing has no moral dimension?
EG: Let me ask you a question. How moral is Halloween?
BK: I don’t understand.
EG: Parents dress their little darlings as witches, vampires, blood-spattered zombies and the rest, then send them out to beg for ‘treats’ from neighbours who just want to relax and watch TV. If the neighbours refuse to open the door, smile at the blackmailers on the step and hand over candies which they’ve been forced to buy, their house gets pelted with eggs. Is that moral?
BK: It’s rather different from your own story Halloween Ooze, where two child witches are actually burned at the stake and seven other children drown while bobbing for apples.
EG: Yes, it is, isn’t it? In my story, they dress as witches and suffer the consequences, or their greed for apples causes them to duck their heads into water and they drown – logical, crime and punishment, natural justice.
BK: But it was your hero, Igor, who burned and drowned them. No one punished him.
EG: Why should they? He was a zombie. That’s his destiny.
(At this point, I heard a series of knocks and other muffled noises and, indeed, they’re faintly discernible on the recording. They seemed to come from beneath the floorboards but Mrs Gringe showed no reaction to them.)
BK: Can we get back to your working methods? You’ll admit, I think, that you’ve invented some fairly extreme scenarios and some of them have had unfortunate consequences.
EG: I suppose you mean that one with the baby and the fan belt.
BK: Er, no. Actually, I was thinking of
. Your descriptions of the symptoms and physical effects of the disease caused outbreaks of projectile vomiting across Plague Village Europe.
EG: Yes, that was fun.
BK: Yes, it seems to me that we’re getting close to what’s troubling about your success – this marrying of the extremes. On the one hand, there’s psychological, spiritual and physiological mayhem on an industrial scale; on the other it’s marketed as entertainment.
EG: Oh dear, Mr Kirton. Have you never felt road rage, anger at queue-jumpers, a desire for revenge or retribution?
BK: Yes, but—
EG: But you’ve suppressed it, toed the line, felt smug in your moral superiority to those who’ve wronged you. It’s a cancer. My characters always redress the balance, remind us that we’re all carrying dark forces, savage impulses, and they unleash them. The priest who stirs real blood into the communion wine, the gravedigger with his necklace of teeth and their constant whispering, the presence hovering near the naked girl on the altar and her agony as it slices slivers from her soul – these are the honesties I deal in. My people don’t pretend. Now, would you like another cup of tea?
I paused the tape and waited as she refreshed our cups. There were more muffled sounds from beneath us but, when I asked Mrs Gringe about them, she shook her head dismissively and said they were just part of her research for her current project.
And, unfortunately, that was where the interview was abandoned. A phone call from the local psychiatric hospital urged her to come over immediately. It seems that Charlie, her grandson, had escaped from his secure unit and was holding seventeen patients and two doctors hostage in the chapel. He’d already crucified a doctor and two patients and was prising the lid off the entrance to the catacombs to find spaces for them. As she replaced the receiver, Mrs Gringe smiled at me and said, ‘he’s such a rascal’.