Anthony Ferguson Interview: Always Drawn to the Left-hand Path: because the middle road is boring!
Always Drawn to the Left-hand Path: because the middle road is boring!
An interview with Anthony Ferguson
By Sarah Elliott
You know those people who never ruffle anyone’s feathers? You know, the ones who sit on the fence, always wanting to walk the hallowed middle path. Well, Anthony Ferguson is not that person. Self-confessed left-hand path walker, prolific author and an advocate of all the spookiness Down Under, Anthony is about to publish his first short story collection, Rest in Pieces.
Let’s find out what makes him tick as he makes us twitch, wriggle and squirm with his stimulating use of word and story.
Bio: Anthony Ferguson is an author and editor living in Perth, Australia. He has published over seventy short stories and non-fiction articles in Australia, Britain and the United States. He wrote the novel Protégé, the non-fiction books, The Sex Doll: A History, and Murder Down Under, edited the short-story collection Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror and coedited the award-nominated Midnight Echo #12. He is a committee member of the Australasian Horror Writers Association (AHWA), and a submissions editor for Andromeda Spaceways Magazine (ASM). A four-time nominee, He won the Australian Shadows Award for Short Fiction in 2020. His short story collection, Rest in Pieces will be published by IFWG in August 2023. Visit his website at https://anthonypferguson.wixsite.com/mysite
Facebook – anthonypferguson
Twitter – AnthonyFergo
LinkedIn – anthonypferguson
Instagram – Anthony.p.ferguson
Now we have the form, let’s dig down a bit more into the content…
Sarah: So, Anthony, why horror? Tell us your origin story and how the horror genre lured you in.
Anthony: I think I was always subconsciously a fan of the genre, without consciously acknowledging it. Like most things in my life, I came late to writing horror, to writing altogether in fact. I came from a very poor working-class background. English was about the only subject I excelled in, and I enjoyed reading. My mum encouraged me from an early age. I also grew up in a place and an era that was quite violent. I wouldn’t say my high school was toxic, but some days I nearly made it all the way to school before I was beaten up, by the teachers. I left school at fifteen and went into a welding factory. Then one day a few years later I looked out at the spewing smoke stacks of the dark Satanic mills, and exclaimed, “there has to be more to life than this.” I escaped and went backpacking around Europe. I returned and went back to finish high school. I got into university and studied English and Communications. I finished with a Masters degree.
With regard to horror, university English taught me how to write academic papers. In my downtime I found myself reading Stephen King horror story collections. It occurred to me that I had always had an interest in the dark side of life. As a small child I had an invisible friend who lived in the wall (I guess I was lonely and creative). I was always drawn to horror comics, movies and television shows. I loved the original Twilight Zone, The Evil Touch, The Outer Limits, and The Night Stalker. In the days before 24/7 tv and streaming services, I tried to stay up all night for the occasional Friday night Horrorthons on seventies tv.
I began to explore horror and true crime fiction, enjoying the works of Colin Wilson, and collecting books on Jack the Ripper. I began to develop a morbid interest in the twisted psychology of serial killers, and devoured books on the subject. Still, late to everything, it did not occur to me to try and write for publication until I was about 35. The catalyst was bumping into and working in the same office as James Doig in 1998. He suggested I turn my hand to horror fiction and join the AHWA. I had started writing and publishing true crime articles. I duly joined the AHWA… in 2007, the records show. I have no idea why it took me so long. Probably imposter syndrome.
It took me three years to get my first horror story published in 2001, and at least another three to get the next one accepted. It has been a hell of a journey since then. So much learning at the feet of my peers. Joining many critique groups, reading, listening, learning, writing, writing and more writing. Draft after draft. Giving and receiving critiques. Learning to accept rejection. I’d say it took me another decade to reach the stage of being a competent horror writer. The key to my moderate level of success is that I never give up. I took a tiny nugget of talent and polished it into one giant turd. I don’t have imposter syndrome anymore. I know I can hold my own now. (I know I’m good. I won an award goddammit!)
Yet, sometimes, as I fast approach my dotage, I look back and think, why horror? Why true crime? As one ex-girlfriend once opined, “Why can’t you write something nice?” Well, because I can’t. This is who I am, always drawn to the left-hand path.
Sarah: Horror, as I’m discovering has many sub-genres. Where does your horror fiction sit?
Anthony: I am the worst person to judge and assess my own work. I am told that my stories are quite visceral. Indeed, it says so on the back cover blurb of my collection. I guess they are. I never set out to write in a particular sub-genre or style, but I guess you could say many of my stories lean toward the sub-genre of brutal horror. Tales of sex, blood, violence and revenge. Perhaps the best fit is psychological horror.
My stories are a product of my background and upbringing, I suppose, but they are not a reflection of my nature. In fact, I think I’m a kind, gentle soul. I just write the nasty stuff that comes out of my imagination. I’m influenced by everything I have read, watched, and experienced, as we all are.
I would add that my stories are also laced with black humour. This factor was pointed out to me by my editor. I have never taken life or myself too seriously, and I learned at an early age to use humour to deflect the harsher side of reality. I have the capacity to see the absurdity of life and the human condition. This comes through in my work.
Sarah: Time to spill the beans. Who inspired you to walk this path?
Anthony: Stephen King’s books were always widespread and readily accessible. I prefer his short stories to the novels. Bret Easton Ellis specifically for American Psycho, a treatise in psychological horror. Richard Matheson for the quality of his work, and his fellow early Twilight Zone alumni, Charles Beaumont, Buck Houghton and Rod Serling.
Clive Barker for his Books of Blood and the original Hellraiser. Fellow Britt Ramsey Campbell for his titillating sex-based horror and the collection, Scared Stiff. Joe R. Lansdale and Richard Laymon. Colin Wilson for his early novels on serial killers and sex crime.
I keep in mind that I wasn’t one of those kids who voraciously read horror from an early age. My reading tastes were always eclectic. They still are. When I started getting really interested in horror fiction, I tended to pick up large anthologies of short stories, like those edited by Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow. So, I have never developed a strong liking for a particular writer in the genre.
Since joining the AHWA, I have endeavoured to collect the works, novels and story collections, of many of my peers in the genre. To assess the quality and appreciate the standards I need to meet, and also out of admiration. There are way too many of them to name names.
Finally, to the person who wrote my high school academic reports – now that was a horror story!
Sarah: You have published many, many short stories but this is your first collection. Why now? What was the catalyst?
Anthony: Ha! Well therein lies a tale. After several years of reading and sometimes reviewing the story collections of my peers in the AHWA, all the while getting more and more of my own stories published, I started to ask myself, where’s MY collection? I pondered this thought for a couple of years, as my published works and confidence grew, until in 2021 I determined to do something about it.
I had over fifty stories in print by then. So, I drafted a letter of introduction for myself and my work and drew up a list of likely publishers to approach. Fortunately, by this stage of my career, I had networked enough to have some good contacts and good advice from colleagues.
IFWG was at the top of my list, and I duly approached them first. It was June 2021. Admittedly, I did so with trepidation. I honestly thought, there’s no way they will accept me, but I have the backup list. I was thrilled when Gerry said YES. Over the moon, honoured. Even though I’m at the age now where delights are few and cynicism starts to reign, getting that acceptance was like Christmas morning as a ten-year-old for me. It is a huge milestone in my life as a horror writer. A great personal achievement ticked off the bucket list.
It is my first collection. IFWG assigned me an editor, and together, Sarah and I went through the best 40 or so stories I subbed. We debated back and forth and whittled it down to the 20 plus in the collection, including four new previously unpublished tales, as per Gerry’s request. It was a two-year process, and the book is due for release on 1 August 2023.
I might add that there were three stories that didn’t make the cut which I think are quite good, and hopefully, I will pen and publish a good deal more before I’m done.
Sarah: How do you feel about publishing your first short story collection? Does it feel different to publishing your novel and non-fiction books?
Anthony: Well I’m thrilled, to be honest. Even though I’ve had a lot of stories published now, I still retained an element of imposter syndrome. When I put my submission together to pitch my story collection to publishers, a part of me wasn’t expecting to be successful. At least not straight away. Even though there was a two-year period between the acceptance and the publication, it was a tremendous boost to my self-esteem as a writer. The two-year gap incidentally, was because my publisher, IFWG, has a large number of books on the catalogue to produce and publish. In addition, the gap also gave me time to pen a number of new stories, some of which have been published or are soon to be published. So who knows, maybe one day I’ll have another collection.
The story anthology is certainly different to my novel and n/f books, in that the stories were already there of course, so it did not involve me having to create any new material. Even though IFWG asked for four new stories as part of the deal, I actually already had two of them in reserve and was able to write a couple more of decent standard. The n/f books are a different animal, as they involve a lot of research on true factual material that exists in material form, be it articles, books or documentary and news items. There is certainly less creativity involved because you are not making up stories using your imagination. You are collating information and trying to present it in a new and hopefully interesting way. With novels, I find these a long-term project. Where a good short story can be completed in say a month, with several drafts and crits from beta readers, you can pants a short story. Novels for me are carefully planned, with a synopsis and a complete chapter outline. This helps me not to forget where I want to go and which key elements to hit. A trick I learned in my university essay-writing days. A novel usually takes me at least two years to complete, with many rewrites and critical advice. I admit I have not quite cracked the novel writing art yet.
Sarah: Describe your general writing process. Are you a marathon writer or a sprinter? What helps you to focus?
Anthony: Ah, I see I hinted at this one above. With a short story, I start from the germ of an idea and just pants it. The idea can be a visual image I saw, a snippet from a dream, or even a snippet from an overheard conversation. I just sit down and start writing. I can complete a first draft of a short in one, two or three sittings. Sometimes it might take a week or two. If I then find the idea is not working, I will sit staring into space and brainstorming it until inspiration hits.
With novels and n/f books or articles, it’s definitely a slow, well thought out process, with copious notes, a synopsis and planning. Chapter outlines, which of course are not set. You can switch them around, discard some and add new ones as new ideas pop up.
Unlike the advice some writers give, I don’t write every day. One because I’m a lazy sod, but also because I like to give my brain and creative juices a break. Some days I just read or stream shows and movies for research, inspiration and relaxation. I also still work full time, so some days I’m just too tired. However, if I’ve got my teeth into a good story, I will self-discipline myself to crack on and get a good draft down on the page.
The thing that most helps me to focus is absolute silence. I love peace and quiet. I write in my study. Other writers tell me they listen to music, even heavy metal, as they write. Bugger that. It would totally distract me, as much as I love metal. I listen to the lyrics too closely. Liking silence fits for me as I am a bit of a loner anyway. I love my own company. I’m a weirdo.
Sarah: Who would you most want to read your short story collection?
Anthony: Oh I’m delighted for anyone to read it. I think there’s something in there for all horror fans, especially if you like sex, blood, death, romance, violence and a lot of dark humour. I also hope my peers in the industry read it, be they Australian, American, Asian or European. I would be thrilled to have an international readership. I would love to get a wide range of feedback, especially from established horror writers and editors, and hope it would mostly be positive and constructive. I think it’s a very solid collection of work, going back 15 years. I think it is representative of my development as a horror writer. I also believe there is more to come from me. I would also mention how much I love the cover art the AHWA’s Greg Chapman provided for the book. He has really bought out that classic faded seventies horror pulp feel. Top work,Greg.
Sarah: Amongst your wide array of stories, is there a favourite? One that is the apple of your authorly eye?
Anthony: I’m one of those people who rarely goes back and re-reads their own work after it’s out there for public consumption. However, I do love blowing my own trumpet.
I have to give a shoutout to Brumation, if only for the fact it won the Best Short Fiction award in the Australian Shadows for 2020. I am very proud of that. Four times nominated for one win. I’ll take that. It’s a cracking little old-school serial killer tale. I actually got the idea from a magazine image my wife showed me of a frozen gator sticking out of a lake in Florida. As soon as I saw it I thought, oh hell yeah, that’s a horror story asking to be written.
I’m quite fond of my bogan black magic jilted lover tale, Love Thy Neighbour. This one is very tongue-in-cheek and laced with black humour. I’ve always found the Aussie bogan sub-culture ripe for horror and humour pickings. Plus of course, wilful ignorance is a type of evil.
Protégé is another personal favourite from a while back. I don’t think anyone has ever noticed that it is actually a twisted take on the two main characters from When Harry Met Sally. It arose when a friend of mine doing a crime writers course was asked to take an excerpt from a romantic comedy and turn it into a crime story. So, I was inspired to write my own.
I actually re-read my decade or so old zombie tale, With a Whimper, by chance recently, and surprised myself by how bloody funny it was. I was laughing out loud, especially because I secretly know who the main characters were based on. I amuse myself.
I’ve always been fond of Not Like Us, my Vietnam War epic and a not so subtle allegory on racism and misogyny. Exclusive to the collection. I was disappointed nobody ever picked it up. I actually wrote it years ago and it had multiple rejections. I revisited it a year ago and fleshed it out a lot more. I still think it’s a ripper.
Demontia is an ode to my parents in their declining years. They’ve both passed away now, but this story perfectly encapsulates my Dad’s sense of humour and my Mum’s rigid illogical behaviour patterns.
I better stop here before I disappear up my own orifice. I’m proud of this collection. I put a lot of years into these tales.
Sarah: I heard a rumour that you also wrote a true crime/serial killer book. Do tell.
Anthony: Well, lemme tell ya a story…
Back in the days when I was just a 35-year-old novice, finding my way in the horror world, I had this idea to pen a non-fiction book on Australian serial killers. At the time no such tome existed, so I was confident I was striking while the iron was hot (or the knife was sharp).
I had bought and consumed countless n/f books on serial murder, imbibed the works of Colin Wilson, been enthralled by the psychological insights into the minds of serial murderers throughout the ages. I collected as many tracts as I could on Australian psychos, buoyed by the fact that there weren’t so many to cover, just twenty or so across our colonial history.
After a year of research and drafting, I penned a letter to a certain British publication, one who produced a regular counter-cultural zine, who had previously published some of my articles on murder and other psycho-sexual topics. To my utter delight they said yes.
A contract was duly drawn up, signed, sealed and delivered.
There followed a long, drawn-out couple of years of minimal to non-existent communication, and yes, it transpired the contract wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. For whatever reason, the publisher never followed through on the deal.
In the interim period, a book on Australian serial killers was published. The moment was lost, and I retreated back into the shadows and focussed on pursuing my goals in the horror fiction world.
Many years later, having finally enjoyed some success and acceptance in the horror field, it occurred to me to dig out that manuscript again. I had discovered in my true crime pursuits, that the American publisher, McFarland, had a true crime imprint, Exposit Books, that may well be interested in my work.
An enquiry was thankfully followed by an acceptance, and I readily accepted the opportunity to turn an old failing into a success, a hurt into a healing, an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan… you get the drift.
I resurrected the old corpse of my manuscript. It was interesting to revisit my writings of almost two decades prior. I edited, re-wrote and expanded the original chapters. Added further chapters at the publisher’s request. Sought out image rights and most importantly, re-wrote the introduction with the passing of time, and added a brand-new conclusion.
Thus Murder Down Under was born. That was their choice of title, not mine incidentally. Mine was something along the lines of, That’s Not a Knife…
Sarah: With so many accomplishments, what’s next on your to-do list?
Anthony: Well, old age, deteriorating physical capacity and death probably… oh you mean in terms of writing?
Well, I have a second novel in the works, following up on Protégé, my semi-autobiographical tale on my early working life in the Dark Satanic mills. It was horrible, but nowhere near as bad as I made it out to be. I turned it up a notch or ten. The proposed second novel is called Gap Year, it’s about two British girls with a dark secret, who go backpacking down under and are forced to spend a few months working on a remote farm in outback WA. Yeah, it doesn’t go well, but the girls are the heroes of the tale. However, I am mindful of the way the literary world is turning, and I’m conscious of the possibility of offending sensibilities. So that draft novel is currently with a female editor for some perspective and feedback.
Apart from that, I am writing a heap of new short stories this year. It’s a process I enjoy immensely, even though I spend so much time procrastinating and avoiding the page. When I actually force myself to sit down and write, I get lost in the world of my imagination, a dark and scary, and yet simultaneously comforting place.
In fact, I very recently finished an epic 9500 word short, the longest one I’ve written to date. It’s a cracker. Well, at least I think so anyway. I’m like most writers. Some days I think I’m the best writer in the world, other days I’m sure I’m the worst.
I have four stories coming out this year, so far. One in an anthology that hasn’t been announced yet. One in the awesome Deb Sheldon edited, Killer Creatures Down Under, from IFWG, which will be out as you read this. My story, Bait, is one I’m proud of.
I also have another non-fiction piece coming in Claire Fitzpatrick’s A Vindication of Monsters, later this year.
Sarah: Where can we all get our hands on a copy of Rest in Pieces?
Anthony: It’s not due for official release until 1 August but is available for pre-order now. I also do have several author copies on hand. So if anyone wants to PM me, I would be happy to post a copy out.
Also check with the IFWG Publishing website, where promotion of my collection and many other quality works are or will soon be available.
Well, how exciting is the left-hand path? Maybe some of us could do with shifting a little…
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Sarah Elliott is a published poet, writer and self-published author (Warrior Wisdom Sun, 2022). She is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and can also be found hosting on London Writers’ Salon. When Sarah isn’t writing, she is either coaching and mentoring educationalists or chucking needles into people for acupuncture treatments! Sarah is currently writing a tarot-inspired collection of flash fiction in addition to a poetry anthology. The Substack newsletter titled A Writer’s Life chronicles Sarah’s writing journey, and you can also find her work on The Horror Tree website.
More from Sarah here: https://linktr.ee/Writingforlight
Sarah is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and her poems have been featured in an online magazine and a poetry anthology. Sarah writes a newsletter titled A Writer’s Life and has a second poetry book ready for publication in 2023.
Sarah enjoys fantasy and sci-fi and is fascinated by Tarot and astrology. Recently discovering a love for flash fiction, Sarah is currently writing a collection of flash fiction for fun and maybe more.