Category Archives: Interviews

PSTD Interview: Gwynne Garfinkle

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Hi Gwynne! Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions as part of our PstD online poetry feature. To start off, can you tell our readers a little about who you are, what you do, what you’ve written and what you’re writing?

Thanks, Sean! I’m a Los Angeles native, a poet, fiction writer, and erstwhile rock critic. My work has appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Apex, Interfictions, Mythic Delirium, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. A lot of what I write (but not all) is speculative in nature. I’m currently working on a novel about teenage girls in the Los Angeles punk scene circa 1980, as well as a collection of poetry and short fiction.

Both the short poem cycle “People Change” and “Linda Blair Pantoum” are, I understand, part of a larger poem-cycle that engages with your lifelong fascination with horror films. When did you start writing this body of poems? Roughly how many poems does it encompass? Is there a working title for the series and do you eventually plan to publish them in a single volume?

The first poem in the series was “bell, book, candle,” which I wrote in 2011. Certainly by the time I’d written “It’s a Universal Picture” a couple of years later, I knew I wanted to write a series of poems inspired by horror films.

There are around 20 poems in the series so far, with several more in various stages of composition. The working title for the sequence is “It’s a Universal Picture,” and the series will be included in the book of poetry and short fiction I’m putting together. Some of my short fiction also relates to film.  “In Lieu of a Thank You”  is an homage to the mad-scientist movies of the 1930s. “The Imaginary Friend,” which appeared in Postscripts to Darkness vol. 6, centers around a fan of a (fictional) science fiction movie.

You recently published “A Poem for Mary Henry,”  titled after the main character (played by Candace Hillgoss) from the film Carnival of Souls (1962). Am I right in assuming it is part of this poetic series?

Yes, it is! Carnival of Souls is a film that I find endlessly fascinating.

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Beyond their grounding in your personal horror-film-spectatorship, what do these poems have in common, thematically, stylistically, formally?

In these poems, I explore the personal and feminist concerns (and sometimes they’re the same thing) evoked by horror films. To use “Linda Blair Pantoum” as an example: I’d been thinking about how, subtextually, The Exorcist is about a mother trying to cope with her daughter going into puberty. So in the poem I write about the possessed Regan, as well as Linda Blair’s later teenaged roles, from the perspective of a pre-teen horror fan (my younger self) looking for clues to her own future by observing the pop culture morass.

Many of the poems in the sequence are in free verse; some use forms like the pantoum, the villanelle, and the acrostic. I’d say my poetry tends more toward the aural than the visual. It focuses more on the music of spoken language than on imagery (which may seem an odd observation about poems inspired by such a visual medium as film).

What were, for you, the most important horror films of the 20th century? What have been the most important horror films of the 21st century so far?

I tend to prefer psychological and/or atmospheric horror to splatterfests (and when I like gory films, it tends to be in spite of the gore). So, for the 20th century, my highly subjective list would include the 1930s Universal films, especially Dracula (1931, both the Tod Browning version and the Spanish-language version directed by George Melford), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935); many of Val Lewton’s films, including Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944); and, variously, Gojira (1954, not to be confused with the Raymond Burr-ized Godzilla from two years later), Night of the Demon (1957), The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Deathdream (1972), The Exorcist (1973), and The Fly (1986). But I’ve left out so much. (The silent era! Hammer films! Mario Bava!) And I’m still eagerly seeking out films I haven’t seen.

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Deathdream (1972), an under-rated piece of Canadian-produced political horror from Bob Clark, better known for directing two of the all-time greatest Christmas movies in history (ed.)

I’m much less conversant with 21st-century film horror, but some films that have impressed me are Ginger Snaps (2000), Let the Right One In (2008), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Byzantium (2012), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). I notice that my favorite recent horror films tend not to be made in the U.S. (and also that I still love vampire stories when they’re told in fresh ways).

I think all of your film-focused poems I’ve read so far are grounded in films from the 1970s or earlier. Have you written poems in response to more recent films as well, or is there something about the vintage aspect of the films that is necessary to the conception of the series?

Most of the poems in the series deal with films from the 1980s or earlier. My lack of interest in gore may have something to do with this. More to the point, most of the poems in the series are based on films that have permeated my imagination for many years–often decades.

Whether they are past or contemporary, who are some of the poets whose work has been most important to your own, and what have you taken from their writing?

I could list beloved poets all day long (Sappho, William Blake, Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, June Jordan, Diane di Prima, Ted Berrigan, Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, etc.), but in terms of influence on my own work, I’d have to mention Frank O’Hara, who wrote so breezily about pop culture, amid references to literature and painting and music and his friends and lovers–and whose poems “To the Film Industry in Crisis” and “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” certainly influenced my current poetry project.

Also there’s Marilyn Hacker, one of the most accomplished living poets of established forms (and a poet who writes out of a Jewish feminist sensibility). When I tackle forms like the sonnet, the pantoum, or the villanelle, Hacker provides a dazzling example.

She’s not primarily a poet, but I want to mention Dodie Bellamy, who has written brilliant, experimental works like The Letters of Mina Harker (1998). (I studied with Dodie in my MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.) Her bravura collaging of horror tropes with fiction and memoir showed me new possibilities for writing about this material.

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I’m also continually inspired by such contemporary writers as Lisa M. Bradley, Sonya Taaffe, and Sofia Samatar (to name just a few!). It’s a very rich time for speculative poetry.

You are also an accomplished writer of short fiction. How would you describe the relationship between writing prose fiction and writing poetry? Are there times when the two registers overlap?

Sometimes when I begin to write a piece, I’m not sure whether it will end up as poetry or prose. My poem “Ralph Touchett Awaits Revision” began life as a short story. My unpublished novel The Posthumous Life of Eleanor Bell deals with a sort of vampire Sylvia Plath and includes a number of her poems (written in a style distinctly different from my own).

Where else can our readers find your work, and particularly other poems in this series?

Links to my work, including other poems in the series, can be found at my website: http://gwynnegarfinkle.com

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Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Interfictions, Apex, Mythic Delirium, Lackington’s, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Through the Gate, inkscrawl, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

 

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PSTD INTERVIEW: JOHN LANGAN

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John Langan in his natural environment

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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)?

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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?

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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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”


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Interview with David Nickle

David Nickle is the Stoker-award winning author whose most recent novel, The 'Geisters, and most recent collection, Knife Fight and Other Struggles, are available from ChiZine.

David Nickle is the Stoker award-winning author whose The ‘Geisters and Knife Fight and Other Struggles are available from ChiZine.

My introduction to David Nickle’s fiction came a little over a decade ago when I borrowed a friend’s copy of the classic Canadian horror journal Northern Frights. I rediscovered Nickle’s work with ChiZine’s publication of his first short story collection, Monstrous Affections, a few years ago, and I loved these insidious, unsettling stories so much I quickly indulged a completist impulse and sought out the rest of Nickle’s books. Reading his fictions, I was often surprised but never disappointed. Nickle’s work is transgeneric, energetic, measured and inventive; it wears its many literary ancestors proudly, while at the same time relentlessly pushing beyond them into new speculative territory. –Sean Moreland

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Interview with Glen Hirshberg

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of the novel Motherless Child and its forthcoming sequel Good Girls.

Glen Hirshberg is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of Motherless Child and Good Girls.

It is likely no secret to PstD’s readers that we are admirers of Glen Hirshberg’s fiction. After all, our project’s title itself is a nod to the Rolling Darkness Revue, the theatrical terror-tale troupe that he co-founded with Peter Atkins and Dennis Etchison, and Hirshberg was among the authors interviewed in our inaugural issue following the RDR’s one and only (so far) stint in Canada. Hirshberg ranks among the most accomplished living writers of psychologically incisive dark fiction. His work coils, quiet and insistent, in the interstice between the strange stories of Robert Aickman and the humane grotesques of Flannery O’Connor.

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Interview with Nicole Cushing

Nicole Cushing's "Children of No One" was nominated for a Hugo Award.

Nicole Cushing’s “Children of No One” was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.

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.

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An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia was a finalist for the 2014 Sunburst Award.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia was a finalist for the 2014 Sunburst Award.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a vital voice in contemporary speculative fiction (especially in the weirder regions we at Postscripts to Darkness gravitate towards) and a pre-eminent figure in the landscape of Canadian small-press publishing. She is co-editor of Innsmouth Free Press, a micro-press specializing in dark fiction, and the editor of a number of influential themed collections of short fiction published by Exile, including Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction and Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse. I had the pleasure of reading Silvia’s startling, unsettling and evocative debut collection of short fiction, This Strange Way of Dying, earlier this summer, and recommend it highly. The stories in this collection combine vivid atmosphere, depths of insight, and memorable characters with brevity and focus. Silvia’s new novel Signal to Noise (which hits print in March 2015) can be pre-ordered here. This interview was conducted via email over the course of July and August 2014.

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An Interview with Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe's "Wild Fell" was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe’s “Wild Fell” was nominated for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award.

Michael Rowe is an award-winning Toronto journalist, essayist, and novelist. He was the first-tier Canadian correspondent for Fangoria for seventeen years. In addition, Rowe created and edited the Queer Fear series, which changed the landscape of horror fiction. The stories (predominantly written by het writers, ironically) spotlighted queer protagonists. Some big names in the horror field took note, notably Clive Barker, who hailed Rowe in 2002 as having “changed forever the shape of horror fiction.” Rowe published his first novel, Enter, Night, with ChiZine Publications in 2011, garnering critical praise and a Sunburst Award nomination. Rowe called Enter, Night his unabashed 1970s vampire novel. He published his second novel, Wild Fell, in 2013, also with ChiZine, to further acclaim. Wild Fell was a finalist for this year’s Shirley Jackson Award as part of a lineup which included Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Pyper. Contributing Editor James K. Moran, who once interviewed Rowe for Daily Xtra, chatted with him by email earlier this summer. Moran describes Rowe as a “gentleman of the highest order” who “wields a darkly wicked sense of humour and a rapier wit.”

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An Interview with Nancy Kilpatrick

Nancy Kilpatrick has won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery Story.

Nancy Kilpatrick’s “Danse Macabre” (ed.) won the Paris Book Festival Award for Best Anthology.

Nancy Kilpatrick, Canada’s reigning queen of Goth and vampire lore, proves a fount of knowledge about being an author in these shifting sands. She’s accomplished a prolific trifecta as author, editor, and teacher, and has won numerous awards as both writer and editor, from the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery to Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year. From zombies to vampires, short-story markets, nonfiction, and the state of traditional dark fiction publishing, her thoughts as a Canadian female artist of dark design who’s had an online presence since the dawn of the internet are unmatched. She and Lydia Peever spoke just before Women in Horror Month, 2014.

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