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A Conversation With Tom Holland
An interview with Georges T. Dodds
June 1999

Photo: Simon Marsden
Tom Holland
Tom Holland
Tom Holland is the British author of a pair of linked Gothic historical vampire novels: The Vampyre; The Secret Life of Lord Byron (1995, UK; as Lord of the Dead in the US) and Supping with Panthers (1997, UK; as Slave of My Thirst in the US). He has also written Deliver us from Evil, a Gothic horror novel set in the English Restoration period, and The Sleeper in the Sands a horror tale spanning the history of Egypt. Tom Holland was brought up near Salisbury and now lives in London. He has also written extensively for radio.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Supping With Panthers
SF Site Review: Attis
SF Site Review: Deliver Us From Evil
SF Site Review: Sleeper in the Sands


Deliver Us From Evil


The Sleeper in the Sands
Supping With Panthers
Slave of My Thirst
Your book blurbs tell us that you were born and raised near Salisbury, now live in London, and have done some writing for radio. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I was brought up in a small village not far from Stonehenge, and all through my childhood I was obsessed by the area's legacy of the mysterious and the supernatural. The village itself was called Broadchalke; I actually featured it in Deliver Us From Evil as being full of demons, much to the unalloyed delight of everyone who still lives there. I went to school locally and then on to university at Cambridge, where I studied English and Latin, with a special emphasis on the English romantic poets and Virgil. After finishing my undergraduate degree I began a doctorate at Oxford on Lord Byron, but soon realized that this has been a terrible mistake. I was fed up with universities and fed up with being poor. Ironically enough, though, when I moved on to London, I found that I was even poorer, but struggled by, thanks to assorted scrappy jobs, the odd piece of radio work, and most importantly of all, the love and support of a good woman. I married her 5 years ago, after 6 years of going out together. We have a large black cat, who used to be the apple of our eye but has been re-christened Who? since the birth of our daughter Katy 6 months ago. We live in Brixton, an area of London which is invariably described in the guidebooks as lively.

The initial segment of Supping with Panthers was a wonderful lost race/Indian adventure reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard and Talbot Mundy. Graham Greene in his essay "The Lost Childhood" discussed the works of Haggard, R.M. Ballantine, Capt. Gilson, and M. Bowen that he had read as a young man and the important influence they had both on his desire to write and on the substance of his writing. What might such works have been in your case? Nowadays, what authors/artists/musicians do you particularly enjoy?
My father had rather old-fashioned and politically incorrect tastes in literature, and he always used to read me ripping yarns of derring-do, usually set in far-flung corners of the British Empire. Rider Haggard and John Buchan were particular favourites of his, along with Conan Doyle -- not only the Sherlock Holmes stories, but the historical novels as well. I think when you are steeped in the language of a particular style at an early age, it stays with you for life; certainly both my brother and I have an ability to talk like regimental colonels together, which drives our friends mad. Simple pleasures.

As to authors I particularly enjoy; hmm... there are so many. I have very eclectic tastes. I tend to have immense crazes on particular topics and read voraciously round them. That is one of the reasons why I so love writing novels. They help to give a structure and a focus to my enthusiasms. A year or so ago, I was reading everything I could about Ancient Egypt. Now, when I'm writing about the American West. It's all Custer this, Crazy Horse that.

Contemporary novelists I particularly admire include Georges Perec, Louis de Bernieres and Cormac McCarthy. I also love Latin American fiction, particularly Borges and Carlos Fuentes. But actually, I prefer to read non-fiction to fiction, especially history. I love coming across the weird detail which can then set the brain ticking.

In his last years, the British horror master Algernon Blackwood had a segment on BBC radio during which he would narrate some of his horror stories. Though it is now a largely forgotten form of 20th century horror fiction, radio-dramas were an important outlet for many forms of imaginative literature. Given your experience in writing for radio, what do you see, in a current context, as the strengths and weaknesses of this media, and its progeny the book-on-tape, for horror literature?
I'm very grateful to BBC Radio for providing me with my first chance to write professionally, and it's something I continue to write for. I've been adapting a series of Greek and Roman classics, and at the moment I'm midway through adapting the Aeneid. Radio is definitely a very valuable resource for aspirant writers in Britain. Obviously, the main benefit of it as a medium, both for producer and writer, is that it doesn't cost anything to realize grandiose dramatic visions. I've been able to write about shipwrecks, the battle of Thermopylae and the trial of Oscar Wilde, all without having to worry about a budget at all. With regards specifically to horror literature, what is left to the imagination can often be just as frightening as anything you see: radio, again, can be very good at playing with this. As to its progeny, the only audio I have done is an abridged recording by Richard E. Grant of The Vampyre in the States, published by Pocket Audio under its US title Lord of the Dead. It was cut very well; I'd prefer people to read the whole book though!

While limited by the social conventions of the late 18th-early 19th century, Gothic horror literature could be both intensely atmospheric (Anne Radcliffe's novels for example) and bluntly graphic (e.g., the dungeon scene with the starving couple in Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer). Similarly, your writing seems to show a balance of these two elements. However, in the 20th century, horror literature has shifted from the purely atmospheric British horror writers like Algernon Blackwood or M.R. James to the largely event-based horror of Richard Matheson through Stephen King. What do you think of this recent change in horror literature aesthetics from the horror of things left unsaid to that of things glaringly in plain view, and how would you place your work in this context?
I don't enjoy horror fiction -- or any kind of fiction, actually -- in which nothing is left to the imagination. Horror works best when it is an interplay between writer and reader. Maybe that is why I have been so inspired by the classics of the 19th century: Poe, Le Fanu, de Quincey too, whose accounts of opium nightmares may not be explicit horror, but have all the same been a colossal influence on my writing. Both Vakhel Pasha's castle and Lilah's opium den drew heavily on imagery taken from de Quincey.

I suppose you could compare horror fiction to erotica; in both cases, a degree of restraint can serve to heighten the effect, as it were. That having been said, I do love the paraphernalia of horror: worms, dark cellars, zombies, whatever. But I always try to cast them as the expression of spiritual or psychological horrors. It's not a particularly original point, but the truest nightmares are bred by the brain.

Early fictional vampires tended to be depicted as totally evil, amoral supernatural beings, whereas nowadays they have been largely humanized into cultured, hedonistic and though often largely moral, potentially dangerous uebermensch. How would you characterize your concept of the vampire?
I'm not sure I quite agree with your description of the evolution of the vampire. Polidori's Lord Ruthven -- pretty much the first fictional vampire, after all -- was certainly cultured and hedonistic. This is hardly surprising, when you bear in mind that he was modelled on Polidori's erstwhile employer, Lord Byron, who actually had a considerable influence on Nietzsche's concept of the superman. Dracula too is shadowed by a blasted greatness. There were some lines from Byron's play Manfred which Nietzsche liked to quote:
"Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life."
These seem very fitting lines for any philosophically inclined vampire to quote as well. The whole point is that the vampire as we have inherited him today is inherently a literary creation, not a creature of myth or folklore at all. The Polidori model of the vampire -- aristocratic, sexually attractive, consciously sadistic -- really had very little to do with the peasant superstitions of Central Europe and the Balkans, and in fact, even today, the roots of that model in 19th century Romanticism are so strong that it's very hard to ignore them. It's also hard to ignore its roots in specifically EUROPEAN culture: even Buffy has to rely on an English librarian, after all. I think that also explains why the best American vampire fiction tends to be set in the Deep South: vampires are irredeemable snobs, and Southern slavery was the nearest approximation to European feudalism that America had. Vampires ALWAYS need a peasantry to terrorize. That was Polidori's great insight.

Your first-written novel, Attis, is an unusual historical novel with some elements of horror; however, while steeped in history, your Byronic vampire and other novels are clearly in the horror field. What is it about history that particularly fascinates you and has presumably led you to place your stories in a real, if slightly manipulated, historical context?
There's no doubt that my imagination is stirred by the past. I don't see that as being in any way regressive. Events that happened 300, 500, 700 years ago can influence an event which will happen tomorrow. Look at Kosovo. In fact, Attis has a very Kosovan episode in it, which, considering that I wrote it 10 years ago, helps support my basic point, I would hope. Even so, when I wrote Attis, I was really writing about the London that I found myself living in at the time, and so it's as much about hanging out in pubs, taking drugs, living in crappy rooms, as it is about Caesar's Rome. The reason I chose that approach was a dislike of realism. I'm not remotely interested in realism as a narrative technique, and actually I think that it's those who insist on it who are living in the past. The present is just too fractured, too complex, too... well... post-modern. The past, like the future, is where the present can be refracted. That's what makes the boundaries between genres, and still more between genre and supposedly "literary" fiction, so frustrating: science fiction, horror, magical realism, whatever, all have the same impatience with the "photographic" approach to reality.

What led you to chose horror literature in particular when you could certainly have produced more main-stream novels of historical adventure or romance or even novelized biographies of historical characters (in the Harold Lamb genre)?
I know what you mean, and certainly the books have been marketed as horror, but I think of them as very much historical novels as well. The superstitions and terrors that a given era has are at least as interesting and revealing as any other aspect of culture. For instance, I'm sure that our own obsession with aliens and the like will provide immense insights to future historians into the nature of society in the 1990s. What are aliens, after all if not our own embodiment of imaginings which in a different period gave birth to the figure of the vampire? An alien and Count Dracula don't seem so dissimilar to me; they both tend to come in the night, abduct people and then extract their blood.

That's why I think it's an interesting experiment to look at the terrors generated by different eras, and represent them literally. The demons which haunted the Romantic imagination, for instance, or the dread of the Devil in the 17th century. Hopefully, the resulting sense of dislocation in the reader's mind is the mark of good historical, as well as horror, fiction.

That having been said, I haven't completely cut myself off from the present in writing horror fiction set in the past. When I read The Vampire, for instance, I'm struck by how obviously it's a novel about taking drugs. I imagined the thrill of blood-drinking as an ecstasy rush, and everything the vampires experience -- the highs, the late nights, the flailing quest for ever greater highs -- has its equivalents in the clubbing I was up to at the time. I wonder, parenthetically, if that explains the explosion of interest in vampire fiction during the late 80s and early 90s?

Given (i) the vast number of possible horror motifs, (ii) the current popularity of vampire literature, but (iii) the potential competition from established authors like Anne Rice who already have a well established niche in vampire literature and are also placing their vampires in a historical context, what led you to write, at least at first, specifically about vampires?
I came to vampires via Lord Byron rather than the other way round. I knew that not only was he the model for Polidori's short story, but also that it was based on a tale he'd told himself. The idea of portraying him as a literal vampire in a novel came to me quite suddenly one evening while I was having a bath! I went downstairs to flick through my collection of his journals, to see if I could find any interesting stuff, and the first passage I came across was as follows:
"I have written my memoirs; but omitted all the really consequential and important parts from deference to the dead, to the living, and to those who must be both."
Very weird. I'm still not quite sure what Byron meant by that, but whatever it was, I took it as a sign that I was on the right track. By the end of writing the novel, I'd almost convinced myself that Byron must have been a vampire.

In your most recent book, The Sleeper in the Sands you weave three parallel stories linked over the long history of Egypt. While there are minor instances of something approaching vampirism it is a very different book from your other titles, both in terms of structure and motif. However, it does show the protagonists being tempted, resisting temptation, and some ultimately succumbing to temptation, a theme present in your other titles. Do you see this as a novel independent and different from the others or complementary in some way?
It's clearly related to the three previous books, not only in terms of theme but of plot as well. We find out who Vakhel Pasha originally was, for instance, and why mummia has such a sensational effect on those who take it. But it's really about the theme I mentioned before: how each age has a different concept of what they don't understand. Hence the three timelines; the same raw material, but interpreted in three different ways. In that sense, I suppose, you could say it's "about" history itself. Specifically, it tries to tackle the problem of fictionalizing a period about which we know very little. A novelist has to do exactly what an archaeologist shouldn't: fill in the gaps, extrapolate, invent. But I think that's particularly hard with a culture like Egypt, where we don't even have the equivalent of the history or biography or drama of the Greeks. How DO you have a pharaoh get up in the morning, for instance, or walk across a room, without sounding hopelessly pathetic? I tried to get around the problem by drawing on one of the narrative forms that we know the Egyptians DID possess: the story-within-the-story format which foreshadows the Arabian Nights. In other words, I desperately didn't want to fill in the gaps with a pretence at realism. Rather, I tried to do what the Egyptians themselves did, and paint in demons and gods. In that sense, perhaps, the novel can best be considered as the equivalent of Tutankhamen's tomb, a series of painted chambers leading to the promise of gold and strange secrets.

The cover layout of the British editions of your books are much more complex and evocative than those of the American editions. What sort of input do you have in the way in which your books are presented? If you had complete control and infinite funds for the publication of your books, how might you like your books to be presented?
I tend to leave cover design to the experts. I preferred the British covers and titles to their American equivalents, but equally it's fair to say that my American publisher told me how everyone at Pocket laughed at how dull British cover designs were. Obviously, it's a cultural thing. I did think re-christenings Supping with Panthers as Slave of my Thirst was going a bit far, though; it sounds like some cheesy S-M porn novel.

A great deal of literature, varying greatly in quality, is currently being published directly to the internet. Similarly many scientific and literary journals now have on-line and CD/DVD-based versions. How do you see this influencing you, your publishers and your readers in the years to come?
In terms of writing conventional literature, I don't really see the internet having an influence at all. Obviously, it's going to become increasingly important as a marketing tool, but that's true of everything. What's really exciting, though, is the promise of interactivity. Sites like yours will be invaluable, not only for providing first ports of call for anyone interested in particular genres or themes, but also in facilitating contact between authors and their readership. In fact, interactivity seems to me by far the most exciting aspect of the web.

I suspect that the real influence of the internet on creative writing will be to generate a wholly new mode of fiction which will be like nothing which has existed before. It will be responsive and multi-voiced, more like a role-playing game than any existing conventional form of literature. I think you can see it already starting to happen. Instead of a conventional, single-voice author, you will have a moderator and as many contributors as that moderator cares to support.

What sort(s) of literary (or other) projects are you current working on?
I'm working on a novel set against the backdrop of the rush for dinosaur bones in the American West during the 1870s. As in my previous novels, it draws on actual historical fact -- in this case the rivalry between the two palaeontologists, E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, which led to virtual bloodshed as their rival gangs fought each other over dinosaur skeletons the length and breadth of the Rockies. It provides a wonderful framework for exploring all sorts of themes: the era of the robber barons in New York, the subjugation of the Native American tribes in the West, love, murder, everything. There's even a possibly supernatural element, but I won't say any more about that now, because it would spoil the surprise! Suffice to say I'm feeling very good about it. I think it's by far the best thing I've done and I really feel confident it will be a wonderful read. I'm hoping to get it finished by September. Let's just hope it rains in London all summer.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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