Dan Coxon – Only the Broken Remain (out 12 November, Black Shuck Books)
Tell us about your book (what’s the sales pitch?)
Only the Broken Remain is a collection of fourteen weird horror stories, populated by the lost and the downtrodden, the forgotten and the estranged. Some are new, some have previously been published in anthologies and magazines like Black Static, Nightscript, Not One of Us and the Bram Stoker Awards shortlistee Nox Pareidolia. Priya Sharma, award-winning author of All the Fabulous Beasts, has said it “peels back the layers to reveal that everything you suspected about the world’s darker secrets is true”.
If you could be a character in the book who would you be and why?
There aren’t many that I’d want to be! They’re generally people who are down on their luck or ignored and discarded by society – the outcasts and the misfits, the marginalised and the lost. Maybe Miriam, from the story ‘Miriam is Not at Her Desk’. She’s just as lost and broken as the rest of them, but she’s absconded with thousands of pounds in stolen cash, so there’s that.
What did you learn about writing by writing this book?
The book came together over a long period – about six years, if you start from the earliest story – so I’ve inevitably learned a lot during that time. I’ve got much better at letting a story breathe, I think, rather than rushing to get to the conclusion – and I’ve sometimes found that what I thought was the ending is actually only the middle, and there’s a whole second act to explore.
Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it?
Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: I have two kids and a wife who works full-time, so I generally squeeze in my writing wherever and whenever I can. Until our boys came along I didn’t realise how much time I wasted: daydreaming, watching random TV, playing games, staring into space with a vacant expression on my face. Now I have to be much more organised. Generally speaking, I’ll think a story through as I go about my day – the school runs are particularly good for this. Most of my plotting and development of the idea is done on my feet, walking from one place to another. When I finally sit down, I hopefully have a story in my head ready to write.
What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but has never been asked of you?
I’d like someone to ask me how to bake a really good loaf of bread. It wouldn’t be the most exciting question, but at least I’m confident in my ability to answer it.
What made you choose to write your book as a collection of short stories?
My time’s so limited that for the last few years the idea of sitting down and writing a novel has seemed infeasible. Short stories, however, have always felt achievable – if I get really lucky, I might even be able to write them in a single sitting, although that hasn’t happened in a while. I also love the short story form; the way you can play around with ideas, explore different genres and characters, maybe test the reader a bit more than a 200-page novel does. It’s the great melting pot of literature, and a wonderful way to find your own voice.
How much research did you do before writing the book and how did you go about it?
There wasn’t much research involved, but a couple of the stories – ‘Rut’ and ‘Baddavine’ – are set in the woods near our house. Research for those mainly involved walking out of our front door, but I did occasionally take a notepad with me, just in case I wanted to record a specific feeling or observation.
Do you remember the first story you told? What was it?
I don’t remember the first I told, but I do remember the first I sold. I was sixteen at the time, and it was to a small local anthology. The story was about a boy who witnesses a stabbing at a rock concert, then walks home in the dark, depressed and alone. As you can tell, my oeuvre has remained remarkably consistent.
What are you reading? Who do you think we should be reading (apart from you!)?
I’m currently reading Gary Budden’s second collection, London Incognita. As for what you should be reading, there are far too many books out there to name. This year I’ve hugely enjoyed Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians and Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, though. Read those.
In one sentence, what’s your best piece of advice for writers?
Listen to as much advice as you can, but only until it stops being helpful.
As Established above Only the Broken Remain is a collection of 14 short stories. Coxon himself says they are “weird” – to quote from Mark Fisher’s excellent The Weird and the Eerie : “What the weird and the eerie have in common is a preoccupation with the strange. The strange – not the horrific … it has to do with a fascination with the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience … the weird is a kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here.”
This is such a good summary of what you can expect from Coxon’s stories – enticingly strange and alluringly wrong. Most are set in the kind of grubby setting – a council estate, a shabby hotel, a run-down pub – that you feel their worlds are painted with grease and grime (especially the opening story Stanislav in Foxtown.) Often there is a transformation involved or an ingenue thrust into an unfamiliar situation.
Weird entities occur but Coxon resists explaining them, making them only more real, more tangible. It is hard to pick a favourite story but Feather and Twine – the story of a taxidermist who has had an encounter with the weird or Roll Up, Roll Up about a man joining the circus and Rut, the tale of a weird entity in the woods stick in the memory.
Coxon’s protagonists are the lost and the dispossessed, the depressed and the estranged and even where there is no physical transformation we understand that they are irrevocably changed by their experiences. Be it an army of foxes, a creature in the walls, a whisperer in the forest or strange lights in a pool of water the weird intrudes in the life of the characters in an unequivocal way.
Coxon has created a selection here where each story is like a dirt-encrusted finger that pokes you in the mind. Maybe it’s not only the characters in the stories who will be changed when you read it. Recommended.
Dan Coxon is a Shirley Jackson Awards and British Fantasy Awards-shortlisted editor and writer based in London, UK. His fiction has previously appeared in Black Static, Nightscript, Unsung Stories, Not One of Us, Humanagerie (shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards) and Nox Pareidolia (shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Awards). His non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, from Salon to The Guardian. A micro-collection of his short fiction, Green Fingers, was published in April 2020 by Black Shuck Books, and his first full-length collection, Only The Broken Remain, is available now.