Keyhole - An Interview With Welsh Author Matthew G. Rees
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews
AmeriCymru: Hi Matthew and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your short story collection 'Keyhole' for our readers.
Matthew: Thanks for having me and thanks for taking the interest that you do in writing that comes out of Wales.
Keyhole is a collection of eighteen short stories set in Wales and its borderland with England known as the Marches. The stories lean to what might loosely be called ‘the supernatural’. They’re mainly set in the present or the recent past, with, at times, explorations of history, such as the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen at a remote hospital in the era of the First World War.
An important thing to say is that, although I hope there is some strongly ‘realist’ writing in the collection, Wales is not seen in a literal way, as if captured by a camera. Instead, it is quite often viewed at a slant . . . presented askew. We see things through the eyes of characters who tend to be dislocated from their surroundings.
‘Horror’, as a blanket term, is, I suspect, inaccurate (though people have told me they have found passages in certain stories a little frightening – in a thought-provoking way). I think it’s probably important to say that the stories certainly aren’t heavily concerned with violence and gore. Neither are they full-on fantasies.
My intention is for the reader to always keep one foot in our own recognisable world, while – like my characters – reaching out and tentatively stepping into another, adjoining world.
I wrote the collection while doing a PhD at Swansea University. Only a small part of my life has been in a campus environment. I was a newspaper journalist for ten years. I’ve had a number of jobs, including time as a night-shift cab driver. I’ve also been a teacher, working in Moscow for a period. Doing the PhD and a master’s before it, was, in part, an opportunity to try to make some sense of what I wanted to experiment with. No one needs a college degree to write though. In Wales, figures such as ‘Super-Tramp’ W.H. Davies and the miner Bert Coombes, whose home as a young man was a dirt-poor smallholding in a village close to where I grew up, have taught us that.
AmeriCymru: You have said that you are interested in fiction that explores 'the liminal'. How is this distinguished from the supernatural?
Matthew: Interesting question. Without reaching for the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ll give you my take on what I think is the difference, particularly with regard to short stories. Several scholars have stressed the short story’s historic preoccupation with people and places outside the mainstream. Authors such as Melville, Chekhov and Gogol were pioneers in writing about cab drivers, minor clerks and so on – people whose lives had never really been written about previously. Guy de Maupassant, meanwhile, introduced his readers to goings-on in small towns and country villages. Closer to our own times, Raymond Carver wrote of suburban figures and their struggles in a way that made us care about them. For her part, Flannery O’Connor interested us in slightly more grotesque characters on farms in the American South. In one way or another, therefore, we’ve grown accustomed to reading about people whose lives are somehow in the margins. The critic and writer Frank O’Connor spoke of ‘submerged’ populations, though I think that term perhaps underplays how raw those margins can sometimes be. When it comes to the ‘liminal’, I think we’re that further step away again from the mainstream, to the point that we’re at the edge of the map . . . perhaps actually straddling a line or border, beyond which is a world that is recognisable and yet not quite the one that we know.
The short story has a long association with the supernatural. In the 12 th century, Walter Map, who is thought to have been Welsh, and William of Newburgh, were writing about folklore, mysteries and vampires. For me, the vampire – particularly the business of changing to and from a creature that is small, winged and furry – is an outright supernatural phenomenon: it is something that is beyond the laws of science and nature. But a story such as Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’ (which is not at all like Hitchcock’s movie) seems very liminal. Physically, the birds are the same feathered creatures they have always been, and yet they have crossed into a frightening, brutal way of being, having lost all fear of humans. In the story, we find ourselves dealing with the known and the unknown simultaneously.
To give an example from Keyhole , in the story ‘I’ve Got You’ figures made from seashells rise from a beach where they have been studded on the shore. Many of us have perhaps seen shapes crafted from shells pressed into wet sand. For them to rise and have lives is perhaps fantastic, yet less so when we remember that they were always meant to be people.
In short, I think of the liminal as a borderland of possibility, between what is and what might be . . . the edge of the seen moon, if you like, and its dark side. It’s very important to remember though that not everything from that ‘other side’ will be negative. Just because something is mysterious doesn’t mean that it can’t also be good, as I hope one of my stories in Keyhole , ‘Dragon Hounds’, demonstrates.
AmeriCymru: You quote Arthur Machen in the epigraph to your collection. Has Machen influenced your writing and do you think that he is sufficiently recognized in the modern age?
Matthew: ‘. . . the unknown world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet, the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it.’ The epigraph comes from Machen’s book The London Adventure , which I believe was first published in 1924. It’s a rather endearing memoir, far removed from the likes of his horror novella The Great God Pan . I’m aware of Machen, of course, and have read some of his main works such as Pan , his ‘decadent’ novel The Hill of Dreams and stories such as ‘The Bowmen’, which I reference in a story of my own (albeit not in the Keyhole collection). He was undoubtedly a central figure in the development of a genre that’s sometimes called ‘weird’ fiction or ‘weird horror’. He also wrote some lovely descriptive prose beyond that genre. He’s a writer I came to fairly late, so I don’t think he can be classed as a formative influence or someone who I’m like as a matter of routine. Quite recently, though, when writing a story, I definitely had Machen in the back of my head. Eventually, the dark humour (I hope!) in that particular story rather removes it from the realms of Machen. But when a reader – who knows a lot more about Machen than me – told me he thought certain passages were Machen-like, I was rather pleased.
I wouldn’t want to press the point too hard, but, yes, there are connections. We’re sons of the same (southern) end of the Marches and, for a period, were both newspapermen. I know certain places he mentions in various memoirs. My sister went to his school. He and I have each written dark tales set in Wales and the borderlands (in his case, ‘The Gift of Tongues’ and ‘The Children of the Pool’ are two that quickly come to mind), and so on.
Although definitely interesting, he was never a truly major literary figure. He was a jobbing writer, if you like, turning his hand to all sorts in an effort to pay the bills. The sheer volume and range of his output – translations, eccentric treatises, newspaper articles – perhaps militated against him producing a classic of the kind that might have secured his reputation (in the loftier sense).
There seems in recent years to have been a shift in the focus of many short stories, away from incidents of strangeness to what can sometimes seem less dramatic (indeed, perhaps rather domestic) matters, seemingly aimed at a college-educated and middle-class stratum of reader. With this, has been a sense that a short story should carry a message for society. These developments have, I think, damaged writers such as Machen. His contemporary Walter de la Mare comes to mind as a possible ‘casualty’.
If you look through the history of the short story you find that up to say the mid-point or third quarter of the 20 th century its practitioners in the English-speaking world often had backgrounds in, or ties with, newspapers and magazines: Edgar Allan Poe, Damon Runyon, Rudyard Kipling, Machen, Edgar Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Mavis Gallant and Graham Greene, to name but some. What was in play, I suspect, was the journalistic instinct for ‘man bites dog’, an effective continuation of the thread from those earlier times of Walter Map and William of Newburgh. Think of Hemingway’s macabre story ‘An Alpine Idyll’. Other writers, such as du Maurier and Agatha Christie, shared this approach.
These days a published story-writer is more likely to be a practising academic, a graduate of a creative writing course, or a novelist who occasionally writes a story ‘on the side’. The world is different, ‘life experience’ is different. The subjects that are written about won’t be the same. Material now, it seems, is more likely to be about issues, relationships and lives conducted in urban / metropolitan environments.
There are still huge hitters in the field of what might loosely be called ‘the supernatural’, of course, such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. But when it comes to perhaps the ‘literary’ short story, the ‘strange’ – in terms of those stories that get attention – seems to have rather been sucked out of things (though an ‘underground’, for want of a better word, featuring some very good work at times, continues online and in print among some smaller publishers).
Machen is not alone in having suffered. A number of interesting if rather minor writers from his era, such as Richard Middleton (‘The Ghost-Ship’) and the formerly popular L.A.G. Strong (‘The Rook’) have all but disappeared.
Having said that, plenty of people are working hard on Machen’s behalf (not least the publishers of Keyhole , Three Impostors press of Newport, Gwent, who’ve brough out several special editions of his work and other interesting small books, such as their Wentwood Tales series). Machen has a not insignificant following that is said to include Stephen King, Mick Jagger and Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. That we are talking of Machen, more than seventy years after his death, is surely proof of something. However, I suspect that, for some, quite a lot of the allure is due not so much to his writing as to his ‘mystic’ involvements, the ‘set’ he was part of (including figures such as the occultist A.E. Waite) and those who were his contemporaries, such as Wilde and Beardsley.
AmeriCymru: In what way do you think that growing up in the Welsh Marches has affected your writing?
Matthew: Our environments ought to be very influential. I see young people walking through wonderful parks, or on beaches, wearing headphones, and I think, ‘Why on earth would you want to do that?’ Even a bus ride is an opportunity for a writer to listen and observe (discreetly!). The Marches – the borderland between England and Wales - is a special place. So many writers have been moved by it: Thomas Traherne, Machen, A.E. Housman, John Masefield and Bruce Chatwin, to name but a few. It is neither England nor Wales. It is a place somehow on and of its own – as if those countries beside it don’t really exist, or, at best, merely wash upon its shores. My teens were in a village on the edge of a small cathedral city on the English side, though my family has been Welsh for generations.
It remains a rural borderland of farms and woodlands and hills. Machen and Francis Kilvert, the Victorian clergyman whose diary is one of my favourite books, would know it still. And yet there have been pressures . . . changes. I wonder if it isn’t perhaps becoming another ‘Chiantishire’ for the moneyed classes (both English and Welsh). Local wages, particularly in non-public jobs, have tended to be among the lowest in the UK. Services such as transport – the railway in the lovely Golden Valley closed in the 1950s – seem to me (as a bus and rail user) seriously lacking, away from the main towns. Oh that such places might have a drop of the billions in public money being pumped into the proposed new London-Birmingham railway line, known as HS2, and, in the case of communities on the Welsh side, a more meaningful share of what at times seems some very Cardiff-centric investment in Wales.
To my dismay, bats, moths, other insects and birds that I used to encounter all seem to have become depleted in a way that should worry all of us. Salmon seem terribly scarce in rivers that were famous for them. I like to think, unusual and speculative as some of my fiction might now and then seem, that it is also outward-facing and that it speaks, at times, to these serious concerns.
I think the two or three years before I started what for the most part was my senior school, were probably very influential ones for me. I roamed lanes and woods and was aware of country people of a kind who have perhaps become rare.
The weather of that time – notably the drought of 1976 and winters when we were effectively ‘snowed-in’ – certainly left its mark on me. The haunting power of that drought summer shows itself, I suspect, in my story ‘Rain’ in Keyhole .
Although not so very long ago, life was unquestionably different. We’re talking pre-Internet, pre-cell-phone, a time when there were three channels on your tv – if your set was able to receive them. Corona was a pop / soda that came from a factory in Porth, in the Rhondda, in South Wales.
I remember walking on lovely summer evenings through fields with my father, sister and our dog to our nearest pub (my mother enjoying the peace of the house in our absence), and then home again in the gloaming. On Saturdays, I’d catch a country bus into town with my sister to ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’, a show of (mainly old) movies for youngsters at an old-fashioned Odeon theatre.
If all this sounds idyllic, I should perhaps temper it with some more sombre memories. One being my awareness – and fear – at this time of a seriously nasty criminal. His name was Donald Neilson and he was known as ‘The Black Panther’ (nothing to do with politics or ethnicity – Neilson was white, but for the speed with which he moved and the dark clothing that he wore). He was a housebreaker, armed robber, kidnapper and murderer, and he brought terror to the English West Midlands, the territory adjacent to our part of the Marches. My particular fear, as an eight / nine-year-old, arose from the fact that a part of our house had served as the post office for our village. And armed robbery of small post offices was something in which Neilson specialised, violently raiding a large number.
When my parents bought our house, the fact that they had full-time jobs in teaching led to the post office re-locating to our local gas station, which was, in fact, a better place for it to be. But I still feared that Neilson might come one night, and I was relieved when he was caught and jailed (on a whole-life tariff).
I don’t watch much television but recently I had my set on late, tuned by chance to a minor channel. Suddenly, Neilson’s face was there, staring out from the screen, in a documentary about his life and crimes. It was as if The Black Panther, who’d prowled my childhood, was following me still.
I should say also that in these years I saw the destructive power of not only drought, but forces such as Dutch elm disease, which killed a lot of trees. Sometimes you would see a line of them undergoing startling, ugly deaths. I had a growing awareness too of the dangers of pesticides and the pollution of our watercourses.
All these things may go some way to explaining the sense of menace that I’m told can be found in certain of my stories.
AmeriCymru: How would you characterise your creative process? How does the idea for one of your fantastical tales seed itself in your mind?
Matthew: The creative process is one of fusion, in which all kinds of things bump up against one another. The writer Iris Gower said something about it being impossible to teach ‘creativity’, and I suspect she was right (though I think would-be writers can help themselves by doing simple things, like paying attention to the world that surround us). Things like ‘technique’ can be learned, but the creative impulse just happens. Something that occurs in my own case is that an image presents itself in my mind’s eye, which more or less demands to be written about. A physical shiver or tingle sometimes comes with it. Although I don’t wish to sound self-promoting by placing myself in their company, figures such as Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, Stephen King and Mavis Gallant have spoken of something similar (a vision or physical sensation). Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene spoke of the importance of the unconscious in the writing process, and I agree. Although there have been times when I have consciously developed a story from, say, an anecdote or fact that I’ve heard, that tends to be something that happens fairly rarely. Experts in this field have spoken of something called ‘unbidden perception’ – the impact on the mind of those things that creep into it when our thoughts and actions are elsewhere.
AmeriCymru: If you had to pick one story from this collection for a public reading or similar event, which one would you choose and why?
Matthew: That’s difficult. Although I have done it and will do it, I’m not over-fond of reading (something I’ve written) in public. I’m awkward about the showiness of it, as I suppose many – possibly most – writers are. When I write a story, it’s because I feel a compulsion to write that story, rather than wanting to later read it aloud to people. Above all, perhaps, I want the reader to have a sense of intimacy – the sense that this story is for them alone. I had that when I first read Raymond Carver, a long time ago. Something similar happened with the poetry of Ted Hughes, though I first encountered that in a class situation, so the feeling was a little different.
Having said all of that, we were privileged to launch Keyhole at Dylan Thomas’s home in Swansea – 5 Cwmdonkin Drive – and I did indeed read there, in what had been the Thomas family’s front parlour, which was quite something for me.
The nature of a story tends to tell me how – stylistically – it ought to be written. Sometimes the prose will need to be calm and straightforward, other times language that is perhaps more poetic or elevated will be required. Sometimes you will also want the language to reflect things such as movement, or the character of the protagonist and so on. I tried in the opening of my story ‘The Press’ to find language that would reflect the trot and bob of a boy on a horse and also give an immediate vivid sense of the countryside in which the story is set. The use there of the present tense is deliberate. Elsewhere, the aim of the language in the opening of ‘The Service at Plas Trewe’ is to cast a spell, if you like, in a story about an old Welsh house/hotel and its unlovely ghost. Different again, the language that opens ‘Sand Dancer’ hopefully helps convey the eccentric mind of its main character.
To be honest, I’d sooner have an actor do it (and make a better job), in I think the way Richard Burton did with the work of Dylan Thomas. Realistically, in the definite absence of Burton and the probable absence of Michael Sheen, I suspect I’d ask the audience if they had a request, then talk about the story for a little while, then stand and do my best to deliver.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Matthew G. Rees? Any new publications planned?
Matthew: At the time of this interview, I’m editing a collection of dark (and, I hope, at times darkly humorous) stories I’ve written, that I hope will see the light before too long. A couple of the tales are set in Wales with others set in England, Russia and America, and also, in places, Scotland and France. I hope they’ll appeal to readers with a taste for Roald Dahl, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood and, of course, Arthur Machen. More stories and a novel are in the mix. I’ve had a couple of plays performed professionally and would love to do a third when theatres are back in business. Some readers seem to think the kind of writing I do lends itself to audio and even film. Those are things I’d definitely like to explore. Interested parties can get in touch via the email address at my website www.matthewgrees.com
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Matthew: Thank you – Diolch yn fawr - for having me! I hope I haven’t rambled on too long. I also hope that anyone who reads my book will enjoy it. It’s available through selected sellers in Wales, London and the USA and via the publishers whose website is www.threeimpostors.co.uk
Anyone wishing to know more about me and my ongoing writing and publications can find information on my website www.matthewgrees.com
Finally, may I wish you all, at this time when our worlds have been turned upside down, good health. Iechyd da!
Diolch Matthew and many thanks for a superb interview. Review to follow in the next couple of days