Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer and photographer from Brighton, England. His stories have appeareed in Black Static, Litro, BFS Horizons, and Shadows & Tall Trees.
I Would Haunt You If I Could, his first collection of fiction, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021.
You can see more of Birnie’s work at seanbirnie.com.
I interviewed Seán Padraic Birnie via a collaborative Google Document in December 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 3 January 2022.
How does it feel to know I Would Haunt You If I Could is out in the world?
Very strange. I was struggling with the stories before they were published and when it came to the final edits, I could barely read them. I think that was partly brain fog and stress brought on by lockdown and various other things. But I’ve started liking them again in some ways, with more distance. It’s been really, really lovely reading reviews of them—your review and several other reviews of them—and seeing people engage with the stories, and seeing them respond and pick up on things that I never would have thought of, and which in some cases made me seem a lot cleverer than I thought I was. It’s always nice when something that isn’t consciously there, is noticed.
When did you first think about writing a story?
Aged nine or ten I remember ripping-off The Hobbit on the aforementioned Amiga. I came up with loads of stupid names for all the Dwarves. At some point self-disgust kicked in and I deleted it. It might have been a bit earlier though—I might have tried ripping off Michael Ende a year or two before then. But The Hobbit plagiarism is the first I can remember now.
What are the first horror stories you remember reading?
I remember I loved Momo and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, although certainly The Neverending Story is not a horror story. Before that I remember things like the The Little Vampire series by Angela Sommer-Bodenburg. You encounter things like that in children’s writing.
I got really into the Point Horror stories when I was about 10, and then very soon after that started reading Stephen King. And The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings certainly have horrific moments.
Do you write longhand now, or do you type?
I type; I use Scrivener’s Mac and iPad programmes, the notes app on my phone and then MS Word because the world always wants word docs. In secondary school I wrote an adaptation of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which I remember my mother typed up for me, because she used computers at work and could type quickly, but at some point I started using computers for writing myself. The consequences being that my handwriting deteriorated to a near unusable state, and I developed a chronic pain thing as a result of years of unergonomic keyboard use. I still have stories I wrote on that Amiga, our family’s first computer. That computer stopped working because I filled it with nonsense, and then in an effort to clear some space while deleting text files from within the word processor I accidentally deleted the word processor itself.
How do you go about beginning a story?
I’m not particularly systematic or organized and I’ll often just be struggling, and then something kind of incidental or seemingly irrelevant will start to nag in some way, and you sort of start picking at it.
I’ve got stubs, bits of things that haven’t developed into things, and then at some point they become stories. I had the first section of ‘Other Houses’ for ages before doing anything with the rest of it.
I think the thing that lockddown here for me made really, really apparent was that context changes are really, really useful. Being in the same place all the time is just completely deadening. With ‘Funny Faces’, I went to a cafe and had lunch and I had an ipad with me and was looking all my stuff in Scrivener and that line just came. So that kind of context change, just going somewhere else, is important.
One of my favourites in I Would Haunt You If I Could is ‘Dollface’, a story first published in Shadows & Tall Trees 8 alongside another favourite of mine, Brian Evenson’s ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’. How has feedback and support from editors like Michael Kelly helped you to improve as a writer?
Working with Undertow has been a real joy. I was quite desperate for feedback and editorial input, and their interest in what would become the book gave me a much-needed confidence boost at a point when my confidence was really low. Their work on the book—in particular, sequencing, the title, the cover art; so much of its formal identity—really shaped and improved it. We were struggling for a title for quite a while—everything I had felt really naff! Then Michael alighted on a line from the story that would become ‘I Would Haunt You if I Could’, which in turn became the overall title for the whole thing. Sequencing is really important, of course, and Michael suggested the final sequence; my own rather bunched the ghost stories and the body stories up into discrete clumps, and as each type of story pulls in almost the exact opposite direction—one towards ethereality, one towards abjection—it felt a bit like two books awkwardly smushed together. Michael’s sequence made it work, for me, as a single volume.
I’m glad you mention Evenson—I love his work, and Shadows & Tall Trees, among such a strong ToC, was a real honour. I love and collect horror anthologies, and the company I’ve gotten to keep in the few I have been in has been such a joy.
Paul Michaels wrote about how the horror in I Would Haunt You If I Could is the horror of ‘inexplicable events which collide with our seemingly ordered and controlled lives’. I think that is an ace characterisation of these stories. I also agree with Michaels when he says that many of your characters react ‘with almost resigned equanimity’ as the horror ‘creeps in almost unnoticed’. Have the horrors you’ve written about in this collection crept up on you almost unnoticed, at strange moments?
I really enjoyed Michaels’s review, and really think he got what I was trying to do. Being read, being reviewed, has been deeply gratifying, and I’ve enjoyed some of the less positive reviews, too.
I suppose I’m interested, on the one hand, in a spectrum of cognitive states that relate to depression, and the slow curdling of ordinary, functional psychology into various kind of wrongness; and on the other, on how power in its various modes forms and deforms the psychological texture of everyday life. In my own experience there’s nothing very dramatic in either process; there aren’t necessarily any ‘inciting incidences’ or whatever, so it doesn’t necessarily lend itself very well to narrative.
In ‘Lucida’ you have a character make a joke about the ‘Enhance!’ trope in detective films, and then ‘Enhance!’ comes back in ‘You Know What to Do’. Were those two stories both written after you knew I Would Haunt You If I Could was going to happen?
‘Lucida’ I wrote around 2013 or 2014, when I was on the MA Photography programme at the University of Brighton, where I now work as a technician, so five or six years before the collection came together. ‘You Know What to Do’ was written after the original manuscript had been accepted, and after my girlfriend and I had left a tiny flat for a small house, sometime in the summer of 2020 (I think).
‘Lucida’ is a key story for me because it engages with photography both as a craft, the chemical magic of the darkroom, and as a metaphor for how memory and perception are very negotiated things, and are frequently only as ‘true to life’ as a thin piece of photographic can be true to the moment in time when it was exposed.
The closed eyes in ‘Out of the Blue’ and ‘Lucida’, the eyes that either will not open, or will not remain open on film, are eerie and unsettling because they evoke darkness and doubt. The void of uncertainty. There are also these wonderful lines in ‘Holes’:
She told herself she could not be seeing what it was that she was seeing. She could not.
She closed her eyes, hoping when she opened them that the world would have come to its senses.Seán Padraic Birnie, ‘Holes‘
How did your own work as a photographer, and your study of different ways of seeing, leak into these stories, and how did ‘Lucida’ come about?
I’m glad you mention ‘Lucida’—it was key for me too, and I think we actually almost cut it at one point. With that one, I was struggling to write anything, which is how a lot of my writing starts, and I decided to just try and describe the camera I was using at that point, a Mamiya RZ67. It’s a lovely, heavy, modular camera, and the story, such as it is, emerged out of that effort at description. I had recently been up to a hill fort up by the edge of Brighton with a friend and, separately, my girlfriend, so that location suggested itself. (The hill fort returned in ‘Other Houses’).
I sold the RZ in order to buy a Mamiya 7, which is my favourite camera, I think, but I’ve never sold a camera and not regretted it. I’m still appalled that I sold the Stereo Realist I bought in 2013. That was a really weird and beautiful thing. At some point I’ll probably get another at four times the cost of what I paid for it then.
On a longer time frame, I had been writing about photography on and off since around 2008. After finishing my BA that year I had gone straight into a Creative Writing MA at Sussex, because I didn’t have a clue what else to do, and I had been having panic attacks before sessions. During the first of these I just got up and left, forgetting my coat and backpack, and went to the library, where I found a copy of Barthes’ Camera Lucida. In retrospect it was a really key moment for me. The book is a kind of cliché of undergrad and postgrad photography curricula, which I didn’t know at the time, but it remains one of the most psychologically potent and beautiful engagements by a writer with photography that I’ve ever come across. I adore it.
It became something I was interested in thematically, in terms of ghost stories, in terms of technology, and light and traces—memory, time. These same themes are in photography, both materially and thematically. So out of that I wrote a story, imaginatively titled ‘Photography’, which took the form of an interview with a photographer; but beyond my own membership in a short-lived camera club in my first year of secondary school, I knew almost nothing about the subject.
At first photography was a nice thing to do when I couldn’t write—writing is a kind of lonely, inward thing, however much it engages with the world, at least for me, whereas the lens always faces outwards. Then at some point I became more seriously interested in the subject, and the themes it seemed to represent time, light as physical phenomena and metaphor, communication, technology. And the relationship between writing and photography, or photography and writing, and photography as a technology and writing as a technology, began to obsess me. So I wound up on the MA, with no background in the subject, and spent two years expecting someone to tap me on the shoulder to say that there had been a clerical error in the admin office, and I had been offered a place by mistake. So, in short, photography was a theme of my writing that kind of got out of hand.
There’s the long answer for a question about a very short story…
Are dreams helpful as a metaphor because they are so inchoate? We don’t really ‘see’ them, and we don’t often ‘know’ about them after they’re done; yet we sometimes understand them on some strange level. I sense that a lot of characters feel confounded by sensations, visual and auditory and kinaesthetic. The world of sensation makes no sense. Is that feeling of confusion something you feel as a writer when these characters come to life in your mind?
Yes, confusion, confounding by sensations—that’s a really good way to put it. I’m not sure about the utility of dreams in so direct a way, as metaphor; but the public secret or scandal of everyday consciousness—that the world is not stable and that we, whatever we are, are not stable, however deep the grooves along which we travel seem—is that normal consciousness is much more dreamlike than the lifeworld we inhabit tends to allow. (Funny how, during the first wave of the plague, so much that seemed taken-for-granted became revealed as a choice: the British government more or less ended homelessness in the UK in one fell swoop, for example, and of course it always could have, had it wanted to. And of course it has since re-established the reality of homelessness, because a government of landlords requires the threat of homelessness to discipline tenants, just as a government of bosses requires the threat of the sack to discipline the labour force. I wish Mark Fisher had been around to write about that moment, which is already receding into history.) From that perspective all moralising and conventional cod psychological accounts of behaviour seem like grotesque caricatures. I’m not in any way a pessimist, but Thomas Ligotti nails this.
When I’ve been depressed I’ve always found myself kind of astounded that other people seem to know what they’re doing. Of course, that’s something of an illusion, but the crisis of depression seems to inevitably create it, and illusions can be quite persistent.
I’m not really sure about characters ‘coming to life’—I don’t think I really write rounded, clearly imagined characters, partly because I don’t think I can and partly because I don’t really think people are anything like that. (So much of my writing seems to me an effort to write around my weaknesses, pertaining in particular to plot and character, which is probably as good a place to start as any.) I’m really interested in moments of epistemological or ontological crisis—paranoia, when the world swells with awful significance, and depression, in which meaning bleeds out. In terms of what I feel as I write—not so much. I’ve had four major depressive episodes since the age of 14 or so—depressive spikes as opposed to a kind of basically functional depressive ambience of everyday life—and I can’t write or really think while in the midst of such things. You need a kind of distance from it. When the stories I’m writing come to life, it’s often because they make me laugh in some way.
Thinking about dreams again—I think I’ve only ever written one or two very short pieces directly inspired by dreams, and nothing that anyone has ever wanted to publish. Possibly that was for the best. On the other hand, ‘Out of the Blue’ was inspired by a glitch in the 2015 or 16 edition of the Playstation 4 version of the interminable FIFA franchise; maybe glitches are a better source of inspiration than dreams. Or maybe dreams are glitches.
Another of my favourite moments from I Would Haunt You If I Could is at the end of ‘New to It All’:
When I went back to bed, I found Kristen crying in her sleep, though when I woke her she could not tell me what the dream had been about.Seán Padraic Birnie, ‘New to It All’
Dreams are perhaps where some of the truth lies, or resides, but it can’t be shared. How do you see dreams (maybe not your dreams, specifically; and maybe not necessarily bad dreams—but dreams in all their forms) relating to horror?
Neil Gaiman says somewhere that dream logic isn’t story logic, which I think is broadly true, but I am particularly interested in the ellipses and tone shifts you find in dreams, and in the way they seem to swell with often opaque but nonetheless quite urgent meaning. I’m interested in horror stories that work in that same way. But of course a lot of conscious work is involved. I like the Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’:
The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him ‘personal’. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’
Perhaps another connection between dreams and horror relates to sleep: we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re asleep. I’m also prone to night terrors, to waking up to find children, or whatever, climbing through the window; or a hole in the wall through which someone is peering at me; or that a segment of the wall beside my bed has become soft and gloopy, and through which something is entering. These three incidents all actually happened, and my girlfriend had to persuade me to get back into bed, or else just to shut up and go back to sleep.
I love the idea that dreams are maybe glitches. Does that idea of glitchy dreams relate ‘Funny Faces’, your new story in The Dark?
I don’t know. Perhaps. I think the non-dream parts of my stories tend to be quite glitchy and dreamy in that sense. Everything is negotiable. Not that you can necessarily negotiate it yourself, but other people can.
When did you write ‘Funny Faces’?
I wrote it in November. 29 November, 2021. I don’t usually remember dates that clearly, but I remember that one. It has to be the quickest from writing to publication that I’ve had. I’ve wanted a story in The Dark for ages, and they’ve always been extremely, awe-inspiringly swift with rejections, and in this case, they were extremely quick with accepting it, which is really nice.
When you begin writing a story like ‘Funny Faces’, are you thinking about a particular market? Do you think about whether it would be a Black Static story or a Tall Dark Trees story?
No, I wish I could work like that, but usually I’m struggling in some way. ‘Lucida’ was a story which came out of really struggling to write and just deciding to describe a particular camera. When I give up on the ideas of what I should be doing, or what it ought to be some way, and just start from a particular thing like that, all of your other obsessions and the other ideas and all of that stuff sort of comes into it from the background, rather than trying to sort of force it through from the foreground.
That story started with the first sentence, and thinking about supermarkets and you know I’ve worked in supermarkets, and they’re horrible places to work in, and I remember going around supermarkets with my dad as a kid, and that overwhelming sensory overload was the starting point of it. That sense of being dazzled by capitalism. Or shopping.
There is a great moment where the girl falls on the floor and notices how the floor looks much grimier close up than it did from afar. It’s a beautifully simple description of how different things can look when you really scrutinize them up close.
Yeah, the closer you look at something, the more you realize everything is so bodged together. Things that look kind of seamless and and really neat, aren’t. Was it one of the Bill and Ted films where they fixed the phone box with chewing gum?
I don’t remember that scene, but it reminds me I that need to watch those again. For some weird reason, I thought of how when I’m on a plane and I look out at the wing, and I actually start to look at how the wing is constructed, and the state of it.
Yeah, it suddenly seems basically improbable.
The first time I read ‘Out of the Blue’, I spent a lot of time thinking about the narrator, and the narrator’s choices; then later I read it again and began to dwell a lot more on what the father was thinking (or dreaming). What was bounded in that nut shell. This is definitely a collection which is stewing in my mind. Do you find yourself thinking back to characters or scenes that you’ve finished, and published? Or once they’re out in the world, are they compartmentalised and left in the attic, so to speak?
Insofar as I’m still interested in a lot of the themes, I’m still aware of parts of those stories. The stories were written between 2012 and 2020, and there’s not a hard break between what I was writing in 2020 and what I’m writing now; but some of the earlier stories, like ‘Sister’ or ‘The Turn’, I wouldn’t write nowadays. Maybe they’re up in the attic, but the hatch is always open.
You are a photographer, and you work with both the artistic and the technical side of photography. I can guess from the stories in the I Would Haunt You If I Could that there are a lot of filaments connecting the writer part of your brain and the photographer part of your brain. Has your development as a writer changed you as a photographer?
The photography really came out of the writing, and the interests that drive my writing are the same that drive the visual work. In 2008/9 I was obsessed with ghost stories, and photography seemed like the perfect ghost story: time, trace, memory and loss, technology, truth and falsity, depth and surface, questions of media and mediation… Barthes’s Camera Lucida is a ghost story; Derrida’s work on writing is something of a ghost story too, and his work on photography and the wider environment of late 20th Century communications technology is steeped in the spectral. So writing has definitely shaped my photography, but the reverse also holds true. Doing an MA in Photography was great for my writing—it gave me something else over which which I could procrastinate, and weirdly that procrastination often took the form of writing fiction. I wrote a poltergeist novella instead of the dissertation… I can recommend studying something else if you’re ever struggling to write!
You include a great story about John Cage asking a sound engineer about the sound in an anechoic chamber, and the answer being that the low frequency sound he could hear was the circulation of his blood, and the high frequency sound was the ‘noise of his nervous system’. That sound, that imagery, is magical. (And it got me looking into John Cage, which is good, as I didn’t know that much about him—thank you). There are many other strange sounds in this collection—the hoovering; the miaow of a suburban cat; the imperceptible sound of the hangnail as it is pulled. Is sound (and soundlessness) alluring because photographs are in some ways silent (apart from the sound of the shutter) and because silence is as frightening as darkness?
Yes and yes and yes. There’s a phrase that really captures what a medium amounts to: an enabling impediment, which I think comes from a wonderful essay by Mary Ann Doane. So for writing there’s the limit of the alphabet, of linearity, of type, and so forth. Photography has silence and flatness, stillness, light and the various means of registering it. The silence, for me, is one of the most interesting aspects; some photographs are quiet and some are loud and seem to invoke of the noise of life by means of its exclusion. Barthes locates cameras in the history of cabinet-making and of clocks, and he loves the sounds of cameras ‘in an almost voluptuous way.’ That whole passage is worth quoting:
Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the ‘intention’ according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph. Hence, strangely, the only thing that I tolerate, that I like, that is familiar to me, when I am photographed, is the sound of the camera. For me, the Photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still has such things). I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing—and the only thing—to which my desire clings, their abrupt click breaking through the mortiferous layer of the Pose. For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
I’m also really interested in the technical crossover between sound recording and photography—they both deal with forms of reflectance, they both involve things like dynamic range/latitude and bit depth, etc, and of course over the last thirty years they’ve both been subsumed into software. And just as there’s a whole lot of literature on the connection between photography and haunting, there’s obviously a lot on the relationship between sound recording and ghosts, too.
I’m going to drop a paragraph of yours in here which I think is extraordinarily good:
There was a blankness in her gaze, I saw then, an uncertainty not of doubt but of a million possibilities suspended, a cloud of probabilities and no single option any more persuasively real than any other. It was as if I could see her thinking, cycling through these options, assessing each, computing each, as if I could see the mechanisms at play within the black boxes of her eyes. The hard edges of bricks and banisters, floorboards and doorways, hinges and handles had become smooth, become softer, the sum of infinite calculations, infinite options, infinite bets; the world had become softer, less certain, more quietly suggestible: morning at the window, soft light through white clouds, parked cars and distant strangers, a cyclist going down the hill, a milk float trundling to a stop and a woman walking a dog stopped sniffing the foot of a streetlamp, all softly luminous, a world of soft shadows and diffused light and muffled voices heard as if through the walls of terraced houses, through closed windows and latched doors and shuttered hearts. The world was a receiver losing its signal, declining into noise. No signal now, only noise, only interference. A cloud of possibilities, each suspended on the cusp of their realisation. All this in the blankness of her gaze.Seán Padraic Birnie, ‘Other Houses’
‘Other Houses’ is an amazing novelette. An amazing novelette in an amazing collection. When Des Lewis reviewed it as part of his gestalt real-time review of Black Static #71, he said it is a novelette
that will haunt you forever and one that will be anthologised many times into many futures. It now has a unique place in my heart as a work of literature.Des Lewis
Thanks. I adore Des’s real-time reviews, so it was wonderful to read his responses to I Would Haunt You If I Could.
Did it always seem right to place ‘Other Houses’ at the end of the collection?
Nope, it was eighth out of the 22 pieces in the original manuscript. The book owes an enormous amount to Michael’s editorial judgement!
I think you are a writer who isn’t afraid to take risks. One of the reasons your collection is strong, for me, is because it doesn’t feel safe. There is the energy of experimentation. What advice would you give to writers, or artists in general, who are trying to push out into more dangerous territory?
I think every story starts as an experiment. You know, if you’re trying to write the most sort of generic or conventional piece and you’ve not written something like that before—that’s always going to be an experiment. It’s going to be something new when you’re doing it. So I don’t really draw a whole lot of distinction between the pieces of mine that might seem more experimental and the pieces that don’t.
Most of my experience of writing is struggling with it. I mean, I’ve always sort of worked in phases. I’ve frequently been blighted with depressive episodes, so it’s always been in waves or phases for me. It’s often been something I’ve just not been able to let go of, even though there are times when I’ve wanted to.
I Would Haunt You If I Could is a very stylish debut. The whole collection is extremely well written. Your prose feels controlled and deliberate, and very early on I felt like I could hear Seán Padraic Birnie’s voice behind the voices of your characters. Something about the rhythm or the tone, or maybe something laconic in places. It is difficult to pin down. There are also motifs that quietly link stories together: the ‘translucent glass’; and also the doll in ‘Dollface’ calling back to and the abused Barbie dolls in ‘New to It All’. Which short story writers do admire, stylistically?
Thank you. It’s such a pleasure to be read this closely.
For short story writers I admire, currently: Brian Evenson, Mariana Enriquez, M. John Harrison, Steve Rasnic Tem, Ramsey Campbell, Samanta Schweblin, Thomas Ligotti, Peter Straub… I binged Straub during lockdown, at least until the winter lockdown left me unable to read. I love some of Stephen King’s shorter work (and some of his novels). Of other Undertow writers, I really enjoyed Richard Gavin’s Grotesquerie (‘Scold’s Bridle’—my god!) and Kay Chronister’s Thin Places. I also really enjoyed Eric Larocca’s recent novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. Again, my god. I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the word for it, but I inhaled that book; I’ll have to read it again soon. I am incredibly squeamish. I’m doubtless forgetting a lot of people here—there are so many.
Of the dead: everything by Jorge Luis Borges; Angela Carter, Kafka, Poe, Shirley Jackson, Robert Aickman, Arthur Machen, M. R. James; Charlotte Perkins Gilman for the one obvious story (a masterpiece) and ‘The Giant Wistaria’, collected in the superb Women’s Weird volume of stories. There are many more, of course. There are always too many.
If a reader of I Would Haunt You If I Could came to you and asked you to recommend a short story collection by another writer that is on a similar wavelength to your own, what would you recommend?
Oh God, that’s a difficult question. People have called it ‘quiet horror’, a term I somehow hadn’t come across before, or ‘literary horror’, which I am wary of insofar of how it seems to position my work vis-à-vis the pulp tradition. I’ll have to try and write some kind of shit-the-bed splatter nightmare next.
Becky Spratford in her Library Journal review mentioned Samanta Schweblin. I could certainly live with that. I loved Little Eyes, although that’s a novel.
Also, any of Undertow’s other books—it has been an honour to join such company. Over the last decade Michael, Carolyn, Courtney and Vince have produced something really quite special. I just wish I could afford their limited editions!
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