An interview with Damien Love
Damien Love has written about movies, music and television for, among others, The Guardian, Uncut, The Sunday Herald and The Scotsman. He is also the author of Like Clockwork, an adventure serial full of magic, mystery, robots and derring-do originally published in six instalments.
Damien kindly took the time to talk to us about the books that have influenced and inspired him through his life.
Which book do you own that puts a smile on your face and makes you happy just by holding it in your hand?
That’s tough. There are loads of possible answers, books from childhood, you know, like The Hobbit, which is the first book I really remember getting truly lost in. However, the thing that really fits this question for me is The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia Of Film, by Michael Weldon. It’s a collection of capsule-sized reviews of thousands of wild films, many of them obscure and disreputable, spun-off from Weldon’s incredible Psychotronic Video magazine, a kind of punk fanzine devoted to cult movies. Everyone and their granny is doing this stuff – badly – on the internet today, but Weldon was out on his own when he started in the 1980s. The magazine no longer exists, and the world is a poorer place without it. This book is a Bible, the most well-thumbed book I own, and, yes, just seeing it makes me happy. It’s one of those books that, if you meet someone for the first time and see that they have a copy, you can be 95 per cent sure they’re a good person. The sequel – The Psychotronic Video Guide – is essential, too.
Which book or series do you read that makes you feel nostalgic, remembering the period in your life you first read it?
The Gormenghast books, by Mervyn Peake. I was about 12 or 13 the first time I tried to read them. I was going through lots of fantasy and sci-fi of different varieties, Lord of the Rings, the Dune books, Douglas Adams, Stephen R Donaldson, Julian May, Terry Brooks. But the Gormenghast books were something else. I can’t remember how I first stumbled across them, but I had that real sense of having discovered something no one else knew about. Which was nonsense, of course: but they’re the kind of books that make you feel like that. Also, as a kid sitting in his bedroom trying to draw, I remember it was really important to me that Peake did his own illustrations. The books are so strange – sad, violent and funny, with an unforgettable anti-hero, but you’re watching it all through this damp cloud of white dust and black soot. To use the jargon, it's real “world building.” The density of the language, these long, minute descriptions, they just surround you – and, I’ll admit, made the books quite heavy going the first time I tried them. I’ve just started reading them again, for the first time since back then. They’re just incredible. There was great new collection of the complete trilogy published in 2011, which added many more of Peake’s drawings, plus an introduction by either China Mieville or Michael Moorcock, depending on whether you buy the UK or US edition.
Which book or series do you read that makes your blood pump and your palms sweaty?
I’ve got two answers, two writers that do it in different ways. The first is Patricia Highsmith, and her Tom Ripley series. You know, people talk about the protagonists of TV shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad as being morally complex, but they’re lumbering cartoons compared to Ripley. Highsmith is the master of making you so complicit with a psychopath that you completely forget that this is what he is – you’re right there with him as he’s killing someone or getting rid of a body, and you’re getting tense because you don’t want him to get caught. You can see why Alfred Hitchcock liked her stuff. The books are great for their decadent, refined-but-trashy Euro atmosphere, too.
The other book is The White People And Other Weird Stories, by Arthur Machen, which is very well-named. Machen was writing between the 1890s and the 1920s, a contemporary of the great British ghost-story writer MR James. There are some crossovers between the two – that feeling of unknown things from the dark old world reaching into the present – but their forms of horror are quite different. Machen was a Welshman, and his tales tend to unfold against the bustle of London or out in the wild places of Wales, and he writes both settings like no one else. The stories feel very real, then suddenly get punctured by a visionary strangeness, this sense of something else approaching, coming in from around the edges. Few writers generate the creeping feeling of “What… the…?” quite like him.
Which book or series do you think you could implant one of your own characters from Like Clockwork into? And would you want them to thrive and integrate, or would you want them to burn it all down?
I reckon Alex’s grandfather would get on quite well wherever you dropped him. I don’t know if he’d go so far as burning it all down, although he might if it came to it. Mostly, though, if something was really annoying him, he’d just ignore it. Or knock it out. I’d like to see him maybe in Sherlock Holmes’s world – a properly supernatural version of The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sussex Vampire, or one of those weird-sounding, unwritten Holmes adventures that Arthur Conan Doyle sometimes mentions in passing, like The Giant Rat Of Sumatra, or The Repulsive Story Of The Red Leech. He’d thrive in the groovy, black magic-infested Greenwich Village of the early Dr Strange stories Marvel comics put out in the mid-1960s. And I think he’d have a whale of a time sharing cocktails with the characters of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
Is there a particular author that leaves you thinking: “One day I would like to be able to write just like that?”
Raymond Chandler, every time. Because:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
That’s the start of his 1938 story, Red Wind. Never open a book with weather, eh?
Like Clockwork by Damien Love
Racing from London to Paris to the heart of Prague, it's a mystery set in the present-day world - but a world the bewildered hero, a 12-year old boy called Alex, finds increasingly invaded by the fantastic and the macabre. When Alex's globe-trotting grandfather sends him an old toy robot to add to his collection just before Christmas, it doesn't seem anything unusual. But when the old man arrives unexpectedly just in time to save him from an attack by sinister little robots he's never seen before, Alex begins to realise there's something different, possibly deadly about his latest acquisition. Fleeing across a snowy Europe, Alex and his grandfather are pursued by assassins both human and mechanical. What is it about the old toy that makes them targets for murder..?
“I would recommend Like Clockwork to those who like their books to be atmospheric, gripping and full of robots and adventure. It treats the reader like an adult regardless of their age and will thrill and chill with equal measure. There have been many books written in recent times that look to address imbalances in literature, often in regards to female characters, and this book does something similar in that takes a member of the older-generation, so often dealt a broad brush-stroke, and allows him to be an exciting and dynamic character, clever, brave and resourceful. It made for a pleasant change from the norm.” An excerpt from our review.