TIME OUT - JUNE 21, 2000

By Brian Case


Why would Jeremy Dyson - the main writer on TV's 'The League of Gentlemen', winner of the Perrier award, the Sony Silver, the Golden Rose of Montreux and BAFTA - want to scare us to death with 'Never Trust a Rabbit', a volume of supernatural tales?

"I wanted to get back to writing short stories all the time we were writing the 'League' because that's my work. You're driven by something, but you don't know why." Dyson seems to give off a highly strung quiver. "A lot of these stories came out of a weird ten years of my life. When I was 23 I got TB. It was a big experience to get it then because I was banged into my own mortality at an early age. I had it very badly and it wasn't diagnosed for ages, so I was very ill by the time the treatment came. I had to swallow these great horse pills. I went through a period of depression, with terrible agoraphobia so that I couldn't leave the house. It was a living hell. I'd wake in the morning and wonder how I was going to get through to the end of the day. The TB was just the trigger that brought all this stuff out. I'd been building up to this since I was 13."

One of the stories, 'At Last', concerns a Jewish family who, hearing a chanting mob in the street, fear that what they have dreaded has come to pass - "as if all their lives, there has been this unspoken expectation shared by every single one of us." Himself Jewish, Dyson experienced all the usual subtle discrimination at a school in Leeds, besides the horrific legacy of twentieth-century history at home. "I grew up in a family where there was a lot of fear. The world was a very dangerous place. If you're Jewish, and you grew up with the knowledge of the Holocaust, that's not melodrama. That was the real thing. All that fed into the picture of me, made me what I am. 'At Last' arrived fully-formed in a dream - even the twist. The process of writing is analogous to dreaming in slow motion. I was scared about putting that story in the book because it was so personal, and I felt very vulnerable. But I thought there was a universal application to the story. It's about self-acceptance."

There's a range of dread in the tales: The man who finds himself on a defunct Underground line sharing a carriage with, hidden behind dated newspapers, the blanched undead; the NatWest cash point that dispenses cryptic advice to the lovelorn; and a long-lost maze that has somehow uprooted from the municipal park and relocated inside a library; the model flatmate who suddenly announces "The thing is Mike, I'm the Messiah. And now we've got to save the world."
Wells, Kipling and Conan Doyle all fed into his oeuvre, but his favourite ghost-story writers are Robert Aikman and Ramsay Campbell who wrote about familiar places and made them mysterious. "I love caves, anything underground. Growing up in Yorkshire and going out into the countryside, there are so many amazing landscapes. The eeriest place is Brenham Rocks - an unearthly erosion."

It is no surprise that comeuppance comes to the superficial Feddy in the catacombs under St Paul's in Malta in 'A Visit from Val Koran.' Decades back, Feddy stole Koran's girlfriend, Miranda, and ever since her death, he has wallowed in memories of their perfect love. Koran feeds him a potion that curdles his recall. No longer will he have access to 'a past that you have constructed for your pleasure out of the dots and lines of what occurred, but a cold and actual record of things as they happened.' Miranda had become a bore. "Feddy was living off his fantasies," says Dyson, "so his fate is hideous. It's vile. It's the worst one. If you're aware that they are fantasies, it's fine. It's when you mistake fantasy for reality. I've got into a lot of trouble when I confused one with the other. I'm trying to learn the difference between what I project and what actually is, because evil is small and banal, and what's massive is how you react to it. Unconsciously, that seems to be a linking theme in a lot of my stories."

The surrealism of 'The League of Gentlemen' and 'Never Trust a Rabbit' he perceives as a northern phenomenon. "There's an assumption in Media-Land that anything surreal comes from a a university or academics tradition, but it comes from ordinary people at ground level in Leeds. If you work in that area, and you get it right, it by-passes everything."


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