Many people who have an idea for a story, painting or song find that the process of turning the idea into reality takes a long time. But I suspect that the process took longer than most with my short story The Malevolent Aged Grin, which was written under my horror-fiction pseudonym Jim Mountfield and has just appeared in a new hard-copy anthology from the mainly online publication The Horror Zine.
In fact, the moment when the original idea came to me and the moment when I finally saw the finished item in print were separated by 35 years. That’s right. The notion of The Malevolent Aged Grin first entered my head in 1981, when I was a plooky high-school teenager, during an era when the world seemed a very different place from now. Back then, the bellicose but befuddled Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president and I was seriously worried that he was going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up. In 2016, the bellicose and badly-haired Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president and I’m seriously worried that he’s going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up. So thank heavens that’s all changed.
Come to think of it, I could have begun writing the 4500-word story in 1981, composed it at the rate of 130 words every year and still got it finished in 2016.
© The Daily Telegraph
I remember the first time I thought of writing The Malevolent Grin. It was during a school English class, under the tutelage of English teacher Iain Jenkins – who later would enter politics and become our constituency’s first representative in the reconvened-after-nearly-300-years Scottish Parliament. He’d just read to us the poem Pike by the famous Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes. As well as containing the phrase ‘the malevolent aged grin’, which I decided there and then to pinch and use as the title of a story, the poem had such unforgettable lines as “…silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror / A hundred feet long in their world” and “Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards / Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds.”
Yes, I know the poem reflected the theme of much of Hughes’ nature poetry, about how the natural world – here embodied in the pike, Britain’s most predatory freshwater fish – has its own scale, perspectives and levels of savagery; totally different from how we, as romanticising, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising human beings, view it. But for me, the poem just seemed wonderfully macabre and suddenly I wanted to write a story about a pike – a big pike. A monster pike. I should say that by this time I’d started writing horror stories and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become southern Scotland’s answer to Stephen King.
For a long time I envisioned the story as being about a pike that’s the size of a rowing boat, has somehow managed to escape being noticed by the human world and lurks in the depths of a remote river or pool. Somehow, it’s also managed to keep itself fed, on livestock that wander too close to the water’s edge, without the world noticing either. I even started writing it in a jotter. The main character was an author – how very Stephen King – who takes his family and pet cat to live in an old converted mill-house next to a river. He intends to make the most of his quiet, rural surroundings and start work on a new novel. Needless to say, the pike soon makes its presence felt, beginning by eating the family cat. I conceived the story as ending with torrential rain, the river flooding and the big bad pike substantially expanding its feeding grounds.
© Hamlyn Publishers
However, that version of the story never got beyond its first few pages. Partly I abandoned it because I realised that, even by the standards of adolescent-penned pulp horror, its premise was absurd; but also because one day I discovered in a bookshop that someone had already written a story about a monster pike terrorising the British countryside. This was the 160-page novel The Pike (1982) by the late Cliff Twemlow, a colourful character who made a living not only as a horror novelist but as a nightclub bouncer in Manchester, as a movie / TV actor and extra and as a composer – one of his country-and-western compositions ended up, briefly, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Twemlow had his pike cruising the waters of Lake Windermere in Cumbria and at one point during the 1980s it looked like the novel was going to be made into a film, with Joan Collins as the star. I have to say that my resentment about Twemlow getting his pike story into print before I did was lessened by the tantalising prospect of seeing a giant hungry pike take a few bites at the diva-esque Ms Collins. A 12-foot-long robotic pike was actually built for the project and Joan Collins posed with it in some pre-production publicity photos. (Cue cruel jokes like “The pike is the one on the left”, or “A terrifying monster – and a pike.”) But ultimately, alas, this cinematic Pike never came to fruition.
When I was older and more sensible, it dawned on me that the monster pike in the story didn’t have to be a physical entity. Hughes’ image of a fanged, grinning and primordially hideous face lurking in the mud, rotted leaves and darkness below the surface of a pool could easily be a metaphor for all the horrible things that lurk deep in the human psyche. So I began to envision The Malevolent Aged Grin as a psychological horror story. But I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into a plot.
Then a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the pike supernatural. It’s an evil, water-dwelling spirit that takes possession of someone when he falls into a pool during a fishing trip. But still I had to determine where this evil spirit came from, what it was doing there and what it planned to do once it’d possessed its victim. Gradually, though, I got inspiration from different sources – for example, a quote by William S. Burroughs about how magicians summon up and use demons like mafia dons hiring hitmen; and a story about two feuding magicians in a collection of Sri Lankan horror tales called Water in my Grave (2013). And I managed to put together a back-story for the pike, or evil spirit as it was now.
After I’d written The Malevolent Aged Grin, submitted it and had it accepted for publication by The Horror Zine’s editor, Jeani Rector, my travails weren’t over yet. I was asked to make revisions. In the original version, the pike’s back-story is explained when the main character uses the Internet and visits www.themodernantiquarian.com, a website chronicling sites of ancient, mythological and folkloric interest in the British Isles, which in real life was set up by the rock musician and author Julian Cope. Jeani suggested that I scrap this and have one of the secondary characters recount the back-story as a supposed local legend. Changing this helped, in that it gave the secondary character much more of a presence (and a function) than he had in the original. Probably it was also a good thing that I dropped several references I’d made to the Harry Potter stories. With hindsight, I was being too ironic for my own good.
© Jeani Rector / The Horror Zine
The anthology containing The Malevolent Aged Grin, three-and-a-half decades in the making, is available at the link below. I’d like to conclude with a joke about the story being a big fish in a small pool, but it’s a big anthology with a lot of stories. And they’re all really good.