Writing In the Dark Room

Seven years ago I started writing a novel. It’s still unfinished. The story is alive in my head, though I’ve been incapable of writing more than fragments. I haven’t got much more to show for my efforts than the 2000 or so words that Leigh Wright published in Wyrd Daze under the title Blackouts.

Writing my novel should be easy. The story is very simple and clearly mapped out, and lends itself to the terse, fragmentary style in which I tend to express myself. But I can’t write it, precisely because I’ve already planned it. Writing In the Dark Room over five days in July this year has taught me that.


In the Dark Room began as a vague idea. I wanted to write in the first person, from the perspective of a character for whom the normal categories of the real and the imaginary are meaningless. And I wanted to use my own digital artwork to generate or provide a starting point for each brief chapter. Since April this year I have been collaborating with Mexican artist Viviana Hinojosa on a piece called House of Mirrors, writing in response to her sumptuously inventive drawings. For the most part the words have flown because every response I write plays freely with elements of Viviana’s drawings and has no plan to adhere to, no target to aim for.

It’s only when I’m not trying to write that I can write.

So I decided that there would be no plan for In the Dark Room, beyond writing in the first person and allowing the words to go wherever they wanted, having used pictures made over the past year or so to set them on their way. I chose forty oneirographs (digital dream pictures consisting of layers of heterogeneous elements) and started writing.

The words came very quickly. Motifs explored elsewhere in my writing (for example dreams, forests, doubles, mannequins, the Bird King) found a natural way in. To my surprise, so did some autobiographical elements and memories from my childhood. Equally surprising to me was the emergence of a rudimentary plot. In not trying to write my novel I managed to write a novella, of sorts.

In the Dark Room is narrated by a bed-ridden man besieged by dreams and memories. His words are addressed to a nameless woman who may have left him or died, if she existed in the first place. He talks about his family and his room (by turns a bedroom, a forest, a prison cell, a box) and obsesses about the mannequins who have invaded his house. Maybe he’s mad or asleep or in Hell. I don’t know.

I’ve issued the book in three editions: an ebook for Kindle, a cheap paperback with black-and-white reproductions of the oneirographs and a deluxe paperback in full colour. You can buy it here (UK) and here (US). Or read some of the reviews, by Abbie Foxton, Kate Garrett, Susan Omand and Mina Polen.

The Kindle edition will be free this Bank Holiday weekend, on Sunday 24 and Monday 25 August.

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