Friday, June 10, 2016

Ghosts and Social Awkwardness: A Chat with Horror Author Mick Sims

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a terrific collection of ghost stories, Death’s Sweet Echo. It’s attributed to the work of two men, Len Maynard and Mick Sims. I was able to track down one of the two gentlemen, Mick Sims. The other? I’ve found no proof of his existence. In fact, given the subject matter of the book, I believe he may even be a ghost (a ghost writer?). Be that as it may, Mick Sims has agreed to be grilled this week on Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley.

SRW: Welcome Mick! Okay, I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot, but as it’s new to me, I’ve gotta ask…How in the world do two men collaborate on a book? As a writer, I have a hard enough time dealing with all of the voices in my own head (hence why I drink).

MS: Hi. Firstly let me confirm the physical existence of my writing partner. Len and I met when we were 11 at school but became friends later due to a mutual girlfriend. The friendship always comes first, before the writing, although that is the cement that binds the relationship. Anyway. How the hell do we do it? Wish I knew! It was a painful process to get to the fluent process we have now. Our early stories were a learning curve. What I don’t think we realized at the time was that we were both not only learning to write – and all writers develop at different speeds – but we were also learning to write with another person. Those two things combined certainly made for a combustible mix.
                One way it would work was one would start a story, stop for a variety of reasons, hand it over to the other for them to finish. We then had a jointly written story. We decided very early on that each story should have one author voice – more than just a style, although a cohesive style was important. Another way we did it was for one of us to completely write a story and then hand it to the other to edit, revise, as needed. That was when a lot of rows began. How dare he suggest changes to my precious story? We had a meeting place by the river, near the pub we frequented, and after a row, sometimes hours after, we would meet up there as if by pre-arrangement and come to an agreement about the story. Pregnant pauses were our specialty, with silence as a weapon.  We’d spend hours discussing a single word if we felt passionately enough about it.
                Over the years we have smoothed it all out. We are open and honest with each other, and no offence is taken when change is suggested. I have a voodoo doll of Len at home with enough pins left to carry me over the next few years. Taking it right up to the present day, when we write more novels than stories, we each write the complete book/story and then hand it over to the other for revision which includes proofing, copy editing, as well as revising if we feel it needs it. With each book we spend days at the end reading it together, page by page, for grammar, continuity, repetition and other flaws we find.
                We wrote as individuals for a while then realized that we would be competing for the same markets, so the sensible thing seemed to be to pool our resources. Luckily our individual styles have developed over the years into a single M&S style so there is never a case of anyone being able to see the joins. Although one reviewer did say they could – on a book one of had written alone. No wonder they couldn’t reply when I asked them where the joins were! We also got a review along the lines of – did it really take two of them to write this pile of **** - which was one reason behind the change of name to Maynard Sims.
                We used to brainstorm, sometimes for weeks on end. I remember one novel we planned was discussed at length and completely story-boarded - a process that went on for weeks if not months. In fact it took so long to plan we both ran out of steam on it and it was shelved. We refined the process after that. I think we have been writing together for so long now that we respect each other’s strengths and recognize each other’s weaknesses.

SRW: The writing in Death’s Sweet Echo is at times exquisite, very British. Now keep in mind I live in Kansas, so anything sounds upper-crust to these Midwest ears. Do you purposefully strive for quaint, somewhat old-fashioned prose? Is it the same style you use in your crime thrillers?

MS: I remember standing in line at Disney Orlando and people were getting onto the rides quicker than us. A US man asked me what was happening and I told him the others had a ‘Fast Pass’. I come from South London, not upper-crust land at all. My accent is not posh. Yet for him he thought it was funny to mimic my words as though I’d spoken them in a Royal family very upper voice. He sounded odd for sure.
                With the writing our first stories were M R James type traditional ghost stories. 
                 Since those collections we have steered the ghosts and strange tales into the modern world, but our stories do have a voice that sets them apart from our novels. Even a story set in the US, like Glorious Dilapidation from Death’s Sweet Echo, is written with as much grace and subtlety as we can manage. Our intention with our stories is to invoke a mood rather than to explain. To paint a picture of atmosphere and disquiet.
                Our novels - whether they are standalone supernatural horror or the Department 18 books or standalone thrillers or the DCI Jack Callum series of crime novels or the Bahamas set of thrillers or the erotic romances - each has a very different voice from the stories. Each type of novel has its own style that is different from the other novels.

SRW: In Death’s Sweet Echo, the tales are of an old-school sort. Very old-school, M. R. James ancient school, even. A compliment! You effortlessly combine James’ subtle style of supernatural shenanigans with a more modern day psychological slant. Are James’ ghost stories an inspiration?

MS: I remember being driven in my lunch hour from my day job back in 1972 to a local book shop who had advertised a copy of the 1931 Collected M R James with a signed handwritten letter inside. I paid £10 for it all those years ago - probably about £130 now or $185, still cheap and very worth it.
                His work is an inspiration but for us some of the other ghost story writers of the early twentieth century are more so. H R Wakefield, R H Malden, L T C Rolt, and several others. We have a large collection of horror books and most are pretty old collections and anthologies. It’s the collective charisma (almost) of them that is our real inspiration.
                When we write a story the usual method is to have a title that inspires us. Then a germ of an idea - like the man haunted by his own guilt (Guilt Casts a Long Shadow from DSE) - and we just run with it until the end creeps up like a shadow at the end of a summers day.

SRW: And like James, many of your protagonists are socially backwards, misanthropic in several cases. They say you should write what you know. Are you a hermit, Mick? Or a social butterfly?

MS: Not a hermit although given the choice I would be far less social than I am. My wife nags me to go out occasionally and talk to people but I much prefer to sit and write or potter in the garden or play with my granddaughter. I can rise to the occasion when social butterfly mode is required but usually hide behind a façade of smartass ‘funny’ comments that keep people at arm’s length so I don’t have to reveal how shallow I truly am and how all my interesting ideas get put into my books rather than spoken out loud.

SRW: In the current age of splatter horror and torture porn, I appreciated the subdued approach you guys took in your ghost stories. These are tales I’d feel safe having my mother read, yet they don’t forego the creepy dread the best supernatural tales evoke. Is this a reaction to today’s anything goes horror ethic? Or just what you guys like?

MS: Definitely what we like to read and so it’s what we write. When we published and edited Enigmatic Tales and all its sister titles we had strict rules on what was acceptable. Swearing was out, sex and violence were out.
                Horror doesn’t have to be bloody or gory or even nasty. For me it is far more scary for the normal to gradually reveal itself to be anything but. Quiet horror is my preference. It is far more challenging as a writer I think to be able to hold back and to suggest rather than to throw it all in and hope for the best. Writerly advice is always to show not tell and we use a similar approach with our stories. Suggest don’t explain.

SRW: Following up on that, are all of your books of this ilk? Or do you vary genre and style?

MS: Oh, variety is our spice. Our standalone horrors feature Moroccan water gods (Shelter), sexual vampires (Demon Eyes), psychic demons (Nightmare City), a type of werewolf (Stronghold), an erotic ghost (Stillwater), and a pedophile (Convalescence). There is swearing sex and violence aplenty.
                The Department 18 series are supernatural / crime crossovers and has demons, witches, and all manner of evil entities, with as much modern horror as we can fit in. There are five books so far - Black Cathedral, Night Souls, The Eighth Witch, A Plague Of Echoes and Mother Of Demons.
                Our standalone thrillers are good versus evil and are as hard edged as they need to be. Gangsters and cops. Drugs and guns and sex and enough violence to keep the modern reader drooling and reading. Let Death Begin, Through The Sad Heart and Falling Apart At The Edges
                The Jack Callum crime books feature an ordinary cop investigating extraordinary crimes. The crimes are gruesome and relentless. No Evil and Prime Evil.
                The Bahamas thriller books are the same - criminals and cops with our hero - an ordinary man thrust into situations he has to fight against to survive. Touching The Sun, Calling Down The Lightning and Raging Against The Storm.
                Our erotic romances are described by the publishers as ‘red hot sexual content’. Based purely on fiction (believe that!) - written under a pseudonym to protect the innocent.
                So each type of book we write has its own unique style. We switch into that style when we start a new book in the series and we are comfortable writing in different styles. Sometimes an idea forms and we have to decide which type of book the story and plot best fits.

SRW: As writers, we’re told the importance of opening sentences. These days you gotta hook the reader fast. You two excel at opening sentences. Readers, check out these: “It was colder than the grave in the sarcophagus.” “By the end of the day one of us would die…” and my personal favorite, “The first time I saw Melinda laugh out loud, she was already dead.” Do you spend a long time perfecting the opening sentence?

MS: Sometimes. Usually though it is either the opening sentence or the story title that inspires the whole idea for the story. Often the title and opening sentence is all we have. They come easily - drop into the head when out walking the dog, or cooking or whatever. The way we each write is slightly different. I start with the sentence and the title and begin writing. The characters take the story where it needs to go.

SRW: Along these lines, the tales’ titles are very poetic, of a very old-fashioned bent. What comes first, the story or the title?

MS: Usually the title and the first sentence or two. I often have titles stocked up waiting for a story to follow. Many first lines are also filed away for later use. We have had collections where the first few stories had one word titles so for consistency, and being a slave to low level OCD, every story then had to be a single word.
                Other collections where the first story or two had longer, poetic titles so that had to be followed through. A title should have some relevance to the contents of the story of course. That can often be a driver for a plot - follow the title to its natural conclusion.
                You keep using the phrase ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘old-school’. We aren’t old - 63 is the new 27 didn’t you know? We like to write proper English and that can appear a bit staid. We like to throw in some literary flourishes to keep the reader on their toes as well. British English is different to US English of course, and so writing what we were schooled as correct use of commas, and so on, we may come across as being traditional rather than modern.            
                Our minds do hark back with our ghost stories to an indiscriminate time between the wars and just after World War 2 when unexplained things were easier to describe and to use a frighteners. When we write a story we are trying to invoke the spirit of the best of the traditional ghost story writers but without becoming pastiches. 

SRW: Of course you knew I’d enjoy your stand-up comedian tale, “And It Goes Like This,” seeing as how my last book was a stand-up comical horror riff. Have you had any experience in stand-up? Research or wing it?

MS: I like to play the comic at social events but that is merely to mask a social inferiority complex. In my previous day job I had to do presentations and they used to frighten me far more than any horror film ever did. Shakes, sweats, I had them all. Then I was best man at Len’s second wedding and I treated the speech as a standup gig. I basically said what a miserable old git he used to be until he met his wife. There was more to it than that but the audience reacted well so I milked it for all I could get. I read out ‘funny’ cards and went on far too long. At the end people groaned when I finished and came up afterwards asking me if I did it for a living. That gave me the confidence to talk in public at the drop of a hat.
                “And It Goes Like This” was a title I got in a way that I often do - while listening to music. Maroon 5 - Move Like Jagger. “My ego is big / I don't give a shit / And it goes like this / [Chorus:] Take me by the tongue”. I occasionally listen to music when writing and the phrase stuck. Putting in so many jokes made the writing easier and quicker - a lazy way to get some word length. The man haunted by his own past while sad about his downfall from grace and the heights he used to enjoy followed. 

SRW: The final story, “Restitution,” perfectly captures the weary, dreary job search that frightens kids straight out of college. Practically my life story told in a few pages!  While a lot of your stories feature unlikeable protagonists, more often than not, they’re portrayed in identifiable situations a lot of readers will be able to relate to. Do you find this helps ground the supernatural events?

MS: Totally. To us it is far more scary for your normal life to hold the terrors. We go to school, to college, university maybe and then to work. We both held a day job for 40 - 45 years. Young people these days rarely do that. They will have to work longer and with far less security than we ever had and that’s frightening. To me it is horrible that anyone has to work for money at all. There should be a way for the world to operate where we can all do what we love rather than enduring jobs to earn the money to live our lives. You shouldn’t have to just live for the weekends.
                I would love my daughter (and her daughter later in her life) to be able to have the freedom to do what they would like to do rather than be tied to a grind it out job.
                With the stories our scares come from the characters. It is important for us for the reader to recognize the person, even if they are not very nice people. We try to describe ordinary situations but put in enough twists and uncertainties so that a gradual sense of dread and unease builds until the normal has been turned on its head.

SRW: What’s up next for the very prolific and interesting duo of Maynard and Sims?

MS: We have written more stories (by invitation) since DSE so another collection will appear possibly next year. The third Jack Callum book (Appetite For Evil) will be finished shortly so should be out by the end of this year. The three Bahamas books are scheduled to come out this year and next. The sixth Department 18 novel (Tashkai Kiss) is being read. We have just sent off a crime novella - Devil. An erotic romance novella has just come out - First Time Arousal.

                Our website has all the fun at the fair
                Our Amazon Author page is
                Death’s Sweet Echo is out in hardcover at a discount at the publishers
                Prime Evil is up at
                We’re on Facebook
and loads of other social media hangouts - we love to do YouTube book trailers - check a few out.
We like them YouTube

SRW: Thanks much for visiting, Mick. If you readers enjoy old-fashioned goose-bumps read late at night, check them out!

MS: Good man. Some lovely questions. Touching on my favorite subject. Me. But seriously…

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