I got my first taste of Nicole Cushing’s fiction in the summer of 2013 when I picked up a copy of Joe Pulver’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets. The bleak but deeply sympathetic tone of her contribution was enough to drive me to seek out more of her work immediately, as well as to send out a few feelers to the writer herself; feelers that eventually resulted in this featured-author interview. The interview took place gradually via email in June, July, and early August 2014. During that time, I had the great pleasure of meeting Nicole in the flesh at Readercon 2014, where her novella Children of No One was also a Jackson nominee. In addition, at a late stage of our exchange, Nicole’s novel-in-progress was picked up for publication, and she (and her publisher, Ross Lockhart’s WordHorde) were gracious enough to let me read a late draft of it. On that basis, I recommend our readers seek out Mr. Suicide when it hits print, as it is a vital piece of dark fiction. As styptic as it is Stygian, it creeps across an uneasy borderland between horror, humour, and outright bizarrerie, managing to balance a Selby-esque sense of grim sympathy for life’s ineluctable sufferings with a Ligottian invocation of their obviation.
SM: Hi Nicole, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. Your work is probably already known to many of our readers, but for others, “The Peculiar Salesgirl” and this interview may serve as an introduction to you and your fiction. With that in mind, can you tell PstD’s readers a little about yourself, and your work as a writer?
NC: I’m a native Marylander whose life crash-landed in Louisville, Kentucky in 2003. I moved across the border to southern Indiana in 2005 and have lived here ever since. I’m married, childless, and creeping into middle age. To date, I’ve written two novellas (the short novella, Children of No One and a longer novella, I Am the New God). I’ve also written several short stories and have recently completed my first novel. Reviewers have compared my work to that of Thomas Ligotti and Clive Barker. Someone in publishing recently told me my work reminded him of Poppy Z. Brite. I don’t think any of those comparisons are hugely off the mark, but I never consciously mimic anyone else in the field. The world already has a Ligotti and a Barker and a Brite. So I focus on just being myself. I try not to think about the comparisons too much. I just share them with you as a way to give your readers a sense of what continent of the Weird-O-Sphere I occupy.
SM: My first glimpse of your work was actually quite recent – I picked up a copy of Joe Pulver’s anthology of Thomas Ligotti-inspired fiction, Grimscribe’s Puppets, and was immediately struck by your contribution, “The Company Town.” Can you tell us a little about the genesis of that story, about the world it describes, and about its connection with Ligotti’s work?
NC: I just checked my records and it looks like I wrote “The Company Town” in August of 2012. I recall writing it in a relatively short amount of time – I think it just took a weekend to write. August of 2012 wasn’t that long after the death of a dear friend from breast cancer. At the same time, my mother-in-law and cat were both suffering through long, painful illnesses that ultimately led to their deaths. So I was in a bitter mood when I sat down to write that one. I think it shows. The story is so brief (less than 2,000 words) that I don’t think I can really talk about the world of the story without revealing spoilers. But I can talk a little about its connection to Ligotti’s work. In “The Company Town,” I wanted to convey the gruelling horror of staying alive only because one feels an obligation to someone or something else; the horror of facing each day not because one finds any meaning in life but rather because committing suicide would violate a promise made to others (either verbalized or implied). I’m not an advocate of suicide. (I’d be a hypocrite if I advocated suicide, as it’s something I’ve never even tried.) But I think there’s value in acknowledging how much it can hurt to stay alive, sometimes. And that’s a theme one finds over and over in Tom Ligotti’s work. It’s most bluntly presented in Death Poems (particularly the poems “Staying” and “Your Evacuation”) and in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I think it’s also present in some of his better-known stories, too. (The ones that come to mind are “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and, possibly, “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land.”) I also wanted to write a Ligottiesque story of corporate horror that was set in my familiar Rustbelt environs. And it just seemed to me that “The Company Town” was a Ligottiesque title. It just sounds like some little piece you’d find at the end of Noctuary or Teatro Grottesco.
SM: You’ve often cited Ligotti as one of the most important influences on your fiction; he is often quoted in your interviews and epigraphs, and has in turn been one of the champions of your fiction. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Ligotti? With his work? How his vision has influenced your own?
NC: I’ve corresponded with him, sporadically, over the last two years. I try to not bother him too much, out of respect for his time and his privacy. The correspondence has definitely been an important factor in my development as a writer, though. As for my relationship with his work, I’ve been an ardent admirer of it since 2008. It’s funny, though. I didn’t always enjoy Tom’s stories. Back in 2001 I read “Our Temporary Supervisor” in an issue of Weird Tales and it just went over my head. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I rediscovered his work in the 2008 trade paperback edition of Teatro Grottesco that I fell in love with it. I think I’d just matured quite a bit in the space of those seven years. I think of him as a pioneer. He’s been semi-retired from fiction writing for about ten years and the rest of the field hasn’t – in my opinion – caught up with him yet. I have tremendous respect for some of the other writers in the field, mind you. But I don’t know if I see anyone else convincingly extending the horror genre to work with the themes he works with: reality as something that’s hideously mutable to the point of being insubstantial; free will and personhood as stubborn illusions; the sum of those themes – “Existence equals nightmare,” etc. I’m also in love with his prose. I don’t know if there’s any passage in all of literature that moves me as much as the Great Black Swine passage in the last few pages of My Work Is Not Yet Done. It’s a collision of great horror and great beauty. Now onto the last part of the question – the influence of his vision on mine. I think I’ve thoroughly digested Tom’s vision and it’s part of my frame of reference, but I don’t want to make his work the centre of my literary universe. There’s nothing sadder than a writer stuck in the amber of another writer’s imagination. I’m a firm believer in Sheldon Kopp’s saying: “If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.” I’m interested in exploring subjects that Tom’s usually just not that interested in (human relationships, for starters). So, by necessity, I have to grow beyond Tom’s influence and I think I have. If you’ll excuse the slightly off-colour expression, I don’t want to be Ligotti-with-boobs. I’m interested in bringing something new to the table. That’s the paradox: perhaps the best way to honour Tom is not to emulate his fiction, but to emulate his approach. Reach to say something new, something that not even Tom has said. At the end of the day, that’s one of his more important influences on me: a tendency toward innovation. I think the other influence Tom has had on me is the way he embraces literature from outside the English-speaking world. For example, Polish author Bruno Schulz is often cited as one of his influences. Tom and I have discussed our mutual appreciation of Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. The VanderMeers’ anthology The Weird mentions that Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” is one of Tom’s favourite stories. I think the freshness of his approach is, in part, the result of a seemingly unparalleled breadth and depth of reading that grants him a far more expansive frame of reference than that of most American horror authors. That’s Tom’s edge, I suspect, over many others. It’s the sort of edge I’d like to acquire, as well.
SM: You were nominated for a Shirley Jackson award for Children of No One, which I had the unsettling pleasure of reading recently. Can you tell us a little about the novella’s inspiration, and about the ways in which it is a departure from your earlier, shorter fictions?
NC: Children of No One was an accidental novella. I originally envisioned it as a short story, but it just grew and grew until it unexpectedly became a novella. I was reading a lot of Borges around the time I got the idea for that story. There’s a line in “The Garden of Forking Paths” which provided specific inspiration: “I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.” In the very next sentence the story dismisses this labyrinth of labyrinths as just one in a series of “illusory images,” but I started to daydream about a world that was literally nothing but labyrinths. A universe that was nothing but labyrinths. I started to consider writing a story around that idea. Over time, the setting evolved. I obviously wanted to work on a smaller stage than the universe, so I changed things so that an extensive series of pitch black underground labyrinths were passed off as the whole universe to young boys who had been placed in them at a very young age and didn’t know any better. There may be a far more simple inspiration for the novella, too. A few years ago, my husband and I went through a pitch black maze at our local Halloween haunted house. I’m sure that frightening and disorienting experience played a role in the story’s birth.
SM: Speaking of Shirley Jackson, how important a literary influence has she been for you? Are there any particular aspects of Jackson’s work that have made a mark on your literary vision, or any of her fictions that have made an especially lasting impression?
NC: What I love about Shirley Jackson is her incredible range. Very few writers are able to handle (with equal skill) the internal, psychological world and the external, sociological world. For example, aside from a few commentaries on life as an employee in a corporation, Ligotti’s fiction is – in an odd, roundabout way – deeply introspective. Yes, he’s writing about the cosmos (that which is outside himself) and he’s writing about the nullification of self. But we only care about it because he’s often depicting a richly described inner experience of communion with/escape from the cosmic nightmare. I’m not sure if that’s clear or not. Here’s another way of looking at it, courtesy of S.T. Joshi: “I do not think it would be possible to study…the sociopolitical aspects of Ligotti’s fiction – there do not seem to be any.” Jackson, on the other hand, is capable of plumbing the depths of inner torment in a book like The Haunting of Hill House (one of my favourite novels) but is also capable of examining the horror of community (obviously in “The Lottery,” but also in “The Summer People” and several of her other works). That balance – that ability to ping pong back and forth between the inner and the outer, the psychological and the sociological – is one of the main ways Jackson has influenced me. That ability to master both approaches (or even, sometimes, weave them together) is something I aspire to.
SM: Religious belief and delusion seem to be major recurrent themes in many of your fictions – the narrator of I AM THE NEW GOD (believes he) is undergoing a violent apotheosis, for example, while Children of No One features, among other things, a religiously inflected social/artistic experiment. You’ve stated in previous interviews that, while you were raised Episcopalian, you now identify as an atheist. Can you tell us about whether and how your religious upbringing has affected your outlook and philosophy, and perhaps also the menacing role religious beliefs often play in your fictions?
NC: Officially, I was raised Episcopalian. My mother and I went to the Episcopal Church each Sunday. But when I arrived home from church I’d see my father in his recliner watching his favourite televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, and I’d watch along with him sometimes. I had fundamentalist friends, too, who half-proselytized me into their version of the faith. As a ten-year-old, I was an avid viewer of the 700 Club and – here’s one from the way-back machine – Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club. I was exposed to no small number of bizarre sermons about the End Times, Revelations, the Beast of the Apocalypse, etc. In my teenage years, one of my older brothers felt the Episcopal Church was too liberal and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I attended a handful of their services, and so that denomination entered the equation too. So my religious upbringing was a little complicated, and veered away from the traditional Episcopalian faith (which is actually quite open-minded, at least as presented at the national level). By the time I left for college at nineteen, I had a real affection for the liturgy of the Episcopalians, but a dysfunctional sense of guilt that is more commonly associated with a fundamentalist or Roman Catholic upbringing. Well, I suppose you can guess that that didn’t last long. Obviously, as soon as I saw more of the world I rebelled. That’s not an unusual story. What is a bit unusual is that – long story made short – I paid a severe penalty for that rebellion. Over the course of time, several long-lasting family rifts emerged – not totally driven by religion, but in large part driven by it. There are siblings I’ve not seen for many years, for example, due – in part – to our religious differences. Religion is the source of a great deal of heartbreak in my life. It’s the bus that ran me over, so to speak. So (understandably, I think) I’m a bit obsessed with it. I know that not all religious people are cruel. I’ve spent some time around some American and Vietnamese-American Buddhists who weren’t so bad, relatively speaking. I’m friends with pagans and even one or two Christians. Yet I’m still compelled to explore my concerns about the high costs of religious belief. Over and over again, the theme emerges in my work. I don’t sit down at the keyboard and say: “Time to bash religion!” My concern about religion just works its way into stories when I don’t even intend to bring it up. I think it’s natural for a horror writer to retrace her scars with her stories. That’s basically what I’m doing, when the religious theme shows up in my fiction – just retracing my scars.
SM: Lovecraft appears to have thought that the most effective weird and supernatural fiction is a product of a skeptical and irreligious point of view (such a point of view is practically integral to Lovecraft’s conception of cosmicism). Do you agree with this assessment? How wedded would you say your own worldview and literary work are to your atheism?
NC: I’ve not seen that HPL comment before, but it doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. Even a cursory glance at the history of our field reveals believers (of one type or another) who made major contributions: Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Ray Bradbury (just to name a few off the top of my head). While atheism is, at this point, something I almost take for granted as part of my worldview (I’ve lived with it so long I no longer see it as shocking), I don’t think of my work as being wedded to my atheism. My sense is that readers don’t see it that way, either. My readers generally read me for the same reasons they read anyone else: the story and the characters. I have at least one Christian reader. Probably far more than that.
SM: I had not so much a specific comment by Lovecraft in mind as the general tendency of his conception of weird fiction in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Lovecraft understands the “true weird tale” as focused on a “suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” This would seem to rule out other “safeguards” such as those that tend to characterize theistic religion. On a personal note, are there safeguards that you believe in (or at least hope for) against “the assaults of chaos” that are frequently the stuff of your fiction? Things that keep your experience of life from being, so to speak, a horror story?
NC: It’s been a while since I’ve read Supernatural Horror in Literature (and my copy is currently misplaced amid the clutter of my books). But it seems to me that what HPL is driving at is that there’s a certainty offered by our consensus reality. This certainty helps us plod through life. Stripped of that certainty, there’s a gaping unknown we instinctively recoil from, out of sheer terror. HPL sees this as the most frightening thing imaginable. It sounds good, but I don’t buy it. It strikes me as an all-or-nothing proposition: either we invest in consensus reality or find ourselves the victim of “the assaults of chaos” (and, in that chaos, discover the metaphorical place where all the universe’s most chilling oogy-boogy stuff lives). Here’s another way of looking at it: there’s plenty of chilling oogy-boogy stuff in your own town, fully integrated into our consensus reality. Statistics being what they are, there’s a good chance that – somewhere within a few square miles – a child is being abused as you read this. In that same geographical area, a man is beating a woman. Somewhere in your city, someone is torturing an animal. Someone is drinking themselves to death. Hell, one need go no farther than one’s local hospital to find more sources of terror than Cthulhu could ever unleash. Look at someone dying from cancer, or heart disease or just simple old age. Honestly, I’m far more afraid of my fellow human beings (and of the biological journey I will undertake, as a human being), than I am of losing a stake in consensus reality. HPL was deeply mistaken when he said that the strongest fear is that of the unknown. The strongest fears involve those things which we know but try to pretend we don’t know (for example, the reality of death, the physical and mental decline that lead up to it, and the oblivion that follows). To awkwardly segue to the second part of your question, I don’t have any safeguards that I believe in or hope for. My safeguards are emotional, not rational. They’re primarily the handful of people who I’ve come to trust and love. My husband is a safeguard. A small group of friends I find particularly supportive is a safeguard. Religion isn’t a safeguard for me, but writing is (and, in some ways, it takes the place in my life that religion does in other peoples’ lives; it induces pleasant altered states of consciousness and gives me some vague sense of purpose).
SM: I’m very interested in your above emphasis on “the story and the characters” as the core of your fiction, especially since one of the most frequently cited limitations of Lovecraft’s fiction is his ability to write convincing and varied characters. This is also a frequent criticism of Ligotti’s fictions, that they embody a singular, anxious, alienated viewpoint, rather than giving rise to diverse and persuasively human characters. This is manifestly not the case with your fiction, though; you give the impression of being a writer who cares very much about her characters. Can you tell us a little more about your approach to characterization? Your experiences writing characters? Which of your characters have had the most powerful or troubling effect on you?
NC: The first thing I’ll share about my take on characterization is that I don’t do good guys vs. bad guys. Who’s the protagonist of I Am the New God? Greg Bryce. Who’s the antagonist? Greg Bryce. Sometimes (like in Children of No One), I’ll put forward bad guys but – as in life – no good guys come forward to counter them. This is disorienting to some readers, but attracts others. People like to stop and stare at train wrecks. My characters are train wrecks. No one identifies with them, really. I think it’s safe to say you’re not going to see anyone cosplaying Mr. No One or Greg Bryce any time soon. But I think readers are drawn to the characters by the train wreck factor. The second thing I’ll share about my take on characterization is that I like to get deep, deep, deep into the character’s head. I want to inhabit every nook and cranny of the character’s consciousness, the way Shirley Jackson did with Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House or Poe did with the main character in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The positive aspect of this is it brings the character alive for the reader. The negative aspect of this is that I had to live with Greg Bryce in my head for a few months. Yeah, that was no fun – probably one of the most painful characterizations I’ve had to write, as far as work that’s already been published. I have to admit I’m relieved to mostly be done with him. Writing fictional characters is, for me, like a case of dual possession. I possess the character but the character also possesses me. We walk around, stuck inside each other, for months at a time – all so my readers can enjoy a $2.99 ebook that they’ll finish in one or two sittings. There’s something fucked up about that, isn’t there?
SM: It is a strange enterprise – but I wouldn’t be as fascinated by your fiction as I am if it just flickered through my headspace and was gone “in one or two sittings”! Your emphasis on character and story also calls to mind the remarks of a writer I believe we share much admiration for, Caitlin Kiernan, to the effect that she is not, as a writer or as a reader, generally interested in story or plot. How important is plot to you, both in terms of your own writing and in terms of your preferences as a reader of fiction?
NC: With all due respect to Caitlin, I have different preferences. I appreciate a decent plot. I mentioned “The Tell-Tale Heart” in a previous question. One could make the case for that being a character study, but could also make the case for it being an example of effective plot. The two aspects of the story are so tightly woven together it’s difficult to separate them. The same could be said for another of my favorite Poe stories, “The Black Cat” (or for that matter, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). As far as my writing goes, I find that – at this stage of my career – I need plot. Maybe I don’t need “plot” in the sense of something that neatly fits what Aristotle said in his Poetics, but I need a series of events that depict a personal (and/or interpersonal) journey. I say I need that, because – for me – that’s the route to Novel Land. If I focus on atmosphere and character, I’ll likely stay with short fiction. Novels require motion and (for me, not as far along in this game as Caitlin is) that means plot.
SM: Would you characterize one of your goals as a writer as inspiring readers to interrogate their own beliefs, religious and otherwise? Have you ever encountered readers who profess to have undergone such a perspectival shift after reading your fiction?
NC: That’s a good question, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. My primary goal is to tell a story well. When push comes to shove, that’s my job: to be an author, not a heavy-handed, message-spouting machine. But I want to be thought-provoking too, of course. I think that’s the difference between art and entertainment – art doesn’t just provide distraction, it also provokes thought. I think we have far too much entertainment and far too little art these days. I’m not anti-entertainment, but I do wish things weren’t so radically out of balance. American anti-intellectualism rules popular culture and popular culture rules publishing. Most readers don’t want books anymore. They want printed movies and TV shows. The conventions of visual media (cookie-cutter characters, serial storytelling, heavy melodrama, etc.) are conventions that have seeped into publishing. Saturated it. I don’t write printed movies. While I hope my books never lapse into didacticism, they tend to be fuelled by my passions and beliefs. To answer your follow-up question, no reader has (to my knowledge) rethought his or her beliefs after finishing one of my books. If it’s happened, I haven’t heard about it yet.
SM: You’re a resident of Indiana and both Children of No One and I AM THE NEW GOD are set there. Aside from the obvious adage of writing what you know, why does Indiana form the backdrop of so many of your fictions?
NC: I do live in Indiana (southern Indiana, actually; not far from the border with Kentucky). So I’m essentially on the border between the Midwest and the South. I’ve been in this area of the country for about ten years. Prior to that I lived on the East Coast, where I was born and raised. I think I write about Indiana because my relocation out here was turbulent (partially motivated by an ill-considered relationship, partially motivated by the lower cost of living, partially motivated by a desire to start over). I think I write about Indiana because I’ve been here long enough to know and care about many of the people, but still retain a sense of being a fish out of water. The culture is strikingly different from the culture on the coasts – it’s very conservative here, very fundamentalist. After ten years out here I’m close enough to Indiana to want to tell its stories, but sufficiently detached from it to be able to tell its stories. And, to be honest, I probably write about Indiana because I sometimes have a lot of anger about what I see out here, and fiction gives me a place to express it.
SM: How close would you say the Indiana of your fictions is to the “real” one in which you live?
NC: It varies. The Indiana in “The Suffering Clown” is an exaggerated, surreal depiction of the state. The Indiana of “The Peculiar Salesgirl” and “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” is, I think, more accurate. There are fantasy elements in both, of course. But I think those stories capture the feel of the place. There’s a crime writer named Frank Bill who lives in the region and also uses it as the setting for his stories. I’ve never met him or read his work, but my understanding is that his impression of the place isn’t all that different from my own.
SM: To what extent do you consider yourself a “regional” writer? Are there ways in which your place of residence has identifiably coloured your fiction? Are there particular writers whose work has affected your own sense of, and fictional treatment of, place?
NC: I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I’ve been anticipating (actually, dreading) the day when someone asked me that question. Copping to being a regional writer seems – to me – like volunteering to put a big, fat “Marginalize Me” sign on your back. I understand it isn’t meant as an insult, but I think it can have a negative impact on a newer writer’s career. As if being a literary horror writer wasn’t marginal enough, now I may be a regional literary horror writer. Talk about niche! *shudder* Honestly, I’m not even certain the construct of the regional writer is a valid one. It seems to me that writers are usually tagged with the regional label only if the region in question is rural and/or far away from the coasts. No one considers J.D. Salinger or John Cheever regional writers even though many of their stories are set in New York and New England. No one considers Hubert Selby, Jr. a regional writer because his work is set in Brooklyn. And yet setting plays such a powerful role in all three writers’ work. Here’s another (slightly less cranky) reason I’m not a regional writer: my characters aren’t rooted to their settings. Most of my major characters are people who were in one place and have (sometimes abruptly) moved to another. That’s true of both the hierophant and Greg Bryce in I Am the New God. That’s true of Mr. No One and Thomas Krieg and – especially – the kids in Children of No One. It’s true of the young woman protagonist in “The Peculiar Salesgirl.” It’s true of the father and daughter in “The Company Town.” It’s true of the characters in both of my current works in progress. It’s odd. I’ve never thought about it before. I’ve never intentionally tried to craft rootless characters. They all just come out that way. I’m not writing about place, I’m writing about placelessness. About Nowhere, Indiana. So that’s my defence, your honour.
SM: Your portrayals of (usually working- or lower-middle-class) Midwestern American life are generally far from flattering. Have you gotten any responses (be they praiseful or accusatory) from fellow Midwesterners regarding your portrayal of these regions?
NC: Oddly, most of the reader feedback I’ve received has come from outside the U.S. – the U.K., Mexico, Australia, Spain, Germany, Sri Lanka and – of course– Canada. I think it was a U.K.-based reader who told me she felt my take on the Midwest made it seem exotic. Ha! I have run across one or two readers from the Midwest who dig my stuff, though. My hunch is that the sort of Midwesterners who would take great offence at my writing generally aren’t the sort who read horror fiction. So it’s a problem that solves itself!
SM: We live in a society in which stigmas against mental illness are pervasive and powerful. Given the subject matter and treatment of IATNG, are you concerned whether the novel might feed social anxieties about mental illness?
NC: I don’t want to contribute to the stigma people diagnosed with a mental illness face day in and day out. That’s why I wanted to treat the mental health issue with the gravity it deserved. I think I succeeded in depicting mental illness without trivializing it, and I think I treated it as only one ingredient of the perfect storm that is Gregory Bryce. (Substance abuse, communication with a religious fanatic, sexual repression, and a move away from his social and professional supports are the other ingredients). Arguably, religion is the real boogeyman in the book, not mental illness. I think it’s also important to note that my characterization of Greg isn’t without sympathy, and that his vulnerability is emphasized every bit as much as his aggressiveness.
SM: It seems to me that one major difference between IATNG and the novels I mentioned above is that it is much more inflected by a kind of blackly comical delirium, an almost absurdist sense of humour. It actually reminded me of Faulkner’s comment that As I Lay Dying was basically a humorous novel. Do you see IATNG as a kind of comedy? Do you think of yourself as writing, or in dialogue with, absurdist fiction?
NC: I don’t see it as a comedy. I think I just have a weird sense of humour that occasionally can’t help but poke its head up – even in the midst of great horror or tragedy. In IATNG, for example, much of that humour derives from the antics of Hop-frog (Greg Bryce’s golem-like creation, made out of sand and pebbles). I see the humour as incidental to the book, though, rather than at its core. But I may not be the best judge of that. There’s a bitter, deadpan dark humour that I’ve carried around since childhood as a survival mechanism. It’s so woven into my personality and my writing that it’s become invisible to me. It may be very visible to readers, though, and that may be what you’re reacting to.
SM: You’ve often spoken of Hubert Selby, Jr. as another influence on your work, and have noted that “What we remember about Selby’s work isn’t the outrage it triggered, but rather its skill in putting marginalized people in the spotlight and its skill in using understatement to convey the way horror saturated the social interactions of those people, day in and day out.” Can you tell us a little about what you think makes Selby’s work so effective in this respect? Has Selby’s work changed the way you see the prospects of literature? The way you think about the role of horror in fiction, or in our world? Which of Selby’s novels has been the most powerful for you? Any thoughts on the film adaptations that have been based upon them?
NC: I’m impressed by Selby’s book Last Exit to Brooklyn (I particularly recall the chapter “Tralala”). It’s been a while since I’ve read Selby, but my memory of having read him is that he doesn’t give you a lot of emotional hysterics about the calamity that’s unfolding. There’s a sense of being right there with these characters as terrible things happen, but there’s also a lack of commentary, a detachment, a shrug, a sense that this is just the way the world is and that little can be done about it. There’s a quiet misanthropy at work. Selby was my first exposure to transgressive fiction and I found his honesty refreshing. I’ve hung around people who reminded me of Selby characters and been in places that reminded me of Selby’s settings. The guttersnipe in me is proud to see my fellow lowlifes represented so unapologetically in a piece of fiction that’s been so well-received. My awareness of Selby’s work has made me more attuned to the border between transgressive fiction and horror fiction, and how some authors (like Jack Ketchum and Poppy Z. Brite) have successfully blended the two approaches. You mentioned the film adaptations. I’ve never seen them, but have heard that I should.
SM: For the last 30 years or so, North American popular culture has been inundated with fictional treatments of serial killers. One could read IATNG as making a contribution to this body of work. Do you think of its narrator as a serial killer? Are there other (fictional or non) treatments of serial killers that have influenced its portrayal? That have otherwise impacted you?
NC: I don’t think of Greg Bryce (the main character in IATNG) as a serial killer. It’s difficult to get into the reasons why I don’t think of him that way without going into spoilers. For now, let’s just say that I don’t think he meets all the criteria for that designation. I also just don’t think he can be summed up that easily. I’ve never been a big fan of the serial killer subgenre, actually. (Well, unless you count Dr. Phibes. Does he count as a serial killer? Maybe a cozy serial killer?) Greg’s behaviour was inspired, in part, by the behaviour of the disturbed characters in ’70s grindhouse horror films. At his worst, he’s more similar to Krug in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, or the title character in George Romero’s Martin than he is to characters typically thought of as falling into the serial killer category.
SM: In an interview in Black Static, you characterized yourself as having grown up “addicted to ’80s horror anthology shows like Tales from the Darkside, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Friday the 13th: The Series. In retrospect, the shows are – at best – charmingly hokey. But, these all fed the passion for horrific fiction. As I (and perhaps a number of our readers) grew up in roughly the same period, watching many of the same films and programs, I’d love it if you could point to some of the scenes, episodes, characters and so on that have continued to linger in your mind after all these years? Any that you remember vividly that have (not) lived up to your recollection upon re-watching? Any that have crept, wittingly or otherwise, into your own fictions?
NC: I seem to recall the Tales from the Darkside episodes most vividly. They did two strong Halloween episodes (“Halloween Candy” and “Trick or Treat”). Upon re-watching them I found I preferred the latter due to its snazzy, nightmarish makeup effects and miserly bad guy. There are few pleasures greater than seeing George Romero ghoulies stick it to a rich dude. I also enjoyed their adaptation of Robert Bloch’s “A Case of the Stubborns.” That one, I seem to recall, included an appearance by a pre-Star Trek Brent Spiner and co-starred a teenage Christian Slater. There’s a story from the ’80s reboot of The Twilight Zone that has lingered with me, too, called “The Shadow Man.” I remember that one particularly frightening me. These shows are part of an inescapable American storytelling tradition in which villains are gruesomely punished with ironic just deserts. I think all of these TV shows were heavily influenced by ’50s E.C. comics. E.C. comics were, in turn, influenced by horror-themed radio dramas (shows like The Witch’s Tale, Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, etc.). This is an old, old force in American horror entertainment, going back at least 75 years and probably longer than that. W.C. Morrow’s story “His Unconquerable Enemy” could have been an E.C. comic or a Tales from the Darkside episode, and that was published in 1889. This might be stretching it, but you could even call “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “Hop-Frog,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” just deserts stories. Obviously, with most of the stories I just listed, there’s a lot more meat on the bones than simple revenge. But there’s an element of comeuppance, of hubris punished. (Of course, just by using the word “hubris” I’m hinting that this tradition may have roots far older than Poe).,Anyway, “Hop-Frog,” in particular, seems like it could have been an E.C. story. It doesn’t seem to have much more going for it other than the nasty, clever revenge plot (and, just as in Romero’s Tales from the Darkside episode “Trick or Treat,” rich assholes get what they deserve).Twenty years ago, when I first tried my hand at horror stories, I wrote stories very much in the just deserts vein. It was all I knew. Of course, the stories were (mercifully) rejected. Over time, I became more familiar with all the other things the genre could do and I no longer tried to write the short fiction equivalent of Tales from the Crypt. I haven’t managed to escape the influence of these sorts of stories completely, though. A few years ago I was invited to write a story for an anthology about hell, demons, etc. I submitted a story called “The Orchard of Hanging Trees,” which didn’t get into the anthology but has been adapted for audio for Pseudopod and also appeared in DarkFuse magazine. Recently, I was thinking about that story and realized it was very much a just deserts story. I wasn’t at all trying to write a just deserts story, but it just happened. Other than that one lapse, though, I don’t think I’ve ever succumbed to that influence’s pull.
SM: Do you think there is something about the single-episode anthology series that is particularly well suited to the horror genre? Have there been any such programs more recently that have caught your attention?
NC: I loved the single-episode anthology shows as a kid, but my adult impression of them is that they were pretty hit or miss. That’s been the problem with every anthology show out there, I think: maintaining a high quality of production. The writing has to be consistent and the budget has to be consistent. No small tasks. Nowadays, I don’t watch a lot of TV. If the TV is on, it’s usually because the Cincinnati Reds are playing. I haven’t seen any TV horror anthology show since the ’80s and early ’90s.
SM: Can you recommend to our readers any films you’ve seen recently that made an impression on you?
NC: I don’t watch a lot of films, and the ones I do watch tend to be older. There’s a fairly obscure one called I Bury the Living that was pretty smart and disturbing up until the end. The film fell apart at the end, but the first ninety percent of it was dandy. As far as newer stuff goes, I thought Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem was pretty good. I haven’t cared for all of the Rob Zombie movies. Overall, my opinion of him is pretty mixed. But I think The Lords of Salem and The Devil’s Rejects are two of his better ones. He apparently has another horror movie coming out soon and I’m looking forward to seeing it. Even when he fails, he fails in a way that’s interesting and good for the genre.
SM: Have you ever tried, or considered, screenwriting? Would you like to see a film adaptation of one of your fictions at some point? If so, constraints of mundane reality aside, which of your fictions do you think would best transfer to the screen? Who would be your ideal director for it?
NC: I’ve never tried screenwriting. I’ve read a few screenplays just to get familiar with the form, but I’m not chomping at the bit to get into that aspect of the industry. Similarly, I’ve never given a lot of thought to my work being adapted for film. If the right creative team came forward with the right amount of money, I’d sure listen to what they had to say. I understand that interest from filmmakers is nothing to sneeze at. But the only time I think about this topic is when interviewers ask about it. You used the word “ideal.” Keeping that in mind, and approaching this as a fun, pie in the sky sort of thing, I think a thirty million dollar Aronofsky-directed adaptation of either of my novellas could be splendid. My hunch is he’d like Children of No One better, but I could see him tackling I Am the New God, too. While we’re throwing out names, here are some more: Cronenberg, Lynch, and the aforementioned Rob Zombie. I think Rob Zombie could make a fairly strong adaptation of I Am the New God. He does a great job of portraying violence and sadism. I don’t know how the usual Zombie acting stable would fit into the project, though. Is Sheri Moon Zombie old enough now to convincingly play Greg Bryce’s mother? Would Rob Zombie cast Ken Foree as the hierophant? Where would Sid Haig fit in? Rob, if you’re reading this and are interested, just email me, baby.
SM: I’m always curious about the work habits of writers. Can you describe your writing process a little, what kind of schedule and habits you typically employ, any rituals or practices that figure largely in your writing?
NC: I don’t have any rituals. I get up shortly after my husband goes to work (around six a.m.) and write for several hours. When I’m working on a new project I try to get in around 1,000 words a day and 5,000 words a week. The only thing that might seem like an odd ritual is that I’ll sometimes edit manuscripts in the bathtub. Say what you will, but it’s comfortable.
SM: During the course of our exchange, you’ve received some exciting news – the novel-length manuscript you’ve been working on has found a publisher! Can you tell us a little about who is publishing it and when? And perhaps how this came about?
NC: The book is called Mr. Suicide, and it’s been acquired by Ross Lockhart for his press, Word Horde, as a July, 2015 release. The whole thing came about as a result of social networking, actually. I’ve interacted with Ross online for a few years now. I was talking about the project on Facebook, and he sent me a message inviting me to submit it to his press. We met in person at the World Horror Convention in Portland and he told me that he felt the book would be stronger with a revised ending. He didn’t tell me how to revise it, mind you. (And I’m glad he didn’t.) He just felt the original ending was too cliché. When I came home from WHC I read through the manuscript again and discovered he was correct. I sent him an email, pitching a general direction for a new ending. He greenlighted it, and then I went to work. I cut the last twenty or so pages of the original manuscript and wrote a new ending. That rewrite took about a month. Then about a month after that, he accepted it. I’m grateful to have Ross as the editor for this book. Already, his input has been quite helpful. The book is far better now than it would have been without him. (Honestly, I’m grateful for all the editors I’ve worked with. I’ve been fortunate. They’ve all been gems.)
SM: Can you say something about the novel’s subject matter and approach? Its relation to your previous fictions?
NC: I’m not a fan of the so-called elevator pitch, but I’ve been describing it as The Catcher in the Rye meets “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It’s another story of the Great Dark Mouth (the entity featured in Children of No One). I don’t see it as a sequel, exactly, as much as another entry in a Great Dark Mouth-related mythos.
SM: Can you tell us a little more about the origins and significance of the Great Dark Mouth? Was this something that originated with Children of No One, or does it predate that story?
NC: The Great Dark Mouth first appeared in Children of No One, but I’ve played with similar concepts in my earlier short stories. For example, in “The Orchard of Hanging Trees” (written in late 2010 and early 2011), there’s a portal to non-existence called simply “the Dark.” In “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” (written in early 2011), there’s an entity referred to variously as “the Beast, Oblivion” and “the Time-Eater.” I wasn’t consciously trying to return to this theme and characterization over and over, it just happened. I think these short stories paved the road that ultimately led to the Great Dark Mouth. Since early childhood, I’ve been interested in the concept of oblivion. That sounds like a crazy thing to say, but it’s the truth. So it’s no surprise that my fiction should reflect this, and that – as I persevered in writing – my embodiment of oblivion became more fully realized.
SM: Mr. Suicide goes into much more detail about the human beings who see themselves as disciples of the Great Dark Mouth. Do you see this figure, and its cultic devotees, as becoming a continuous, unifying aspect of your work in the way the Cthulhu mythos was for Lovecraft and his collaborators, or the way Old Leech is for Laird Barron?
NC: When I started writing Mr. Suicide, I didn’t know I was writing another story about the Great Dark Mouth. For most of the first draft, the entity-in-question was simply referred to as “the Dark.” It was only toward the very end of the first draft that I realized “the Dark” was, in fact, the Great Dark Mouth. The sneaky bastard slipped in without me even knowing it! So, at this point, I’m hesitating – just a little – to declare this the start of a mythos. As goofy as this sounds, the Mouth (like all my characters) has more control over whether he’ll appear again than I do. He decides if he’ll show up or – like a Hollywood prima donna – stay put in his trailer. That said, I think Mr. Suicide leaves room for the further development of such a mythos. There are other wrinkles to the story that could be explored. And I know many readers appreciate a rich mythos in which they can immerse themselves. So if the Mouth is reading this, he should know that he has an open invitation to show up in future stories.
SM: Mr. Suicide treats some, for lack of a better word, pretty rough subjects (including self-mutilation, suicide, murder, sexual violence, as well as both anxieties about, and the fetishization of, disability and bodily difference). Can you tell us how some of these tie in to the Great Dark Mouth aspects of the novel’s world?
NC: Let me address this question in two ways: conceptually and practically. Conceptually, the common thread is that of perversity. One of Poe’s great contributions to literature is his concept of “the imp of the perverse” (meaning the instinct people have for self-sabotage, to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time). He described it in “The Black Cat” as “this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only.” I find this to be a powerful feature of Poe’s fiction and am sympathetic with the misanthropic notion that – as the protagonist of the “The Black Cat” says – “perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart – one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man.” My favourite Poe tales are those in which “the imp of the perverse” has a place in the limelight. In addition to the aforementioned “The Black Cat,” I’m also thinking of his story titled “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” too. At some point during the writing of the book, I became aware of the fact that Poe was exerting a significant influence on me. So I just went with it. Harm to self (in various forms) was – from the very start – an important aspect of the main character’s journey. But with my understanding of the Poe influence, I built on this and added a layer of more mundane self-sabotage to the mix. At the same time, I was aware the word “perverse” has come to acquire a particularly sexual connotation in our present day. While the fetish element wasn’t an aspect of the book from the very start, my perverse adolescent male protagonist took me there. It’s a natural outgrowth of his character. Which brings me to the practical side of this answer. The only sort of teenage boy who’d be interested in communion with the Great Dark Mouth would be one who had suffered significant, disturbing trauma and had been wholly alienated from his peers. The transgressive elements you listed are there to facilitate the main character’s unmooring from society and simultaneous embrace of the broken, the wrong, the taboo, and the foul (en route to what might be seen, in polite society, as the Greater Foulness or Greater Wrong of oblivion and unbirth).
SM: These subjects, and their treatment in the novel, are sure to make many readers uncomfortable. Did you find yourself uncomfortable while working with them? Why do you think it was important for you? Were there things about writing the novel you found particularly hard to hold in your mind, your imagination? Are you worried that some readers are going to view the novel as “exploitation” fiction? Is this a label you would object to?
NC: I would object to that label. “Exploitation” implies a certain crass, manipulative approach to the transgressive content. In exploitation films, for example, the extreme content is typically the main draw – the only draw for work that suffers from poor production values. Exploitation filmmakers from the grindhouse era knew that they weren’t able to afford experienced actors who could serve as box office draws. They knew that – for the most part – they couldn’t afford decent special effects. Their shooting schedules and their screenwriting abilities were also limited. So they played the only card they had: their ability to go places mainstream films wouldn’t go, to play to a prurient and/or gore hound interest. That’s not what I’m about. I write about extreme experiences and extreme states of mind because I find them to be an important part of life that modern horror fiction (with few exceptions) either avoids, treats superficially, or outright trivializes. Is it uncomfortable for me at times? Yes. I strive to get deep into my characters, which means they exert a temporary possession over me (and I temporarily possess them). It’s an intimate experience, and it’s jarring to have intimate experiences with the deranged. There’s often an emotional hangover that lingers after I spend time with one of my more disturbed protagonists. But, at the end of the day, I’m proud of what I’ve written. My hope is that readers – not everyone, certainly, but the right readers – will appreciate the book in the same spirit they’ve come to appreciate Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door or Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse.
SM: Would you care to give our readers a few words about any other projects you’re working on currently?
NC: I hope to soon be able to announce details about a pending short story collection, entitled The Mirrors. I’ve also submitted a novella called The Sadist’s Bible (which I’m waiting to hear back on), and I’m about 16,000 words into the next novel – tentatively titled Shreds. I’m hoping to have that one finished by the end of the year.
SM: You’ve mentioned that “The Peculiar Salesgirl” (reprinted here) is a story of which you are particularly fond. Can you tell us something about the genesis of the story, what it is about it that continues to grip you? A little about its publication history?
NC: “The Peculiar Salesgirl” is one of a handful of stories I’ve written that were inspired by nightmares. It’s been awhile now, so I can’t remember the specifics of the nightmare. Maybe it had something to do with images of misshapen skin. But I distinctly recall being unable to get back to sleep around 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. and deciding to go down to the office and try to write a story based on what I’d just experienced. Of course, nightmares lack a coherent narrative structure. It wasn’t a matter of simply transcribing the nightmare, but rather picking out a particularly powerful image from the nightmare (in this case, I think, the skins) and then writing a story that integrated the nightmare image more-or-less seamlessly into the whole. I submitted the story to the U.K.-based literary magazine, Polluto. They accepted it and designated it their Editor’s Choice for issue #10. That’s its only previous appearance. It’s never appeared online. I think the story still grips me because there’s still a little chunk of nightmare intact inside of it. The story is like a jar of formaldehyde that keeps preserving the nightmare inside of it, month after month, year after year.
Sean Moreland is founder and fiction editor at Postscripts to Darkness, and a part-time English professor at the University of Ottawa.