MR. GAUNT BY JOHN LANGAN

I

It was not until five weeks after his father’s funeral that Henry Farange was able to remove the white plastic milk crate containing the old man’s final effects from the garage.  His reticence was a surprise:  his father had been sick—dying, really—for the better part of two years and Henry had known it, had known of the enlarged heart, the failing kidneys, the brain jolted by mini-strokes.  He had known it was, in the nursing home doctor’s favorite cliché, only a matter of time, and if there were moments Henry could not believe the old man had held on for as long or as well as he had, that didn’t mean he expected his father to walk out of the institution to which his steadily-declining health had consigned him.  For all that, the inevitable phone call, the one telling him that his father had suffered what appeared to be a heart attack, caught him off-guard, and when his father’s nurse had approached him at the gravesite, her short arms cradling the milk crate into which the few items the old man had taken with him to the nursing home had been deposited, Henry’s chest had tightened, his eyes filled with burning tears.  Upon his return home from the post-funeral brunch, he had removed the crate from his backseat and carried it into the garage, where he set it atop his workbench, telling himself he couldn’t face what it contained today, but would see to it tomorrow.

Tomorrow, though, turned into the day after tomorrow, which became the day after that, and then the following day, and so on, until a two week period passed during which Henry didn’t think of the white plastic milk crate at all, and was only reminded of it when a broken cabinet hinge necessitated his sliding up the garage door.  The sight of the milk crate was a reproach, and in a sudden burst of repentance he rushed up to it, hauled it off the workbench, and ran into the house with it as if it were a pot of boiling water and he without gloves.  He half-dropped it onto the kitchen table and stood over it, panting.  Now that he let his gaze wander over the crate’s contents, he could see that it was not as full as he had feared.  A dozen hardcover books:  his father’s favorite Henry James novels, which, he had claimed, were all that he wanted to read in his remaining time.  Henry lifted them from the crate one by one, glancing at their titles.  The AmbassadorsThe Wings of the DoveThe Golden Bowl The Turn of the ScrewWhat Maisie Knew.  He recognized that last one:  the old man had tried twice to convince him to read it, sending him a copy when he was at college, and again a couple of years ago, a month or two before he entered the nursing home.  It was his father’s favorite book of his favorite writer, and, although he was no English scholar, Henry had done his best, both times, to read it.  But he rapidly became lost in the labyrinth of the book’s prose, in sentences that wound on for what felt like days, so that by the time you arrived at the end, you had forgotten the beginning and had to start over again.  He hadn’t finished What Maisie Knew, had given up the attempt after chapter one the first time, chapter three the second, and had had to admit his failures to his father.  He had blamed his failures on other obligations, on school and work, promising he would give the book another try when he was less busy.  He might make good his promise yet:  there might be a third attempt, possibly even success, but when he was done, his father would not be waiting to discuss it with him.  Henry removed the rest of the books from the crate rapidly.

Here was a framed photo of him receiving his MBA, a smaller black and white picture of a man and woman he recognized as his grandparents tucked into its lower right corner.  Here was a gray cardboard shoebox filled with assorted snapshots that appeared to stretch back over his father’s lifetime, as well as four old letters folded in their original envelopes.  Here was a postcard showing the view up the High Street to Edinburgh Castle.  Here was the undersized saltire, the blue and white flag of Scotland, he had bought for his father when he had stopped off for a weekend in Edinburgh on his way home from Frankfurt, just last summer.  Here was a cassette tape wrapped in a piece of ruled notebook paper bound to it by a thick rubber band, his name written on the paper in his father’s rolling hand.

His heart leapt, and Henry slid the rubber band from the around the paper with fingers suddenly dumb.  There was more writing on the other side of the paper, a brief note.  He read, “Dear Son, I’m making this tape just in case.  Listen to it as soon as possible.  It’s all true.  Love, Dad.”  That was all.  He turned the tape over:  it was plain and black, no label on either side.  Leaving the note on the table, he carried the tape into the living room, to the stereo.  He slid the tape into the deck, pushed PLAY, adjusted the volume, and stood back, arms crossed.

For a moment, there was only the hum of blank tape, then a loud snap and clatter and the sound of his father’s voice, low, resonant, and slightly graveled, the way it sounded when he was tired.  His father said, “I think I have this thing working.  Yes, that’s it.”  He cleared his throat.  “Hello, Henry, it’s your father.  If you’re listening to this, then I’m gone.  I realize this may seem strange, but there are facts of which you need to be aware, and I’m concerned I don’t have much time to tell you them.  I’ve tried to write it all down for you, but my hand’s shaking so badly I can’t make any progress.  To tell the truth, I don’t know if the matter’s sufficiently clear in my head for me to write it.  So, I’ve borrowed this machine from the night-duty nurse.  I suppose I should have told you all this—oh, years ago, but I didn’t, because—well, let’s get to what I have to say first.  I can fill in my motivations along the way.  I hope you have the time to listen to this all at once, because I don’t think it’ll make much sense in bits and pieces.  I’m not sure it makes much sense all together.

“The other night, I saw your uncle on television:  not David, your mother’s brother, but George, my brother.  I’m sure you won’t remember him:  the last and only time you saw him, you were four.  I saw him, and I saw his butler.  You know how little I sleep these days, no matter, it seems, how tired I am.  Much of the time between sunset and sunrise I pass reading—re-reading James, and watching more television than I should.  Last night, unable to concentrate on What Maisie Knew any longer, I found myself watching a documentary about Edinburgh on public television.  If I watch PBS, I can convince myself I’m being mildly virtuous, and I was eager to see one of my favorite cities, if only on the screen.  It’s the city my parents came from; I know you know that.  Sadly, the documentary was a failure, so spectacularly insipid that it almost succeeded in delivering me to sleep a good three hours ahead of schedule.  Then I saw George walk across the screen.  The shot was of Prince’s Street during the Edinburgh festival.  The street was crowded, but I recognized my brother.  He was slightly stooped, his hair and beard bone-white, though his step was still lively.  He was followed by his butler, who stood as tall and unbending as ever.  Just as he was about to walk off the screen, George stopped, turned his head to the camera, and winked, slowly and deliberately.

“From the edge of sleep, I was wide awake, filled with such fear my shaking hands fumbled the remote control onto the floor.  I couldn’t muster the courage to retrieve it, and it lay there until the morning nurse picked it up.  I didn’t sleep:  I couldn’t.  Your uncle kept walking across that screen, his butler close behind.  Though I hadn’t heard the news of his death, I had assumed he must be gone by now.  More than assumed:  I had hoped it.  I should have guessed, however, that George would not have slipped so gently into that good night; indeed, although he’s just this side of ninety, I now suspect he’ll be around for quite some time to come.

“Seeing him—does it sound too mad to say that I half-think he saw me?  More than half-think:  I know he saw me.  Seeing my not-dead older brother walk across the screen, to say nothing of his butler, I became obsessed with the thought of you.  Your uncle may try to contact you, especially once I‘m gone, which I have the most unreasonable premonition may be sooner rather than later. Before he does, you must know about him.  You must know who, and what, he is.  You must know his history, and you must know about his butler, about that…monster.  For reasons you’ll understand later, I can’t simply tell you what I have to tell you, or perhaps I should say I can’t tell you what I have to tell you simply.  If I were to come right out with it in two sentences, you wouldn’t believe me; you’d think I had suffered one TIA too many.  I can’t warn you to stay away from your uncle and leave it at that:  I know you, and I know the effect such prohibitions have on you; I’ve no desire to arouse your famous curiosity.  So I’m going to ask you to bear with me, to let me tell you about my brother I what I think is the manner best-suited to it.  Indulge me, Henry, indulge your old father.”

Henry paused the tape.  He walked out of the living room back into the kitchen, where he rummaged the refrigerator for a beer while his father’s words echoed in his ears.  The old man knew him, all right:  his “famous” curiosity was aroused, enough that he would sit down and listen to the rest of the tape now, in one sitting.  His dinner date was not for another hour and a half, and, even if he were a few minutes late, that wouldn’t be a problem.  He smiled, thinking that despite his father’s protestations of fear, once the old man warmed up to talking, you could hear the James scholar taking over, his words, his phrasing, his sentences, bearing subtle witness to a lifetime spent with the writer he had called “the Master.”  Henry pried the cap off the beer, checked to be sure answering machine was on, switched the phone’s ringer off, and returned to the living room, where he released the PAUSE button and settled himself on the couch.

His father’s voice returned.

II

Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived with his father and his father’s butler in a very large house.  As the boy’s father was frequently away, and often for long periods of time, he was left alone in the large house with the butler, whose name was Mr. Gaunt.  While he was away, the boy’s father allowed him to roam through every room in the house except one.  He could run through the kitchen; he could bounce on his father’s bed; he could leap from the tall chairs in the living room.  But he must never, ever, under any circumstances, go into his father’s study.  His father was most insistent on this point.  If the boy entered the study…his father refused to say what would happen, but the tone of his voice and the look on his face hinted that it would be something terrible.

That was how the story used to begin, as if it were a fairy tale that someone else had written and I just happened to remember.  I suppose it sounds generic enough:  the traditional, almost incantatory, beginning; the nondescript boy, father, butler, and house.  Do you remember the first time I told it to you?  I don’t imagine so:  you were five, although you were precocious, which was what necessitated the tale in the first place.  You were staying with me for the summer—your mother and her second husband were in Greece—in the house in Highland.  That house! all those rooms, the high ceilings, the porch with its view of the Hudson:  how I wish you didn’t have to sell it to afford the cost of putting me in this place.  I had hoped you might choose to live there.  Ah well, as you yourself said, what use is a house of that size to you, with no wife or family?  Another regret…

But I was talking about the story, and the first time you heard it.  Like some second-rate Bluebeard, I had permitted you free access to every room in the house save one:  my study, which contained not the head of my previous wife (if only! sorry, I know she’s your mother), but extensive notes, four years’ worth of notes towards the book I was about to write on Henry James’s portrayal of family relations.  Yes, yes, I should have known that declaring it forbidden would only pique your interest; it’s one of those mistakes you not only can’t believe you made, but that seems so fundamentally obvious you doubt whether in fact it occurred.  The room was kept locked when I wasn’t working in it, and I believed it secure.  All this time later, I have yet to discover how you broke into it.  I can see you sitting in the middle of the hardwood floor, four years’ work scattered and shredded around you, a look of the most intense concentration upon your face as you dragged a pen across my first edition of The Wings of the Dove.  I’m not sure how, but I remained calm, if not quite cheerful, as I escorted you from my study up the stairs to your bedroom.  I sat you on the bed and told you I had a story for you.  You were very excited:  you loved it when I told you stories.  Was it another one about Hercules?  No, it wasn’t; it was another kind of story.  It was the story of a little boy just about your age, a little boy who had opened a door he was not supposed to.

Then and there, my brain racing, I told you the story of Mr. Gaunt and his terrible secret, speaking slowly, deliberately, so that I would have time to shape the next event.  Does it surprise you to hear that the story has no written antecedent?  It became such a part of our lives after that.  It frightened you out of my study for the rest of that summer; you avoided that entire side of the house.  Then the next summer, when your friend Brad came to stay for the weekend and the three of us stayed up late while I told you stories, you actually requested it.  “Tell about Mr. Gaunt,” you said.  I can’t tell you how shocked I was.  I was shocked that you remembered:  children forget much, and it’s difficult to predict what will lodge in their minds; plus you had been with your mother and husband number two without interruption for almost nine months.  I was shocked, too, that you would want to hear a narrative expressly crafted to frighten you.  It frightened poor Brad; we had to leave the light on for him, which you treated with a bit more contempt than really was fair.

After that:  how many times did I tell you that story?  Several that same summer, and several every summer for the next six or seven years.  Even when you were a teenager, and grew your hair long and refused to remove that denim jacket that you wore down to an indistinct shade of pale, even then you requested the story, albeit with less frequency.  It’s never gone that far from us, has it?  At dinner, the visit before last, we talked about it.  Strange that in all this time you never asked me how I came by it, in what volume I first read it.  Perhaps you’re used to my having an esoteric source for everything and assume this to be the case here.  Or perhaps you don’t want to know:  you find it adds to the story not to know its origin.  Or perhaps you’re just not interested:  literary scholarship never has been your strong point.  That’s not a reproach:  investment banking has been very good for and to you, and you know how proud I am of you.

There is more to the story, though:  there is more to every story.  You can always work your way down, peel back the layers ‘til you discover, as it were, the skull beneath the skin.  Whatever you thought about the story’s roots, whatever you would answer if I were to ask you where you thought I had plucked it from, I’m sure you never guessed that it grew out of an event that occurred in our family.  That donnee, as James would’ve called it, involved George, George and his butler and Peter, George’s son and your cousin.  Yes, you haven’t heard of Peter before:  I haven’t ever mentioned his name to you.  He’s been dead a long time now.

You met George when you were four, at the house in Highland.  I had just moved into it from the apartment in Huguenot I occupied after your mother and I separated.  George was in Manhattan for a couple of days, doing research at one of the museums, and took the train up to spend the afternoon with us.  He was short, stocky verging on portly, and he kept his beard trimmed in a Vandyke, which combined with his deep-set eyes and sharp nose lent him rather a Satanic appearance:  the effect, I’m sure, intended.  He wore a vest and a pocket watch with which you were fascinated, not having seen a pocket watch before.  Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, you kept asking George what time it was.  He responded to each question by slowly withdrawing the watch from his pocket by its chain, popping open its cover, carefully scrutinizing its face, and announcing, “Why, Hank,” (he insisted on calling you Hank; he appeared to find it most amusing), “it’s three o’clock.”  He was patient with you; I will grant him that.

After I put you to bed, he and I sat on the back porch looking at the Hudson, drinking Scotch, and talking, the end result of which was that he made a confession—confession! it was more of a boast!—and I demanded he leave the house, leave it then and there and never return, never speak to me or communicate in any way with me again.  He didn’t believe I was serious, but he went.  I’ve no idea how or if he made his train.  I haven’t heard from him since, all these years, nor have I have heard of him, until last night.

But this is all out of order.  You don’t know anything about your uncle.  I’ve been careful not to mention his name lest I arouse that curiosity of yours.  Indeed, maybe I shouldn’t be doing so now.  That’s assuming, of course, that you’ll take any of the story I’m going to relate seriously, that you won’t think I’ve confused my Henry James with M.R. James, or, worse, think it a sign of mental or emotional decay, the first hint of senility or depression.  The more I insist on the truth of what I tell, the more shrill and empty my voice will sound; I know the scenario well.  I  risk, then, a story that might be taken as little more than a prolonged symptom of mental impairment or illness; though really, how interesting is that?  In any event, it’s not as if I have to worry about you putting me in a home.  Yes, I know you had no choice.  Let’s start with the background, the condensed information the author delivers, after an interesting opening, in one or two well-written chapters.

George was ten years older than I, the child of what in those days was considered our parents’ middle age, as I was the child of their old age.  This is to say that Mother was thirty-five when George was born, and forty-five when I was.  Father was close to fifty at my birth, about the same age I was when you were born.  Funny—as a boy and a young man, I used to swear that, if I was to have children, I would not wait until I was old enough to be their grandfather, and despite those vows that was exactly what I did.  Do you suppose that’s why you haven’t married yet?  We like to think we’re masters of our own fates, but the fact is, our parents’ examples exert far more influence on us than we realize or are prepared to realize.  I like to think I was a much more youthful father to you than my father was to me, but in all fairness, fifty was a different age for me than it was for him.  For me, fifty was the age of my maturity, a time of  ripeness, a balance point between youth and old age; for Father, fifty was a room with an unsettlingly clear view of the grave.  He died when I was fifteen, you know, while here I am, thanks to a daily assortment of colored pills closer to eighty than anyone in my family before me, with the exception, of course, of my brother.

I have few childhood memories of George:  an unusually intelligent student, he left the house and the country for Oxford at the age of fifteen.  Particularly gifted in foreign languages, he achieved minor fame for his translation and commentary on Les mysteres du ver, a fifteenth century French translation of a much older Latin work.  England suited him well; he returned to see us in Poughkeepsie infrequently.  He did, however, visit our parents’ brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunts, in and around Edinburgh on holidays, which appeared to mollify Father and Mother. (Their trips back to Scotland were fewer than George’s trips back to them.)  My brother also voyaged to the Continent:  France, first, which irritated Father (he was possessed by an almost pathological hatred of all things French, whose cause I never could discover, since our name is French; you can be sure, he would not have read my book on Flaubert); then Italy, which worried Mother (she was afraid the Catholics would have him); then beyond, on to those countries that for the greater part of my life were known as Yugoslavia:  Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and past them to the nations bordering the Black Sea.  He made this trip and others like it, to Finland, to Turkey, to Persia as it was then called, often enough.  I have no idea how he afforded any of it.  Our parents sent him little enough money, and his scholarship was no source of wealth.  I have no idea, either, of the purpose of these trips; when I asked him, George answered, “Research,” and said no more.  He wrote once a month, never more and occasionally less, short letters in which a single nugget of information was buried beneath layers of formality and pleasantry; not like those letters I wrote to you while you were at Harvard.  It was in such a letter that he told us he was engaged to be married.

Aside from the fact that it lasted barely two years, the most remarkable thing about your uncle’s marriage was your cousin, Peter, who was born seven months after it.  Mother’s face wore a suspicious frown for several days after the news of his birth reached us (I think it came by telegram; your grandparents were very late installing a phone); Father was too excited by the birth of his first grandson to care.  I didn’t feel much except a kind of disinterested curiosity.  I was an uncle, but I was thirteen, so the role didn’t have the significance for me it might have had I been only a few years older.  The chances of my seeing my nephew any time in the near future were sufficiently slim to justify my reserve; as it happened, however, my brother and his wife, whose name was Clarissa, visited us the following summer with Peter.  Clarissa was quite wealthy; she was also, I believe, quite a bit older than George, though by how much I couldn’t say.  Even now, after a lifetime’s practice, I’m not much good at deciphering people’s ages, which causes me no end of trouble, I can assure you.  Their visit went smoothly enough, though your grandparents showed, I noticed, the razor edge of uneasiness with their new daughter-in-law’s crisp accent and equally crisp manners.  Your grandmother used her wedding china every night, while your grandfather, whose speech usually was peppered with Scots words and expressions, spoke what my mother used to call “the King’s English.”  Their working class origins, I suspect, rising up to haunt them.

Peter was fat and blond, a pleasant child who appeared to enjoy his place on your grandmother’s hip, which from the moment he arrived was where he spent most of his days.  Any reservations Mother might have had concerning the circumstances of his birth were wiped away at the sight of him.  When he returned from work, Father had a privileged place for his grandson on his knee:  holding each of the baby’s hands in his hands, Father sat Peter upright on his knee, then jiggled his leg up and down, bouncing Peter as if he were riding a horse, all the while singing a string of nonsense syllables:  “a leedle lidel leedle lidel leedle lidel lum.”  It was something Father did with any baby who entered the house; he must have done it with me, and with George.  I tried it with you, but you were less than amused by it.  After what appeared to be some initial doubt at his grandfather’s behavior, when he rode up and down with an almost tragic expression on his face, Peter quickly came to enjoy and even anticipate it, and when he saw his grandfather walk in the door, the baby’s face would break into an enormous grin, and he waved his arms furiously.  Clarissa was good with her son, handling him with more confidence than you might expect from a new mother; George largely ignored Peter, passing him to Clarissa, Mother, Father, or me whenever he could manage it.  Much of his days George spent sequestered in his room, working, he said, on a new translation.  Of what he did not specify, only that the book was very old, much older than Les mysteres du ver.  He kept the door to the room locked, which I discovered, of course, trying to open it.

The three of them stayed a month, leaving with promises to write on both sides, and although it was more than a year later, it seemed the next thing anyone heard or knew Clarissa had filed for divorce.  Your grandparents were stunned.  They refused to tell me the grounds for Clarissa’s action, but when I lay awake at night I heard them discussing it downstairs in the living room, their voices faint and indistinguishable except when one or the other of them became agitated and shouted, “It isn’t true, for God’s sake, it can’t be true!  We didn’t raise him like that!”  Clarissa sued for custody of Peter, and somewhat to our parents’ surprise, I think, George counter-sued.  It was not only that he did not appear possessed of sufficient funds; he did not appear possessed of sufficient interest.  The litigation was interminable and bitter.  Your grandfather died before it was through, struck dead in the street as we were walking back from Sunday services by a stroke whose cause, I was and am sure, was his elder son’s divorce.  George did not return for the funeral; he phoned to say it was absolutely impossible for him to attend—the case and all—he was sure Father would have understood.  The divorce and custody battle were not settled for another year after that.  When they were, George was triumphant.

I don’t know if you remember the opening lines of What Maisie Knew.  The book begins with a particularly messy divorce and custody fight, in which the father, though “bespattered from head to foot,” initially succeeds.  The reason, James tells us, is “not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.” I can recall reading those lines for the first time:  I was a senior in high school, and a jolt of recognition shot up my spine as I recognized George and Clarissa, whose final blows against one another had been struck the previous fall.  I think that’s when I first had an inclination I might study old James.  Unlike James’s novel, in which the custody of Maisie is eventually divided between her parents, George won full possession of Peter, which he refused to share in the slightest way with Clarissa.  I imagine she must have been devastated.  George packed his and Peter’s bags and moved north, to Edinburgh, where he purchased a large house on the High Street and engaged the services of a manservant, Mr. Gaunt.

Oh yes, Mr. Gaunt was an actual person.  Are you surprised to hear that?  I suppose he did seem rather a fantastic creation, didn’t he?  I can’t think of him with anything less than complete revulsion, revulsion and fear, more fear than I wish I felt.  I met him when I was in Edinburgh doing research on Stevenson and called on my brother, who had returned from the Shetlands that morning and was preparing to leave for Belgium later that same night.  The butler was exactly as I described him to you in the story, only more so.

Mr. Gaunt never said a word.  He was very tall, and very thin, and his skin was very white and very tight, as if he were wearing a suit that was too small.  He had a long face and long, lank, thin, colorless hair, and a big, thick jaw, and tiny eyes that peered out at you from the deep caverns under his brows.  He did not smile, but kept his mouth in a perpetual pucker.  He wore a black coat with tails, a gray vest and gray pants, and a white shirt with a gray cravat.  He was most quiet, and if you were standing in the kitchen or the living room and did not hear anything behind you, you could expect to turn around and find Mr. Gaunt standing there.

Mr. Gaunt served the meals, though he himself never ate that the boy saw, and escorted visitors to and from the boy’s father when the boy’s father was home, and, on nights when he was not home, Mr. Gaunt unlocked the door of the forbidden study at precisely nine o’clock and went into it, closing the door behind him.  He remained there for an hour.  The boy did not know what the butler did in that room, nor was he all that interested in finding out, but he was desperate for a look at his father’s study.

Your uncle claimed to have contracted Gaunt’s service during one of his many trips, and explained that the reason Gaunt never spoke was a thick accent—I believe George said it was Belgian—that marred his speech and caused him excruciating embarrassment.  As Gaunt served us tea and shortbread, I remember thinking that something about him suggested greed, deep and profound:  his hands, whose movements were precise yet eager; his eyes, which remained fixed on the food, and us; his back, which was slightly bent, inclining him towards us but having the opposite effect, making him seem as if he were straining upright, resisting a powerful downward pull.  No doubt it was the combination of these things.  Whatever the source, I was noticeably glad to see him exit the room; although, after he had left, I had the distinct impression he was listening at the door, hunched down, still greedy.

As you must have guessed, the boy in our fairy tale was Peter, your cousin.  He was fourteen when he had his run in with Mr. Gaunt, older, perhaps, than you had imagined him; the children in fairy tales are always young children, aren’t they?  I should also say more about the large house in which he lived.  It was a seventeenth century mansion located on the High Street in Edinburgh, across the street and a few doors down from St. Giles’s Cathedral.  Its inhabitants had included John Jackson, a rather notorious character from the early nineteenth century.  There’s a mention of him in James’s notebooks:  he heard Jackson’s story while out to dinner in Poughkeepsie, believe it or not, and considered treating it in a story before rejecting it as, “too lurid, too absolutely over the top.”  The popular legend, of whose origins I’m unsure, is that Jackson, a defrocked Anglican priest, had truck with infernal powers.  Robed and hooded men were seen exiting his house who had not been seen entering it.  Lights glowed in windows, strange cries and laughter sounded, late at night.  A woman who claimed to have worked as Jackson’s chambermaid swore there was a door to Hell in a room deep under the basement.  He was suspected in the vanishings of several local children, but nothing was proved against him.  He died mysteriously, found, as I recall, at the foot of a flight of stairs, apparently having tumbled down them.  His ghost, its neck still broken, was sighted walking in front of the house, looking over at St. Giles and grinning; about what, I’ve never heard.

Most of this information about the house I had from George during my visit; it was one of the few subjects about which I ever saw him enthused.  I don’t know how much if any of it your cousin knew; though I suspect his father would have told him all.  Despite the picture its history conjures, the house was actually quite pleasant:  five stories high including the attic, full of surprisingly large and well-lit rooms, decorated with a taste I wouldn’t have believed George possessed.  There was indeed a locked study:  it composed the entirety of the attic.  I saw the great dark oaken door to it when your uncle took me on a tour of the house:  we walked up the flight of stairs to the attic landing and there was the entrance to the study.  George did not open it.  I asked him if this was where he kept the bodies, and although he cheerfully replied that no, no, that was what the cellar was for, his eyes registered a momentary flash of something that was panic or annoyance.  I did not ask him to open the door, in which there was a keyhole of sufficient diameter to afford a good look into the room beyond.  Had my visit been longer, had I been his guest overnight, I might have stolen back up to that landing to peak at whatever it was my brother did not wish me to see.  Curiosity, it would appear, does not just run in our family:  it gallops.

Peter lived in this place, his father’s locked secret above him, his only visitors his tutors, his only companion the silent butler.  That’s a bit much, isn’t it?  During our final conversation, George told me that Peter had been a friendless boy, but I doubt he knew his son well enough to render such a verdict with either accuracy or authority.  Peter didn’t know many, if any, other children, but I like to think of your cousin having friends in the various little shops that line the High Street.  You know where I’m talking about, the cobbled street that runs in a straight line up to the Castle.  You remember those little shops with their flimsy t-shirts, their campy postcards, their overpriced souvenirs.  We bought the replica of the Castle that used to sit on the mantelpiece at one of them, along with a rather expensive pin for that girl you were involved with at the time.  (What was her name? Jane?)  I like to think of Peter, out for a walk, stopping in several shops along the way, chatting with the old men and women behind the counter when business was slow.  He was a fine conversationalist for his age, your cousin.

I had met him again, you see, when he was thirteen, the year before the events I’m relating occurred.  George was going to be away for the entire summer, so Peter came on his own to stay with your grandmother.  I was living in Manhattan—actually, I was living in a cheap apartment across the river in New Jersey and taking the ferry to Manhattan each morning.  My days I split teaching and writing my dissertation, which was on the then-relatively-fresh topic of James’s later novels, particularly The Golden Bowl, and their modes of narration. Every other week, more often when I could manage it, I took the train up to your grandmother’s to spend the day and have dinner with her.  This was not as great a kindness as I would like it to seem:  my social life was nonexistent, and I was desperately lonely.   Thus, I visited Peter several times throughout June, July, and August.

At our first meeting he was unsure what to make of me, spending most of the meal silently staring down at his plate, and asking to be excused as soon as he had finished his dessert.  Over subsequent visits, however, our relationship progressed.  By our last dinner he was speaking with me freely, shaking my hand vigorously when it was time for me to leave for my bus and telling me that he had greatly enjoyed making my acquaintance.  What did he look like?  Funny:  I don’t think I have a picture of him; not from that visit, anyway.  He wasn’t especially tall; if he was due an adolescent growth-spurt, it had yet to arrive.  His hair, while not the same gold color it had been when he was a baby, still was blond, slightly curled, and his eyes were dark brown.  His face, well, as is true with all children, his face blended both his parents’, although in his case the blend was particularly fine.  What I mean is, unlike you, whose eyes and forehead have always been identifiably mine and whose nose and chin have always been identifiably your mother’s, Peter’s face, depending on the angle and lighting, appeared to be either all his father or all his mother.  Even looking at him directly, you could see both faces simultaneously.  He spoke with an Edinburgh accent, crisp and clear, and when he was excited or enthusiastic about a subject, his words would stretch out:  “That’s maaaarvelous.”  He told your grandmother her accent hadn’t slipped in the least, and she smiled for the rest of the day.

He was extremely bright, and extremely interested in ancient Egypt, about which his father had provided him with several surprisingly good books.  He could not decide whether to be a philologist, like his father, or an Egyptologist, which sounded more interesting; he inclined to Egyptology, but thought his father would appreciate him following his path.  Surprising and heartbreaking—horrifying—as it seems in retrospect, Peter loved and missed his father.  He was very proud of George:  he knew of and appreciated George’s translations, and confided in us his hope that one day he might achieve something comparable. “My father’s a genius,” I can hear him saying, almost defiantly.  We were sitting at your grandmother’s dining room table.  I can’t remember how we had arrived at the subject of George, but he went on, “Aye, a genius.  None of his teachers were ever as smart as him.  None of them could make head nor tail of Les mysteres du ver, and my father translated the whole thing, on his own.  There was this one teacher who thought he was something, and he was pretty smart, but my father was smarter; he showed him.”

“Of course he’s smart, dear,” your grandmother said.  “He’s a Farange.  Just like you and your uncle.”

“And your Granny,” I said.

“Oh, go on, you,” she said.

“He’s translated things that no one’s even heard of,” Peter went on.  “He’s translated pre-dynastic Egyptian writing.  That’s from before the pyramids, even.  That’s fifty-five centuries ago. Most folk don’t even know it exists.”

“Has he let you see any of it?” I asked.

“No,” Peter said glumly.  “He says I’m not ready yet.  I have to master Latin and Greek before I can move on to just hieroglyphics.”

“I’m sure you will,” your grandmother said, and we moved on to some other topic.  Later, after Peter was asleep, she said to me, “He’s a lovely boy, our Peter, a lovely boy.  So polite and well-mannered.  But he seems awfully lonely to me.  Always with his nose in a book:  I don’t think his father spends nearly enough time with him.”

Peter did not speak of his mother.

He knew ancient Egypt as if he had lived in it:  your grandmother and I spent more than one dinner listening to your cousin narrate such events as the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the factual accuracy of which I couldn’t verify but whose telling kept me enthralled.  Peter was a born raconteur:  as he narrated his history, he would assume the voices of the different figures in it, from Pharaoh to slave.  “The Great Pyramid,” he would say, addressing the two of us as if we were a crowd at a lecture hall, “was built for the Pharaoh Khufu.  The Greeks called him Cheops. He lived during the Fourth Dynasty, which was about four and half thousand years ago.  The moment he became Pharaoh, Khufu started planning his pyramid, because, really, it was the most important thing he was ever going to build.  The Egyptians were terribly concerned with death, and spent much of their lives preparing for it.  He picked a site on the western bank of the Nile.  The Egyptians thought the western bank was a special place because the sun set in the west.  The west was the place of the dead, if you like, the right place to build your tomb.  That’s all it was, after all, a pyramid.  Not that you’d know that from the name:  it’s a Greek word, ‘pyramid;’ it comes from ‘wheat cake.’  The Greeks thought the pyramids looked like giant pointy wheat cakes.  We get a lot of names for Egyptian things from the Greeks:  like ‘pharaoh,’ which they adapted from an Egyptian word that meant ‘great house.’  And ‘sarcophagus,’ that comes from the Greek for ‘flesh-eating.’  Why they called funeral vaults flesh-eaters I’ll never know.”    And so on.  He did love a good digression, your cousin:  he would have made a fine college professor.

So you see, all this is why I dispute your uncle’s claim that he was friendless, solitary:  given the right set of circumstances, Peter could be positively garrulous.  I have little trouble picturing him keeping the proprietor of a small bookshop, say, entertained with the story of the Pharaoh—I can’t remember his name—who angered his people so that after his death his statues and monuments were destroyed and he was not buried in his own tomb; no one knew what had become of his body.  No one knew what happened to his son either.  I planned to take Peter to the Met, to see their Egyptian collection, but for reasons I can’t recall we never went.  At our final visit, he suggested we write.  Initially, I demurred:  I was buried in the last chapter of my dissertation, which I had expected to be forty pages I could write in a month but which rapidly had swelled to eighty-five pages that would consume my every waking moment for the next four months.  We could write when I was finished, I explained.  Peter pleaded with me, though, and in the end I agreed.  We didn’t write much, just four letters from him and three replies from me.

I found myself leafing through Peter’s letters the winter after his visit, when your uncle telephoned your grandmother to inform her that your cousin was missing:  he had run away from home and no one knew where he was.  Your grandmother was distraught; I was, too, when she called me with the news of Peter’s vanishing.  She was upset at George, who apparently had shown only the faintest trace of emotion while delivering to her what she rightly regarded as terrible information.  He was sure Peter would turn up, George said, boys will be boys and all that, what can you do?  Lack of proper family feeling in anyone bothered your grandmother; it was her pet peeve; and she found it a particularly egregious fault in one of her own, raised to know better.  “It’s a good thing your father isn’t alive to see this,” she said to me, and I was unsure whether she referred to Peter’s running away or George’s understated reaction to it.

At the time, I suspected Peter might be making his way to his mother’s, and went so far as to contact Clarissa myself, but if such was her son’s plan she knew nothing about it.  Through her manners I could hear the distress straining her voice, and another thing, a reserve I initially  could not understand.  Granted that speaking to your former brother-in-law is bound to be awkward, Clarissa’s reticence was still in excess of any such awkwardness.  Gradually, as we stumbled our way through a conversation composed of half-starts and long pauses, I understood that she was possessed by a mixture of fear and loathing:  fear, because she suspected me of acting in concert with my brother to trick and trap her (though what more she had left to lose at that point I didn’t and don’t know; her pride, I suppose); loathing, because she thought that I was cut from the same cloth as George.  Whatever George had done to prompt her to seek divorce a dozen years before, her memory and repugnance of it remained sufficiently fresh to make talking to me a considerable effort.

Peter didn’t appear at his mother’s, or any other relative’s, nor did he return to his father’s house.  Against George’s wishes, I’m sure, Clarissa involved the police almost immediately.  Because of her social standing and the social standing of her family, I’m equally sure, they brought all their resources to bear on Peter’s disappearance.  The case achieved a notoriety that briefly extended across the Atlantic, scandalizing your grandmother; though I’m not aware that anyone ever connected George to us.  Suspecting the worst, the police focused their attentions on George, bringing him in for repeated and intense questioning, investigating his trips abroad, ransacking his house.  Strangely, in the midst of all this, Gaunt apparently went unnoticed.  After subjecting George to close scrutiny for several weeks—which yielded no clue to where Peter might be or what might have happened to him—the detective in charge of the investigation fell dead of a heart attack while talking to your uncle on the telephone.  As the man was no more than thirty, this was a surprise.  His replacement was more kindly disposed to George, judging  that he had underwent enough and concentrating the police’s attentions elsewhere.  Your cousin was not found; he was never found.  Though your grandmother continued to hold out hope that he was alive until literally the day she died, thinking he might have found his way to Egypt, I didn’t share her optimism, and reluctantly concluded that Peter had met his end.

I was correct, though I had no way of knowing how horrible that end had been.  What happened to Peter took place while his father was out of the house; in Finland, he said.  It was late winter; when Scotland has yet to free itself from its long nights and the sky is dark for much of the day.  Peter had been living with his father’s locked study for eleven years.  So far as I know, he had shown no interest in the room in the past, which strikes me as a bit unusual, although I judge all other children’s curiosity against yours, an unfair comparison.  Perhaps George had told his own cautionary tale.  There was no reason to expect Peter’s interest to awaken at that moment, but it did.  He became increasingly intrigued by that heavy door and what it concealed.  I know this, you see, because it was in the first letter he sent to me, which arrived less than a month after his return home.  He decided to confide in me, and I was flattered.  Though he didn’t write this to me, I believe he must have associated his father’s study with those Egyptian tombs he’d been reading about; he must have convinced himself of a parallel between him entering that room and Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb.  His father provided him a generous allowance, so I know he wasn’t interested in money, as he himself was quick to reassure me in that same letter.  He didn’t want me to suspect his motives:  he was after knowledge; he wanted to see what was hidden behind the dark door.  Exactly how long that desire burned in him I can’t say; he admitted that while he’d been wandering the woods behind your grandmother’s house, he’d been envisioning himself walking through that room in his father’s house, imagining its contents.  He didn’t specify what he thought those contents might be, and I wonder how accurate his imagination was.  Did he picture the squat bookcases overstuffed with books, scrolls, and even stone tablets; the long tables heaped with goblets, boxes, candles, jars; the walls hung with paintings and drawings; the floor chalked with elaborate symbols?  (I describe it well, don’t I?  I’ve seen it—but that must wait.)

It was with his second letter that Peter first disclosed his plans to satisfy his curiosity; plans I encouraged, if only mildly, when at last I sent him a reply.  He would have to be careful, I wrote, if he were caught, I had no doubt the consequences would be severe.  I didn’t believe they actually would be, but I enjoyed participating in what I knew was, for your cousin, a great adventure.  I suggested that he take things in stages, that he try a brief trip up to the attic stairs first and see how that went.  What length of time was required for him to amass sufficient daring to venture the narrow flight of stairs to the attic landing I can’t say.  Perhaps he climbed a few of the warped, creaking stairs one day, before his nerve broke and he bolted down them back to his room; then a few more the next day; another the day after that; and so on, adding a stair or two a day until at last he stood at the landing.  Or perhaps he rushed up the staircase all at once, his heart pounding, his stomach weak, taking the stairs two and three at a time, at the great dark door almost before he knew it.  Having reached the landing, was he satisfied with his accomplishment? or were his eyes drawn to the door, to the wide keyhole that offered a view of the room beyond?  We hadn’t discussed that:  did it seem too much, a kind of quantum leap from what he had risked scaling the stairs? or did it seem the next logical step:  in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were?  Once he stood outside the door, he couldn’t have waited very long to lower his eye to the keyhole.  When he did, his mouth dry, his hands shaking slightly, expecting to hear either his father of Mr. Gaunt behind him at every moment, he was disappointed:  the windows in the room were heavily curtained, the lights extinguished, leaving it dim to the point of darkness on even the brightest day, the objects inside no more than confused shadows.

Peter boiled down all of this to two lines in his third letter, which I received inside a Christmas card.  “I finally went to the door,” he wrote, “and even looked in the keyhole!  But everything was dark, and I couldn’t see at all.”  Well, I suggested in my response, he would need to spy through the door when the study was occupied.  Why not focus on Mr. Gaunt and his nine o’clock visitations?  His father’s returns home were too infrequent and erratic to be depended upon, and I judged the consequences of discovery by his father to be far in excess of those of discovery by the butler.  (If I’d known….)  Peter felt none of my unease around Mr. Gaunt, which was understandable, given that the butler had been a fixture in his home and life for more than a decade.  In his fourth and final letter, Peter thanked me for my suggestion.  He had been pondering a means to pilfer Gaunt’s key to the room, only to decide that, for the moment, such an enterprise involved a degree of risk whatever was in the room might not be worth.  I had the right idea:  best to survey the attic clearly, then plan his next step.  He would wait until his father was going to be away for a good couple of week, which wouldn’t be until February.  In the meantime, he was trying to decipher the sounds of Mr. Gaunt’s nightly hour in the study:  the two heavy clumps, the faint slithering, the staccato clicks like someone walking across the floor wearing tap shoes.  I replied that it could be the butler was practicing his dancing, which I thought was much funnier at the time than I realize now it was, but that it seemed more likely what Peter was hearing was some sort of cleaning procedure.  He should be careful, I wrote, obviously, the butler knew Peter wasn’t supposed to be at the study, and if he caught him there, he might very well become quite upset, as George could hold him responsible for Peter’s trespass.

I didn’t hear from Peter again.  For a time, I assumed this was because his enterprise had been discovered and him punished by his father.  Then I thought it must be because he was burdened with too much schoolwork:  the tutors his father had brought to the house for him, he had revealed in his second letter, were most demanding.  I intended to write to him, to inquire after the status of our plan, but whenever I remembered my intention I was in the middle of something else that absolutely had to be finished and couldn’t be interrupted, or so it seemed, and I never managed even to begin a letter.  Then George called your grandmother, to tell her Peter was gone.

It was more than a quarter-century until I learned Peter’s fate.  Sitting there on the back porch of the house in Highland, I heard it all from my older brother who, in turn, had had it from Gaunt.  Oh yes, from Mr. Gaunt:  our story, you see, was never that far from the truth.  Indeed, it was closer, much closer, than I wish it were.

George left Scotland for an extended trip to Finland the first week in February.  He would be away, he told Peter, for at least two weeks, and possibly a third if the manuscripts he was going to view were as extensive as he hoped.  Peter wore an appropriately glum face at his father’s departure, which pleased George, who had no idea of his son’s secret ambition.  For the first week after his father left, Peter maintained his daily routine.  When at last the appointed date for his adventure arrived, though, he spent it in a state of almost unbearable anticipation, barely able to maintain conversation with any of his shopkeeper friends, inattentive to his tutors, uninterested in his meals.  This last would not have escaped Mr. Gaunt’s notice.

After spending the late afternoon and early evening roaming through the first three floors of the house, leafing through the library, practicing his shots at the pool table, spinning the antique globe in the living room, Peter declared he was going to make an early night of it, which also would have caught the butler’s attention.  From first-hand experience, I can tell you that Peter was something of a night owl, retiring to bed only when your grandmother insisted and called him by his full name, and even then reading under the sheets with a flashlight.  Gaunt may have suspected your cousin’s intentions; I daresay he must have.  This would explain why, an hour and a half after Peter said he was turning in, when his bedroom door softly creaked open and Peter, still fully dressed, crept out and slowly climbed the narrow staircase to the attic landing, he found the door to the study standing wide open.  It could also be that the butler had grown careless, but that strikes me as unlikely.  Whatever Mr. Gaunt was, he was most attentive.

Your cousin stood there at the top of the stairs, gazing at the room that stretched out like a hall and was lit by globed lights dangling from the slanting ceiling.  He saw the overstuffed bookcases.  He saw the tables heaped high with assorted objects.  He saw the paintings crowding the walls, the chalked symbols swarming over the floor.  If there was sufficient time for him to study anything in detail, he may have noticed the small Bosch painting, The Alchemical Wedding, hanging across from him.  It was—and still is—thought lost. It’s the typical Bosch scene, crowded with all manner of people and creatures real and fantastic, most of them merrily dancing around the central figures, a man in red robes and a skeleton holding a rose being married by a figure combining features of a man and an eagle.  The nearest table displayed a row of jars, each of them filled with pale, cloudy fluid in which floated a single, pink, misshapen fetus; approaching to examine them, he would have been startled to see the eyes of all the tiny forms open and stare at him.  If any object caught his attention, it would have been the great stone sarcophagus leaning against the wall to his left, its carved face not the placid mask familiar to him from photos and drawings, but vivid and angry, its eyes glaring, its nostrils flaring, its mouth open wide and ringed with teeth.  That would have chased any fear of discovery from his mind and brought him boldly into the study.

It could be, of course, that Peter’s gaze, like the boy in our story’s, was immediately captured by what was hanging on the antique coat-stand across from him.

At first, the boy thought it was a coat, for that is, after all, what you expect to find on a coat-stand.  He assumed it must be Mr. Gaunt’s coat, which the butler must have taken off and hung up when he entered the study.  Why the butler should have been wearing a coat as long as this one, and with a hood and gloves attached, inside the house, the boy could not say.  The more the boy studied it, however, the more he thought that it was a very strange coat indeed:  for one thing, it was not so much that the coat was long as that there appeared to be a pair of pants attached to it, and, for another, its hood and gloves were unlike any he had seen before.  Where the coat was black, the hood was a pale color that seemed familiar but that the boy could not immediately place.  What was more, the hood seemed to be hairy, at least the back of it did, while the front contained a number of holes whose purpose the boy could not fathom.  The gloves were of the same familiar color as the hood.

The boy stood gazing at the strange coat until he heard a noise coming from the other end of the study.  He looked toward it, but saw nothing:  just a tall skeleton dangling in front of another bookcase.  He looked away and the noise repeated, a sound like a baby’s rattle, only louder.  The boy looked again and again saw nothing, only the bookcase and, in front of it, the skeleton.  It took a moment for the boy to recognize that the skeleton was not dangling, but standing.  As he watched, its bare, grinning skull turned toward him, and something in the tilt of its head, the crook of its spine, sent the boy’s eyes darting back to the odd coat.  Now, he saw that it was a coat, and pants, and hands, and a face:  Mr. Gaunt’s hands and face.  Which must mean, he realized, that the skeleton at the other end of the room, which replaced the book it had been holding on top of the bookcase and stepped in his direction, was Mr. Gaunt.  The boy stared at the skeleton slowly walking across the room, still far but drawing closer, its blank eyes fixed on him, and, with a scream, ran back down the stairs.  Behind him, he heard the rattle of the skeleton’s pursuit.

There in his father’s study, your cousin Peter saw a human skeleton, Mr. Gaunt’s skeleton—or the skeleton that was Gaunt—rush toward him from the other side of the room.  The skeleton was tall, slightly stooped, and when it moved, its dull yellow bones clicked against each other like a chorus of baby rattles.  Peter screamed, then bolted the room.  He leapt down the attic stairs two and three at a time, pausing at the fourth floor landing long enough to throw closed the door to the stairs and grasp at the key that usually rested in its lock but now was gone, taken, he understood, by Mr. Gaunt.  Peter ran down the long hallway to the third floor stairs and half-leapt down them.  He didn’t bother with the door at the third floor landing:  he could hear that chorus of rattles clattering down the stairs, too close already.  He raced through the three rooms that lay between the third floor landing and the stairway to the second floor, hearing Gaunt at his back as he hurdled beds, chairs, couches; ducked drapes; rounded corners.  A glance over his shoulder showed the skeleton running after him like some great awkward bird, its head bobbing, its knees raised high.  He must have been terrified; there would have been no way for him not to have been terrified.  Imagine your own response to such a thing.  I wouldn’t have been able to run; I would have been paralyzed, as much by amazement as by fear.  As it was, Gaunt almost had him when Peter tipped over a globe in his path and he fell crashing behind him.  With a final burst of speed, Peter descended the last flight of stairs and made the front door, which he heaved open and dashed through into the street.

Between Peter’s house and the house to its left as you stood looking out the front door was a close, an alley.  Peter rushed to and down it.  It could be that panic drove him, or that he meant to evade Gaunt by taking a route he thought unknown to the butler.  If the latter was the case, the sound of bones rattling across the cobblestones, a look back at the naked grin and the arm grasping at him, would have revealed his error instantly, with no way for him to double-back safely.  I suspect the skeleton did something to herd Peter to that alley, out of sight of any people who might be on the street; I mean it worked a spell of some kind.  The alley sloped down, gradually at first, then steeply, ending at the top of a series of flights of stone stairs descending the steep hillside to Market Street below.  From Market Street, it’s not that far to the train station, which may have been Peter’s ultimate destination.  His heart pounding, his breath rushing in and out, he sped down the hill, taking the stairs two, three, four at a time, his shoes snapping loudly on the stone, the skeleton close, swiping at him with a claw that tugged the collar of his sweater but failed to hold it.

Halfway down the stairs, not yet to safety but in sight of it, Peter’s left foot caught his right foot, tripping and tumbling him down the remaining stairs to the landing below, where he smashed into the bars of an iron guardrail.  Suddenly, there was no air in his lungs.  As he lay sprawled on his back, trying to breathe, the skeleton was on him, descending like a hawk on a mouse.  He cried out, covering his eyes.  Seizing him by the sweater front, Gaunt hauled Peter to his feet.  For a second that seemed to take years, that fleshless smile was inches from his face, as if it were subjecting him to the most intense scrutiny.  He could smell it:  an odor of thick dust, with something faintly rancid beneath it, that brought the bile to his throat.  He heard a sound like the whisper of sand blowing across a stone floor, and realized it was the skeleton speaking, bringing speech from across what seemed a great distance.  It spoke one word, “Yes,” drawing it out into a long sigh that did not stop so much as fade away:  Yyyeeeeeessssssss….  Then it jerked its head away, and began pulling him back up the stairs, to the house and, he knew, the study.  When, all at once, his lungs inflated and he could breathe again, Peter tried to scream.  The skeleton slapped its free hand across his mouth, digging the sharp ends of its fingers and thumb into his cheeks, and Peter desisted.  They reached the top of the stairs and made their way up the close.  How no one could have noticed them, I can’t say, though I suspect the skeleton had done something to insure their invisibility; yes, more magic.  At the front door, Peter broke Gaunt’s grip and attempted to run, but he had not taken two steps before he was caught by the hair, yanked off his feet, and his head was slammed against the pavement.  His vision swimming, the back of his head a knot of agony, Peter was led into the house.  His knee cracked on an end-table; his shoulder struck a doorframe.  As he was dragged to the study, did he speak to the creature whose claw clenched his arm?  A strange question, perhaps, but since first I heard this story myself I have wondered it.  Your cousin had a short time left to live, which he may have suspected; even if he did not, he must have known that what awaited him in the study would not be pleasant, to say the least.  Did he apologize for his intrusion?  Did he try to reason with his captor, promise his secrecy?  Or did he threaten it, invoke his father’s wrath on his return?  Was he quiet, stoic or stunned?  Was his mind buzzing with plans of last minute escape, or had it accepted that such plans were beyond him?

There are moments when the sheer unreality of an event proves overwhelming, when, all at once, the mind can’t embrace the situation unfolding around it and refuses to do so, withholding its belief.  Do you know what I mean?  When your grandfather died, later that same afternoon I can remember feeling that his death was not yet permanent, that there was some means still available by which I could change it, and although I didn’t know what that means was, I could feel it trembling on the tip of my brain.  When your mother told me that she was leaving me for husband number two, that they already had booked a flight together for the Virgin Islands, even as I thought, Well it’s about time:  I wondered how long it would take this to arrive, I also was thinking, This is not happening:  this is a joke:  this is some kind of elaborate prank she’s worked up, most likely with someone else, someone at the school, probably one of my colleagues; let’s see, who loves practical jokes?  While she explained the way my faults as a husband had led her to her decision, I was trying to analyze her sentence structure, word choice, to help me determine who in the department had helped her script her lines.  A few years later, when she called to tell me about husband number three, I was much more receptive.  All of which is to say that, if it was difficult for me to accommodate events that occur on a daily basis, how much more difficult would it have been for your cousin to accept being dragged to his father’s study by a living skeleton?

Once they were in the study, Gaunt wasted no time, making straight for the great stone sarcophagus.  Peter screamed with all the force he could muster, calling for help from anyone who could hear him, then wailing in pure animal terror.  The skeleton made no effort to silence him.  At the sarcophagus with its furious visage, Gaunt brought his stark face down to Peter’s a second time, as if for a last look at him.  He heard that faint whisper again, what sounded like the driest of chuckles.  Then it reached out and slid the massive stone lid open with one spindly arm.  The odor of decay, the ripe stench of a dead deer left at the side of the road for too many hot days, filled the room.  Gagging, Peter saw that the interior of the sarcophagus was curiously rough, not with the roughness of, say, sandstone,  but with a deliberate roughness, as if the stone had been painstakingly carved into row upon row of small sharp points, like teeth.  The skeleton flung him into that smell, against those points.  Before he could make a final, futile gesture of escape, the lid closed and Peter was in darkness, swathed in the thick smell of rot, his last sight the skeleton’s idiot grin.  Nor was that the worst.  He had been in the stone box only a few seconds, though doubtless it seemed an eternity, when the stone against which he was leaning grew warm.  As it warmed, it shifted, the way the hide of an animal awakening from a deep sleep twitches.  Peter jerked away from the rough stone, his heart in his throat as movement rippled through the coffin’s interior.  If he could have been fortunate, his terror would have jolted him into unconsciousness, but I know this was not the case.  If he was unlucky, as I know he was, he felt the sides of the sarcophagus abruptly swell toward him, felt the rows of sharp points press against him, lightly at first, then more insistently, then more insistently still, until—

Rob_image

Illustration by Rob Thompson.

I’ve mentioned the root of the word “sarcophagus;” it was Peter, ironically enough, who told it to me.  It’s Greek:  it means “flesh eating.”  Exactly how that word came to be applied to large stone coffins I’m unsure, but in this case it was quite literally true.  Peter was enclosed within a kind of mouth, a great stone mouth, and it…consumed him.  The process was not quick.  By the time George returned to the house almost a week and a half later, however, it was complete.  Sometime in the long excruciation before that point, Peter must have realized that his father was implicated in what was happening to him.  It was impossible for him not to be.  His father had brought Mr. Gaunt into the house, and then left Peter at his mercy.  His beloved father had failed, and his failure was Peter’s death.

It took George longer than I would have expected, almost two full days, to discover Peter’s fate, and to discern the butler’s role in it.  When he did so, he punished, as he put it, Mr. Gaunt suitably. He did not tell me what such punishment involved, but he did assure me that it was thorough.  Peter’s running away was, obviously, the ruse invented by George to hide his son’s actual fate.

By the time your uncle told me the story I’ve told you, Clarissa had been dead for several years.  I hadn’t spoken to her since our phone conversation when Peter first vanished, and, I must confess, she had been absent from my thoughts for quite some time when I stumbled across her obituary on the opposite side of an article a friend in London had clipped and sent me.  The obituary stated that she had never recovered from the disappearance of her only son almost two decades prior, and hinted, if I understood its inference, that she had been addicted to antidepressants; although the writer hastened to add that the cause of death had been ruled natural and was under no suspicion from the police.

If George heard the news of his former wife’s death, which I assume he must have, he made no mention of it to me, not even during that last conversation, when so much else was said.  Although I hadn’t planned it, we both became quite intoxicated, making our way through the better part of a bottle of Lagavulin after I had put you to bed.  The closer I approach to complete intoxication, the nearer I draw to maudlin sentimentality, and it wasn’t long, as I sat beside my older brother looking across the Hudson to Poughkeepsie, the place where we had been born and raised and where our parents were buried, I say it wasn’t long before I told George to stay where he was, I had something for him.  Swaying like a sailor on a ship in a heavy sea, I made my way into the house and to my study, where I located the shoebox in which I keep those things that have some measure of sentimental value to me, pictures, mostly, but also the letters that your cousin had sent me, tucked in their envelopes.  Returning to the porch, I walked over to George and held them out to him, saying, “Here, take them.”

He did so, a look that was half-bemusement, half-curiosity on his face.  “All right,” he said.  “What are they?”

“Letters,” I declared.

“I can see that, old man,” he said.  “Letters from whom?”

“From Peter,” I said.  “From your son.  You should have them.  I want you to have them.”

“Letters from Peter,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, nodding vigorously.

“I was unaware the two of you had maintained a correspondence.”

“It was after the summer he came to stay with Mother.  The two of us hit it off, you know, quite well.”

“As a matter of fact,” George said, “I didn’t know.”  He continued to hold the letters out before him, as if he were weighing them.  The look on his face had slid into something else.

Inspired by the Scotch, I found the nerve to ask George what I had wanted to ask him for so long:  if he ever had received any word, any kind of hint, as to what had become of Peter?  His already flushed face reddened more, as if he were embarrassed, caught off-guard, then he laughed and said he knew exactly what had happened to his son.  “Exactly,” he repeated, letting the letters fall from his hand like so many pieces of paper.

Despite the alcohol in which I was swimming, I was shocked, which I’m sure my face must have shown.  All at once, I wanted to tell George not to say anything more, because I had intuited that I was standing at the doorway to a room I did not wish to enter, for, once I stood within it, I would discover my older brother to be someone—something—I would be unable to bear sitting beside.  We were not and had never been as close as popular sentiment tells us siblings should be; we were more friendly acquaintances.  It was an acquaintance, however, I had increasingly enjoyed as I grew older, and I believe George’s feelings may have been similar.  But my tongue was thick and sluggish in my mouth, and so, as we sat on the back porch, George related the circumstances of his son’s death to me.  I listened to him as evening dimmed to night, making no move to switch on the outside lights, holding onto my empty glass as if it were a life-preserver.  As his tale progressed, my first thought was that he was indulging in a bizarre joke whose tastelessness was appalling; the more he spoke, however, the more I understood that he believed what he was telling me, and I feared he might be delusional if not outright mad; by the story’s conclusion, I was no longer sure he was mad, and worried that I might be.  I was unsure when he stopped talking:  his words continued to sound in my ears, overlapping each other.  A long interval elapsed during which neither of us spoke and the sound of the crickets was thunderous.  At last George said, “Well?”

“Gaunt,” I said.  “Who is he?”  It was the first thing to leap to mind.

“Gaunt,” he said.  “Gaunt was my teacher.  I met him when I went to Oxford; the circumstances are not important.  He was my master.  Once, I should have called him my father.”  I can not tell you what the tone of his voice was.  “We had a disagreement, which grew into an… altercation, which ended with him inside the stone sarcophagus that had Peter, though not for as long, of course.  I released him while there was still enough left to be of service to me.  I thought him defeated, no threat to either me or mine, and, I will admit, it amused me to keep him around.  I had set what I judged sufficient safeguards against him in place, but he found a way to circumvent them, which I had not thought possible without a tongue.  I was in error.”

“Why Peter?” I asked.

“To strike at me, obviously.  He had been planning something for quite a length of time.  I  had some idea of the depth of his hate for me, but I had no idea his determination ran to similar depths.  His delight at what Peter had suffered was inestimable.  He had written a rather extended description of it, which I believe he thought I would find distressing to read.  The stone teeth relentlessly pressing every square inch of flesh, until the skin burst and blood poured out; the agony as the teeth continued through into the muscle, organ, and, eventually, bone; the horror at finding oneself still alive, unable to die even after so much pain:  he related all of this with great gusto.

“The sarcophagus, in case you’re interested, I found in eastern Turkey, not, as you might think, Egypt; though I suspect it has its origins there  I first read about it in Les mysteres du ver, though the references were highly elliptical, to say the least.  It took years, and a small fortune, to locate it.  Actually, it’s a rather amusing story:  it was being employed as a table by a bookseller, if you can believe it,  who had received it as payment for a debt owed him by a local banker, who in turn…”

I listened to George’s account of the sarcophagus’s history, all the while thinking of poor Peter trapped inside it, wrapped in claustrophobic darkness, screaming and pounding on the lid as—what?  Although, as I have said, I half-believed the fantastic tale George had told, my belief was only partial.  It seemed more likely Peter had suffocated inside the coffin, then Gaunt disposed of the body in such a way that very little, if any, of it remained.  When George was done talking,  I asked, “What about Peter?”

“What about him?” George answered.  “Why, ‘What about Peter’?  I’ve already told you, it was too late for me to be able to do anything, even to provide him the kind of half-life Gaunt has, much less successfully restore him.  What the sarcophagus takes, it does surrender.”

“He was your son,” I said.

“Yes,” George said.  “And?”

“’And’?  My God, man, he was your son, and whatever did happen to him, he’s dead and you were responsible for his death, if not directly then through negligence.  Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“No,” George said, his voice growing brittle.  “As I have said, Peter’s death, while unfortunate, was unintentional.”

“But,” I went on, less and less able, it seemed, to match thought to word with any proficiency, “but he was your son.”

“So?” George said.  “Am I supposed to be wracked by guilt, afflicted with remorse?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, you are.”

“I’m not, though.  When all is said and done, Peter was more trouble than he was worth.  A man in my position—and though you might not believe it, my position is considerable—doing my kind of work, can’t always be worrying about someone else, especially a child.  I should have foreseen that when I divorced Clarissa, and let her have him, but I was too concerned with her absolute defeat to make such a rational decision.  Even after I knew the depth of my mistake, I  balked at surrendering Peter to her because I knew the satisfaction such an admission on my part would give Clarissa.  I simply could not bear that.  For a time, I deluded myself that Peter would be my apprentice, despite numerous clear indications that he possessed no aptitude of any kind for my art.  He was…temperamentally unsuited.  It is a shame:  there would have been a certain amount of pleasure in passing on my knowledge to my son, to someone of my own blood.  That has always been my problem:  too sentimental, too emotional.  Nonetheless, while I would not have done anything to him myself, I am forced to admit that Peter’s removal from my life has been to the good.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“I am.”

“Then you’re a monster.”

“To you, perhaps,” he said.

“You’re mad,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” he said, and from the sharp tone of his voice, I could tell I had touched a nerve, so I repeated myself, adding, “Do you honestly believe you’re some kind of great and powerful magician? or do you prefer to be called a sorcerer?  Perhaps you’re a wizard?  a warlock? an alchemist?  No, they worked with chemicals; I don’t suppose that would be you.  Do you really expect me to accept that tall butler as some kind of supernatural creature, an animated skeleton?  I won’t ask where you obtained his face and hands:  I’m sure Jenner’s has a special section for the black arts.”  I went on like this for several minutes, pouring out my scorn on George, feeling the anger radiating from him.  I did not care:  I was angry myself, furious, filled with more rage than ever before or ever after, for that matter.

When I was through, or when I had paused, anyway, George asked, “Could you fetch me a glass of water?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

He repeated his request:  “Could I have a glass of water?” explaining, “All this conversation has left my throat somewhat parched.”

Your grandmother’s emphasis on good manners, no matter what the situation, caught me off guard, and despite myself I heard my voice saying, “Of course,” as I set down my glass, stood, and made my way across the unlit porch to the back door.  “Can I get you anything else?” I added, trying to sound as scornful as I felt.
“The water will be fine.”

I opened the back door, stepped into the house, and was someplace else.  Instead of the kitchen, I was standing at one end of a long room lit by globed lights depending from a slanted ceiling.  Short bookcases filled to bursting with books, scrolls, and an occasional stone tablet jostled with one another for space along the walls, while tables piled high with goblets, candles, boxes, rows of jars, models, took up the floor.  I saw paintings crowding the walls, including the Bosch I described to you, and elaborate symbols drawn on the floor.  At the other end of the room, a bulky stone sarcophagus with a fierce face reclined against a wall.  Behind me, through the open door whose handle I still grasped, I could hear the crickets; in front of me, through the room’s curtained windows, I could hear the sound of distant traffic, of brakes squealing and horns blowing.  I stood gazing at the room I understood to be my brother’s study, and then I felt the hand on my shoulder.  Initially, I thought it was George, but when he called, “Is my water coming?” I realized he had not left his seat.  Through my shirt, the hand felt wrong:  at once too light and too hard, more like wood than flesh.  The faintest odor of dust, and beneath it, something foul, filled my nostrils; the sound of a baby’s rattle being turned, slowly, filled my ears.  I heard another sound, the whisper of sand blowing across a stone floor, and realized it was whatever was behind me—but I knew what it was—speaking, bringing speech  from across what seemed a great distance.  It spoke one word, “Yes,” drawing it out into a long sigh that did not stop so much as fade away:  Yyyeeeeeessssssss….

“I say,” George said, “where’s my water?”

Inhaling deeply—the hand tightening on my shoulder as I did—I said, “Tell him—tell it to remove its hand from me.”

“Him?  It?  Whatever are you referring to?”

“Gaunt,” I answered.  “Tell Gaunt to release my shoulder.”

“Gaunt?” George cried, his voice alive with malicious amusement, “Why, Gaunt’s on the other side of the ocean.”

“This is not entertaining,” I said, willing myself to remain where I was.

“You’re right,” George said.  “In fact, it’s deeply worrying.  Are you certain you’re feeling all right?  Did you have too much to drink?  Or are you, perhaps, not in your right mind?  Are you mad, dear brother?”

“Not in the least,” I replied.  “Nor, it would seem, are you.”
“Ahh,” George said.  “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am sure.”  I might have added, “To my profound regret,” but I had no wish to antagonize him any further.

“In that case,” George said, and the hand left my shoulder.  I heard rattling, as if someone were walking away from me across the porch in tapshoes, followed by silence.  “Now that I think on it,” George said, “I needn’t bother you for that glass of water, after all.  Why don’t you rejoin me?”

I did as he instructed, closing the door tightly.  I walked to George and said, in a voice whose shaking I could not master, “It is time for you to go.”

After a pause, George said, “Yes, I suppose it is, isn’t it?”

“I will not be asking you back,” I said.

“No, I don’t suppose you will.  I could just appear, you know.”

“You will not,” I said, vehemently.  “You will never come here again.  I forbid you.”
“You forbid me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I find that most entertaining, as you say.  However, I shall respect your wishes, lest it be said I lack fraternal affection.  It’s a pity:  that time you came to visit me after Peter’s death, I thought you might be my apprentice, and the notion has never vanished from my mind.  It generally surfaces when I’m feeling mawkish.  I suppose there’s no chance–”

“None,” I said, “now or ever.”  You have Satan’s nerve, I thought.

“Yes, of course,” George said.  “I knew what your reply would be:  I merely had to hear you say it.  When all is said and done, I don’t suppose you have the necessary…temperament either.  No matter:  there are others, one of them closer than you think.”

That was his final remark.  George had brought no luggage with him:  he stepped off the porch into the night and was gone.  I stood staring out into the darkness, listening for I am not sure what, that rattling, perhaps, before rushing to the kitchen door.  Gripping the doorknob, I uttered a brief, barely coherent prayer, then opened the door.  The kitchen confronted me with its rows of hanging pots and pans, its magnetic knife rack, its sink full of dishes awaiting washing.  I raced through it, up the stairs to your room, where I found you asleep, one arm around Mr. James, your bear, the other thrown across your face as if you were seeking to hide your eyes from something.  My legs went weak, and I seated myself on your bed, a flood of hot tears rolling down my face.  I sat up in your room for the rest of that night, and for a week or so after I slept in it with you.  The following morning, I returned to the back porch to retrieve your cousin’s letters, which I replaced in the shoebox.

I have not heard from George since, all these years.

When I sat you on your bed after having found you surrounded by the shreds of my work, this was what shaped itself into my cautionary tale.  It had been festering in my brain ever since George had told me it.  Carrying George’s words with me had left me feeling tainted, as if having heard of Peter’s end had made me complicit in it in a manner beyond my ability to articulate.  In giving that story voice, I sought to exorcise it from me.  I recognize the irony of my situation:  rather than expunging the story, telling it once led to it being told over and over again, until it had achieved almost the status of ritual.  Your subsequent delight in the story did mitigate my guilt somewhat, tempting me to remark that a story’s reception may redeem its inception; that, however, would be just a bit too much, too absolutely over the top, as James would put it.   I remain incredulous at myself for having told you even the highly edited version you heard.  It occurs to me that, if it is a wonder our children survive the mistakes we make with them, it is no less astounding that we are not done in by them ourselves; those of us with any conscience, I should add.

Something else:  how much you remember of the literature classes you sat through in college I don’t know;  I realize you took them to please me.  I’m sure, however, that enough of the lectures you actually attended has remained with you for you to be capable of at least a rudimentary analysis of our story.  In such an analysis, you would treat the figure of the skeleton as a symbol.  I can imagine, for example, a psychoanalytic interpretation such as are so often applied to fairy tales.  It would judge our particular story to be a cleverly disguised if overly Oedipal allegory in which the locked room would be equated with the secret of sexuality, jealously guarded by the father against the son, and the butler/skeleton with the father’s double, an image of death there to punish the boy for his transgression.  If you preferred to steer closer to history, you might postulate the skeleton as a representation of an event:  say, Mr. Gaunt and your uncle caught in an embrace, another kind of forbidden knowledge.  Neither these nor any other interpretations are correct:  the skeleton is not a substitution for something else but in fact real; I must insist, even if in doing so I seem to depart plausibility for fantasy, if not dementia.  It could be that I protest too much, that you aren’t the rigid realist I’m construing you to be.  Perhaps you know how easy it is to find yourself on the other side of the looking glass.

No doubt, you’ll wonder why I’ve waited until now to disclose this information to you, when you’ve been old enough to have heard it for years.  I’d like to attribute my reticence solely to concern for you, to worry that, listening to this outrageous tale, you would lose no time setting out to verify it, which might result in your actually making contact with your uncle, and then God only knows what else.  I am anxious for you, but, to be honest, more of my hesitation than I want to admit arises from dread at appearing ridiculous in your eyes, of seeing your face fill with pity at the thought that the old man has plunged over the edge at last.  I suppose that’s why I’m recording this, when I know it would be easy enough to pick up the phone and give you a call.

I can’t believe I could be of any interest to George at this late date (so I tell myself), but I’m  less sure about you.  Sitting up in my bed last night, not watching the remainder of the documentary, I heard your uncle tell me that there were others to serve as his apprentice, one of them closer than I thought.  These words ringing in my ears, I thought of that Ouija board you used to play with in college, the tarot card program you bought for your computer.  I understand the Ouija board was because of that girl you were seeing, and I know the computer program is just for fun, but either might be sufficient for George.  Your uncle is old, and if he hasn’t yet found an apprentice—

However belated, this, then, all of this tangled testament, is my warning to you about your uncle, as well as a remembrance of a kind of your cousin, whom you never knew.  If you believe me—and you must, Henry, you must—you’ll take heed of my warning.  If you don’t believe me, and I suppose that is a possibility, at least I may have entertained you one last time.  All that remains now is for me to tell you I love you, son, I love you and please, please, please be careful Henry:  be careful.

III

With a snap, the stereo reached the end of the tape.  Henry Farange released a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding and slumped back on the couch.  His beer and the pleasant lassitude it had brought were long gone; briefly, he contemplated going to the refrigerator for another bottle, and possibly the rest of the six-pack while he was at it.  Heaving himself to his feet and shaking his head, he murmured, “God.”

To say he didn’t know what to think was the proverbial understatement.  As his father had feared, his initial impression was that the old man had lost it there at the end, that he had, in his own words, suffered one mini-stroke too many.  But—what?  What else was there to say?  That he had felt some measure of truth in his father’s words?  That—mad, yes, as it sounded—a deeper part of him, a much deeper part, a half-fossilized fragment buried far beneath his reflexive disbelief, accepted what the old man had been telling him?

Well, actually, that was it exactly, thank you for asking.  Laughable as it seemed; and he did laugh, a humorless bark; Henry couldn’t bring himself to discount completely his father’s words.  There had been something—no single detail; rather, a quality in the old man’s voice—that had affected him, had unearthed that half-ossified part of him, had insinuated itself into his listening until, in the end, he found himself believing there was more to this tape than simple dementia.  When Henry had been a child, his father had possessed the unfailing ability to tell when he was lying, or so it seemed; even when there was no obvious evidence of his dishonesty, somehow, the old man had known.  Asked the source of this mysterious and frustrating power, his father had shrugged and said, “It’s in your voice,” as if this were the most obvious of explanations.  Now, hearing those words echoing in his mind, Henry thought, It’s in his voice.

But—a living skeleton?  An uncle who was a black magician?  A cousin he’d never heard of devoured by a coffin made of living stone?  He shook his head again, sighing:  there was some truth here, but it was cloaked in metaphor.  It had to be.  He walked over to the stereo, popped open the tape deck, slid out the tape, and stood with it in his hand, feeling it still warm.  His father’s voice….Although the old man had quoted their story’s beginning and middle, he had not recited its end.  The words rose unbidden to Henry’s lips:  “Slowly, the skeleton carried the screaming boy up the stairs to his father’s study.  It walked through the open doorway, closing the door behind it with a solid click.  For a long time, that door stayed closed.  When at last it opened again, Mr. Gaunt, looking more pleased with himself than anyone in that house ever had seen him, stepped out and made his way down the stairs, rubbing his hands together briskly.  As for the boy who had opened the door he was forbidden to open:  he was never seen again.  What happened to him, I cannot say, but I can assure you, it was terrible.”

The phone rang, and he jumped, fumbling the tape onto the floor.  Hadn’t he switched that off?  Leaving the cassette where it lay, he ran into the kitchen, catching the phone on the third ring and calling, “Hello.”

His Uncle George said, “Hello, Henry.”

“Uncle George!” he answered, a smile breaking over his face.

“How is everything?” his uncle asked.

“Fine, fine,” he said.  “I was just getting ready to call you.”

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah, it looks like I’m going to be a few minutes late to dinner.”

“Can you still make it?  Should we wait for another night?”

“No, no,” Henry said, “there’s no need to reschedule.  I was just listening to something, a tape; I got kind of caught up in it, lost track of time.”

“Music?”

“No, something my father left me.  Actually, I was kind of hoping we could talk about it.”

“Of course.  What is it?”

“I’d rather wait until we see each other, if that’s all right with you.  Listen:  can you call the restaurant, tell them we’re running about fifteen minutes late?”

“Certainly.  Will that be enough time for you?”

“I can be very fast when I need to be; you’d be amazed.  Do you have their number?”

“I believe so.  If not, I can look it up.”

“Great, great.  Okay.  Let me run and get ready, and I’ll see you shortly.”

“Excellent.  I’m looking forward to this, Henry.  I haven’t seen you in—well, to tell you the truth, I can’t remember how long, which means it’s been too long.”

“Here here,” he said.  “I’m looking forward to it too.  There’s a lot I want to ask you.”

“I’m glad to hear it, son:  there’s much I have to tell you.”

“I’m sure you do.  I can’t wait to hear it.”

“Well, this should be a fine, if melancholic, occasion.  A Farange family reunion:  there haven’t been too many of those, I can assure you.  What a pity your poor father can’t join us.  Oh, and Henry? one more thing?”

“What is it?”

“Would it be too much trouble if my butler joined us for dinner?”  As Henry’s stomach squeezed his uncle went on, “I’m embarrassed to ask, but I’m afraid I am getting on in years a bit, and I find I can’t do much without his help these days.  The joys of aging!  He’s a very quiet chap, though:  won’t say two words all evening.  I hate to impose when we haven’t seen each other…”

His mouth dry, Henry stuttered, “Your butler?”

“Yes,” his uncle said.  “Butler, manservant:  ‘personal assistant,’ I suppose you would call him.  If it’s going to be an intrusion–”

Recovering himself, Henry swallowed and said, “Nonsense, it’s no trouble at all.  I’ll be happy to have him there.”

“Splendid.  To tell the truth, he doesn’t get out much any more:  he’ll be most pleased.”

“I’ll see you there.”

Henry replaced the phone in its cradle, and hurried to the shower.  As he stood with the hot water streaming down on him, his uncle’s voice in one ear, his father’s voice in the other, he had a vision, both sudden and intense.  He saw a boy, dressed in brown slacks and a brown sweater a half-size too big for him, standing at a landing at the top of a flight of stairs.  In front of him was a great oaken door, open the slightest hairsbreath.  The boy stood looking at the door, at the wedge of yellow light spilling out from whatever lay on the other side of it.  The light was the color of old bones, and it seemed to form an arrow, pointing the boy forward.

 ***

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (Word Horde 2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections,The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (Hippocampus 2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008).  With Paul Tremblay, he has co-edited Creatures:  Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011).  He is one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which he served as a juror for their first three years.  Forthcoming in later 2016 is his third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals (Hippocampus).  Currently, he is reviewing horror and dark fiction for Locus magazine.  He lives in upstate New York with his wife, younger son, and he can’t remember how many animals.

Rob Thompson is an idiosyncrat and visual artist. His mouth + speech + time = tragedy.

 

Tagged , , , ,

THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HORROR FICTION by John Glover

texas_chainsaw_massacre_1_poster_01-texas-chainsaw-massacre-the-evil-dead-10-horrors-to-watch-this-halloween-jpeg-164992

In the world of horror fiction, through the booms and busts, writer, scholar and librarian John Glover meditates on a perennial question….

The idea that publication of horror fiction follows boom and bust cycles is common among the people who make up the field, from writers to readers, from publishers to critics. It’s easy to understand why this view persists, given the rise and fall of the Gothic, the penny dreadful, the pulps, and the horror boom that lasted roughly from 1970 to 1995. Readers and aficionados of the genre are accustomed to saying that all of the above are the same thing, just wearing different masks. While this is true in the sense that similar subject matter and tropes recur through the decades, increasingly I’m coming to question whether horror will survive as a formulation for the literature that most of us recognize under that name, whether Dracula, Psycho, or The Drowning Girl.

Drowning_Girl_book_cover

Caitlin R. Kiernan has long contested the value of the term “horror” as a generic label.

 

If it weren’t for the rise of the web and its capacity to perpetuate both communities and content, the term “horror” would largely have fallen out of use by now to describe the genre. As things stand, however, I feel that we’re currently in the middle of two waves of fiction that could rightly be called “horror,” each as similar and distinct as the Gothic and the pulps. One of these waves is essentially the long tail of the last boom, and the other is a new formation built from literary fiction, a new attention to sociocultural concerns, and explicit engagement with the genre’s history. The coexistence of these two waves has caused anxiety in the field, not least because the word “horror” itself became anathema after the market crash of the mid-1990s. Many authors working today take a nuanced approach to writing horror—heavily informed by the lessons of the boom.

One of 2015’s most successful horror novels was, on many counts, Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. This elegant tour de force is graced with both literary style and genuine unease, revolving around a case of suspected possession and a family forced to turn their lives into a media spectacle in the hope of saving their daughter. It quite clearly belongs to horror, drawing on such sources as The Exorcist and the reflexive frights of Scream, featuring a narrative self-awareness based out of reality television and social media that can stand comfortably with literary conceits stretching back through the history of narrative. The fabric of the book is woven from after-action discussions between the protagonist and her literary documentarian, and blog posts analyzing the abortive documentary filmed during the events around which the novel centers. The novel shifts easily back and forth between exposition, recollection, and introspection. These many layers are critical to the book’s success, and leading it to be described in one review as “smartly, viscerally [exposing] the way mass media, the Internet and pop culture have transformed our experience of that primal human impulse, horror” (Heller).

head_full_of_ghosts

How else can we tell that A Head Full of Ghosts is a horror novel? As of this writing it is a candidate for a Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, for Superior Achievement in a Novel. Users of the social reading website Goodreads identified the novel as “horror” more frequently than any other genre. Finally, none other than Stephen King said that it “scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare.” Awards, readership, and influential voices all indicate that this novel belongs to the horror field.

All of that said, A Head Full of Ghosts was published by William Morrow, a HarperCollins literary imprint. While this high-visibility publication has been cause for celebration among horror writers who aspire to broadly successful authorial careers, HarperCollins has avoided the H-word in describing it (though the imprint does in fact publish works it categorizes as horror). What does it mean for a novel to succeed in a genre to which its publisher does not necessarily feel it belongs? Tremblay himself has diverse interests and a genial social media presence that connects with longtime horror authors and professionals… as well as musicians, educators, literary authors, and all manner of people involved in the book trade. He does not seem to me to resemble the bulk of authors prominent during the boom, who in profiles and interviews were likely to cite a narrower set of influences and interests: Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and so on.

Authors continually remix literary genres, of course, and genres go in and out of fashion, but both Tremblay and his Head Full of Ghosts exist in two (or more) separate spheres of horror. A quarter century after the boom, one might expect to see a resurgence of horror in a new generic formation. That has happened in the guise of things like “zombie fiction,” and a healthy stripe of dark YA, and horror novels that fly under different colors for any number of reasons, but it has also not happened, insofar as substantial numbers of people still read, write, and talk about “horror.” Here I will leave Paul Tremblay as case study, but it seems worth saying that he has good company in the sundry contemporary authors who exist in a state not entirely unlike that of Schrödinger’s Cat, being both horror authors and not-horror authors.

If there’s something distinctive about the horror genre, starting around 1970 and ending in the mid-1990s, it seems useful to discuss that time frame. Various books have been associated with the start of the boom: Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, The Exorcist in 1971, Carrie in 1974. All make reasonable candidates for signposts, and certainly there was a market for short horror fiction at the time, including men’s magazines and fantasy and science fiction publications that occasionally published horror.

What is somewhat harder to pin down is precisely when the idea of a “horror author” or “horror writer” emerged. While many authors wrote horror stories of one kind or another prior to 1970, the concept of an author who was segregated from others by the adjective was not common. I’m not going to say that no one called herself a horror writer prior to any particular date, as that would require exhaustive searching to prove a fairly small point. I do think it’s notable, however, that the MLA International Bibliography, WorldCat, and Google Books include virtually no mention of a “horror writer” or “horror author” prior to 1960, and barely any prior to 1970. None of those sources are without their problems, but for all that we have supposedly always had horror fiction, it’s interesting to me that we have not always had horror authors. Not until the late 1970s and 1980s do we really see the idea gain traction, coinciding with the rise of postmodernity in the U.S., the consequent broadening of the canon, and the mass market success of horror fiction.

The end of the boom has been discussed by countless writers, editors, and anthologists, from the end of Zebra Books to the glut of vampire fiction, and I see no need to cover it again here. Scholarly work in this area, however, has been limited. The best study thus far published about the horror boom as a phenomenon unto itself is Steffen Hantke’s 2008 article about Dell’s Abyss imprint and the decline of literary horror in the 1990s. By focusing his work on an imprint exceptional in its time, publishing substantial numbers of female horror authors who wrote in anything but demotic style, Hantke anticipates concerns and disputes that have taken on greater resonance than ever in recent years (64).

In an essay based on a speech he delivered at the 1998 Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards Banquet, Douglas E. Winter discussed at length the rise and fall of the category of “horror” publishing, and how such authors as William Peter Blatty or Jack Williamson did not write books that went under that name. He called this kind of writing “a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times,” and claimed that “[w]hat we are witnessing, then, is not the ‘death of horror,’ but the death of a short-lived marketing construct that, although it wore the name of “horror,” represented but a sideshow in the history of the literature” (Winter).

Can we really call “short-lived” a period of vigorous literary productivity that lasted at least a quarter of a century? I don’t think so, and I think it becomes more problematic if you start from the position that there are meaningful differences between Gothics, Victorian ghost stories, pulps, the mid-century fiction of Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, and so on. To say that it’s “all horror” makes some sense to me as a reader, because it’s what I personally seek out, and this is supported on some level by books like Becky Siegel Spratford’s The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, one of a class of tools designed to help librarians understand genres and make recommendations for library patrons looking for something to read. The same is true of surveys of the genre like Gina Wisker’s Horror Fiction, which seek less to parse out than to provide a rich overview of the full progression of the literature of fear in its different phases. Useful rubrics for broad understanding or guides for literary taste, however, will not necessarily provide the best guide for periodization.Spratford

A significant turning point in the horror boom was the formation of a professional organization devoted to writing horror. The Horror Writers Association met for the first time in 1985, spurred by a sense of shared interests and a need for a professional organization, among other things. The story of its founding, originally as the Horror and Occult Writers League, has been documented many places, but the timing generally seems to come in for little discussion (perhaps a mercy, given what was to follow). Not many years after the field started taking on the trappings of other popular genres like fantasy and science fiction, romance, and mystery, the market started to wane. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen totally, but this newly organized group of professionals was to some extent deprived of their newly catalyzed profession. Notables like Ellen Datlow, Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Peter Straub were able to persevere, but countless others changed genres, switched to other kinds of writing, or left the field.

What happened after that was predictable in some ways, less so in others. Writers who wanted to write fear-inducing fiction found other niches where they could do that. Sometimes that meant small press and markets paying well below professional rates, if they were free to write at that level or driven to it by their own natures. Others found welcome audiences in other genres for darker spins on the thriller or fantasy novel. Small presses variously endured, failed, or appeared, and the last decade has seen a surge in new markets for dark fiction. The Stoker Awards given by the HWA did not vanish with the mass market, and neither did World Horror conventions. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who in 1988 launched their summative anthology series, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, did not call a halt when the field was in a down-swing. Datlow currently edits The Best Horror of the Year, a summative anthology that she launched solo in 2009 after the final volume of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and her work has been joined over the years by similar volumes focusing on horror, dark fantasy, weird fiction, and so on.

ybh7-cover

What also happened after the boom was that many of the people who were part of it, both the professionals and the readers, stayed together in various ways. Some of that resembled historical activities of fans in other genres, such as fanzines and letter-writing, but some of it was not as readily possible after previous literary markets waned. Many members of the horror community stayed connected online via Usenet, chat rooms, message boards, blogging platforms, and all of the social media that have come since. Even with the most powerful signifier of the time, the word “horror,” largely erased from the market, it was possible for the people of horror to stick together as never before. This reaffirmed the existence of both their community and the horror field, even when that field at times looked very sparse.

Earlier I claimed that there are two separate waves of horror fiction ongoing today. The more recent one is characterized by authors like Laird Barron, Stephen Graham Jones, Caitlín R. Kiernan, John Langan, Livia Llewellyn, Nick Mamatas, Helen Marshall, Simon Strantzas, or Paul Tremblay. These authors have by and large been heavily influenced by mainstream literary or academic writing cultures, are socio-politically aware in ways that carry over to their fiction, business practices, or both, and occasionally write metafictional or otherwise highly reflexive stories that engage with the genre’s history.

The other wave, the long tail of the boom, is visible in many places. Publishers like Centipede, Subterranean, and Valancourt are reissuing work from the boom, sometimes in revised or expanded versions. In other cases they are releasing sequels to or alternate versions of decade-old horror novels that have enough of a potential readership that publishers can afford to invest in sometimes lavish editions. Even allowing for the vagaries of memory and searching on the Web, it is easier than in decades past to dive into the memorabilia, fan reports, photographs, and retrospectives associated with the boom. This sustaining of the aesthetic of the boom undoubtedly has fed into the success of any number of recent publications, from presses large and small or authors who self-publish.

Is this a genuine continuation of the boom, or just an outsized case of nostalgia? I’m not sure, but there is a wider range of awards for the horror field these days, and it often seems like significantly different groups of authors and kinds of fiction are associated with different gatherings, whether it be World Horror, Readercon, NecronomiCon, or Necon. In future, I would like to examine more thoroughly the awards, nominees, and guests at such events, and attempt to map the different spheres of the genre, associated with the boom or otherwise.

In a nice irony, the thriving Nightmare Magazine regularly runs a column entitled The H-Word. It consistently features thoughtful commentary from authors across the spectrum of horror. Explicit engagement by professionals writing today under a column bearing a title that was at one point a joke is perhaps indicative of the field’s ability to cope with an ongoing state of flux better than during past publishing cycles.

Where does that leave us? On the one hand, it’s easy to locate published fiction that rests comfortably cheek by jowl with the horror of the boom, whether in anthologies, magazines, or novels. On the other, it’s also easy to locate anthologies, magazines, or novels that partake of horror while eschewing the H-word, whether as prominent as a novel like A Head Full of Ghosts or otherwise. The rise of transmedia spectacles like The Walking Dead lies in this camp to some extent, insofar as one can spend hours trawling through reviews and critical articles describing it as “dark drama” or the like, before getting to anything that will call it without adjective or concession simply “horror.” Whether this reflects actual animus against horror is difficult to say, but it does confirm that some people perceive one term as significantly more useful than another, decades after the boom.

If my portrayal of this situation of two ongoing waves of horror fiction is accurate, are they going to end? Can we still talk at this point about the cyclical nature of the field, in a world where micro-presses, boutique presses, Kindle, and other means can keep a genre rolling along in some capacity as long as there are customers ready to buy? It may be that we are not, as many have argued, in any sort of golden age or temporary efflorescence, but have actually entered something like a steady state where nothing ever dies.

If I were to point to a marker indicating anything like relative ill health in horror fiction, I might point to changes in the scholarship. A recent Call for Papers that went out on academic discussion lists for a “monster studies” conference session did not use the word horror at all. Likewise, the Horror Literature section of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts is smaller than it used to be, partly because some members of the association choose to talk in other genre contexts about subject matter that many have seen as belonging to horror. The existence of scholarship is, of course, not a precondition for the existence of the fiction it treats, but it is part of the swirl of the literary ecosystem—reviews, criticism, fandoms, and so on—that reflects the life of fiction once it has left the bookstore or library.

In 2015 I attended the World Horror Convention, still one of the major gatherings for professionals in the field. Panel discussions were vigorous, energetic, and spoke to ongoing engagement with horror and serious questions about what horror is or is not, should be or should not be. This gathering seems to me to be in relatively good health, although the impact of this year’s division of the event into an awards weekend in Atlanta and a convention in Las Vegas, held within days of each other, is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, I recently ended a two year term on the Board of Directors of James River Writers, a thriving literary organization based in central Virginia. In that time, never once did I hear attendees discuss horror fiction at our events, which include a sizeable annual conference that actively works to accommodate writers of YA, erotica, romance, other genres not always welcome in “serious” literary circles. On those occasions when I talked with members of the organization or visitors about what I write, the conversational ground inevitably became shaky the moment I trotted out the H-word. In the most memorable of these interactions, the woman I was speaking with said that her daughter liked Twilight and vampire books. I said that I could appreciate that, because I wrote horror. She hesitated for a long time, but eventually she said that she didn’t usually think about people writing horror, and that you usually thought about horror movies. While this conversation may simply reflect lack of awareness, it suggests to me the possibility that for some people, from experienced readers to novice authors, the subject matter of horror exists, but not necessarily a living genre entirely devoted to ghosts, zombies, vampires, werewolves, serial killers, haunted houses, the occult, and so on.

At the end of the day, I’m not suggesting that we should attempt to rename the genre or the study of its literature. I do, however, think that we should be cognizant of the extent to which the horror boom shaped the way that we consider, write, and write about horror fiction. While I am not prepared to say that M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, or Shirley Jackson did not write horror fiction, I am coming to believe that it’s anachronistic to talk about any of them as being horror writers. Our tendency to do so is a byproduct of our own moment in the history of the literature of fear.

Acknowledgments

I presented an earlier version of this at ICFA 37 as “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom,” where the audience had many helpful comments and useful queries. I am grateful for criticism from Lindsay Chudzik, Mark Meier, and Sean Moreland, all of which helped to strengthen the work, and to s.j. bagley for many thought-provoking conversations about the boom. Finally, I am grateful for the support of my employer, VCU Libraries, in pursuing my scholarly interests.

ThinkingHorror

Thinking Horror, volume 1, edited by s.j. bagley and Simon Strantzas

 

John Glover is a librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he supports humanities research and instruction, contributes to various digital humanities projects, and studies quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. He has chapters forthcoming on Supernatural Horror in Literature and Laird Barron’s Old Leech stories. He also studies the research practices of writers, and last year he co-taught “Writing Researched Fiction” in VCU’s Department of English. He publishes fiction and literary essays as “J. T. Glover,” and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pseudopod, Thinking Horror, The Lovecraft eZine, and Nightscript, among other venues.

jtglover-author-photo

John (aka J.T.) Glover

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

DREAMS IN THE BITCH HOUSE BY MADELINE ASHBY

“So why do you think there are fewer women in STEM?”

This was how my admission to Aldwych House began. I’d rehearsed some answers, beforehand. I had them printed on flashcards. Actual cards with actual paper. I laminated them, trimming off every ribbon of transparent film like a jellyfish hangnail. But the moment that door opened for me — opened by itself, before I could even knock — I’d been off my game. And my sense of foreboding only grew as the lights in the hall pointed the way into the grand old sitting room where the interview now took place.

“I think there are a lot of answers to that question,” I said, finally. “I think there are as many reasons for women leaving science and technology fields as there are women leaving. Everyone has stories.”

The other girls nodded to themselves under their hoods. Some of the hoods gleamed with photonic crystal thread. Others appeared to be folded from paper. In the dimness, they looked like a coven of witches. Above, I thought I saw a cherub on the embossed copper ceiling unfurl its wings and settle in, as though it too were listening to our conversation.

“So what’s yours?”

She spoke from the shadows of a wing-backed chair at the edge of the room. Her hood was clone fur. White tiger. Maybe New England meant old money, after all.

“What’s my what?”

“Your story.” She pushed back her hood and shook free a cap of lilac curls. “Why did you leave California?”

“I needed a change. The SilValley culture has infected the feeder labs, and it’s created a toxic learning environment that’s more focused on acquiring VCs than learning the basics.” I tried making eye contact with the other members of the sisterhood. “Besides, this campus is one of the few that facilitates this kind of community. I think tech-savvy sororities are a great idea. I think we’d see more women stay in the field if they had this kind of support, and I think it presents opportunities for future advancement among legacy sisters.”

“We hear that answer a lot.” I couldn’t remember her name. It started with an M. A man’s name. Madison? Morgan? “But this isn’t rush season, and we’re not even supposed to be thinking about taking in someone new. Why did you really leave?”

I looked at the other sisters. They all looked away. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but do you not believe the answer I gave you?”

“No. I don’t.”

I sat back in my chair. The chair wriggled around me. “Well, I’m sorry it wasn’t good enough for you, but it’s the truth.”

“It’s not your truth, though, is it?” Slowly, she wove between sectionals and end tables. The other sisters tucked in their feet as she passed. “We’re a family, here. We’re sisters. We can’t trust you if you can’t share your truth with us.”

They knew. They knew the whole thing. These were the women of Aldwych House. They could doxx anybody.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I was raped. No, no one did anything about it. It went into mediation. Nothing happened. The end.”

“That’s why you’re here?”

“That’s why.” Now I met Mason’s gaze. Her eyes were almost colourless and curiously flat, like they secretly belonged on a fish. She was a beautiful girl by any standard, but her eyes didn’t match her face. They were the one piece missing. “Are we done?”

“Yes.” She beamed, and opened her arms. “Welcome!”

#

I thought about leaving. They’d invaded my privacy. But they were offering me a place in their house. Aldwych House. Every woman who was any woman in tech had lived under its gabled roof, behind its leaded windows. It was the golden ticket to internships, to capital, to respect. And so I stayed.

They stuck me in the basement. It was an enviable space: my own bathroom with my own shower, the same floor as the laundry room, even a little sitting area complete with futon. The girl who lived there before me had moved out unexpectedly. After I moved in, I finally understood why. It was just as low and dim as any other basement in a heritage Victorian house, but the presence of a root cellar behind the bedroom wall meant that winter’s chill leaked in despite my best efforts.

And then there were the dreams.

In the first dream my mouth was hangover dry. My eyelids gummed together. I felt my throat turn to leather, and then to cobwebs. I felt my cuticles pull back. I could almost hear it happening, the dry withering of my skin, my synapses firing ever more slowly.

Finally I peeled back the covers. They felt stiff with frost. To access the stairs up into the kitchen, I had to pass through the common area. But in the winter darkness of three a.m., I couldn’t find the door.

I leaned heavily against the wall. Its smooth expanse felt warmer than the air of my new space. I ran my arms across it, making a drywall angel. No door. No hinges. No lip of wood. Was there moulding around the door? I couldn’t remember. Maybe it had never been there. Maybe I was wrong. In the rush of moving in, maybe I had seen things differently than they actually were.

Obviously, what I had to do was go outside, and get to the kitchen through the front door.

I shuffled through snow. It clung to my feet. I had slippers, somewhere. In one of the bins. Or a bag. Not on my feet. The narrow strip of concrete between the house and the sagging chain-link fence stood piled thick with snow. It felt light. Like packing peanuts. Finally I understood the Yankee contempt for Californian comfort. I was soft, before. Coddled. That was my problem. That was why everything had happened. Because I was weak.

The house loomed high above the street. Higher, it seemed, than the bare birches and empty maples throwing their supplicant arms to the night sky. A single light burned in the attic. Mason’s room.

I looked down into my trembling hands and saw no keys.

I woke up in bed the next morning, and screamed at the white mounds of pillows that surrounded me.

#

In the next dream, my bedroom door opened directly into the root cellar. My fingers trailed over brick walls. My toes scraped over earthen floor. It should have been a small room, but in the dream it went on forever, and I kept walking into deeper and deeper darkness until the light from my bedroom door became an arrow-slit in the dusty black. And the longer I walked the closer the walls got, until the bricks scraped my shoulders and the roots tickled my scalp.

Then a hand grabbed mine and pulled it hard.

After that I dreamed that my bathroom door led only to a storage closet. Maybe the house was like clockwork, I thought, and all I had to do was wait for the hour to change and the gears to shift. I lay down in the bathtub and drew the curtain behind me. Sounds echoed up from the drain. Voices. A deep one, and a more lilting one. Chiding, almost. Girlish.

“…all the data!”

“…forward…report.”

“An experiment…” I thought I had kept the thought inside my head, but the shower walls echoed my relief back to me. The voices died.

#

When I told the other women at Aldwych House about my dreams, they all shrugged. “That happens, sometimes,” a girl called Beth told me. Beth worked at the fabshop. Her hair smelled like burning plastic. “It’s a new house dream,” she said. “Everyone has them, when they move in.”

“I had them, too, when I moved here.” Cheyenne was working on the sustainable engineering degree. “I think it’s because of history of the place.”

“Yeah, just knowing how many other women have started out right here.” Deepa was working on a departmental honours thesis on the use of vagus nerve implants in juvenile diabetes patients. “There’s a legacy to live up to.”

“Like living in a haunted house.” Cheyenne let the statement hang, then followed it with a nervous little giggle when no one agreed.

“Cheyenne thinks the house is haunted.” Deepa rolled her eyes.

“My things kept moving! I’d leave something in one place in my room in the morning, and then it would be clear across the room when I came back.”

“You were taking Adderall.” Deepa got back to work on her motherboard.

“Only to get through finals.” Cheyenne drew her knees to her chest. “I don’t screw around with that kind of thing, any more. I don’t take anything artificial.”

Beth groaned. “Everything’s artificial.” She knocked on the mantlepiece. “This isn’t even real wood. You know that, right? It’s all programmable materials. They had to code it all back in, after the fire.”

“What fire?” I asked.

They turned to me, then back to their projects. “It was a while ago,” Deepa said.

“Where is Mason?” Cheyenne asked.

“Upstairs, in the attic, like usual,” Deepa said. “I’m surprised she even comes downstairs to eat. She has the best room in the whole house.”

“That view.” Beth sounded wistful. “That bay window.”

“She won it fair and square in the hackathon.” Deepa pointed with her soldering pencil. “She used to have your room, you know. The basement. But then she designed the best locking mechanism for the toolshed.”

“A keypad wasn’t good enough?”

As one, the sisters all sighed. “Yeah, if you want your stuff stolen,” Beth said. “Mason’s security system is bioresponsive. It’s…alive.”

“Alive.”

“For lack of a better term. Her research is on programmable matter. So of course that’s what it is. Haven’t you gone to the toolshed?”

“My tools are still in California. Most of them, anyway.”

“Well, take a look. See if you can find the door.”

The sisters all snorted. Then they looked up at each other quickly, as though surprised and embarrassed by their shared bitterness. It was like the house itself, I realized. The whole structure made all of them uncomfortable, but none of them were willing to do anything about it.

“In my dream, I saw Mason’s light on.”

Under the coffee table, Cheyenne’s hand closed around my ankle. She squeezed it hard. I glanced at her, but her gaze remained fixed on Deepa’s soldering pencil. It smoked and hissed as it met metal.

“You should take pictures,” Beth said. “Of your room. In case you have that dream, again. So you’ll know exactly what it looks like. Then you can re-assure yourself, when you wake up.”

“That’s what I did,” Deepa said, “when I had those dreams.”

#

My visit to the toolshed was uneventful. Mostly because I couldn’t actually get in. The building had no doors. No windows. It appeared to be made of wood, but the texture of it was velvet under my fingers. It hummed gently as I ran a hand over it. Haptic. Responsive. Alive. And it didn’t like me. It didn’t want to let me in.

What was she building, in there?

The thing about historic New England universities is they get off on keeping every scrap of paper they’ve ever generated. It’s a sickness. A disease. A compulsion. They simply can’t let anything go.

Which makes it easy to retrieve things like the original blueprints of buildings like Aldwych House.

There was indeed a fire in Aldwych House. The campus paper characterized it as a minor indiscretion gone very wrong — a girl named Gilman, a Bunsen burner, a moment’s inattention. Exhaustion, her parents said. The stress of being a small-town overachiever finally meeting her betters, her classmates said. She took a semester off and never came back.

The fire started in the root cellar. Why Gilman chose to run her experiment there, and not the toolshed, was never explained. But for some reason, she felt secure doing it there. Gilman herself lived in the attic bedroom. The one with the view. The one Mason had taken “fair and square.”

It spread up and out, encompassing the whole basement before licking up into the living room. The stone foundations remained intact, but the wood and plaster went up like a prayer. Only the university’s heritage preservation society — the very one whose little museum, complete with gift shop, hosted my frantic research — could muster the funds from alumni and private donors to create a perfect replica of the lost rooms. One very generous donation came from an alumnus at Nahab, Inc., a design firm born from a thesis project at the university. Mr. Nahab had a double degree — materials science and architecture. His donation to the refurbishing project was to “grow” the rooms back to their former glory.

“We’ve always thought of smart sand as a fix for the robotics space,” Mr. Nahab said, in at the ribbon-cutting. “But given the right feedback mechanism, we can do almost anything with it.”

Nahab’s materials needed a few things. A steady power source. A complete picture of the thing they were building. And constant feedback, to let them know they were finished. You could rig the house to do that, of course — just like rigging the fridge to tell the cupboard it needed new baking soda. But they responded better — more organically — to data from implants. You needed a person there, to patrol the space and read temperature and humidity. You needed the input from their fingers and shoes. Someone to clean up, if the house spontaneously corrupted.

“An angel in the house,” as Nahab described it.

Then he thanked everyone at his company for all their help. Even the interns, who’d helped with the testing and prototyping. Even the single high school senior who’d won a competition for her spot. Her hair was longer then, and a different shade of purple. But I still knew her. Still recognized that smile that never quite met her flat, fishy eyes.

Mason.

#

 

sean1

“Dreams in the Bitch House” sculptural illustration by Derek Newman-Stille. Photograph by Aaron Goldman.

 

Deepa was wrong. I didn’t need to take pictures. Not with the devices at my disposal. As I told the admissions department in my personal essay, at heart I’ve always been a gadget queen. Girls and their toys, right?

I call them RATS: Re-Active Tactile Systems. I only made up the acronym because the machines ended up looking a little bit like rats: soft little warm bodies covered in delicate sensor fur, stinger tails that sent the charge across whatever material I told them to. Originally, I designed them to sniff out poor signal latency in ambient networks. What they really are is a series of small joybuzzers that detect shifts in electric current in smart materials, and disrupt them.

First I let the RATS out of their box, stroking them to wake them up. Slowly they emerged, sniffing around the basement, tails twitching, fur pointing. They squeaked and chimed to each other as they crawled up and down the walls and along the baseboards. For the first time since joining Aldwych, I slept soundly.

The screeching woke me two hours later. The wall before me was glitched out. It hung, pixellated and half formed, stretching over my bed like a jagged impression of a hand. It smelled like burning sugar, but looked like ancient earth. The rats had it pinned: the wall flickered and so did they, sending sharp little shocks to arrest its growth.

A seam opened in the opposite wall. My ears popped. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

Mason stepped through the seam. One of my rats raced up to stop the movement of the wall, and she snatched it in her fist. It buzzed in her hand, tail lashing out.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “All I wanted to was to join your fucking sorority! Is this some kind of hazing thing?”

Mason snorted. “Hazing? Bitch, please.” She opened her fist. The rat crawled up her arm. “I just wanted one of these. I knew you’d use them, eventually.”

“You mean it’s why Nahab wants them,” I said. “Right?”

She smirked. “Maybe. But what’s a little corporate espionage between sisters, you know?” She pointed. “You have no business complaining, anyway. Why do you think we admitted you? We didn’t have to. It was fucking January. I’m the one who bumped your application to the top of the pile. Me. The others just wanted to stick to the rules.”

For a moment, my focus faltered. “But… Why were you such a bitch to me in my interview?”

“Covering my tracks, obviously. But Nahab just had to have you.” She watched the rats pulsing along the walls and wrinkled her nose. “Or your research, anyway. Such as it is.”

“What’s he giving you in exchange? Another internship? A job? His dick?”

Mason pouted. “Don’t be vulgar,” she said. “I’m not like that.”

“Oh, no, you’d never sell out the sisterhood for your defence contractor crush.”

She had the grace to blush. “It’s not like that,” she said. “Really.”

I didn’t care how it was, honestly. Whatever awful bargain she’d made was her own business. What I wanted was to distract her somehow. “I would have shared this with you,” I said quickly. “You didn’t have to bully me into it. The code for these is open source. You could have downloaded it yourself.”

“But then I wouldn’t have a working prototype,” she said, watching the rat crawl along her other arm. “I’d have to build one from scratch. And there’s really no reason to do all that work.”

I gestured at the rats to change their pulse. I held them in readiness. We watched each other. She moved, and the walls moved. They sparked. They…rippled. Suddenly the dimensions of the room were changing. This was how she’d done it, how she’d changed the location of the doors. I was the one with the rats, but she was the one designing the maze. She grinned. For once, it reached her lifeless eyes. For a moment I saw a door behind her, a door with a curious shape, a door like none I’d ever seen. And I gestured at the rats again, and the one in Mason’s hand shrieked with power. The air filled with the smell of burning skin.

And then she was on the floor.

The walls began to melt. The floor went slick. I struggled to keep my balance. The floor pooled up around my ankles like quicksand. I jumped on the bed and it sank and I fell to my knees. The sudden charge must have fried Mason’s connection to the house. Whether it was implants or smart skin or whatever, she was the real foundation of the building. And now that foundation was crumbling.

“Help me,” Mason groaned. The floor was swallowing her. The walls jumped back and forth, as though uncertain which era to choose. Doors opened. Doors closed. One moment I saw the stairs to the kitchen, and the next they were obscured behind a thin skin of wall.

“Fuck you,” I said, and leapt for the nearest opening.

#

You’re probably wondering why I would share all of this with you. After all, I’ve just confessed to a crime. Not a crime anyone can ever prove, but still, a crime. I wish I could tell you it still haunts me, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. I think of her buried under the layers of her own deception and I feel nothing. At least, I feel nothing but good. I feel only relief. It’s the same relief I felt when I realized she was dead.

We always hope that the people who wrong us will be consumed with guilt. That it will follow them every day. That they’ll someday feel shame for having done it, or having gotten away with it. I used to believe that. But now I know differently. Every day, I wake up happy and free. I’m not afraid. I know nothing can hold me back, any longer. Nothing can stop me.

Nothing can stop us. Not unless we let it.

I just want you to know that, if we’re going to be sisters.

After all, it’s important that we share our truth.

Welcome.

###

About the Author

Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. She is the author of the Machine Dynasty series of novels, as well as Company Town, from Tor Books. She also writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She has developed science fiction prototypes for organizations including the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, the Atlantic Council, and others. You can find her at madelineashby.com or on Twitter @MadelineAshby

7P2ZYeHF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Illustrator

Derek Newman-Stille is a visual artist, writer and PhD student at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies at Trent University. Derek researches Canadian Urban Dark Fantasy and the use of the symbol of the monster for exploring the representation of disability issues. He runs the multi-Aurora-winning website Speculating Canada, and you can view more of his visual art here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” by Jason Philip Wierzba

  1. Andy

Andy had to go pick Elizabeth up from school halfway through the day, turning off the 2:00 weepie on the new plasma and letting the dog kvetch in its way. The dog wanted to go for a car ride. A ‘c-a-r-r-i-d-e’ as his June Bug had recently gotten the damn kids chanting as well, now, whenever they were going somewhere, though they were fooling no one, least of all Buster. Hoisting the little fellow (that goddamn d-o-g) humanely aside with his foot as it tried to proactively pin the loafers in the corner of the nook next to the screen door, hungry for attention, Andy exited the Deck House he’d handbuilt over the eleven preceding summers, damn near in condemnable shape already as it was, and proceeded to take the weatherworn red Honda to go get little Lizzy.

I am Andy, he said to himself, driving past the scenic lookout. I am a gentle creature. Deep breaths, he reminded himself out loud. The man on the radio spoke about the Grand Opening of The Celebrity Gap. Andy breathed deeply into his diaphragm and held it there, one breath then another, and so forth, a little dizzy, ignoring the man on the radio, until he was parked in the Joyce Nübklinker School for Gifted Girls lot, not a lick less nervous for all the yogic breathing nonsense, nor a smidgen removed from a particularly nasty case of what June Bug would no doubt have called the ‘grumpies.’

Fuck breathing.

He popped some Pepto B chewables sitting loose in the cup holder and decamped for the front office with one of his shoes untied, sockless in his indigo bathrobe, tiny French swimming trunks underneath.

  1. Elizabeth

All he knew was that something had happened between Elizabeth and the Chemistry Teacher, another altercation of some kind. Frankly, Andy couldn’t blame the kid. He’d met Mr. Ivor at parent-teacher interview night, the only one he’d ever yet had to attend, being as he had been in the shithouse that week as far as June Bug was concerned, no excuses this time. Andy didn’t have to talk to the guy more than five seconds before he wanted to sock Mr. Ivor one himself.

Walking back out to the car twenty minutes later, and still straining to locate himself with his nervous system, Andy looked down at his daughter, suddenly realizing that she was clutching a number of his deathly fingers with her pudgy fist. Though little Liz clearly had been crying – most of her face splotched red like a rash with the evidence – at this particular moment she was looking like she might kinda be … no, in fact she was indeed actually laughing, now, even her eyes joining in.

– What is it kiddo? What’s so funny, hunh?

– Oh, Andy …

– Call me daddy, please, sweetheart.

– I am so proud of you, daddy. You were so wonderful in there. I tell you Andy … if you were forty years younger … (!) … when you called him Strangefinger I nearly pissed my Strawberry Shortcakes.

Shocked at not having been chastened, as would be customary, for her full-frontal effrontery, Elizabeth spun around to see her father standing motionless a few paces behind where she’d inadvertently left him at ‘wonderful in there.’ Little Lizzy could see that he was muttering to himself.

–Wo, daddy! she exclaimed, ahead of herself. Then: what’s that you’re saying, daddy?

She ran back to him, nearly tripping up on those ballerina slippers she never took off, having no way of knowing that her words had stopped him cold as a petrified redwood not because of their brazen invocation of some seriously insidious taboo shit. After all it was typical of the girl, wasn’t it? She was kind of bratty, only performing like this in public places with nosy strangers around to stare disapprovingly. It never surprised Andy who once read a book by Doctor Spock. Children crave attention and will do pretty much anything to go about getting it. That’s about the size of it. A couple more synapses fired back up like the old oil tank at the old family farm. Thinking about the place made Andy want to go back there and have an Orangeade watching it burn to moldering toothpicks.

– You’re a real pisscutter, daddy. What’s gotten into you? approaching closer. Hey! DADDY! Elizabeth shook her father’s sleeve in a frustration of inarticulable need. Inarticulable even if the little whippersnapper is a genius, some science and dance protégé of the highest supposed order, squealing in high-pitched multi-climaxes of divine right.

Elizabeth, even had she not been sounding the high alarms, would never have been able to hear her father muttering: I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am Andy. I am a soldier for me. I am a gentle creature.

  1. Bug Bug

When he opened the back door of the Honda to throw Elizabeth’s Yo-Yo Ma knapsack in with the fast food wrappers and old newspapers, Andy did not expect to see the teenager in there with that strange anorexic girlfriend of his. Wazzername.

– Jesus, kid. What the … how did you …(?)…

– Dad. You OK?

– I …

– You are giving us that lift, remember? said the wazzername coldly, not even bothering to lift her eyes from her BlackBerry.

– Bug Bug! said Elizabeth, seeing her fraternal counterpart, running up and trying to wrap arms around his scrawny shoulders through the open window like a midget vaudevillean.

The foursome (actually a fivesome – somehow the dog had gotten in despite the Deck House chastening) drove for boysenberry Ice Cream. Andy could not remember who had requested the Ice Cream but was sure that some sort of instant consensus had been reached. He was right now now fully committed to remembering where each of the nearby Ice Cream parlors was located, the distance between himself and the various establishments, the relative quality of each menu, the basic equation. Normally he would have had the daughter figure it all out with her wireless connection and Texas Instruments, but she appeared to be in no mood to shut up at that particular moment. It struck Andy now that she probably had the opportunity to sneak a couple cups of coffee whilst waiting outside the principle’s office in her cone of silence. June Bug had told him: no more coffee for the kid. Andy forgets.

Ethics are instant-to-instant and microscopic.

It was June Bug’s own money that she accused him of stashing in his sock drawer. June Bug forgets too.

– Neurosis is a dysfunction of the active faculty of forgetting, says the kid, as though possessed of some kind of daddy radar. Redeyed Bug Bug looking stoned and bugeyed and his saucy wazzername in the backseat making dirty needle tattoos. Dirty needle piercings. Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply, his vision presently growing blurry.

It was not the rearview. He was certain.

Couldn’t quite see. Keep your eyes on the road, Andy.

“Or was the rearview tricking him, he wondered over his shoulder, edging in vain toward the blindspot revelation that wouldn’t comply…” Illustration by Sebyth.

  1. June Bug

Andy was telling himself he was a soldier for himself. He was doing it over and over, a gentle creature. Preoccupied as he was, it was of course Elizabeth who first noticed that they were being followed by his wife or whatever she was now. It was, of course, June Bug and the notorious newsman, her new beau, who brought along with him a documentary camera crew and some busybody libertines with clipboards. It was a large van. Andy, alerted to its presence, noted the largeness of the van, cataloguing its human cargo, fingering the abacus of his instincts, palms growing sweaty on the wheel, the vehicle in high gear. Andy heard police helicopters.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, disappointed. The teenagers pierced each others’ noses, to all appearances indifferent.

  1. Euphrates

Andy did not know how he escaped his pursuers, only that he had been forced to jettison his two children and the dog at Hannigan’s Ice Cream Parlor to fend for themselves. He realized as he did it that it had finally come to him sacrificing his children to his wife and her hangers-on in the State Legislature. Bug Bug’s solemn girlfriend was still in the back of the Honda, not being of any value as a potential sacrifice to June Bug. The girl was attending to the bullet wounds sustained by the hitchhiker Andy could not remember picking up. The girl referred to him as their ‘first hostage,’ and the pathetic state of the fellow clearly brought out her mothering side. Andy himself had been grazed by a bullet, though he was not yet aware that this was the case.

He parked the car and the dead man in the shop at the girl’s parents’ rural getaway, where he discovered amongst the half-disassembled detritus with which her father casually tinkered, that the maudlin young vixen who thrilled in crudely tattooing squiggly skater death’s-heads on his son’s biceps with a dirty needle went by the name of Euphrades. Andy entreated Euphrades to assist him in emptying the bullet-riddled car of its more dangerous glass shards and to help cover up the conspicuous blood stains from the dead hitchhiker or whatever he was who was now resting in a horse trough in the corner with his blue tongue hanging out.

As they stepped out of the shop into the harsh sunlight, Andy became aware of the bullet burn on his neck and became somewhat delirious. Images flooded his mind. Images of the mangled bodies stowed beneath the Deck House. The eleven years worth of bodies, the length of his divorce. The length of his project. Images of the dead principle, Mr. Ivor the Chemistry Teacher’s head breaking apart with the last blow, Elizabeth waiting in the hall where he had had the sense, though on autopilot as he was just then, to lead her to await his return before revisiting the office himself to resettle their hash for good.

Stumbling around outside the shop in this delirium he set off an animal trap with his pantleg and did a funny jig of incomprehension before falling unconscious to the earth. He came to, gauzed and numb, in a most pleasant solarium with Euphrades attending to the minor wound on his neck. Leaning over him she exposed a lingering flash of her most supple and enticing breast. She has a silver salamander on the chain around her neck. Andy reminded himself that he was a soldier for himself, a gentle creature. He allowed it as the girl began slowly massaging his manhood until he was as stiff as a shower rod to the touch. She giggled nervously, then, and unleashed his purpling member as though shocked to find it suddenly there in her skeletal hand – as though her encountering it in the first had been but an act of nervous automatism – and retreated to the kitchen where she explained that she had made them Virgin Daiquiris in a blender with some fruit juice and her father’s hidden stash of crushed ice.

– Tell me Andy, pleaded the frail teenager handing him his drink, why am I so drawn to you? Why do I use your son to get close to you?

Andy paused thoughtfully before he spoke:

– I am a soldier in a deep forbidding jungle, he began. But I am a gentle creature. My wife doesn’t understand me. June Bug. She is in her defiance, you understand. She won’t listen to herself, has no perineum, won’t open up. It is true that I am difficult. I warned her of that on the carousel on our first date. I bought her The Dead Zone by Stephen King. She regurgitated a corn dog on my khakis and you can’t get that out of khaki. Like when you fart but there’s some shit. You just cannot get that out of khaki. I can’t. And my wife – June Bug – she just doesn’t understand. I knew it was over. She quit doing the laundry. Took up with a kindly priest, subsequently defrocked. We did a couple’s group in Florence but only she spoke Italian and I could tell everybody was laughing at me. I made a great big stink and had to hide at the American Embassy in Rome. I have done many things of which I am not proud. I don’t want to bring you into this Euphrades. You deserve to soar like a pterodactyl, flying with those disturbing fingers curled up beneath you. You really should try to eat some food. Look at you, Euphrades, nothing but skin and bone. You are very special to me and I am dangerous. This is what draws us like moths, you know. We are drawn to something unspoken, sublime as the gaping heavens, capable of explosive fission.

– Oh Andy, said the girl, swooning.

They made love in a fortress of frilly pink pillows, he holding her like a precious pocket watch inherited from a favorite uncle. As he mounted the teenager, youth returned to Andy like a pestilence. Euphrades was truly pliant, if a little circumspect, as her too-eager humping gave way to an arousing lifelessness. She got up and disappeared to the bathroom. Having quickly pulled the French swimming trunks over his exposed shame, Andy flung the bathrobe like an indigo prayer shawl over his paunchy frame and spoke to his beloved, whom he could no longer see, over the sound of running bathwater.

– To me you are a reassurance of Spring in deepest Winter as with an old Chinese haiku read against the gray light of a yielding glacier. You are the very brail of my newfound touch. I touch you to awaken the most sacred languages of our forefathers, imprinted there upon the snowwhite of you with the magma of our earth’s core as it pulses with hunger for what you conceal …

Andy thought he heard Euphrades say that that was nice and call him dear. The bathwater made it hard to hear.

Andy continued in his romantic musing:

– June Bug, bless her litigious heart, never understood. She was not a soldier for herself. She was mean for no reason …

The bathwater stopped running. Just then a man came out of the bathroom covered in blood. It was Andy. Andy looked confused.

  1. Matt Damon

The bathwater was maroon and Euphrades was not responding to his hostile caresses. Panic!

Andy ran to the barn. He stole an Arabian colt and fine English saddle. He stole some fine leather straps from Argentina. Almost weeping, he rode towards town, leaping the white picket fences, the bloody bandage now dangling from his injured neck.

There was a major fracas in the center of the small New Mexican city in which Andy and the colt presently found themselves.

He approached the milling crowds astride the handsome beast, thirsty for water and whatever contact high he might find amidst his people.

The largest mass of gawkers seemed to be gathering outside a large anachronistic building that looked something like an old Western saloon. The building had a vaguely irreligious quality to it. Stepping off his horse, Andy slowly approached the teaming mob, which quickly parted for him, a commotion now rising up above the general din.

– It’s that Andy character, he heard somebody say.

An old lady with rickets swatted at him with a half-deployed umbrella.

– Some nerve, showing up for the Grand Opening.

– And in broad daylight, too.

Somebody was alerting the police on their mobile. Andy didn’t care. He could not take his eyes off the huge banner which awed him. It was not, in fact, a banner, he noticed, but rather a giant mayoral sash, Crown Royal purple, that wrapped around the entire building.

CELEBRITY GAP – GRAND OPENING read the sash.

In the display case windows were large portraits of celebrities wearing Gap clothing. Julia Roberts was sneaking a cigarette down in the arroyo. She was sporting some fetching Banana Republic number. The Olsen Twins in a provocative Adam and Eve tableau. Truman Capote in a smart sweater vest. The biggest portrait of all featured Matt Damon in aviator goggles, his jowly face comically stretched back by G-Force.

As a cavalcade of police cars arrived upon the scene, Andy entered the commercial palace, tears in his eyes. At first the lights from the documentary film crew blinded him, but slowly the scene integrated before him. In the center of the room, amidst the rows of sensible and inexpensive clothing hung or neatly folded by collegiate failures, sat his darling little Lizzy with a half-eaten waffle cone, the genius, on Matt Damon’s lap like he were Santa Clause, June Bug and the new beau next to them, beaming before the cameras, the son pouting alone way over by the cash, a primarily Hispanic film crew.

– Oh Daddy, said Elizabeth, as though embarrassed to be caught in this awkward moment of celebrity worship. I would have seen it on TV anyway, thought Andy. Eventually. Some genius she is.

Andy wanted to strike somebody but held it in. He held it in his perineum.

There followed a silence which seemed to last an eternity. Finally Matt Damon spoke, breaking the ice:

– I cannot say you surprise us Andy, began the beatific movie star. I suppose we knew deep down that you had to make an appearance. I must say you have held us all in suspense, wondering what you might think of next you crazy bugger you. But I am drawn to you Andy. We are drawn to you. We are all drawn to you. Your story has captivated millions. The world hungers after you. Andy. Our earth’s very core pulses with hunger for you. For what you conceal. The … project. Look at your wife. See how she blushes so sincerely to see you here this moment. She loves you Andy, your June Bug. Sure she does. She can’t hide it, Andy, and hiding is what she does. See how she loves you. See?

Andy stood weeping as his one true love approached him, also weeping, a humbleness about her. They embraced.

– That’s it Andy, that’s it, said Matt Damon, much satisfaction writ upon his brow. The cameras circling, ever closer, the resurrected couple. The first canister of tear gas spiralling through the saloon door.


Jason Philip Wierzba is a writer and occasional musician from the Canadian prairie. He has a Master’s Degree in Film Studies from Carleton University. His previous story “Priority: Murder Kill” was published in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 3 and ten of his poems have been published online by Ditch. He is currently working frontline with the homeless in Calgary.

This story is accompanied by an extensive interview conducted by Sean Moreland which you can read here.

Sebyth exists. Probably. @Sebyth.

Tagged , ,

PSTD INTERVIEW: JOHN LANGAN

JohnLanganColor

John Langan in his natural environment

***

Hi John, and thanks so much for agreeing to an interview for our readers.

Thanks very much for having me, Sean.

I’m deeply impressed by both your inaugural collection Mr. Gaunt (2008) and the more recent The Wide, Carnivorous Sky (2013.) I’d like to ask you a few general questions about these collections, to begin with.

I’m struck by the aptitude of the sub-titles appended to both collections. Mr. Gaunt bears the subtitle, “and other uneasy encounters.” Why “uneasy” (as opposed to, say, unsettling, or terrifying, or some other adjective)?

My first collection was published before I had been thinking I would bring out a book of stories. I figured I’d have to wait for a novel (or two) to establish me for a wider audience, and then I’d try a collection. When I had the chance to publish the collection, though, I took it. I figured I should title the book after what was the best known of my early stores, but Mr. Gaunt seemed too short—that, and I didn’t want to create the impression I’d expanded the story into a novel. A subtitle seemed like a good way to solve this problem. I liked the idea of thinking about the stories as encounters, both in terms of their plot action, and of the reader’s interaction with them. I think it’s one of Eliot’s poems where the speaker describes himself at the end as “no longer at ease.” I liked the idea of uneasiness as a way to describe the tenor of the stories’ plots and the effect I hoped they’d have on the reader.  (Also, let’s face it:  you call your stories terrifying, and you’re inviting a critic to tell you they aren’t.)

3264608._UY400_SS400_

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, on the other hand, bears the sub-title “& Other Monstrous Geographies.” What inspired this subtitle, and how is “monstrous geography” an important conceptual thread running through the stories in this collection?

Actually, the original title of my second collection was Technicolor and Other Revelations.  I had followed the logic I’d used in naming my first collection and chosen the story that I was best known for to serve as the title.  I thought the idea of revelation was a good way to conceptualize the experiences my characters had over the course of their narratives.  My publisher, however, was worried that Technicolor was a copyrighted term, and asked if we couldn’t change the title to The Wide, Carnivorous Sky?  I decided that my original subtitle didn’t work as well with this new title, so I tried to come up with something that fit better.  I thought the idea of the sky suggested large spaces, which led me to geography, which led to geographies.  Since each story took place in its own, different setting, the word seemed like a decent fit, but I also liked the idea of conceiving the space of each story as a geography. Monstrous was perhaps a bit on the nose, but since the book was also a kind of catalogue of traditional monsters, I thought it worked. Now that I’m writing this, it occurs to me that, since the stories play with narrative form, you might say that gives the word monstrous an additional application.

One of the differences between these two collections is that the stories in Mr. Gaunt are treated more as framed narratives, whereas those in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky are more varied – the second collection, in short, covers more ground, and the stories therein show a much greater diversity of voice and style. How would you characterize the evolution you underwent in the intervening five years between these two collections?

I think the major development in my writing actually occurred in the midst of the stories that constitute Mr. Gaunt. The first drafts of my first two published stories, “On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt,” were written within a few months of one another, and while I subsequently worked revising “Mr. Gaunt” on and off for almost a year after I wrote it, its Jamesian orientation was already in place. By the time I came to write “Tutorial,” I was trying to work in a more explicitly meta-fictional mode. Then, after “Tutorial,” I took the next couple of years to write my first novel, House of Windows, in which I indulged my Jamesian obsessions to the hilt. The story I wrote after that, “Episode Seven:  Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers,” was an extravaganza that drew on writers I’d mentioned in “Tutorial,” such as Samuel Delany, as well as Stephen King, but whose example I hadn’t yet engaged. Shortly thereafter, I wrote “How the Day Runs Down,” my zombified Our Town, and “Technicolor,” my Poe phantasia. I suppose what was happening was an increased willingness on my part to try different approaches to narrative construction.

widecarnivorous

Are there any marked shifts you can pin-point in your approach to writing fiction?

In terms of my work habits—writing every day, say—I remained fairly consistent. Where I think I may have developed was in my comfort with trying different narrative structures, as well as with being willing to engage the material of horror in more direct and intensive ways.

Are there any major literary influences that either became foregrounded or receded for you during this period of time?

My early stories and first novel draw quite explicitly on the examples of Henry James and Charles Dickens; though I also recognize the ghosts of figures from Robert E. Howard to John Fowles to Peter Straub lurking within them.  James and Dickens have remained important to me, but I think they’ve probably receded a bit, while Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren have moved a bit more to the foreground.  Straub has remained essential to me, and I continue to appreciate how important Stephen King has been to all of my work.

The ghost of Henry James seems to loom large over many of the stories in Mr. Gaunt – most notably the titular tale, one of whose narrators is a James scholar, but also through “On Skua Island,” “Tutorial” and others. Why and how did James’s shadow come to fall so extensively over this collection?

Since reading “The Jolly Corner” during my sophomore year of college, I’ve been a big fan of James. I found in his work a richness of language, of art, that seemed so much more profound to me than much of the rest of what I was reading. (The same thing was true of Faulkner.) I turned to James’s example as an alternative to certain trends in contemporary literature—the kind of flatness of language that I associate with more naturalistically inflected fiction. In a way, I think what I was responding to in James was analogous to what other readers have responded to in Lovecraft, or Ligotti:  that sense of indulgence in language, of delight in the extremes to which style can be taken. It’s a welcome rejoinder to the excessive sway varieties of minimalism have exercised on literature in general. In the case of James, I also loved that so much of his work fell under the banner of the supernatural; his example helped to calm my lingering anxieties about the literariness (or lack thereof) of working in the horror field. I loved the way that he anatomized the processes of his characters’ consciousnesses, of the ebb and flow of their perceptions. You saw, in a story like “The Jolly Corner” or The Turn of the Screw, the way in which his characters’ reactions to the supernatural changed over time, gathered weight and resonance. I thought his example remained compellingly relevant to writing in the horror field.

In a recent podcast interview with Scott Nicolay, you make some interesting remarks about Shirley Jackson’s achievement, and particularly her pre-Hill House novel, The Sundial. Can you talk a little more about your fascination for this novel, in particular?

I’m pretty sure it was Stephen King who steered me in the direction of The Sundial through his praise of it in Danse Macabre. I was fascinated by the novel’s observance of the Aristotlean unities of time and space, and the way in which it lensed an apocalyptic narrative through the experience of a single family—even as it maintained doubt as to whether there was any apocalypse going on, at all. It’s an astonishing performance, one I wish more people knew.

The title of The Wide, Carnivorous Sky is derived from a story by Caitlin R. Kiernan. To what extent would you say Kiernan has been an influence on you? Can you share some of your thoughts on her work, and its relationship to your own?

When I read Caitlin Kiernan’s second novel, Threshold, I was absolutely floored by it. It remains, in my estimation, one of the great novels of supernatural horror of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I hold her novella, “Onion,” in the same regard. What she managed to do with her first five novels and many of her early stories, braiding them together into a greater narrative, still strikes me as a remarkable achievement, one that I think deserves more critical attention. I don’t perceive a direct influence of her work on mine; I tend to think of her more as a contemporary writer who has done amazing work within the field of fantastic fiction.

Threshold

Speaking of influence and literary precursors, while you are often associated with Lovecraftian horror, you also generally avoid making overt allusions or homages to Lovecraft’s fictions in your own. Is this something you intentionally avoid? Do you have any thoughts on the super-abundance of Lovecraft-homage fiction out there? Are there any particular writers who, to your mind, manage to use this approach to powerful effect?

I wouldn’t say it’s been intentional so much as a case of Lovecraft being one of those writers I came to somewhat later than seems to be the norm for a lot of horror writers. I knew his name from Danse Macabre, among other places, but the only Lovecraft I read when I was in my early teens was The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and a few of the stories associated with Randolph Carter. Those left me unmoved. Later on, at the end of my teens/beginning of the my twenties, I got a copy of the old Del Rey selection of Lovecraft’s greatest hits, Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, and that was when I started to read Lovecraft’s work in earnest. The Penguin classics editions of his stories, edited by S.T. Joshi, appeared a few years later, and Joshi’s extensive annotations deepened my appreciation of Lovecraft’s achievement. At this point, I think I’ve delivered more conference presentations on Lovecraft’s fiction than I have on anyone else’s work, thanks in part to the annual Lovecraft Forum at SUNY New Paltz; while there’s about a hundred and sixty pages of what was going to be a dissertation on Lovecraft and Robert Browning hibernating on my computer. At this point, I suppose my fiction has appeared in enough Lovecraft-themed anthologies for me to be lumped in with the Lovecraftian crowd, but I’m not sure the fit is all that good. For a while, there, whenever I would sit down to write a piece of Lovecraft-inflected fiction, I would spend as much of the story working in mimetic naturalist mode (i.e. “The Shallows,” “Children of the Fang”). Actually, I think I still tend to do that kind of thing, to pull the cosmic back to the personal. I want to attribute my failure to connect with Lovecraft in what I guess you might call an emotional way to not having read him until I was older, but I read M.R. James’s stories later still, and loved them, so it may be as much a matter of the quirks of my personality.

As for the superabundance of Lovecraft-inspired fiction currently available: I think it’s attributable on at least some level to the cultural clout Lovecraft has gained this past decade or so, from those Penguin editions to the Library of America selection of his work, but I also think it has something to do with a number of writers working in the field Lovecraft plowed and raising something more than mere pastiche. Of course, there’s an economic imperative on the part of publishers big and small: Lovecraft, and especially Cthulhu, sells—it really does seem to occupy the same niche zombies did a few years ago, and vampires before that.

And as far as writers using cosmic horror to powerful effect:  among my contemporaries, I can’t think of anyone who’s worked with cosmic horror more powerfully than Laird Barron. Especially in stories such as “Hallucigenia,” “Mysterium Tremendum,” and “The Men from Porlock,” as well as his novel, The Croning, he’s re-invented the field for a new generation. I also think Gemma Files has written some wonderfully strange cosmic horror stories, and Richard Gavin deserves mention for engaging the more visionary aspects of the field in his stories.

51ZTwdbwk1L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

In a blog post published on Aug 12, 2015, you discuss your relationship with your former professor and mentor, noted Lovecraft scholar Robert Waugh, and single out in particular his essay on Lovecraft, “The Subway and the Shoggoth,” noting that “the essay – and Bob’s critical work in general – has served as a model for my own critical efforts.” Can you tell us a little more about your relationship with Waugh, how his approach has affected your work as a scholar, as a teacher, or as a writer of fiction?

Bob Waugh is one of my oldest and dearest friends and teachers. I met him during my the first semester of my freshman year at SUNY New Paltz, and the inaugural H.P. Lovecraft Forum, one of the events that helped reassure me I had made the right choice in deciding to attend New Paltz. The following semester, he was my professor for my Honors English composition class, in which we read selections from Poe’s stories, among other things. Bob is something like my Platonic ideal of a college professor: he seems to have read everything under the sun; he can read most of the major European languages (though with a dictionary, he would hasten to add); he has a knowledge of history, music, and art that’s almost as extensive as his literary knowledge. He’s the opposite of that type that’s cropped up in academia the last twenty five years or so, the specialist. I think it’s in my critical work that I find Bob’s influence the most evident. Bob has always combined a close, almost monkish attention to textual detail with his awareness of the larger contexts of the writer’s biography, cultural context, and general literary history. Thus, he’s placed Lovecraft in relation to Pope, Keats, Leopardi, and Pound, among others, arguing for Lovecraft as part of a kind of idiosyncratic tradition in western literature. I still think his two books on Lovecraft, The Monster in the Mirror and A Monster of Voices, are the best critical studies anyone has done of him, and I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Waugh’s essay tackles in a particularly incisive way one aspect of the relationship between Lovecraft’s literary achievement and his racist and xenophobic views, something that Lovecraft’s critics and admirers have wrestled with in a variety of different ways, particularly over the last few years. Do you have any further thoughts on the relationship between Lovecraft’s literary achievements, his xenophobia and views on race or sexuality, and the consequences of both for his continuing cultural legacy?

What I admire about Bob’s essay is the way it engages the relationship between Lovecraft’s more offensive views and his fiction first by analyzing the language both discourses have in common and then by using the fiction as a way to read those views. It’s the opposite of what a lot of the more recent responses to Lovecraft’s work have done, i.e. treat the fiction as essentially an allegory—and a simple one, at that—for his assorted prejudices. Bob’s essay is able to get at something of the complexity of Lovecraft’s writing without looking away from or excusing its troubling aspects. I’m not sure there’s more for me to add to Bob’s essay, except to repeat my desire that both Lovecraft’s detractors and apologists might read it. In the long run, I’m not sure how our knowledge of Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia will affect the continued status of his literary reputation. We’ve been able to tolerate a lot from a lot of writers. I imagine it will have more to do with how well his fiction succeeds with readers over time. As long as the stories find an appreciative audience, then they’ll endure.

51hpFMdNFdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

You’ve often cited Stephen King as an influence, even describing him as “part of my writing DNA in a way distinct from almost any other writer.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

Stephen King was the first writer I encountered whose work inspired in me the overwhelming urge to imitate what I had read. My reaction was so strong it felt as if it was coming from outside myself, as if the text was choosing me. To say that King influenced me feels like an understatement. His work enveloped me, compelled me, fundamentally shaped the way I thought about narrative construction, character representation.

Looking back on the experience, I’m reminded of Althusser’s notion of hailing or interpellation, the process by which your internalization of certain socio-cultural dynamics causes you to feel that something outside yourself is constituting you as part of an ideological structure, giving you your identity. Just as Althusser borrowed certain notions from psychoanalysis in his revision of Marx, it may be that this notion of his should be borrowed and applied to the psychology of creativity. Certainly, there are cases where other writers have described something similar: Ramsey Campbell speaks of his first encounter with Lovecraft’s fiction in these terms, as does Lovecraft his experience of Poe. For a while, I thought that Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence best accounted for this kind of experience, but I’ve since found that Bloom’s theories are much more limited in their applications and implications than he would like them to be, and indeed, when all is said and done, may best be applied to Bloom, himself.

To return to the original subject of your question, though: when all is said and done, I think the deep structure of my work continues to owe as much if not more to the example of Stephen King’s fiction, as my thinking about the horror field does to Danse Macabre, than to any other single writer.

Can you tell us a little about when and how you first discovered his fiction, and about the ways in which it may have influenced you?

I was aware of King’s fiction for some time before I actually read it; the foil-embossed covers of books like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining stared at me from the display stands at the front of the local Waldenbooks and Book & Record stores. The first story of King’s I read was “Battleground,” which was reprinted in a slightly-edited form in a monthly-magazine that my seventh grade reading class got. I was impressed with the idea of an army of toys hunting a hitman, but otherwise, it didn’t have a great effect on me. Nor did the first novel of King’s I read, Cujo, during the summer between eighth and ninth grade. A few months later, though, the paperback of Christine was released, and something about the book made me pick it up. Was it that I knew this book had a more explicitly supernatural situation than Cujo? Was it that its characters were high school students, as was I, now? I can’t quite remember. In any event, that was the book that produced in me the response I described in my previous answer. After that, I had to read everything King had written.

And I had to write, too, my own horror stories. I have no doubt that King’s example permeates most if not all of what I’ve written, but where I remain most aware of it on the local level is in the pacing of his fiction, his willingness to let the narrative unfold in its own time. This could lead to interminable stories, if it weren’t complemented by his ability to construct a compelling narrative voice.  On a more global level, the integrity with which King treated the writing of horror fiction made a tremendous impression on me (I recognized the same quality in Laird Barron, when I began corresponding with him, years later), as did his extensive knowledge of the horror field, and his willingness to engage the examples of the writers who’d come before him.

One of the best recent essays I’ve read on King’s fiction is your contribution to the collection Lovecraft and Influence, edited by Robert Waugh. Have you published, or are you planning to publish, more critical work on King’s fiction? What inspired you to approach King’s story “Graveyard Shift” through the troubled aesthetic discourse of the sublime? (A discourse that also seems to me central to your novella, “Laocoon, or the Singularity.”)

I don’t have any immediate plans to do more critical work on King; if I did, it would expand the essay you mention to consider the influence of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” on King’s fiction—which, as far as I can tell, is the single piece of Lovecraft’s that casts the longest shadow over King’s work. Almost every time King turns to something like science fiction, especially in his novels The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and From a Buick Eight, he comes back to “The Colour Out of Space.”  The essay on “Graveyard Shift” and “The Rats in the Walls” grew out of a paper I delivered at one of the annual Lovecraft Forums at SUNY New Paltz. For a number of years, each time the Forum drew near, I started thinking about Lovecraft’s influence on a different writer, from Fritz Leiber to Peter Straub to T.E.D. Klein to, of course, King. Possibly—probably as a result of a conversation with Bob Waugh about Lovecraft and King—it occurred to me that “Graveyard Shift” was in fact King’s response to and rewriting of “Rats in the Walls.” My use of the idea of the sublime—and in King’s case, what I called the animal sublime—emerged from an attempt to differentiate the two stories’ ultimate effects. It continues to seem to me that, especially when discussing cosmic horror fiction, the notion of the sublime remains indispensable, and if King’s story doesn’t employ the idea in quite the same way as does Lovecraft’s, it nonetheless reaches for something analogous in its vision of the animal.

In a recent PstD interview, David Nickle went so far as to call King “the John Milton of modern horror.” However tongue-in-cheek, do you think there is merit in this analogy?

I appreciate David’s comparison as a way to try to get at King’s stature and sway within the horror field, but at the risk of dissecting a joke and ruining it, I’d suggest another figure: Geoffrey Chaucer,  I think. The problem with the Milton analogy is that he’s an exhaustive poet, one of those writers who uses up all the oxygen in the room for a generation or two. It takes English literature over a hundred years to produce another great epic poem, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and even then, Wordsworth has to turn to the subject of his own interior growth because Milton has so dominated possible historical and mythological topics  (Yes, there’s Pope’s Dunciad in between, but that’s a strange, satiric work that doesn’t even try to complete with Milton.) I don’t see King as having used up the horror field in the same way; rather, I view him as having opened up its possibilities more thoroughly even than Lovecraft. It’s for that reason that I reach to Chaucer for my preferred comparison, because his work (particularly The Canterbury Tales, of course) represents an opening up of possibility for a writer working in English. In the same way, Stephen King expands the possibilities for writers of horror fiction.

One exception to your tendency to avoid overt Lovecraft allusions in your stories occurs in “Mr. Gaunt” (reprinted here) whose sinister, esoteric scholar is said to have translated a Medieval text called Les Mysteres du Ver (page 59). The title is a French translation of Des Vermiis Mysteris, or Mysteries of the Worm, a nefarious grimoire invented by Robert Bloch for his Lovecraftian tale of the same name. What are your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of drawing on notable “Mythos” titles such as this? Why did you decide to include that fictional tome, in particular, in the story, rather than, say, a Lovecraftian coinage like the Necronomicon?

As the character of George Farange, the sinister, esoteric scholar, solidified in my mind, I thought it would be a nice touch to have him translate some kind of occult text. I could have invented my own, but I liked the idea of tying him into the library of weird tomes that’s been assembling since Chambers’s King in Yellow. The Necronomicon seemed a bit too much on the nose, its ubiquity likely to jolt the reader out of the story. I thought about Howard’s invention, the Unaussprechlichlen Kulten, but since I wasn’t dealing with nameless cults, passed on it in favor of the Mysteries of the Worm, which seemed to tie in more directly to the story’s concern with the corruption of the body. Even as I wanted to invoke the earlier book, though, I also wanted to distinguish my use of it, and thus the French edition.  I thought this would simultaneously acknowledge the tradition in which I was working, and differentiate my take on it.

Speaking of “Mr. Gaunt,” can you tell us a little about the origins, inspiration, context, and subsequent textual history of this story?

If I may be excused for doing so, I’ll quote from the (edited) story notes in my first collection: This was a difficult story.  I wrote the first draft of it over the course of a month and a half in the summer of 2000.  Both the length of time I spent writing and the length of the finished story were a surprise. When I first conceived it, I imagined “Mr. Gaunt” done in under two weeks and twenty pages. Having completed “On Skua Island” I felt the urge to write another short story. I had been investigating publishing possibilities for “On Skua Island” and discovered that most magazines wanted relatively short stories. Before I had the faintest idea what my next story was going to be about, I decided I should write something that I would be able to place with a magazine more easily than the almost fifty page “Skua Island.” Needless to say, this did not happen.

I had discussed possible ideas for my next story with Bob Waugh, at whose house on Cape Cod I had written “On Skua Island.” The theme of our conversation, I suppose, was Monsters Who Might Be Rehabilitated. During the course of it, I suggested the skeleton, whose simplicity I found appealing. Bob agreed that the skeleton was intriguing, but thought it brushed the edges of a mordant humor that would undo any effect of horror. “It’s too witty,” he said.  I did not disagree with his assessment, but took it as a challenge.

That challenge floated just under the surface of my brain until I had lunch with my then-nine-year-old son, Nicholas, visiting from Maryland. Recently, Nick had written and illustrated his own short book for school, which told the story of a pair of friends who discover a magic sword; now, he was contemplating his next project, whose plot he had mapped out and needed only to write (a situation with which I can sympathize). It would relate the tale of a Spanish knight, (“Like Don Quixote,” he said), who would meet his end at the hands of a monstrous skeleton even as he dispatched it. “That’s funny,” I said when he had finished his summary, “I was thinking about writing about a skeleton, too.  Maybe I will.”

The picture of a small boy trapped in a room with the skeleton formed in my mind soon thereafter.  Although I could envision the room, which would be walled with bookcases, and contain a large varnished table and a globe, I could see little else. Despite my initial planning, I did not commence work on “Mr. Gaunt” for another couple of weeks. I put the skeleton aside in favor of the witch, who seemed a more promising subject, only to find I had no better idea what might be done with her. Frustrated, I took a long walk one Saturday afternoon with my wife up a local my wife that skirts a stream before climbing a steep hill. Along the way, while stopping to admire old farmhouses set back from the road, horses grazing in pastures, birds flitting from bush to telephone wire to tree, we discussed possibilities for my next story.  Nothing sounded right. It was only when we were almost back at the car that the kernel of “Mr. Gaunt” suggested itself. We had been talking, on and off, about the excess of witches in children’s stories, and as we returned to that fact yet again, I suddenly had the thought that you might write a story in which a fairy tale was revisited and given an adult gloss. As that prospect occurred to me, it was followed almost immediately by the realization that this was how I could approach the skeleton. I sketched the idea to Fiona: you could write a story in which you recited parts of a children’s fairy tale, and then commented on those parts. “Like Pale Fire,” I said.

The first page of the story already written mentally, I began writing—typing, actually: for what it’s worth, this was one of the few stories I began working on on the computer. (Subsequently, I shuttled back and forth between computer and yellow legal pad.) In a relatively short span of time, maybe two weeks, I saw that what was intended to be twenty pages would exceed that limit. I had intended to give and gloss more of the fairy tale than was emerging in the story, but the gloss was running away with the story, the narrator establishing himself more firmly with every (long) sentence. I wrestled with the work, trying not to let my narrator take me on too many lengthy digressions, frequently having to double back to an earlier point in the story and begin again. Through those false leads, however, I learned quite a bit about the man telling this tale; indeed, I knew more about him than any other narrator I had employed up to this point. Over the course of my writing, the focus of the story changed, as I came to see that it was not so much Mr. Gaunt, whose name I hit on immediately, as it was George who was the story’s true villain. By the time I came to what had originally seemed the story’s climax, Peter’s being chased through the streets of Edinburgh by the skeleton, I knew that it was not in fact the story’s apex, or that it was only the first. The real high point was to occur on the narrator’s back porch.

Early on in “Mr. Gaunt,” I knew the narrator was a James scholar. I also knew that I would include references to What Maisie Knew as a way to extend the narrative’s concerns, particularly that with the relations between parents and children and with children who are forced to be party to things they should not be. As my work proceeded, I recognized that this narrator, in his concern with the act of telling his tale, in his intrusions into his story, was a more explicitly Jamesian narrator than the narrator of “On Skua Island.” The story became increasingly caught up with voice, with voice creating character through speaking itself. Like a lot of horror stories, it’s concerned with the voices of the dead.

When I started “Mr. Gaunt,” I saw myself as attempting to follow up on the experimentation I had begun with “On Skua Island.” By the time I was done, the story did not have the feeling of a bold step forward that marked “On Skua Island;” rather, I thought of it as refining certain techniques I had played with previously. At the risk of sounding too self-satisfied, now that I have somewhat more distance from it, I see that “Mr. Gaunt” is a bit more experimental than I was aware.

Lest I sound too pleased with myself, however, I should mention that the first magazine to which I sent “Mr. Gaunt” wasted no time in rejecting the story. The brief note they sent to me reproached the story for being “murky” and suggested I really needed to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Upon receiving the rejection, I told myself it was just as well:  had “On Skua Island” and “Mr. Gaunt” both been accepted for publication, it would have been extremely difficult for me to maintain a real focus on my academic work. However it would be another full year before I returned to “Mr. Gaunt.” The following Christmas, I brought a copy of the story with me when Fiona and I visited her family in Scotland; she read the story attentively and offered an array of perceptive suggestions for how I might improve it. I made some revisions during that trip, then largely abandoned the story until the following summer, when I sat down to the computer and substantially revised the story, adding what are now its first and third parts, bracketing my original tale, giving it more context through the third-person story of the narrator’s son.  I sent it out to Fantasy & Science Fiction, and, once again, Gordon Van Gelder sent me a letter of acceptance and a check.

That was not, however, the end of my work on this story. Gordon was unhappy with the ending as I had written it, and his complaint was a valid one. For several weeks after the story had been accepted, I tinkered with its closing scene, arriving at and developing an ending that I thought was more satisfying and e-mailing it to Gordon, who would reply a day or two later with an e-mail stating that this was better, yes, but still not all the way there. It took me three tries to get it right; to the very end, this story would not come easily.

Once it was published, however, the story was very well-received. Writing in Locus, Nick Gevers gave “Mr. Gaunt” an astute, appreciative review. The story was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award, and was reprinted in a year’s best fantasy anthology, which drew another fine review for it from Gary Wolfe, also in Locus. For years, this story, its success, loomed over my subsequent writing; I worried that with it, I’d peaked as a writer. I’ve since gotten over that, but it still seems to me an early high point in my fiction.

The story’s use of Egyptian necromancy links it to popular late 19th century Gothic fictions including Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and Conan Doyle’s “Lot 249.” More overtly, the story “On Skua Island” from the same collection is a horror tale involving mummies. Despite the popularity of the mummy as an icon of nineteenth century Gothic fiction and Golden Age horror film, there is a notable dearth of mummies in more recent and contemporary horror. Why do you think this is?

I think my use of Egyptian materials in both these stories owed a great deal to my academic study at the time, which was focused on Victorian literature. The Victorians were, of course, fascinated by the ancient Egyptians. In part, this was because of the discovery of the Rosetta stone, which allowed them to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, which in turn allowed them a kind of access to ancient Egyptian culture they hadn’t had before. I suppose you can see that event feeding into the developing discipline of archaeology, which led to the excavation of so many ancient Egyptian structures. Needless to say, all of this, from the discovery of the Rosetta stone to the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, was part and parcel of Britain’s colonial enterprise in Egypt, a chapter in the U.K.’s history that is viewed now in a much more critical light. I would guess that it’s this shift in perspective that accounts for the decline of the traditional mummy in recent horror fiction and film.

Have there been any recent ancient-Egypt-themed (or mummy-centric) fictions that have captured your interest? Are there any older fictions (or films) that use these tropes in a way that particularly impressed you?

themummy

While I enjoyed Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, those films—although borrowing some plot details from the 1932 movie—had more in common with the Indiana Jones franchise than they did with older mummy narratives. I think that Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (adapted, of course, from the story by Joe Lansdale) is probably the best of recent mummy films, the one that’s able to take the figure of the mummy and do something interesting with it. In terms of older works, I find that Conan Doyle’s mummy stories retain a lot of their creepy potency; though I think that the definitive mummy story, for me, remains the ’32 film. Boris Karloff’s resurrected Egyptian priest/necromancer is one of his finer performances, and the film’s plot is nicely understated. In later film versions of the monster, it becomes little more than a juggernaut in bandages, which can be frightening, but lacks the weird depths of the original.

MV5BMjE1MjEyODUzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDcyNDUyMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR7,0,182,268_AL_

With these stories, were you setting out with the deliberate intention of resurrecting (pun intended) an older trope of horror fiction, or was that incidental to your intentions with the story?

Yes, it was absolutely intentional on my part. When I returned to writing horror fiction, I did so through writing an early draft of what would become my werewolf story, “The Revel.” It wasn’t until after I had finished my next story, “On Skua Island,” though, that I realized I could make my way through the traditional horror monsters/tropes. Despite having read a great deal in the field, I was still finding my footing as a writer of it, and from this perspective, focusing on a well-established figure such as the werewolf or mummy gave me a frame to build my story around, since the traditional monsters tend to come trailing individual narrative details with them. This gave me a great deal to play with in my own stories. As of this writing, I’ve made my way through the werewolf and mummy, as well as the zombie (four times), the vampire (three times), the ghoul, the ghost, a number of Lovecraft’s creations, the cursed object (and its accompanying exorcism), kaiju (twice), and the manticore, and I have plans for the gill-man and Frankenstein’s monster. Oh, and mole-men: lately, I’ve been writing a lot of stories about mole-men.

Like “Mr Gaunt” and many of the other stories in that collection, your first novel, House of Windows (2009) is infused by your fascination for and study of Victorian literature. Narrated by a young writer, also a new father, who is in turn told a haunting tale by an attractive widow during a weekend retreat on Cape Cod, it circulates around the apparent haunting and mysterious disappearance of a Victorian literature scholar who specializes in Charles Dickens. These days, Dickens’s name rarely comes up in conversation in horror and weird fictional circles, it seems. What can you tell us about Dickens’s importance for you, about his legacy for Gothic and supernatural fiction?

413ggOtMFPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ 

The first time I read Dickens, I hated him. This was during my junior year in high school, when Great Expectations was one of three novels we were required to read for our Regents English class. (The other two were Jane Eyre and Lord of the Flies, both of which I loved.) True to my procrastinating tendencies, I put off reading Great Expectations until about two days before I was due to be take a test on it, when I panicked and sent my parents out to pick up a copy. I spent the next two nights trying to get through the book, whose long, leisurely sentences seemed to take me forever to plow through. Needless to say, my grade on that particular exam was not among my highest. In best teenage fashion, I blamed this on Dickens, specifically, his style. He was getting paid by the word, I said, and you could tell. A few years later, when I was an undergraduate, I gave Dickens another try, based on the recommendation of a professor whose opinion I esteemed highly. This time, it was Bleak House I struggled through for what seems to have been weeks, emerging from the book with my low opinion of Dickens substantially unchanged. You would think that would have been the end of my efforts with him, but when I was in my later twenties, I decided to give him another try. I was house sitting for a couple of weeks during the summer, and I brought a copy of Great Expectations with me. And finally, Dickens clicked for me. He more than clicked:  the novel blew me away. Over the next decade, I made my way through several of Dickens’s other books: Bleak House (which I liked much more the second time around), Hard Times, Little Dorrit, and Dombey and Son among them. While I never stopped finding Dickens slow going, the rewards for that going increased dramatically, as I came to appreciate more what his style was doing, the way his figures transformed his characters and the settings through which they moved in fantastical ways—not to mention, his astonishing grasp of psychology, his endless fascination with the varieties of humanity. Although his novels aren’t quite Gothic in the way that his friend Wilkie Collins’s are, they’re certainly Gothic-inflected in their interest in the persistence of the past. I’m not sure how to chart Dickens’s influence on the horror literature that came after him. Certainly, it’s there in the fictions of a writer like M.R. James, and Kafka loved his work—which perhaps suggests how much there is in Dickens for a weird writer to respond to. More recently, both Stephen King and Peter Straub have referred to him. To speak for myself: as I moved further into writing my own fiction, Dickens came to seem more important to me. I suppose I saw him as a complement to Henry James; although there was something about Dickens, a certain flamboyance to his metaphors, a kind of generosity of spirit in his treatment of his characters, that seemed a bit more humane than James. As with James, for me, Dickens represented another alternative to minimalism.

 At the emotional core of House of Windows are two (or perhaps three) powerful, and fatally fraught, relationships between fathers and sons. How much did your own experiences as both son and father inform the novel?

 Oh man, that’s the mother lode, right there. I had a very complex relationship with my dad, who died when I was twenty-three. On the one hand, he was a great storyteller, and I think some measure of my own ability in this regard descends directly from his relating not only personal and family stories, but detailed summaries of movies he had seen and books he had read. On the other hand, he had a very forceful personality, and especially when I hit my teen years, I struggled with that. His death was unexpected and traumatic, and I suppose I’m still trying to come to terms with it.

In part, my experience as father to a pair of extraordinary sons has helped me to understand some of what passed between my dad and me. His anxieties about me—both the general fears that every parent has for a child and his specific concerns about me, about what I think he worried were some of my insane life choices—make much more sense now than they did when I was on the receiving end of them. But that father-son relationship is present, to varying degrees, in a majority of the fictions I’ve written.

Contrastingly, and apropos of your comment about Bloom’s anxiety of influence earlier, it seems to me that in many ways House of Windows is a novel about literary influence, and about how the stories of those who come before us can haunt, and even possess, our lives. It even struck me at one point that the novel could be read as a kind of literary exorcism, an attempt to conjure, or even abjure, the spirits of writers who left a deep impression on you. Do you think this is a fair reading, or did you feel, while you were writing the novel, that you were trying to do something of this sort?

It’s funny, I can remember the first time I heard Faulkner’s remark about the past not being past, it immediately struck me right to the core. For me, that emphasis on the persistence of the past is the through-line from the Gothic writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to Modernists like Faulkner and Woolf—and from them on to the horror writers of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It’s part of the reason I find Freud’s work, despite its abundance of problems, retains a certain blunt force: its recognition of the gravitational effect the past has on the present. Our lives are the results of all manner of stories, happening at all levels, feeding into the story we’re telling ourselves about ourselves. This remains one of the abiding virtues of horror fiction, its ability to recognize and wrestle with this state of affairs. Particularly when I’m writing at length, I find myself returning to these notions obsessively.

At the same time, as I guess my interest in literary influence makes clear, I think that literary works are constructed in an analogous fashion, in an over-determined way. This is very much so in House of Windows. The opening line is a rewriting of the first line of Henry James’s great story, “The Jolly Corner,” and the novel owes something to that piece, and to James in general. At the same time, the kind of explicit passions the book deals with would have been a bit much for James, which is where I suppose the example of Dickens assumes greater importance. In considering my use of those writers (and I’m sure of King and Straub as well) I’m not sure I’d use the word exorcism so much as exploration. It was more a case of discovering just how far these writers I loved could take me. In addition, in the course of writing the novel, I found other writers waiting in it whom I hadn’t anticipated, Shirley Jackson and Fritz Leiber in particular. (I think Edward Albee may be in the book, too, in some of the harsher exchanges between Roger and Ted, and also in the climax’s use of a kind of theater of the absurd-style staging.)

What’s interesting, as a kind of side note, is that when I look back on the novel now, from the distance of a few years, I see it as full of all manner of secondary narratives waiting to be expanded upon. From the life of Thomas Belvedere, my invented painter, to whatever happened in the Belvedere House during its time as a boarding house in the 1960’s, there’s a great deal more waiting to come out of the book.

As already mentioned, you are often associated with Lovecraftian horror, but in your notes to your Poe-themed (and perversely pedagogical) story “Technicolor” (among my favourites from The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, perhaps partially because of my own obsession with Poe, or my own professorial experiences) you write that, “it is with Poe that I have and feel the oldest, deepest connection.” Can you talk a little more about this felt connection, how it first emerged, how it has evolved over the course of your career, and how it plays out in your writing (critical, fictional, or both)?

51++X-2q9eL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

I can still remember the first edition of Poe’s stories I had: it was called 18 Best Stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and boasted an introduction by Vincent Price (who was also credited as co-editor). I’m not sure when I purchased it; at a guess, I was probably in my early teens, and had already discovered Stephen King. I knew Poe’s work from before that, though.  My seventh and eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lovelock—who was fearsome in the rules of grammar and in diagramming sentences—went a good way towards redeeming herself by reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” to our class for Halloween. I don’t remember being particularly frightened by the story, but I was impressed by Poe’s language. Possibly as a result of being raised Catholic, I was drawn to those writers whose language was more elaborate—more performative, you might say—a group that included Tolkien, Robert E. Howard in his more lyric mode, and Stan Lee when he was in full cosmic glory. Poe spoke to that in me. I read him in high school, then again, more intently, during my Honors English 2 class (with Bob Waugh) my freshman year of college. I think it was that Honors class that really opened me up to the depth of Poe’s achievement in stories such as “Ligeia” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” the combination of stylistic achievement, psychological insight, and dramatic intensity. Since then, I’ve returned to Poe’s work over and over again, sometimes to teach, others to respond to in my own writing. A couple of years ago, I picked up a three CD set of Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone reading some of Poe’s best stories, and when I’m on a long road trip to one convention or another, I try to listen to some of it. I think what continues to speak to me in Poe’s work is his insistence on pursuing his vision to whatever ends it takes him, as well as the way he situates what he’s doing within a larger literary context that expands to include Coleridge, the German Romantics, etc.

Speaking of the pedagogical connection, more than any other writer of fiction (and especially horror/weird fiction) I can think of, you often make tremendous and unsettling use of your experiences as an educator as the basis for your fictions. This is true not only in “Technicolor,” but also “Kids” (also from The Wide, Carnivorous Sky) and “Laocoon, or the Singularity” (from Mr. Gaunt). Beyond the old adage of “write what you know,” why do you think your experiences as a teacher have proven to be such fertile ground for you as a writer?

In part, I think this is due to the fact that all of my higher education has been conducted at public universities, at which I’ve encountered a tremendous variety of students and faculty. That might be enough of an answer, right there. However, SUNY New Paltz, the college at which I earned my BA and MA, and at which I’ve been an adjunct for a long, long time now, is also the center of the village of New Paltz. It’s the biggest source of revenue for the community, from the people it employs and from the money its students spend locally. It’s also the principle cultural center for the surrounding towns, staging plays, hosting art exhibits, putting on readings, etc. The point is, rather than standing apart from its surroundings (as the ivory tower of stereotype), the college is woven into the fabric of its community. In addition, a four year degree has become crucial to gaining decent employment in the current economy. All of this means that the university setting is relevant to a broader segment of the reading population than ever before. So it’s the kind of place where, as a writer, you can believably place a wide range of people in an equally wide range of situations. My use of the university also participates in the horror field’s ongoing obsession with places of learning, from Victor Frankenstein’s time at the University of Ingolstadt, to the scholarly haunts of M.R. James’s protagonists, to Lovecraft’s Arkham University. It’s a concern that mirrors the wider field’s ambivalence about knowledge: on the one hand, the university is the place where you can find all kinds of useful and necessary information about the supernatural menace you’re facing; on the other hand, said menace is likely to have been unleashed by someone messing around with old texts and/or conducting terrible experiments in that same spot.

Dennis, the sculptor-protagonist of your story “Laocoon, or the Singularity,” uses his young son as the model for his work. Knowing you are a devoted father who often writes about families (generally to whom terrible things happen) I can’t help but see a biographical parallel here. How extensively would you say you draw on your own family life for fictional inspiration? Has this ever led to any concerns?

While I’ve included my immediate family as characters in some of my work, I’ve tried to maintain what I hope is a healthy space between our life and what happens in my fiction. I do believe that the art you make is crafted from the materials of your life, but I prefer the idea of inventing from what you know as opposed to reproducing what you know.  It’s been my experience that details from my life emerge in what I’m writing regardless of whether I’m conscious of them or not. That said, over the past couple of years, I experimented with writing a number of stories that were much more directly rooted in autobiographical materials. Even in that case, though, the resulting stories tended to diverge in significant ways from the material that inspired them. Now, I’m trying to do exactly the opposite, to write stories that have no direct relation to my life; I’m sure I’ll discover all sorts of hidden connections to my life in them.

It’s funny: a few years ago, I was on a panel at ReaderCon on exactly this topic. A couple of the panelists were quite regretful of the use they had made of their family members in past works. From the conversation, though, it seemed clear to me that what bothered them was that they had included their family members in their fiction in order to settle scores with them. If you’re going to do this, then I think it’s much more likely that you’re going to regret it at some point in the future. If you’re including family members because that’s what your story needs, then I think you’re much more likely to do so to better effect.

Your novelette, “Shadow and Thirst” is included in the recent anthology of vampire fiction, Seize the Night, edited by Christopher Golden. What can you tell us about the story, and about the anthology generally?

51MBvSKCv2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Chris Golden’s invitation to the anthology stated that he was looking for frightening vampire stories. No sympathetic vampires—and certainly, no romantic vampires—need apply. So anyone picking up the book should be aware that its vampires are not a sympathetic bunch. As for my story, it began with the image of a short tower at the foot of the hill in my backyard. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years re-reading Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as part of a would-be dissertation on the poem’s relationship to Lovecraft’s fiction. The tower I visualized was this structure, the “round squat turret” Browning describes. I had the idea that it might appear and then disappear. At first, I thought about making the tower itself the vampire, but this seemed a bit too passive, so I decided that the tower would be connected to the vampire it was imprisoning. Of course, Stephen King has made extensive use of Browning’s poem in his Dark Tower series of novels and stories, which, to tell the truth, intimidated me a little. But I decided that the best thing to do was to embrace the poem and see what happened. At the time, my older son was a police officer in the city of Baltimore. He had relayed to me a number of anecdotes that seemed as if they might be part of the developing narrative (albeit, with the serial numbers filed off, so to speak); in fact, there wound up being quite a bit more of our shared history in the story than I had anticipated. As the story progressed, I realized that its vampire was connected to figures mentioned in my second novel, The Fisherman. The piece turned out to be packed full of things, some of which I didn’t pick up on, myself, until well after it was done (e.g. the parallel between the police officer son and the police officer vampire).

In a recent PstD interview, talking about his in-progress trilogy of vampire novels (Motherless Child and its sequels), Glen Hirshberg professed to be surprised to find himself writing vampire fiction, citing a lack of interest in most of what has been done with the vampire in recent popular culture. Do you feel similarly?  What are some of the literary and/or cinematic treatments of vampirism that have made the greatest impression on you?

I love vampires. One of the first stories that scared me while I was reading it was a vampire story, Robert E. Howard’s “The Horror from the Mound.” The first time I read it, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot bowled me over, as did his short stories “One for the Road” and “The Night Flyer.” I loved John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End. I was impressed by Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and enjoyed the hell out of The Vampire Lestat. I was completely absorbed by Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. I loved both of Glen Hirshberg’s vampire novels. Laird Barron’s “The Siphon” is a great story, as is Nathan Ballingrud’s “Sunbleached.” There are more great vampire movies than I can remember here: the original Nosferatu, Martin, the 1985 Fright Night, The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Habit, From Dusk till Dawn, Let the Right One In, Thirst, Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night among them. And let’s not forget Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, and on the comic book side of things, Tomb of Dracula and 30 Days of Night. A few years ago, Paul Tremblay told me that I had to write a vampire novel; when I asked him why he said that, he explained that it was because I was always telling him this was what he had to do, which he took as a sign of my deep interest in the project. The moment he said this, I realized he was right. It’ll take me while to get to, but in the meantime, I’m sure I’ll be returning to the figure in shorter works.

You’ve commented in a blog post about “Shadow and Thirst” that it is best read alongside Laird Barron’s contribution to the same anthology. Can you give us a taste of how these stories are connected?

Without wanting to give too much away, I can tell you that there’s an important name that appears in both stories. I can also tell you that, if you pay attention to my story, you’ll find it’s picked up a passenger from Laird’s.

Upon reading your story in The Grimscribe’s Puppets, “Into the Darkness, Fearlessly,” I was struck by the close connection between it and Barron’s story “More Dark” from his collection The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All. Can you talk a little about the connection between these stories, and the relationship they both have to the work of Thomas Ligotti? About how these story-pairing collaborations between you and Barron evolve?

Laird and I chat all the time, via phone and in person. We’ll kick around story ideas, discuss things we’re working on, talk out challenges in our latest stories. He told me about “More Dark” as he was writing it; I was particularly struck by the detail of the horror writer whose head is found in the freezer of another writer he had tormented, and thought it would be interesting to flesh out that detail in a work of my own. Around the same time, Joe Pulver asked me to contribute to an anthology he was putting together of fiction inspired by the work of Thomas Ligotti. Given where the story was headed, I thought that it might fit into such a project in an interesting way. Ultimately, I think our two stories are different in their approach to Ligotti and his work. “More Dark” makes of him a kind of fearsome embodiment of all the darkness at the center of his work, while my story plays more with Ligotti’s themes, especially his concern with the way in which a character might be absorbed into a sinister conceptual system.

I understand you are close to publishing a third collection of short fiction, and your second novel, The Fisherman, has just been released. Can you give us a foretaste of these projects?

tf_cover_sm-400x600

My second novel, The Fisherman, was released from Word Horde press in early summer of 2016. It tells the story of a pair of widowers who take a fishing trip to a stream which is reputed to allow contact with the dead. Along the way, the men learn the story of the stream’s origin, which connects to the construction of the Ashokan reservoir in the Catskill Mountains, and a monstrous evil the workers building the reservoir encountered.

Later in 2016—probably around Halloween, I think—my third collection of stories, Sefira and Other Betrayals, will be published by Hippocampus Press. It will bring together half a dozen previously-published stories: “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” “The Third Always Beside You,” “The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons,” “Bloom,” “Renfrew’s Course,” “Bor Urus,” and a new novella, “Sefira.” Oh, and story notes, too. Paul Tremblay has kindly agreed to write the introduction for the book.

Like James’s Turn of the Screw, Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu,” and your earlier novel House of Windows, The Fisherman features a nested narrative structure, a story within a story. Why is this mediated structure so central to the history of modern horror fiction, and why did you decide to adopt it in both cases?

To a certain extent, I think you can trace the nested structure’s early examples—say, Frankenstein—to the narrative conventions of the age in which they were composed. Read a lot of late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century novels, and you’ll find that they’re full of narratives tucked one inside the other, often contained within the letters the characters are writing back and forth. In the case of the Gothic novel, I have to confess, I wonder if the structure doesn’t in some way encode the opposing ideologies of its later-eighteenth century invention. What I mean is, on the one hand, there’s a great faith in reason; on the other, there’s an anxiety that the irrational (in the form of the supernatural, in particular, but also, I think, insanity) might be a stronger force. The mediated structure of the Gothic novel allows you to indulge both these points of view: you can have a story of the irrational contained within/counterpoised with a narrative that accounts for it rationally. I would guess that the continued use of the nested structure owes itself in part to simple imitation of these earlier narratives.

Questions of literary history aside, I think that the nested narrative allows for intriguing rhetorical effects. There’s a gap, after all, between the stories, and in order for that gap to be bridged, the reader must of necessity be involved in the process. There’s a way in which the connection-making reminds me of the leap that’s involved in a metaphor, of the flare of insight that results. Of course, when you have a text that contains a number of different nested narratives, you can wind up with an effect that’s more akin to transumption, the troping of a trope, which leads in all kinds of interesting directions.

The Fisherman is a richly intertextual novel, and invokes, in some cases explicitly, a wide range of literary influences, including many of those writers we’ve already discussed. Two earlier works that it foregrounds in particular, though, are King’s novel Pet Sematary and Melville’s Moby Dick. While they may seem like an unlikely pairing, The Fisherman forcibly hooks these very different literary leviathans together. Can you tell us about why these novels are particularly important for you personally, how you see them as being connected, and how they feed into the cold, deep stream of melancholy and terror that is The Fisherman?

What’s fascinating about this question is, The Fisherman’s use of Moby Dick was absolutely intentional, and was in keeping with my creative practice when I started it, which involved riffing on classic works of American literature. However, until I read your question, it never occurred to me once that Pet Sematary might be a part of the novel, too. And yet it is, it so totally and completely is. I remember when Pet Sematary was announced as the novel that Stephen King had thought too much—too bleak, too unrelenting—to publish. Of course, this made me want to read it immediately. Without really intending to, it’s the novel of his that I’ve come back to most frequently over the years. When I was in high school, I performed Jud Crandall’s story about the return of Timmy Baterman as a kind of dramatic monologue for the drama club. Over the years, I’ve taught the book a number of times. I agree with Ramsey Campbell that it’s one of King’s most daring, most heartfelt, and revelatory works. It’s a narrative that slices right down to the bone, to the terrible realities of suffering and death. It’s also a book that seems rooted in the literary soil of New England; there’s a lot of Hawthorne in there. What I think it has in common with Moby Dick is its portrayal of men driven to monstrous extremes by the awful situations into which they’re plunged. Both Ahab and Louis Creed come face to face with Melville’s famous pasteboard mask, the guise that existence wears, and both desire to punch through it, to find out what’s on the other side of it, no matter how terrible.

It’s funny:  some years ago, I was on a long car trip with my older son, and the conversation turned to Stephen King’s works. He asked me about Pet Sematary (I’m not sure why; maybe something to do with the movie) and I wound up telling him the story of the novel as we drive south through New Jersey. At the end of my re-telling, when Louis’s shoulder is grasped by the hand of the dead, I grabbed my son’s knee, and I swear to God, he practically leapt out of the car.  I suppose I took that as proof of the power of King’s novel.

And finally, in your notes to the novel, you mention that The Fisherman was partially informed by your son’s penchant for game fishing. Since The Fisherman features some pretty freaky fish (or are they?), what is the strangest thing your son has ever hooked?

A brief consultation with my son has revealed that, as far as he’s concerned, his strangest catch was a snapping turtle that took his lure in its jaws and did not release it until he reeled it into view; whereupon, it swam off. Speaking for myself, the eel he caught once was pretty freaky, and the mouth of the walleye he hooked was full of surprisingly sharp teeth.

***

John Langan is the author of two novels, The Fisherman (Word Horde 2016) and House of Windows (Night Shade 2009), and two collections,The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (Hippocampus 2013) and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime 2008).  With Paul Tremblay, he has co-edited Creatures:  Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime 2011).  He is one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which he served as a juror for their first three years.  Forthcoming in later 2016 is his third collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals (Hippocampus).  Currently, he is reviewing horror and dark fiction for Locus magazine.  He lives in upstate New York with his wife, younger son, and he can’t remember how many animals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

PSTD INTERVIEW: MADELINE ASHBY

Hello Madeline, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. While many of our readers will likely be familiar with your fiction and work as an anthologist, could you begin by telling us a little about who you are, what you have written and are writing, and your work as a futurist and consultant?

Thank you for inviting me!

To summarize, I’m a science fiction writer and a futurist. I’m the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot Books, and I have a novel called Company Town coming out from Tor this year, and another novel, tentatively titled Upstart, coming out from Tor next year. I also have a column in the Ottawa Citizen, although I live in Toronto. I’ve written what are called science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others.

 

What was your initial impetus for writing speculative fiction?

I had always been a consumer of genre material — my parents were big nerds who encouraged me to watch ST: TNG and The X-Files and stuff like that. My dad also had a bunch of genre fiction around the house; I read his copies of the Dune novels when I was in high school. And I also read a lot of my mom’s Stephen King novels and short story collections long before that. So in a way it was very natural that I turned to spec fic. But I made a conscious decision to go for it after attending an Ursula K. LeGuin reading in Seattle, when I was doing a departmental honours project on her work. She read from “The Wave in Mind,” and I was lost.

Which came first, your career as a writer of spec fic or your career as a professional futurist? How have the two shaped one another since?

The former. I was already in a writers’ workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars, when another workshop member, Karl Schroeder, suggested I get my second masters’ degree from the Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCADU. And it was there, thanks to Cory Doctorow, that I started working with Brian David Johnson and Genevieve Bell at Intel Labs. And the rest is history!

In your work as a professional futurist, what emerging technologies have
 recently awed or terrified you the most?

I could tell you, but I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Your Machine Dynasty novels, set in an indeterminate, but seemingly not-too-distant, future focus on synthetic, self-replicating human(oid)s called von Neumann machines (vN), and their vexed relationship with the human society that created them. The first novel, vN, is largely from the point of view of a young vN named Amy, who is part of a mixed organic-synthetic family unit, her mother being vN, but her father an organic human. Why did you decide to use this “blended family” structure as the jumping-off point for the novel?

The prologue to vN, which is told from an organic human perspective, started out as a short story. It was going to be a story about this guy discovering that his wife and daughter were actually machines, and what that meant about him as a person. Then I realized that was sort of a Twilight Zone plot, and the really interesting story was about the robots themselves, interacting with other robots, and cutting the humans out of the conversation. So even after I decided to expand the story into a book, I maintained that original nucleus of the blended family structure.

As a reader of vN, in the early chapters of the novel I often found myself (like Amy’s father, and at least initially, Amy herself) having to resist a tendency to think about Amy in all-too-human developmental and cultural terms as “a child.” What inspirations, and difficulties, did you encounter in capturing Amy’s particular voice and psychology?

It was actually really tough. I didn’t quite love Amy until my third pass on the book. I wrestled with how “childish” she should be, how she should express herself, what she would know about the world, how she would see it. It was important to me that she be clever and resourceful, but also innocent. Until the events of the novel, Amy’s inhabited a fairly privileged position in society. She’s been insulated from a lot of the prejudices humans have against vN. But then she goes on the run, and experiences the wider world for the first time, and discovers how other vN are being treated. So I started thinking about innocence. And I tried to maintain Amy’s sense of innocence throughout. She’s a very naive person who shares headspace with a very jaded person. And that innocence means she doesn’t quite think through the consequences of her actions, sometimes.

You’re not a writer of horror fiction in a generic sense of the word, but some of your short fiction, as well as both vN and ID feature tremendously disturbing material – scenes of harrowing violence, unsettling grotesquerie, and an interrogation of cultural taboos and ontological limits, aspects often associated with horror fiction. How would you characterize your work’s relationship with horror as a genre, or its use of horror as a mode? Are there any horror writers, or fictions, that have made a particular mark on your own writing?

Wow, thanks! I’m glad you found it tremendously disturbing. People tell me that, but I like seeing it in writing.

I’m actually a fairly avid fan of horror. I’ll watch horror films for comfort. I read horror novels fairly regularly. (I read both of Michael Rowe’s novels last year, and I’m currently reading Gemma Files’ Experimental Film. I also think you can classify Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series as sort of pop-adventure-horror, and I love those books.) This all started when I was an infant, and I chewed on my mother’s paperback copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. (The one with the eyes.) “I cut my teeth on that book,” I told my husband, before we were together. “So did I,” he said, smirking. He’s a horror writer. For our wedding my mother gave us her first-edition illustrated copy of The Gunslinger.

ImagesCAWM2E93

“The one with the eyes.”

I started reading King more seriously (and not literally eating his books) when I was in Grade 5. This other girl in my class told on me to the teacher and said I was reading things I shouldn’t. This was America, where they’re more concerned about that kind of thing, I guess. (Also she just hated me.) But the teacher didn’t have a problem with it, so that year I read The Shining and a bunch of other things. Mom drew the line at The Stand, for some reason, so I only read that when I hit fourteen.

But in terms of my own work, I think what horror brings to the table is a focus on emotion. It’s the only genre that’s named for the feeling it creates in the reader. And I think that ability to reach right inside the reader and grab her guts and twist them in your fingers, that’s priceless. Horror cuts through all the bullshit of daily life in a really important way. It wants to focus you, to strap you in and slap you around and get you to live in the moment. And that’s not just the sensation of terror that does that. Horror is mostly despair. If you read Straub’s Ghost Story, for example, that’s a novel about despair. Sure there’s a scary monster, but the heart of the book is really the friendship between these four elderly men, and how it’s changed over decades, and the bittersweet beauty of watching them age together but die alone. It’s a heartbreaking novel. The best horror fiction is always heartbreaking on some level. There’s always some tragic streak running through it, some element that reminds you of the transience of life, of all the things undone and unsaid. Real monsters never just devour a life. They devour the potential for a good life, well-lived.

Clowns are staple figures in horror fiction, as they cause unease in many people. Reading ID caused me to once again consider the reasons for this. The novel’s vN protagonist Javier, faced with a man clad in a Mump and Smoot t-shirt, justifies his hatred of clowns, thinking “They really threw the Turing process into all kinds of hell.” Can you elaborate on this? How do you, personally, feel about clowns? Were you, too, ever totally fucking weirded out by a Mump and Smoot performance?

I don’t really feel one way or the other about clowns. I think the creepiest thing about them is their stated mission to cheer you up no matter what. I think anybody that tries to force happiness or cheeriness on you is creepy. As for the t-shirt, my husband has one, and he told me about the performances, and it seemed like a good fit. So to speak.

4407593034_1e4b0c25b0

Editor’s note: I saw a Mump and Smoot show in Calgary in 2008, and thought I’d fallen into Ligotti’s story “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech.”

One of the conceptual touchstones of the series is Mori’s hypothesis of the uncanny valley. How accurate do you think Mori’s theory is? How “hardwired” do you think our emotional response to synthetic humanoids is, and how malleable do you think it will prove to be with cultural and technological change?

As animals we have a real knack for picking out other animals that move and sound different from the way we do. And that’s caused a lot of prejudice: in the West, we used to see scoliosis — or indeed, any kind of physical difference — as a punishment from God, instead of a basic quirk of biology. But it’s really because we as a species have optimized ourselves to pick up on subtle differences that might tell us something vital about the people surrounding us, like whether they’re sick or healthy, or if they might suddenly attack us, or if they’re staring at us, or what have you. And part of the Uncanny Valley idea relates to that, that subtle differences can actually feel more important than big ones. We don’t despise robots that try to look like dogs, for example, but we do when they try to look like us.

But I do think it’ll end up being more malleable as humanoid-seeming interfaces become more common. No one cares that Siri and Cortana aren’t “humans.” No one cares that the algorithms that decide your day trades or your traffic flows aren’t humans.

It struck me as I read both vN and ID that the referentiality of the writing, and the culture of this speculative near-future reality, depends on a high degree of genre-competence from the reader. Would you say you are writing primarily for an already genre-savvy audience? Does the risk of losing or alienating readers who are not already well-versed in speculative fiction concern you?

I didn’t really worry about it. I mean, maybe I should have, now that you mention it. But I suppose I was also, in my first book, trying to establish my nerd cred. I wanted to show readers that I’d done my homework. I worry about that a little bit less, now, but it was a concern of mine with vN especially.

In a commentary on the io9 website, you’ve said your work is often described as “hard s-f with characters in it,” but that you think the distinction between hard and soft sf itself is an unhelpful one. You go on to say:

And when you look at other genres, they have a far wider spectrum of descriptions for sub-genres. High fantasy. Low fantasy. Epic fantasy. Grimdark. Noir. Psycho-thriller. Psycho-sexual thriller. Gothic. Gaslight. Those are just a few. I would argue that the rich array of descriptors is one of the reasons fantasy and other genres outsell SF on a consistent basis. Those genres have a bunch of avenues to offer an audience. SF has only a binary system. What reader doesn’t want more choice?

First, do you think that term “hard sf” is less useful now than when P. Schuyler Miller coined it nearly 60 years ago primarily because of the pace at which scientific knowledge and technological development have increased since then, or do you think it has more to do with changes in literary culture and the readership of sf, or other factors altogether?

It’s both. I do think it has to do with the fact that we live in a science fictional present. Technology is developing so quickly, and is so thoroughly enmeshed and embroidered into our daily lives, that it no longer feels like a whiz-bang McGuffin from a story about the future. So to make ideas about the future carry more weight in a narrative, you need to incorporate tropes and gestures from other genres. At the same time, readers are more familiar than ever before with those other genres.

Second, a question that likely reflects my curmudgeonly bias against literary labels like those you list above, which seem like little more than marketing brands to me, why do you think the diversity of such labels has such an appeal to readers? Do you think that the circulation of these terms actually corresponds to a greater literary diversity in the more fantastic realms of speculative fiction than in those grounded in a scientific and technological realist approach?

Well, I think in general we live in a saturated media environment where aggressive filtering is necessary. Think about how granular and specific Netflix can learn to be about your preferences. “Dark Mysteries With Strong Female Lead.” “Teen Reality Dramas.” And so on, and so forth. We live with huge bookstores both online and off, and cable packages with hundreds of channels, and streaming content for our eyes and ears, and the only way to sort through all that is to label and organize things. (Search engine optimization wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if this weren’t the case.)

As to whether that leads to actual diversity in terms of content, that’s another thing. I think one of the problems with that aggressive filtering and organization is that it slots readers (and all consumers) into a very narrow place. The market doesn’t care if your tastes are diverse, or if you feel challenged as a reader, or if your mind is expanding. The market cares only that you keep buying, and the easiest way for you to keep buying is to keep giving you a version of the thing you bought before. Amazon works this way, and so does most everyone else.

At the same time, there’s a growing trend toward curation at all levels. You see it in those subscription boxes full of samples of things. People very much want surprise and serendipity. They want to discover something new. But the act of discovery is almost impossible in a world where all knowledge is available at the tips of your fingers. So we have to plan for serendipity. We have to create it as a line item on the budget, or a tick-box on the agenda. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a “book of the month” clubs come back, via Amazon probably, for exactly this reason. Kindle Unlimited is halfway there, but there’s no curation and it’s not very user-friendly. (It’s also unavailable in Canada.)

Third, in terms of your own fiction, given that “hard sf” is characterized by close attention to technical detail and scientific plausibility, I wonder to what extent these criteria universally inform your fiction? What kind of research did you undertake toward achieving these goals, especially in the Machine Dynasty novels? Does your fiction ever deliberately depart from these criteria? How critical do you think fidelity to existing scientific principles and technology are for socially conscious speculative fiction in general?

We live in a very anti-intellectual era. Sure, our leaders carry phones that could run an Apollo mission, but the actual application of the scientific method to everyday life is lacking. We still have to convince legislators that global warming is a thing, and that we’re responsible as a species. So I try to stick to science in my fiction that’s at least plausible. I tried to get a little weirder in my latest book, Company Town, but that was a conscious decision — I wanted to talk about weird futures. I wanted to get more “Phildickian,” if you will.

51jmuBKsbTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Ashby’s fourth novel, forthcoming from TOR later this year, is a more Phildickian fiction.

The Machine Dynasty novels carry on a critical dialogue with many earlier speculative imaginings of artificial intelligence and synthetic humanoid life. One example that struck me was the novels’ portrayal of the vN’s failsafe. This aspect of the book is, in many ways, a contemporary re-imagining of Asimov’s positronic brain. How centrally did you have Asimov’s fiction in mind while writing these novels? What kind of technological, philosophical and cultural developments in the intervening years were most important for your pretty radical re-conception of the relationship between the machines and humans?

I thought about Asimov’s work a lot, and the total absurdity of the Three Laws. Asimov’s stories about the Three Laws are basically programming story problems. They’re riddles. And I never really connected with them emotionally or aesthetically.

Another sci-fi touchstone for the Machine Dynasty novels is, of course, Philip K. Dick, especially his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which provides the name of an important machine-friendly bar in the novel, which also features machinic beverages named after other Dick novels.) How important has Dick’s work been for you personally? More broadly, why do you think it continues to have so much significance for contemporary speculative fiction?

I think Dick ended up nailing the future. Part of the reason his work endures is that a) he was a better prose writer than his contemporaries, and b) his worlds still feel like they could arrive tomorrow, and c) his characters feel like actual people. They’re small and petty and they get scared and they feel lust. They’re quotidian. And his futures feel really quotidian — they feel lived-in. So that aspect of realism helps you buy into the weirdness of what he’s selling.

But there’s also that weirdness. And I think the weirdness is crucial. I think what Dick did better than anybody was push into how weird the future can feel, how tomorrow can feel uncertain, not to mention five years or fifty or five hundred years from now.

Ridley Scott’s cinematic adaptation of Dick’s novel as Blade Runner remains a major cultural locus for the relationships between the machines and humans in this fictional world. Why did you decide to make the film such a central reference point, especially in VN? Was this decision based on its greater prominence in contemporary popular culture, or do you think the film stages questions of identity and artificial intelligence more powerfully than Dick’s novel itself?

Blade Runner is just really important to me. I saw it for the first time in the third grade, sitting in my basement with my dad, because my mom wouldn’t let me see Batman Returns. So it was a special occasion, and maybe I imprinted on it for that reason. But every time I see it I see something new. I wish Ridley Scott were still making really slow, meditative films like that. It has these great moments of visceral violence, so people think it’s an action film (in the same way they think Alien is an action film, when it’s really a horror film), but it’s this really thoughtful character study about the nature of humanity and empathy.

Your exploration of the way human sexuality informs the VN, and the way their own sexuality, largely divorced from reproduction, develops in response to this is worlds apart from both Asimov’s and Dick’s fiction. The novel’s focus on the often disturbingly predatory dimensions of human sexuality evoked the work of James Tiptree, Jr. for me. How important has her work been for you as a writer? What are some of the other influences (whether literary or social) that fed your imagining of the cultural and technological consequences of human sexuality with these novels?

I didn’t discover her until much later, actually. I was already at work on the book when I read my first Tiptree story. (At least, my first story of hers outside of a classroom environment.) But I read a collection of hers at a really difficult, chaotic time in my life. And her rage became a source of strength for me. I really grabbed onto it with both hands. It was something real at a time when nothing felt real.

But our language for describing sexuality has evolved a great deal, as well, so that I could find the words I needed to tell that story far more easily than I might have in other years. I think women are freer now to talk about things like micro-aggressions or other predatory behaviours, and how the world has geared itself to view us (and having sex with us) as a prize to be won (or even just a trophy for participation). So I felt perfectly justified telling the story of what it feels like to be vulnerable that way, and also to discover one’s own vulnerability. I think that’s part of the loss of innocence theme in the first novel. The first thing you lose as a girl growing up is the sense that your body is your own. You discover it’s not. You thought it was yours, but it wasn’t. It belongs to everyone else. It’s there for everyone else to comment on, or to touch, or to judge. And I think Amy’s discovery that the world thinks she’s just a doll to be played with is a good metaphor for that.

Sexuality is also vitally important for the vN, for whom it is largely divorced from both the reproductive process and from natal sex, and yet vN sexuality remains in certain respects conditioned by the sexuality of their human engineers. The phenomenology of vN sexuality is explored with startling intimacy and vividness, especially in ID. What can you tell us about how you conceived of this parallel sexuality? What were some of the greatest difficulties and inspirations you encountered in exploring this aspect of the vN protagonists’ experiences?

In vN I wanted to talk about that loss of innocence, but in iD I wanted to explore a sexuality that was already fully-formed. Part of Amy’s journey in vN is realizing that she’s queer for other robots. She doesn’t love or even like humans the way she’s supposed do. She may fall for a boy-shaped robot, but the fact that she even enjoys other robots is far more disturbing to the humans around her. It means she’ll choose her own kind over the humans that built her. So there’s a bit of the novel that’s her examining and accepting that “broken” piece within her.

Javier is on a different journey, though. He loves humans. But he also loves them without having any choice in the matter. We none of us can choose who we love, but we can choose how we deal with it, and Javier doesn’t have that latter choice. He’s just trapped in this loop of toxic relationships. And I wanted to explore what it’s like to see those relationships for what they are, and how tempting it can be to fall back into your old patterns. I think the robots in my stories have always been “self-aware,” to use an AI term, but what Javier gains in iD is true self-awareness. He’s always been conscious, but he becomes conscious of himself and his own choices. He stops running on auto-pilot and starts making meaningful decisions for himself.

You’ve commented elsewhere that the third Machine Dynasty novel is going to take place from the perspective of Portia, “the evil grandmother robot who gets eaten alive by the protagonist in the first novel.” Portia’s a fascinating, and frightening, character. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations in creating her, and perhaps give us a little teaser in terms of the directions Portia’s story will take in the third and final novel in the series?

Portia was actually quite simple for me to create. Her voice flowed from me all too easily. When I thought of her, I thought of Sian Phillips’ performance as Livia in I, Claudius. She’s that same devouring mother figure who views her children as extensions of herself rather than as their own people. So she’s also a bit of a Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest figure. In general I tend to think of her as a kind of diva. She’s a Norma Desmond, for sure — controlling, vicious, needy, delusional. She just isn’t as glamourous. Then again, I don’t think she feels the need for glamour; she already knows she’s more beautiful than humans can ever be, and she knows she’s stronger. So she’s profoundly vain, but she also doesn’t feed that vanity with, say, clothes or jewelry. She feeds it by killing humans.

_87421371_87421288

Sian Philips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976), an inspiration for Ashby’s Portia.

Reading ID, it struck me that the architectural style of Holberton’s home, retrofuturism, works as a kind of metonym for the technological and cultural aesthetics of the Machine Dynasty’s setting as a whole. But it is a retrofuturism completely different from the Golden Age nostalgia that William Gibson evocatively captured in his early short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” My impression of the world of Machine Dynasty is one in which a 1980s and 1990s retro-craze is in full effect. Am I projecting my own youthful nostalgia, here, or is there more to this impression? If so, why these cultural epochs, specifically?

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but it’s possible. Certainly we’re seeing that nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s now, as people who were kids at the time have some buying power to invest in the Doc Martens they could never afford back then. And we’re seeing it in media, with the return of things like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. So on some level that’s already happening. As for how I felt while writing the books, I was definitely influenced by things like mid-to-late 90’s cyberpunk anime. Stuff like Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost in the Shell. They were all these stories about identity and technology and the relationship between the two, with really well-defined, memorable female characters who steered their own course throughout the story.

ghost-in-the-shell-21

Late 90s cyberpunk anima was a major influence on the Robot Dynasty novels. A still from Ghost in the Shell (1995.)

You’ve mentioned in previous interview that a viewing of Cronenberg’s film A History of Violence with your husband, Canadian horror writer David Nickle, led you to completely re-think vN’s opening. Can you tell us a little more about this?

A History of Violence has a great opening. It’s this very sweet, pastoral, small-town scene that explodes into terrible violence. It’s sort of like Twin Peaks, in that way — that juxtaposition of Gothic secrets against small-town life in America. The opening of vN doesn’t take place in a small town, but it does take place in a smallish community, where everybody knows each other — or they think they do.

This description of small­town reality brings back to mind the title of your forthcoming novel, Company Town. You’ve mentioned that it is something of a different, weirder, and more “Phildickian” kind of fiction. What more can you tell us about it, by way of giving our readers a teasing sense of what they can expect from it?

Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa, a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada Local 314. She lives in New Arcadia, a city of autonomous towers floating around a dead oil rig 500 km NE of St. John’s, Newfoundland. After she kicks the right guy in the face, she winds up working as a bodyguard for the heir apparent of the company that buys her city. The kid has been getting death threats from the future. So Hwa has to escort him everywhere he goes, including physics class. Hwa isn’t sure which is worse: posthuman nightmares intent on killing her and her client, or going back to the high school she dropped out of years ago. Until her friends start to die.

That’s just the story, though. The book is a hard-bitten noir on the one hand, and on the other it’s a deeply weird SF story, and also it’s sort of a bildungsroman of this young woman having to confront a lot of issues she’s grown up with. It’s also a big critique of corporate Singulitarianism. At least, it pokes fun at that kind of thinking. Hwa is one of the most profane, violent, funny characters I’ve ever written. I love her.

During the course of this interview, the international speculative fiction community was crushed by the sudden loss of genre-defining editor extraordinaire, David G. Hartwell. Had  you  worked with David at TOR on Company Town? Can you tell us a little about his role, his importance for you?

Actually, I didn’t work with David on this book. My editors were Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Miriam Weinberg. I was lucky enough to have met and hung out with David a bunch of times, and I was featured in one of his Year’s Best anthologies, as well as 21st Century Science Fiction. I also worked closely with Kathryn Cramer on Project Hieroglyph, and on a narrative hackathon at ASU’s Centre for Science and the Imagination. (The results of that hackathon later on went to become a WorldBank project.) So while I never worked with him very closely, I got to know him a bit, and I’m very grateful for that. He was so welcoming to me, even at the start of my career. He always had time to listen. He was gracious, in a way that people these days often aren’t.

This interview accompanies PstD’s publication of your original short story, “Dreams In the Bitch House.” Can you tell our readers a little about the impetus that led to the story, the context in which you wrote it, and the relationship between this context and the story that finally emerged from it?

For the Institute for the Future, I had written a story called “Social Services,” which was a take-off on The Haunting of Hill House. It was about the future of networked matter and IoT. So when Chris Speed at Design in Action approached me about coming to Scotland and telling a story, I thought this would be a great opportunity to follow that up. (He also told me he really liked “Social Services,” and wanted a slightly creepy story to talk about the haunted-ness of IoT.) So I started thinking about uncanny architecture, and Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” came up, and I’d wanted to do a story called “The Dreams in the Bitch House” for just ever, and this was the best possible opportunity.

Beginning with the title itself, the story involves some very striking and inventive allusions to Lovecraft’s fiction. How did Lovecraft suppurate into this piece?

Oh, it was entirely intentional. I set out to do a pastiche very deliberately. I had done one earlier based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for the Institute for the Future, in a story called “Social Services.” And so I wanted to follow that up. It meant reading Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” which is just a slog to get through. But it was also a way for me to write about an apartment I had in Little Italy once.

Like vN, “Dreams in the Bitch House” features an inter-generational power struggle between an amoral matriarchal figure and a young female protagonist who must resist this figure in trying to maintain her own individuality and authority. Why is this conflict such a central concern in your fiction? Does this conflict have particular autobiographical, social, or literary roots?

Well, I think that dynamic is at the root of a lot of fairytales, really. The pure princess supplants the evil queen. That’s why Gaiman’s story “Snow, Glass, Apples,” is so amazing — it subverts that tradition so beautifully. It’s also something that plays out in one of my husband’s most popular stories, “The Sloan Men,” which is in his first story collection. But really it’s everywhere — hell, it’s the central plot of The Devil Wears Prada, for goodness’ sake.

Because of this conflict, one of the things that kept coming to mind for me while reading both vN and “Dreams in the Bitch House” is Jackson, especially The Haunting of Hill House – tonally, stylistically, worlds apart, but that resonance seems no less powerful for it. (How) has Jackson’s fiction been important for you?

Jackson is enormously important to me as a writer and a feminist and as someone living at the intersection of those two modes. I think Jackson deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging how hard it was for her to be a writer and a mother at the same time. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She made it funny, but I think that was as much a survival mechanism as anything else. (It was also a way for her to make money. If you’re going to suffer, at least get paid for it.) As with Tiptree, I think there’s this well of anger at the core of her work. It comes out more slyly; I think she had to be more careful, because of her time period and because she wasn’t behind a pseudonym. But it’s there. You can feel it informing all her observations of the world around her.

Thanks for your insightful responses, Madeline Ashby!

Readers, if you haven’t already done so, you can read “Dreams in the Bitch House,”in print for the first time, here.

***

Tagged , , , , , ,

PSTD BOOK REVIEW: SHE WALKS IN SHADOWS AND AICKMAN’S HEIRS

Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications, 2015.)

She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles (Innsmouth Free Press, 2015.)

Holy A’Hallows, Happy Hallowe’en, scary-sacred Samhain, and joyous Great Pumpkin Flyby day, dear readers. Since it is Halloween weekend, and since this weekend also sees the convention on Canadian Speculative Fiction, CanCon, coming to Ottawa, this seems an opportune time to share with you a two-pronged pitchfork of eerie book reviews. Both are seasonally creepy, and, while including work from many international writers, both are from Canadian publishers and editors.

While any publisher or literary agent will tell you that, from a careerist perspective, a great short story is a business card to try to sell your novel (or a gateway drug to get readers to try it), the short story remains, in my books, probably the most aesthetically and conceptually important form for the literary exploration of the weird, the horrific, the strange, and the unsettling.

The combination of concentration the form requires, and authorial imaginative power it enables, means a gifted writer can conjure and sustain an affective intensity with a short story that is more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain over the multiple interrupted reading periods required by a novel.

Insofar as horror and the weird are literary modes directly linked to an occurrent emotional response, then, the short story is particularly well suited to their expression. Closely related to this is the maintenance of epistemological uncertainty, the cultivation of the uncanny, the unknown and the unstable, that is so often central to the effects of good horror and weird fiction. A work of short weird fiction can, to mangle some metaphors, fly in below the radar of readerly skepticism more quickly, crossing the blood-brain barrier of the imagination rapidly and delivering its effect before the reader’s rational resistances are fully mustered and the white blood cells of disbelief and disengagement are unleashed.

But this efficient invasion of the reader’s mind is just the beginning. Once it gets in there, a great work of short weird or horrific fiction is just getting started. Really great stories are virulent and insidious, and the initial emotional intensity is just the first symptom of an acute infection that is already becoming chronic.

While the affective state the story conjures, the mood it immerses the reader in, is ephemeral, it leaves behind a lasting impression, a psychic residue. It causes a cognitive or perceptual shift that, however minor, however subtle, however (in some cases) subliminal, continues to haunt the reader long after the story has been read and set aside, the book closed, the device (and perhaps the reader) put to sleep.

As Gemma Files so aptly puts it, great horror and weird fiction should leave a scar.

To wit, two recent short story collections whose contents have lately been scanned, felt, pondered, and put aside by me, only to have my mind return, unbidden, to them:

The first is Aickman’s Heirs.

aickman1

As the title suggests, the collection offers a selection of fictions that in some way bear the influence of Robert Aickman, a British writer who specialized in unsettling narratives (what he himself called “strange stories;” Matt Seidel makes some telling remarks about Aickman’s fiction here. )

The volume’s cover image is by Yaroslav Gerzhedovich. With its silent, misty scenery and distant, alienated figures, it is a striking evocation of the spirit of a writer Fritz Leiber described as “a weatherman of the subconscious.” Aickman was famed for his use of precisely controlled language and vivid characterization in creating an unease irreducible to the seemingly supernatural phenomena that occur in some of his tales (many, indeed, bear none of the more conventional stigma of horror or supernatural fiction at all.)

Strantzas’ introduction stresses that the book is not “merely a collection of writers doing their best to reproduce something so uniquely Aickman,” but rather a sampling of how Aickman’s fiction “has become a significant source of inspiration for contemporary writers.” The collection demonstrates the power of Strantzas’ editorial vision. Rather than a clutch of stylistic pastiches, it showcases a number of writers working from diverse approaches, moving through manifold modes, and yet all somehow converging in a vague and anxious shared space that is acutely Aickmanic (I will hereafter resist my temptation to unleash a series of bad puns based on the name, I promise, much as my vulgar palate is tickled by the prospects of Aickmannerist, Aickmantic, etc.)

The line-up of represented writers represents some of the most vital and insistent voices in weird fiction, dark fantasy, and horror today, and many of them will certainly be familiar to PstD readers: Helen Marshall, (our featured poet from PstD 4), David Nickle (read his PstD interview here,)  Michael Cisco (read his PstD interview here,) John Langan (look for his author feature in the coming weeks) are among the contributors.

While heterogeneous in style and approach, the stories are consistently fascinating and effective at generating tension and planting seeds of lingering doubt and dread. Among my favourites is Richard Gavin’s “Neithernor,” which takes a fundamental aesthetic concept from the British artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare as its inspiration, using the disintegrating consciousness of a desperate narrator to suggest to the reader a strange shape, forming ominously beyond the figures drawn by a neurotic artist, beyond the figures of the words on the page. Michael Cisco uses his clinical linguistic precision and suggestive perceptual fragmentation to shattering effect in “Infestations,” a tale of urban identity crisis (and public transportation). In John Langan’s “Underground Economy,” a woman’s troubled recollections suggest the omnipresence of a threat she, and we, can never quite identify. Archaeology and the compulsive power of the past forms the basis for Helen Marshall’s “The Vault of Heaven.” Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is among the most direct in its response to Aickman’s influence, forming a critical dialogue with one of his better known, and more overtly supernatural (or is it?) stories, “Ringing the Changes,” while conjuring up its own unique cold hand to clamp the reader’s.

Aickman’s Heirs is a fascinating selection, and a must-have not only for admirers of Aickman’s fiction, but also for all lovers of uncanny literature.

Now, for the second anthology whose dim-litten praises I wish to sing: She Walks in Shadows.

SheWalksCover

This volume is also (at least in one sense) an author-homage inspired collection. In this case, the author in question is the ubiquitous Mr. Lovecraft, as She Walks showcases Lovecraftian fiction by (and featuring) women. The tenor of this volume’s paean to Lovecraft is rather one of critical provocation than respectful admiration; it is a tenor that proves just as productive for the contributing writers, who use it as a base note in synthesizing a string of discordant, haunting, harrowing, and sometimes also hilarious little symphonies in the key of HPL.

The anthology is in part an acknowledged, and much-needed, response to what the editors aptly call “a paucity of women in Lovecraft’s tales. Kezia, Lavinia and Asenath are his most notable women, even if they never take center stage.” It is also a potent provocation to the masculinist bias that operates in much contemporary weird/horror fiction and in the minds of some contemporary Lovecraft fans. The editors explain that “the first spark was the notion, among some fans of the Lovecraft Mythos, that women do not like to write in this category, that they can’t write in this category.”

That may have been the spark, but the volume itself is an inferno. My reservations before reading She Walks stemmed rather from a personal lack of interest in too-overtly “Mythos” fiction. I tend to be drawn to work that explores the Lovecraftian terrain of the weird and the cosmic without the tired tropisms of tentacled Yog-Sothothery. Or so I keep telling myself, before once again being knocked down by the originality and power one or another recent writer manages to inject into one of Lovecraft’s Mythos-fixtures. She Walks presents a surging slew of cases in point. It is a cornucopia of imaginative force and literary talent, and each of the fictions it contains works, in some way, to simultaneously expand and interrogate the limits of what “Lovecraftian” can mean.

The mingling of the gorgeous with the grotesque that characterizes the cover image by Sarah K. Diesel is a perfect visual prelude for the fictions (and poems, in the case of Anne K. Schwader‘s lyrical opening, and illustrations, as She Walks also compiles many stunning pieces of black and white interior images, which don’t illustrate individual stories so much as play off some of the same Lovecraftian themes and images that the stories do) that follow. Unlike those in Aickman’s Heirs, these stories generally involve aspects of overt pastiche or parody. However, their more explicit allusions to Lovecraft’s fictions (or his biography or family history, as in the case of one of my favourites, Penelope Love’s “Turn Out the Light,”) provide the skeletons over which most of the stories manage to spread strange, startling new flesh. Among the most seductively lyrical and simultaneously repulsive examples is Gemma Files‘ “Hairworks” 

While so many of the stories in She Walks merit admiration and analysis,  I’m going to limit myself now to spilling a few words of praise particularly for the one writer whose fictions are included both here and in Aickman’s Heirs. Nadia Bulkin‘s name was, up until this point, relatively unknown to me, but it is a name I will continue to seek out. Her story from Heirs, “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is a fantastic example of how the most lucid and finical use of language can accumulatively create an Aickmaniacally (so sue me) vague sense of disturbance that persists long after the story’s words fade from conscious memory. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” weaves together a curious children’s game, a small community’s only slightly skewed version of Christian faith, and the recognition that we can never really leave our childhood beliefs behind, creating a startlingly short but complex narrative whose apocalyptic consequences continue to accrue after its conclusion.

Her story from She Walks, “Violet is the Color of Your Energy,” uses as its skeleton a pastiche of Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space,” (including an admirably over-the-top port-manteau’ing of Ammi Pierce with Ambrose Bierce) but shoots off into a critical meditation on genetically modified farming, the cellular and micro-organismal roots of our (or its?) identity and humanity and…. well, other abstruse truths which cannot be named.

So, in closing, readers, you should all rush out and buy these tomes, immediately. Waiting until Monday may prove too late.

After all, if the Great Pumpkin veers from its course,  the cosmic dark will come down for us all, before you’ve read the warnings these stories might provide.

And thanks, Strantzas, Moreno-Garcia and Stiles, and your contributors, for the apocalyptic preoccupations, for the cognitive and perceptual stains you’ve left me with.

I don’t suppose you’d like to pay my post-Hallows psychic laundry bill?

Yours,

Sean

Tagged

PSTD INTERVIEW: JASON PHILIP WIERZBA

Conducted by Sean Moreland 

This interview with Jason Philip Wierzba accompanies PstD’s electronic publication of his previously unpublished short story “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” our inaugural new-fiction feature. Moving ahead, you can expect more of the retrospective author features and fiction reprints we’ve become known for (our next retrospectives will be with the groundbreaking American horror writer John Langan and Canadian futurist and stellar sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby ), but these will now alternate with new fiction and poetry features, also accompanied by author interviews and original illustrations.

1936485_249631660064_5274481_n

Jason Philip Wierzba

Hi Jason, and thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for PstD’s readers. Can you begin by telling us about yourself, your background, your writing (fictional and otherwise)?

I was born and spent my youth in Calgary and environs. We moved to an acreage south of town when I was thirteen, and I spent a lot of time alone. I was constantly reading, watching movies, and listening to music. My parents both grew up poor on farms in rural Alberta. My dad became successful in the production end of the oil and natural gas racket and we were extremely well-off at a certain point. My mother was able to quit her job as a nurse.

I am an amalgam of elements Irish Catholic and Prussian, with some English and Scottish connections as well. I have always related most strongly to my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. The primarily Irish Catholic side. I physically resemble her people and was always pleased by our relation by blood to Frank and Jesse James. The whole story, really. The Dorans landed in New York as immigrants and made their way North over time, up through Missouri and then to the Canadian prairie. Lots of fortunes built and squandered on the railroad and so forth. A lot of drinking and gambling. Lots of honest-to-goodness cowboys. My personal journey as a writer goes way back. I was obsessively immersed in books from early childhood. I remember as a little boy being tremendously fond of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.

The decisive moment came when I was thirteen, in 1993, and read an article in Details magazine about William Burroughs. It was all essentially downhill from there. I was turned on by the outlaw quality of his work and persona, the supremely transgressive element, the dark humour (I remember how much I loved the bit cited in that article about Doctor Benway performing an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can), and the apocalyptic horror of it all.

The avuncular W.S. Burroughs.

The avuncular W.S. Burroughs.

At this point I was progressing from listening to mainstream heavy metal to punk rock and indie guitar rock. Local punk bands were my heroes. And I wanted to make movies. When I was sixteen I wanted to make movies like Wim Wenders. Movies, especially, like Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, The State of Things, and Paris, Texas. There were movies I liked more than these movies, but these were the kinds of movies I wanted to make. Road movies. Bleak, slow-paced, druggy road movies. The critic Kent Jones wrote once about the foundational moment of any young baby boomer being the experience of listening to rock music and gazing stoned out of the window of a moving car. I was late to the party, but that was where I found myself in the mid-90s.

I went to university and quickly decided I wanted to write about film, not make films. And I continued to write fiction and poetry. I also continued to write and perform music. I wanted to do all of it, and I still sort of do. I write fitfully. I have started making music again, in an idiom different from those I pursued when I was younger and more dedicated to establishing an audience. I felt I needed to be exulted. I no longer feel this way. When I went to grad school at Carleton University to study film, my thesis to be advised by a professor named Chris Faulkner, whom I admired very much, a specialist in Jean Renoir and Popular Front-era French cinema, I was certain I was going to be an academic. An indentured scholar. However, I quickly realized I wanted no part of this. I figured I would rather work day jobs and write poems and stories. I was working on a novel. I never finished it. I have not decided one way or another if I have abandoned it. So I write. I have recently played live music for the first time in about six years.

I would call it free jazz if not for the fact that I don’t have the chops to claim that what I do is jazz. It’s free music. But if you call it free music, people may be under the mistaken impression that they don’t have to pay cover.

As for writing: I will never be in the business of selling this shit by the yard. I am generally waiting for it to happen instead of making it happen. One might aver that if a writer waits for the writing then the writing won’t happen at all. I have not found that to be true over the distances. You just can’t make a living this way. Which is okay. Don’t you find the idea of making a living writing kind of indecent? I have spent the last three years working frontline with the homeless. And reading. The problem with writing is, it cuts into the time one can spend reading.

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” isn’t the first piece of your fiction PstD has published. Your earlier story “Priority: Murder Kill” appeared in our hardcopy volume, PstD 3. Both stories feature some extremely unsettling images. To what extent would you say shocking or horrifying readers was your intention with them?

I absolutely wanted to shock people by virtue not only of the things I wrote, but by the way I lived. I was young. And I waited a long time to grow up. I was ensconced in ego and addiction. I was a holy monster and was somehow under the impression that it was sexy. Obviously it is when some people do it. I am no longer certain that I was sexy, and am certain I crossed the paths of many who would assert that I indeed was not. But I was never trying to be aggressive or confrontational with my writing. Not in an antagonistic way. I may have been doing that a lot with the way I lived and conducted myself, but in my writing, certainly after the age of nineteen or twenty, I was always trying to have fun, and to make it fun. The shocking stuff is always done playfully. I get a kick out of this stuff, a thrill, and I assume others do too. The culture at large is sufficiently full of salacious business for me to feel vindicated in this. Transgression is so central to anything interesting young people do. It doesn’t look quite so good on you after a certain age. Generally. Dennis Cooper pulls it off (although he has done so without forsaking having to grow up). And I can almost assure you that I am no longer in this business. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” was completed in 2008, I believe, and I was already living past my best before date as far as this shit is concerned. I still want to go far beyond conventional moral sense-making. I still want to pursue hard-won individual ethics far outside the norm, but I am more dedicated now to exposing things that are desperately raw and real, and to not so much engage in ironic games of cartoon shock and awe. Which is not to say that I wasn’t always trying to find legitimate things to express about what it is like to find oneself in this world.

Would you describe these stories as works of “horror?” Why (not)?

Well, if questions like this had not been addressed to me by others then it never would have occurred to me that I was writing anything other than good, old-fashioned, highfalutin literary fiction. But I have very much put myself in the position to be questioned about this. I think I entered the world in terror. I think during the early pubescent years it was all terror and hate. Then the hate started to go away and I bombarded the pleasure centres with substances and the stimulation resultant from wild behaviour so as to try and distract myself from the fact that I was still living totally and utterly in a state of full-on terror. That was my twenties. I guess the horror part of me was the part of me that was trying to make the terror communicable. But, of course, and probably more relevant per your question, is the fact that I have always been laterally engaging genre. It is clear to me that the two stories Postscripts to Darkness has been sweet enough to publish are postmodern works. And I believe they are primarily postmodern in terms of their self-reflexivity, their intertextuality, and their knowing invocation of genres and tropes. There is a connection to Coover and Barth. So I would say that these stories, instead of being representative works of “horror,” simply engage “horror” whilst at the same time gauging and engaging all sorts of other things. I would say that “Priority: Murder Kill” is especially involved in this engagement with “horror” because I put a ghost it there at the end. Or a zombie. Or just a resurrected dead guy. I am probably as slippery with my spectres as Willian T. Vollmann is in his recent and just totally wonderful collection Last Stories and Other Stories. A collection which contains works of horror. Sort of.

VollmannLastStories

“Celebrity Gap” also bears a number of stylistic and thematic continuities with “Priority Murder Kill.” Can you talk about the relationship between these stories? Are they part of a larger story-cycle?

All the writing is connected. These stories are, admittedly, especially connected. They were written in the order they have been published. They are also connected to an even earlier story called “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth,” which I am fairly certain is the story of mine that has been most often rejected by editors, and which I wrote when I was still in grad school. They could all be said to engage crime, madness, and the mythopoetics of celebrity to one extent or another. There are a number of crucial differences. “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Priority: Murder Kill” are written in the first person and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” the third. When I started writing as a boy, very young, I wanted to write all my prose in first person because I could be extremely idiosyncratic and believed that there were no rules in first person. I always thought the omniscient narrator was for adults, and I ultimately didn’t believe I was competent enough to pull it off. So it could be said that the three stories suggest a maturation. But they don’t. Not really.

I think “Priority: Murder Kill” is extremely adult, if almost childish in its scandalous and shocking elements. What I wanted to do with that story was look at madness, criminal madness, serial killer madness, and suggest maybe it is not only not just madness after all, but that maybe it can be framed as being connected to a kind of tenderness. I felt that in order to do this I needed a first person narrator and I needed it to be a woman. It is a very phallic story and a very feminine one. It comes from a kind of confusion in myself. I used to get my drunk girlfriends to occasionally cut my hair into the famous bob of Louise Brooks, silent film actress, Kansas-bred ex-Ziegfeld girl, and my favourite human being after Jeanne d’Arc. I guess as a young man I believed with all my heart that the only thing worth aspiring to above making love to Louise Brooks would be to be Louise Brooks. Tenderness is intimacy. You can do intimacy so much better in the first person. What is more intimate than being privy to the secret business of another person’s consciousness?

Iconic screen star Louise Brooks,

Iconic screen star Louise Brooks.

I definitely wanted “Down at the Celebrity Gap” to be more dispassionate. I also wanted to use something like an omniscient narrator in a context where the reader really has no idea what has actually happened and what is madness, delusion, the interjection of dream. Also “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is definitely about masculinity and, though “Priority: Murder Kill” is not pretty, I believe its narrator to be infinitely more sympathetic than Andy from “Down at the Celebrity Gap.” Besides being frightened by the real possibility of mental collapse, I think that “Down at the Celebrity Gap” also reveals that I was afraid of becoming a really awful person who was convinced he was anything but. Also both “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” engage with serial killing, which has always fascinated me and, if I am going to be totally honest, delighted me, not that I am exactly proud of that. What is interesting about the indeterminacy of the apparently omniscient “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that not even I am certain whether or not Andy has actually killed anyone. These stories are both kind of little gleefully amoral crime novels. I love crime novels. Even many of my poems are little crime novels. I think if you wanted to sum me up, during the period of my life represented by these stories, you could say I was trying to find this ideal sweet spot somewhere between James Joyce and James M. Cain.

You are far from alone in your fascination with serial killers; they are a pervasive aspect of our contemporary cultural imaginary. Any time I teach a course on horror fiction, I always include at least one serial killer-centric novel, and am always struck by the number of students who are already quite well-versed in not only the mythology, but also often the history and clinical assessments of high-profile serial killers. Any thoughts on why this fascination is so widespread?

It’s totally 100% a libidinal business. The mania for compulsive and decadent life-taking is mimetic of the compulsion to consume and fetishize these narratives. It’s a kink. We are turned on. It turns the killer on, it turns us on. And most people who compulsively devour the most sordid true crime stories will presumably steadfastly deny that they are turned on – they will describe these things as appalling. Those things are not mutually exclusive. Absolutely appalling things routinely turn us on. Exploitation films emerged as a way of promising people that movies with very small budgets were going to provide people with absolutely appalling spectacles that the folks with the real money were incapable of getting away with. That is what “exploitation” means in this context. Exploiting an untapped market niche. People pay money to see rape and murder. Generally it disappoints them. It’s poorly staged. Cheap. It is not their fantasy. So that’s what it is about: libidinal fantasy on a bedrock of shame. Fantasy needs shame. And when fantasy is enacted it is ghastly. In the serial killer context we are talking about a whole galaxy of trauma and very real suffering. This is why the guy who jerks off to extreme fantasies of sexual violence and sadism rarely has any interest in raping a real man or woman. It is an unspeakably horrible business. Such is fantasy. It’s a Lacanian thing. Slavoj Žižek wrote marvelously about Michael Haneke’s Elfriede Jelinek adaptation The Piano Teacher.ThePianoTeacher

He is correct about the fact that it might be the best film ever about what happens when a person with a wildly fucked-up fantasy life systematically enacts the fantasy and is absolutely stupefied by how unpleasant the results prove.

Where did this fascination start for you?

Puberty. All of a sudden I was thinking all the time about sex, suicide, murder, and apocalypse. Suicide most of all, actually. Suicide, of course, being the easiest way to commit apocalypse. But serial killing was an obsession.

Any literary or cinematic treatments of serial killers you think are particularly effective? Any that you find particularly poorly done or problematic?

James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road is simply one of the finest American novels. He is a well-loved and respected crime novelist but this book has been curiously absent from book shelves all my life. It is a staggering, truly masterful, unapologetic work of sickness and genius. Clearly an expertly-modulated purge. Genuinely one of my very favourite novels. When I was a teenager my best friend’s dad was a neuropsychiatrist. This man swore by Ellroy’s novel. Told us it was the only work that had done the phenomenon justice. He gave me his kind of tawdry-looking paperback copy, and I own it still. The narrator is both a psychopath and psychotic as well. They are two different things. The psychopathy manifests itself as is typical: no empathy, a clinical regard for the other, inflated self-regard, a certain deadness of affect. The psychosis manifests itself in the brain movies the narrator screens featuring his favourite comic book character, Shroud Shifter. Shroud Shifter is both the hero of his brain movies and the spectre that directs his homicidal actions. When my friend Marc and I were recording music between 1997 and 2000 we called our project Shroud Shifter.

And I love serial killer movies. There are two major standouts, neither often viewed nor discussed. The first is Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye.whiteoftheeyeposter

It is a truly revelatory work of art. It is almost completely not about the libidinal. It is about, amazingly, serial killing as the dark side of a kind of spirituality. I am reluctant to give too much away. We are used to the dark side of religion, not so much the dark side of spirituality. In this sense it is not just a tremendous work of art, but highly instructive for me personally. High up on my list of very favourite movies. The films Cammell never got to make, and the choices producers prevented him from enacting when he was trying to cut his films, are amongst our greatest lost-opportunities as a species. He subsequently shot himself in the head and lived for not much less than an hour afterwards, talking to his wife. She claims that he was beatific and felt no pain. The other serial killer film I would plug is Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre. It is kind of almost a serial killer version of the kind of Wim Wenders movie I loved as a teen, but aggressively avant garde and suffused with Grand Guignol elements. And Grandrieux is a far, far better filmmaker than Wenders.SombrePoster

When I was a teen I had this idea about a really slow-burn serial killer movie set in Europe, on the road. Something like what Grandrieux did. The victims would all be women from indie rock. The screen goddesses of my imagination. Chan Marshall from Cat Power. Isobel Sollenberger from Bardo Pond. The killer would love these women, driving around with them in silence-filled long takes, and would glean absolutely no pleasure from killing them. I was pretty anhedonic that way. Only an addict could concoct such a story. It is also important to mention Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, because it is brilliant, hilarious, and something of a much needed piss-take. It is the story of a prospective serial killer whose targeted victims keep dying by accident before he can kill them. It is an allegory about performance anxiety and sexual frustration, which, judging from his films, are things of which Buñuel had a pretty expert working knowledge.

As for problematic representations, one need look no further than American Psycho. It was a big deal when I was in high school, and I read it with glee. But it is garbage. It is McDonald’s literature; a part of the problem it purports to diagnose. The neuropsychiatrist who told me to read the Ellroy despised it. Even then I knew it was shit. As cultural critique it is a joke. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t tear through it. I enjoyed eating fast food as well, so there you go. The Mary Harron adaptation is pretty adorable though. The movie, at least, is in on the joke. And you can call Bret Easton Ellis an asshole, of course, but I am certain he doesn’t consider it a pejorative.

AmericanPsycho

Ellis’s serial-satirico shocker – McDonald’s literature?

David Schmid prefaces his book Natural Born Celebrities by stating that “The existence of famous serial killers in contemporary American culture brings together two defining features of American modernity: stardom and violence. Not surprisingly, therefore, film is unique among popular cultural media in its potential to shed light on the reasons why we have celebrity serial killers because it is a medium defined by the representation of acts of violence and by the presence of stars.” What do you think of Schmid’s characterization of these connections?

First I outright reject the notion that violence or stardom are particularly American or modern, but will concede that the Americans have a pretty huge monopoly on how stardom and violence are packaged and understood now. In the golden age of exploitation cinema it was probably the Italians who were doing the best job of packaging sexual violence for movie theatre audiences. That stuff, like porn, was obviously salivating in wait of the advent of home video. I will also insist that the ideal movie about a serial killer for me personally would feature an actor in the lead that I had never seen anywhere else before, in any other role. It is hard to invest in fantasy when the artifice is being foregrounded by the presence of a goddamn movie star. Finally, and most importantly, actual serial killers only become cultural celebrities a posteriori. Whilst they are busy subtracting people from the population they have to go undetected, unidentified, unknown. Anonymity is the crux of the thing. They become celebrities only after they are caught. To become a celebrity serial killer you have to fail as a serial killer. There is, of course, the conventional wisdom that serial killers secretly want to be caught. I believe this is only true in the sense that all of us want to be caught, to be found out. Hiding things is exhausting and demoralizing.

There are also those who say that serial killers are artists. I have always thought that true artists were doing something noble. I want to make it perfectly clear: at no point, no matter how sick and twisted my fantasy life became, have I considered serial killers fucking noble. It is not a noble business. However, if you look at the Black Dahlia murder, for example, with the bisected body of Elizabeth Short posed the way it was, clearly the killer there was trying to do art. I am convinced from his investigation that Steve Hodel is right, that his father George Hodel was the Black Dahlia killer, and that George Hodel was directly paying homage to his personal friend Man Ray’s photograph “Minotaur.” There is also the Duchamp homage going on there. While this is titillating and fascinating, it is also pathetic, sad, and prurient.

Would you say one of the thematic links between “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Celebrity Gap” is an exploration of the connections between stardom and serial killing?

There are actual celebrities in “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” but they are not serial killers, or involved in serial killing. The narrator of “Priority: Murder Kill” is a sort of serial killer microcelebrity for the criminal cognoscenti. The real celebrities like Matt Damon and Rita Hayworth are para-psychotic figments. My belief is that if somebody is going to start hallucinating in the 21st century, it is not going to be long before they start hallucinating celebrities. And it is never long before the paranoid psychotic begins to believe that he or she is his or herself a celebrity. During my psychotic breaks I was convinced I was becoming a celebrity. Some people think the movie Birdman is garbage. I don’t, having suffered the indignity of myself living it. I take Birdman seriously. It is a reminder. It made me shudder. The ego is just as involved in psychosis as is the id, and the two can be hard to disentangle. The modern ego wants to believe in the possibility that it inhabits a celebrity or potential celebrity.
Birdman

Can you tell our readers a little about the inspiration for “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” and the context in which you wrote the story?

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” was written in a very precise pocket. As far as I know, nothing else aside from perhaps a poem or two and fragments in notebooks exists from this period. It was written some time shortly after August of 2008. That summer I experienced the fist serious psychotic collapse of my life. That’s not hyperbole. This was a genuine, extremely harrowing psychotic event that went on for about a week. There had been two simultaneous music festivals in Calgary that summer, both extremely stimulating, which coincided with a bout of extreme mania, compounded by alcohol, cannabis, no sleep for a good haul, no food, and finally the combination of psilocybin mushrooms and heat stroke as all this crested in the intense heat at a day-long outdoor concert. The next couple days got progressively very bad. I believed a guerilla dance troupe had moved into my condo. People seemed to always be around and then suddenly not there. The dance troupe and I were in possession of a drug that could make us decompose before each others’ eyes before suddenly we could re-enfleshen at will. I believed that a giant insurrection of a festival had taken over my city and that I was at the centre of it. Eventually I thought the TV was watching me and fled my building. If I had not fled my building I would have very much died in my condo; really, actually died. I was running through the city. Airplanes and buildings were coming down. The military and the media were on my trail. I would brush the ground with my hand and Sanskrit text would be revealed. It was a horrifying nightmare that ended with me naked, covered in mud in somebody’s backyard, my organs shutting down. Amusingly, I suppose, I remember that I was naked because I believed that since I was invisible it would be unseemly for people to witness clothes with nobody in them moving frantically about. I was in the hospital for quite some time before I became lucid. Even after my faculties returned it took me longer still to accept that all the stuff that had happened had not in fact happened. It was my first, but not my last, experience of a total psychotic break and it obviously left an impression. After I was out of the hospital, my mother took me away to a retreat near Taos, New Mexico. She goes to these groups there. We spent a week meditating and screaming and bashing pillows and crying hysterically, a bunch of parents and their adult children in a circle. I learned to locate myself in my body and began to locate myself in the terror I had been quasi-unconsciously inhabiting my entire life. I would localize this terror in my tailbone and perineum. At night I would sneak down into the arroyo after everybody had gone to sleep to smoke my one cigarette of the day, the only drug I partook in that week, aside from the neutered tea we drank. The image of Julia Roberts smoking a cigarette in an arroyo in “Down at the Celebrity Gap” might be the story’s most directly autobiographical touch. I always identified with starlets and divas. I was still a musician and performer back then and would always tell everybody I wanted to be Beyoncé, even though I was clearly trying to do this ironic Charley Patton thing. I wrote the story very quickly upon returning to Calgary from New Mexico. Atypically quickly. It poured out and felt great to write. I wanted to do something combining psychosis and New Mexico. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is psychosis and New Mexico. I was drinking again when I wrote it. I would continue down an unspeakably awful road until eventually starting to work at getting sober and dealing with mental illness in earnest in 2009.

You’ve said that “Celebrity Gap” was written during a period of drinking following a period of sobriety. The relationship between substance dependency and literary production has been a complex (and often eventually fatal) one for more writers than I can name. How do you experience this relationship, personally?

“Down at the Celebrity Gap” very much did not follow a period of sobriety. Let me make that very clear. It followed a period of abstention from alcohol and mood altering drugs. There is a major difference. I am sober now. Genuine sobriety requires a serious and fairly particular kind of psychospiritual upheaval, and you need to be guided there. At least I needed to be guided there. And there were missteps, believe you me. There were a lot of drugs in my life, all the available ones at one time or another, but the predominant ones were alcohol and cannabis. For at least a decade I was pretty much always under the influence of alcohol and cannabis. It was my operational condition. I was rewarded by the ability to sit at my computer for long periods of time when I was using alcohol and cannabis. It suppressed restlessness. I could write, and write very well generally, for thirteen hour stretches, which is also, incidentally, about how long I could drive at a stretch when on road trips. The interesting thing about writing on alcohol was that I wouldn’t get conventionally drunk. I would get exhilarated and zoned-in. I got through university with highest honours and I did so writing papers on my laptop, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor actually, surrounded by source texts, drinking bourbon, and smoking weed and cigarettes, for thirteen hour stretches. I don’t write like that anymore. I can only manage a couple hours here and there. I am easily exhausted and am acutely conscious of when I am doing harm to myself. My brain works with words. I can’t see images when I close my eyes. There are only invisible words in there. Unless I am dreaming. Mood altering drugs loosened the words. They came in torrents. But I always edited carefully as I went along. I was never a reckless writer in terms of the basic application of craft. When I got drunk and high and opened my mouth, however, I couldn’t slow down. I seriously alienated people. Those who knew me then would be flabbergasted to hear that people consider me quiet and thoughtful now. Though I can be Puckish. 

How has your commitment to sobriety changed how you write, how you read?

Before I identify as an artist, or even as a man, I identify as a recovering alcoholic. Recovery is above all else a spiritual process. Addiction is a disease, this is agreed upon by everybody excluding uninformed idiots, and diseases have bizarre, complex symptomatologies. For example, I once read that people who suffer from ALS are almost uniformly kind, generous people. Addicts are almost uniformly selfish, self-obsessed people who never felt like they belonged in this world. We feel totally exceptional and special but also, paradoxically, totally worthless. We are driven by fear, shame, resentment, and self-pity. It is not our fault. It is a condition in which the sick person is totally and utterly disconnected. That is why the only solution is psychospiritual. They may eventually find medication that helps, but only if that medication is conducive to a psychospiritual upheaval.

Studies now confirm that people are not drawn into addiction by chemical hooks in the drugs themselves. Many people use drugs, often heavily, and never become addicts. The addict is a disconnected person who finds in chemicals a temporary way of feeling connected. A lot of people think the problem is sociological. People in miserable conditions turn to drugs. That is a factor. Many addicts – we make up about ten percent of the population – never activate the addiction by using, because they are basically satisfied by their perhaps-not-entirely-satisfactory situation or just never stumble upon drugs. You are never going to provide ideal living conditions for all addicts so that they can get well. The world is not exactly heading in the direction of better living conditions for everyone. And plenty of people who live in seemingly ideal conditions are hopelessly addicted. So you need to get connected psychospiritually. That’s all that spirituality is: connection. Connection to yourself, to others, and to the whole fucking show. You need acceptance, you need some hope followed by faith, and you need, in my experience, a hell of a lot of curiosity and wonder. And you need to be able to be moved by suffering. You need to become empathetic. When I am opening a book now, or putting words on paper, I want to tap into the spiritual, and I want things that are profound and moving and connect me. I work with the homeless. It is service work. It has hardened me. It has increased my empathy but decreased my ability to feel pity for myself or others. I don’t fucking feel sorry for anybody. But I am deeply moved by what people endure.

The book that has most changed my life in recovery, and the way I want to write, is Coma by Pierre Guyotat. It is one of these two autobiographical books he has written this century that have been published in English by Semiotext(e).ComaGuyotat

In the Deep is the other one, and because of its literary pyrotechnics, its sexual candour, and its obvious philosophical heft it is likely to have more staying power. But it is not nearly as important to me as is Coma. Coma is essentially about proximity to God to the point of total exhaustion and possible annihilation. It is the hard truth about the real stakes of being a spiritual animal, and is monumentally instructive. It is about life lived by the artist with perilous intensity. Not drinking and drugging. Not doing intense things. Just being intensely. Sitting still in the most intense way possible. This is about Guyotat living himself into a coma in early middle age. Just ending up in a coma by virtue of existing the way he existed. This book defines everything for me now the way Bataille’s Blue of Noon defined everything for me in my early twenties. As for my writing: I am sitting on it. It is percolating. I feel like I owe it to myself and a handful of others to write something totally naked and true about what it is like to spin out of control and then pull it back together. A novel. Almost certainly.

Does the fact that you wrote “Celebrity Gap” while drinking change your perception of the story, now?

I feel no shame about being an alcoholic. It is totally hateful and stupid when people demonize those who in active addiction keep trying to do the only thing that ever made them feel okay long after it has tragically stopped making them feel okay. I wrote some things that were no good when I was drunk. I write some things that are no good when I am sober. I wouldn’t be letting you share such things with your readership.

You are an avid film-viewer with an academic background in film studies, and have maintained a fascinating film review site over the past few years. Can you talk about how your fascination for film feeds into your fiction? About how you perceive the relationship between writing on/about film and writing fiction?

I am, above all, a voracious consumer of culture. My appetite is inexhaustible. Let me break it down. I recently described it this way to a close friend: music is my water, literature is my food, and the cinema is my house of worship. It should be added that philosophy is also important, but that I see it very much as a pretty-rarefied sub-category of literature. And cinema really very much deserves a place of exulted privilege. I cannot do anything with my writing that is anything like what the best cinema can do. I honestly believe that the filmmaker Robert Bresson is the greatest artist in the history of our species and I am totally convinced that I will believe this until I die. He is the greatest impressionist there ever was, true heir to Cézanne, whom he utterly surpassed. What is so special about the cinema is that it works with images, sound, and time. The true art of cinema often happens in the cutting room, or before that, in the space between the minds of the people making the film when they put the thing together between those minds. It is ultimately about form and tone. And about beauty.

Cinema also is a collaborative art and speaks to my conviction (raised by the academy to be a proper post-structuralist and having studied and fully been taken by Foucault’s “What is an Author?”) that every work of art is something that is basically by all of us and for all of us. This is not merely historical materialism, it is deeply spiritual. I believe deeply in the God of Spinoza (especially as filtered by Deleuze), and I believe that everything that happens, happens within a plural unity. That is my sense of what impressionism is: us rendering from within the All. This is radical contingency. Everything that happens in this world is produced by a wildly complicated confluence of forces far greater than any individual. Another thing about cinema studies is that in the 70s and 80s the whole discipline became kind of wonderfully hijacked by psychoanalytic theory. People always want to compare cinema to dreams. Cinema is not dreams. Dreams are always morphing, and slippery, and totally fucked up. A dream is a dream and there will never be anything else like a dream.

What the cinema and dream have in common is the auditory and visual components, obviously, but also that they both represent what Freud calls the “other scene.” They are worlds like our world, except excitingly contained and off to the side. Not off to the side. Through a magic fucking portal. I have nothing to write about music or other writers. Not that I can think of. I will never have exhausted things that I can write about cinema. I am truly reverential towards the cinema. Though I need literature more just for the purposes of survival. I will go totally mad without books. And the intimacy of being invited into a consciousness other than your own. With cinema you stand outside looking and listening. With literature you merge, which is insanely erotic and totally perilous, just like falling in love (especially if you have codependency issues as do I). The other thing you probably notice about “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that they owe a great deal to exploitation films and the cinema of transgression. In my twenties I was not interested in doing literature without doing amorality. Obviously a lot of people go to the movies because no-holds-barred amorality is wonderful and thrilling when contained within the “other scene.”

Your reference to the God of Spinoza reminds me of something you wrote on Cowberry Filmflam a few months ago“The confluence of forces, not a deity, I shall henceforth, as a Spinozist, refer to as God, gave all of this to me. I earned nothing. I was owed nothing. The gift I have received (the primary evidence of which was the cessation in November of 2013, inexplicable and unexpected, of the baffling compulsion to fend off the present-at-hand by drinking myself to death (or whatever-the-fuck-else it took)), was a senseless and perfect gift that has left me here with hope and faith, concepts to which I had hitherto paid only lip service.”

You are, I think, the only writer I’ve ever interviewed who professes the God of Spinoza as their higher power, in the sense of (and I realize the term is probably ill-suited here, as we are talking about a “confluence of forces, not a deity”) personal saviour. How did this radical perspectival shift occur?

I have been saved, but not by a God who is something like an entity that has something like a brain or something like a nervous system. I love very much Spinoza’s critique, very brave, of Aristotle’s concept of “final causation.” The critique assures us that ultimate causes do not originate in some kind of entity who desires things to play out to his or her specifications. But things play out the way they must, according to God. And God saved me. I never knew it, but the whole radically contingent cosmic apparatus was set in motion from the very beginning, though there is no beginning or end, in such a way that I would find myself saved. I like the word God. I was a rabid atheist, and it pleases me to no end to speak of God now. It’s been building for awhile. When I was a kid I identified with people who saw God in all things. Then I encountered the music of singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who became one of my heroes around the time I could drive. He sings about God, and when he sings about God he is basically singing about the same God Spinoza was offering up.

Will Oldham - click on the image to read a fascinating interview in which Oldham talks about, among other things, his relationship to God and Bob Dylan.

Will Oldham – click on the image to read a fascinating interview in which Oldham talks about, among other things, his relationship to God …and Bob Dylan.

However, when I speak of God I could obviously just use one of Deleuze’s terms, which is “the One-Many.” And as far as this invocation of a confluence of forces is concerned, that comes less from Spinoza, but rather from Nietzsche’s ontology of force, again as filtered by Deleuze. As far as the philosophers that Deleuze happily enters from the rear, according to his provocative assessment, I also need to mention Bergson. Bergsonian ontology is also important, but I am more interested in the epistemological register. In Bergson we find that humans have a pretty distorted relationship with reality by virtue of our being woefully limited creatures. Einstein and Alfred Jarry are equally indebted to Bergson. 

(How) have your experiences over the last few years changed how you read Spinoza? Deleuze?

They haven’t. I just live it better.

Your reference to Deleuze, above, reminds me of his statement (in The Logic of Sense) that “everything that can be attained by chemical means is accessible by other paths.” What does this mean to you?

He also invokes Henry Miller’s assertion that it should be possible to get drunk on plain, good old water. He is totally right. Even when I was using I knew it was possible to do all this stuff the hard way, with discipline and effort. I am a writer. The favourite of the seven deadly sins for any good writer, as Thomas Pynchon once averred, is sloth. I wanted to take the easy road. So shoot me. Now I am not sure I want to get drunk at all. Not even on water. Okay, I am being a little disingenuous, but I dedicated my whole youth to Dionysus, and you know what? I think I now see the appeal of fat Buddha perched on his ass, all the cosmos going through him like a river. Which is not to say that I am not still sick. I should really have yellow Post-it notes everywhere reminding me: “Jason, you are still sick.”


Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Poe Vs. Lovecraft Panel at FanExpo Toronto 2015

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don't you think?

This t-shirt design from TeeCraze rather captures the spirit of the Thing, don’t you think?

Sean Moreland will be joining influential Canadian writers/editors/anthologists Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles on a panel at this year’s FanExpo Canada to talk about the relative scary-merits of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft (the panel may also be joined by a special guest, known for his screen embodiment of both writers’ fictions.)  It’ll be a feast of insidious intent, hideous argument, and debatable putridities as we discuss the legacy and influence of these two titans of terror, considering who is finally more frightening, and why….

The panel is scheduled to take place on Saturday September 5 at 545. I’ll post any changes or details here. If you are at this year’s expo, we hope to see you there!

Tagged , , ,

Necro(nomiCon)scopy

necronomicon-2015

I spent last weekend down in the lovely Providence, RI, for the 2015 edition of NecronomiCon, a festival that celebrates the legacy and achievement of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as the broader field of the weird in literature, art, and popular culture.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

I first learned of Lovecraft when I was probably about 10, by reading this Lovecraft homage aimed at young adults.

Having been an avid reader of Lovecraft since the age of 11, I first went to the Con in 2013 in a purely recreational capacity, enjoyed it immensely, and found that it renewed my interest in researching and writing critically on Lovecraft and his legacy (the forthcoming collections I’m editing, The Lovecraftian Poe and The Call of Cosmic Panic, not to mention my return to Lovecraft via the interest he and Poe shared in materialist/atomist philosophy, all came about in part because of the impetus NecronomiCon 2013 provided.)

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library

I first read Lovecraft in this 1974 edition, a dog-eared copy of which lurked in the local public library.

This year, I attended as part of the Armitage Symposium, a series of academic panels and talks co-organized by Niels Hobbs and Dennis Quinn. I participated specifically in a panel on the importance of ancient Rome and Roman writers for Lovecraft, drawing on a book-length study I’m slowly working on (tentatively titled Repulsive Influences) that charts the vestiges and influence of 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in/on Poe and Lovecraft. and through them, contemporary cosmic horror.

NecronomiCon 2015 was both fun and thought-provoking; it is, in many ways, a unique and wonderful convention, and this year’s was more ambitious and multi-faceted than its 2013 iteration had been. It was also much more unsettling.

ABOUT THE ‘CON

If you don’t know anything about the Con, it straddles the boundaries between pop-culture fandom and academic conference. It features gaming, cosplay, a bizarre bazaar offering everything from Cthulhu plushies to rare and first-edition books to contemporary weird and horror fiction titles (by indie and major publishers) and films, to on-site film screenings, podcasts, live theatrical performances, and….well, you get the idea.

It is, on the one hand, an unprecedented celebration of a single writer’s massive popular-cultural legacy (even Lovecraft’s beloved “God of Fiction” Poe, or his contemporary popular descendent Stephen King, doesn’t have anything comparable). On the other, it also strives to be a locus of weird/horror fiction more broadly, showcasing the work of many subsequent creators who work in Lovecraft’s shadow, or with the materials he helped shape into their modern forms.

These contradictions are part of what make the convention so singular, and so engaging. They are also, of course, what make it so profoundly problematic. Consider my phrasing, above, about contemporary creators of the weird working “in Lovecraft’s shadow,” and you may already get a sense of part of the problem, as Nnedi Okorafor famously did when she won the World Fantasy Award a few years back.

LOVECRAFT AND RACISM

Knowing I was at the Con, a friend shared a link to this Atlantic Monthly article about Lovecraft’s popular resurgence, and its relation to his more troubling social, and especially racial, views. The article’s aptness was highlighted for me by a number of things that happened at the Con.

On the one hand, there was a lot more open, critical dialogue about this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing and legacy than at the previous NecronomiCon, including a well-selected and attended panel on Lovecraft and racism. I didn’t make it to that one in person, but have watched it since – you can view it here.

Lovecraft’s xenophobic and racial views are hard to overlook (I would say impossible, if so many of his readers, imitators, and commentators had not tried, with varying degrees of success, to overlook them for so many decades), and this makes his celebrated status as a literary and pop-cult icon especially problematic.

These views are hardly incidental to Lovecraft’s writing, fiction or otherwise. In terms of his fictions, his anxious racial attitudes pervasively inflect his tales, becoming most overt in stories written during his time in New York city, including the spasmodic, gibbering tirades against urban ethnic hybridity which are “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook.” But they hardly disappear from the later fiction; like the invective that peppers his letters, they just become more understated once he returns to the relative ethnic and linguistic homogeneity of Providence.

In terms of his critical writings, Lovecraft even tended to assimilate weird fiction to his own racial typography, associating different strains of it with different aspects of his racial imaginary. In one example, from the first chapter of Supernatural Horror in Literature, he claimed that:

“In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, where the mystical Teuton had come down from his black Boreal forests and the Celt remembered strange sacrifices in Druidic groves, it assumed a terribly intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-hinted horror.”

Virtually every aspect of Lovecraft’s thought and writing is in some way coloured by his ideas about race and the relationship between genetics and culture, from his affectionate writings about cats to his readings of philosophical and historical works. As my ancient Rome co-panelists Dennis Quinn and Byron Nakamura both aptly stated during the panel on Lovecraft and ancient Rome, even Lovecraft’s identification with Roman writers is inflected by a tendency to align his contemporary white-Anglo-Saxon-Atheistical-Protestantism with both 18th century England and Republican Rome (an identification that echoes that made by Edward Gibbon and other 18th century British writers.)

Are these racial views ostensibly the reason most contemporary readers/writers are fascinated with Lovecraft’s stories? Of course not.  One of the participants on the panel, Mexican-born Canadian author, editor and publisher Silvia Moreno-Garcia, in her own reflections on the 2015 Con, writes:

“I’ve been asked (over and over again) why I’m interested in Lovecraft since he is so problematic. Nick Mamatas pretty much nails the answer in his essay “Why Write Lovecraftian Fiction?” which concludes:

“We read Lovecraft’s work and write Lovecraftian fiction, but we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.”

That’s my reaction, too.

Lovecraft was almost pathologically racist, brimming with biological anxieties which found their way into his stories. Even when he’s not afraid of other races, I would say he is afraid of genetic inferiors, constantly consumed with thoughts about degeneration, about lineages and disease.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Moreno-Garcia here.)

Also among the panelists was Canadian novelist and journalist David Nickle, who notes:

“there are other things going on in Lovecraft too: there’s the bestiary/pantheon of fantastically alien gods and monsters; that overheated prose that veers so easily between the sublime and the leaden; his fearful, bookish characters. But those are characteristics, aesthetics; not fundamentals. They are not the agenda.”

(You can read my earlier PstD interview with Nickle here.)

Both are surely right that the vast majority of Lovecraft’s readers, myself included, are drawn to Lovecraft’s fiction by things other than his racist views. But critically, Lovecraft’s racism is, in certain respects, finally inseparable from his aesthetics, and Lovecraft scholarship has only recently began to examine the degree to which they are imbricated, and what the effects of this imbrication are.

Of course, the same is true for the history of Western aesthetics in general. Consider, for example, Plato’s foundational remarks on the beauty of whiteness (so aptly parodied by another dead-white-great American weird fictionist, Melville, in Moby-Dick). Or consider Edmund Burke’s comments on, and supposedly empirical evidence for, the natural repulsion “we” feel when faced with black skin, in his Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a text which informed much of Lovecraft’s thought (like that of over a century of Gothic writers preceding him), and seems to have particularly inspired the opening sentence of Supernatural Horror: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

In Lovecraft’s case, these imbrications are particularly vivid, and therefore can be especially illuminating. Weird fiction titan China Mieville and scholar Jeffrey Weinstock are among those who have recently, and  persuasively, argued that the intensity of Lovecraft’s racialized anxieties contribute to the potency of his fictions. Some of Moreno-Garcia’s and Nickle’s comments, as well as their fictions, suggest that they think similarly.

In his Aug 25, 2014 blog post, “Don’t Mention the War,” Nickle observed:

“In a perverse way, Lovecraft’s retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature… not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we’ve been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods.”

Nickle explores Lovecraft’s racial imaginary, alongside that of his North American historical context, effectively in his novel Eutopia, as well as in many of his critical commentaries. Moreno-Garcia does so not only through her own fiction and her editorial and curatorial work, but also through her academic graduate work on Lovecraft and the American eugenics movement of his day.

These are tremendously valuable forays into an unpleasant, unsettling, but very necessary frontier; Lovecraft’s racism (and that of his contemporaries, and that of our contemporaries, and, ultimately, that we ourselves may experience and/or unwittingly propagate) needs to be not only openly acknowledged and discussed but studied, and re-examined not only through academic, but also through creative, lenses.

Doing so is not only necessary for developing our understanding of Lovecraft’s work, and its relationship to the history of racism in the 20th century. More importantly, it is vital for developing our understanding of the pervasive and persistent tendency to view alterity as a source of anxiety, and a site of exclusion and abjection. Lovecraft’s fiction is particularly apt in this respect, because it offers such a vivid and stark imagining of this tendency.

As Robin Wood pointed out in his classic essay “The American Nightmare” over 30 years ago, and as many theorists and writers have noted since, alterity forms much of the conceptual basis, and visceral appeal, of much, if not all, horror and weird fiction (hell, of human literature and culture tout court!). This is one of the things that led to Stephen  King’s pithy remark in Danse Macabre that horror writers are as  Republican as “a banker in a three-piece suit.”

THE PRICE DEBACLE

That brings me to the titanic “other hand -” the less positive way in which this NecronomiCon was a more unsettling experience.

Even though he wasn’t wearing a three-piece suit at the time, Robert M. Price rather embodied King’s stereotype during the Con. This is not only true of his controversial remarks during the opening ceremonies (here is a link to the video recording of them, Price’s speech beginning about 50 minutes in, with his “real life ‘Horror at Red Hook’ quip kicking up near the hour mark.) It was also evident during the short fiction reading he gave on Saturday, a Holocaust-exploitation story titled “It Came from the Ovens.”  In a nutshell, the story re-invents Lovecraft’s character, Herbert West, Reanimator, by having him working alongside Josef Mengele’s Nazi doctors in a concentration camp, focusing in pulpy, sensational detail on the torture of Jewish prisoners, from whom he learns the secrets of the Kabbalah. After describing the sofas he assembled from the excised faces of prisoners and similar atrocities, the story goes on to portray West’s creation of a Golem which, in typical revenge-film fashion, then smashes up a bunch of Nazi guards before destroying the animating sigil on its forehead, returning itself to ashes.

Price likely had satirical intentions with the story. In a recent blog post aimed at critics of circumcision, he wrote:

“This is a terrible time for Jews. Vocal and virulent anti-Semitism is on the rise in once-civilized Europe. But of course it was cultured, enlightened Europeans who sent Jews to the gas chambers, wasn’t it? And it was effete, ever-optimistic, naïve Europeans who allowed the annihilation of Jews because they could not believe “Mister Hitler” could actually be such a medieval barbarian as he proved to be. Today things are no different. Bubble-headed Presidents and Secretaries of State assure us that Iran is just kidding when they repeatedly announce their intent to wipe out Israel in a repeat of the Holocaust they disingenuously claim never happened. What happened to “Never again!”? More like “Ever again!”

Price’s politics and his fiction feature some pretty crassly co-ordinated fear-mongering. His reading felt to me like a piece of tasteless and opportunistic provocation, especially when taken in light of his remarks at the opening ceremony, that contemporary North America is facing a real-life “Horror at Red Hook.”

As Niels Hobbs commented during the panel on Lovecraft and Racism, perhaps Price has performed a sort of service by throwing into such high relief what a continuing concern Lovecraft’s worst ideological aspects remain for contemporary readers. Certainly, it shook me out of my complacent tendency to treat many of Lovecraft’s racial and ideological views as essentially historical and textual concerns, and served to remind me that they continue to have a potentially toxic cultural and polemical afterlife of their own.

THE WEIRD – LOVECRAFT = ?

What does all of this mean, however, for the present, and future, of those literary registers in which Lovecraft worked? The deleterious consequences of the popular (con)fusion of Lovecraft with the broad spectrum of the weird is one that has been pointed out many times, and that many writers, editors and commentators have tried to clarify, notably including Ann and Jeff VanderMeer with their seminal anthology, The Weird. Their introduction to that collection makes the point succinctly:

“The Lovecraft Circle is represented in the early pages of this volume, but not to the exclusion of all else. Why? Because in other places a similar impulse was arising. At roughly the same time Lovecraft penned tales like “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” Jean Ray, in a Belgian prison, wrote stunning and sophisticated stories like “The Shadowy Street” and “The Mainz Psalter,” Japanese poet Hagiwara Sakutoro composed the hallucinogenic strangeness that is “The Town of Cats,” and Polish writer Bruno Schulz mythologized his childhood in weird stories like “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.

These non-Anglo versions of The Weird were not aberrations. In the 1910s, Ryunosuke Akutagawa published the Japanese contes cruel “The Hell Screen” and Franz Kafka, still to remain relatively unknown for decades, wrote the classic of weird ritual “In the Penal Colony,” while in India Rabindrath Tagore wrote his most supernatural tale, “The Hungry Stones” and in Italy Luigi Ugolini penned “The Vegetable Man,” a tale of weird transformation.”

Certainly, I think the organizers of NecronomiCon are making efforts to make the event more balanced and inclusive, and I suspect Price’s antics may be part of a reaction against that.

These efforts, however, need to go a lot further. In his recent reflections on NecronomiCon 2015, Nickle wrote:

“But you know something about all those talks? With a few exceptions, they were all conversations among white, privileged people in the U.S. and Northern Europe, about the extreme racism and xenophobia of a dead white writer. They were conversations that may not have consciously excluded the people of colour who Lovecraft so consistently libelled, but nonetheless didn’t really manage include them.”

Moreno-Garcia also emphasizes this situation, and has offered a few Con-specific suggestions for improving it; you can read her blog post here.

TWEIRD KEWTSCH?

On a less serious note, I’d like to ponder what all of this recognition of politicization means for not only Lovecraft’s monsters, but also the profusion of “innocent” Lovecraftian kewtsch they’ve inspired.

Nested in Chloe Buckley’s recent review of Datlow’s collection, Lovecraft’s Monsters are some striking meditations on the cola-dark sea of Lovecraftian paraphernalia on which we are adrift:

“To Lovecraft literature scholars, the very idea of a cuddly Cthulhu might suggest the pernicious effects of late consumer capitalism on what was once a truly subversive modernist literature. S. T. Joshi, for example, decries the decline of Weird fiction, stating that ‘the amount of meritorious weird fiction being written today is in exactly inverse proportion to its quantity’ (2001, 1). Alternatively, to die-hard Lovecraft fans, the appearance of Cthulhu in children’s cartoons is an example of the inevitable “gushing up” to the mainstream of subcultural production. However, this polemic of radical art vs. conservative commodity, or, differently configured, transgressive subcultural form versus mainstream pop cultural work has always been to some extent resisted by the Weird tale and the Weird monster. Lovecraft’s work is neither properly modernist, nor properly post-modern; it is originally a pulp fiction that has accrued a (sub)cultural status, equated by some critics with outsider art; it is also deeply embedded in the highly commodified ‘geek culture’ that continues to become more and more mainstream.”

Innocuous octopi...or something far more sinister?

Innocuous octopi…or something far more sinister?

My thoughts about “tweird” HPL bric-a-brac went down a different track after David Nickle struck me with one of his characteristically incisive comments during a brief in-transit conversation at the Con. He suggested that sporting a Lovecraftian icon (say, a Miskatonic University t-shirt, or a plush shoggoth doll, or a Cthulhu-fish decal) could be perceived as a little like hanging a confederate flag above one’s mantelpiece.

Is it possible that, in the years to come, people are going to look back on the current Lovecraft craze, and its volcanic eruption of kewtsch, with the kind of fascinated horror with which most of us regard wooden cigar store Indians or those classic Disney cartoons from the 1930s, with the Bat Bandit, Chinky the Cook, and similar characters?

bATbANDIT

Is my six-year-old-daughter going to drag the pink-and-blue hand-knit Cthulhu we gave her in 2013 out of her closet in fifteen years, and groan, “DAMN, DAD, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING WITH ALL THIS LOVECRAFT CRAP?”

Somewhat more seriously, given the degree to which the monsters of our cultural imaginaries through the course of history are inflected by our own social and psychological anxieties and epistemological limitations, what might these mean for alterity-inflected monsters whose racialized context is a little less obvious?

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner's novel.

Grendel, as all-too-humanly imagined for the cover of John Gardner’s 1971 novel.

In any case, while I don’t think there is anything to be gained by denying Lovecraft’s importance, influence, or continuing power to fascinate (or in trying to quell the generative memetic quality his creatures have for cutesy caricature) the continued tendency to treat Lovecraft as a metonym, a personalized fetish, for the broad, dimly-lit, transnational, and even transhuman, field of the weird is disastrously misleading.

To awkwardly paraphrase Poe, “if in many of our productions weirdness has been the thesis, we maintain that weirdness is not of Lovecraft, but of the soul.”

Sean Moreland

Tagged , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 108 other followers