When I began writing this book, I had no idea that the duration of my protagonist’s exile would match the time it would take me to complete it. I like to think that I would have carried on regardless had I realised, but fifteen years is a long time. It’s about something intangible, yet powerful, like the scent you catch in the air every now and then that makes your heart swell with nostalgia or the child’s smile that brings a tear to your eye. It’s about something good that still exists in a bad world. Like the lone snowdrop on the rubbish tip, this beauty will always find a way. This is the best story I can come up with to frame the notion of a force within all of us that can survive anything: grief, addiction, trauma, enslavement, conditioning and, in near-future Britannia, even a natural disaster and the rise of a terrifying new brand of fascism.
When I came up with the idea for the story, I had a job working late shifts in a local restaurant and that morning, I could barely face sunlight, I was so tired. I poured a styrofoam cup of scorched coffee from the MOT garage’s grotty percolator and sat down to check out the reading material on the table. Next to the mountain of Heat, Hello, Ok!, Cosmopolitan, Loaded et al sat a pristine hardback of the Holy Bible. The juxtaposition of the literature seemed absurd, even more so when flicking between them. It made me consider how human consciousness might have evolved over two millenia, if at all.
Two years earlier, 9/11 had brought religious fundamentalism into the spotlight with an event that was truly shocking to witness live on TV. It felt unreal, like a waking nightmare. I’d stood on top of one of the buildings a year previously and the memory made me shiver. A toxin was leaking into my bloodstream through the television as I watched these hellish events unfold. It was tough to escape the feeling that somebody had crafted this nightmare for a specific purpose: to alter the consciousness of the world, to upset the balance to serve their own ambitions, whatever they might be. Someone had turned down the dimmer switch for humanity and all its higher virtues, leaving us all suspended in a darkness, not of physical light, but of the spirit.
I set down the literature and drank my coffee, none too keen to wriggle any further down the rabbit-hole without more caffeine. I could feel The Horseman’s Dream rumbling in the distance or so I thought. Turned out to be my car failing its MOT on a knackered exhaust.
I was thinking about my experience at Ground Zero, where it was all no longer just on the TV. Since I had been booked for label showcases in New York before 9/11, I assumed that they would be cancelled, but I was wrong. They went ahead anyway in the November. Getting on a plane became a totally different proposition overnight. Twitchy faces seemed riveted to their headrests, casting anxious glances at their fellow travellers and security checks both in arrivals and departures took so long that you could see the weariest visibly ageing as they stood in line. It wasn’t just the time it took or the draining effect of air travel: they had been poisoned like me. They were afflicted by the same sadness that took control of the veins, arteries, nerves, muscles and ligaments, not just the brain or the heart. A genuine malaise that saw altruism and other romantic imperatives smeared from the collective consciousness and replaced with a cold objectivism.
Reading the tributes amidst the still-rising smoke and dust at Ground Zero was harrowing. As a young man, I had been looking forward to writing stuff that would comfort people and encourage them to be kinder to each other, to make the world a more interesting, peaceful place. It suddenly seemed a most naive, childish ambition, and my motivation to write faltered badly during the following two years.
The Horseman’s Dream was the idea that broke the drought. My styrofoam coffee cup now empty, I scribbled as many notes as I could fit within the confines of Ben Affleck’s forehead, before I had to move on to Jennifer Aniston’s dress on the next page of the magazine. I inconspicuously removed the notated pages and stuffed them into my pocket before diving back to the Bible. Flipping it open randomly landed me in Revelations.
I remembered that feeling of apocalyptic dread as I watched the Twin Towers fall on television. It made me wonder whether the apocalypse would take the form of something so awfully spectacular in the physical world or whether the apocalypse of the soul would be the thing to finish us off. This imperceptible parasite travelling through airwaves and feeding on higher virtue seemed to me to be a grave, real danger and it was clear that we had all been affected by it. Infected by it.
I took the idea of a reality TV mogul rising to power and using media and technology to control and ultimately destroy the minds of a population to achieve complete dominance. I had always been disturbed by the incredible influence that the media has over people, but post 9/11, it became an assault rather than an influence. Something wasn’t right. And that pristine passport. Building 7. Temperatures required to melt steel beams. I don’t know if you remember, but people were openly talking about these things in polite company. I remember when the phrase “conspiracy theory” wasn’t dirty, laced with ridicule or used to undermine alternative opinions and ideas. The manipulation of that phrase became a source of suspicion in itself. Conspiracy theories about conspiracy theory. To the shadowy forces at the helm of this dark vessel cleaving through the waves of the collective consciousness, tampering with crime scenes seemed like more of an afterthought. Their real quarry seemed to be our very souls and it was jaw-dropping to see truth and logic escape from family and friends as they belched and regurgitated the desired narrative, becoming more exhausted and enraged by cognitive dissonance by the day.
This was the beginning of fake news as we now know it. The parasite no longer lived only in the airwaves, now it had fibre-optic broadband and the ability to create hate, confusion, polarisation and foster narcissism, cruelty and desensitisation in anyone on the planet in microseconds.
And it’s still working. The ego is inextricably entwined with social media in a way that TV, radio and print has never been, creating more profound lacerations to the user’s psyche and generating slow-burning, but dark consequences for our society. A week ago, a seven-year-old boy was slashed with a knife only a few miles from my home. I recently received death threats for intervening to prevent a woman being verbally and physically assaulted by four men outside a local bar. The hunt is still on for the man who thrust a pint glass into someone’s face at the bottom of my road a few weeks ago. Not far from the supermarket, a running street battle with machetes took place last month, resulting in some horrific injuries. And in true Ballardian fashion, someone recently smashed up a police mental health support vehicle while the officers were in a nearby house, attending to an emergency call.
And all the while, funding for health and emergency services is being strangled to death. Or to privatisation, I should say.
I don’t think it takes a genius to see that someone is conducting a symphony of chaos from the wings.
The arrival of dreck like the Jeremy Kyle Show and X-Factor fed the parasite, which had found its natural home online for the reasons outlined above. These programmes were designed to appeal to the lowest aspects of our humanity: merely an update of the Victorian freak show, so that people could give air to their desperate need to sneer at the pathetic plights and dreams of the poor, vulnerable and mentally-ill. Like a self-sufficient, perpetual eco-cycle, the circus continues ever apace, gathering more momentum every day under the watch of leaders who care nothing for us and everything for their offshore bank accounts.
And all this before I’ve even mentioned Brexit.
The Horseman’s Dream became a revenge story for the meek and a tale of justice for the abused. A protest against faceless, psychopathic corporations controlling our governments and our minds. The perpetrators would see their own cruel weapons turned against them amidst the howl of trumpets from the skies. I wrote that the horsemen would not come as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, but in the form of an institutionalised, 16-year-old catatonic. His weapon would not be a flaming sword or burning bow, but something else altogether more nebulous and abstract.
Years later, when a coiffured tangerine was elected as the most powerful political leader in the world, I knew that The Horseman’s Dream was coming true. I worried about Alice Grosvenor being a “pantomime” antagonist until I saw this guy delivering his address from the White House as if he had won an episode of Big Brother (somewhat ironically – George Orwell would have had much to say about this hot mess we live in, I’m sure).
The polarisation of the public in the UK and the USA continues to worsen, aided by technology and social media to create wider and deeper contamination and control of our people. It’s highly recommended to be a hustler, a playa, a gangsta, an outright narcissist or a gold-digger in our culture: anything else and you’re “weak”. The sneering attitudes fertilised by reality TV (or reality “programming” could be more apt) have become the norm, while the wretched mantra of the staunch objectivist might as well be tattooed on our foreheads: “I’m alright, Jack.”
As a protest and admonition against that, I wanted to create a shrivelled, cruel near-future where a tipping point has been reached: a world where kindness, honour, loyalty, compassion and altruism would finally be rewarded by a mysterious cosmic power operating outside of the grimy reach of the Establishment. A power that makes their attempts to control others appear quite ridiculous and futile. A power that meets their unkindness with a vengeance a thousand times more powerful than anything they could muster. A power to whom we could all be grateful for liberating us from our slavemasters’ thrall.
When I finally finished the novel last year, I went through a stringent drafting process and reluctantly let go of about 30,000 words, leaving the final draft at 75,000. In a fit of childish enthusiasm, I offered the manuscript to Will Self after attending one of his lectures in Liverpool and he was gracious enough to accept it. It was an exciting moment for me until I returned to my car and realised what I had done: I had just given a manuscript to one of the most complex, capable (and acidic) novelists ever for a review. I never knew I harboured such masochistic tendencies. What did I expect? What a ludicrous notion that he might even read it. A novelist of Will Self’s level has much more important stuff to do than read my twaddle. I blushed even though I was alone and drove home, cursing myself as an idiot for most of the journey.
I put the episode out of my mind until a few weeks later when I received an email from Professor Self. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared of opening an email. I needn’t have worried: he was most polite. It wasn’t the “kind of thing he usually read”, but he said it was “full of fascinating ideas” and said that he would speak to someone who might be interested. Although I’ve not heard back since, I’m still relieved that I wasn’t completely eviscerated, at least. Just having one of the finest novelists of the last century read my work at all gave me a confidence boost, which has since been bolstered again by a few tough beta-readers who have come back to me with enthusiastic reviews.
I’ve been knocking together a few ringbound proofs in anticipation of the next step, which is to print a short run of paperbacks to sell from the website and perhaps the odd art/book fair here and there in a bid to remain as independent as possible. If you can’t wait and would like a ringbound proof, email me and we’ll work something out. Readers have bartered beer, guitar strings, homegrown vegetables and cigars so far, all of which I will continue to accept as tender until the paperback is released.
If you have any thoughts on any of the above, feel free to put them in the comments or send me an email.
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Lots of love,