Phil Hickes, author of The Haunting of Aveline Jones and The Bewitching of Aveline Jones (which we whole-heartedly endorsed), as well as a number of creepy stories for adults, is a talented new voice in the world of horror fiction. His novels are well-crafted and engaging, filled to the brim with spooky atmosphere, likable characters, and chilly turns down dark alleyways.
We’re not the only ones who think so either. Check out this kid, who couldn’t stop reading even during recess.
This Year 6 child was absolutely desperate to finish his book (The Bewitching of Aveline Jones) at breaktime this morning. He stood right in the middle of the playground, totally oblivious to everything else that was going on, and read the final few chapters. #ReadingForPleasure pic.twitter.com/J70PrgznuB— Moorlands Primary (@moorlandsbelton) January 12, 2022
As it turns out, though originally from the UK, Hickes lives in the Pacific Northwest on the Washington/Oregon border. Which is only a couple hundred miles from us here at RRB. We reached out to Hickes, who generously agreed to the interview below.
You were born in England but have lived in Ireland and New Zealand and now call the Pacific Northwest of the US home. Has living in different countries had a significant influence on your writing?
Ireland is spooky, cozy and has a lot of inspiring faerie folklore. New Zealand is wild, majestic, and awe-inspiring. The Pacific Northwest is also very spooky in places, being fogbound and wet a lot of the time, with some fantastically quirky coastal towns and wild forests. Ultimately, I think living in different countries simply exposes you to a wider variety of life experiences and that’s something that can only benefit you as a writer.
How do you like living in the Pacific Northwest? How does it compare to England?
I really like it. The weather is very similar to the UK but otherwise they’re very different. Perhaps the most significant thing you notice as a Brit is simply the size of the place. For example, Oregon alone is larger than the entire UK in terms of landmass and only has a population of around 4 million people. The UK has squeezed in around 67 million. It’s hard to get your head around at times. You can be driving for hours on end and still be in the same state. I love the coastline here in particular.
How do you feel the literary communities differ between the US and Britain?
I find the literary community in the UK to be very supportive. I don’t really have any experience of its American equivalent, but the few US writers I have contact with on social media seem like a terrific bunch.
You published Aveline Jones with Usborne Books. Did you consciously seek out a British publisher, or did that arise out of previous connections within the industry?
After much rejection, I finally found a UK agent. It was they who led things from there. They eventually negotiated offers from 3 UK publishing houses and I chose Usborne because ultimately, I felt they were the best fit. The hope was that we would subsequently negotiate a separate US publishing deal but alas that’s yet to materialize. Fingers crossed for 2022.
Horror is often seen as a masculine genre, and many people (perhaps mistakenly) assume that the majority of horror fans are boys. Yet your main character, Aveline, is a girl. Why did you choose to write about her rather than a young boy?
I can’t recall making a conscious decision to have a female lead. Aveline was always just there. But I do remember wanting to try and write something that wouldn’t be seen as solely a book for girls or a book for boys, but simply a book for any child that enjoys being spooked.
Both novels feel squarely within the tradition of classic British ghost tales, similar in technique to the stories of MR James or Algernon Blackwood. Very atmospheric, moody, the present haunted by the sins of the past. Did you intentionally set out to emulate classic ghost stories?
I’ve read a lot of MR James, and a little Blackwood, so I think they’ve probably had a huge influence. I definitely wanted to incorporate these classical elements, but very much aimed to make it contemporary rather than historical. I wanted the reader to think that something like this could happen to them, right here, right now.
What are your favorite ghost stories?
Talking of M R James, his famous “Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of my favorites. Another is Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe, which I personally found to be terrifying when I first read it.
Who are your favorite horror writers?
This changes like the weather but some stalwarts include (early) Stephen King, Peter Straub, James Herbert, Shirley Jackson, Dennis Wheatley, Andrew Michael Hurley and Robin Spriggs. I also recently discovered Victor LaValle and would like to read more of his stuff.
Phil Hickes’s Top 10 Horror Novels
- The Devil Rides Out
- Ghost Story
- Naomi’s Room
- The Loney
- Pet Semetary
- Salem’s Lot
- Needful Things
- The Shining
- The Apparition Phase
In the US, horror is dominated by mainstays like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as talented newcomers like Joe Hill, Benjamin Percy and Paul Tremblay. What does the landscape of horror look like in the UK? Do American authors fare well across the pond?
In the UK, Adam Nevill seems to be flying the flag for Folk Horror. Andrew Michael Hurley is another, less commercially successful perhaps, but hugely influential author. But I need to read much more and widen my knowledge, I’m sure there are hundreds of amazing authors that I’ve yet to encounter.
I think the American horror juggernauts do well in the UK, as they do everywhere. I’m unsure which other authors are making a splash over the pond. Joe Hill for sure. I don’t know Benjamin Percy but I’m going to seek him out.
You’ve written a number of horror stories for adults which have been published in anthologies. Stories like A Little Terror and A Gentleman’s Folly are more graphic and violent and display a wickedly macabre sense of humor. Do you find that you enjoy writing for one audience (adults or children) more than another?
Currently I prefer writing for children. There’s something magical about the MG reading age. No cynicism. Open minds. But someday (it’s finding the time), I’d love to have a crack at writing a full-length adult horror.
You’ve mentioned that you did an online writing course with Jeremy Shipp. What did you learn about writing horror (or writing in general) from this course?
The most valuable thing I gained from it was confidence and self-belief. Like most, if not all writers, you’re constantly battling the demonic inner voice that tells you everything you produce is rubbish.
Did you study creative writing at Middlesex University? How intense is the coursework for earning a degree in English Literature? One imagines this might be more daunting in Shakespeare’s native country than here in the US.
I studied English Literature, so it was less about one’s own creative writing and more about studying the creative writing of others. But helpful, nonetheless. It was a three-year degree. In years two and three I had to produce lengthy 25,000-word dissertations, which are very intimidating when you first begin. But from what I saw, there were many other subjects that were way more daunting, such as Law. A large part of my degree was just reading books, which was perfect!
Which middle grade writers do you admire?
Lesley Parr, Lindsey Barraclough, Lucy Strange, Chris Priestley, Jennifer Killick, Michelle Harrison, Helena Duggan, Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Robin Jarvis, Ross Montgomery, Dan Smith, BB Alston, Emma Carrol, Danny Weston. I could go on and on and I apologize if I’ve left anyone off.
What middle grade novels do you love? Which middle grade books do you think are underrated?
In both Haunting and Bewitching, Aveline is away from home. Any particular reason she’s always traveling? Are we going to see her at home in The Vanishing of Aveline Jones?
No, she’s away again in The Vanishing, too lol. I haven’t thought about that before. It would be interesting to set one at home. Possibly the main reason she’s always traveling is that the start of a story is arguably the most important. That’s when we either hook readers or see them wriggle away. It’s particularly important with younger readers and short attention spans. So it’s a literary device. Having Aveline travel someplace makes it easier to create tension. If she’s nervous and intrigued about a new situation then hopefully, we will be too.
Will Aveline ever travel to the US? Can you envision an Aveline Jones novel set in the Pacific Northwest?
I’d love to do that. I’d set it in Astoria, Oregon, which has a fantastic atmosphere. However, the upcoming Aveline story will possibly be the last of the three. Unless, of course, a torch-wielding mob of Aveline fans demands more!
In both novels, Aveline spends much of her time reading. She derives not just enjoyment from books, but also finds the knowledge she needs within them to combat the supernatural. What kind of reader were you as a kid?
I was an avid reader and while less so these days, because of the demands of being an adult, it’s still one of my favorite pastimes. Particularly in bed on a stormy night.
In the novels, you mention the titles of numerous books that Aveline reads. Were any of these real books or based on books you actually own?
A little of both. I often combined existing titles or swapped words around. When it comes to books about ghosts and suchlike, it’s very difficult to find a title that doesn’t already exist.
You’ve said before that as a boy you lived next to a graveyard. What about that graveyard do you remember most?
I remember the trees as I gave them all names. I remember falling from one of these trees and banging my head on a gravestone, which gave me a concussion. I remember its decrepitude.
I remember there was a grave of a soldier that had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. And I remember the difference between night and day. I would spend entire days in there and have to be dragged away. At night, even wild horses couldn’t drag me in there.
Many writers in the field of children’s literature write down to kids. Your books, however, are very sophisticated in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Was that intentional on your part?
Definitely. In terms of scare factor, I think children like to be challenged. And in terms of the writing style and vocabulary, I believe that if you have an intriguing enough story, then your reader will make a greater effort to comprehend it. I’m lucky enough to have experienced children’s editors to help with all that, too. A teacher in the UK also produced a vocabulary guide which is available to download. I think aiming high is a good approach when it comes to writing for children.
Phil Hickes’s Top 10 Horror Movies
- Saint Maud
- Sale’s Lot (David Soul version)
- The Wicker Man
- The Shining
- Bride of Frankenstein
- Dracula (Schreck, Lugosi or Lee)
- The Devil Rides Out
- Night of the Demon
- Notable Mentions: Hellraiser, Lake Mungo, Friday the 13th, Pet Semetary, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Trick r Treat, The House That October Built, Haute Tension, The Evil Dead, IT (either version)
If you could have any individual write an introduction for The Vanishing of Aveline Jones, who would it be and why?
We are in the midst of a horror renaissance, with fantastic work in the genre being done in short stories, novels, movies and television. Do you have a favorite decade or era for horror?
I like the 80s. Sure, some of it is a little schlocky by today’s standards, but as a teenager, I was obsessed with every facet of it. The thought of walking into the horror section at the Blockbuster video store still gives me the chills.
Beatles or Stones?
*The interviewer would like to note the only correct answer to the question above is: The Rolling Stones.
Who’s the best James Bond?
What classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I’ll get to it someday.
Flipping to the back and reading the end first. Acceptable or mortal sin?
Strangest book you’ve ever bought in a second-hand bookshop?
A Mills & Boon book. They were terrible romance novels in the 80s UK. It was for a university project so I have a good excuse!