Interview with Jonathan Sims

We talked to Jonathan Sims, writer of our five-part horror New Adventure The Graveyard Route, about the evolution of the horror genre, historical influences, and the unique challenges of writing for fitness!

What do you particularly like about the horror genre?

It’s always been a genre that has compelled me. Some of my earliest favourite stories were from a ratty old copy of MR James’ tales. In my teens I graduated to classic gothic horror, then to the movies of the 80s and 90s as I went to university. Online creepypasta came into its own as I was starting my own writing, and recently the rise of unfiction and YouTube horror has been fascinating to watch. It’s a genre that continually finds new ways to intrigue me and scare me out of my wits. I also find it a wonderful genre to explore darker and more complex themes – plus it’s just great fun to write!

How is writing for the Zombies, Run! format different to writing regular audio drama? Did you enjoy the gaming aspect?

I’ve always been a big fan of Zombies, Run! and used it myself while doing a couch to 5k a few years ago. It’s a really interesting challenge to write for as well, especially the shorter and quite rigid scene lengths, and the fact that you always have to keep in mind the presence of the player as an active, silent, presence. The series I wrote doesn’t interact with the gaming side of Zombies, Run! directly, but the requirement to keep the listener active and “playing” adds a really lovely momentum to the writing.

A book cover for Thirteen Storeys showing an elevator keypad with 13 buttons, and a trickle of blood
Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims

The Graveyard Route is a horror anthology, like some of your previous work, including The Magnus Archives podcast and your novel Thirteen Storeys. What do you like about this format?

Horror is an interesting genre, in that to be effective the rhythm of it is just as important as character or plot, arguably more so. The atmosphere and dread need to build up to a crescendo point, then (ideally) land on a terrifying moment or dreadful piece of imagery. Because of this, it excels in short form, as the story doesn’t need to outstay that climax too long (and the protagonists don’t need to survive!). This does mean it sometimes struggles in longer form, as the scares can feel drawn out or inert. Linked anthologies are in some ways the best of both worlds, as it allows the gradual development of a longer narrative without having to sacrifice the bite-sized format that serves it so well.

How did you go about creating the different ghost characters?

They all started with the graveyard itself. Pittford Cemetery was maybe the first character I sat down and properly thought out: its atmosphere, its location and, most importantly, its history. What was its relationship to the surrounding lands and communities across the different eras of English history? Once I had that, the ghosts very much leapt out at me, three different ways of relating to the graveyard and the area around it: the local craftswoman, the heir to the estate, the woman of faith. Then it was simply a matter of figuring out their tales and the awful things that had happened to each of them, ideas that tend to come easily if you’ve been writing horror stories for a while.

An evening sky with gravestones in silhouette against it
Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

The Graveyard Route mentions the Picts. Can you talk about the historical influences on the story?

I was very keen to tie English history and that sense of the past into the story, and while the ghosts themselves are all from comparatively recent centuries, I wanted to draw in some older influences. The early eras of the British Isles are fascinating to me, as they’re often reduced to simple terms (Roman, Early Medieval, Norman, etc.), but have always in actuality been a complex network of tribes and cultures and civilisations, most of which get elided or shuffled together in the historical imagination. The Picts are such group, and tend to be a bit side-lined in favour of the better-remembered Celts or Saxons, so I decided to dive into a bit of research. Plus, I wanted a bit of mystical flavour, and Latin felt a bit trite, so I thought some Pictish symbol stones might be fun – and might encourage people to look up image of Pictish symbol stones, because they’re really cool!

Is there any horror you’d like to recommend – books, films, games etc?

My list is always a bit too long for this question, so I try to tailor my recommendations to the work itself. For this one, I’d probably go with a bit of a meta-recommendation: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a documentary about Folk Horror currently showing on Shudder. It’s a pretty solid documentary, but more importantly, it’s a really great to-watch list of excellent Folk Horror movies, many of which were very present in my mind while working on this series. I’ll also give a shout-out to The Excavation of Hobb’s Barrow, a point-and-click video game I’ve just started playing that so far has some really good vibes comparable to The Graveyard Route.