Interview: Alan Kelly talks to Allyson Bird

26th Oct 2010

Wine and Rank Poison by Allyson Bird

Allyson Bird won The British Society Awards for her début short story collection Bull Running for Girls. It was an accolade she richly-deserved and now she is back, with vengeance on her mind. And what a mind this wonderful lady has. Bull Running for Girls is without a shadow of a doubt one of the finest collections of stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading and Allyson Bird is The Queen of Weird Fiction.

In her new collection, Wine and Rank Poison, Allyson deploys a device we are all familiar with: revenge, but spices and slices and shoots things up with an otherwordly flavour. In these pages you’ll find come face to face with gun-toting retribution-fuelled sea serpents, Amazonian warrior queens, duplicitous witches, lonely serial killers who attract the sort of supernatural attention which their sordid predilection certainly does not crave…

Wine and Rank Poison is the perfect treat for Halloween, and all those who like their horror with rich historical and mythical frames of reference, full of adventurous and dangerous stories, centaurs, Furies, the ghosts of mermaids on Coney Island (her evocation of which is both poignant and poisonous) with something for just about everybody:

There are ten new wonderful stories in your new collection, and an excerpt from your forthcoming novel Isis Unbound. How much time do you spend on research, plot-mapping and character before you start writing?

I spend a week or two in the ‘world’ of a story before writing it. For The Black Swan of Odessa, written for Ex-Occidente’s homage to Mikhail Bulgakov, I read The Master and Margarita and contemporary writers from around that time. I discovered a play by Ilf and Petrov and that influenced the Odessan story. In turn that story ‘bled’ into the second story in the collection called The Twelfth Chair.

Most of the stories are paired up by theme, character or place to extend ideas and explore them. Atalanta was an absolute delight to work upon as I immersed myself in Greek mythology for quite some time. Legends about the Amazons continue to fascinate me and I researched around the Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes.

I became fascinated with the area of Colchis, and in particular Svaneti. The medieval feuding families built tall watchtowers nor far away from each other in the same village. All the research and the themes come together and then I start to write. I almost never plot in short stories and only in the novel form do I do that.

As with some authors like Aickman and Lisa Tuttle I like some mystery within the story unexplained…not everything is or should be neatly tied up. My work continues to be influenced by Swinburne as I delve deeper into his poetry. Atalanta is based on the myth of her involvement with Jason and the Golden Fleece, and a reading of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon.

Swinburne is also the source material for For You, Faustine, where a mother has vengeance in mind after her daughter’s murder. Vulkodlak, although basically a werewolf story, raises some real issues centring on internet trolls and fascism so I spent quite some time looking at the political situation after the fighting and aftermath in Sarajevo.

Vengeance is the theme of each gem in the anthology, and there are several threads connecting each story. What motivated you to write about vengeance?

Frustration with real life. The number of times I’ve seen people treated badly by others whose world is totally built around the self and whose opinion is to be the only valid one. Add to that the cruelty of watching people belittled and ridiculed, then it is no wonder I wanted to write stories about the way people do treat each other. I can empathise with those who are constantly bombarded by pompous and overbearing individuals or groups who have too much time on their hands and all of course have access to a computer. The victim has to win through now and then. As a horror writer I can explore many ways in which that can happen.

The ghosts of mermaids and fury-filled sea serpents reside in Coney Island. Why this setting for supernatural aquatic creatures?

It is a wonderful setting for Coney Island Green and For You, Faustine. The place is just crying out for stories to be woven into its actual history. The boardwalk at night, the old pictures of how Coney used to be and the bizarre characters who loved to live there. I’ve always had a particular affinity with the sea, but always found the idea of what could live in the depths of it terrifying.

For You, Faustine reads like a story from the hardboiled style of writing and is one of my favourites, while The Twelfth Chair is about a serial killer who attracts the attention of a Fury. What makes the decision for you to write these characters?

Indeed, For You, Faustine is a continuation of that hardboiled tradition of writing. A hint of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane mixed up with the mafia and mythology. I raided my father’s bookcases when I was little and would curl up with the detectives and Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom series. I remember The Warlord of Mars in particular.

I don’t think I can answer the question as to where these characters come from— naturally they come from observation of real life and then as the story progresses occasionally they become transmogrified—as with the Fury. I’m very much a believer of the subconscious coming up with a few surprises, which of course is good as the narrative doesn’t become predictable. I’m also interested in the difference between appearance and reality. Those who seem to be benevolent and kind occasionally have hidden agenda.

At the end of the anthology, there is an excerpt from your forthcoming novel Isis Unbound, to be launched at the World Horror Convention in 2011. Can you tell us a bit about the book and how long you’ve been working on it?

The novel comes out of the enjoyment of reading Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard when I was younger. I like adventure in life and fiction. I’ve been working on the book for well over a year with a short story collection running alongside it. That proved to be interesting as I took an idea from the novel and worked upon it to write Beauty and the Beast in Wine and Rank Poison.

Isis Unbound is set in 1890’s Manceastre, Britanniae, ruled by a new governor general, Clovis Domitius Corbulo. He is related to Cleopatra LV, descendant of Anthony and Cleopatra who won the battle of Actium two thousand years ago. Only a god can kill a god. Nepythys has killed her sister, Isis, and therefore the dead cannot pass over to the underworld.

Ella, eighteen and Loli—age ten, are the daughters of Ptolemy Child. The sons and daughters of embalmers are expected to begin instruction in the embalming process at an unusually young age. Against this background we follow the girls on their adventure in Manceastre and Alexandria to discover the greatest mystery of all—involving Isis herself. An Isis who will stop at nothing to ensure her own survival…

Wine and Rank Poison by Allyson Bird is available now from Dark Regions Press.

This interview with Allyson was by horror writer Alan Kelly, author of Pulp Press novella Let Me Die a Woman. You can buy Alan’s book from Amazon for £5.99.