Last year I regenerated. Like Doctor Who. I stopped being Frank Tallis, a writer of historical crime novels set in Freud’s Vienna, and became F.R.Tallis, a writer of supernatural fiction. A number of my readers who had previously enjoyed my crime novels were very disappointed with this reinvention and they were keen to let me know: ‘ghastly penny dreadful’, ‘get back to Vienna’, ‘perhaps an eight year old would enjoy it’. I suppose I should be flattered that they cared enough to express their opinions in such strong terms, but at the same time, I did feel a little put out (one e-mail was vaguely threatening). My unhappy readers seemed to be genre purists, which is perfectly reasonable – it’s just not a view I share.
For me, crime and supernatural fiction aren’t so very different. Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Gaston Leroux, and Conan-Doyle straddled both worlds (to say nothing of colossi like Dickens who was as comfortable writing about a murder as he was writing about ghosts). Throughout the course of the 20th century the two genres drifted apart; however, recently I think I’ve seen signs of them drawing together again. Take Seth Patrick’s REVIVER, for example – a debut crime thriller built around a supernatural conceit. Personally, I don’t have any problem with switching genres, as both a reader and a writer. In my own mind this is connected with a more general view that any kind of fundamentalism restricts pleasure. If I were a literary fundamentalist, I would read either Proust OR Dan Brown. In fact, I’ve read and enjoyed both. They offer very dissimilar reading experiences, but equally pleasurable in their own way.
My new novel, THE SLEEP ROOM, pretty much embodies my relaxed attitude to artificial genre boundaries. Ostensibly, it’s a work of supernatural fiction – an attempt to take the psychological ghost story to its logical extreme. It is set in 1950s England and the action takes place in a remote asylum on the Suffolk coast. Two psychiatrists are refining a pioneering therapy is which disturbed patients are kept asleep for months at a time (not an invention, incidentally, but a real procedure practised in the UK until 1972). The narrative appears to be a homage to the traditional Gothic ghost story, as exemplified by THE WOMAN IN BLACK or the short fiction of M.R.James; however, there’s a twist in the final pages which necessitates a change of perspective. Suddenly, genre boundaries dissolve and we become aware of some distinctly Hitchcockian resonances.
Crime writing and supernatural fiction have a lot in common. Both are preoccupied with the darker aspects of human nature. Moreover, they become almost indistinguishable in certain cases. How do we categorize Thomas Harris’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Is it crime or horror? Hannibal Lecter’s genius makes him nothing less than demonic, an elemental power with supernatural authority.
I used to be a clinical psychologist and people always ask me about my career change. What’s it like – going from seeing patients to writing novels? I’ve always had a standard response. It doesn’t feel hugely different: I’m just a clinical psychologist practising in another domain. Now, people ask me about changing genres? What’s it like, going from crime to horror? There have been a few technical challenges, but notwithstanding these, my regeneration has been remarkably untroubled.
The Sleep Room by F.R.Tallis is published by Pan Macmillan